For the past few months, I’ve been chipping away at a super-meaty blog post all about breathing for singing. Let’s just say it’s still marinating for the time being so in the meantime I thought I’d send out a little amuse-bouche to tease your palate! So, here’s a few of my favourite essential tips for getting your singing goals well and truly underway for 2017!
Find your own voice: While I’m an advocate for consuming and analysing loads and loads of music to build your vocabulary, knowledge, and understanding of style and musical ideas, I often have ‘vocally confused’ singers in my studio who have ‘dressed’ their sound in affectation. Sometimes unconsciously, we adopt the vocal idiosyncrasies of our favourite artists as we explore the limits of our own voices and attempt to create a voice that we think ‘ticks the boxes’. Some of the most sought-after characteristics and techniques that I find crop up (and usually cause vocal problems) include; huskiness, vibrato, ‘belting’, breathiness, melisma/riffing, ‘power vocals’, fry or creaky voice… Now, these characteristics and techniques don’t necessarily cause damage to the voice but if we are manipulating our voice to sound more like our favourite artists rather than exploring and embracing the unique qualities of our own natural voices we run the risk of causing serious vocal injury and for what??? The best you can really hope for with this approach is to end up sounding like a carbon-copy of someone else. I’m with Oscar Wilde… “Be yourself; everyone is already taken.” I think we should listen to lots of singers and learn about different qualities, characteristics, and techniques while diligently exploring our own unique voice and the safest and most efficient ways to incorporate the colours and effects we like into our sound. The tricks and added extras should be there to help you express yourself more fully, not just for window dressing… and should never become habitual! The goal should be to sound like you, not like someone else. Part of finding your own voice is knowing your voice and your vocal limitations. You don’t have to sing your favourite song in the original key. Just change it! It’s so easy to do and can be the difference between a really strained or lifeless performance and something truly breathtaking. If you’re a classical vocalist, transposition isn’t always an option. Try to chose repertoire that is suited to your voice type and range.
Hydrate: Vocal folds need to be well hydrated to vibrate efficiently. Basically, hydrated vocal folds require less effort to vibrate. So do yourself a favour and hydrate! Sipping on about 2 litres of water over the course of your day will be the minimum you’ll need to do. If you engage in vigorous physical activity or consume substances and/or beverages that tend have a dehydrating effect, you’ll need to compensate for that.
Rest: Sleep is a big part of rest, but not the only thing you need to factor in. I find my voice works best if I get a consistent 7-9 hours of sleep each night. I can survive on the odd night of less sleep but if I have two rough nights in a row… forget about it! Your body goes into repair and recovery mode when you sleep. Our tiny little vocal folds get a huge workout every day, even with regular ol’ talking, so make sure you prioritise sleep and try and get into a routine.
You also need to make sure you program some vocal rest into your week. Give yourself a day off from singing once a week or so.
I also think it’s important to look at your social life and other activities that you might be involved in that involve high-intensity voicing. If you’re a netball coach, a supportive parent on the sidelines or playing social touch football once a week, chances are you’re going to find yourself yelling at some point. NOT GOOD!!! Same goes for nightclubs, pubs, parties and even some noisy restaurants. Not only do we unconsciously raise our voices to be heard over all the load music and chatter, we often find ourselves indulging in a drink or five. Alcohol is a social lubricant. Most people get a little louder and looser when enjoying a few ‘quite ones’ and we can find ourselves in real vocal trouble the next day. Those of us that perform in noisy venues also know that talking with band mates or punters in set breaks can cause so much distress that we can struggle to even finish the gig.
Don’t stop having a life! Just find a way to keep it manageable and learn to accept that if you want to sing well you might have to modify your lifestyle somewhat.
Less is more: Over-singing and over-breathing are probably the most common vocal problems I encounter in my studio. In my opinion and experience, it takes quite a long time and usually advice from a good teacher to really crack these issues. Outside advice from a trusted set of ears is often the first hurdle as we’re often completely unaware of our over-singing and over-breathing habits. Once we get that advice, be that through regular lessons, masterclasses, the odd coaching here or there, the key to cracking it will be practice and awareness. Recording yourself practicing and in lessons and listening back is usually extremely revealing and it can often be during the listening back that we have the breakthrough rather than in the actual doing. It takes a great deal of self-awareness, patience, and faith to do less. If you’re a diligent, hard-working student it can feel a little counterintuitive, but when you’re properly aligned and all the systems are working as they should, your singing tends to feel suspiciously easy. That’s not to say singing well is easy, but good singing should feel easy.
For CCM (contemporary commercial music) singers I think it’s really important to learn how to use a microphone, how to drive a PA and to ensure you have adequate fold back. This can really make all the difference when it comes to over-singing. If you can hear yourself you’ll be far less likely to push your voice.
For classical singers, I think it’s really important to learn how to adjust to different acoustics (every room you perform in will have its own challenges and sweet spots) and learn to control your resonance. Also, remember that dynamics are relative and that if you start out your performance close to your max, you really leave yourself nowhere to go. In my experience, most young classical singers tend to overload the voice and sing way louder than necessary in an effort to achieve the ‘big’ operatic sound.
When is comes to ‘less is more’ for breathing, it really is a matter of developing an efficient breath management system and accepting that you probably need a lot less air than you’ve been led to believe. If you grew up singing in choirs you’re probably wishing you had a dollar for every time you were instructed to ‘take a big, deep breath’. This is actually pretty terrible advice. I recommend the belly in approach to breath management. This method requires the singer to release abdominal tension to allow the respiratory system to function naturally for the in-breath and then to engage specific abdominal muscles on the out-breath. I don’t want to oversimplify the breathing discussion so I’ll just promise to revisit this in more detail in a future post (remember the marinating meaty blog post…) and encourage you to observe your breathing habits and, at the very least, become more aware of what you’re currently doing.
Get a technique: Nothing can really replace a good singing teacher and regular mindful practice when it comes to improving your singing. Understanding basic vocal anatomy and physiology can really open your eyes and short cut your learning process. I find that I learn things more easily and embrace new ideas more willingly if I understand the why and not just the what. Focus on developing efficiency in all areas of your singing and you’ll find that you’ll be able to sing for longer, louder, softer, higher and lower with much more ease and without fatiguing. Technique is not the enemy of creativity and expression! As my technique has developed, improved and evolved over the years I have found that I have had better access to my creative ideas and been able to execute the ideas I imagined far more successfully. Developing a solid technique can also mean that your stockpile of creative and musical options increases. The more control you have over your instrument, the more options you have, allowing you to negotiate different styles of music and performance opportunities. Don’t let anyone tell you that technique is lame or that it will strangle your natural talent and creativity. I don’t think I’ve met a singer yet that is only interested in singing for a short time. Most people I encounter, even those that don’t have career aspirations and sing more for enjoyment, seem to want to sing for life. They usually want to improve their stamina and increase power and range. These goals can all be met with a solid technique.
Happy singing! I hope these tips help you on your road to better singing in 2017...