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Practicing your singing with efficiency

Think you can't sing? Think again. Can you hum or sing the pitches as you tune your guitar? Can you sing along with your car radio? You can? Great! Now we know you can sing. It's good to get that out of the way. Come on in and wail away.

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Postby dennett340 » November 6th, 2006, 7:05 pm

Having read various threads, I felt the necessity to chip in my 2 cents and share what I know about singing and practicing with efficiency. Any practice in whatever form is obviously better than none, but sooner or later without a methodical approach, you will reach a point where your progress will simply come to a halt. Here's the truth- if you take singing seriously, you have to work out a carefully planned, regimented session of practice and execute that in a disciplined fashion. Sure, I admit that I get tempted to just belt out my favorite songs as soon as I grab the guitar or turn on the stereo when driving. But I refrain from that in the interest of doing the best thing for my improvement. On non-singing days, to fully let my voice recover I try to totally refrain from singing-not to mention that I try not to even speak much. (no, I don't encourage anti-social behavior by any means. My only point is, the voice is a muscle and needs proper recovery and some things gotta give)

Before I begin, here's one point worthy of note- it seems like the vast majority of guitar players are dedicated guitar players rather than serious singers. And most vocalists play rhythm guitar rather than lead. The point is, excelling at one thing is challenging enough. By no means am I trying to discourage anyone who's trying to accomplish both but I'm just stating a general fact. So for guitarists, dedicating yourselves to singing is actually quite a tradeoff in terms of allotting your practice time. But whatever you may be, if you are serious about singing, then read on. It is my hope to shed some useful insight into this matter with some of the knowledge I have managed to garner through experience.

So here's the deal- scales is indeed the very cornerstone of singing. (I'm sure you've heard this a million times but have you really practiced this in earnest?)
So why do we do these boring scales? Think of it this way- doing scales is in fact the most simplified way of singing. Singing a verse let alone a word is actually a complicated process. There are changes in pitch, and there are consonants that can block the free flow of sound. That is why doing scales is the easiest way to produce a resonant sound. There's no words, no consonants, no changes in pitch. Your mind can just focus on singing five familiar notes in sequence sung on elongated Ah's, Eh's, Eeee's, Oh's, Oooh's. You must practice the scales with these vowels because singing is 90% vowels and 10% consonants. The fact of the matter is, singing just the vowels brings forth resonance. Singing a word involves, putting the consonants in between the vowels. So if you were to sing “passion” it would be “pAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAssion.” This word resonates because of the A. To avoid sounding goofy, make sure you put the right emphasis on the right syllable in a given word.

Among these different vowels sounds (A,E,I,O,U) mentioned above, you will find that the Ah is the easiest. But working on all the other vowels is just as important. This is one key factor in singing well. Do NOT neglect them. I've found that the resonance in these different vowels all progress at slightly different paces. An effective method is, start with the AHHHH, let it resonate and then just change the shape of your mouth. The real difference among the vowels is as simple as that. Easier said than done. But the idea is just to make a smooth, easy transition to facilitate the process. Being the fitness fanatic that I am, this is how I regard this phenomenon- your benching, curls, squats, or whatever all progress at their own paces and you gotta make sure you touch upon all of them because they are all necessary to build a well balanced physique. Ha, there's my quirkiness. Yes, I tend to relate everything to working out.

So the important things that you should pay attention to when doing the scales are,

