Singing 101

Girl With Guitar

Think you can’t sing? Think again. Can you hum or sing the pitches as you tune your guitar? Can you sing along with your car radio? You can? Great! Now we know you can sing. It’s good to get that out of the way.

Think your voice is grating? Does it scare the children and cats? Do dogs like to sing along?

Let me just say this about that: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Dr. Hook, Brittany Spears and many more. Now, not everybody has a voice that demands to be listened to, but everyone can improve what they have.

I’m going to give you a brief overview of singing here, but the best thing you can do for yourself is find a teacher and take a lesson. Waste of time you say? Would you say a guitar lesson is a waste? I didn’t think so. Your voice as an instrument is amazingly similar to a guitar, and just as complex. But with just a couple of lessons, you can make a dramatic improvement in your voice. Think of the great leap you made as an absolute beginner playing guitar. Day one, you couldn’t play anything. Day two, you could play several chords. In a couple of weeks, how much more did you accomplish? You can make the same kind of dramatic improvement singing.

I don’t know why this is especially so for voice lessons, but people have the misguided idea that voice lessons are for people who are already great singers. Well, this is absolutely wrong. That’s like saying if you’re a beginning guitarist, you shouldn’t take lessons because you’re not good enough yet. It makes no sense at all.

“Really?” you say. “Well how would I go about starting?”

I’m glad you asked.

Your first step is to find a teacher who can teach the style you want to sing. Although the basics are the same from style to style, if you’re being taught opera, but want to sing thrash… well you get the idea. Just talk to the teacher and make sure he or she can get you on the road to your vocal destination.

While you’re talking, find out the teacher’s hourly and half hourly rates. Rates vary all over the board, but for a beginning lesson you can estimate $25 for a half hour. You can find a voice teacher posted on a bulletin board at your local guitar shop, at the local community college, and the yellow pages. You can ask a singing friend for names and numbers of good teachers or check with your local choir director. Don’t forget the music teachers at your local schools.

Make sure you take a tape recorder to your lesson. You’ll get a history of where you started, you can play the lesson over and over, and you can record the teacher playing your homework. Listen to it in the car and sing along. The nice thing about being a singer is the equipment is so easy to carry. You can sing just about anywhere.

No social commentary here, but if you smoke, don’t do it before your lesson. Besides your voice teacher giving you endless grief, it dries out your sinuses and throat, it cuts the amount of air you can breathe in, and causes all the other nasty things printed on the side of the package.

The first lesson will go something like this:

  1. You’ll be told to sit up straight for the first of many times.
  2. You’ll be told the mechanics of how your voice works.
  3. Your teacher will play some simple 3 or 4 note partial scales and ask you to duplicate them.
  4. You’ll be told to sit up straight again.
  5. Then you’ll get some direction about what muscles to use to support your voice.
  6. Next, you’ll learn some imagery about how to free up and project the voice.
  7. Why aren’t you sitting up straight?
  8. Let’s try those scales again using your new-found knowledge.
  9. Then you’ll get some exercises to practice for homework.

It is actually painless. Even after this basic lesson, you should be able to see the building blocks forming.

Practice and Anatomy

Now, a word about practice. Singing isn’t difficult. But, like anything else, it takes practice and repetition to become proficient. When you are learning to play a new song, do you just play it through once and then announce, “Ready to go”? No. You play it over and over until it sounds good enough to take on the road. Same thing applies here. Take those exercises and drill ’em.

Well, that is the lesson pitch portion of this column. Let’s move on to Anatomy 101.

It’s analogy time. Remember I said the voice is amazingly like the guitar? Let’s think of the parts of your body that make up your voice as the parts of a guitar.

Larynx membranes (vocal cords) are the strings.
Larynx muscles are the fretboard.
Your throat is the sound hole.
Your diaphragm/stomach is the guitar body.
Your sinuses are the type of wood used in the guitar.

So what happens when you sing or talk? Just about everyone knows that you make sound by passing air over your larynx. When you speak or sing, you exhale and push air up your throat to the larynx. The larynx has two membranes stretched across it that vibrate in the rushing air to produce sound waves. By changing the tension on those membranes, you produce higher and lower tones.

Piece of cake so far, right? Well, here is where you get the difference between the $100 guitar and the $10,000 guitar.

