How to sing well, part 1: harsh reality + survival guide

Well then. There’s been a tiny little bit of interest. Good enough. Let’s talk about the fundamental requirement for getting better at singing – according to me, anyway. It’s in how you approach the whole process.

As I’ve said throughout the intro to this series, becoming an awesome singer consists of three kinds of tasks: doing the less of the wrong things, doing more of the good things, and doing both of that more consistently. All of these need to be approached in slightly different ways, but there’s one thing common to all of them:

You have no idea.

Your first and biggest enemy is your ignorance of what exactly you are doing while singing (you do most of these things so automatically that you’ll have a hard time noticing them at all, even if they are patently obvious to an impartial observer)… and if you do notice things, good luck figuring out which of them are “good” and which are “bad”.

Both of these are trickier than you might think. Sure, I can tell you a whole lot of theory about good and bad things to do… but how can you tell whether the thing you’re doing is the bad thing I just described, or just something similar? How can you know that you’re actually doing the good thing the right way?

Noticing what you are doing, on the other hand, seems like such a simple thing to do. But even if, impossibly, you were not somewhat preoccupied with trying to sing half-decently while you’re observing yourself, you still don’t really often have a reliable baseline. Do you know how many people have extreme neck or shoulder tension and they don’t even know it? There are people who have their shoulders pulled up to their ears but are completely convinced that their shoulders are in a neutral position.

Luckily there’s a solution!

Purposefully doubt yourself

When people talk about “doubt”, especially about their own ideas and thoughts, almost inevitably they’ll be portraying it as a negative thing. People who doubt themselves are seen as weak, as easily manipulated, as characterless.

That’s complete hogwash. Doubt is the reasonable, the rational way of thinking. It says, “I’m not really completely certain about this. There are many reasons why I could be wrong without ever realizing it.” In someone with a stable personality, it says, “I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s right but I’ll always be ready to seriously reconsider. My goal is to improve, not to convince anyone that I’m really smart. And if improving means I have to do some extra thinking, so be it!”

Your mind defaults to ignoring things that are exactly as you expect them, i.e. normal relative to the context you find yourself in. If you always frown, it’ll be hard to notice that you’re doing it. If you have a strong tendency to hold your breath all the time, it’ll be hard to notice that, too. If you hunch, chances are you don’t even know you’re doing it. If you always grip the steering wheel with entirely too much force, your mind won’t typically send you a postcard about it. It’ll tell itself: this is what always happens, why should anyone care? Next I’ll be asked to send out a notification for every heartbeat… lunacy!

What you can do to work against that is wonder. For example, you could ask yourself, “could I improve my posture? From which angles do I need to look to get a complete picture of my posture, and might there be differences to an ideal posture?” You might not have an answer, but asking yourself these kinds of questions will nudge the mind from “ignore this, it doesn’t matter” to “pay more attention to this”.

Note that I didn’t say ponder or obsess. If you start spending every free minute thinking about your posture, it’ll start to get in the way of other things. You’ll start trying to micromanage yourself, and may even end up with things being more awkward than before. So, instead, just be curious. “What’s going on? Are there other ways? What’s the difference?” There’s no need to spend hours researching. In fact, if you come out of the research with a fixed conclusion, you’re pretty much back where you’re started, in terms of mental flexibility. Instead, you’re just looking to open your mind a little bit in a certain direction, and get exposed to some of the right ideas so that your open mind has some kind of basis to reference future data against. That’s all. You can do the wondering part, and I’ll try my hand at the ideas part.

Monitor yourself… but no carrot or stick!

Perhaps this whole idea of doubting yourself sounds demotivating or depressing at first… but it absolutely doesn’t need to be! Remember, you’re just learning to do something better. No one breezes through absolutely all learning experiences. It’s only to be expected that you’ll start out with a bunch of roadblocks already firmly planted in your way. If you’re any realistic at all, you’ll know that before you start, and start anyway.

