Despite a lot of propaganda to the contrary, singers are not special – anyone can sing, and if someone can sing better than you can then they have probably simply done a lot more purposeful singing practice than you have.
I am very confident about this, but I do not want to overstate my case. That practising business really makes a difference, as does the confidence a singer develops once they have put in a few hours performing in front of an audience – as long as their performances do not only take place while under the influence. State-dependent learning is a thing – my Mum can only jive when she’s had a few; suddenly all the steps are easily accessible, transported directly to her feet and hips from her inebriated brain without passing through her conscious awareness. It is pretty much guaranteed that you do not sing as well drunk as you do sober, and this is easy to demonstrate to yourself, what with so much portable recording equipment available. I love singing and will happily burst into song with very little encouragement, however I soon realised that sobriety was an absolute requirement for any sort of public performance once people started asking me to sing at parties!
Let’s see if I can convince you that you already know how to improve your singing…
Singing is just extending your vowels – try it now; take any short verbal phrase, and extend each vowel for an unnatural length of time. Ok, you probably sounded a little bit drone-y and monotonous, but you were ‘singing’ the words nevertheless. That really is a significant portion of what you need to get better at doing… so here’s a bit more ‘doing’ for you to play with…
Choosing a vowel…
There are linguistic symbols that designate the vowels. I know some of them, you may or may not know some of them. Instead of using those, for ease I use a list of words with the basic vowels in situ (very easy for an English speaker to memorise). The words I use mostly begin with ‘h’ and end in ‘d’ – one of the words is not in regular use, but is instead the name of a film character. The character is eponymous, the film is Hud.
Here is a list which contains all the single vowels that can be easily distinguished in English English – heed; hid; head; had; hard; hod; hoard; hood; who’d; herd; hud.
Slowly read through the list out loud, and notice, as you intone them one after the other, that your tongue shifts through different positions in a sort of wave motion. That is what vowels are by the way; your voice, filtered by a distinct tongue posture – the tongue position can only shift a small amount in either direction before each vowel morphs into one of its neighbours.
Many of the vowels in the list are present in the word ‘miaow’ – especially if you really slow it down – potentially making cats tough but charming singing teachers. I miaow at strange cats in the street, attempting to reproduce the sound so accurately that the cat will look in my direction – this is not as easy as it sounds, but it is very pleasing when it works.
When you sing words in English you will notice that some words contain composite vowels – one vowels morphs into another without a consonant to separate them. If this happens once you get two merged vowels, which is known as a ‘diphthong’ – e.g. ‘now’, ‘boy’, and ‘I’. If it happens twice the resulting vowel is called a ‘triphthong’ and it usually means the word has a [y], [r], or [w] in the middle (rather than the end as with many diphthongs), for example, ‘fire’, ‘layer’, ‘power’ – these words are fun to sing, as you have to figure out when to glide from one vowel to the next at the most appropriate moment – and your face makes fun shapes as well.
Three useful games to play with vowels if you would like to sing better…
1. Extend them – hold a vowel for as long as you can, on the same note. With enough practice this can teach you to breathe more efficiently when you are singing, and if you play with extended vowels often enough, and listen to yourself intently enough you will find that your vocal sound and your ability to keep a note ” in tune” steadily improves. That listening part is vital by the way, this is where purpose and intention come into their own. Fortunately listening to yourself singing is its own reward, as it is a reliable way to improve vagal tone and bring yourself into a calmer, more balanced state, both physiologically and emotionally.
I can and do teach breathing, but I already sang in a ‘supported’ way by the time I found the right vocal breathing instruction. Janice Chapman is a great teacher. I have taught her wonderfully simple technique to many singers, but that is not how I learned to do it myself. What I did was really simple; I just kept singing ballads until my ballad singing improved.
A ballad is a slow song, often but not always on the subject of love. Of course any song can be sung more slowly, and slowing a song down to give it a veneer of (sometimes undeserved) poignancy has become a standard way to cover a popular favourite. Pick the wrong song to mess with and you can drain it of all its vitality:
– Running Up That Hill is about making a deal with god to swap bodies with your heterosexual partner in order to understand them better – it is intensely rhythmic and the pulsating drums are so evocative that are present in the tow most famous covers. Will Young’s version is rather insipid in comparison with the erotic power of the original:
Here’s a personal favourite of mine; Mick Ronson deconstructing Love Me Tender – it was slow to begin with, he turns it into a guitar anthem, with a couple of key changes, just to add to the exuberance of it all:
So change the vowel, change the pitch, just don’t change either in the middle of your exhalation – it’s not wrong, it’s just a different exercise!
2. Extend a vowel and turn the volume up and down. You can start as quietly as you can, steadily turn the volume up, and then steadily down again, or start louder and reverse the pattern. Either way aim for a gradual shift in volume as that is the exercise – performing is a different matter; what you choose to do in a performance is art, so of course anything becomes permissible.
3. If you shift from vowel to vowel and note to note this is almost indistinguishable from actual singing – although it won’t make any sense without any consonants. If you play with shifting the note and the vowel at the same time you will be improvising. You may not be a jazz master right away, but it can be great fun to see what melodies emerge if you let yourself go.
“Of Course You Have To Practice Your Scales…”
…but scales are a little dull – I like to use songs as exercises instead. I pick a song that’s a little too difficult for me to sing, and practise it until I get bored – and if I pick the right song, that never happens…
…mostly you can’t sing these, however you can turn yourself into a drum-box with them – try “ boots and cats and boots and cats and…” and then take all the vowels out. Of course this also only gets better with practice.
You can sustain your nasal consonants, but that isn’t traditionally considered to be singing, it’s usually labelled ‘humming’…
Humming is very useful for developing singing skills – if you practice it you will get better at noticing yourself resonating, i.e. you will feel yourself vibrating and buzzing with sound – this is fun, and there is some evidence that it can also be therapeutic!
The best hum for singers is the “ng” hum – it’s not a coincidence that this is the sound at the end of ‘sing’, it’s an example of how much of our language is subtly onomatopoeic.
Ng: Sirening (like an emergency vehicle) to discover all your notes, high and low…
Make your ‘ng’ sound and slide it up and down in pitch, but do it really quietly, as quietly as you can. If you keep your volume really low you can go much higher and lower than you think you can, in complete safety. This is a brilliant exercise, it will warm you up, cool you down, heal your voice when it is injured, and increase your vocal range – as long as you do it very quietly.
The reason all these “exercises” work is because you need to listen to yourself to do them properly, so listening to yourself attentively is the key – and how Feldenkrais is that!
Online Vocal Training Opportunities
If you want to find out how to put all these sounds into good use, you can come along to my online Zoom classes, join me for the upcoming week long daily immersion class (November 2020), or come for one-to-one sessions – the most time-efficient choice if your goal is to become a confident performer.
I would like to finish with a clip of a wonderful performance of classical singing from a performer with a truly vibrant on-stage presence – I saw Cecilia Bartoli live once, and it was as if she was conducting the chamber orchestra with her whole self – enjoy!
New edit. Originally published 15.7.13