How to sing well: an introduction

Okay, this is hardly a new topic on the internet… but it’s yet another new topic on my blog (the strategy is to have as little focus as possible and thus make it completely impossible to “monetize” the blog). The topic, formulated as a question, is: how do you improve your singing? And your speaking, I guess. The problem with that topic is that there’s a lot of information about it on the internet, much of it either wrong, misleading or irrelevant. So I thought I’d add some more noise, and I’ll try to give you a few explanations of why I think certain parts might be more or less useful.

So, here’s an introduction to all the stuff you’ll find on the internet, and which parts of it really matter (if you ask me). (Note: I made substantial changes to this article shortly after first publishing it.)

My background

I’m not a voice teacher. Thankfully. Because that means that you’re not going to get a sales pitch for my new and revolutionary voice teaching product at the end of this post… I don’t have stuff to sell, after all.

Of course, that raises the question of why the heck would I know anything? Well, I might not be a teacher, but I’m a student. And I’ve looked a lot of stuff, most of which hasn’t worked. I’ve even looked at physiology. Turns out it kind of matters… and some of the material on the web doesn’t really take physiology into account all that much.

Why technique matters

This is my story as someone trying to sing.

I’ve always been able to sing on pitch pretty well. Most people would probably say that that’s all there is to singing well, but like many other I’ve spoken to, I didn’t really like the sound of my voice. The internet (and many people who gave me advice) was quick to reassure me that that’s purely a psychological thing, that nobody likes the sound of their own voice. Okay then… better accept the way my voice sounds. Right? (Yeah, but only sort of…)

Still, there were obvious problems in my singing. I had serious problems getting out of a fairly restricted range of note I could sing comfortably. I would have to strain and I would sound even less amazing then. So, I started looking for advice on technique. One thing I found eventually was an online course for that, one that aimed to reduce tension in the vocal tract that interferes with good singing. It worked, too: my voice sounded less strained (still some “strainy” sound left, though)… but also much weaker, wimpier in the upper part of my range. My eventual conclusion was: well, probably that’s just the way my voice is. Nothing to be done for it. And I focused my songwriting on vocals designed for a somewhat quiet, light voice, and I fought my way through the strainy and wimpy sound (a particularly obvious example of that is my 2008 song “Going Down“ – download link and Flash player on that page – notice how the higher notes in the chorus sound weak at first and then, later, somewhat less weak but more strained).

I considered taking singing lessons, but really it seemed like a waste of time – I was aware of some problems, e.g. that I tended to have shaky intonation at the onset of phrases and some notes, but I thought that if I focused on fixing that I could probably do it without help.

Eventually, I performed a little song at my cousin’s wedding. I was incredibly nervous and forgot the lyrics at least a dozen times, but people kind of liked it anyway… and apparently it came across that I really loved singing. At that point in time, I wasn’t really quite sure what to do with my life, and my mum said I really ought to consider getting more serious about music. I didn’t actually decide to enrol in music school or anything, but for my birthday my mum gave me a gift coupon for a year’s worth of singing lessons, and had already made an appointment with a teacher in my area. “Right then,” I thought, “why not give it a try?” And so I went.

I don’t quite remember what happened in that first lesson… but it really convinced me to come back. With just a single lesson, I managed to add a quality to my voice that I’d randomly had in perhaps two or three short phrases I’d recorded in the past year. It took much longer for me to be able to do it consistently (I suspect that’s partly because the teacher hadn’t been teaching for very long and was still working on his concept), but it was an intriguing start. Here’s a song I cobbled together less than three months after starting lessons, called “Welcome Home Frank“. It’s hardly an example of great or even consistent technique (and the intonation isn’t perfect, either), but notice how the higher notes suddenly sound much less strained and wimpy. Wow!

The main take-away from these lessons was that technique does make a difference, and that difference was bigger than in my wildest dreams back then. I was high on endorphins for weeks.

Is it just me, though?

At some point, my teacher started doing class meet-ups in which each attendant would perform one or two songs to the other students and their friends/family. Again, I was extremely nervous during those, but that’s a different story. More importantly, I had the opportunity to track the progress of other students.

Let’s just take a single other student as an example. She was a lady who sounded pretty much exactly like the stereotypical old woman trying to sing: shaky, and like she was almost choking on higher notes. My lessons have encouraged my high standards to become even higher, and honestly it was a bit painful to listen to her sing… though I didn’t tell her that, of course.