There’s one thing I haven’t talked about at all, yet, but it’s time to come clean. When becoming a great singer (or a great anything else), that won’t be all that’ll be happening. With all the things we’ll be looking at changing, your whole self-image will be affected. I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable with “being myself” to the max if I hadn’t gone through my singing lessons so far. A story for another day, I suppose.

You’re in for a very exciting experiment. It’s pretty much impossible to predict how quickly you’ll be proceeding, or exactly what changes you’ll be seeing. It took me ages to figure out what my ideal voice probably sounded like. There were many, many bad habits and other problems with technique that distorted the sound. I happen to have documentation of my process because I kept recording songs while going through the lessons. If you are any serious at all about awesome singing, make your own recordings every couple of weeks. It doesn’t matter what you record, though I hope I don’t have to tell you that singing should be in it, and your singing at that.

Why? Because you’ll be missing the forest through the trees. You’ll be so caught up in your current singing status that you’ll be mostly incapable of seeing how you’re doing in the grand scheme of things. Most of the improvement will not actually register, and that’s horribly demotivating. Don’t do that to yourself.

Similarly, don’t do yourself the disservice of discounting your successes, or mentally flagellating yourself for mistakes. Sure, you want to be aware of mistakes, because otherwise you can’t fix them. You don’t want to obsess over them, though, because obsession feeds itself and, at some point, really screws things up. Just note them. They’re part of the journey. They’re to be expected. In fact, you’re relying on them in your quest to get better. Taken to the extreme, you might actually rejoice whenever you made a mistake, because you just learned more about what you’re doing and how well various strategies work for dealing with problems. If that sounds over the top, just don’t take mistakes too seriously and you’ll be fine.

On the other hand, feel free to treat yourself to all the mental fireworks you like whenever you do something right. That reinforces to your mind that you want more of that. It won’t always deliver immediately, but there’s a cumulative effect. Keep doing this and it will slowly increase your rate of improvement.

Getting help is good

Take any help you can get.

Just kidding. Take any good help you can get. If you know someone who is capable of observing you and telling you what they notice without any stupid nonsense getting in the way, enlist them. If finding a vocal teacher is generally feasible for you, do it. If the devil appears to you at night in a fiery vortex and offers you an awesome voice in exchange for just a small little signature, do i… well, I guess that one depends on your moral code.

Practice makes perfect…

but only if done smartly. One hour of smart practising a week beats two hours of dumb practising a day, especially if the latter one sucks all your motivation out of you. Personally, I will not practise singing (nor anything else) whenever it feels laborious. I only start when I really feel like it (of the “okay, time to do some singing! Cool!” variety, not the “I’ll only sing when the desire pounces on me out of the blue” variety). That ensures I’ll only ever progress as quickly as I’m ready to do the work. Read through that sentence again… I triple-dare you to come up with an argument that that’s not a good thing.

Executive summary

Hah, I put this at the end, just to force you to read through all the things that actually make this make sense! It’s part of the “big meanie” image I’m trying on.

  1. Don’t delude yourself into knowing what’s going on. You have to work for that.
  2. Doubt is good, as long as it doesn’t jump past open-mindedness right into “there’s nothing I can trust, so I’m screwed” territory.
  3. Keep track, or you’ll be flying blind.
  4. Celebrate, don’t castigate. (Double score for combined alliteration and rhyme! Yay!)
  5. Since you don’t have to be concerned about being right: be smart instead.
    The bad news is that I don’t have any technique in this first part. The other bad news is that hearing about the technique is the easy part. In this case, two negatives make a positive, I think… but then again, that may be the tiredness speaking.

That’s it for today. If you’re still with me, the next part will start being more specific, e.g. by telling you what to actually pay attention to, and giving you a few points of reference so you can actually start changing things. And that’s even before we have finished the first level of certification! With that kind of schedule, by the time we bill you for the incredibly expensive Junior Vocal Executive certificate, you’ll be ready to take on the world of singing all by yourself! (The Senior Vocal Executive certificate includes more technical vocabulary so you can use to impress and/or bore people at parties, and start your own certification programme.)

I’m still tired. I have no idea what I just wrote. I’ll just go dream a few things. In the meantime, let me know how this post works for you.

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