Vocal Tips


How Do I Warm Up?

Everyone should be warmed up before they sing but the method of warming up can vary considerably from person to person. It all depends if you are going to be singing all night, doing one song as a guest spot, starting a half hour practice or coming to a lesson.

Some people do scales but then practice them in an area of the voice where they have just been talking to their mates in the office all day, so they’re already warm and it becomes a pointless exercise. Think outside the box! Some people hum, chew, blow through their lips, do arpeggios, work on the low voicing (or the high). I like to hum and I like to do arpeggios but then not everyone has the musical knowledge to do this.

If you are driving to a gig its good to sing a little and get the air down into your back as you push back against the seat and build the volume up as you feel your body start to warm to the fact that you are exercising, because that is what singing is and if you are not prepared to treat it as a strong physical exercise you are not treating singing with the respect it deserves.

Keeping a wet throat is good too and not with cold drinks. Ideally warm temperature water is the best or even a little warmer than that. Remember don’t do anything to “shock” your voice when you are warming up, there will be time for that when you’re ready to sing. Just never sing without warming up first unless you want to do damage to your vocal chords.

Remember, an athlete would never run a race without being prepared and neither should you attempt to sing without the same consideration both to your body and your mind.

How do I increase my vocal range?

Practice, practice and more practice. As I am getting older my falsetto range is decreasing and so I spend more time on that area of my voice than ever. Once I am warmed up I spend a lot of time working in and out of the chest and head voice and aiming at my top notes in both voicing's.

Then I work on the bottom range as well. At the same time I try and work on the different tones and see if I can reach all the notes at the extremities of my range in all tones; round, soft, airy, harsh, rich etc. Often it is a good idea to have some favourite songs that you like to sing and which will stretch you out in both ends of your range.

Once I am warmed up I will aim at scales but starting at the lowest note I can find, or the highest not I can find which make me have to think and reach with confidence for those beginning notes. Don’t do songs for practice that you can sing really easily except for warm ups. Pick songs that are going to challenge both ends of your range because constant work in that area will increase your range as your body and mind gets used to the idea that you are singing in that area more and more.

There are singing teachers out there that will tell you that you are given a talent and a range and to accept that; but to me, that is like saying give up on expanding your range because that is all you’ve got to start with. Remember that if athletes had that attitude we would never break world records and personal best marks. It is exciting to gain a new note, especially if the same thing happens the next time you practice as well, it means you are increasing your range and whilst the note may not start out so strong, it surely will if you keep at it.

How do I look after my voice?

This is a tough one because just like a lot of athletes, everyone is different. A lot of it depends on the care you are giving your body and I’m not saying that everyone needs to be ultra slim and eating the right foods and exercising every day but there are definitely some don'ts.

The first is don’t smoke – anything. The smoke passing down over your vocal chords (along with the nicotine/tar) will dry them out and eventually will destroy them – OK that’s serious stuff and there are many people who smoke who are great singers but it is incorrect to say that smoking will not harm your vocal chords, it will and severely.

Drink in moderation. My grandmother had a great voice and she had a recipe if her voice was sore or she had a sore throat through having a cold. 2 Lemons, 2 soluble aspirins, a teaspoon of honey, a nip of whisky or brandy (two drinks invented primarily as medicines centuries ago and “pure” drinks) hot water all mixed in a mug then go to bed and sweat the problem out of you. Believe me it works. But apart from that she never drank anything else apart from warm water when she was singing. Both my parents were good singers and they followed her advice as well and also never had any problems with their voices. Other people take throat lozenges (you need to be careful here, some are just glorified sweets and have added sugar which will make the problem worse. If you have a sore throat, don’t sing; but; don’t talk either.

Warm up properly: don’t start the set with your hardest song if you know that it is really stretching you out and could cause damage. Some people are allergic to certain foods, dairy, gluten etc. and so of course you need to take all that into account. You are not going to sing well if you have eaten or drunk the wrong thing, are tired, run down, have a sore throat or unprepared. It’s a no brainer really eh!

How do I control my nerves?

Some people are really lucky and never get nervous on stage. Being nervous is great if you can channel it. Since having depression I have had several instances of anxiety attacks on stage, usually just before starting my first song. To get over that I try and focus at a point just above peoples heads, or on a friend in the audience, get my pitching right in my head and listen clearly to the band giving me the cues. If all of that is spot on you will be fine, if not you just have to accept the fact that you get nervous and work on minimizing that feeling as much as possible so that you can control it.

I firmly believe that if you are well practiced, well prepared and confident about the health of your voice
you can overcome the nerves. Some people have a stiff drink before they go on, some people get smashed or stoned and then can’t remember why they’re on stage which is obviously not good.