Think of your body as the body of the guitar. If you only use your upper body and throat to make a sound, you get the thin, reedy sound of a Martin backpacker. Don’t get me wrong; I love my Backpacker. I keep it at work and practice at lunch. But I wouldn’t play it in concert. Now, if you breathe correctly and support the sound from way down low, you open up a deep resonating chamber and you get the full-bodied, dreadnought sound.

Check out how your body is breathing right now. When you breathe in does your chest rise and do your shoulders rotate back a little? Great. That’s all wrong, but very easy to fix. Try this: find a place to get flat on your back. Note: If you are reading this during work, now is probably not the time. Anyway, watch your body as you breathe on your back. Your stomach rises, yes? Your chest stays still, yes? That is because you are filling your lungs to the depths. That is how you want to breathe while singing.

Your diaphragm is moving down and creating a vacuum that pulls air into your lungs. When your diaphragm pushes up, air is expelled. This muscle is the lynchpin of singing. You use it to support your voice like the bag on a bagpipe. You squeeze it and the air goes up. If you have trouble staying on pitch when you sing a note, here is the culprit. You must maintain the muscular support from way down here to keep the note steady way up there.

A little old lady voice teacher once told me,

“When you are supporting the note correctly, your stomach muscles will feel like you are taking a dump.”

I kid you not.

Let’s look at your vocal chords – the “guitar strings” of your voice. Problem is, you can’t change ’em when they get worn. Drink water before, during and after singing. Room temperature is best before and during, cold after. This keeps everything lubricated and allows for better vibration and sound wave creation.

The throat/sound hole and the sinuses/wood work together. They both color the sound. The sound hole allows a specific volume of air to pass, which pushes along the sound waves. Your throat does the same thing, and you want it to be as relaxed and open as possible. Be aware of the muscles of your throat and make sure they are not tensed up. This is not where sound comes from; it is the path the sound travels along. Closing the path simply lessens the sound quality.

The number one influence on sound is the sinuses or head cavity. I made this the equivalent of the type of wood, but maybe it should be type of wood, quality of workmanship and quality of materials. It is that important. Think about what you sound like with a head cold. None of the other areas mentioned above are affected, just the sinuses.

What happens to your voice? It is muffled, unintelligible and without depth or volume. So it is crucial you keep this area relaxed and clear. When I’m performing, I take a little bottle of baby saline nose drops and use them if I feel even slightly congested.

Here are three brief exercises for the sinuses:

  1. Hum a song and try to make the humming sound emanate from the area directly between your eyes. Concentrate on the feeling. When you sing, try to make your voice go up from your body, past the larynx and out through that same area.
  2. Buzz your lips together loosely. You know, make a motorboat sound. See how the sound seems to be generated just in front of your mouth. Try to get your singing voice to start out there too. The idea is to make sure that your head and throat are not pinching the sound down, but allowing it to resonate and add richness.
  3. Visualize a basketball player shooting a foul shot. He starts by bending his knees, then straightening them to add power. He then moves his arms up and shoots the ball in a graceful arc toward the basket. This is the way the voice should work. The diaphragm provides the leg power and the voice gracefully arcs up and out toward the target.

So, you’ve gotten this far. Congratulations. Let me give you four more little hints.

Listen to singers that sing like you’d like to sound. Copy them. You can hear intonation, breathing, volume choices and many more things on a recording.

Print out the lyrics and mark them up to indicate where you want to breathe, what words you want to emphasize, and which notes are slurred, loud or soft.

When you see someone hop up, take the microphone and burst into song in a movie or on TV, laugh heartily out loud. It doesn’t work that way. You have to woodshed it first.

If you are playing and singing, as soon as you can play the song through, and before you add polish to it, start singing along as you play. This helps you to associate the lyrics with muscle changes in your hands.

This hopefully clarifies some misconceptions and provides an overall picture of what is going on when you sing. Voice is not hard to improve. You just need to be willing to invest a little time and practice.

Here is a recap:

  1. Singing is a physical activity and can be improved through proper practice.
  2. Think about releasing the voice through your head. Don’t push or pinch. Send it merrily on its way from the depths of your body up and out through your head.
  3. Show no fear. If you start to worry what you sound like, you’ll tense up. You’ll get up to sing and a little flat squeak will escape. Get up there and show them! Belt it out! Be confident!
  4. Did I say take a lesson?

And whatever you do, make sure you sit up straight.