When it comes to vocal training, we hear the same things over and over. Warm up. Breathe properly. Practice daily. (I’m not saying we DO all these things… hence why we still need reminders about them—but… suffice it to say, they’re not “secrets.”)
Some of you do all these things… and more. But you’re still frustrated with your voice. It still cracks and breaks. You’re still intimidated by high notes. Your voice still feels tired after you sing on Sunday mornings.
I want to help.
The 3 tips I’m gonna share with you are the things that almost nobody in the vocal world talks about… and so, most singers don’t know about them. Some top vocal coaches teach these things, but they keep it reserved for private sessions that cost $450/hour.
Me and you—we’re just normal people. Most of us aren’t making best-selling records. We’re probably not gonna win a Grammy. We don’t have $450 to spend on a voice lesson.
But as worship vocalists, we’re using our voices all the time… early in the morning… late night prayer meetings… long rehearsals.
We need to know these secrets.
So here they are! From my years of teaching, worship leading, taking lessons and vocal research… here are the BEST things I’ve come across that will help you hit better high notes, now. More power. Better pitch. Less strain.
SECRET #1 // Use pharyngeal resonance.
Yes, I know. If you’ve been around my training for any length of time, this concept isn’t new to you. But… I’ll preach it forever, because most singers have never learned this concept, and—even singers who’ve trained their voice to do this… still have a habit of falling back into old patterns. Namely—pushing up chest voice into the higher range… which leads to strain, fatigue and a damaged voice. Or, letting the tone flip into head voice in the higher range… which won’t damage the vocal cords, but the voice loses so much power and depth (and usually ends up sounding more classical than contemporary).
The secret to eliminating vocal strain, hitting notes on pitch, and still getting HUGE fullness and power in your mid-high range… is to use pharyngeal resonance. Or, in other words—the resonance that sits in the middle of the face, between chest and head voice. If you haven’t heard me demonstrate this concept before, check out this video where I demonstrate why pharyngeal resonance is essential in our worship songs.
What does it sound like?
Obnoxious. Nasally. Whiny. Crybaby.
Whatever you wanna call it… however you feel about this sound… the truth is: it works.
Pharyngeal resonance marries the two worlds of chest and head resonance by allowing them to MIX together. When we learn to mix chest, pharyngeal and head voice, we end up with a tone that has the best of all three worlds.
Chest = fullness and depth.
Pharyngeal = power and punch.
Head voice = freedom and release.
And… when we sing in a mix, we not only GAIN the best of the three resonators, but we also eliminate the WORST of the 3 resonators.
Chest = goes off-pitch and feels strained in the high range.
Pharyngeal = sounds nasally.
Head voice = sounds classical, feels/sounds weak in the low range.
Gain the good, get rid of the bad—that’s a win if you ask me!
So when you’re singing a higher note or section of a song, instead of straining to try to reach it with your chest voice, or letting it go into a pure head voice… aim for a whiny, crybaby sound that engages the resonance in your nasal/pharyngeal cavity—you want that buzz happening right in the middle of your face… NOT sitting high in the head cavity (head voice) and NOT just yelling out of your mouth (chest voice).
If you’re not used to engaging pharyngeal resonance, it will feel and sound very strange to you at first… and you may think it sounds too nasally, but 99% of the time, it doesn’t… it just sounds passionate, powerful, and—most importantly, on pitch! I’ve seen this work thousands of times both in my own voice and for literally hundreds of singers that I’ve taught.
And I hear it in so many of the great worship leader voices that we all listen to… Brooke Ligertwood. Taya Gaukrodger. Chris Brown. Cory Asbury. Steffany Gretzinger. Kim Walker. Phil Wickham. Chris Tomlin. I could go on and on and on…
Everybody’s doing it. They may not call it by that name. They may not have even learned it from a coach. But it’s how they’re hitting their high notes with so much power and freedom.
Pharyngeal resonance is where it’s at!
SECRET #2 // Think down for high notes.
Again, I’m going to refer you to this recent video I made on this topic, if you haven’t seen it yet. Bottom line—this is a secret that you’ve gotta know: think down as you sing higher.
So much of our singing is psychological. Why do you think you can hit that note perfectly at home and then it sounds terrible in the microphone on Sunday morning? It’s not because your voice can’t do it. It’s because, subconsciously, you’re aware that people are listening, and that affects the way we sing. (They say to imagine the audience in their underwear, or with watermelons as heads—I’m not suggesting you do that, I just heard it might work—but that’s a topic for another time. ?)
Same concept though—your brain is the one freaking out about high notes. Your brain is the one saying you can’t do it. Not your vocal cords.
Your voice is capable… but your brain says “YIKES! We’re going higher!”… and the body (your voice) responds by tensing up… and that tension leads to either strained, off-pitch high notes or… embarrassing cracks on the high notes. Neither of which we want.
So what we need to do is tell our brain that we’re going lower. And if it thinks we’re going lower, then it’s no longer in “yikes” mode. (The brain is very smart, but it CAN be bamboozled.)
The best way to trick the brain into thinking lower is by doing the opposite motion with your body. As the note goes high, the body (or part of the body) needs to go down.
I’ll say that again. As the note goes high, the body (or part of the body) needs to go down.
For some people, bending your upper body over as you go to the high note works wonders.
You can also try moving your arm down as the note goes high.
Or—hold one hand out, palm side down, then press down on it with your other hand while you resist the pressure. (Again, I demonstrate these things in the video, so make sure to check it out!)
