Within the 1st week of getting to know James McCray back in the late 90s, I became his translator during many lessons he was giving at the opera house in Serbia to singers who weren’t sufficiently proficient in English, Italian or German. I was a 16 years old singing student and I was more than happy to put my solid English skills to good use while learning about singing at the same time.
One day a well known singer, who was more interesting in a short consult than taking lessons, asked him to give her a technical tip on how to sing a high C. At first James didn’t seem to understand the question. After I assured him of the validity of my translation he smiled and asked her if she was a coloratura soprano. After a negative replay on her behalf he sad:
“There is no much philosophy about high notes – you do your best to make sure everything up to that note is working as it should…than you open your mouth – and you pray!”
I must admit, at the time, I was as puzzled and unsatisfied with his answer as was the singer who asked the question (who left shortly after thinking he was just holding on to a key piece of information out of sheer spite towards her), but in time I learned to appreciate the subtle simplicity of the answer.
Here is why:
How do I sing high notes?!
Is a question that rates number 1 on most singer forums. There are thousands of (blog) posts about it and probably just as much pseudo “quick solutions” to be found on forums, YouTube etc. The sad truth is: in 99,9% of cases there is no quick fix or solution. Our (in)ability to sing beautiful, stable and long held top notes that excite us probably as much as they excite the audience tells us plenty about our vocal technique and (vocal) health.
While the obstacles in performing them might be divided into two categories: physical and mental ones – more often than not, over time it becomes a combination of both.
High notes: physical obstacles
They can be related to many things. Most common ones being insufficient vocal technique and being improperly led as a voice type.
Aside from those two, it could be that the singer has an actual physical issue as folds are not being able to properly close and phonate. This can occur due to weakness of the muscles surrounding the folds, an actual obstacle like vocal nods/lesions, insufficient blood flow trough the folds or acid reflux (which leaves the throat inflamed/burned and raw).
Singer could also be putting to much (or not enough) energy into producing a note causing the muscles in their throat and body in general to be too tense (or too relaxed) to aid them it their attempt.
High notes: mental obstacles
These are almost always connected to the physical ones. Over time, being faced with failing in their attempts (no matter what they do) singers develop a belief that they cannot do it or that is very very difficult to do it.
Depending on their negative experiences they develop fears of high notes. Of them cracking, being out of tune, or not arriving on them at all – which in turn can lead to stage fright as well. Sometimes getting over the mental hurdle might prove more difficult even after they have resolved their physical/technical issues as there is no teacher who can make a person believe they can do something when they are sure they cannot.
However, solid technique and successful repetition over a longer period of time always helps!
Further confusion on the subject is created by people professing success with quick fixes like: press your abdominal muscles like you need to go to the bathroom, open/close your anus, warm up with a song, use twang etc. You might laugh – but these are all google search “solutions” I found on internet (often within the 1st page!!!) and many desperate singers and singing students have tried some or all of them mostly to feel like even bigger failures for not “getting it right” afterwards.
My all time favorite is: “singing (high notes) should be as effortless as speaking” (which is total idiocy). It’s like stating that running a race is as effortless to a professional runner as walking!!!
To sum it up
James’s remark – “make sure everything leading up to high note is as it should be than open your mouth and pray” – is actually quite right. Of course you need to keep in mind that he was talking to a well rounded singer with no vocal problems and years of experience on stage singing leading roles. That singer knew how to sing and had no trouble doing so – she was just curious if there was a way to make it even more effortless and James, in his delicate way explained it is not possible to do so. And THAT is what most people fail to see. Where singing an isolated high note should not “cost” you much effort (it can be ALMOST as easy as speaking) a same note within a phrase in an aria (or a whole opera) will probably require a bit more effort. As it’s MEANT to be the high point and it’s for that very purpose put there by the composer.
Singing (opera) is top sport and as athletes in our field we need to train our specific muscles and body in general to the best of our abilities. keeping in mind that our body IS our instrument and as such susceptible to all sorts of environmental, psychological and physical conditions.
So if you thought this was another 10 tips on how to sing high notes, you might find yourself very disappointed as the main conclusion of this article is: there is no substitute to solid vocal technique and good vocal, physical and psychological health.