Some people are just naturally talented great singers, and some are not. You thought that, didn’t you? Well, it’s partly true – some people have a better ear for music than others – but that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t learn how to sing! I could tell you here about all the pros of being able to sing, but I guess you know them yourself: other people think you’re amazing, and you yourself can make beautiful music! Before you start reading these tips & tricks and exercises though, you need to know that singing is something you’re continually improving: it’s not like after reading this you suddenly became Freddy Mercury overnight. No, it takes time and practice and patience to achieve the singing ability. Therefore, this guide will focus on the following:
- What IS singing? Basic theory, definitions, vocal range, etc.
- The correct posture and principles
- Vocal warm-ups
- Strengthening your vocal chords
- Achieving your fullest sound and range
So basically, I’ll first tell you how the voice works, then I’ll make sure the basic foundation for singing is okay (no tension, standing up straight, etc.), and from that point we can start really working on your strength and volume and range.
What IS singing?
Singing is, as we all know, the act of creating melodious sounds with your voice. So how does that voice work? Somewhere in the middle of your neck is your larynx. This larynx controls your breathing, swallowing, but also your talking/singing. You can easily see the position of your larynx, as this is where you’re ‘adam’s apple’ is. Within your larynx is a so-called ‘voice box’, which is where your vocal chords are placed. You have 2 vocal chords, one to the left side of your voice box and on the the right side. When these 2 are not connected, you hear no sound (this is the case when just breathing). When these 2 are connected, you can blow air through them to make them vibrate, and then depending on the amount of air and the length of your vocal chords, sound will be created. Therefore, you should know your vocal chords are muscles – just as any other muscle, it needs to be trained to be able to reach and sustain notes. The only problem is: because you’re using your voice all day everyday to talk, you can easily overburden your voice. Now, we all know that when you put more stress on a muscle than it can handle, it grows stronger, so whats the problem!? Well, a muscle grows stronger when it’s resting, and when you’ve for example cycled very much and feel pain in your legs, you usually give them some rest, but you often forget your voice. And if you have a wound in your voice for too long, it becomes a scar, which we call a ‘vocal nodule’. And with proper training, these scars aren’t that much of a problem, but if not these nodules will cause your voice to crack and become uncontrollable. Then there’s only one question left to answer: why does everybody’s voice sound different and why is everybody’s range different?
Voice sound depends on the structure of your mouth. Just as with a guitar, when you create a tone, it starts to resonate against the walls of your mouth, and because of this resonance it will create a certain amount of tones that are slightly different from the main note. This resonance defines your singing (and talking) voice.
Voice range depends on the length, girth and training of your vocal chords. Everybody is born with vocal chords with a different set of those 3 things.
Length: there’s a minimum as to how short vocal chords can get, and that’s your lowest note. You can always train your vocal chords to become longer, but they can’t get shorter than their shortest. Usually, people talk in their lowest register, so for everybody that’s a different tone.
Girth: the stronger your vocal chords are, the thicker. This means, that your vocal chords can handle quite a lot of pressure and all (if you (sometimes) speak monotone, or if it’s hard for you to sing falsetto, you probably have thick vocal chords), but it will be harder to reach higher notes, as you need very long vocal chords for that.
Training: and this is what we’ll be working on, as this is the only thing we can alter – bit by bit you can train your vocal chords precisely how long they should be for a certain note.
The correct posture and principles
What many people forget, is that good singing practices start with making sure you’re vocal chords can move freely and you’re breath flows easily. Therefore, in the ideal situation, you want to have the following:
- Correct posture: a straight back, perfectly aligned with your neck and head. You’re shoulders should be down and relaxed, at the same level. Your head shouldn’t look towards the floor or ceiling, but straight forward. If you don’t follow these rules, your breath flow will be cut off, which not only ruins your singing but also creates unnecessary tension. Whatever crazy things you’re doing or notes you’re trying to sing, this posture should always be your posture.
- Correct breathing: breathing should be done from the diaphragm. This means, that your chest shouldn’t expand, neither should your shoulders move up when you breathe. No, your stomach should expand when inhaling and contract when exhaling. Singing is done when you exhale, so inhaling should be fast, but exhaling should be slow and steady (using your ‘abs’) – if you contract your stomach very fast you use (and therefore waste) all your breath at once. You should feel as if you’re breath is in your stomach, and that you’re singing from your stomach – not from your throat or mouth.
- Correct larnyx (and head) position: when singing, people are inclined to move their larynx (and head) up when going higher, and down when singing lower. This is wrong. You’re head should be looking straight forward, and you’re larynx should always be in its neutral position (the one it’s in when you’re speaking).
- The same sound and volume throughout your voice: many people don’t realize this, but they change their vowels and pronunciation a bit when going higher and lower than their comfortable range. This is wrong – the only reason it happens is because people automatically think that when they make a more nasal sound, it’s suddenly easier to reach high notes. That’s not true, it only makes high notes sound like shit. But, everybody does it unconsciously. We also start to sing louder when going higher – wrong again! When singing lower, that’s when you need to use more breath to support the low notes. Though keep in mind, higher notes naturally sound louder than low notes, and it might for most people actually be harder to sing low properly than to sing high properly.
- An as open mouth as possible. Go to a mirror now, and talk to the mirror, and look at yourself while doing that. Chances are, if you really look closely, you’re not opening mouth that much (a few millimeters is the worst I’ve seen, but the average would be not much more than that). That’s wrong again – the wider your mouth is, the more air that can freely resonate in your mouth AND the more difficult it is for your larynx to move up and down. So, when trying to open your mouth as wide as possible with every note it might at first be very unusual and difficult to sing, but after some time it actually is very good for you.
