Tight voice when singing? How Come?

4 reasons why you feel like you have a tight voice when singing

Many beginners have a tight voice when singing. It can feel like the throat is closing up, and singing can cause pain in the throat. The higher the note, the worse the throat squeezes. Singing thus becomes a unpleasant affair. This while singing should feel free and relaxed, right?

Tension vs. Relaxation

Well, yes and no. This is the second time I am writing this article. The first time I focused mostly on finding the relaxation. Relaxation in the jaw, the tongue, the breath. But by now, thanks to my teacher Maurits Draijer’s Voice Construction® method, I have come to a developing understanding that this is not the whole story.

Tension in the body or tension in the throat?

To get a relaxing feeling while singing, you need tension elsewhere in the body. And much more tension than most people think. In this article, I give four reasons why you may have a tight feeling in your voice. In other words, why you’re probably way too relaxed in your body, allowing too much tension to land on your delicate vocal folds. The first two are physical and the last two are psychological. They reinforce each other.

Tight voice when singing - 4 causes

1. Air flow: singing like a deflating balloon

A lot of people (I myself am no exception) are too weak when they start singing. The energy level is tea party without cookies on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. As soon as you start singing at tea party level, you start having problems with high notes. They start sounding very faint, very soft, or a rasping sound comes through. Your throat tightens up completely.

You are singing like a deflating balloon flying across the room. You have no control over where you fly and after five seconds you crash to the floor. You have to learn this control. You must learn to control your breath flow through effort elsewhere. Tension, not relaxation. You have to be ready for the note. A weightlifter is also not going to lift pounds without preparation.

Methods of controlling breath flow

Different singing methods have devised ways to teach you breath control (also called breath support). Some work more with tightening the abdominal muscles, others more from expanding the rib cage, in yet other methods you sing from your diaphragm. The method I use (Voice Construction®) is based on the natural reactions of the body, in this case the startle reaction.

In addition, it is important that you get ready in advance for the high note. Turning on your breath support when you are already singing does not work well.

You can also practice vocal fold closure by giving notes a hard onset. Here is a great video by Freya Casey on vocal fold closure with exercises:

Shouldn't breath flow freely when singing?

The idea that your breath should flow freely through your vocal folds when singing is not true. You come across the idea in various methods, especially for classical singing. It’s not correct, because you are actually proportioning the air flow. Relaxed, flowing abdominal breathing is going to help you well during meditation, but not during singing. There is even the idea that a good singer cannot have a six pack (I am not making this up, this idea is very widespread), because then your belly would not be flexible enough for a free flow of breath. This has really NEVER been proven. So leave your six-pack for now if you have it.

What is necessary is that the breath flow is gradual and not in fits and starts. Many beginning singers already lose half their air and tension in the first half second of the phrase.

Main conclusion

If you want to sing a powerful (higher) tone, you have to put air pressure behind it. To do this, you have to make an effort, which takes energy. The amount of effort varies for each note. In general: the higher the note, the more effort you need.

Is it bad to sing with air on the voice?

‘Singing with air’ actually means that instead of just a tone, you also hear the flow of air when singing. The vocal folds then do not close completely. This is commonly used in pop music and in itself does no harm, as long as you don’t try too loudly. Young girls in adolescence often do not have full vocal closure and therefore have a more hesitant singing voice.

What I do think is important as a teacher is that singing with air is a choice, a color on the voice, and not the only option. Therefore, it is important to train to sing without air and with full vocal closure.

2. Vowels and the famous "open throat

The previous point was about what happens below your vocal folds, but what you do above your vocal folds also affects whether you get a tight voice when singing.

Most of the time you sing on words. If you were to pronounce everything while singing exactly as you say it, you will have problems the higher you get. Just say an “i” and then make a low to high sliding siren on the same “i” without adjusting anything in your mouth. Chances are you’ll get stuck at some point. In fact, to keep the ‘i’ singing nicely, you have to modify your vowel. This is called vowel modification. If you don’t do this, you will have to work much harder than necessary to be able to sing a high note.

So how do you change your vowel? Some strategies

There are different strategies for modifying your vowel for each method and musical style. I will give you general examples what affects the sound:

These are just a few examples of parts in your throat-mouth-nose vocal tract that can affect the sound and give you a freer or tighter feeling in your voice.

Singing in the MRI

To illustrate the vowel modification here is a video of Tiley Ross singing in the MRI scanner and showing a vowel on different tones.

Trial and Experimentation

You can start experimenting with different positions of your mouth, tongue and lips to see if this helps with the tight feeling in your throat. It is best to do this with a qualified singing teacher as your guide.

Metaphors in singing

Furthermore, it is impractical to try all possible positions separately and control your body in them. Therefore, it is often searching through metaphors on how to find an optimal position of your mouth for you. Metaphors I have come across:
“open your throat” “kiss and smile”, “put your mouth above your head”, “do a beginning yawn” and “sing from a smile”.

