Top 5 Causes of Vocal Fatigue [I Used To Do All Five!]
Despite what you may think, learning how to sing isn't like lifting weights and building muscle - I had a few voice coaches myself early on that told me that vocal fatigue was normal as my voice 'had to get used to the new technique'. I realise now just how incorrect and risky this is - if you're straining, and your voice is fatigued, then there's something wrong with the way you're implementing your technique.
These 5 causes of Vocal Fatigue are incredibly common, and shockingly enough, are sometimes even taught under the guise of being 'healthy' for your voice. At various points, we've probably all made one or a few of these mistakes - and I personally struggled with all five causes until I learned a much better way to sing without strain, tension or the resulting fatigue that comes with poor technique.
So listen up, take heed and make sure you're not experiencing these top 5 causes of vocal fatigue!
#1 - Excess Belting
Belting is fun, and it's super cool when you discover how to do it - but is it entirely healthy? Belting in and of itself isn't unhealthy for you voice, but excess use of the belting coordination will cause strain, tension and vocal fatigue. It's not a race, you're not a weightlifter and you've got nothing to prove to anyone about how 'tough' your voice is - singing with freedom, power and a beautiful tone trump the superficial 'wow' factor that come with belting. My favourite voice coach taught me that belting is simply one colour in the singer's toolkit, and one that paints a certain colour only - use it wisely and it really can add life and personality to your voice, but use it too much and your painting will look like murder scene (and so will your voice!).
#2 - An External Smile
I recently spoke about the internal smile being an intrinsic part of excellent vocal technique, where the external smile which has been misappropriated in many contemporary vocal methods is exactly the opposite and will cause vocal fatigue in a very short time. Before I explain why, let's delve a little more into the internal smile concept for better vocal technique.
The internal smile is a combination of;
- raised cheeks below the eyes
- sunken cheeks at the back of the mouth
- an oval embouchure from top to bottom at the mouth
- a slightly wide and raised soft palate
Each of these aspects of the internal smile is almost the polar opposite of the misinterpreted "Wide Smile" that you'll see in many YouTube singing tutorial videos. Sure, you'll get a superficial boost in brightness, and you might be lucky enough to experience a raised soft palate - but the width of your vowels will obliterate your ability to sing anything but a shouty yell, and your high range will not develop beyond a medium point as the vowel will be incorrectly tuned. Not to mention the strain and tension that comes with a forced smile wide at the lips.
The key here is to open your voice up to head and nasal resonance (yes, even in the chest register!) while allowing height in the vocal tract to allow space for your high range - none of which is achieved with a wide, lippy smile like a clown. Dial it down, focus on an oval mouth shape and raised palate and you'll realise just how much you've been straining to keep this unnatural smile.
#3 - A Glottal Onset
When I was first learning to sing I had a singing teacher introduce me to the Coup De Glotte singing approach that creates a slight glottal stop in your onset. While this approach does work for singers with a more naturally aspirate voice and air escaping before they sing - for someone with a harder attack and harsher delivery like I initially struggled with, the Coup De Glotte will destroy your voice and cause fatigue before you can grunt Oh Oh! Now, the technique itself isn't entirely wrong, it's just the way it was shown to me, and the way that I was applying it - the purpose of the Coup De Glotte is to create a balanced onset that results in instant resonance, perfect pitch from the onset, freedom from strain and a powerful tone that can be started even on a vowel; if this what I was taught, things would have been honky dory, but instead I was taught to 'shock' the glottis by closing the folds before singing. This is another technique that sometimes creeps into contemporary vocal methods, most likely in a well meaning way by singing teachers that themselves initially struggled with an aspirate onset and found relief in the form of a harder glottal attack.
In my experience, if you took five different singers and gave them the same instruction for a week - you would have five different results at the end of the week. Now, if you looked at each voice first, and instructed how to improve upon each natural tendency in the voice, you would end up with five different instructions yes, but this would result in the same five excellent results as the instruction was tailored to the student and their unique voice.
The glottal onset really shouldn't be trained as a habit into any voice, even though it can be used to demonstrate a more balanced onset in a singer with a naturally weak and airy onset - the only healthy onset is a balanced onset where flow and closure occur simultaneously to create instant resonance and a 'floating note' which is free of strain and located well away from the throat.
#4 - Excess Compression
A professional singer will likely use on a fraction of the airflow and air pressure that a beginner to intermediate singer uses - but for the beginner singer, it might seem like 'holding your breath' when you sing creates a better tone and stronger voice, but in the long run, you're using excess compression to mask various issues in your technique. It's always best to treat the cause of the issue rather than the result of the issue - an example of this is incorrect support. Simply holding your breath from the throat to create glottal compression isn't going to improve the fact you're pushing hard from the solar plexis like a cough or grunt to create a fuller sound. Correct support really occurs in the resistance of airflow/air pressure in the lower back muscles, intercostals and other adjoining muscles of the diaphragm. At the end of the day, singing is easy - and it should be free from strain, tension, muscular effort or force. I find that many rock singers who enjoy a gritty sound use way too much compression to absolutely blanket their tone in gravel instead of the light rattle that many of the greats are able to conjure with almost a quarter of the air that over compression requires. If you're going red in the face, you've got veins popping out of your neck and you have to belt to hit a note, then it's likely you're suffering from excess compression.
#5 - Low Soft Palate (lack of resonant space)
As you ascend, the soft palate should raise higher and higher into the pharynx to create height in the vocal tract and facilitate your high range without the need for excess pressure or force. Many singers who strain when they sing simply aren't lifting the soft palate, either enough, at all, or even in the right way. The best way to achieve a raised soft palate is to use the internal smile mentioned above, along with the initial stage of a gentle yawn - when you do this in the right way, you really can feel the 'lift' of a raised soft palate. This lift occurs on each sound when you sing as you ascend up through your break periods, in essence altering the character of each sound - which is where the concept of vowel modification comes into play. As you raise a wide soft palate, an AH vowel (like hard) will sound slightly like an OH (like hoard), then into an EA (like heard) and OO (like who'd) in the high range, where an AY vowel (like hey) will become like an EH (like head), into an IH (like hid) and finally EE (like heed) - mainly due to the different shapes of the vocal tract caused by raising the soft palate to create height and narrowing in the vocal tract. Of course, these changes also occur in tandem with a shift in the vibratory mechanism too, but this is really in reaction to the tonal quality you achieve when you reach the right resonant space - so controlling the soft palate effectively really is your first port of call as a singer, and one of the most important foundation elements of the singing voice.
No matter the exercise you're using, or how you're singing or practising - vocal fatigue has no place in the singing voice. Dial it down, stop if something doesn't feel right and run screaming from anyone that tells you vocal fatigue is simply part of 'building the muscle'.
A better way to learn how to sing is to first set up a rock solid foundation of great vocal technique using the Foundation 101 singing course here at Bohemian Vocal Studio, which will show you how to;
- Sing in mix voice
- Shape your vowels
- Create and increase your resonance
- Increase your range out of sight!
- Improve your vocal tone
- Sing ANY song
- Sing with balance and consistency
- So much more!
Kegan is the master of vocal training… Period!
The Best vocal coach ever. This education divide my vocal life in two parts – before and after!
If you want to sing rock/blues, this is the guy!