Whether you’re a singer, actor, or creator working in voiceover and audiobooks, knowing how to control your voice can elevate your performance. Exceptional vocal control can turn a good story into an immersive, unforgettable adventure or elevate a well-written lyric.
Our guide to vocal control covers everything you need to know, from preparation to pre-session exercises to pitch control.
If you want to take your voice from fine to great, we can recommend a few exercises. Here’s how to get better voice control for your next performance:
Prepare your lips, jaw, and tongue
Voice actor Marc Cashman recommends that vocal performers attempt to recite tongue twisters with their teeth closed tight. (Anything from “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” to “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” will work just fine here.) This forces the lips and tongue to “wake up” so you can start exercising more control over the resulting sound; these benefits will carry over into your performance.
Note that the position of your jaw has a major impact on how sounds take shape as they leave your mouth. You should try to speak each word consistently, with your jaw roughly one or two inches open in order to achieve a clean, even sound. Cashman suggests reading a piece of writing aloud while holding a cork between your teeth. For an additional benefit, attempt to adjust your pitch at the same time: Read the same passages higher, then lower, and work on the parts that cause you trouble.
Find your resonance
As a singer, achieving a loud, clear sound without straining your voice is all about controlling your resonance. Keep your chin pointed down, push air outward with your diaphragm, and sing a basic “do, re, mi” scale to find out where you’re losing resonance and forcing yourself to strain. On higher notes, you’ll have a natural tendency to push your chin outwards, but this actually requires your vocal folds to do more work. Lightly flexing your pectoral muscles can help keep everything lined up as you perform. When you can go through the whole scale several times without significant strain, you’re ready to go.
Being able to control your pitch during a performance is all about muscle memory. But when you’re practicing voice control, understanding a few basic points can help you get much further with each session.
- Size and shape matter. Picture a trombone. When you pull out the slide, the space where sound resonates becomes larger, so the sound comes out at a lower pitch. The opposite is also true: With the slide withdrawn, the space shrinks, and the pitch grows higher. The pitch that you produce with your voice is similarly determined by the size and shape of your vocal folds and larynx; the larger the size, the lower the pitch, and vice versa.
- Humming is your friend. Humming is an amazing warmup, because it can help you set your pitch and teach you a thing or two about how that pitch is generated. When you’re practicing pitch control, hum a basic tone with one hand on your chest and one or two fingers on your larynx. As you hum, go lower. You should feel the resonance lower in your chest, and you should also feel your larynx (or voice box) fall lower in your throat. Continue to hum while taking your pitch up. The resonance will rise in your chest, and your larynx will rise toward your chin. Next, try this technique while speaking or singing.
- Practice makes perfect. In order to control your pitch onstage or in the recording booth, you’ll need to practice these techniques enough to be able to access them at a moment’s notice. By humming and singing while paying close attention to the movements of your larynx and chest, you can find your ideal pitch and learn exactly what it feels like to make a desired sound. When you form a strong association between a certain pitch and a certain feeling in your chest and neck, you’ll be able to achieve it with hardly any thought at all.
Follow these tips to prepare for any strenuous session:
- Drink plenty of water at least one hour beforehand, and do your best to stay well-hydrated at all times.
- Don’t eat large meals before using your voice. If you’ve eaten recently, make sure to clear out your mouth by brushing, flossing, and using mouthwash before you sing or record. Anything that impedes sound will limit your vocal control.
- A good vocal warmup is a critical part of every performance. Through your own preferred exercises, you should warm up your larynx and vocal folds so they’re ready to go. You should also stretch your body: Look far to the left and right, then up and down, and move your shoulders around. Yawn to stretch out your jaw, then roll your tongue and trill your lips, adding sound gradually as you breathe with your diaphragm.
Posture and vocal control are closely connected, so make sure that you get in the right position before you start singing or speaking. When performing, you’ll want to maximize the amount of air that can enter your lungs by sitting up straight or standing tall. Keep your feet flat on the ground while your chin stays pointed down in order to control resonance.
It’s possible to adjust the pitch or quality of your voice in the moment, but there’s no substitute for taking good care of your instrument. Vocal care goes beyond just voice and breath technique training, too. Your whole body is your instrument.
- Staying physically fit and active improves your lungs’ ability to take in air, making it much easier to sing without awkward pauses and to deliver more memorable songs or monologues.
- Stay hydrated. If you’re not well-hydrated, everything you do with your voice will place a greater strain on your vocal folds; you could become hoarse or wear out your instrument prematurely—especially if you might need to scream during your performances.
- Avoid smoke. Similar to not staying hydrated, smoke will dry out your vocal cords and impair your voice in the long run.
- Make sure that you get plenty of vitamins A, E, and C. These will help preserve the mucus membranes that protect your throat and larynx while you work.
Mastering vocal control takes time—but a little work can go a long way. Everyone has to start from somewhere; and actors, singers, and performers of all kinds can do amazing things when they know how to control their pitch and are practicing vocal control on a regular basis.