These tricks work especially well in songs where the melody moves up. The chorus in “Way Maker”, the bridge in “Build My Life”, the bridge in “What a Beautiful Name”… the list goes on—these are just a few that singers tend to find particularly challenging.
Now, obviously, these things aren’t necessarily realistic to be doing while you lead worship—ie, you’re not going to bend all the way over every time you go for a high note on stage—but… don’t underestimate the power of practicing with these techniques. The more you do it, the more you’ll form new muscle memory that will then become instinct as you sing on stage. (But also… I’ve found that, even a slight movement as I lead worship that mimics the “downward” movement that I was practicing at home—perhaps a bit of a neck tilt or a hand gesture—can do the exact same trick for the brain… and no one will even notice! Try it out!)
SECRET #3 // Keep your mouth narrow.
Another thing I’ll keep preaching ’til the cows come home. Because it works wonders.
Narrow your mouth as you sing higher.
The basic concept is that when the mouth is spread wide, the vocal cords can’t thin out and adjust properly as we move into the higher range, and so the resonance doesn’t tilt into the mix easily (it pushes up chest or flips into head voice). BUT… when the mouth is narrow, the vocal cords naturally and instinctively thin out, and the resonance more easily tilts into a powerful, contemporary-sounding mix.
The “why” behind the “narrow mouth” is a decently complex topic (vowel modification), and I get into it in-depth in Lesson 12 of my “Master Your Voice” course: “The Art of Singing Vowels”. I talk about vowel modification and how, like you would tune a guitar, modifying (or, tuning) vowels is absolutely necessary in order for our instrument to be on pitch and to operate efficiently and freely. When we intentionally shape our vowels, naturally the resonance will shift and tilt into the right places (if we’ve built the foundations of resonance in the voice!), and help us get through the bridge/passagio (ie the “vocal break”) much more easily.
But… don’t be intimidated by the vocal terminology—you don’t need to know all the why’s to make a narrow mouth start working for you now!
One thing to try is to watch yourself in a mirror, and say A-E-I-O-U. Watch the movement of your mouth/jaw. You probably closed your mouth quite a bit more on at least the E and the U… maybe the other vowels too. And your general mouth shape was probably more wide than narrow. Well, it isn’t such a problem in your speaking—or your super comfortable singing range. But… it becomes a huge problem when we try to sing higher notes. When the mouth is small and wide in the high range, it causes tension, and remember what we already talked about—tension leads to either strained, off-pitch high notes or… embarrassing cracks on the high notes.
Now—wash your hands first—put your pointer and middle finger vertically between your top and bottom teeth, and at the same time, slightly pucker your lips… and say those vowels again… aiming to keep your mouth shape narrow and as similar as possible across all the vowels (it’s more challenging than it sounds!). Now try singing that A-E-I-O-U on a higher note in your range, still with your fingers in your mouth and your lips puckered. This is gonna take some practice—because for most people, your mouth so badly wants to clamp up on some of those vowels, but don’t let it!
Now, choose a line of a worship song that goes into your higher range and watch yourself as you sing it—does your jaw close? Does your mouth go wide? If so, you need to narrow. Keep watching yourself as you sing the line again and this time, be intentional to make sure your jaw stays dropped and that your mouth stays narrow on all the vowel sounds (you don’t need to keep putting your fingers in your mouth, but try to imagine that they are!).
You’ll need to do this more than once—and I warn you, it will feel unnatural at first. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means you’ve got some bad habits that we need to re-train! Make sure to check out this short video that demonstrates the narrow mouth in a song—and you’ll also get a sneak peek of the vowel modifications I teach in the “Master Your Voice” lesson if you want to take it to the next level!
Keep practicing this technique until you get it—I promise, this is one of the best-kept secrets of the vocal world… but one that everyone should know, because it’s a quick trick that can make you sing better instantly!
So there you go… my top 3 secrets to help you nail those high notes! Which one of these tips helped you? Which worship song(s) do you find especially challenging? Make sure to try these things out and let me know how it goes!
I’ve always known that keeping a narrow mouth was important but I’ve only just learnt the reason behind it – it allows the vocally chords to naturally and instinctively thin out so the resonance can easily tilt into a powerful and contemporary sounding mix??!! What an epiphany for me. It all makes so much sense. Thanks Charmaine! I’ll be able to pass this on to people I’m teaching.
You’re very welcome!
Thanks for this.
When I was a child my teacher taught us to use”head voice”.But I always felt it’s weak until I learned how to sing like pop singers when I was older. I think it’s pharyngeal 😉
Yes for sure—the pharyngeal is what we hear the singers on the radio using!
It is funny that even a hand movement can change the muscle memory… what I do: when I play the guitar and sing in the same time I bend in knees instead – I do a slight squat. It looks OK and works as well. 🙂
Haha that’s great!
All these tips are game changers! I heard about the bending over one a couple years ago when I was at Bethel Worship School. It brought me a lot of freedom and breakthrough on some high notes. But the narrow mouth and the pharyngeal I did not learn until coming to the worship vocalist. I love the freedom that they both bring. Pharyngeal is getting a lot more natural for me, but I have to still be very intentional about my mouth shape. I know it will become more natural for me. I’m just re training my muscles right now.
It does take awhile to re-train the muscles—stick with it!
I like #3. I’ve realized there have been times where I have self corrected singing a vowel a certain way (opening my mouth more narrowly) because I noticed it didn’t sound good, or lacked the power in the sound. Now it makes sense! 🙂
Yeah! I love having tricks and tools like this to help troubleshoot issues when I sing!