Singing Tips

Here are answers to questions I'm frequently asked about singing, vocal technique and singing lessons. I don't always have time to respond individually to singers who write me (sorry!), so I'm posting these free singing tips here.

Remember that it should never hurt to sing. If you feel strain while singing, you are doing something wrong. You may need to unlearn some bad vocal habits, learn how to breathe correctly, or learn some basic vocal technique. Check out my vocal technique methods The No Scales, Just Songs Vocal Workout or Singing With Style to learn how to replace bad singing habits with good singing technique, and to build and maintain vocal power and range. If you're really in need of vocal help or want a slower, gentler approach check out my newest method The Vocal Recovery Warmup.

Q: My voice cracks when I get to high notes.

A: You may be trying to force your chest voice too high. You can strengthen your vocal cords so that you can sing higher (see the next question), but you may need to learn to coordinate them better and develop your mix register to navigate those highs. This is work best done with a voice coach or with a good CD voice program and careful self-monitoring. Meanwhile, try this before and as you hit one of those high notes:
1] Inhale deeply through your nose while lifting your eyebrows.
2] Keep your eyebrows lifted, and sing the note at volume 8.5 or 9 (10 is full volume).
3] If the high note is on a syllable with an open vowel like "Ah", drop your jaw.

Q: How can I learn to sing higher and louder?

A: The vocal cords are a muscle-- so just like any other muscle in the body, the vocal muscle can be strengthened. Stronger vocal cords increase vocal dexterity, range, and power, and improve tone quality. The trick is to strengthen the vocal cords without working too hard and straining them (as well as learning how to coordinate the breath and vocal resonators, among many other things). Find an easy song you can sing comfortably. Warning: If you always feel some strain when you are singing do not attempt to build your range or volume. You need to learn some basic vocal technique first.

To build your range, sing the song in gradually higher keys. As soon as you feel throat strain, back off for the day. Make sure that your adam's apple doesn't rise as you sing.

To build your volume, sing the song in the middle or upper-middle of your range, and sing the song gradually louder. Again, as soon as you feel throat strain, back off for the day.

Q: Help! I have to sing tonight, I have a cold and my voice is hoarse/raspy/barely there.

A: If your voice is really wiped out, skip your usual warm up. Rest your voice as much as possible and drink tons of fluids (tepid or warm water is best, not sodas, coffee or alcohol). Rehearse your set mentally instead of out loud. Inhale steam.

Remember that the adrenaline that hits you while performing often relieves many cold and allergy symptoms for the duration of the performance. Then they come back later! Still, you might want to lower the key of your more difficult songs or even skip the toughest ones. You can also try rubbing Preparation H on your adam's apple-- this can help to reduce the inflammation of the vocal cords.

Q: I want to be a singing star and I'm still in school. How can I meet producers, get a record deal, and get famous?

A: Remember that there are two parts to the music business: music and business. Stay in school and search out every opportunity to sing. If your school choir only does classical music and you want to sing rock, join it anyway. You'll learn some voice technique and improve your musicianship and ear. If you can't afford private singing lessons buy a vocal technique program and work with it daily. Most record labels expect their artists to learn vocal technique before they sign them.

At the same time, educate yourself about how the music business works. Clueless people rarely get signed, and they do they end up signing away all their rights and royalties. There are numerous online sites and forums where you can learn about the music business for free— start with www.jpfolks.com and cdbaby.org. Good luck!

Q: Can someone really learn to sing well? Aren't people born with the ability, and they either can or can't sing well?

A: While it's true that some great singers like Barbra Streisand and Leann Rimes were singing well at an early age and appeared to be born with that ability, many other good singers didn't become good until they developed their voices. Several famous singers (including Vanessa Williams) have been quoted saying that they couldn't sing at all until they took singing lessons. Virtually everyone improves with voice lessons.

Q: I think I'm tone deaf. Can people really learn to sing on key?

A: I've taught thousands of singers and I've only encountered two who continued to have trouble matching a note after several lessons (and those two were very early in my teaching career when I didn't know as much as I know now). Very few people are tone-deaf. Most singers simply need to strengthen the ear-brain-vocal cord connection. Try this:

1] Find a range of notes on a piano that is close to the speaking range of your voice. If you don't know, just guess and avoid really high or low notes.
2] Play one note and then re-play it mentally. Don't sing out loud yet, let your brain process what you're hearing.
3] Hum the note. Hummed notes resonate more in your ears and are easier to sing in tune. Many singers hit the note low and then slide up to the correct note. If you hear yourself doing this, continue this process until you are humming the note without scooping up.
4] If you simply can't tell whether you are on the right note or not, record yourself doing this exercise. If you still can't tell from the recording you may need to work with a teacher.

The best thing for building your ability to sing in tune is to go slowly. When your abilities improve, try working with slow, easy exercises and songs.

Q: I'm a good singer but I'm terrified of singing in front of anyone, even my best friend.

A: Stage fright is very common for singers. This is something you need to work on gradually. One way is to join a choir--You'll get performance experience but you won't be the center of attention, which takes the pressure off. Read my page with stage fright tips, and check out my book Singing Live: The Performing Skills Guidebook for Contemporary Singers, it's perfect for good singers who have stage fright.

Q: How do I learn to do those fancy runs, riffs and vocal tricks that I hear other singers do?

A: You can start by copying those singers to build your ear and vocal dexterity. But eventually you need to develop your own vocal style. During the instrumental section of songs pretend you're a saxophone and “just do it”, make stuff up. Let yourself make mistakes and don't be too judgmental as you experiment. That will build your improvising ability. There's a ton of information about learning vocal style on my 3-CD set Singing With Style.

Q: At what age should children start singing lessons?

A: Unless your child is unusually gifted and mature I would hold off on formal voice training until around age nine or so. I've found that most younger kids don't have the patience to learn detailed vocal technique. Meanwhile, get them involved in other singing and musical activities: choirs, piano or violin lessons, and group music classes. Group singing classes or choirs where the teacher throws in some breathing or other vocal technique tips would be great. My 2-CD set The Just Songs Vocal Warmup for Kids is a song-based method that sneaks in a lot of technique while singing fun songs.

If you think your young child is one of the talented exceptions, take him or her to a voice teacher for an evaluation. If the teacher thinks your child is ready, try a few lessons. Keep in mind that many kids don't want their parents in the teaching room during lessons. I record all of my lessons so that the parent can monitor what we're doing during a class. See if the teacher you find can do the same.
© Susan Anders

There's more about singing and other topics on my blog I Feel Like Singing: notes about singing, songwriting, performing, vocal coaching, and the intersection of art, soul and commerce.

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