Oh, those dreaded sustained notes. When you’re singing fast-paced, catchy melodies, it’s so easy to fall back on great diction, phrasing, vocal personality to smooth over any vocal technique issues you may have.
But sustained notes are where your voice is most exposed. Any straining, placement issues, breath support problems will be painfully obvious.
Here are a few tips to help smooth out those rocky sustained notes:
Visualize the "direction"
This one’s a bit of a mental exercise, so just bear with me:
It’s very hard to hold a note when you’re viewing that note as static. Your body will freeze and tense up when your focus is on “holding” a pitch and sustaining an perfectly balanced tone without any wobbles or cracks. And as a result, that tension is going to cause wobbles and cracks. Notes need to have "direction," meaning they are either leading into the next note, or closing off the phrase/sentence.
Try this: Sing a long note and try to visualize the sound moving forward. Think of the note as leading into the next note or the next word. Hold out your hand in front of you like you’re high-five-ing someone and slowly move your hand forward/up as you sing the note. Sometimes that simple visualization is enough to smooth out the note and give it “direction.”
Tip: If the note is the last word in a sentence or phrase, you may want to visualize the sound moving backwards, to help the phrase/sentence die away at the end. So do the exercise the opposite way, bringing your hand towards you.
The longer the note or phrase you’re holding, the more air you’ll need. (Duh...) But taking a deep breath from your diaphragm won't solve the whole problem. You’ll need to control the air flow so you don’t blow it all in the first 2 seconds of the note. This can be really tempting, especially with high, climactic notes that you want to have a strong impact. With correct placement and breath control, you CAN sing loud, powerful notes while maintaining a steady air flow.
Try this: Practice the note on a lip roll: Put your lips together and blow air through your lips while keeping them relaxed, making a "motor" sound with your lips. They should be loosely moving up and down while the air blows through them. Now hum while doing this. This is a GREAT exercise because it forces you to control the air flow while sustaining a note. If you use too much or too little air, the lip roll will fall apart.
Vibrato can be a great tool in controlling sustained notes. Often, singers will withhold vibrato until halfway through a sustained note, creating a release of tension at a certain point in the note (which helps give the note direction, too!) Try starting out the note with a sustained-no-vibrato sound and then “release the vibrato” at a certain point. This point can be random, or it can be coordinated with the arrangement/chord progression.
Tip: If you’re struggling to control your vibrato, try practicing with-vibrato and no-vibrato separately, and don’t move on to the transition until you’ve got them down separately.
Ornaments are a great effect to make a long, held-out note more interesting. Take Adele’s “Hello,” for example: On the word "outside," she adds a series of quick mini trills (going up a note, then back down to the original note). She does this a few times while sustaining that note. Adding ornaments (aka trills) to a sustained note can take off some of the pressure of having to hold one note for so long.
So next time you're struggling with a long note in one of your songs, try breaking it up by going up or down a note, and then back to the original note. In the right context, this technique can work really well.
Another great way to alter the pitch of a sustained note is by sliding up to the note. This is used more in certain genres like blues and country, but it can be a great way to give the note direction.
Try this: Start out with your pitch slightly under the note you’re aiming for. Slide up slowly and practice stopping when you get to the correct pitch. Knowing when to stop is actually one of the hardest parts of these slides, so have a keyboard or other instrument handy to help you if you need it. Even if you don’t prefer slides in your songs, it’s a wonderful exercise for pitch accuracy. If you can perfect this technique, correcting “accidental” out of tune notes will be a piece of cake.
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