Feeling the right notes

I would like to start with changing the above ‘notes’ into pitch. You feel the right pitch. A note is too specific for this purpose. It encompasses different pitches in a certain ‘register’ or ‘range’.

I remember the first time I was able to sing a very high note in a song that I like. It felt so good. The tone was just right, no forcing, no screaming, just a high-pitched, beautiful who-cares-which-note-it was. After I did it, and finished the whole song, I went back in memory to times when I wasn’t able to do it.

I remember as a kid, watching singers on tv belting out perfect high notes. It was typically in the chorus of the song, where the message was more profound, and more urgency was required in the delivery. Haven’t you had that experience? It sounded so good! The goose bumps started coming, tears welled up in your eyes, and the overall effect was just magnificent.

I also remembered trying to reproduce the experience using my own voice. That was the opposite of the previous experience. The verse was hard enough, but when it came to the high notes, my voice was not cooperating. At this point, 2 things typically happen: the timid ones will flip into falsetto, letting out this wimpy sound and get laughed at, or if you’re from a more aggressive temperament, you’ll try to scream and eventually when your vocal chords get tired, they won’t connect anymore and produce this shrill, whistle-like sound that, in the context of the song you’re trying to sing, sounds incredibly awful.

Most of the time, this is the event that causes the most problems when we try to sing. I mean, I was from the latter example. After the whistle note, I got laughed at and since then, whenever a high note comes along, I’ll resort to sreaming. I didn’t get it at the time. I thought I had to scream to reach the high notes. It sounded like they were screaming.. even the expression on their faces look like a person who is trying to force out the notes. But why can’t I do it? What’s the difference?

After studying vocals and getting my voice working properly, it’s obvious to me now that the singers were NOT screaming. They were just singing in a higher pitch. The screaming effect and the facial expressions were simply that – effects and expressions used to colour the notes to cater to the theme of the song. Singing is like talking. In fact it is talking, just controlled differently. Screaming is more of a fight or flight response, in that we can’t really control anything. We just take a deep breath and let rip. Not exactly the best way to entertain an audience.

Let’s go back to the title of the post. How do you know when you hit the note correctly? Let’s discuss first the subject of where the note happens. It does not happen in the throat. The vocal chords are still in the throat, and they zip up to produce the higher frequency, but the sound resonates in the head. In the nasal cavities and other cavities that are inside the head.

Try this experiment: say “hello” twice. The first time using normal speaking voice, and the second time try to sound like Mickey (or Minnie) Mouse. Do it now. Seriously. Ok, so now feel the low “hello”. Place your hand on your chest. You should feel it vibrate. You would also hear it very clearly. Now for the second one, same thing put your hand on your chest. Do you feel any vibration? No right? This is the origins of the terms “head voice” and “chest voice”. They refer to which part of the body that pitch resonates in.

Now for the second experiment, imagine that you were in a shopping complex and bumped into an old friend from high school. You’d be like, “WOW!! Seriously!? After all these years!!??” and it would be in a above average pitch. Notice a few things here: 1) you did not flip into falsetto, and 2) most of the time, because this is an exclamation of surprise, you would not be screaming as you would if you were angry. Which means that this voice can be used for singing (with a little tweak here and there, of course).

So do this several times, and just focus on the “WOW!!” Put your hands on your chest again – nope, no vibrations – so you’re still where you were at the Mickey Mouse sound. But this time try recording yourself. Compare the “WOW!!” and the Mickey Mouse “Hello”. You would hear that the “Hello” comes out as this wimpy, thin, sound which is very light but the “WOW!!” sounds closer to your speaking voice. No surprises there, but notice one thing. If you did not record yourself, did you hear the difference when you were doing it? Most likely you heard only the high-pitched sounds. This brings us to the key: when singing high notes, you will have to depend on feeling the notes, rather than hearing them.

Because the sound resonates in the head, and since the ears are in the head, they get the head resonance less clearly than the other sounds. So our job as vocalists is to practice until we recognise how falsetto feels like compared to connected voice. And we also need to be aware enough of the two to be able to play around with them, mix them in different ratios. Some songs like rock songs might benefit from chestier, raspy vocals; others like jazz prefer lighter, heady sounds in the mix.

In fact, that’s exactly what the body is. It’s a natural sound mixer, and you are the sound engineer. Your voice can become raspy, light, breathy, muddy, warm, bright, or even downright percussive. It’s all up to you.

So, in conclusion, these are the things to expect when you finally reach that high note:

1)    Relaxed effort. Sounds ridiculous? Picture this: an eagle swoops down from the sky to catch its prey. The flying gets done almost automatically, freeing the eagle to do other things – such as pinpointing the exact location of the prey and predicting where it will go so as to flank it. Same goes for singers. If you could only reach the notes with effort, then you won’t have any resources left to do more important things, like expressing the emotions imbued in the music.

2)    Ears do not perceive actual sound being produced

3)    Feeling of intense satisfaction when done for the first time =)

4)    Happy singing!!!

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