Private Lessons to Improve Your Vocal Performance
Breathing, projection, visualization: LOUDER asked vocal coach ANDREAS OHNHAUS for some tips that will help you make the most out of any performance.
I work with a very diverse group of singers covering many music genres, varying levels of experience and, of course, vastly differing anatomy. But there are a few tricks that anyone can use to improve their vocal performance. Below are some exercises that will help you master those particularly difficult parts!
You’ve likely heard “breathe from the belly” or “sing from the gut” somewhere before. This might not be physically possible, but such phrases simply mean we should try to breathe deeply when we sing, in order to lower the diaphragm and expand our chests. The diaphragm is an extremely important muscle located just underneath the lungs that helps us control and regulate airflow while singing. But enough hot air – let’s get started!
Exercise 1: Stand relaxed but upright. Keep your knees loose yet slightly bent. With your back straight, open your chest and shoulders while looking straight ahead. Place your hand on your stomach above your belly button and below your chest. Now take a relaxed breath in through your nose and out your mouth. Can you feel the movement? The aim of this exercise is to get a feeling for deep diaphragmatic breathing.
If you inhale through your nose, your abdomen should bulge outwards. When you exhale, your belly will go back to its original position. Imagine breathing in and inflating a balloon inside your stomach. When you exhale, the balloon deflates, losing volume again.
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Make sure that only your stomach moves, but not your chest and shoulders, when breathing in. Many of us tend to breathe in too high up, so that our shoulders and chest rise. But this negates full diaphragmatic breathing and builds up unwanted tension in the neck, throat and larynx. This also can have an extremely negative effect on our singing. If you find this exercise difficult, try it at first lying on your back with your legs bent.
Once you have a good feel for diaphragmatic breathing, we can continue with the next exercise.
Exercise 2: The starting position is the same as before but try to pay attention to the sides of your abdomen as well as your diaphragm while inhaling. This includes the lower ribs. Breathe in again through your nose and out through your mouth. Imagine that you have a swim ring all around you that inflates with each inhalation. When you exhale, the ring loses its air again and the expansion of your abdomen, sides and back goes back to its original position.
Again, be careful not to breathe in too much air that goes too far up towards the chest and shoulders. Only your belly below the rib cage, your sides and your back should move. Don't worry if you don't feel much movement in your back. There is only a minimal, but still very important stretching going on there. Repeat this exercise for full breathing several times until you are feeling good and relaxed. You should not feel any tension in your shoulders, chest or pressure in your neck. This would be a sign that you have inhaled too much air. Shake out your entire body in between to release unwanted tension in your body.
Now let’s move to another important aspect.
Support here refers to controlled exhalation while singing. It’s extremely important to be thrifty with the air in our lungs – this helps us sing longer phrases with lots of words and take fewer breaks to breathe. Developing control is also important for avoiding unwanted tension in the throat and larynx when singing extremely high (and also low) notes.
I often see people inhale as much as possible when they start vocal training. This is a natural reflex, but it can be a real hindrance to good singing. By inhaling too much air, you build up too much pressure in the lungs and under the larynx. When you sing, your vocal cords close and begin to vibrate when you exhale.
But when your vocal cords can’t withstand the excess air pressure, your voice either breaks or squeaks in a very funny way. Another issue that can arise is using your outer neck muscles to squeeze the sounds out when you feel your throat closing. Sometimes it feels like your head is about to pop. In the long run, this is extremely harmful to your voice and can even cause nodules on your vocal cords.
What we need is to manage our airflow.
Exercise 1: Breathe in as described above. Be aware that you only need a small amount of air to sing and imagine you inhale a tiny thimble of air and place this air in the diaphragm, the sides and the back. After the inhalation, hold the air for two seconds and then begin to exhale in a controlled manner while making an SSS-hissing sound. Make the SSS as small as possible. Imagine a bicycle innertube with a tiny hole and some air flowing out of it. As you exhale, you should notice that your swim ring will gradually become smaller. This process of controlled air release is your support.
Exercise 2: To increase the level of difficulty, exhale an FFF sound. You’ll lose more air and therefore have to work even harder to hold your support. Do each of these exercises 5-10 times.
Exercise 3: Now your voice finally comes into play. Breathe in as explained in section 1 and this time exhale a ZZZ sound. Imagine the buzzing of a bee or an electric razor to get the right. You will notice that your breath changes again. Try to exhale for as long as possible and hold your support.
Exercise 4: To train your support muscles even more, there is also an exercise that works with shorter sounds. Breathe in as described above and quickly exhale all the air with a short and strong F. Imagine blowing out a candle on a birthday cake. During this exercise your stomach will quickly flatten out and return to its original position. Can you feel your muscles work? We do this intuitively, for example, when we see a friend across the street and call to her. Repeat the exercise a few times, always taking care not to tense up. Try to stay very relaxed to let the passive and active tension of your body work.
