Disclosure:  Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.  This means that if you buy something by clicking through those links, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

4 Essential Vocal Exercises for PhonationIn my post, Why You Shouldn’t Skip Vocal Warm-ups, I gave a brief introduction to vocal phonation vocal exercises and promised that I’d write out a full-fledged post dedicated just to that. So here it is! 

For ease of reference, I have created a PDF version of these exercises for you. Download it at the bottom of this post!

 

What is Phonation?

After Posture, Breathing, and Vocal Tract Freedom, Phonation is the next step in building a healthy singing voice.

Phonating Vocal Folds

When you sing, your vocal folds vibrate against one another, producing a sound.  The action of exhaling through an open glottis at sufficient pressure (see breath pressure) while adducting the vocal folds to produce a sound is phonation: “phon” meaning “sound” and “atio” meaning “process.” This is the very basis of your tone production.

It is, in part, directly responsible for the pitches you sing. Therefore it is chiefly in charge of intonation (there are other factors relating to intonation, since singing is considered a “psychomotor” skill, more on that in a future post).

Furthermore, how well you phonate is specifically related to the health of your voice, as well. Appropriate phonation allows your voice to sing without tension, keeping your voice healthy. Therefore, it’s important to be sure that your sound is properly produced.

How the Sound is Produced

In “Why You Shouldn’t Skip Your Vocal Warm-Ups,” I briefly introduced the muscles which control the voice. Now I will explain exactly what they do. 

Vocal Adduction

In order to produce sound, the vocal folds must come together (adduct) to vibrate.  The two muscles responsible for this action are the Interarytenoids (IA) and the Lateral Cricoarytenoids (LCA).  The IA closes the posterior of the glottis (space between vocal folds) by rotating the arytenoids away from each other. The LCA closes the anterior of the glottis.

Vocal Abduction

To cease phonation, the Posterior Cricoarytenoids come into play. When they contract, they open the glottis by rotating the arytenoids in the opposite direction, separating (abducting) the vocal folds.

Low Register

Your lower notes are controlled by the Thyroarytanoid.  When you sing low notes, this muscle contracts, thickening the vocal folds, causing the surface area of the vocal folds that come in contact during phonation to increase. The strength of the contraction is directly related to the spectral slope* of the voice’s harmonics, and determines the breathiness or strength of the sound production. 

In the harmonic series, the higher the frequency (pitch), the lower the amplitude (volume). The Spectral Slope is the rate of change in that relationship.  A steep slope means a breathier sound, a shallow slope means a stronger sound. Here is some additional reading if you are unfamiliar with the concept of harmonics.

 

In the picture, there is another muscle call the Vocalis, located below the TA, however it is actually part of the Thyroarytenoid.  It”s labeled separately because it can operate independently of the rest of the muscle.  It’s function is to increase the surface area of contact of the vocal folds when engaged causing crescendo (increasing volume). Unlike the rest of the TA, the Vocalis can be engaged in the high register.

High Register

Your high notes are controlled by your Cricothyroid muscle.  In contrast with thyroarytenoid-dominant phonation (TDP), when the cricothyroid muscle contracts, it elongates and thins out the vocal folds (hence my phrase, “high notes are not high, high notes are long.)  This causes the surface area that comes in contact to be smaller and the time of contact (glottal closure) is also reduced.  The amplitude of the higher harmonics is much lower in cricothyroid-dominant phonation (CDP). This means that this phonation is not as loud as TDP.  

The shift between these types of phonation are refered to as the “breaks.”  However, that does not mean that notes below the break cannot be produced by CDP or that higher notes cannot be produced by TDP.  For example, belting uses TDP for higher notes, which is the reason for a more strident tone when you belt.

Phonation & Vocal Registers

The primary objective of phonation exercises is to train the physical coordination of the voice.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the terms “head voice” and “chest voice.” In general, singers only have these 2 pure registers as produced by TDP or CDP as described above.  The purpose of vocal training is to merge the two, creating a third “middle” register which bridges the tone qualities of both for a seamless sound from the bottom to the top of the voice. 

A note about “falsetto.” Although some people have the notion that the term “falsetto” is synonymous with the “head” voice for tenors and basses, they are NOT the same in any fashion. While it isn’t gender specific (falsetto can be achieved by all voice classifications), it is much more commonly achievable by lower voices: basses, tenors, (and sometimes contraltos). In fact, some contraltos and most mezzo-sopranos and sopranos (who primarily sing in the treble clef) may never experience a falsetto- and that is a good thing… 

The falsetto voice is the result of overly straining the voice to sing pitches beyond the head voice and is characterized by a weak sound.  Falsetto is incapable of crescendo (getting louder) and has no resonance because the pitch the singer is phonating does not match the shape of the pharynx.  Thus, I highly recommend avoiding the use of falsetto -by any voice classification- since it can lead to vocal problems down the road as the voice is continually strained.

