A version of this article originally appeared on Cari Cole's Standing in the Spotlight blog.
Vocal freedom. It’s what all singers want. But how do you get it when your voice is stuck in your throat, wears out too quickly, or doesn’t respond the way you want? Are you stuck with the voice you have, or can it be improved?.
The latter. Your voice is an instrument. You just have to learn how to play it. It’s a sensitive and invisible instrument. You can’t buy it at the store. Its inner processes are tucked away. You can’t see it working. As a result, it’s tougher to navigate, tougher to control. The problem is so many singers think you’re dealt a deck, and that’s it. But there is soooo much you can do to improve your voice, it’s astonishing.
Over my 30-plus-year practice of teaching voice out of my studio in New York (and by Skype), I have seen mediocre singers become amazing singers. I have watched people transform their voices and become incredible artists – and they started out with "meh" voices. So don’t fool yourself and tell yourself that you’re just stuck with the cards you’re dealt ~ ‘cause that’s a lie.
The other day, I worked with an indie artist (who I adore) for the first time. As the session progressed, she burst into tears (as often happens at my studio) sobbing about how her voice was the bane of her existence. How she always wanted to have an amazing voice, but never won contests or got picked for parts.
My mouth dropped open because I am a big fan of her voice – but to her, it was sorely lacking and caused her a lot of anxiety. I told her not to worry, that Mama would fix her right up. I told her about the marvels of vocal technique, what it had done for me and for the tens of thousands of artists who have come through my studio. I explained in great detail how a good technique works and what to expect. I welcomed her with open arms.
Technique is the path to vocal freedom. And, yes, there are emotional blockages that come along with that. It’s all part of freeing your instrument. We use technique, emotional expression, inner confidence, vocal remedies, whatever the doctor orders to bring it full circle. I believe every artist can step into their brilliance vocally following these steps.
Here are my top five steps for freeing your voice. Start today. Three months from now you’ll be so glad you did.
1. Commit to improve yourself – you're more than your limitations
The terms: “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” The first means you're stuck with what you're born with, and the second means you can improve upon it. Start there. Do you think that Michael Phelps started at an Olympic level? Absolutely not. He swims every single day. If you want to be good at something, you have to commit to doing it every day for as long as you want to reign at it. Believe you can, and you will.
2. Train with vocal technique for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for 21 days
Looking for vocal freedom, power, and breath? It takes 21 days to develop a new habit and feel the full-on effects of it in your voice. Make it non-negotiable. This is where it starts. This is where your freedom lives. This exercise series is about opening up your voice, eliminating tension, and freeing your instrument. It paves the way for your real voice to show up.
This will seem like a plug, and I guess it is, but I’ve gotten such amazing results with this program over 30 years of training my voice and my artists that I want you to have the opportunity to experience it, too. It works. And it’s not just my opinion – read what grads are saying on that page.
3. Breathe... more
Breath is the fuel for your voice. Without the right breathing practice, your voice is tense, weak, and stuck in your throat. Don’t breathe into your chest; breathe into your belly, ribs, abdomen, and back. Start with your hands clasping your ribs with your fingers pointing towards your upper stomach and your thumbs wrapping around your back. Exhale and press your hands together. Now, inhale slowly as you breathe directly into your ribs. Use the pressure of your hands on your ribs to breathe into, like your ribs are wings and you are slowly opening them sideways.
Then, just when you're fully expanded, push the remaining air into your back. As you breathe like this, you begin to stretch the intercostal muscles (muscles that wrap around and between the ribs). This frees the diaphragm and fills your lungs with air. There's more to this, but this is a good start. It’s important to free your diaphragm and open your breathing – it helps free your voice and give you more power.
4. Connect to your emotions when you sing
Don’t just sing notes… communicate. Yes, practice your notes and your phrasing to make your singing smooth, but what audiences really react to is your emotion. Matter of fact, a perfect voice void of emotion will not move people as much as a voice with imperfections but strong emotions. Monologuing your song is a way to help connect. It works.
5. Release tension
When you carry a lot of tension, your voice doesn’t perform well. It gets tight. It cracks and breaks up. Tension in your neck, jaw, back, tongue, laryngeal muscles, and breathing muscles causes vocal problems and issues and constricts the voice.
Releasing tension is an approach we use to free up singers' voices. I recommend deep tissue massage, vocal lasers (try Amy Cutter – tell her I sent you for a discount), yoga, swimming, aerobics, and Feldenkrais and Alexander technique. Be careful to stretch before and after weightlifting as it constricts the vocal muscles. Free your body, free your voice.
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Cari Cole is a celebrity vocal coach, artist development expert, and new music business mentor. She helps artists and musicians find their voice, build their brand, and create successful careers in music. Grab a free copy of her Vocal Road Warrior three-part series: how to keep your voice healthy while you're out conquering your tour!