10 Ways to Hit High Notes (Without Straining)
[Workshop your singing with Matt in-person at the DIY Musician Conference, this August 26-28 in Austin — or watch the virtual conference from anywhere in the world.]
We’ve all been there. You’re getting ready to sing that beautiful high note when all of a sudden, it feels like the bottom drops out of your voice and you crack like a 12-year-old boy.
A little embarrassed, you try again, this time pushing the note a bit harder. But that only makes the crack worse.
As a voice teacher, I can tell you vocal breaks like this are really common, especially on high notes. And unfortunately they can happen at any time, on stage in front of thousands of people, or even in your home studio after too many vocal takes.
But having taught more than 500 students, I can tell you this: Anyone can learn to hit high notes without straining.
It just takes some practice and the right singing techniques. And I promise that if you learn to hit those high notes without straining, you’ll be amazed at how much you can expand your vocal range.
So today, I wanted to share ten of my best tricks for getting to those crazy high notes without straining.
Ready to get started? Read on…
A Quick Word About These Exercises
There’s an old vocal saying that goes like this: In order to sound good, first you have to sound bad.
And it’s totally true. The ironic thing about vocal exercises is that sometimes you have to sound weird in order to get the vocal results you want.
So whether you’re learning to hit high notes, expand your range or sing vibrato, sometimes you need to give yourself permission to sound bad first.
But always remember this: None of these exercises should hurt.
A lot of people think that in order to get those high notes, they just need to push harder. But actually, pushing those notes may be exactly what’s holding you back! So if you feel any pain or tension in these exercises, you are probably doing them wrong.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are ten ways to hit high notes without straining.
Exercise #1: The Lip Trill
The lip trill is one of the best exercises to expand your vocal range. And almost anyone can do it.
The biggest reason to do lip trills is they let you sing smoothly from the bottom to the top of your voice without straining. Even if you can’t sing high notes in a song, you can usually sing them on a lip trill.
Here’s how you do the lip trill:
- Place two fingers in the middle of your cheeks and blow your lips together so that they vibrate. You want the lips to bubble together evenly as you blow air through them.
- With the lips flopping together, add a bit of voice by saying the vowel “uh” behind the lips.
- Next find a comfortable note at the bottom of your voice (if you have a piano, try C3 for guys and G3 for girls) and sing the note with the “uh” vowel behind the lips.
- Next, do a siren where you sing the lip trill from a low note all the way to a high note, and then back down.
- Finally, sing the lip trill from the bottom to the top of your voice until you can make it from your lowest note to your highest note and back down in one smooth motion.
If you feel that your voice break or crack in the middle, don’t worry. It’s best to see if you can just let the trill go all the way to the highest part of your voice, regardless of how it sounds.
By the way, if you’re having a hard time doing the lip trill, check out this YouTube video where I walk you through it:
Exercise #2: The “ooh” Vocal Siren
Now that you’ve warmed up with the lip trill, let’s sing a vowel that you might hear in a song.
The “ooh” vocal siren is a fantastic exercise because the “ooh” vowel allows you to go to the highest notes in your voice without straining. Plus, if you’re a bit tense on those higher notes, the “ooh” vowel can be total magic for you since the “ooh” relaxes your vocal cords.
Here’s how you do the “ooh” vocal siren:
- Start by saying the vowel “ooh” like you’re saying “Oops”.
- Next, find a comfortable starting note in your voice (again, if you have a piano, try C3 for guys and G3 for women) and sing the note on an “ooh” like you’re saying “oops”.
- Now do a vocal siren and sing the “ooh” vowel from a low note all the way up to your highest note and back down again.
- Finally, try to sing the “ooh” siren from the bottom to the top of your voice without breaking or straining.
Exercise #3: The “ee” Vocal Siren
Now that you’ve found your highest notes on the “ooh” vowel, let’s work on the right vocal tone for singing.
The “ee” vowel is very similar to the “ooh” except that the “ee” has a bit more edge to it, which will give you a cleaner sound.
