Sometimes we limit ourselves with what we THINK we can do rather than what our voices can actually do -says Juliet Russell.
1. Breathe Easy
While you do usually need more breath for singing than for speaking, it’s a common misconception to think that you need a huge lungful of air for every phrase. The key is to always have enough. Learn to balance. Too much air can actually stop the vocal folds from closing effectively. Yes, a big long phrase such as Whitney Houston singing “I will always love you” does require a good amount of breath, but the beginning of Adele’s “Someone Like You” doesn’t need anywhere near as much.
Exercise – Try singing a few different phrases from a range of songs and experiment with how much or how little breath each requires. You might be surprised!
2. Get Playful
We are blessed with an incredibly versatile instrument, but sometimes we limit ourselves with what we THINK we can do rather than what our voices can actually do.
When we’re skitting our friends, mimicking or doing impressions or accents, we are able to access a wide range of sounds, timbres and voice qualities that we wouldn’t normally use in our own regular speech pattern. It’s easy and we don’t have to think about it.
How can we bring that spirit of playfulness to our singing?
Exercise – Experiment with impressions of other singers. It doesn’t even have to be that accurate, just try to identify the features of that singers voice and try them out. Distinctive singers such as Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse are great ones to start with. Also experiment with different styles. Play around with making your voice sound more jazzy, more folky, more classical, more R’nB. What do you notice and how can you use this?
3. Remember: Feeling Is At Least As Important As Thinking
As singers we often spend a lot of time thinking about our sound, our style and things like pitch accuracy, tone, range and breathing. These are all important of course, but it’s very easy to get caught up in the technique and thinking involved with singing rather than the feeling involved in singing. We need both.
There’s a brilliant quote by Annie Lennox that sums this up:
Singing a song is one thing, but expressing a song is another – it’s deep. That’s why you don’t have to be the best singer technically, as long as you can convince people of your emotional authenticity. Performing isn’t just about the voice – there’s a magic to it, an alchemic quality.
Exercise – Choose a song that has a strong emotional message. Sing through it. Read and re-read the lyrics. What is the central theme, message or emotion in the song? Are there any lines that could be ambiguous (and therefore open to interpretation)? Does the emotion change at any point? How can you communicate this vocally? Sing through the song exaggerating the emotion, then sing it again more naturally. Has the emotional intensity improved? Notice what you feel in your body before singing, during and afterwards.
4. Sing With Your Whole Body
Your whole body is connected and something as simple as how you stand can have an impact on how you produce your vocal sound.
I have a habit of bringing my head and neck forward when I’m really concentrating or trying to master something so I regularly check in with my body when I’m working hard to remind myself to lengthen through the back of my neck.
Find your “neutral” and get used to body checking during your practise.
Neutral is a term I first came a cross in drama rather than music. This is essentially where our body feels balanced and in alignment.
Stand with your feet hip distance apart, with the base of the feet in contact with the floor (no high heels for this exercise and bare feet are good). Make sure your toes aren’t pointing out or in, but facing ahead if possible.
Move up through the body. Make sure knees are soft (not locked, but they don’t need to be bent).
Move to the hips. Are you leaning slightly forwards or back? Are your hips stiff and locked or can you move the easily and fluidly? Try circling the hips in one direction then the other. Rock your pelvis forward and back a few times then find the comfortable mid point.
Very gently feel a sense of space or lengthening in the spine. The spine has a natural curve to it.
Roll the shoulders forward and back, up and down. Check to see if the shoulders, hips and ankles are in alignment, stacked on top of each other.
Gently lengthen through the back of the neck. Ensure the jaw isn’t clenched. Soften the face and the muscles around the mouth.
Check and feel if your ears, shoulders hips and ankles are in alignment. Also check that no tension has crept back into the body, especially in the knees, hips, neck, shoulders and jaw.
This is your neutral.
Body checking helps us to be become aware of our physical habits and to correct them.
Exercise – Film yourself from the side or get someone to film you on your phone. Start in a neutral position and then begin to sing. Are there any changes in the body? What happens when you sing higher or louder or when you go really low. It’s worth registering any physical changes. Watch out particularly for any areas of tension (commonly in the shoulders, neck, jaw and hips, but everyone is different).
Note: Some postural changes during singing can be very helpful to the sound we want to make. This exercise is just to make ourselves aware of any habits that might be adversely affecting our singing.
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Roman - Mud
Roman – It’s great to see a live performance video. It takes a lot of courage to sing in a situation like that, in front of your peers and with minimal instrumentation. There’s an emotional honesty and vulnerability to your performance, especially in the verses. When the dynamic builds musically, you need to be able to match this vocally and find more strength in your sound. You could practice better vocal fold closure as its hard to be dynamic with a breathy sound. Try some exercises using a gentle glottal onset to feel the sensation of the vocal folds meeting.
In terms of performance, physically let the audience know that you are ready. Your body language could be a lot more positive and commanding. You have a habit of looking down and actually bringing the shoulders forward and down. This is also having an impact on your breath support that will help you to sustain the longer phrases.
Thank you for sending in your video. It’s a pleasure to hear different singers, styles and songs.
Juliet Russell has completed a unique tour which sees her joining forces with a different community choir in locations across Britain. Hundreds of voices performed Juliet Russell’s new album, Earth Meets Sky, creating a series of unique live performances. These have been recorded, filmed, and broadcast throughout the tour on social media. Visit her website for more information.