1.Nailing each note very precisely and being able to sustain without going out of tune. Any sort of shakiness in your tone has to be eliminated. When you're starting out, you might think that's vibrato, but nope. Vibrato in singing is a quite an advanced technique. This is a totally separate topic which deserves its own analysis but, just to give you a taste of what this is, vibrato is something that requires an extremely delicate balance between relaxation and a slight degree of tension. It happens when all the basics are fully mastered- when you can do all the basics mentioned here in your sleep.
Anyway, so the shakiness you might experience in the beginning is more akin to someone capable of benching 85 pounds yet attempting to bench 135 and struggling and letting the bar and the weight wobble. So what you have to do is cultivate the ability to closely hear yourself sing AT THE SAME TIME you are singing. However, since singing itself and belting out those notes accurately demand much of your attention, one would have to take baby steps to achieve this. One very effective method to start out with is to record yourself. Surprisingly, even when you thought you were perfectly in tune when singing, when you hear your recordings, you will find parts where you're out of tune- going flat. Ugh, it sounds so bad when that happens. If you're slightly sharp it's ok, but if you go flat, (which is due to this lack of attentiveness), your singing sags and sounds lackluster. The audience responds accordingly. Why does this happen? Lack of attentiveness. Your pitch sustaining can get sloppy if you're not a 100% alert. Having complete pitch control is quite challenging. It's like asking a muscle to hold a weight perfectly still without shaking for some time. For that to be possible, the muscle has to be strong, and well trained. Anyway so, by recording yourself you don't need to divert your attention too much and you can cultivate one skill at a time. Eventually you need to get to a point where everything becomes totally automatic, where you
1) have total control of pitch
2) are able to hear yourself closely
which in turn
3) reinforces your “in tune” ness and maintain that control of pitch
So this in effect becomes like a cycle. The more you practice, all this becomes totally intuitive. I'm just breaking all this down in extreme detail for people to understand easily.

2. As you do the scales, you work on your range by moving up in half steps. As you do this, you will find a set where your sound doesn't resonate as much as the scales in the lower register. You will start straining slightly. And the key here is to find that exact point where you start to strain just a TEENY bit. You must work on that very scale until you perfect it. Perfecting it means training your “singing muscle” so that you can sing that scale with the utmost ease and fluidity. You thereby eliminate the slightest degree of straining. Once that is done, it's time to work on the next set of scales and perfect that one. So THAT is the big secret to increasing your range. What a surprise.
How do you expect to sing a resonant high A if you're already straining on an E or an F? Quite logical isn't it? It all boils down to plain hard work. But believe me, this is effective and methodical. It's like building a solid house from the very bottom up. Little by little. Great singers make it look so easy no? Everything seems so effortless/natural. Well, it actually IS FOR THEM because they've spent countless hours practicing that everything is done by sheer instinct.

So aside from scales, what else should be done in conjunction? What's even simpler than scales? Sustaining one note. One pitch, one vowel. Pick a vowel and a note you feel comfortable singing. Focus on full resonance, full control of pitch (no shakiness), steady release of the air you've inhaled. (after all, singing is exhaling) Let this process become all automatic so that you are able to mentally detach yourself from this process and are able to HEAR yourself singing. This is where vibrato becomes within your capabilities. Like I said, it's an extremely delicate point of balance between relaxation and some degree of tension/attentiveness. Anyway, once sustaining one note has been fully mastered like this, you go up half a step. Once you perfect that one, you go up another half step. This is THE simplest way of singing. You're just producing a sound. However, simple does not mean easy. This exercise actually gets pretty strenuous and intense. It's quite a work-out really and I find that I'm quite tired after belting out some notes, like as though I've done an intense set of benching. So what I do is, I rest for a minute or two (sometimes longer) and then go at it again. The higher you go, the belting out will require greater exertion of energy. When doing this, the mental image I envision is that of an ancient Chinese monk, a master of martial arts gathering all his inner strength/life force and channeling all that to belt out a deafening, piercing sound which knocks out all his opponents even before the fight starts. Ah, my quirkiness. But I can't help it. This does work for me. And I think my neighbors have been tolerant and generous.(It doesn't hurt that I live on the very top floor of the apartment. When I get to the top of my range, when it gets really loud and intense- around the high G~A# I tilt my head so that my mouth is headed upwards to make sure the sound travels upwards. I'm sure the people living on the floor right below mine can hear me nevertheless. After all, I'm trying to become a Chinese monk capable of causing an earthquake. And I don't practice past 11pm. As silly as all this sounds, finding a place to practice this can become quite a concern. For me, it would be a real hassle to commute to a studio. But the bottom line is this is an extremely important method of practice and it must be done one way or another) So look at Bono or Freddie mercury sing. I'm sure in order to sing like that, they relied on some sort of visualization technique. Anyway when I do this, I record myself and hear it to make sure it sounds resonant and adjust accordingly at the slightest discordance.