Keep looking for what feels right

In singing class, we look for what is optimal for you. You learn to give yourself feedback on what strategies work. You need the right control and your body will take care of the rest.

Sometimes it can also work to just imitate a sound. But then it is important that you try to figure out how it felt and what you did differently than before. Otherwise you can’t reproduce it without an example.

Main Conclusion

To sing comfortably, you need to adjust the position of your mouth and vowel for each note. For this you can use knowledge of your vocal tract and metaphors and start experimenting what works best for you.

Please note that if you are not properly physically prepared for the note (see point 1), then you can pull the craziest jaws and not notice any difference.

Isn't the jaw supposed to relax?

The first thing I trained in my singing lessons was to relax the jaw. The looser the jaw was, the better the sound became. Jaw clenching is a well-known strategy of beginning singers to maintain a sense of control over the note and articulation. Therefore, the jaw had to be loose and relaxed, but not too far open, because again that was not relaxing. There was not to be much movement.

But as with the breath, is it really the best strategy to completely relax the jaw and let it hang loose? Not always. Again: experiment what works for you and don’t stare blindly at completely relaxing the jaw. I also like Dr. Dan’s point: “The function of the jaw in articulation is secondary, subordinate to the tongue.”

3. Fear of failure

What the above points show is that to sing less strained you:
– Must sing with energy.
– Must experiment with your voice and sound.

In freeze mode

As soon as a note arrives that never succeeds, you have to think: “Great, I’m going to try something new again”. But what most people think is: “Oh no, here comes that note again.” You start to mentally brace yourself for the difficult note in a kind of freeze mode. You can only do what you did before and what didn’t work then either. So you are not experimenting and your energy goes to the fear of failing the note and not to the note itself.

What comes next is a kind of semi-hollow sound of a tea party without cookies on a drizzly Sunday afternoon via Zoom in a lockdown.

Fear becomes Energy

As soon as you feel fear of failure or an ugly note coming on while practicing, turn that fear into energy you want to put into the note. Think of a strategy to apply and physically brace yourself for the note. If it works, do it several more times in the same way and analyze exactly what you did that made it work.

Main Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to do something different than you did and consequently fail. You can try again as many times as you want; it’s not a game with three lives.

But in this way, won't I have to think too much when singing?

All beginnings are difficult. My friend and piano teacher Luca gave a good comparison. When you learn to operate a car on the road, at the beginning you also have to think of every little step: turn on the engine, press the clutch and hold the brake, handbrake off the car, put the car in first gear, put your foot from the brake to the gas pedal, let the clutch come up gradually and add a little gas.

I remember all these steps because it took me a hell of a time before I could sort of do it automatically. That was terribly uncomfortable, but necessary.

If you stop the moment you find you have to think too much, you actually give up because it feels uncomfortable. That’s a pity. You can, however, take a break in between, sing something easy or totally different, and then try again.

4. Relaxation stimulus brain

And then finally, after many attempts, you sang a fantastic note. The note felt free and it felt like your chest was open. The air could pass right through. You could hold the note for 10 seconds without difficulty.

A day later, you try again. But what did you remember? That the note was very free and relaxed. You see, you do have to sing freely, relaxed and flowing.

Feeling vs. Action

What often gets forgotten is that there is a difference between feeling free and flowing and what you have actually done. After all, you worked really hard for that great note. But because you had an optimal strategy at the time, the note felt free afterwards.

On the next attempt, you’re going to try to sing just as freely. Then what happens: you become weak again and you are back to square one.

We remember only the relaxation, not the work

This is the phenomenon that we remember the good feeling first, rather than the work we did before it. This is just as well, because otherwise you would constantly relive pain and illness. My teacher Maurits Draijer pointed this out to me.

People want to sing freely, that’s the goal. But for that you have to: work, fail, think and experiment. All things your brain doesn’t like very much and so it turns them into: open sound, free voice, flowing breath, relaxation.

Main Conclusion

Don’t fall into the brain’s relaxation trap: always think about what your strategy was when things were going well and try to apply that strategy.

Only after you’ve automated the strategy, you don’t need to think anymore about doing the strategy anyway. That’s your reward for your hard work!

So what can you do about a tight voice when singing?

What can you do first to resolve the tight feeling in your voice? Start by asking yourself questions when singing:

So to get back to the car, here you are basically asking yourself: where is the gas pedal and what does that clutch actually do? 

Then you can apply strategies for increasing your air pressure and using your vowels efficiently. You can pick the from the Internet and you can experiment yourself.

If you can’t figure it out, I recommend taking singing lessons with a certified teacher.

Do you want vocal lessons?

Boukje helps your get rid of the tight voice when singing.

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