The Benefits of Vocal Training

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Photo Source: “A Star is Born” Courtesy Warner Bros.

For his role as country singer Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper spent 20 hours a week training his voice. While it may be—to paraphrase the film’s lead song—hard keeping it so hardcore, doing just an hour or two of vocal training a week can help make your voice sound better.


What are the benefits of voice training?

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Vocal training is a mix of breath control and vocal and articulation exercises that improve your vocal quality and help prevent you from harming your vocal cords.

Some of the perks of vocal training include:

  • Pitch perfection: Vocal training allows you to find your ideal pitch and learn how to bring it out whenever you want.
  • Vocal control: Another benefit of vocal training is its ability to help you achieve the ever-sought-after vocal control. The more you train, the more control you’ll have over your voice and its sounds.
  • Vocal health: Just like regular yoga sessions help keep you limber, vocal training helps maintain your vocal hygiene. “Maintaining vocal health is so much easier than having to fix a problem once it has occurred,” says music professor John-Paul White. Proactive training is key. 
  • Endurance: While straining your voice can damage it (sometimes even permanently), gently training it can help you hit those super-high, deep, and long notes without causing injury.

How to train your voice

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Training your voice is a matter of learning to control your breath, knowing your vocal range, working with a vocal coach, and doing articulation and vocal exercises.

Control your breath

Sounds are produced when breath passes over the vocal cords and makes them vibrate. When you learn to control your breath, you discover how to take deep breaths from your chest—aka diaphragmatic breathing—thus reducing strain on the throat so you can hold notes longer.

Here are some of the best breath control exercises:

  • Change the depth and length of your breaths for 30–45 seconds. Take a pause, then resume for another 30–45 seconds.
  • Breathe in softly as though the air is dropping into your lungs, not forcefully being inhaled into them. Consider the gentle rhythm of your breath as it passes through your body.
  • Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, release for a count of four, and then hold for another count of four. Then slowly increase the count as you cycle back through the process. 
  • Do full exhalations, letting all of the air out of your body and feeling its emptiness before taking another breath in.

Know your vocal range and voice type

Knowing if you’re a bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano allows you to properly train your voice and expand your range without going too far beyond your natural scope and straining your voice.

Do articulation exercises

Exercises such as these suggested by voice teacher Andrew Byrne can help improve your articulation:

Not only is your tongue primarily responsible for the intelligibility of your text, it’s also strongly associated with your feeling of belonging in the world. The part of your brain where your personality is stored is called your insula, and the movement map that controls your tongue is right next to the insula. So when you work your tongue out, you’re also connecting more deeply to your sense of purpose and increasing your drive to share your talents with the world.

Go through these six moves before an audition to focus your brain and your voice:

  1. Tongue on the roof of mouth: Some people develop an incorrect habit of keeping their tongue low in the mouth. When the tongue is at rest, it’s supposed to be suctioned to the roof of your mouth, like an octopus tentacle. The tip of your tongue should be resting about a half-inch behind your upper front teeth. To find the proper position for the tip, say “Nah-nah-nah” and then rest the tip where the “n” is made. The back of the tongue should also be touching the roof of the mouth as much as possible.
  2. Yawn and swallow with tongue up: Now that you’ve got the tongue up, try to complete three consecutive swallows without letting the tongue move from the roof of the mouth. Once you’ve done that successfully, try to yawn and lower your larynx while keeping the entire tongue (including the back) suctioned to the roof of the mouth.
  3. Hi-hat: The hi-hat is the pair of cymbals in a drum set that meets to make a dampened “crash.” Do that with your tongue now; it will sound like “ts” in the word “its.” Once you’ve made the “ts,” push the middle front part of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to “damp” the sound. If you’re doing this correctly, you’ll feel your abs contracting, too. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
  4. Chipmunk: Make a chipmunk sound by suctioning the front body of the tongue backward along the roof of the mouth. When done properly, this will sound like the disapproving “tut-tut-tut” that your grandma might have made when you were misbehaving. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
  5. Tongue cluck: Create a clucking sound by curling the tip of the tongue backward and flicking it down rapidly to rest briefly on the lower front teeth. It should make a sharp, clean sound that is somewhat similar to the motion for making an “l.” Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
  6. Dry k’s: Finally, repeat a “k” consonant as quickly and rhythmically as possible. The goal here is not to let a lot of air escape. Most Americans have an aspirated “k” that blows a lot of air through the sound. Try to make the “k” as dry as possible, letting the airflow be very small. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.