Because of my depression I nearly always take my words on stage. Not because I can never remember them, (although I do have a bad memory for words, even in songs I have written myself) but because I often write down the arrangements, and encouraging little phrases to myself. If Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Natalie Cole and Aretha Franklin can do it than so can I!!

Many people suddenly need to go to the toilet before they go on and then need to go again the moment they’re on stage, it is perfectly natural. We have to fight the sub conscious telling us to get off and that “we just ain’t good enough”. If we have all our t’s crossed and our i’s dotted then of course we are good enough; we just need to show it to the world!

How Do I Breathe Properly?

This is the most important thing in singing. Over 80% of the students who initially come to me for lessons don’t breathe properly. If you don’t breathe correctly you will lose control, you will have poor tone, over-sing or shout, sing out of tune, lose your voice, never increase you range or your projection, etc etc etc. This is too big an area to discuss here in FAQ’s but the most important thing is to take small breaths and to use your diaphragm, rib cage and lower back. It is entirely a myth that says you need to take a big breath when you sing but there are still teachers teaching this way and teaching to breathe down into your tummy. Your tummy is for kai (food) and good wine (on a non singing day).

Watch a boxer in a fight, watch a rugby league player tackling, or a swimmer about to dive into a pool. They take a little breath just as they are about to engage in the action, and that is what you should be doing.

Take the air in and get it down into your back, diaphragm and ribs and use that part of your body to control your breathing, after all it is the core of your body. Don’t try to sing whole lines in one breath, listen to what the original artist did and how he/she breathed with the meaning of the words.

Look in a mirror: are your shoulders going up and down when you breathe, are your breasts rising? They are all tell tale signs of a person who is breathing wrong. Also we don’t help ourselves by standing badly. You are often about to exert a huge amount of pressure on your body yet you are standing with you feet together or one behind the other and so therefore you are not prepared to take the pressure of hitting that top note or reaching down to that bottom one because you are out of balance. Be prepared, with your feet at the same width as your shoulders and your knees ready to bend a little to take the pressure that you are about to exert on your body. Once you have mastered it you will find your tone and intonation better, your control and projection much less forced and your overall singing ability much enhanced.

Don’t push out into the high notes; pull the notes out by pulling your diaphragm in and using your rib cage and lower back. It’s like being constipated. Make yourself small and powerful, not large and bloated.

How do I improve my diction?

This is easy on one hand and hard on the other. There are people who believe that we should always sing in our own country’s accent. Then there are others that think that we should always sing with the standard American accent. I have always thought that it is best to sing the song in the accent of the style and/or the way the song was written in the first place. I hate hearing singers step up to the mic and sing a blues standard in a basic Kiwi voicing with all the bad diction that goes with it (believe me, we Kiwis have bad diction) likewise why would we want to learn an Annie Lennox song without trying to learn some of the beautiful lilting accents that she puts into her songs? To me that is totally disrespectful and also very lazy singing. We would be doing the song and the singer a disservice. But to get it right can be hard. The basic vowel sounds are vital to get right and the consonants that go with them are vital as well.

We want to be understood and we want to try and get it right. Therefore mouth structure, the way we breathe, the use of the tongue and the roof of the mouth, the chin and how far we open our mouths all play a huge part in the development of diction acceptable to a particular song. If you are singing as though you have a hot potato in your mouth and it feels pretty stupid, you’re probably doing the right thing.

Those who study languages will find it easy, and frankly in NZ we have a language which is perfect for learning to sing properly and that is Maori. All the vowel sounds in Maori are perfect so learn them, learn to speak the place names properly, you will find that each helps the other, you will become a better singer, and, you will become better at the Maori place names and language in general.

Remember - if you don’t open your mouth you can’t project and nobody will be able to understand you.

How can I sing in tune better?

It is always something that students worry about and obviously if you cant sing in tune, then you cant sing. I am not one of those tutors who claims that they can make anybody sing in tune but the reality is that none of our tutors have ever had more than one or two students who could not sing in tune at all.

Some people start really badly but given time, listening, singing along with other people and just sheer hard work, helps develop good intonation. Some people find it hard to pitch to a piano or guitar but can pitch to someone else singing. Some students find that they can sing along to the singer on the cd they are studying but when it comes to flying solo with a band, go to pieces.

I have found that getting the breathing and the body control right usually helps the process as well as listening to the timing of the music and the sound that the various instruments are making. One big thing is to listen to a song through several times before actually singing along. Get the feel right, listen to all the things that the singer does and start working out where he/she breathes. Try and get a backing track to the songs you like so that once you feel really comfortable you can fly solo. Remember also not to oversing. Less is more and remember that the song is just a poem or conversation, statement etc with music; don’t do it a disservice by holding notes too long or singing loud when it’s quiet or vice versa.

