Vocal Hacks

Every conductor, singer or voice teacher needs a few good vocal hacks. No, we’re not talking mediocre singers; we’re borrowing from the tech world where Merriam-Webster defines a hack as a “creative solution to a computer hardware or programming problem or limitation.”

We asked our members to share some of their favorite creative solutions to common vocal issues. Next time a singer walks into your choir room or studio with a technical limitation, try out one of these vocal hacks.

Brenda Iacocca

Private Voice Studio and Owner/Director, Preschool Music Plus

Godzilla Eyes
When a singer’s sound is darker inside and kept down in the mouth, I stop them and say “you’ve got to put it in your eyes.” In one of the Godzilla movies the monster has these laser eyes, so I say “when you’re going to reach for this particular note, you’ve got to put it in your Godzilla eyes,” and then I take two fingers and point forward like those are the laser beams coming out of my eyes. It seems to move the placement of the voice a little bit higher. “Godzilla eyes” just seems to make sense to everybody, young and old. It’s off the wall, but it works.

Push the Laundry
Some people don’t know how to use the breath support well or easily, so I call this hack “push the laundry.” When you’ve got too much laundry in your laundry pile, you’ve got to push it down before the laundry spills out. I have the singer sing the note and then push down with their hands like they’re pushing the laundry, and it engages the abdominal muscles more than just my saying “push out.” This works very well for short-term singing, one or two notes.

Window Shades
For a longer phrase, I use what I call “window shades.” Remember those window shades that you could pull down and let them go and they rolled back up? I say “pull your window shade down when you want a long, extended breath support,” and it’s more of a pulling action and sustaining support, rather than the quick fix of “push the laundry.”

Robert Baker

Chair, Department of Music, George Washington University

Clear Vowels
What I find quite often is that singers get enamored with the tone. They abandon the part of their brain that produces nice, clear, intelligible vowel sounds, and the sound becomes forced and artificial. The singer can often make a better, freer, easier tone by following this sequence: 1. Sing a phrase on a nice vowel sound from their warm up, 2. Speak the phrase, 3. Sing the vowel sounds in the phrase without consonants, 4. Sing the consonants onto that line.

Randall Speer

Professor of Music, Randolph College and Chorus Master for Opera on the James

Warm Up Alone
Because everybody has individual needs and responds to instruction differently, I give choral singers a handful of exercises to tuck into their belts and be able to use on their own for technical assistance. I explain, “this is what this exercise does. If you feel like you have a diffuse tone on a given day, let’s find things that are going to help provide point to the sound. If you feel tension in the tongue, then maybe you can do a tongue trill, give yourself that little throat massage, etc.” Encourage the singers to find those exercises that they respond most positively to, and those are the ones they should probably be using on their own to warm up.

Donald McCullough

Director, Jacksonville Symphony Chorus

Sing the Eh Vowel Through Oh Lips
A hack for the German mixed vowel Ö is that your brain has to be thinking the EH vowel, not the O vowel. If you think O and try to put your tongue in the EH position, you don’t know what that is – one can’t feel where their tongue is nearly as well as they can tell where their lips are. In rehearsal, I often ask for an “eh tongue through oh lips” to reinforce the mixed vowel concept. Many singers who think they are rounding their lips, are not. Look at your singers. For those whose lips are not rounded enough, using your index finger, draw a circle around your own rounded lips to suggest that they need more pucker.

James Bass

Director of Choral Studies at UCLA, Associate Conductor and Director of Education for Seraphic Fire, roster member for Conspirare and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale

Don’t PEZ
When I see a singer trying to attempt a higher note or a large leap, and their head goes back and their jaw stays where it is, it reminds me of a PEZ dispenser. I say, “listen, the only thing that has this physical setup that’s any good is PEZ, because you get a delicious piece of candy, but for singing it’s not good.” Then I work with them to reverse that, so the head stays still and tall and the jaw relaxes down. Over the years I’ve gotten many PEZ dispensers as gifts from singers because they remember it so well.

2-Finger Vowels
To get a singer to sing with a vowel that’s taller but not over-darkened, I refer to vowels by finger size: “Is this a 2-finger or 3-finger vowel?” You take your fingers and stack them vertically, so if you have your index and your middle finger stacked, that’s a 2-finger vowel. I have the singer open their mouth and let the fingers rest at the tip of the teeth. If they can’t fit two fingers in, then their vowel is not open enough.

Sara Guttenberg

Singer with Seraphic Fire, Oregon Bach Festival, and DMA candidate at UW-Madison

Julie Andrews
Especially with something that’s in English, if a singer is very note-y I have them “talk sing.” You take a phrase and don’t sing the notes, but speak through it with space and approximate pitch, sliding around. I usually default to somebody like Julie Andrews. I say, “think of this scene (in The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins,) and now speak as if you were Julie Andrews in this part of the movie.” During this time of being silly the singer will hold less, and find the places to connect between the notes. All of sudden things will line up better.

High Jump
If I hear a singer who is obviously worrying about a high note and girding their loins, so to speak, before they sing the high note rather than singing up through it, I might ask them to take the phrase out. I have them slide through it to find the space and figure out where they have to start getting ready ahead of time, as opposed to thinking that by holding back the high note is going to be better. I say, “if you’re doing the high jump you don’t just jump, you have to have a running start.”

David Harris

Co-Founder and Director of VoiceScienceWorks

A Glass of Air
To focus on a singer’s breath-body connection, I ask the singer to think about their feet as having four corners: the big toe, the little toe, and one on each side of the heel, and to notice their weight equally distributed across those four corners. Then I have them act like they’re holding a really large glass of air, and ask them to drink it really slowly. Then they breathe in a way they haven’t breathed ever or in a long time – they smile a lot and I say “okay, do it again and tell me what you notice.” And usually they’re noticing something about expansion, openness, freedom, or easiness.

Toddler Whine
Since we can’t feel the vocal folds, one exercise that helps people feel secondary sensation is the “toddler whine.” I ask a singer to imagine they’re a toddler and someone has asked them to do something they don’t want to do, so they’re going to make the most noise possible for the least amount of effort. I ask them to say “I don’t wanna!” really loud, and really lengthen the vowels. I ask what they’re noticing, where they feel sensation in their face. If they’re not whiny enough or the sound isn’t clear enough, it means that the vocal folds aren’t coming together well or the epilarynx tube is less focused, so we do that several times, get used to the sense of stability that it brings, and then transfer that stability to singing.

Paul Rardin

Artistic Director, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia

“NG” to Banish Breathiness
For a singer who has a breathy voice, have the singer sing a phrase of music, then sing the same entire phrase on the consonant combination "ng", then return to the phrase and its words. If the problem persists, have the singer initiate "ng" before each note of the phrase before moving on to the appropriate vowel, essentially breaking up the phrase into its individual pitches. Over time, this should guide the singer's vocal folds toward a more efficient condition.

Kathryn Mueller is a soprano based in Raleigh, North Carolina. An active soloist across the United States, she serves on the voice faculties of East Carolina University and North Carolina State University.