Here’s how you do the “ee” vocal siren:
- Start by saying the vowel “ee” like you’re saying the word “eat”.
- Now, find a comfortable starting pitch in the bottom of your voice and sing the “ee” vowel on that note like you’re saying “eeeeeeeeeat”.
- Next, sing a vocal siren where you go from your lowest note to your highest note and back down on the “ee” vowel.
- Once you’re comfortable doing this vocal siren, see if you can do it without straining or breaking when you get to the top.
Remember to stop if you feel any pain.
Exercise #4: Eliminate Tongue Tension
Here’s the bottom line: Singers add tension to their voices in lots of ways.
And most of the time, they don’t even realize they’re doing it!
So now that you’ve warmed up on the “ooh”s and “ee”s, let’s make sure that you’re not straining to get to those high notes.
One common way that singers strain is by raising or lowering their tongue when they sing different notes. But if the tongue is in the wrong position for what you’re singing, the tension can make you sound very tight and squeezed. You can feel this muscular tension in your tongue.
- Take your thumb and gently feel directly under your chin.
- You should have your thumb directly under your tongue.
- Now with your thumb in place, swallow.
It should look something like this:
You should feel that as you swallow, the muscles underneath your chin activate and push down against your thumb. We don’t want these muscles active in your singing.
So here’s one simple exercise to sing without tongue tension:
- Take a phrase of a song that’s been giving you a hard time. If you can’t think of a song, do the “ooh” or “ee” vocal siren.
- Now, place your thumb underneath your chin.
- With your thumb in place, sing the phrase, feeling for any tension underneath your tongue.
- If you feel that some of the tongue muscles are pushing against your thumb, try to sing the phrase again without tensing the muscles under your chin.
- If you’re still feeling tension, try imagining that your face is frozen in a block of ice and none of the muscles can move. Then sing the phrase again, keeping all your muscles “frozen”.
Exercise #5: Keep Your Larynx Relaxed
Now that you’ve started singing those high notes without any tension in your tongue, let’s target another area that tends to get a bit tense: Your larynx.
Your larynx, or “voice box”, houses the vocal cords and has several groups of muscles that raise or lower it when you swallow or yawn. But many singers raise their larynx unconsciously when they sing high notes. And if the larynx is too high on your high notes, it can actually cause you to strain.
Here’s how to check for tension in your larynx:
- Take your thumb and first finger and gently wrap them around your voice box.
- You should feel the ridge of your larynx, or Adam’s apple, between your fingers.
- Now swallow while feeling your voice box.
It should look something like this:
You should notice that the larynx rises as you swallow. We don’t want the larynx to rise as we sing.
So here’s one simple exercise to sing without raising your larynx:
- Take a phrase from a song that’s been difficult for you. If you can’t think of a song, you can use the “ooh” or “ee” vocal siren.
- Now, gently place your thumb and first finger around your larynx.
- Feeling your voice box between your thumb and first finger, sing the phrase, being careful not to raise the larynx.
- If you’re still feeling any tension in the larynx, try to sing the phrase again with a bit of a “yawny” feeling, as if you’re really sleepy. This “yawny” feeling should relax the larynx as you sing.
Exercise #6: The “Dopey” Sound
Here’s the hard truth: Many singers can do vocal exercises easily but still struggle when they sing songs.
So now that you’re starting to relax your larynx in exercises, let’s get that relaxed feeling in your singing.
The “dopey” sound is one of my favorite tools to help you relax the high notes in your songs.
Here’s how you do the Dopey Sound:
- Take a phrase or song that’s been giving you a hard time.
- Now, pretend that you’re not very smart and say the phrase with a bit of a “goofy” tone, just like the Disney character.
- Now sing the phrase keeping all the words “dopey.”
You should notice that even on high notes, your voice is staying more relaxed. That’s because the “dopey” sound allows your larynx to relax.
Exercise #7: The “Gee”
Now that your larynx is more relaxed in your songs, you may notice that your vocal tone is a bit operatic or classical-sounding. That’s totally normal.
