Welcome to Vocal Wednesdays!
Every Wednesday I share a vocal tip or warm-up to improve the HEALTH of your VOICE. After 17 years of teaching people how to sing I have so many great tips to share.
As a voice teacher I am frequently approached and asked for vocal warm-ups to use in choir or as a soloist. I LOVE warm-ups and believe it is CRUCIAL to use them whenever you’re going to sing. It’s an easy step to skip when you’re practicing (because who doesn’t want to get to the fun stuff like songs?), but it can also be THE tool that takes you or your choir from average to AMAZING! The trick is knowing which warm-ups you or your choir needs, when to use it and why it works.
If you are just joining us, welcome!
We are currently working our way through the Breathing for Singing series. Here are the posts in the series thus far:
- “Breathing for Singing: What You Need to Know about BREATH”. I HIGHLY recommend reading this post before continuing with the rest of the series.
- “Breathing for Singing: 4 Awesome Exercises with a Yoga Ball”
- “Breathing for Singing: Working with a CHAIR”.
Today we are going to explore the benefits of using a straw when singing.
The straw technique is very simple and is used by singers, speech therapists and even professional athletes who are looking to improve their breathing.
HOW TO USE THE STRAW
First, find a straw that is straight with a small opening, like THIS or even better yet, a stirring straw like THIS. You want to avoid the flexible straws and the straws that have wider openings like those for a smoothie. Generally speaking, the smaller the opening, the more effective the exercise.
Second, put the straw in your mouth, closing your lips around it (you don’t want any air to escape around your lips).
Third, breathe in through your nose. When you exhale, gently release the air through the straw- be mindful not to allow air out the nose or sides of the mouth. Do this once, remove the straw from your mouth and take a couple of breaths in and out through your nose, allowing your natural breath rhythm to return. Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes the first day, adding a minute every day until you can do it for 10 minutes or more without any discomfort.
You can also do this exercise while singing on your exhale. It may feel more like a buzz, but you will inhale through the nose and sing through the straw as you exhale. You can do a simple glide from a low pitch to a high pitch or you can sing a couple of phrases of your music. Repeat the same phrases or glide several times through the straw. Remove the straw and sing the same phrase or glide on an [i] (ee) or [u] (oo), and then finally, sing on words. When you are singing with the straw, memorize the sensation in your throat so you can repeat it again later, eventually without the use of the straw.
Ingo Titze, a vocal scientist is perhaps most well-known for introducing the straw technique to the singer world. You can watch his YouTube video HERE. For the singing portion, start at 1:51.
- Be careful not to let air escape around the straw or through your nose. Try plugging your nose.
- You should be able to plug your nose and your voice sounds the same as when not plugged.
- Your lips and face should be relaxed.
- If you feel a tickling or tightness in your throat, work with a voice teacher or coach to help you.
- This is not an exercise in dynamics – careful not to overwork yourself.
- If you feel short of breath or don’t feel right, stop the exercise and allow your breathing to normalize before continuing.
- Every accent should be done with the abs and not with the throat.
- When you’re done you may find your voice feels lighter and more resonant. Try to memorize how it feels so eventually you can get back to it without using a straw first.
WHAT KIND OF EXERCISE IS THIS?
It is a semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) exercise. I know, big fancy word, right? Basically it means a narrow vocal tract. These SOVT exercises have been around a long time. Some say it’s ‘magic’ and I can attest to the fact that there have been some real moments of ‘magic’ in my studio after using an SOVT exercise. Other SOVT exercises you may know are the lip trill or lip buzz and exercises that vocalize on [m], [ng] or [v], [i], [u], or even humming on your hand.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It opens your throat and allows you to have ease in singing, especially high notes.
- The occlusion (narrowness) at the mouth causes air pressure to build in the oral cavity (mouth). The vocal folds are usually working pretty hard to manage the pressure coming up from the lungs. If you get too much breath flow – you will hear a breathy sound. If you get too much breath pressure – you will hear a pressed or strained sound. The occlusion (aka straw) gives the vocal folds a break so they don’t have to be the only thing resisting lung pressure. That doesn’t mean you have to sing/breath with a straw all the time to give the vocal folds a break. Once you train the muscles involved, you can re-create the scenario without the straw.
- When you use the straw, the air particles are funneled together-focused through the straw, vibrating back and forth, back and forth. This concentrated air particle activity assists in the movement of the opening and closing of the vocal folds. Translation: It’s helping the vocal folds be more efficient. Boo-ya!
- Would you like more resonance with that? Hello, yes please! Anytime you lengthen the space in which you send sound waves, you create more opportunities (more space) for it to resonate. When you put the straw in your mouth, you are lengthening your vocal tract or the tube in which the sound resonates. And guess what? Since you are reflecting that back (as mentioned in number 2) then you are increasing the efficiency of the vocal fold opening/closing even more. Bring it!
- Last and certainly not least. In order to make sound the vocal folds have to come together. That is where the sound wave starts. However, when working with weak or damaged voices, we want that whole bringing-together thing to be as gentle as possible. Singing through a straw creates pressure in the oral cavity (mouth) as mentioned in Number 1, you remember, right? This pressure is reflected back to the vocal folds – right where the action is happening, even in between them, creating a pillow of air that softens the blow. It allows the vocal folds to come together, but in a natural, efficient way (aka not slamming). Sweet!
WHO IS THIS EXERCISE FOR?
- weaker voices
- voices in rehabilitation
- voices that use too much air or volume
- anyone struggling to find the right balance of air pressure vs. air flow (seriously, everyone at some point!)
- choirs or soloists that are singing repertoire with high, sustained singing or long phrases
It may seem silly and even overly simplified, but I can tell you working with a straw or any SOVT can solve problems in your singing you may not have even been aware of. The lightness and freedom you feel after working with the straw is priceless. It feels so effortless and the sound is more clear and resonant.
I was practicing this afternoon and was frustrated with a song that I absolutely love, but I’ve haven’t been able to find the balance of breath and resonance because it has large leaps in it among some other challenges. Anywho, I wasn’t getting the right resonance or breath from the bottom note to the top note in the large leaps so I spent some time singing phrases with the straw, without the straw on an [i] or [u] and then trying it with words. It took me a bit to re-train my muscle memory because I’ve been singing this song (poorly) for a couple of weeks. When I finally felt like I could get the light, effortless feeling pretty consistent, I sang through the whole song and recorded it. I listened back and confirmed what I already knew – the section I had worked on with the straw sounded WAY more polished, resonant, connected and beautiful than the rest of the song. Seriously! I’m heading back to my straw tomorrow to review and then nail the rest of the song.
How about YOU? Are you ready to nail it? Are you ready to say SWEET! Grab your straw and share your experience in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!