During the next meet-up, there were only traces of that left. I remember thinking: wow – she’s really getting this!

Without my lessons, had I heard her initial performance, I’m sure I would have given up on her straight away, and before I heard how she had improved I might still have been doubtful. But that one performance “proved” it to me: this stuff actually works, and not just for me!

Now, during those meet-ups I listened to lots of not-very-awesome singers, and not all of them are making progress at the same rate. But they are making progress, all of them. What’s interesting is that, after a while, I began to develop this sense that there’s a really awesome voice hidden in everyone around me… and wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to set it free? That’s why I’m writing this article. I want to encourage people to not give up, until eventually they discover the same kind of endorphins high that I went through.

Singing is one of those things where people get discouraged, often fairly early in their lives. Just like drawing. I was never horrible at singing myself, but I wasn’t exactly “pretty good”, either, even if many of my acquaintances claimed otherwise… probably because they thought I’d lop my head off if they told me the truth. Or because they, like me, bought into the idea that you can’t help the sound of your voice, so the only thing that really matters is pitch.

In any case, these people who improved a lot learned some solid technique. And it worked… even in seemingly hopeless cases. They aren’t rock stars yet, but they’re certainly in an entirely different league than they were before. I’m convinced that a solid understanding of the goals and the methods contributed to that, and I’m fairly sure that they’ll help you, too. Now it’s just a case of getting good information.

How the internet will fail you

I found a lot stuff about singing on the internet, and chances are if you’re interested in singing, you’ve found a lot of stuff yourself. Much of it is simple exercises, often without any explanation of what their purpose is, nor any help with actually turning that into improved singing. Another big category is medical jargon that ostensibly explains how the voice works. Well that would be awesome, wouldn’t it, if I could understand more than the individual words!

Worse, there are so many different philosophies among singing teachers it’s just not funny. You’ll read about vocal registers, sometimes conceptually based on what the teacher thinks they feel like, sometimes on physiological/functional research. Others will say that there isn’t really any such thing. Then there are those that tell you that the only thing that matters is breathing, and others exclaim that nothing could be less relevant than how you breathe.

Most of those are nonsense, of course. I’m not going to bother explaining them all. Consult your favourite search engine if you are interested. Instead, I’m just going to tell you what is required physiologically.

Singing physiology 101

You’ve probably heard of the vocal cords (or, more properly, vocal folds). They’re small flaps of mucous membrane that live in your larynx (top view). If they vibrate, they create sound. How do you get them to vibrate? Not by shaking your head rapidly, obviously, nor by vibrating some muscles in your throat. The trick is in letting them touch together, so that if air exits the lungs, the vocal folds act as a flexible barrier. When enough pressure accumulates below them, they are pushed apart, some air goes through, the pressure below them goes down again and the vocal folds go back together (“approximate”). There we’ve got it: vibration. Here’s an animation of ideal vibration (front view, cut open along the coronal plane, i.e. a cut right through the middle of your throat, parallel to your arms). If you sing or speak with ideal vibration, that’s called the modal voice. It sounds great because the maximized vibration creates a sound rich in overtones (if you’re not a student of acoustics and that went over your head, just pretend I said “it sounds great because!”).

The main challenge is that this needs a specific pressure level. Too high and the vocal folds won’t approximate (pressure doesn’t go down quickly enough or at all); too low and they don’t get pushed apart in the first place. There are several hacks you can do to work around that problem. For example, tightening up the throat in various ways allows the vocal folds to approximate even if pressure is too high. This is not healthy, the resulting sound isn’t very amazing and it tends to become a habit… often to the point that you no longer even notice that you’re doing it.

Another thing that makes it easier is if you reduce the “mass” of the vibration… that is, if you let less of the vocal folds vibrate. Here’s an animation of vibration with less mass. Here, the vocal folds are tenser (along the edges), so the pressure affects them much less and they can approximate more easily. On the other hand, a much smaller area of them approximates. Compare the two animations to see what I mean. The result in sound is that this sounds much softer and breathier (more air goes out, after all, but less mass vibrates), and less “individual”. Another interesting result is that it’s much easier to sing higher notes… imagine pulling a guitar string much tauter than normal. The notes are higher then, aren’t they?

This function is generally called falsetto and is typically not used for singing entire songs. It gets boring and/or aggravating way too quickly, but you can use it to soften specific passages of a performance. Some singers do that a lot, but few of them do it exclusively.

