About two months ago, I was singing some warmup scales, and my voice just STOPPED WORKING.
The higher I got, the more I felt stuck.
I took a moment, reset, and tried again.
Same weird thing!
Even worse, this second time through, I could feel my throat compensating, trying to push the notes up rather than feel them float out easily, effortlessly.
Crap, I thought. What the heck is going on?
Trying not to get too hard on myself, I took an inventory of my body and how I was feeling.
Breathing? (I took a deep breath and did a quick hiss exercise, counting to 45 seconds.)
No tension in my lower back? (I draped over in rag doll pose, and let my body hang.)
Tongue relaxed? (I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue. Then I flicked my tongue back and forth like a snake tasting the air.)
Third time’s the charm…
I did the scale again.
What the f(*&$%(*???
Then, luckily, I remembered a tidbit from a voice lesson I had about 8 years ago with a brilliant singer named Victoria Clark (A Light in the Piazza actress extraordinaire!).
During our first session, Vicki gave me a handheld mirror and instructed me to hold it in front of my face as I sang.
“This is your instrument,” she said, as I sang long extended AHs up and down the scale. “Get to know how it looks. And find any places that might be blocked.”
At the time, it was so weird to get an up-close look at my mouth, lips, teeth, tongue, soft palate, and big ol' face. And all while trying to sing. Mostly I had never studied a VISUAL IMAGE of myself while I was singing.
But it was brilliant. I could see, first hand, what my “instrument” really looked like.
When we sing, the sound resonates (or “echoes”) in our faces. That’s where we feel and perceive the sound, and where tiny adjustments can have a huge impact on your singing (or, conversely, can create blockages).
Flash forward to two months ago, during my mini singing meltdown — thank goodness I remembered my first lesson with Vicki.
Immediately, I relocated from my kitchen (where I usually practice my singing) into my bathroom, where I flipped on the bright vanity lights.
I peered at my face, then attempted to sing the scale again.
It was so subtle, but I could see it, clear as day.
For whatever reason, the right side of my face was ever-so-slightly drooping. And when I opened my mouth wider to check out what was going on inside, I realized that the right side of my soft palate (and only the right side) wasn’t fully raised!
How crazy is that?
So subtle, but enough of a difference to compromise my ability to resonate on higher pitches.
I was surprised for a moment, but then it made sense. When I’m tense, or working hard at my computer, I tend to clamp my jaw, particularly on the right side. And if I’m particularly swamped, this starts to be my “neutral” face position. This lopsidedness greatly compromises my singing, because my resonant space (literally, my face) clamps down and create shapes that are not optimal for singing.
So what did I do?
Everything I had in my singer’s toolkit, designed to stretch out my face and raise my soft palate, including:
- Several “Lion’s Yawns” (yawn while sticking out your tongue) and jaw stretches
- Using my fingers to gently massage my jaw and cheekbones
- Doing a K-INHALE exercise repeatedly (where you say "K" and then inhale in a quick, surprised manner), expanding my soft palate and releasing UP
….and gradually, I could feel (and SEE!) the changes happening.
My right side slowly perked back up….and guess what?
No more pushing. No more straining. I was able to resonate on those higher pitches, clear as a bell, without any strain.
I’m relaying this anecdote to you because I want you to remember: the mirror is your best friend!
You don’t have to obsess over studying yourself every time you sing, but you can absolutely use the mirror to explore your instrument and troubleshoot when you feel blocked.
A mirror can be an amazing tool for figuring out (1) where tension creeps in during your singing, especially in terms of your jaw or soft palate, (2) where you might have unevenness in your face and mouth (in terms of right vs. left sides).
I hope this tip empowers you not to stress out when you feel tense while singing, but instead to methodically figure out what might be causing the tension, blockage, or struggle.
If you enjoyed this tip, or have an anecdote to share with me about your own singing-mirror detective work, be sure to leave me a comment!
Until next time....