“Help, my voice keeps cracking!”
You may be surprised by my response: “It’s not the end of the world if your voice cracks.” Did you want to hear something else?
The truth is that everyone’s voice breaks. Every singer knows that feeling when his voice cracks. It is a normal part of becoming a singer. Voice cracking is a common phenomenon that occurs in the process of getting better in the art of singing. If you never experienced voice breaks or cracks you probably have not tried to sing. Voice breaks have a protective function. If your voice did not crack, you would suffer from vocal trauma. So go ahead and let your voice crack – don’t be afraid to experience that feeling when your voice goes from “normal” to “weird”. It’s all a part of growing as a singer. The more cracking you experience in vocal practice, the less your voice breaks during performances.
In this blog post, I am going to describe everything your need to know about this topic: what exactly a “vocal crack” is, what happens in your vocal mechanism when it occurs, some reasons why cracking happens, and most importantly how to smooth out those transitions and eliminate voice breaks from your performances.
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What is a Voice “Crack”?
Other names for a vocal crack are passaggio, voice break, flip, transition, or bridge. They all describe that awkward sound that happens on certain pitches in your vocal range. You are singing a scale and as you are ascending to higher notes, your voice gives up and you (and everyone else) hear a weak and squeaky sound. Your vocal cords fall apart and you flip into a falsetto. It almost feels like you have two different voices.
A vocal crack is a sudden, unwanted shift or flip between vocal registers. Wikipedia refers to voice breaks as an unintentional “transitions between different vocal registers of the human voice”. The most frequent voice breaks happen between chest and head voice. As you sing higher notes, vocal cords compress more and more and at one point, they are not able to stay connected any longer and they give in. The muscles that open and close the vocal cords have not learned how to switch from one register to another and this muscle discoordination results in a vocal break.
As I mentioned before, “cracking” protects your vocal cords from stretching too much and vocal trauma. During vocal practice, it is good to experience some voice breaks because you they help you recognize places in your voice where you need to shift “gears” from one register to another.
During vocal practice, your goal is to learn to keep the vocal cords connected as you move from chest to head voice without creating too much pressure underneath the vocal cords and to fine-tune the coordination of the deep laryngeal muscles to adjust to pitch changes.
There are many exercises that can help you ease the tension on the vocal cords as you move from low ranges to middle and high voice. At the end of this blog post, I am going to describe some vocal exercises that will help you maintain smooth transitions without feeling any tension. But don’t be tempted to scroll down. Make sure that you understand the causes so you are able to find the best solution for your “cracking”.
Why Does My Voice Crack?
In order to eliminate voice breaks it is important to understand why they happen. There may be several reasons why voice breaking happens to you but the most common reason is “undeveloped” vocal technique.
What causes voice to crack? Let’s look at some reasons for voice breaks:
A high position of the larynx is related to muscle coordination (read below). New singers tend to move their larynx upward as they sing higher notes. They squeeze and push up their larynx to access the high notes. Lifting the larynx engages the outer muscles of the neck, which places a lot of strain on vocal cords. The vocal cords eventually break open to release the tension. The raised larynx may be a result of too much pressure underneath the vocal cord or tongue tension.
Your goal: take away the pressure of the larynx and vocal cords.
Keep in mind that high notes do not require more air. Sing the high notes with adjusted volume. New singers tend to yell the high notes. Finally, keep everything loose and relaxed, including the tongue. An exercise using a “dopey” sound may help you keep the larynx in a neutral position (see below).
It is a common myth that high notes require more air. But the opposite is true. If you push too much air through vocal cords on high notes, it creates lots of pressure and tension. On the other hand, too little air does not give enough energy to vocal cords to vibrate. Vocal cords need a steady and consistent airflow to create an adequate amount of pressure to vibrate efficiently. Maintaining a steady flow of air, especially on high notes, helps prevent the voice breaks.
Your goal: learn to bring air from the lower abdomen not from the top of your lungs.
I have written two articles about correct breathing for singing. Read these blog posts to improve your breathing for singing:
Fear is a huge factor in vocal “cracking”. Every singer has experienced voice breaks but some singers may have been unfortunate to “crack” in front of an audience. This negative experience may contribute to developing the fear of “cracking”. Once you feel uncertain and you keep anticipating a crack every time you approach the feared note, you inadvertently develop a reaction that prevents you from singing clearly. Your body tenses up, your vocal cords strain and your voice cracks. Fear creates a lot of tension in your body and throat and the fear end up being the reason for vocal breaks.
Your goal: give yourself permission to experience vocal cracks.
Give yourself permission not be perfect. Make sure that during vocal practice you experience voice breaks regularly so your body learns to let go of the tension associated with the fear. To get more tips on how to overcome fear, read my previous blog post The Fear of Singing in the Spotlight.
