Do Your Homework
Everybody dreams of performing for others, but when it comes down to it, you are often nervous and disappointed in what you are able to do, or you chicken out completely and give up on the idea. What to do?
While it is true that there’s no better way to learn how to perform than to “just do it”, there is a great deal you can do beforehand to give yourself a leg up. The most important gift you can give yourself is to DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you can’t sing that song just the way you want to when you practice at home, it will fall apart when you present it in public. So…
- KNOW THE SONG by memory front to back. This seems obvious, but somehow people overlook it. Anyplace where you routinely stumble needs extra practice until you no longer trip over it.
- KNOW THE ACCOMPANIMENT and practice with your accompanist several times.
- DON’T PLAN ON “WINGING IT”. Know what you need to do to sing it well…where you take your breaths, what modifications you make for the high notes, where you have had difficulties with muscle tension, etc. When you are nervous, you fall back upon habit, so all of the techniques you use to sing this song well had better be habits.
“FAKE IT ‘TILL YOU MAKE IT”. All skilled performers know that you must look confident even when you are not sure of yourself. Your audience will like you if you seem comfortable. Sing your song looking into the mirror…horrifying at first, but do it. Are you smiling, does your face express the words, or does it express terror? Are you stiff as a board, or do you have a few gestures that help express the song? Teach yourself to look as though you are relaxed and having a great time, and you know what? You will begin to feel that way.
Good Tone Quality
You want to…
- Sound nice when you sing.
- Make a solid, free sound.
- Lose that breathy quality.
- Stop screeching on the high notes.
That’s what we call TONE QUALITY. And you generally get there by eliminating the tension in your vocal muscles.
Singing is an athletic activity. You use muscles to make it happen. But any tension in those muscles gets in the way. Your ribcage and diaphragm and belly muscles are working hard to support your breathing, but they have to remain flexible, not rigid, and your throat, tongue, jaw and facial muscles have to be relaxed. Not easy. As you study singing you will have to relax muscles you didn’t even know you had!
The other part of good tone is CLEAR VOWELS. Think about it…99% of the time you are singing the vowel sounds of the words, especially on the long notes. The consonants should be “short and sweet”. But Americans speak in just the opposite way…in our conversation we make the vowels very short and go right to the consonant at the end of the syllable. When you learn to make clear, ringing vowels and stretch them for the whole length of the note, dropping in the consonant at the very end, you will suddenly sound beautiful. It’s different from the way you would normally speak, but your audience won’t hear it as odd. They will just think you sound great, and they will actually be able to understand you! I call it SINGLISH instead of English.
You Can Sing in Tune
There are people who seem to sing in tune from birth. There are others who are OK most of the time but wander off occasionally. There are still others who are off base most of the time.
Singing in tune is the result of the interaction between your ears, your nervous system, and a lot of different muscles in the larynx and the vocal tract. The ability to coordinate all of that takes a while to develop, just as the ability to ride a bike takes a while. It’s comes easier for some people than others, but everyone can learn to ride a bike eventually, unless you have some physical disability. You just have to want to do it, and be willing to practice a lot. And it’s easier if you start young.
One of the main reasons that there are so many of us who insist, “I can’t carry a tune”, is that we simply don’t sing enough. In village cultures where music is something you DO instead of something you LISTEN TO, everybody can sing. Why? Because they do it all the time. There is a song everyone sings while they walk from one place to another, and another one they sing while they are planting the seeds or weeding the rows, or harvesting the crops, and others that they sing at weddings or other big events. Everybody sings all the time, and children hear the adults singing all the time, and all of the kids learn to match pitches. Some folks have prettier voices than others, but EVERYONE LEARNS TO SING AND IT’S NO BIG DEAL. It’s just part of daily life.
But in America, for some reason we think that you have to be good at singing before you’re allowed to do it. That is backwards. Most folks aren’t great at something the first time they try it. They have to do it again and again to build up skill. However if someone humiliates you when you try, and says you should stop because you’re not good at it, you’re not likely to continue. And if you don’t keep doing it, you won’t improve. There is no magic trick.
If you are already an adult who is self-conscious about not staying on pitch, here are some things you can do to improve…
- First, GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SING. You may want to work on it when no one else is around, but do it.
- Second, LISTEN for the note you want. A lot of people don’t realize that they have to pay attention to what they are doing. They just open up their mouths and begin to sing without thinking about what note they are looking to produce. You need to stop and think about the pitch you want. This develops your “inner ear” so you can hear it in your mind before you sing it. It becomes automatic after a while.
- Proper BREATH SUPPORT relieves a great deal of tension that you are carrying in your vocal tract…larynx, neck, tongue, jaw…even shoulders and back. Tension in any of those areas can keep you from singing on pitch.
- Work with a teacher who can give you CONSTRUCTIVE, SUPPORTIVE FEEDBACK. Nothing beats another pair of ears and eyes to encourage and instruct you.
Work with someone who will SING WITH YOU. A lot of beginners cannot match pitches they hear on a piano, but can do so if someone sings the note for them.
The Wind Instrument
Did you know that your voice is a WIND INSTRUMENT? It depends on the air you supply in order to make its sound. The most important improvement you can make in your singing is LEARNING HOW TO BREATHE CORRECTLY. Yes, I know you’ve been breathing since you were born, or you wouldn’t have made it this far! But there are special breathing techniques that you need to know in order to sing well…
- How to get a full, comfortable breath for each phrase
- How to use your breath to give you a steady, comfortable air supply on which to sing through the whole phrase
- How to use an extra bit of breath to do the hard stuff in a relaxed way, instead of using your throat muscles to ram your way through
This is called BREATH SUPPORT, and successful singers from Rock to Broadway to Opera use it. When you have learned correct breathing technique, your sound will be richer, your range will open up (hello high notes), you will sing long phrases without tension, and your throat will be comfortable instead of tight. Your stamina will grow and you will be able to sing for a long time without getting hoarse.
Correct BREATH SUPPORT is not hard, but it is different from your regular breathing patterns. You need someone to show you how to do it, and then you have to practice it a lot, because you are changing established habits. You’ve learned it when you can maintain it without having to think about it, when it has become a new habit. It’s like learning to ride a bike. It takes all of your attention at first to keep from crashing, so you practice a lot. Then at some point you realize that you are balancing without thinking about it, and thinking instead about where you want to go. Much more interesting, but only possible because you’ve worked on the foundation of the skill. So it is with breathing. You learn the basics and then practice it every day, adding refinements along the way, but always making sure the fundamentals are solid.