I’m Sounding Flat!

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Vocal Coach Leontine Hass explores reasons behind a "flat" sound.

Dear Leontine,

I have been singing for a little over a year now, and although I have good tone and decent range, my sound seems to be “flat”. Is there a way I could “brighten” my sound without sounding like most other singers?


Dear Nick,

Some singers sound flat even when a mic inserted into the larynx would indicate they were perfectly in tune. I am going to give you two physiological explanations of what is happening and suggest some exercises to push your singing towards greater excellence in this area.

So, why might you be sounding flat? There are not enough upper harmonics in your sound. The first cause may be that your soft palate is “lazy”. As there are hardly any sensory nerve endings in the soft palate, it is difficult, though absolutely necessary, to teach singers how to lift it. If you slide your tongue along the roof of your mouth you will first feel the hard palate, and then the soft palate. The soft palate has two important muscles: the tensor palatini, which tenses it, and the levator palatini, which lifts it. Having a lazy palate is a bit like a guitar with a soft body rather than a nice hard body, giving the sound waves something to bounce off against. 

Your soft palate is a bit like the singer’s sounding board: when the palate is low and lazy, sound comes out of the nose; when it is lifted, it closes the hole to the nose and in professional singers can lift like a “Dome of St Paul’s”, giving beautiful resonance and upper harmonics. Jaw and tongue tension as well as nasal regional accents such as “South London” encourage lazy palates; some beginning singers sing nasally as they can unconsciously hear themselves better this way. 

Exercises such as repeated “Ging Ging Ging’s” all the way up the scale will help you. The higher you go in pitch, the harder it is to lift your palate—another good exercise is to sing through your songs holding your nose, trying to sing so that the sound is not nasal. Bear in mind that nasal consonants such as N’s and M’s will be nasal in any case. It would be worth having a session with a good vocal coach and addressing the palate. 

Now for the second possible cause: you may be sounding flat if you are not “tilting” enough. Tilting feels like crying. The ’tilt’ of the cricoid cartilage stretches out your vocal folds, enabling higher pitches. 

Sing some scales where you imagine that you are sneering (lifts palate) and crying (tilts vocal folds) at the same time, imagining you are imploding and singing backwards into the back of your head rather than pushing the sound out. Sounds silly, but it works! Also concentrate on approaching the sound from “above”, rather than from “below”. Place consonants right on the pitch, no upward gliding (no portamento). 

It is very important to understand how it FEELS when you get it right and this is something you can only discover over time with a good vocal coach. 

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