The 7 Areas of Strain
Post by: Abigail Heimann
When we encounter roadblocks while singing, we can often look to some type of strain or tension as the cause. A number of factors can cause strain in the voice, including where you practice, how long you practice, wide range, how loud you sing, and performance anxiety. Here are the seven most common areas of strain and ways you can combat the tension.
Neck: The neck is a very common area of strain, in singing and in life in general. I always encourage students to have freedom in the neck in our voice lessons. Roll your neck around loosely while singing. Massage the areas with extra tension. Also be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed as they are closely tied to the neck.
Breath: Usually, the issue with breath is one of being too relaxed and not engaging muscles. However, if you take in too much air or your upper abdominals are too flexed, breath can be an area of strain. Instead of sucking air in, think about relaxing the body to allow the air to come in. You can try this by letting all the air out of your lungs, hold your breath for five seconds, then release. Your body will automatically allow the air in.
Larynx: The larynx, or voice box, is possibly the most typical area of strain. To feel your larynx move, put your hand on your Adam’s apple and yawn. You will feel the larynx lower. When singing in an uncomfortable or high range, the larynx tends to pull up, causing strain. Generally, we want to have a neutral larynx, so breathing in on a yawn can help keep the larynx stabilized.
Alignment: Alignment is essentially your singing posture. If I took a trombone and bent the metal in several spots, it wouldn’t sound so good, would it? As singers, our bodies are our instruments, so the same concept applies. Imagine you are a puppet and a string being pulled straight up out of the top of your head to stretch your spine straight and tall. Be sure your lower back is not arched, your sternum is up, your knees are unlocked. I also highly recommend stretching and yoga for singers. Here is one of many yoga for singers videos.
Vocal Folds: The vocal folds (also known as vocal cords and located behind the Adam’s apple) are responsible for producing sound in the larynx by vibrating together. Strain in the vocal folds happens when you squeeze the muscles too tight, causing a scratchy sounding voice. We want clean vocal fold production rather than squeezed. You can help fix a squeezed sounds by overcompensating with an aspirate, breathy production.
Jaw: Jaw tension is very common in my voice lessons. You can loosen your jaw by imagining how your jaw is while you sleep or when it is numbed up at the dentist! Let your jaw hang down loosely, but be careful to not force it down. Then sing, keeping the jaw loose and not worrying about clear articulation. I always encourage this slurry singing to get your jaw accustomed to being relaxed. You can also massage the top of your jaw on both sides while singing.
Soul: This area of strain can be the hardest to keep relaxed because this is a mental stressor rather than a physical one. Singing is a very personal thing because we are literally our own instrument. So it is very easy to get down on ourselves when things don’t come out right. You just have to remember that singing is just like any other physical activity, but even more difficult! You have to build up your muscle memory – and these are a lot of small muscles we are working with – to learn how to sing and sound good. Have a mantra that helps relax your mind while practicing. Just breathe, relax, do your best, and keep working toward improvement.
I recommend using this as a checklist to go through during your voice lessons and individual practice. While warming up, check in on these areas to ensure you are relaxed. Since every voice is different, try to take note of what your typical areas of strain are. Pay attention to the tension in your body throughout the day, not just while singing, and relax. For me, I pay most attention to my larynx and jaw because they tend to be tense more often. Ask your voice teacher for their opinion on where you hold your stress. You can also check out this video by Justin Stoney from New York Vocal Coaching, in which he discusses all seven areas of strain and provides ideas to help alleviate the tension.