By Lis Lewis
We’ve all heard about Mariah Carey’s five-octave range. How is that possible? What do you have to do to have such a huge range? In fact, how do you figure out what your range is? Even if you know how high and how low you sing, how do you translate that into what your key should be? So many questions; let’s start with the basics.
Most of you know that you have two voices (registers) although voice teachers have been arguing forever about how many there actually are. Some say there is only one; some say there are as many as seven. Let’s go with the most agreed upon version: low, middle and high. The lower one is called ‘chest voice’ because of where it resonates (in your chest, of course). The upper one is called ‘head voice’ I bet you can guess why. The middle voice, also called ‘blend’ or ‘mix,’ is both voices working at the same time, an overlap of the two voices, which allows an even and smooth passage between the two without loosing tone or strength.
Some singers, like Mariah, have a voice above head voice that’s called ‘whistle tone’ or ‘altissima’ (meaning ‘the highest’) or sometimes ‘super-head’. Think of that very high stuff Mariah likes to do and you’ll get the idea of what it sounds like. It’s a tiny, thin voice, almost squeaky sounding. That’s what helps her to have so much more range than most people. Even once you find it, assuming your voice has that range, it’s hard to move around in it. It takes years of practice, which Mariah has had.
Make The Most Of It
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to make the most of what you have no matter how big or small your range. As an example, Joe Cocker, one of the most emotional singers there is, has a relatively small range. Yet he sure knows how to use it. On the other side of the coin, I have seen lots of singers with huge ranges but with weak spots that keep them from being able to connect it all. So, even though the question I’m asking here is ‘How big is my range’, a better question would be how well can I use all of the notes I have.
I know a lot of you think that the only real voice is chest voice. What do you need that thin weak upper voice for? But listen to Freddie Mercury, Brian McKnight or Jeff Buckley. When it’s strong and used well, it’s wonderful. But there’s another reason to work on your head voice. Let me put it to you this way; if you want a strong bicep, you have to have a strong tricep. (We’re talking arms here; I know I switched subjects, but bear with me.) Bicep and tricep are ‘opposing muscles’. You can’t have strength in one without the other. Think of head and chest voice in the same way. They give each other strength and flexibility. So if you want a big strong chest voice, work out your whole range.
Don’t Get A Grip
I can’t talk about range without talking about tension. I can almost guarantee that you are tensing some muscles that should be relaxed when you sing, especially when you try to sing higher. Does your throat get tight? Do you feel vocally tired after singing the song that’s got those high notes? Do you have to sing loud to get those notes? Do you start to lose them when you’ve been singing for a while? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’ve probably got tension when you sing. If you do, you will not be able to reach your full potential: in tone, in range or in dynamics. You should find a good voice teacher who can give you exercises that will relieve the stress and give you freedom when you sing. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?
Okay, on to the real stuff. If you can access your head voice (the upper one), sing an ‘ooo’ (like in ‘too’) and slide down from a high note in head to a low note in chest. You don’t have to start as high as possible, just somewhere in your head voice. Try not to skip anything in the middle. It should sound like a siren and get your dog howling. If you’re new to this, notice the ‘break’ between the voices and try to smooth out the transition. After you work on getting it to be smooth, try going from the bottom up. As you get toward the top of your head voice, let your mouth open a little so the vowel shifts from ‘ooo’ to more of an ‘ahh’ (like in ma). This is your basic range. Of course I’m not there watching and listening to you so I can’t guarantee you that you’re doing it right, but if you are going from chest to head, you can get a sense of how big your range is. If your throat gets tired, give it a rest.
After working on it for a while, try this to see if you can get higher: as you slide up into head, take a slow bow from the waist (like you?re taking a curtain call). Start bending while you’re still in chest and get to about a 90-degree angle by the top note. Don’t force the top – it should be thin sounding, not pushed. Do that a few times (unless your throat is feeling tight or tired, in which case stop). Now walk over to the piano or the guitar and find that note.
Finding the bottom is usually easier. Slide down until you can’t sing a note anymore. It will get a lot quieter so plan on using less air pressure. Hold the lowest note you can and find that one on an instrument. By the way, unless you have perfect pitch, which very few people do, you won’t know what note you’re singing without an instrument to give you a reference. You might know relatively what it feels like to sing in a certain range and you could make an educated guess about what notes you’re singing. But we have no buttons or keys or strings that we can look at and say “oh, right that’s a ‘G'”. Perfect pitch (many people who have it say it’s more of a pain than it’s worth) means that somehow you know what note you’re singing without having to refer to an instrument. I don’t know how they do it; it looks like a magic trick to me. What are they doing – hearing notes from the planets? Maybe they’ve got a built-in saxophone. It’s a mystery.
And The Key Is?
Now: how to use your range. First, if you’ve noticed a break between your two voices, it’s time for some voice lessons. That has to get fixed. You might have the biggest range in the world but you can only use one at a time because they are disconnected. Oops. Next, when you have a song you’re working on, decide what you want your voice to express. Is it tender and intimate? Is it aggressive? The lower end of your chest voice has more warmth, more bass tones – it tends to sound sexier, more vulnerable or personal. Think of Toni Braxton or Luther Vandeross. As you work up toward the higher end of chest, the sound becomes more urgent, more intense. That’s why most people try to push it up higher and higher. They never want to leave. There is a limit to how far up your chest voice can go (and still live to sing another day). DON’T PUSH!!! These are words of wisdom, folks; pay attention.
Once you’ve built a ‘blend’ (so there is no break between voices) you’ll be able to sing from chest to head without losing the tone (that doesn’t mean you’re ‘belting’ which is only chest, it means you are using both voices so there is a gradual shift from chest to head, like a cross fade). You’ll also be able to sing in that range at any volume, as opposed to yelling. That means that this area of your voice can become the most exciting, the most flexible part of your voice. It’s the perfect place for those final choruses that need to have energy and intensity without killing you. In the earlier choruses you can put the high note in head, or in a lighter blend so there is a build through the course of the song.
There is no one key that is right for you. There will be different keys for different songs. The key you choose will depend on what you want the song to sound like and where the melody sits. If the melody is fairly low and you want it to have energy, you will choose a higher key, which raises the melody up. If the melody is high you might need to lower it so you won’t dread singing it when it comes up on the set list. If the melody is all over the map, shoot yourself. No, sorry. You have to find just the right key for all the notes or change some of them. Please remember to communicate to your band when there are parts of the song that are intimate. They shouldn’t be playing all over the place while you’re at the bottom of your voice where there’s no volume.
Different keys will bring out different aspects of your voice. They will also make a difference in how you write a melody. Don’t write in the same key over and over. It’s boring for the listener but even more important, you will tend to write similar melodies. If you change keys, you will write melodies differently because you can’t use the same parts of your voice in the same ways. Experiment. Even a small change in key can make a big difference.
I hope you can see that it isn’t how high you can sing, or how big your range is that’s the most important thing in singing. No one but you knows whether the note in one song is higher than the note in another. What does matter is being able to use what you’ve got to the fullest potential of your instrument. That’s what will make you feel great about your singing.