Ranges of Normal

Student question: Why does my singing range seem different now that I’m in college?

Every voice changes over time. Teenage boys, of course, experience the most dramatic change, but adolescent girls’ voices also gain strength and depth, and may lose a note or two from the very top end, compared to their childhood voice.

In the early 20s, a healthy voice—like the rest of the body—typically shows a thrilling combination of clarity and flexibility. Sadly, this peak of range and agility typically declines slightly by the later 20s-early30s, when the voice is considered to be fully mature at a biological level. (Note that this is about the same time that the brain’s frontal lobe completes its development, offering you more reliable, thoughtful good judgment than your teenage brain allowed.)

As you move from high school to college and beyond, how can you tell whether changes in your vocal range are normal or unhealthy, temporary or permanent? And is it still possible to increase your range at this age, adding high notes you didn’t have before?

  1. Measure your range regularly—every day or week at the same time—singing high and soft. Track this in a journal or spreadsheet to understand your typical variability, and jot down relevant notes about your state of health: fatigue level, seasonal allergies, partying, etc.

Fluctuation of a half- or whole-step day to day, at the very top of your voice and/or the placement of your passagio, may be normal. Once you know how much variation is typical for you, it’s easier to recognize bigger, long-term changes.

For more info try Dr. Robert Bastian’s “Swelling tests.”

  1. Stay honest with your technique! Watch yourself in a mirror or on video, and compare performances over time. If you start to see that you’re lifting your chin, tightening your jaw, distorting vowels, pushing a lot more air, or otherwise straining to get notes that used to be effortless, your range may be changing.

Maybe your voice is maturing—or maybe your vocal cords are slightly swollen or roughed-up from overuse, illness, or a combination. Schedule a checkup with your throat doctor, and even if everything looks clean, be super-careful for a few days or weeks: using your best body alignment and vocal technique, super-healthy lifestyle choices, and resting your voice some of the time. Check-in with the teacher who pays most attention to your technical mechanics. Lay-back (mark) rehearsals when possible, and especially avoid “proving” to yourself that you’ve still got those high notes! After this de-stressing period, check your top range again (softly).

  1. If you know you tend to “cheat” high notes with extra tension and pressure, do all range testing in a head-down position (“ragdoll”) or lying on the floor. These positions tend to interrupt compensatory use of the neck and jaw, so you’ll get a cleaner measurement of how the vocal cords are working, and how far they can stretch. Measure the same way every time. Again, singing softly is the most useful challenge—because it’s hard to do, and hard to cheat!
  2. Respect your limits. Your genetic profile—including the size and shape of your vocal instrument—may not give you the range displayed by your favorite operatic or Broadway-style role-model.

Composers, producers, and audiences will always hunger for more extreme performances, but their own bodies and voices are not at risk—yours are! Fame, wealth, and healthy singing don’t always go together, so be honest with your teachers and career advisors, and exercise that maturing frontal lobe to choose your roles wisely.

If you stop pushing and straining for high notes, you may begin to feel a deeper ability to relax and stretch the throat, and to fully anchor your breath support. Then, if higher notes show up, you’ll know they are yours to keep.

Modified from a post for Majoringinmusic.com, March 2015, later featured in the National Association of Teachers of Singing‘s Intermezzo newsletter.

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