How To Sing With Power (Glottal Compression)
Advanced singing techniques like Glottal Compression are often shrouded in mystery, but the truth about singing is that it is ultimately a very simply process of pressure, vibration and resonance – there really is no ‘secret’ technique to singing that is magically going to make you wail like Chris Cornell or sustain those highs like Whitney Houston, no other secret than hard work, dedication and a solid vocal approach that is. Compression really has two separate parts that make a whole when it comes to singing, constriction and pressure, or simply put, support. Support occurs as an extension of your breathing mechanism, and compression takes one further step in limiting the airway to create a pressurised, but strain free ‘bottle neck’ which creates a powerful, resonant and loud vocal tone.
The first step is to set up an effective support mechanism with diaphragm breathing and a healthy posture. Lets get started with posture first while making sure that you tick every box along the way so you’re not overlooking an important foundation element of the voice – your vocal health depends on your foundation. If you’re at the beginning stages of learning how to sing, it’s important you get all the basics and foundation elements down first like vowel shaping, connecting chest and head, consonant grouping, support etc before attempting compression. To an untrained singer who lacks the coordination for strain free compression, it’s best that you focus on the building blocks before trying to put the roof on your house. Are you ready to create glottal compression and support your voice for a massive vocal tone and powerful resonance? Lets get started.
How to sing with breath support
Breath support in particular is a technique that is often shrouded in mystery and buzz words, but the simple answer is that a supported tone is skewed towards more air pressure than air flow, and an unsupported tone is skewed towards air flow instead of air pressure – ergo, you need to retain diaphragmatic engagement rather than allowing the diaphragm to recoil and ‘push’ your air out of your mouth. Breath support starts with a healthy posture, which looks a little something like this:
- Head up
- Shoulders back
- Chin Parallel with the floor
- Ribs wide and proud chest
Retaining this posture as you ascend in range or hold a phrase while also taking charge of the adjoining muscles that allow engagement of the diaphragm so that your posture or breathing doesn’t just collapse into a weak flow of unpressurised air. Instead, we need to ensure the abs remain forward and the ribs remain extended laterally as you ascend in range or sustain a phrase. Maintaining support is one half of the recipe to creating effective compression and ultimately a powerful and resonance singing voice. Lets look at stage two.
I like to use the analogy of an empty water-bottle to illustrate how compression works in singing. If you have an empty bottle with the lid off and you squeeze the sides, the air will just fluff out of the top without any power or pressure, and the sides will collapse. Now, on the flip-side, if you put the lid ON the bottle, absolutely zero air will escape and in terms of singing, you will create strain and tension. Now, if we were to drill a small hole in the top of the lid and squeeze the bottle again, not only would there be a very small amount of highly pressurised air leaving through the airway, but the sides of the container will actually resist instead of collapse – you guessed it, this is akin to breath support.
So, to sing with pressurised air, you need some sort of air-limiting cap on your vocal ‘bottle’, and surprisingly enough it isn’t always the vocal folds. Sure, the vocal chords closure to vibrate and resonate with release of air, but compression actually occurs in two forms above the vocal folds when you sing. The first is twang, and the second is glottal/supra compression. Now, the supraglottis is the area of the voice/body that extends from just above the vocal folds to just below the AES where twang occurs (like the NG in the word “sing”). If you speak or sing a “G” sound or word like “game”, you’ll notice a slight narrowing or limiting feeling just above your vocal folds in the glottis – learning to narrow and ‘compress’ this area of the voice as the method of constricting the airway for healthy compression instead of a hard ‘lid’ on top of the voice when you push or strain your voice takes time, dedication and patience. A great way to achieve compression in the beginning stages, of course when you’ve already set up a rock solid foundation for your voice using the free Foundations 101 singing course here at Bohemian Vocal Studio, is to prepare yourself to sing a “G” sound like “Game”, but instead of making any nose, you need to breathe in and release your vocal folds, so that the partial closure is occurring in the supraglottis instead of the vocal folds. Clear as mud, right?
If you create compression and ‘close the lid’ on your support by closing the vocal folds, you will create a glottal onset which is often harmful to the voice are rarely flattering to the ears of your listeners. Learning to develop a balanced onset is actually the secret third key to singing with glottal compression. Lets balance your onset.
How to sing a balanced onset
A balanced onset occurs when you learn to balance the release of air flow with vocal fold closure into the same instant, resulting in instantaneous and strain free resonance that has little or no other sound or air occurring before you achieve your tone. This can be surprisingly tricky as it’s more a game of balance and coordination that one of strength or ‘tricks’. One of the best sounds for developing a balanced onset is either an EE sound, or an NN. Now, these sounds do differ from each other in that an open-resonant consonant like an N actually occurs while you allow airflow through the nose, and the EE sound (along with all of your other vowels) does not feature airflow through the nose, instead, the soft palate is raised to create resonant space in the pharynx in your higher range, blocking off the passage to the nose in the process. So, alternating between these sounds to try and create instant resonance without either ‘holding’ before the onset, and also without allowing airflow to occur before you achieve resonance.
Support, Compression, Onset = Power
These three steps should be trained separately before trying to sing with a powerful tone, otherwise you’ll put your voice at risk of strain due to the incredible amount of pressure that can be created with glottal compression and by limiting the airway with hyper engagement of the supraglottis (say that five times fast!). The first logical step is to set up a bullet-proof foundation like the one I share for free in the Foundations 101 singing course available here at BVS, which will show you how to sing with a balanced onset, achieve mix voice, shape your vowels effectively and many other important basics that many singers do struggle with, but really can be developed quite easily with this complimentary course.
When you’re ready to take your voice to the next level with professional voice coaching, you’re welcome to book a Skype Lesson with me and we’ll start working towards extending your range, developing balance and control in your voice and of course working towards glottal compression to increase your power and consistency.
If you have any questions about how to sing with compression, you’re welcome to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.