So these two methods (scales and the one note sustaining drill) should be the staple of your practice sessions. Only after this is finished, should you work on your repertoire and sing your favorite songs. I spend a good hour doing the basic drills. After that, I feel fully warmed up. Yea, the voice takes quite some time to really warm up-about 30mins~ 1hr.
So all in all, my practice session usually lasts for about...2~2:30 hours? Sometimes 3. (remember, I talked about taking breaks in between sets. That's important. You're not singing for 3 straight hours without any rest. I'm saying what it adds up to in total)

Recovery is extremely important. If I practice on Monday, I usually rest until Thursday. On occasion if I feel good on Wednesday, I'll practice on Wednesday. I've found this sort of rhythm through trial and error. Once, when I was so eager, I tried practicing everyday, with that “the more the better “sort of mentality. I would find myself with my mouth wide open, exerting all the force to no avail. Literally no sound would come out. I felt listless and the session would drag on unproductively. I would try as hard as I could, and I would just sound flat. A wasted session. A bitter lesson for an eager student. Yes, it's about training hard, but it's also just as much about training smart. You have to really listen to your body. You must trust your instincts. After years of doing this, once your voice matures, you can perform more often, because you know all the tricks and because you've become a wise veteran, a master of singing. You know how to take care of yourself. Guys like Bono and Bon jovi, who sing really high, sing half/full step(sometimes even more) lower than their original recordings. They have to make it easier on themselves because they sing everyday when touring.

During practice I do drink water constantly, bit by bit to keep my throat well lubricated. But I don't encourage you to depend on water. At a gig, you should reach out for the bottle after a song is finished- not during a guitar solo. Get into the habit of drinking just the necessary, right amount. You don't wanna be resisting the urge to pee when you can't at a gig.

When all these basics are mastered, singing does become easy. If you have all the necessary tools, actual singing of lyrics and melody becomes a mere application of everything you've worked on. Singing becomes easy. Regarding the need to have a vocal coach, I believe in the beginning, it's very important. You must head in the right direction right off the bat. Singing is a kinesthetic activity. It's all about getting the sound to freely move forward. When one strains oneself to sing higher, the muscle is not strong enough to let that sound freely move forward. That's why it sounds strained, and contained- as if the sound is blocked. The person is working so hard to let that sound come forth yet the opposite is happening. So whatever method of singing you've been accustomed to before, has to be unlearned. Bad habits must be corrected. The thing is one must really feel true resonance with one's own body. That entails much experience under your belt. Now, all that I have explained will make sense to you only when you start singing in earnest. Trial and error is inevitable. What a teacher can do is help you find that sensation where all the sound is moving forward with great resonance. A teacher can shorten your phase of trial and error. However, as far as mastering the basics is concerned, once you've gotten through that phase, the bulk of work has to be done by you. Once you dig deeper and get serious about singing and find yourself in the right direction, you will naturally know when it's time to really start putting forth the effort and stay dedicated. And in that phase, a teacher really isn't necessary anymore. You become your own teacher. You know how to distinguish the right technique from the wrong because you know it by feeling from the hundreds of different ways of singing you've experimented with.

Think of it this way, a personal trainer can only get you so far. He teaches the exercises and the proper techniques. But after that initial phase, it's really up to you to consistently put forth the effort and to stay eager and hungry. And it becomes quite a long journey filled with ups and downs and trials and errors.
The bottom line is there are no shortcuts in singing. Like anything else you have to invest at least one year to really see a drastic difference. (once it becomes a habit, give it 2 years, 3, 4 years. Singing becomes just another part of you. Time passes and your voice truly matures and you become a wise veteran of singing) Anyway, you will progress steadily, little by little. You will find your unique way of practicing which works for you. It's a long journey. I see it as an enjoyable, very fulfilling one. I have actually reached a point where I actually truly enjoy doing my scales and note sustaining exercises. A little freaky ain't it? But yea, that's how it is. When you find yourself nearing the point of thoroughly mastering the necessary basics, you come to have a greater appreciation for it. It's not some annoying chore anymore. You come to savior the process. Anyway, enough babbling. Singing is about- desire, discipline, enthusiasm, dedication and last not but not least PATIENCE. And you will reap some great rewards. Wow, I think I've spent a good 4 hours writing/editting this. Yay~ my first mini singing thesis. Anyway, I hope this helps. Feel free to ask anything that seems unclear.
Last edited by dennett340 on November 7th, 2006, 3:39 am, edited 5 times in total.
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Postby Zacharias » November 6th, 2006, 7:56 pm

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to right this enourmous post on singing, it really does adress alot of the questions that I've been seeing on the forums lately, practice, range, practice regimen, and technique. I appreciate the effort, and how assertive you are to write this post and share with others.
Keep it up man!