So, there are two main physiological functions for singing. You can fine-tune both of them. For example, you can reduce the vibrational mass of the modal voice without going into the falsetto function; this happens physiologically by lengthening the folds in a different way. Another thing that affects the result is how strongly the vocal folds are pushed together. If they are pressed together more strongly than ideal, the voice will sound “pressed” or “harsh”. If they aren’t pressed together enough, it will sound weak or even just whispery (this taxes your vocal folds more than normal speaking because it needs more pressure even though it’s ultimately quieter. So, now you know why you shouldn’t whisper when your voice is already hoarse).

Disregarding falsetto for now, that means two main things have to be right for your voice to perform at its best: the right level of approximation of the vocal folds, and the right level of air pressure. Additionally, excess tension (e.g. in the jaw or the root of the tongue) will mess things up quite effectively.

The truth about accepting your voice

With all that in mind, let’s revisit this idea from before… that you should just accept the way your voice sounds, because that’s part of who you are. Well, that’s true, but it’s also not. Your voice can change due to improved technique, but with perfect technique there is indeed a unique sound to your voice, based on your individual physiology, that you can’t really change. So, you can’t magically acquire the voice of your favourite singer, but you can make your own voice sound more awesome if you improve your technique. The question, then, is:

So, how do you improve your technique?

Tension

Getting rid of excess tension is easy once you are aware of that tension (which you might be able to manage on your own if you know what to pay attention to) and your technique is otherwise good. As long as your technique sucks, however, it’ll be impossible to fix these problems without creating others instead. Chances are that you acquired those habits for a reason: to fix a problem. You can only drop them once the problem goes away.

Some tension, on the other hand, creates problems with fixing the technique. For example, tense shoulders can really do a number on your ability to control air pressure. This is the kind of tension created not to fix problems, but as a result of stress or nervousness, often until it becomes a habit.

Approximation of vocal folds

I think this is fairly easy to understand once you know how it impacts the sound and go through a few exercises that help you recreate the basic effects. If you haven’t done this correctly in a long time, it might take a while until it’s easy and natural to do, but not exactly years and probably not even months.

Air pressure

Without the right level of air pressure, all of the other effort is pretty much in vain. Some people do this right intuitively, and others will intuitively do it right if everything else is corrected. That’s not guaranteed, however… especially if you are blessed with “difficult” vocal physiology (the upshot of which is an especially impressive voice once you’ve got technique figured out). Fortunately, the principle is very simple: you need to be able to reduce air pressure quite a bit during singing (remember how most problems are caused by too much pressure, and really the only thing too little pressure does is prevent you from making a sound at all). For that you need some fairly precise control over the air pressure. It’s really not feasible to do that with just a single muscle (this is where antagonists come in), so this involves two “competing” muscles.

How do you regulate air pressure in general? By expanding or contracting the lungs. Indirectly, of course. Using muscles. One way is to raise the chest (to expand the lungs, i.e. breathe in) and lower it (to compress the lung, i.e. breathe out). Unfortunately, lowering your chest messes up your posture and thus will tend to get in the way of breath to work ideally. What’s worse, apparently there’s some crosstalk of nerves and muscles in the body and lowering the chest will tend to create unnecessary tension elsewhere, too.

This is why people talk about the diaphragm and diaphragmatic breathing. There is nothing special about that, really. It’s the other way to control the lungs. The diaphragm lives right below your lungs. Pull it down and the lungs follow, i.e. they expand. Release it back up and the lungs return to their original volume. Anyone can do diaphragmatic breathing (just try it: keep your shoulders and chest in a fixed position and breathe), and if you’ve been told that the secret to good singing is diaphragmatic breathing, that’s not the whole truth. Diaphragmatic breathing is just normal breathing. Using that instead of controlling your breath with your posture doesn’t really change much.

We were looking for a way to expel less air in a controlled way, right? So something needs to antagonize, i.e. work against, that breathing out action, to slow it down. In other words: while you let the diaphragm go back up, letting some air, some (unspecified, for now) set of muscles should be in charge of keeping it down a little bit, reducing the air flow.

… and that’s all there is to basic technique!

I hope this gives you a better understanding of what really matters for great singing technique. Advanced stuff notwithstanding. :)

If you are interested in a sequel in which I start getting into how you actually do all this, just let me know!

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