Windsong Voice and Yoga

Educating and Empowering Through Music, Movement & Yoga

Hit / Reach / Hold

Everyday Terminology
and its Impact on Singing

Hello!

 Hi, I'm Dr. Madeline Miskie. In my writing, I focus on the connections between the mind, body and voice and share singing tips and inspiration.  Thanks for reading!

Ah, the limits of vocabulary.  We can’t escape words, but we can CHOOSE our words WISELY.  The words we use when talking about our own singing & vocalizing as well as the language we use when teaching others about singing can have a powerful impact on the way we think about and use our voice and in turn, influence the ideas that we share with students.

When students first approach me about singing high notes & phrases, THE BIG THREE words that I encounter most often are: REACH, HIT and HOLD. If you are a singer, voice teacher, choir or music director, you have most likely heard some variation of these examples.  Maybe you also refer to high notes in this context.  It’s ok.  I am 100% guilty of using these words myself sometimes – it’s a learning curve!

Today I’m going to take a deep dive into HIT / REACH / HOLD – I’ll talk about why (in my opinion) those terms are commonly used and how they can potentially be internalized on a physical level.  Finally, I’ll offer some alternative terminology & ideas.

Here are some classic examples from students and how each example can create a pattern that may not be the most efficient approach:

  • I can’t reach that note. / I’m struggling to reach that pitch.” -> i.e. Putting the ‘note’ in an imagined physical place)
  • ”I need to hit all the high notes in that phrase.” -> i.e. Using excess force to articulate a ‘note’)
  • ”I’m supposed to hold that high note out for 8 beats.” -> i.e. This can foster a physical tension pattern of hanging on to or holding a ‘note’.)

 

The common denominator in all of these examples = NOTES! 

A RADICAL IDEA: A note is NOT a thing.  Aside from being a black dot on a page, a note simply represents a desired frequency.  But let’s back up.

QUESTION: Why do some singers make a ‘note’ into a thing and why do they ‘REACH’ for it?

ANSWER: My theory on this starts with the basis of western musical notation -> THE STAFF.  The musical staff consisting of 5 lines and 4 spaces can be a wonderful thing.  Notation is a systemized set of instructions that tells us which pitches to sing and when.  HOWEVER, the staff can lead singers astray with regards to the way they conceptualize pitches.

REACH: For example: an F on the top line of the treble staff is higher on the page than an E on the bottom line.  Therefore that F becomes a ‘high note’ and that E becomes a ‘low note’.  The positioning on a musical staff is one factor.  With this visual positioning of dots on a page, singers often internalize this concept physically by ‘reaching’ for the high notes.  This ‘reaching’ can show up physically as neck tension, eyes looking up (or down for that matter; and I promise you, the high notes are not floating around the ceiling, nor are the low notes written on the floor!), head tilted upwards (or down, for low notes), raising the eyebrows / wrinkling the forehead, purposely lifting [for high notes] or depressing the larynx [for low notes], tensing the neck and even bracing the abdomen in preparation for a high note or phrase.

In addition, singers will often use more force for ‘higher notes’ and less force for ‘lower notes’…but I’ll save that for another blog post.) These are a few examples of unnecessary patterning which vary depending on the individual.  Have you observed and / or experienced any of these patterns?

Photo Credit: Darren Coleshill

HIT. We know that the vocal folds are very small; for adult soprano / mezzo / contralto voices the vocal folds are about as long as the diameter of a penny and for adult tenor / baritone / bass voices the folds are about as long as the diameter of a quarter.  They are rather fragile.  I for one do not want to hit anything with my vocal folds while singing! 

QUESTION: So why is the phrase of ‘HITTING HIGH NOTES’ so widely used and perpetuated?  

ANSWER: Again, I’m back to the staff, where ‘high’ notes are by definition at the top of the page and vice versa for low notes.  But beyond the notation system I think there is another suspect lurking.  We need to take a look at the very instrument that is in nearly every musical classroom, practice room and teaching studio; the PIANO.  My own personal theory on why we use ‘hit’ in reference to singing at all, is rooted in our widespread use of the piano.  Most people who participate in a choir, voice class, or private lessons of any kind, sing vocal warmups with piano accompaniment.  The piano is a percussion instrument, which by definition is, “a musical instrument sounded by striking, shaking or scraping” [i]!!!!  

The vocal instrument most certainly is NOT a percussion instrument.  I have observed this concept of ‘hitting the high notes’ manifest physically in singers in a variety of ways.  It may show up as a highly energized vocal onset, sometimes in combination with an excessive use of force on the exhale (i.e. pushing) by over-engaging the abdominals and / or the muscles of the ribcage (over-breathing).  Very often, students complain of discomfort when attempting to ‘hit’ high notes, which makes perfect sense if they are excessively contracting their torso (ribcage [intercostals] and abdominals).   Such action on the exhale leads to closure of the throat, which can perpetuate the struggle

HOLD. I believe that this is the least detrimental of these three terms, but it is worth exploring the physical results in the hopes that there can be less confusion for the singer.  Once singers are able to access a high pitch (or any pitch) it may be necessary for them to sustain the pitch for several beats or even a measure or two.  If a student ‘reaches’ or ‘hits’ a note with excess force / tension, then ‘holding on’ to the pitch can be very uncomfortable.  ‘Holding on’ to a note can show up as excess physical tension in a multitude of patterns including jaw / facial / neck tension and very often a feeling of the throat closing or pinching. 

 

Some alternative terms & ideas:

  • Sing the note.
  • Sustain the phrase.
  • Replace ‘high note’ with ‘high frequency’ and vice versa with low notes.
  • Spin the note; imagine the sound emerging from your steady stream of air.
  • Imagine that your 3-measure sustained G is not one long ‘held’ G, but a thousand little G’s strung seamlessly together; all of them alive and spinning, riding your breath until the final release.
  • Mantra: “I eat high notes for breakfast.” or “I sing high notes effortlessly and with ease.”

            (I know this is easier said than done!)

Although unpacking tension patterns and maximizing vocal efficiency is a longer conversation and a much more in-depth process, changing the verbiage around singing high notes & phrases is something that be easily implemented to create more immediate positive changes. 

These terms HIT / REACH / HOLD are so commonly used that their implications sometimes fall into subconscious territory, although their effects are all too often internalized and implemented without anyone realizing.  Simply being aware of their potential is powerful. 

“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” ~ Closing Mantra

Copyright © Madeline Miskie