We vocal coaches get this question a lot. A lot.
There’s a simple answer: Tension.
But simple answers and easy solutions aren’t the same thing. Once you recognize that tension is the culprit, you have to figure out the source of the tension and then retrain yourself to sing without it. Since I can’t hear or watch you sing to give you first-hand feedback, I’ll discuss the common causes of singing with tension. Then, in the video below, I show you a couple of ways to work out the tension that’s interrupting your song delivery.
Some common causes of vocal tension:
- Mistaking Volume for Passion: When singers reach the most passionate portion of a song, they often attempt to express the intensity of emotion with volume. Passion can increase volume, but they are not the same thing. Instead of getting louder, intensify your story-telling by feeling the emotion of the words, and let the volume happen naturally – if it’s going to happen.
- Frustration/Impatience: It seems that newer singers often feel good singers always sing great. Even on a first try of a new song. It’s just not true. Because of this mistaken belief, singers who don’t immediately nail a song can get frustrated, sometimes berating themselves and thinking things like, I’ll never be a singer! This negative self-talk alone will tense a body, but add the sometimes maniacal insistence to “make the song work” in one practice session and you get more and more tension, leading to a worse and worse performance. If you do this, STOP. Take a break. Not only is singing a journey, but each song you work on is a journey, too. Don’t be a jerk to yourself and let the progress unfold.
- Tilting your head back: Just about every singer at some point tilted his/her head back while singing higher notes. It’s some kind of human impulse. When you do that, the muscles at the front of your neck have to engage to keep your head from falling backward. I’ve been able to help some students immediately release tension in their singing just by having them lower their chins. Try it!
- Consonants: I don’t mean to sound judgey but consonants are troublemakers. It’s easy to sing open vowel sounds all day long but then words like “ground,” and “quick,” and “watching” come along and ruin it all with those throat-closing, airflow-stopping consonants. If consonants are getting in your way and contributing to voice-cracking tension, you’re going to have to find ways to alter your pronunciation of them unnoticeably to keep a more open position in your mouth. Or you may just need to jump off of them faster and stay on the vowel sounds longer before getting to the consonants at the ends of words. Experiment with it.
- A Weak Practice Routine: Yup. I said it. If your voice frequently cracks or shows other signs of tension (gets fatigued easily, for example), there’s a good chance that you have either no vocal workout routine, not a strong enough workout routine, or not a consistent enough workout routine. You may be sick of hearing me say it, but singing is a sport. You have to work out your voice if you want your best athletic performance. End of story. Enough said.