Exercise 5: Maybe you should tell your neighbors beforehand that everything is OK before doing this one, because it could and should get loud. Breathe in through your nose and build up your support. Use what you learned from Exercise 4 and shout “HEY” loudly. Make sure that your stomach flattens completely and don’t tense your abdominal muscles. Take your time with this exercise and repeat it a few times. Just make sure that you completely rebuild the support before each “HEY” and that you stay relaxed.
These exercises will help you train your support system and control your airflow while you sing.
When you’ve done them all, sing a line from your favorite song, making sure you inhale correctly and use the support as described in the exercises. Let your stomach go in slowly and gradually control the airflow you build up while singing.
OPEN YOUR THROAT
In order to avoid the feeling that our throat is closing up when we sing as described above, we need to control many muscles at the same time. These include the tongue, which we have to keep flat, our soft palate, that we have to lift, and our jaw muscles, which we have to relax. It all sounds very complicated – and it is! But I have a tip for all my students trying to keep an open throat while singing: Imagine that you have a hot potato in your mouth. Why? We automatically lower our tongue and raise our soft palate. This is the secret of open throat singing. You’ll create space in the mouth and throat and open up resonance spaces that you absolutely need to keep your voice sounding full and balanced. There are two very simple exercises for this section.
Exercise 1: Humming an MMM sound: Close your lips and imagine having that hot potato in your mouth. You will automatically open your jaw slightly, lower your tongue and lift your soft palate. Be sure to keep your lips closed during this exercise. Now hum simple slides of MMM up and down. You can also hum the melody of your favorite song. Just try to always keep the hot potato in your mouth. Can you feel the space you suddenly have there and also how the sound of your voice changes? Try humming through an entire song without losing the hot potato. It’s important to use the breathing and support techniques explained above.
Exercise 2: Imagine what happens when you yawn: You open your mouth and deeply draw in air. You also lower your tongue and lift the soft palate. Try to yawn a few times while making a sound. Pay attention to your tongue and soft palate. This is exactly the positioning of the vocal tract you need when you sing. Yawn a few more times to understand and strengthen the feeling of an open throat.
Now sing a whole song while imagining either having the hot potato in your mouth or using the yawn position. Can you feel the space in your throat and in your mouth? You may also notice that your voice sounds a bit darker and it feels as if it’s at the back of your throat. This is completely normal but to regain more presence in your voice, we’ve got more work to do.
PRESENCE & PROJECTION
Ever feel like your voice is stuck somewhere back in your throat? It’s a common problem, especially when you’re just starting out with the open throat technique. To fix it, we need to work on your vocal presence. Fortunately, there is a great trick to help you to project your voice and reach those higher notes more easily. All you need is a pen, or even your finger will do.
Exercise 1: Hold the pen (or your finger) horizontally in front of your mouth about 5 cm (2 in) from your lips. Sing a line from a song you like, always imaging the words going over the pen. Remember to pay attention to everything we have already discussed above. None of the sounds coming out of your mouth should go “under” the pen. Every single note should soar over it!
This simple exercise will immediately help you to get more presence and projection in your voice. Always keep your voice “above” the pen. It’s very important not to raise and lower your head, and your pen or finger should remain stable in front of your mouth. Your changed vocal positioning will give you the presence you want. You’ll also produce more overtones that will make your voice shine! As a companion exercise, try singing everything under the pen. This will make your voice much darker, as your voice shifts a bit further back in your throat.
Exercise 2: You can reinforce the first exercise by lifting your upper lip a little and showing your front teeth. By activating your lips in this way, you can boost the brightness of your voice even more. This is part of the important vocal technique called “twang,” which is a bit too complex to get into detail here but is definitely worth researching on your own!
Now sing another song with your pen in front of your mouth, lift your upper lip and see how your performance changes. Do you also notice that you lose less air while singing and sound less breathy? This is another positive side effect of using the twang technique.
I often see my students raising their heads when singing high notes and lowering them for low notes. This movement unfortunately causes unwanted tension that stretches or pinches the larynx. This prevents it from working the way it’s supposed to and makes it difficult to intonate high and low tones easily and cleanly. But there’s a simple trick to solve this problem fast, giving you more freedom when you’re singing.
Exercise 1: Keep the notes always right in front of you. Refrain from imagining high notes are above lower ones. Visualize all notes heading toward at the same target. This can help you to sing with more freedom in your throat – especially in combination with the pen technique from the previous section.
When singing, find a point in the distance that is at eye level. It could be a spot on the wall, a spotlight opposite the stage or a tree that you see through your window. Now sing all notes toward that same point no matter how high or low they are. This will help you keep your head straight and in a stable position, which will avoid constricting your larynx. Now sing a few lines of a song toward a different point of your choosing and feel how the posture of your head, your vocal presence and the feeling in your throat changes. You can try this exercise with any song or scales.
I hope these tips help you quickly hear a noticeable improvement in your vocal performance. Important: If an exercise feels uncomfortable in any way, please don’t do it! And if you have constant problems with your voice, get help from a professional vocal coach or voice therapist.
Have fun singing!
The head vocal coach at the Berlin campus of the BIMM music college, Andreas Ohnhaus is also a singer, songwriter and sessions musician. Check him out here: