It doesn’t have to be like this. Your voice CAN feel better.
That could be the end of this post. Just a short little love note. But, this love letter deserves some explanation. You see, there is this idea out there that (often) nothing can be done to improve a voice. I’m here to help dispel that myth and share some resources on getting help if you need it. Over and over I have heard singers say things like, “this is just how my voice is going to be” and I’ll say it again . . . it doesn’t have to be this way! There are things you can do to strengthen, tone, and coordinate your vocal mechanism in exactly the same way you would train other parts of your body. Chances are your voice will do more than you think it can, and with some foundational technique work, will give your more than you expect.
I think of singing technique as skill building. You need different kinds of skills to sound authentic singing different styles, and if you want a full-blown career in a specific style you do NOT need to practice ALL the skills. (Bluegrass singing tone and style would be a waste of your time if you want an opera career.) Vocal function, however, is important for everyone on the most basic level. For example, if you have functional voice challenges, you need to work on the foundations of your voice THEN use that rehabbed function and skill as the foundation to build the specific skills you need for jazz, bluegrass, opera, rock, musical theatre, etc.
One of my teachers said that in the past, contemporary or commercial singers who needed technical help went to classical teachers. In turn, those classical teachers often tried to make everyone sound “classical,” which doesn’t work for the weekend-rock-band-warriors or singer-songwriters. So, these singers tended to give up and adopt a “whatever! I’ll just have to deal with my voice the way it is” attitude, or do their best to collect a random assortment of vocal exercises and figure it out on their own. (Hopefully, as more people blog and share and connect, singers won’t feel so alone or count themselves out for voice training because they don’t sing Mozart. Hopefully.)
There are lots of voice training programs and methods. There are good tips and information in most of them, and everyone needs to experiment a bit in order to find what works. There are also A LOT of great teachers out there who can help get you sounding good in the style you love, and they are worth the investment. As you go forward in your voice journey, here are a few training guidelines I’ve found helpful. I hope they help you in some small way, and as always, please let me know if you have questions.
- Form. When you are practicing, make sure you are using correct form. This is just like training a muscle group in the gym. If you are not doing the exercise with the correct posture and sound again and again, you will get mixed results. With singing you need to both watch and listen for correct positioning of the macro body, larynx, and airflow. This is where a teacher comes in very handy. They can help you learn how to correctly position your body and hear a functional or healthy sound so that you are maximizing your training.
- Reps. Doing reps works in the gym and in the vocal studio. Doing an exercise in sets trains strength and coordination. Do a specific number of reps, then take a break and repeat. How many reps will depend on your form and level of vocal efficiency/coordination. Only do as many reps on an exercise as you can do with correct form. Taking breaks in between sets will allow time for the voice to recover.
- Specificity. Singing specific intervals (half steps, 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc.) trains the muscles in the larynx to lengthen and shorten into specific positions. This is important for gaining pitch control and vocal fold flexibility. I like teaching jazz for the massive range of intervals we get to cover in the literature! You can mix up your practice using interesting intervals like tritones, for example.
- Learn to Listen. The quality of the sound tells you about the position of the vocal folds, amount of airflow, amount of air pressure, ability of the vocal tract to tune the notes, and amount of tension in the vocal tract and/or vocal folds. Learn to hear what your voice is telling you. When you practice, this requires you to record yourself or use something like HearFones.
- End on a good sound. Whatever sound you end your exercise with is likely to be the one your body memorizes. So, if you are a Bluegrass singer, end your vocal routine with a bright sound that matches what you do on stage. When practicing vocal skills and function, end your practice on a sound that is healthy and balanced.
- Again and again. Come back to correct form and strength building reps on a daily basis if possible. We are talking about training the body to respond automatically, afterall.
Free Warm Up Ideas
Voicescienceworks.org has a free handout on building your own vocal warm up. Use this list of exercises to learn specific skills, or create a warm up routine that makes sense for you. Click here for the handout!