There are a few different types of exercises that will help you in the goal of uniting the chest and head voices.  You may find that as you are performing these range-unifying exercises, tension and strain may creep in.  If you find this happening to you, it may be that you are constricting your larynx.  Read my post on vocal tract freedom to find out how to eliminate strain from your larynx to keep it healthy.

Onset

Onset is how the sound gets started.  There are three ways to do this: too hard, too soft and the right way.

The Hard Way

You may have heard onset called “attack.”  This term is not really a good description as it can lead the the first onset: too hard, aka “glottal onset.” (Not to be confused with the “glottal stroke” which is necessary in some languages, such as German.) 

In a glottal onset, the adductors close the glottis before the breath flows.  The pressure of the breath builds below until it bursts through. The resulting sound is “ugh,” like when you are lifting heavy weights or pushing furniture. Using this onset frequently can result in vocal problems later on, such as vocal nodules, or even polyps.

In a German glottal stroke, the adductors clap together with just enough force to create that particular sound.  The air pressure buildup does not have the same affect on the voice as the glottal attack.

The Soft Way

On the other side of the spectrum is the breathy onset.  Think of the sound you make when pronouncing the English letter “h.”  In this case, the breath starts to flow before the adductors close the glottis. Like the glottal onset, overuse of this method can also lead to vocal problems down the road.

The Right Way

The proper way to start singing is to begin the breath flow and the adduction at the same time.  This balanced onset is gentle and has a very easy sound.   When practicing any of the following vocal exercises, try to use this onset.

Offset (AKA “Cutoff”)

The way you release the sound is also important in the overall health of your voice.  Again, there is a hard, soft, and right way to do this.

Glottal Release

The glottal offset is just like the glottal attack, the LCA and IA contract too tightly, closing off the glottis entirely, sort of like slamming the door.  There is a grunt-like noise associated this this as well.  Again, this can lead to vocal problems down the road.

Aspirate Release

Aspirate offset occurs when the Posterior Cricoarytenoids abduct while air is still moving through the glottis.  Just like in the breathy onset, you’ll hear an “h” sound.

Balanced Offset

Just like in a balanced offset, in a balanced offset, the breath and abduction occur simultaneously.  If you have trouble doing this, you might try ending a pitch with a silent inhalation.

Phonation Vocal Exercises

 

1. Humming

This is the most basic phonation exercise.  There are 2 versions, the first being a gentler exercise than the second.

 

Version 1: Humming Slides

  1. Open your mouth for an [a] vowel (“ah” as in “father”).
  2. Keeping your teeth apart, gently bring your lips to touch.
  3. Allow your tongue to remain quietly flat, without tension.
  4. Sing a pitch in the middle of your range.
  5. Your lips may tingle a bit here, that is your resonance.
  6. Gently move down and up through your range, sliding between notes.

Troubleshooting: If you feel no tingle in your lips, check the following- are you pressing your lips together, or do you have your tongue on the roof of your mouth, or have you closed your teeth?

 

Version 2: Humming Scales

This is similar to the humming slides, the difference being that this exercise uses definitive pitches.

  1. Open your mouth for an [a] vowel (“ah” as in “father”).
  2. Keeping your teeth apart, gently bring your lips to touch.
  3. Allow your tongue to remain quietly flat, without tension.
  4. Sing a pitch in the middle of your range.
  5. Your lips may tingle a bit here, that is your resonance.
  6. Hum 5-note ascending and descending scales, changing keys (up or down) by a half step each time

2. Sirens

These phonation exercises mimic the sound of emergency vehicle sirens.  There are a few different ways to do wheelies/sirens. For each exercise, I like to use arm movements that are representative of the vocal action. For example, raise my arm while ascending and lower it while descending.  I find the visual helpful.

Version 1: Single Siren

  1. Using the vowel [a], starting with the highest note in your range
  2. Slide all the way down to the bottom of your range

Version 2.: Double Siren

  1. Using the vowel [a], starting with the lowest note of your range
  2. Slide all the way up to the top of your range
  3. Slide all the way back down to the bottom

Version 3: Wheelie Siren

This one really recreates the emergency siren sound, in my opinion

  1. On the syllable [wu] (“woo” if you’re not familiar with IPA), starting with a note near the top of the range
  2. Slide down to a nearby pitch (not more than a third away)
  3. Repeat steps 1-2 with a new utterance of [wu]
  4. Perform a version 2 siren on the syllable [wu] (instead of [a])

3. Lip Trills

This one is one of my favorites.  You can usually achieve pitches higher than you’d normally be able to sing on a vowel which allows you to really stretch out the vocal folds. The sustained nature of the lip trill requires that the breath pressure be constant and consistent. 

