Whether you’ve been singing all your life, or are just starting out learning the basics from an online course, it’s important to approach singing with as much respect as you would approach any musical training. As my own vocal coach is fond of reminding me, there is no difference between musicians and singers. We are all musicians. Singers simply carry our instruments inside our throats and vocal cords. We also may not have to oil and maintain our instrument the same way that musicians with physical instruments do, but there are many good practices we can incorporate into our lives to maintain the flexibility and agility of our internal vocal instrument.
Singers have the advantage of being able to sing anywhere they are, and not having to carry anything with them. However, we must care for and maintain our vocal cords just like any instrument. There are ways we can do damage to our voices simply by using them incorrectly. And just like proper positioning for playing an instrument, there are ways that we can improve our posture and refine our movements to get the best performance out of our voices.
Some of these tips may seem obvious, but some of them might come as a surprise to you, especially if you’re just starting out as a singer. You may find your body naturally inclined to sing in ways that could be damaging or dangerous to your long-term singing abilities, and not even know it. Recognizing what to watch out for, and taking a few simple steps to keep your voice in top shape, can be invaluable as you begin your singing career.
Taking Care of Your Throat
Drink Plenty of Water
Hydration is put forward as an answer for everything healthy these days, and for good reason. In the case of singing, there’s a direct correlation between how much water you drink, at how well your vocal instrument is maintained. Singing is a product of the mucous membranes of the body, and these function best when they’re adequately hydrated. Making sure to get eight glasses of water a day into your system, and spreading them across the course of the day, can help keep your throat lubricated, and your voice functioning clearly.
Do Your Exercises
Practicing warm-ups on a regular basis is important for a singer. There are classes in how to warm up your voice effectively. Although we use our voice constantly, singing is a special way of coordinating it, and it takes practice. One of the benefits of regular practice for all musicians is the muscle memory that comes from putting your vocal cords through the same patterns and movements repetitively. The vocal cords can absorb and respond to muscle memory just as well as your fingers do when playing any instrument. Find time every day to practice your vocal exercises, even if you think you have them down perfectly. It’s not about getting an exercise right, it’s about keeping the muscles trained.
Silence can be a welcome rest for the voice. I think we’ve all had the experience of feeling our voice start to get rough and scratchy after we’ve been speaking or singing for too long. Making sure that you find time in your life to be silent and let your voice rest can be very helpful as you’re developing your singing stamina. Some performers even try to take one day a week when they won’t say a single word, just to give their voices a rest.
Get Your Sleep
Sleep is something we all need enough of. It’s not just about your alertness and stamina, but also about healing. During sleep, the body heals the damage that we’ve done to it during the day. If we don’t give the body enough time to sleep, that healing process is interrupted. The practice of training your singing voice will force new muscle fibers to grow and adapt. It’s during sleep that these changes become integrated into the body.
Stop smoking. It’s not about whether you’re going to get cancer or whether the people on the train next to you will find the smoke irritating. The critical thing is that your throat and your lungs will be irritated by repeated exposure to the irritants and particles in smoke. If you want to develop a raspy voice, learn to produce that sound naturally. Don’t limit yourself by causing damage to your instrument.
Speak Like a Singer
Use your speaking voice is an opportunity to practice your singing. With attention, you can develop a speaking voice that not only supports but enhances your singing voice. Speaking is very much like singing, in that we are still taking in air and letting it out through our vocal cords in a controlled manner over an extended period of time. Speaking is an opportunity to learn how we perform out loud, and experiment with the ways that our vocal cords produce sound.
Hitting the Notes
Get a Vocal Coach
Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Get into a vocal training program and follow it. Having a vocal coach is one of the most important things a singer can do to improve and grow. We can’t always hear what we sound like as were singing. Even if we record ourselves and listen to it afterwards, we can’t make the instant corrections that a vocal coach can recommend. A vocal coach will also keep you aware of your posture, your breathing, and your technique. Shop around for this. There are good vocal coaches and bad vocal coaches, and it’s important that you find one you resonate with–literally!
Unless you’re studying a particular singing style that involves belting, don’t try to shout out your songs. Singing in a quiet voice is excellent practice for maintaining control. It’s remarkable what intensity you can deliver when you subdue the volume, and focus on the technique. Often new singers will try to sing loud in order to cover-up confusion over notes. That technique does not work. By singing quietly, you force the voice to control itself, and can gain mastery over your vocal technique.
