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Singing or Straining?
By Jeannie Deva - 10/07/2009 - 07:33 PM EDT

By Jeannie Deva, Author of "The Contemporary Vocalist", Originator of The Deva Method (R)-Complete Technique for Stage and StudioTM

You can hear it in the sound of your voice and feel it in your throat when it happens. The muscles tense and your vocal tone sounds pinched and shrill. You’re straining and if your voice doesn’t crack, you can consider yourself lucky.

Perhaps you only experience strain on certain occasions. You might think it’s because you weren’t born to sing in certain keys or just have a naturally low voice or the song is wrong for you (even though you love it).

And it’s true; you can lower the key or simply cut out certain songs from your repertoire. But, there is a hidden reason why you may find yourself straining. Not knowing what it is makes it easy to blame it on other things. That, not being the real reason, keeps the solution illusive and unobtainable. So, are you ready for the unveiling of the guilty party?

What is Strain?

Strain occurs when you vocal folds cannot vibrate as fully as they need to. At that moment, the muscles that govern them are fighting to do what is needed of them, in conflict with an opposing tension. It would be like tensing the muscles of an arm at your side while simultaneously trying to raise that arm above your head. The imposed muscle tension is contradicting the necessary and natural function which would otherwise allow you to easily move your arm.

Three Main Reasons Strain Occurs

1) Your Tongue

Of all the muscles of your body, the tongue is the strongest muscle for its size. You use it more than you usually use most of your other muscles for: eating; drinking; swallowing saliva; talking; singing.

Additionally, if you overuse it when speaking or singing by articulating your words past what is needed in their natural pronunciation, it can become stiff or tense.

The root of your tongue is essentially connected to the top of your larynx (voice box). The larynx is the cartilage tube running vertically in the front of your throat. Check it out. Your Adam’s apple is part of it. If your tongue is tensed when you speak or sing it causes a holding or stiffening of your larynx.

When your tongue pulls up or pushes down it interferes with the natural position of your larynx. This effects the position and movement of your vocal folds which are housed inside. It is the folds that must vibrate and create the sounds and pitches of your voice. Restriction of your larynx adversely affects the working of your vocal folds and the sound of your voice.

I am not saying your tongue should not move. However, if you make it move more than it naturally needs to, if you pull the back of it up as you “go for a high note” or put too much emphasis on a consonant (which will ALWAYS cause it to needlessly tighten and pull upwards) or push the back of the tongue down to "open your throat", then you are unwittingly creating problems for yourself and you will experience vocal strain.

I have created a number of exercises that help limber your tongue and related muscles and help you achieve a previously un-experienced ease and versatility of singing.

2) Air Overblow
There is such a thing as too much pushing out as you sing. The higher you sing, the LESS AIR your vocal folds need for their vibration. And if you push in your stomach/abdomen thinking this represents breath support, you may be surprised by what I’m next going to say. By doing so, you are pushing in against lower abdominal organs which in turn push up against your diaphragm and subsequently push up against your lungs. This inward/upward pressure forces out an excessive air flow that pushes up against your vocal folds like a tidal wave.

In my 35 years of researching the voice and teaching singers, I have found that any time a singer releases their abdominal pushing, singing becomes easier and their tone generally becomes fuller and more resonant.

This lack of abdominal pushing however needs to be replaced with a more holistic approach, one that utilizes the natural and factual design of your body. I’m referring to the fact that the majority of your lungs are located in your back. They are housed inside and affixed to the lining of your rib cage. When your ribs expand, they open your lungs which pull in your breath. (Yes, the diaphragm does have something to do with this process as well but frankly, the rib movement is most important.)

If you breathe into your back and then sing, you will find a marked difference in how your voice responds. Just be sure to do this while permitting your abdomen to relax and move naturally rather than manipulate it. For some, this can take practice as old manipulative habits are discovered and released.

For the rest of the story on this and fast acting exercises that help you work with your body’s natural breathing and sound-making design, use my book: “Contemporary Vocalist Volume One.”

3) Lack of Conditioning
Frequently singers try to get their voices to do things for which they have not really prepared the vocal muscles to accomplish – though it is well within their physical capability. It is like this with any athlete. You have the muscles. They work a certain way. They have a potential. It is proper exercise, NOT just attempting to use them, that awakens the full potential. If, for example, you were to attempt performing as a hip hop dancer without any muscle development through limbering and strengthening exercises, you would see the correlation.

Well, vocal exercises – depending on what they are and how closely they work with the body naturally – can definitely help. Your voice is the product of muscle actions which, while small and hidden from view, can be developed. I have spent the majority of my life developing an approach that is based upon physical fact and does not depend upon or dictate any particular style. This permits you to develop your whole voice and then “play it” the way you want as the creative, expressive singer that you are or want to be.

Wishing you the very best!
Jeannie Deva

NOTE: If you live near Hollywood, California, Jeannie will be giving two workshops for singers and singer/songwriters on Saturday November 7th. For info and tickets: (click on "Workshops" on the Navigation bar.)

Jeannie Deva is an International Celebrity Master Vocal Coach and Recording Studio Vocal Specialist with a career that spans over 30 years. Her client list includes Grammy Award Winners and American Idol Finalists as well as singers for Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, Broadway’s Wicked, Lion King, Grease, Fame and Color Purple. She has worked with and is endorsed by engineers and producers of Aerosmith, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Celine Dion, Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones. Seen on E! Entertainment and TV Guide Channel, Jeannie has been interviewed as a celebrity guest on numerous TV and radio talk shows in both the US and Venezuela. Author of the internationally acclaimed "Contemporary Vocalist" series and “The Deva Method® Vocal Warm-Ups and Cool-Downs” CD, her articles on singing have been featured over 400 times in magazines around the world. Performer Magazine calls The Deva Method: “The closest thing to getting cosmetic surgery for your voice.” Certified Deva Method teachers are located on the east and west coasts of the U.S. as well as in Sydney, Australia. Ms Deva’s private voice studio is located in Los Angeles and West Hollywood. She also teaches singers worldwide via Internet web cam.

"If you're looking for a way to better yourself vocally, The Deva Method is right on target."

 - Editors Choice Review

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