Remember, in order to sound good, sometimes we have to sound silly. So building on the relaxation that you get on the dopey sound, I want to give you an exercise that will get you closer to a normal sound without straining.
Here’s how you do the dopey “Gee”:
- Take a phrase or a song that’s been giving you a hard time.
- Now, feeling your larynx to make sure that it’s not rising, sing the melody of the phrase on the word “Gee” as in “Geese”.
- Next, add a bit of the dopey sound while singing the melody of the phrase on “Gee”.
You should notice that even though your voice is relaxed, you’re starting to sound a bit more normal. That’s because the “Gee” allows you to hit those high notes with a much cleaner vocal tone.
Exercise #8: The “Bratty” Sound
Once you’ve mastered the dopey “Gee,” it’s time to make your vocal tone a bit cleaner and crisper.
One of my favorite exercises to help you get those high notes really clean is to use the “bratty” sound. The “bratty” sound is a powerful tool because it allows the vocal cords to come together more, giving you a much brighter edge in your singing.
Here’s how you do the “Bratty” sound:
- Take a phrase that you have a hard time singing.
- Now, pretend that you’re a little brat on the playground or the wicked witch from the wizard of Oz and sing the phrase with a “bratty” sound.
- The tone should feel a bit whiny and nasal.
You should notice that even though the vocal tone is a bit nasal-sounding, the bratty exercise will help you sing the high notes in the phrase much more easily.
Exercise #9: The “Nay”
Here’s the honest truth: Lyrics are way harder to sing than exercises.
That’s because when you’re singing lyrics, you have to deal with different notes, vowels, consonants and dynamics. And sometimes your voice needs a bit more support to get to those high notes.
One of the best ways of improving the phrase you’re trying to sing is by doing it on a vocal exercise. So here’s one of my favorite exercises for singing those troublesome notes in a phrase with tons of power.
Here’s how you do the bratty “Nay”:
- Take a phrase that’s been hard for you to sing.
- Now, say the word “Nay” (as in “neighbor”) in a “bratty” way.
- Next, sing the melody of the phrase replacing each word with a bratty “Nay”.
If you’re having a hard time getting the “Nay” exercise right, here’s a YouTube video where I walk you through it:
You should notice that when you sing the bratty sound, your notes come way more easily than when you sing the phrase “normally”.
Exercise #10: Narrow the Vowels
By now your voice should be completely warmed up and strain-free. But some of the sounds you’re singing may still be a bit embarrassing to you.
While I don’t want you to go on stage singing “bratty” or “dopey,” these exercises will help you reduce strain and expand your vocal range.
So treat these vocal exercises like a crutch.
As soon as you no longer need them, try to wean yourself off of them.
First, sing the phrase bratty.
Then half bratty.
And then not bratty at all.
Once you’ve mastered these exercises, it’s time to sing real words.
One of the best exercises to transition from these “weird” sounds to more normal singing is to narrow your vowels.
Here’s how to narrow your vowels:
- Select a phrase that’s been giving you trouble.
- Now find the highest notes of the phrase that you’re singing and sing a more narrow version of that vowel.
I’ll give you an example of narrowing vowels below:
Here’s the phrase:
“It goes like this the fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall and the major lift,
the baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah’”
Now I’ve underlined the syllables of the highest notes in the verse:
“It goes like this the fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall and the major lift,
the baffled king com-posing ha-lle-lu-jah”
So to narrow the vowels of this section, you would turn the “oh” vowel from “composing” into an “ooh” vowel.
Then, you would take the “Ah” vowel from the “Hah” of “Hallelujah” and turn it into an “uh” vowel.
So you would end up singing the lyrics more like this:
“The baffled king com-poooh-sing huh-lle-lu-jah”
You should notice that singing these more narrow vowels makes the phrase way easier to sing.
By now you should be able to hit high notes in your voice without any strain. And while some of these exercises may be a bit funny-sounding, it pays to practice them until you’ve got those notes perfect. I promise that if you work on them daily and consistently, you’ll be amazed how much more vocal freedom you have.