Disclaimer: I am not a singing teacher! This is my attempt to explain some really useful tips that I have learned through having singing lessons. Please know that I am probably not using the correct technical terms and am possibly not even being physiologically accurate. This is just written from my perspective as a student. Please be careful with your voice and if it ever hurts, stop!
Also, I am not the greatest singer in the world – just as you wouldn’t be the greatest violin player if you’d only started learning the proper techniques five months ago after a lifetime of doing it wrong! But these are the recurring themes are always coming up in my lessons, and the things that have helped me the most:
1 – Sing from your belly.
This is one of those phrases that gets banded around without people knowing what it actually means. Essentially, this refers to engaging your abs while you’re singing to help you project the sound. For most of my life I’ve just been singing from my chest upwards. Learning to sing with my abs engaged has really helped me to control my sound more effectively. It’s almost like you’re providing it with a supportive foundation. Without any engagement, your sound becomes weak and wobbly.
2 – Be mindful of dynamics.
Think about the words you’re singing and the mood of the song. Is it appropriate to belt the entire line? Should the emphasis be varied throughout, depending on the meaning? I’m currently learning Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ which is very interesting – she really goes for some words and eases off for others. For example, “and your ARM felt nice wrapped ROUND my shoulder”. Dynamics often go hand in hand with rhythm, too, as in this song.
3 – Mix your registers and try not to see them as separate entities.
Most of us have heard of the terms ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’. These are oversimplified and somewhat crude terms, but it does sort of help you to get your head (excuse the pun) around the muscles you’re using and the area you’re singing from. The lower in pitch you go, the more vibration and resonance you should feel in your chest. The higher in pitch you go, the more vibration and resonance you should feel in your nose/ head. The more you learn, though, the more unhelpful these terms become – what you actually want is a pure and consistent timbre throughout your vocal range. Sure, you’ll sound different when you sing high notes to when you sing low notes – that’s a given, and there’s not much you can do about that. But when I started I found that my high notes would be very weak and breathy whereas my low notes would be very loud and resonant. Every time I tried to sing a song with high and low notes it sounded like two different people singing it. The sounds had completely different qualities. My singing teacher referred to the sounds as ‘oboe’ and ‘flute’: my high notes sounded ‘flutey’ and my low notes sounded ‘oboey’. What I wanted was the strength and purity of the oboe throughout my vocal range. I’m still not quite there yet, but I’m a lot better than I was.
4 – Get to know and overcome your passaggio.
Passaggio is the area in which your voice ‘breaks’ as you transition from using the set of throat muscles you use for your lower register to the set you use for your upper register. AKA, the crappy middle bit. Your throat muscles will be tensing and engaging in different areas to different degrees and the passaggio becomes obvious when this transition is taking place. You will always have a passaggio, it’s just the nature of the throat muscles – but you can make it smoother so that it’s barely noticeable. Exercises that can help include yodelling and sirens. My transition is SO much smoother now than it used to be. It’s still very much there and you can hear the slight break, but it’s drastically improved. The way I’ve learned to improve this is by trying to make less of a ‘gap’ between the two voices. For example, imagine you’re singing a descending scale, G-A. I could sing G F E D in my head voice and then change to my chest voice for C B and A, but the problem with that is that D is when I stop being comfortable in my upper register and A is the limit of my strength in my lower register – so my voice naturally jumps from D to A and skips my weaker middle register or wobbles over it. I’m working on strengthening my head voice so I can continue on in my head voice until B, and only transition to my chest voice when I hit A where I am comfortable enough in the highest part of my lower register to hit that note. Likewise, I’m working on strengthening my lower register so that I could make the transition at D or C if I needed/ wanted to. So it’s basically about extending the range of both your upper and lower register and aiming your transition note as high or as low as it needs to be. This is a tough one to explain! This means there’s much less of a cavernous jump between the two, and doesn’t sound so much like a switch has been flicked!
5 – Experiment, and don’t be afraid to make stupid/ ugly noises.
You need to understand how your voice works. When my singing teacher first got me to imitate sirens, shout “oi” in a scale, or yawn to a particular pitch, I was mortified. I couldn’t take myself seriously and felt like a dick. But you’ll look like more of a dick if you close off and refuse to do it, and then don’t end up with the improvements these exercises help you make! Don’t be precious about it. We all make some ugly noises sometimes and we all hit the wrong pitch on occasion – remember that the voice is an instrument like any other. Just because you just hit a wrong note doesn’t make you a “bad singer”, you just hit a wrong note. Making mistakes makes you a better singer in the long-run, because you can learn from them.
6 – Realise that you can sing in the same voice as you speak in.
It blew my mind when I figured this out. I used to think that to sing, you had to use your ‘head voice’. I saw my speaking voice as separate from my singing voice. In reality, your voice is your voice, whether you’re speaking or singing in it! It’s still the same throat, the same muscles, the same sound. It’s just how you use it. I never knew I could sound sultry and jazzy or achieve the same rich, rounded sound as singers like Adele. I never knew that I could create such loud sounds, either! I thought I was always destined to have a breathy, heady sound with no strength or volume.
