Holding vs. Sustaining

pencil gripped questioning log music notes pencil held in writing position holding vs. sustaining

There are two words used in singing (especially choral singing) that I think should be stricken from the face of the earth:

  1. HOLD


We’ll deal with cutoffs another time, but right now I’m going to focus on the word “hold.”

Often, I find that my students have trouble “holding” a note. They run out of air, the note gets driven-sounding or forced, and they wind up squeezing out every last bit of air in an attempt to hold the note. But when they are singing a phrase of moving notes that is of the same duration as the “held” note, they have no problem. Why is this?

The difference is approach. Rather than approaching the single note of longer duration as though it were capable of movement, they are treating it as though it must be tamed and held in place. Often, a singer holding a note is unable to move from that note, even if they tried. What they really need to do is to think about sustaining the note rather than holding it.

Here’s the difference according to WikiDiff:

As verbs the difference between hold and sustain

is that hold is (lb) to grasp or grip while sustain is to maintain, or keep in existence.

In other words:

To hold a note is physical effort.

To sustain a note is to give it life and make it a part of the flow of the song.

Let’s look at this graphic I made up this morning:

pencil gripped questioning log music notes pencil held in writing position holding vs. sustaining

On the left hand side of the graphic, there is a hand gripping a pencil. Hard. Is that an optimal position to actually write anything? And from the little lines above the hand, it appears that there’s some exertion and tension there. How long are you going to be hold that pencil before your hand starts shaking? It’s not like it weighs that much. You’re just using too much effort.

On the right hand side of the graphic, there is a hand elegantly holding a pencil in an efficient and graceful way. That hand will be able to write for awhile.

When you are singing and you have a long note to sustaincheck to see if you can move from it. If you can’t, there’s some kind of tension somewhere. Perhaps it’s your breath and you’re pushing too much.

Are you using vibrato? This should be a natural consequence of the breath flow, not something you’re contriving by jaw or abdominal movement. Even if it’s not stylistic appropriate to have a full operatic vibrato, there should still be some shimmer in the show, some vibrancy, if not vibrato.

Perhaps your articulators aren’t free enough. Can you move your jaw while you’re singing? Or your tongue? (This is something for the privacy of the practice room or studio – it looks funny in public – don’t believe me? Check out Michele Lee singing “I believe in you” at 1:06.)

Some other ways that you can explore keeping the breath flowing in order to sustain and give life to the phrase include:

  • Sing it as a series of staccato notes and see how long you can go. Then, connect the dots and do it as written
  • Sing it while moving back and forth to the neighboring tone or even go up a few notes a back
  • If it’s appropriate, ornament it! Whether you want to call it a riff a la Natalie Weiss or an ornament in Baroque music, or a trill taught by Joyce DiDonato
  • Try physically moving while you’re sustaining the single note – wave a pencil in the air, move your hands through the duration of the note, pretend you’re bowing a string instrument (and dig into the imaginary strings), DANCE!
  • And then try it without any ornamentation or gimmickry but with the idea that I could if I wanted to

And if you really can’t hold it that long, early on, don’t. As Marianna Busching told me, years ago,

People don’t notice how often you breathe or how long you hold a note, but they sure notice if you run out.

Build up stamina. Maybe you can’t maintain it yet, but aim to maintain it a little longer each time.

Look at it this way:

If there’s an interesting line in the accompaniment under your long note, and you can’t maintain your note for its full duration without drawing attention to the fact that you can’t maintain it, find a graceful* way to stop singing. It’s highly unlikely people in the audience will have the score in their laps and call you out on the fact that the note was intended to be 16 beats long and you only sang it for 8. Let the pianist have their moment with the beautiful line that the composer wrote for them.

*The operative word here is “graceful.” Have this in mind even if you can sustain the note because things happen in performance. The room is dry. You have a cold. Phlegm happens. Above all, you have to sing it as though you meant that to happen all along.

Consider a change in your attitude toward long notes as being ones that have motion and life, rather than ones you hold up in the air for all to see.

Above all, a long note means something. It’s not there just to challenge you, it’s there to express an emotion. Figure out why it’s so long. And then sustain it, don’t hold it in a death grip.

It’s a matter of balance and release. Two words I use often in my teaching for a variety of technical and emotional applications.

And with that in mind,  we’ll talk about cut-offs another time. Don’t let me forget.


If you want more ideas about how to sustain healthy singing while meaning something, why not contact Mezzoid Voice Studio to find out how we might work together?

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

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