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4 Simple Ways to Improve Your Singing

4 Simple Ways to Improve Your Singing
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!

sometimes we limit ourselves with what we THINK we can do rather than what our voices can actually do

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.

Poor posture not only leads to aches and pains, but also has an impact on your vocal sound

Poor posture not only leads to aches and pains, but also has an impact on 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.

Body checking helps us to be become aware of our physical habits and to correct them

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 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.

November’s Vocal Coach in Residence: Juliet Russell

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.

  • mike alan

    Great advice! #4 contains some nice, fine-tuning pointers. #2 really resonates as impersonating seems so valuable to me; meanwhile, so many “in the know” poo-poo the idea, claiming it’ll do you harm, etc. I see such effort & potential learning no differently than adding grit, going pharyngeal, etc. Thanks!

  • fubar_saunders

    Unclench the jaw. Thats interesting. I find that to be able to carry off the impersonation one that I need to almost “mimic” what seems like a tension or a pushing out of the lower jaw to be able to get anything even like an approximation of the tone that I’m looking for – and this tends to be the only tone of my own voice that I’m happy with, when I’m singing like trying to sound like someone else – otherwise my normal tone, I find quite thin and lifeless.

    Interesting…. I’m not a natural singer though, have never had any training of any sort, so I’m probably not best qualified to comment! :-)

  • Wolfgang Oehry

    I have been performing as a singer since 1970. EMI offered me a record contract in the 80’s and now I’m 67 and can still perform and get applause and compliments. I’m not saying this to brag, but to encourage others to practice their singing and never stop singing. All tips and advice in this forum are valuable, but some of the best are:
    1. Warm up your vocal cords by softly singing along with a song. Start in lower frequencies, then repeat the song, singing stronger and stronger and higher and higher, but don’t force your throat. Let your chest be the resonator, just like a guitar has a body, where the sound is being produced.
    2. Record yourself singing (Audio and Video) and then listen to it. It’s brutal to hear your voice naked at first, with no effects at all, but it’s also a good teacher. If you can sing well and in pitch without any reverb or other effects, you’re good and you’ll sound even better with the right amount of effects!
    3. If your car can play CD’s or MP3 sticks, have your song repertoire in your car, drive and sing, sing, sing. That’s what I do… :)

  • keith cummings

    I’m an old singer still learning to sing, I really like ALL the points you make, and especially #2, which can be really fun and creative…like trying to phrase like Frank Sinatra or Jim Morrison. For years I’ve stood as you suggested, but now I’m trying dancing a tad, or swaying/moving to the music a bit, more to keep the rhythm than anything, and that seems to give my voice a more lively polished sound. And standing with a mic in hand seems way better sounding than a mic on a stand, easier to move a mic in hand closer and further away from the mic to add dynamics and keep proper levels, than move a whole body…another new revelation to me.

  • As an old timer now I can look back over 65 years as to how singing presentation has changed for both male and female singers. These days it sounds to me much more like a series of contrived well practiced exercises in vocal acrobatics rather than getting on with singing a song. Singing used to be a “beautiful thing to behold and listen to” for me.
    These days I squirm every time I see a singer trying to impress with what I call “vocal acrobatics”, ….it’s that extending of “oh..oh….oh….oh’s” and the chasing of runs from high to higher then
    low to high and on and on. It’s as if a new virus has taken hold on what singing once was. I see that kind of singer behaviour as attention seeking more than anything else. I just switch off and go to something
    else when they start that.
    If you want to learn how to sing naturally go to youtube and look up
    famous singers of the forties,fifties, sixties and seventies. Listen to
    Edith Piaf, Matt Munro, Vic Damone, Sammy Davis Junior, Doris Day,
    Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Connie Francis, Pavarotti, Roger Whittaker, to
    name but a few. They had style and they had the voice to go along with
    it……and of course great band and music arrangements.
    All this
    dancing around with guys and gals cavorting all over the place has been
    fed to the audiences of the last couple of generations now. My advice? Just learn to relax and be yourself. Sharing a song is like sharing your soul. People respond to heartfelt emotion even if the singer has a gravelly voice and vocal breakups.
    Don’t try to be too much of a vocal smart alec. Stand tall, shoulders back and sing your heart out so as to convey the story and the emotive content of the lyrics, without trying to show off.

    If I want to watch aerobics, I go to the gym or watch the olympics.
    If I want to listen to good singers who can carry the show on their own without the cavorting backdrop…………well………I have to go back a long long way in time it seems!
    Thank goodness for youtube.com………….our legacy for posterity!

  • Jill

    I have always sang, but recently we are going to be doing quite a few shows in a short period and I will be doing all of the singing. What tips and tricks do you have for pacing ones self for 2-4 hour shows? I find my throat feels a little sore after an hour. Any suggestions would be great!!!! And yes, I am warming up and hydrating well!

  • Kirk Leavesley

    Hey Poppa, I pretty much agree with what you’ve said. I’m 65 myself and played professionally during the 70’s & 80’s & on and off since then. It seems to be all about the singer than the song these days. How long you can hold the note, how many acrobatics you are able to do with your voice, whether or not it even fits in the song.
    All the great singers had fun, had rich tone, loved melody and were versiitile enough to wring every bit of emotion that was possible with the songs they sang.
    I sing all the older songs from the 20’s-70’s and do 20+ shows a month at Senior’s Centers, Banquets and events and love doing all the old standards. It’s also really important that I sing “the songs my audience knows and relates to” and that I’m there to entertain them!
    In the 70’s, I sang everything from Deep Purple, Uriah Heep & Allman Bros to America, Crosby Stills & Nash right through to the old Jazz standards. It did’ matter whether it was Black Hearted Woman, Ventura Highway or Girl From Ipanema…..it was about the song and delivering it to the audience in a way they could relate to.

  • Fantastic Kirk ! It was when I got to your mention of Girl From Ipanema that I suddenly remembered how I had quite forgotten just how Tall , tanned young and lovely all those young beach girls used to be in the 50’s to 70s years.
    It was when I saw a dazzling curly haired (MY) “Girl From Ipanema” on Sanary Beach on the French Riviera in the 1960’s……that a memory was forged….so strong, that fifty years later I composed a song about her which I recorded more than a year ago, but have not yet released.
    All I need to be able to launch it is to complete a CD label to suit the character and story in the song. I face the seemingly insurmountable task of locating a beach costume clad, Curly Haired, tanned young beauty who fits the bill to be the girl on the CD Label. I have spent 18 months searching on the Net.
    Practically every young lady these days has long straight hair……..even if their natural hair is curly…..they hot-tong…….yes I did say HOT TONG…..it out, to be straight.

    I too do the occasional charity show for Seniors and those in Aged Care facilities which as I age is becoming more and more tedious in many ways.
    I do take some comfort that I have put many of my compositions onto cdbaby.com and many other download sites, so that they are there for posterity..or at any rate as long as the Internet survives.
    When those of our Baby Boomer Generation all pass, it will truly be the end of an era……..one that will go down in the Annals of history which was really worth remembering in so many ways that those born since will never ever be able to fully grasp. Such is life !

    All the very best to you !