The vocal mechanism has several muscles that lengthen and shorten vocal cords resulting in different pitches. A vocal register is a group of pitches with the same sound quality produced with the same mechanics or vocal cord coordination. Different vocal registers employ different muscles to create their distinctive sound. For example, in chest voice, the vocal cords are thick and they vibrate along their entire length. In head voice, the vocal cords are thin and stretched. About 2/3 of their length “zips up”, which leaves about 1/3 of their length free to vibrate. So these two registers use different muscle coordination to achieve different pitches. To learn more about vocal registers, please read my previous blog post Everything You Need to Know about Vocal Registers.
If your muscles are not trained to switch between the registers smoothly, voice breaks or cracks can happen.
Your goal: learn when to “switch” between voice registers and to navigate smoothly across troubled areas of your voice.
Other goals to eliminate vocal cracks may include practicing singing around the area where your voice cracks, improving resonance by placing your voice in the resonators, learning to sing without strain and tension, and others.
How to Eliminate Voice Breaks?
Here are three exercises to help you sing smoothly through the transitions between vocal registers. Make them a part of your regular vocal practice to condition your muscles to sing without cracks.
Lip rolls are notoriously known exercises to every singer. I have already devoted one blog post to lip rolls, in which I described why these exercises are beneficial for singers. Lip rolls develop muscle coordination in singing that takes pressure off the vocal cords instead of putting more pressure on them. And as I said before, vocal cracks occur when the pressure on vocal cords is too high. Lip rolls help to stretch the vocal cords with the least amount of tension throughout the whole vocal range. Lip rolls also help to produced connected voice and therefore eliminate vocal breaks.
When you do lip rolls, keep these tips in mind:
- Gently lift your cheeks upward from the corners of your mouth so that you lift the weight of your skin.
- Keep your lips relaxed and loose (you can even pout if you want).
- Blow air out through the relaxed lips and as you are exhaling, make a “dopey” sound (“uh”), which will keep your larynx in a low position.
It may help if you say the word “book” while holding your fingers on the larynx. Feel the larynx in a relaxed position and remember this feeling. You want to maintain this feeling throughout the exercise.
While you are vibrating the lips, you need to maintain the “dopey” sound underneath. Maintain the “uh” sound and the “b” feeling as you ascend on the scale. This feeling is important in order to keep your larynx in a balanced and relaxed position.
If you can do lip rolls, practice scales connecting your chest voice to your head voice. As you approach the troubled areas of your voice where you usually experience vocal breaks, focus on the underlying “dopey” sound and relaxed lips.
As you start this exercise in your chest voice, you should feel the vibrations in the roof of your mouth (the hard palate). As you are ascending on the scale and approaching your head voice, you should feel the vibrations moving more towards the soft palate, through the bridge of your nose and into your forehead. Finally, you should feel the highest notes at the top of your head.
As I said before, the vibrating portion of the vocal chords will be shortening (the cords will “zip up”) as you sing higher notes. That means that you will need less air to set them into vibration. Keep the higher notes light and do not push them with a lot of force. Some teachers recommend bending in your waist as you sing higher to take your mind off singing, and thus release tension.
Read more about lip rolls here.
Tongue trills are similar exercises to lip rolls in that they help you take tension off your vocal cords as you sing through challenging areas of your voice.
To make tongue trill exercises, let your tongue lightly flutter (vibrate) against the roof of your mouth. This sound is typical for some languages (Spanish, Italian, Slavic languages) and it’s usually called a rolled R. (If you cannot roll your tongue, you can practice with lip rolls.) When you practice tongue trill, do not just blow air out through your tongue but produce an underlying sound (similar to the dopey sound “Duh”). This sound will keep your larynx in a low position and your voice connected throughout your troubled areas as you ascend on the scale.
Similarly to lip roll exercises, you can do tongue trills on scales. You can start with easier 5-tone scales and later on an octave scale (an octave scale has bigger spaces between notes and a whole octave is covered in one scale).
This exercise, referred to by many aspiring singers as “the annoying exercise”, serves as a temporary exercise that helps the vocal cords stay connected when ascending up on a scale. It is a whiny sound that blends your chest and head voice into a mix. This blend of voices helps singers to erase vocal breaks.
When you do this exercise, remember these tips:
- Do not to yell “nay”. Yelling means that you are pulling up your chest voice. Instead, allow yourself to “cry” the high notes.
- Do not lift your chin as you are going for the high notes (this tenses up your neck and engages the superficial muscles that affect the sound production). Keep your chin in a neutral position.
Bonus: Gig-gig-gig Exercise
I have found a Youtube video by a vocal coach from new York, Justin Stoney, talking about “cracking” and introducing an exercise to eliminate cracking from your voice.
This concludes my blog post about voice breaks.
I hope that next time when your voice cracks, you will know what to do about it. Good luck.
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