Do vocal exercises

Vocal exercises like these recommended by speech pathologist Dr. Linda Carroll warm up your muscles and prepare your voice for your best singing performance:

  1. Stretches: Physical stretching of the upper torso helps open the thoracic cavity (that is, the chest cavity), expand lower rib cage movement, and strengthen the flexibility of inhalation and exhalation—meaning increased ability to hold long notes. To stretch the upper torso, arch the left arm up and over, reaching above your head toward your right side. Breathe slowly and deeply, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract as you breathe in and out. Change sides and repeat. Now bring your arms out, palms up, with your shoulders down, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract with each breath cycle (purse your lips for respiratory drive). Keep your upper thoracic cavity stable and work your core support muscles. 
  2. Sharp exhales: Take a deep breath in and then exhale sharply and quickly on “p” (unvoiced “puh”) 50 times; feel those muscles get ready for action. If you can’t make it to 50 on a single breath, take a second long inhale when you hit 25 sharp exhales. You can follow the 50 “puh” exhales with a similar set of 45 seconds of unvoiced quick “la” exhales. 
  3. Elocution: Next, warm up your filter—the top of the larynx, pharynx, mouth, and nose that controls vocal tone, timbre, and texture. Exaggerate the diphthongs, or the vowel changes, and pitches in “how now brown cow?” Avoid wide oral openings and seek to have great intraoral space (think Julia Child). Now, recite your favorite Shakespearean sonnet, which are great tongue twisters requiring pitch, range of motion, and good breath control. Make sure you can feel the sonnet resonating in your mouth and skull. The lips and tongue tip should bounce around the wonderful noises of those consonants. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, try repeating “unique New York” numerous times, changing your pitch throughout the phrase repetitions.
  4. Slides: The vocal folds now need to be warmed up using a variety of pitches, loudness levels, and registers. Vocal slides with increasing intervals should precede any triad intervals or vocal acrobatics. Some singers have better success starting with the “oo” vowel while others prefer the “ee” or “ah” vowel. In general, the vowel “ee” works well for low and mid-range pitches, but it can be strained for higher pitches (especially if the lips spread for the vowel). The sounds “oo” and “oh” often work well for the mid and higher. They also help stretch the pharyngeal region, letting you access higher pitches. 
  5. Flexes: Vocal flexibility exercises should be next. These gradually exchange the necessary tension of the lower pitch muscle (thyroarytenoid muscle) with those needed for higher pitches (cricothyroid muscle), which lets you hit those high notes. Altering note loudness also warms up your ability to change the vocal fold’s edge contour, which reduces fatigue and helps register coordination. Here’s a tip: Use a quick diminuendo (go from louder to softer) on the last note just before a much higher note. The diminuendo will thin the vocal fold edge, making it easier to start the high note. Then go ahead and do a quick crescendo (go from softer to louder) on the high note.
  6. Lip flutters: Lip flutters (“raspberries”), rolling the “r,” and singing “oo” into a five millimeter drinking straw—especially if the straw is submerged in about two inches of water—help balance the subsystems of your voice. These exercises support your voice by reducing resistance demands on the delicate vocal folds. 
  7. Fake yawns: Keeping your mouth closed, pretend that you’re yawning to engage and loosen the jaw. This will help your jaw drop before the performance, which allows access to a wider range of sound.

Work with a vocal coach

Working with a professional can help you take your vocal training to the next level while being sure to keep your vocal cords safe. A vocal coach can also help you recognize your unique skill set and train until you take it to the next level. 

Medical advice disclaimer: Content in this article is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.