7 – Don’t pull faces.
I am the WORST for this. My face contorts as I’m singing, especially if I think I’ve just made a horrible noise. My face becomes a disclaimer: “I know that came out wrong and sounded horrible, please don’t judge me, I can do better!” But then you’re consigning the rest of your singing while you’re pulling that face to sound pretty grim. The faces you pull really do influence how you sound. You know when someone is talking to you on the phone and you can tell if they’re smiling even though you can’t see them, because you can hear it in their voice? That. I know it’s hard to force a smile, but in my lesson yesterday my singing teacher made me do that and I was absolutely stunned how much easier it made it to transition over my passaggio and generally project a nicer sound. It didn’t feel like such an effort as when I’ve got resting bitch face (or embarrassment contortion face).
8 – Relax your face.
If your face is scrunched up your voice will sound restricted and tight. Loosen your face muscles. Try and let go of your tension.
9 – Raise your eyebrows.
This can really help you reach higher notes. I don’t know how it works, but it does. It’s almost like it makes enough space in your face (!) to reach the notes. Don’t, however, raise your chin. This is another one of my bad habits. Raising your chin actually tightens your throat and makes it harder to reach those higher notes.
10 – Open your mouth more.
Yet another of my bad habits is not opening my mouth enough. If you don’t really open your mouth much, you’re not allowing for much resonance. I’ve noticed that everything sounds quite whiney, nasal and throaty if my mouth isn’t open enough. This is particularly important for your lower register.
11 – When you’re reaching the top of your lower register (i.e. just before you reach your passaggio), aim the sound towards the roof of your mouth…
… in the same way that you do when you shout “oi!” at someone. It’s a kind of ‘bouncy’ sound. Feel the sound hit the roof of your mouth. Recognise that feeling, remember it, and then aim for it when you have to get to the top of that lower register.
12 – Caress the note, damn it!
Care about how it sounds. You need to want it to sound good and care equally about all the notes.
13 – Give it some welly.
This especially applies to using the upper limits of your lower register – you really need to give it 100% to be able to hit those notes. I guess I would describe this as ‘belting’. Likewise, with your upper register, you need to want to reach the note to actually get there. Approach everything with conviction. That said, you don’t want to damage your voice so you need careful supervision when you’re putting in that much effort to make sure it’s coming from the right place.
14 – For high notes, imagine your voice climbing over them.
Sounds utterly bizarre, I know, but if you’re visual like me this might help. It just helps you to approach the note in a more ‘rounded’ way (describing singing techniques is so hard, damn it). For example, if I was doing a descending scale of “me me me me” in my upper register, it really helps to almost aim slightly above the top “me” and come down on to it. You may understand what I mean, you may not. That’s the best I can do at explaining that one!
15 – Don’t hunch, and try and keep your body language ‘open’.
If you hunch up you are restricting your sound in so many ways. I recently discovered that if I hold my hands together behind my back and stretch a little bit, I find it so much easier to access power in my upper register. I’m not suggesting you stand like a twat every time you want to sing your high notes, but it’s really useful to discover how to access that power because you can then learn how it feels and how you can make that sound without any help.
16 – Be mindful of the noises you make when you finish a note.
I have a REALLY annoying tendency to make a breathy ‘ahhh’ noise when I’ve finished singing a line in my lower register. It sounds like I’ve had a really satisfying sip of a drink. Find a way of coming off your notes with grace. I’m still very much working on this! Vibrato is a good way of ending notes, but I haven’t quite mastered that yet.
17 – Go through the vowel sounds.
Ay, eee, eh, aye, ohhh, you, ooooh, ahhhh. Work out how your mouth needs to change position for each sound to have strength behind it. ‘Eee’ is a particularly wonderful one for nailing strength and purity. It seems to get your throat in the right position to really project your voice – it gives you an idea of what your voice can achieve if you can learn to manipulate your voice in the right way. It’s really helped me to work on the transition between my upper and lower registers as well. ‘Ahhh’ is one I still struggle with in my upper register, though – it always comes out so breathy! I think it’s because it’s quite an open sound while your upper register requires some contraction at the back of your throat.
18 – If all else fails, do an impression of an opera singer.
This genuinely helps me to get a more pure sound in both my upper and lower registers. I don’t quite know why, but it does. I remember doing a silly impression of an opera singer when I was younger with a high “ooooohh!” and being absolutely blown away by the purity and resonance of the sound that had just come out. I didn’t know I could make that sound until that moment. That made me realise that I had the potential to be able to sing powerfully, I just didn’t know how to use my voice properly.
I hope that helps! Let me know what you think and what you’ve found to be helpful in learning to sing 🙂
P.S. my teacher is the legendary Leo Wood. I couldn’t recommend her highly enough!