Surprisingly, when you are trying to reach high notes, it’s helpful to think about grounding yourself downward. Your body may be inclined to reach upward when you are trying to hit the high notes, but if you put your attention on your weight, and feel yourself sinking downward from the chest, you will have better luck hitting those high notes effectively. You will also be stabilizing yourself, which should result in more control over your breathing and your posture.
Use Enough Air
Breathing deep from the diaphragm is very important for a singer. Unless you can get enough breath behind your notes, they won’t resonate as clearly, and you won’t have as much control over the sound you produce. You can learn to breathe from the diaphragm with this course to add force to your singing. Practicing your breathing as a regular exercise can help you develop more capacity and stamina, and let you sustain longer notes for a greater period of time. You will also notice your energy improve if you spend time thinking about how your breath travels into your lungs, and adjusting your posture to optimize that.
Listen to the Intervals
Unlike musicians who master an external instrument by learning finger positions that translate directly to specific notes, singers have to use our minds and our muscle memories to make sure we hit the notes as they’re written. Singing is done on a continuous tone scale, like string instruments without frets, and some wind instruments. So singers need to be able to operate and adjust our voices in a natural scale, although we usually coordinate with instruments tuned to a Western 12-tone tempered scale. Keep that in mind when you’re singing, so you can listen for the small adjustments you need to make.
Get a Microphone
Sometimes when you’re singing you will need to project your voice out to the back of the room, but frequently you will be using a microphone. Get used to holding a microphone, and singing with it. Buy yourself a good handheld microphone, preferably one with the wind guard, and plug it into a recording device so you can hear how you sound with it. There are some excellent inexpensive USB microphones that you can use to record yourself with your computer, and it’s not difficult to learn basic vocal recording techniques.
A good set of speakers can help you learn to listen to your voice and pay attention to how it really sounds while you’re singing. Sometimes the best feedback that we get is the live feedback of hearing our voice is projected back into our ears while were singing. Listening live, we can adapt quickly. But poor quality monitors can be just as misleading as not listening to yourself at all.
Stick a Finger In Your Ear
Similarly, headphones can be a very convenient tool for a good singer to practice with. One trick is to put your headphone in one ear, and leave the other ear open. This can allow you to hear the ambient sounds, as well as your own voice, and distinguish between the two. Some singers just put a finger in one ear to help them monitor the sound of their own voice while they’re singing. The point is to pay attention, and learn how you sound.
Keep Your Chin Down
Keep your head straight and your chin down when you’re producing notes. This may go against what you naturally inclined to do, but keeping your chin down gives you more range of control of your vocal cords and your jaw. When you jut out your chin, you limit your range of motion, and close off the sound. You may also be surprised to notice how much better you sound with your head straight and your chin pulled back.
Open Up Your Jaw
Practice reciting the vowels of the alphabet with your jaw open, and notice when you have a natural tendency to close your jaw. Try to keep your mouth open wide enough to stick two fingers sideways between your front teeth. All of the vowel sounds should be produced with the jaw wide-open and the chin down, to enhance the resonance of the sound. Learning to sing with full round vowel sounds can be the difference between sounding like an amateur and sounding like a professional.
Control Your Vibrato
In western singing, most singers use some degree of vibrato in their voice. Vibrato is the rhythmic increase and decrease in volume that you hear when a singer sustains a note. Strong singers can control their vibrato so that it gets faster or slower depending on the rhythm and the style of music. If you’ve been exposed to popular modern singing all your life, you probably have a natural vibrato in your voice, but it may not be something you have conscious control over. Good vibrato is used subtly as an accent, often just as a note is trailing off, rather than consistently throughout the entire song.To learn to control your vibrato, practice by opening your jaw and singing single vowel sounds for an extended period of time. Keep your chin down, and imagine the swirling patterns of air in your mouth. Put one hand on your chest, and feel the vibration change as the volume naturally resonates, and see if you can control the patterns. By paying attention to how it feels, you can learn to control the rhythm of your vibrato.
Singing is a performance art, so don’t sing only for yourself. The appreciation and feedback of an audience is both gratifying and instructive. Singing can even help you develop a solid stage presence for public speaking. Approach your voice the same way a musician approaches his instrument, and give it to respect deserves. With a lot of practice, and a lot of attention, you can develop a singing voice that you’ll be proud of.