- Have plenty of water near you. When singing, you’re using your vocal chords heavily, so they are ‘sweating’ and drying out over time. Therefore, after each song drink a bit of water to keep them moist. Even if you’re voice isn’t hurting, drink water to prevent it from starting to crack a few songs later.
Now that you know what you should be doing, it’s of course not so easy to achieve those things. The first step here is to make sure you don’t damage your voice. To make sure all rubbish between your vocal chords is gone and they are ready for heavy use, you need to do some exercises every morning. When starting out, these may be hard and you should do them at least 20 minutes a day.
- The snake: simple, just put your teeth together, and without straining anything, make a SSSSHHHH sound as loud and long as you can. Do this a couple of times, to get control over your breath and subtly warm-up the vocal chords.
- The motorboat: a ‘lip drill’ -> just make that typical motorboat-sound, drilling your lips. And then while you’re doing that, go up and down scales. Just start with one of your lowest notes, and then go up 4 notes and then down 4 notes again. Use a piano or guitar to play along with you to make sure you really hit the right pitches. Do this until you’ve come to your highest note you can sing in normal voice. Falsetto is very difficult here, but you can always try!
- The hum: just simple humming. Do the scales again, but now humming. This way you’re mouth position and all doesn’t matter, it’s all about the right pitches.
- The crying baby: while doing these scales again, make a ‘nèh’ sound (like a crying baby). Make sure you keep the exact same sound high and low, and this will help you move from low to high notes easily (smooth out bridges).
Strengthening your vocal chords
And now this is a topic with much controversy in the musical world – how to strengthen your vocal chords without damaging them? Well, what I experienced myself is that when I started having correct posture and opening my mouth wide, I naturally started using more air which increased my volume a lot. So without really trying, I just sort of ‘felt’ what was the right amount of air. And after I started using that much air, my vocal chords started growing stronger rapidly. At first there wasn’t a single note I could sing without tension or with real power or accuracy – but after a few days of singing with more air, I felt my vocal chords where connecting more and we’re much stronger across my registers and I could do almost anything with my voice and it wouldn’t hurt! Well, the first few weeks my vocal chords we’re growing, which meant that sometimes I just failed miserably because I was using more air or a better posture than my voice was used to, but after some time even my speaking voice had dramatically improved. Therefore, of course singing and vocal warmups increase strength, but using more air than you’re used to – just your maximum of air – is the way to go. I noticed that most people in this world have a very weak talking voice because they don’t use any good breath support, which automatically damages their voice. Overblowing notes is also bad, because that causes you’re voice to become lower and hoarser over time, but if you breath from the stomach and don’t use all your air at once, you should be save.
Another tip is: try to also improve your speaking voice – try to notice when people don’t understand you or you’re hurting your voice, and talk louder and with more/better articulation.
Achieving your fullest sound and range
And now this is the part where the real tips & tricks are handed out so that you’re voice can become really professional.
Keeping your mouth open and without tension
Move your jaw down - When we tell you to open your mouth as much as possible, people are naturally inclined to tilt their heads a bit up to create space for a very open mouth. This is wrong – although it might be hard at first, what you want to do is just drop your lower jaw down as much as you can. This way you keep your head straight, your mouth as open as it can possibly be, and your larynx down (because it can’t move up if your lower jaw is in the way)
Chew while singing - while you’re singing, pretend you’re chewing something between every syllable. This doesn’t mean you sing a syllable, then chew for one second, and continue. Neither should it distort your sound in any way. All it does, is release tension in your neck and voice, so that you can sing the next note clearly and purely. If you don’t do this, tension will build up throughout the song and eventually damage your voice and lead to a bad singing performance.
Sing on the vowels - not every singer has an accent that naturally sings on the vowels, and that’s not really a good thing for your voice. When talking, you say every syllable for the same length of time – but when singing, you need to hold your notes all the time. The ‘thing’ that you can hold a note on, is a vowel. But still, many people try to do this with consonants.
Take Amazing Grace. Instead of singing: Aaammmmmaazzzzziinnnnng Graaccccce, try Aaaaaamaaaaaaziiiiing Graaaaaceee
Keeping an even sound (voice color) throughout the ranges
Move up (and down) to notes - Your strongest range is, or should be, your middle range. Therefore, the best way to build your voice, is to start every note perfectly and then sing up (or down) to it. So say you needed to sing a high note, you are tempted to try to hit it in one time, but what works way better is to start the note in your middle range and then very quickly (but smoothly) move up to the high note you’re trying to reach. At first this may seem a bit weird, especially if you can’t move up or into the note very fast, but you’ll notice significant differences in voice tone, power, sound and range.
What you should now know, is how to remove all the strain from your voice, how to easily sing, improve your range – in short, the basics of singing should be perfetto. If you memorize (/keep in mind) and practice all of this, you should be on your way to be a much more than average singer.
However, having perfect technique will never be everything you need to become a really great musician. It will make sure your singing is at least good when you perform, but you’ll also need to be able to improvise musically, to put feeling and conviction into it, to get the right feel for the right song, etc. This of course isn’t something you can learn, it comes from finding your own style, from playing/creating a lot of music.
All in all, just know that as long as you put your heart into it, it should be allright!