Low Notes: What Some Singers Neglect
I wrote this article when American Idol was the only televised vocal competition around: now The Voice and other shows have taken over. The information about controlling low notes is still pertinent to most singers.
I've seen a huge improvement in vocal technique since the first season of American Idol aired. The success of the show brought a bigger pool of singers to the auditions for it and all the other televised singing competitions, and the singers who make it past the third round of auditions are often really good. They each have mastered many of the essentials of good singing: a pleasing sound, good range, volume, and a certain amount of control. But there's one weak area I keep noticing in some of these singers: lack of low note control.
Many singers work long hours to be able to belt as strongly and as high as possible, but when they sing a low section of a song they go out of tune. Additionally, their voices might get breathy, weak or wobbly. For all the flack Simon Cowell got when he was on American Idol, I heard him criticize several singers for this and he was absolutely right. A good singer masters his or her highest and lowest notes.
Steps Towards Mastering Low Notes
Remember that the vocal chords relax as notes descend in pitch, and if they relax too much you can lose control of the sound. To stay in control of low notes you need to feel resonance (vibration) in your face when you sing them. This is difficult because low notes, by their nature, cannot be sung loudly, and louder notes vibrate more. Your goal for low notes is for them to have clarity and presence, not volume—that's what the microphone is for, so bring it closer to your mouth on low notes to amplify them.
To feel resonance in your face on your low notes, start with humming. If you don't feel anything, try slowly shaking your head from side to side to relax your throat. If you still don't feel any resonance or vibration in your face, continue this exercise every day for a week. You can also try tipping your head slightly towards the floor to increase resonance. Every singer I've ever worked with eventually can feel resonance, and it's critical. When you're singing correctly you should always feel resonance in your face and not much of anything in your throat. With resonance comes control.
If you did feel facial resonance while humming, now try singing a held note on "Mee"—pick a note in the middle of your range. Try to sing it without vibrato and strive for a clean, non-airy tone. Again, try slowly shaking your head from side to side if the sound is airy or you don't feel resonance. If you do, gradually sing lower and lower one-note "Mee's". Notice that your volume will drop as you descend, but you should still feel that vibration and the tone should remain clean.
It's much easier to feel resonance and control on "closed" vowels like "ee", so work with this sound for awhile. Find a section of a song that is fairly small in range: the chorus of "I Will Always Love You", sung without Whitney's vocal fills, will work. Sing the chorus on "Mee" low in your range. Once again, sing with no vibrato and a clear tone. This may sound overly controlled to you but it will help you strengthen your low end. If you can sing the whole chorus and feel resonance throughout, try it again in a lower key. Repeat this until you reach the lowest part of your range. If at any time you feel the sound in your throat or you've lost control of the note (it weakens, wobbles, or gets airy), move back to a higher key.
Working Low Notes in Songs
Let's say you've worked your low end for awhile, but you still find singing low notes difficult in your songs. First of all, check the key and make sure you aren't going too low for your range. If it's too low for you at home, I can guarantee it will be too low when you are filled with adrenaline singing for an audience. Your high notes might be easier due to the adrenaline, but your lows will be harder to reach. Pick a reasonable key. Then sing your song, but at first substitute "Mee" for all the low notes until you feel resonance and control on them. When you go back to the regular lyric, very slightly smile on your lowest notes to brighten them. Lifting your eyebrows helps, too, but not so much that you look goofy.
One more thing: don't sing any fast runs using your low notes until you have mastered the regular melody. So many singers put the cart before the horse and throw in the fancy stuff before mastering the melody. If you can't control the low notes of the regular melody you will surely go out of tune trying to sing elaborate runs.
Working on your low end can be a nice break from all the high notes we work on as singers. More importantly, mastering your low end may help give you the edge over all the other great singers out there.
© Susan Anders