Don’t panic and try and learn all the improvisation bits that are at the end of the song (Or in Mariah Carey’s case right from the word go!), remember KISS.

How Can I Project My Voice Better?

The wonderful Elizabeth Sabine talks about how when we are all born, the first thing that the doctor does is smack us on the bottom to get us to cry and kick started into life, so to speak. Then, for the next year we cry when we are hungry, unhappy, sick, need changing etc etc. and guess what?, we never lose our voices because it is natural for us to use our bodies properly and yell. Then our parents (except the really enlightened ones – thanks Mum & Dad) start telling us to be quiet and that children should be “seen and not heard”. You all know that expression!!. So we start losing the ability to project and often we lose our ability to portray emotion as well as it is so often frowned upon, especially in schools, and the corporate world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with showing emotion and it is obviously a very important part of singing, however for most of us it has been so repressed that the majority of people who come to lessons haven’t a clue even how to shout. That’s where we start. It is a mixture of good breathing, using our bodies just like when we were a baby and over-riding the subconscious which has been programmed into being quiet and repressing our emotions for years. They say never shake a baby but there are some parents and schoolteachers I would love to get hold of and give a good shake to as it can take a long time to get rid of the notion that we should all be quiet and start to enjoy being open and display our feelings again. There is no hope for the corporate world I’m afraid!

How can I “Close The Gap”?

I am often reluctant to teach people who are going through puberty as they are going through so many changes in their body, that they don’t need me to come along and give them advice on their voice, which can be good one day and bad the next depending on the length of transit through puberty. One thing I will say to them is to enjoy the changes and to please please please, try and retain the head voice or ability to sing high, for both young men and women. As our voices don’t really mature until our mid to late thirties (and then can still keep improving right through if we put the work into it), lets try and retain those beautiful high notes we had as a child as we go through puberty so that they are still there later on.

It is important to work on all aspects of our voice as we study singing. I have had very few students who have ended up with a perfect transition from their chest to their head voice; there is almost always a gap, and often it is that gap which can destroy a person’s confidence in singing especially if it is in an area where other people are finding it easy to sing. God gave us all unique voices which is great, but he also gave us the ability to learn, improve and strive for greater things.

So how do we close that gap? Practice singing in that area, quietly in both voices (head and chest) and then lifting the volume to increase your strength. Try singing scales and deliberately picking an area to work through that is in your gap. Slow down as you get through that area and try different tone structures as you do it. Many young men come to me and don’t want to use their “boys” voice but then complain like crazy when they can’t get the high notes in a song. Often it is a matter of stubborn pride and what they don’t realize is that if they leave it too late they may never be able to achieve those lovely notes at all. Likewise I have teenage girls that come to me and don’t ever want to use their “girls voice, ever again” then try to shout the top notes because they’re too stubborn to work on the gap and try to change over into their high head voice range, often completely wrecking a song and their voice. So, work at closing the gap, but, also work at your attitude to the process and the end result.

How do I sing harmonies?

For some people its all about the quick fix. Learning to sing is a long process and for most of us never ends. Other musicians get really frustrated with us when we can’t always sing harmonies straight off the cuff. They can play them, yeah, but we don’t have the fret board or the keyboard or the fingering on an instrument to do that.

Our body and mind is our instrument and sometimes it is in fine working order and sometimes it lets us, and others, down. I was really lucky as a child to have been bought up in Welsh culture so every Sunday after church we would go to my Grandmas house in Wellington and after a huge roast we would settle down around the piano and sing, for hours. I had four uncles who all sang well and had fantastic harmonies so when they and the assorted parents, aunts and uncles sang, it became easy to just align myself up to one of them and try to sing along with them. I very rarely have any trouble teaching Maori or Polynesian students, harmonies, because they were bought up in a similar way.

Later I got into a church choir and then the NZ Opera Company and learned to sing harmonies in an organized way but for me starting out later on (15) in a band the best way was listening to bands like the Beatles, Hollies, Beach Boys etc as they weaved their magic into harmonies. I would work out whether it sounded happy (major notes) or sad (minor notes) and then try and add a different harmony to the one I was hearing and see if it sounded right. I would then slot into one of the harmonies and sing along with it all the way through the song, then come back and do exactly the same but with another harmony. It is still a good way of doing it and a lot of it is trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

If you are really serious about wanting to learn harmonies, join a choir. You might not like the music, but that is irrelevant if you are learning to listen and sing a part in a song that is unique but also blends with someone else and forms a beautiful, joyous noise. There is nothing better!

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