Side note: I can always tell when a student hasn’t been practicing their lip trills- their noses will tickle.  Practice them daily (or at the very least, a few times a week) to avoid the itchy nose.

Version 1: Lip Trill Slides

  1. Lightly bring your lips to touch with your teeth separated
  2. Make the sound of the letter “p”
  3. Without stopping the flow of air, add a pitch
  4. Slide up and down through your range while lip trilling

Version 2: Lip Trill Scales

  1. Lightly bring your lips to touch with your teeth separated
  2. Make the sound of the letter “p”
  3. Without stopping the flow of air, add a pitch
  4. Perform ascending and descending scalar patterns while doing lip trills, changing keys by a half step each time

Version 3: Lip Trill Arpeggios

  1. Lightly bring your lips to touch with your teeth separated
  2. Make the sound of the letter “p”
  3. Without stopping the flow of air, add a pitch
  4. Perform ascending and descending arpeggiated patterns while doing lip trills, changing keys by a half step each time

4. The Rolled “R”

I have found that some people have a hard time performing a lip trill. Alternatively, you could use a rolled “r” as used in the Spanish language.  As with the lip trill, the sustained nature of the rolled “r” requires that the breath pressure be constant and consistent.

Version 1: Rolled “R” Slides

  1. Open your mouth so that your teeth are barely separated
  2. Poise the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth, close to the roof of the mouth,
  3. Make the sound of “tt” in the word “butter”
  4. Without stopping the flow of air, try to repeat the “tt” sound in immediate succession, while keeping the tongue relaxed
  5. Add in a pitch in the middle of your range
  6. Slide up and down through your range

Version 2: Scalar Rolled “R’s”

  1. Open your mouth so that your teeth are barely separated
  2. Poise the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth, close to the roof of the mouth,
  3. Make the sound of “tt” in the word “butter”
  4. Without stopping the flow of air, try to repeat the “tt” sound in immediate succession, while keeping the tongue relaxed
  5. Add in a pitch in the middle of your range
  6. Sing ascending and descending scalar patterns while doing the rolled “r,” changing keys by a half step each time

Version 3: Arpeggiated Rolled “R’s”

  1. Open your mouth so that your teeth are barely separated
  2. Poise the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth, close to the roof of the mouth,
  3. Make the sound of “tt” in the word “butter”
  4. Without stopping the flow of air, try to repeat the “tt” sound in immediate succession, while keeping the tongue relaxed
  5. Add in a pitch in the middle of your range
  6. Sing ascending and descending arpeggiated patterns while performing the rolled “r,” changing keys by a half step each time

 

For ease of reference, I have created a PDF version of these exercises for you. Download it below!

 

All of these vocal exercises I am sharing with you, including these “open throat” exercises, are a combination of exercises that I have learned and ones that I have created or modified.  I do my best to present them concisely in my blog posts to keep them easy to read and learn.  However, I do realize that I am new blogger and don’t have a wide selection of vocal exercises.

Since I can only write 1 or 2 posts a month, it will take me a very long time to cover all the aspects of singing with a variety of exercises for you- and you need those exercises right now, not in a few months when I post them. 

So, I want to share with you a resource that I really value and have used often in my teaching and my own practice. In fact, it is the textbook that was used in my Voice Techniques class in college.

Teaching Kids to Sing is a wonderful book with a wealth of information and sequentially graded singing exercises.  Even though the book is geared towards voice teachers of children, there is still a great breadth of knowledge you can gain from it.  The exercises are great for singers of any age.  I highly recommend you check it out (and get it used). 

Another book I used in college that has a wealth of information well beyond the scope of this blog, but may be of interest to you, is Your Voice: An Inside View by Scott McCoy.  It gets really scientific and comes with a CD that has lots of sound analysis excerpts.  Most of my knowledge of vocal anatomy and vocal health comes from this book.  He also has  more basic version Your Voice: The Basics that’s a bit more affordable.

 

If you found this post helpful, please share it!

For more information on vocal health, read my post 11 Simple Habits to Care for Your Voice.

 

Disclosure: some of the links on my blog may be affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
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