Wolf
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Postby coleclark » November 6th, 2006, 9:03 pm

yeah thanks for the effort mate. it all comes down to dedication for the first little while then you start to enjoy what your doing and it becomes easier, i will definatley practice what youve written. i found that in the first little bit a singing (along with a keyboard to pitch myself) my range improved a lot but my voice is still shaking and i cant hold a note cleanly. i think it has a lot to do with my not practicing half tones, i only did C D E etc rather than C C# D D# E. but il change that now. as we all do i got ahead of myself and its time to go back to the start...*sighs* :S
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Postby Misanthrope » November 7th, 2006, 1:56 am

Wow! Thanks for going to all that effort, it's a great insight. I'll be referring to that often - my current practice regime currently consists of running through a rough setlist for 45 minutes, starting with the gentle songs as a warmup :roll:
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Postby indiana_jonesin » November 7th, 2006, 12:19 pm

Maybe this could be posted as a sticky? It looks like a great article, but I haven't had time to work through it yet.
"Yes and an old guitar is all that he can afford,
when he gets up under the lights to play his thing..."-Dire Straits
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Postby xg5a » November 8th, 2006, 5:56 pm

I second this being a sticky...very well written and great insight!
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Postby dennett340 » November 14th, 2006, 11:38 pm

I am humbled by such encouraging comments. I am content that I can offer something of use/help. As I gain more experience- whenever I have any major realizations/revelations, whenever I have something meaningful to share and contribute, I'll be sure to post them. Thanks everyone.
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Postby coleclark » November 15th, 2006, 4:10 pm

no worries solomon, whose wisdom shall lead us all :P

tried the vowel thing last nite for quite a while, i find though that i can only hold a note for 5 seconds in tune, 8 seconds maximum (out of tune) until my breath gives out. how long can you guys hold it? i thought my breath control was getting better but now im not so sure :S
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Postby Zacharias » November 16th, 2006, 4:18 pm

coleclark, if you are getting flatter as you hold the note, try to push more with your diaphragm (its the muscle you use to cough and to take a number two).

A pitch is a frequency of vibration that your ear hears and perceives. The note A is 440HZ, your vocals chords vibrate at this frequency to produce this note, and a certain amount of air pressure is needed to move your vocal chords at this frequency. As you hold the note, naturally you start to lack air, so as there is not enough air pressure for your vocal chords to vibrate at 440HZ they might be vibrating at 430HZ, flat... or really, really sharp depending on how you see it :) .

Your lack of air may be due to improper breathing. When you breath, imagine filling up a glass, dont take a shallow breath, you dont fill the top of a glass up and leave the proverbial orange juice floating around above half a glass of empty space? If you did I would probably shriek and run away, but anyways, what you want to do is to fill up your glass (lungs incase you didnt catch the half-arsed metaphor hehe) from the bottom up, like physics says we should. Breathe in and you should feel your belly rise and then chest rise; its like that breath you take when you're swimming and come up for air, that gasp is your body needing air so it instinctually fills your lungs up for you. Lay on your back and practice that, feel the air fill your lungs up like a glass... ok it sounds like cheese but it works.

Another reason you may be going flat is that you are not efficiently using your air. When you sing, does it sound airy? Like a whispery kinda thing? thats because you aren't fully attenuating your vocal chords. Sound like mumbo jumbo? Well, cup your hands as if you were going to stick 'em in water and pull up some to drink, now open your hands in the middle part, still with your fingers and wrists on both hands touching eachother. Thats what your vocal chords are shaped like, so when you are effeciently using your air, your vocal chords look like this, the front and back of your chords attenuate. Now open up your hands so only the fingers are now touching eachother, thats what it looks like when they aren't attenuated, this means you have to force more air past your vocal chords to vibrate, again, at 440HZ, so you use up your air alot faster. If your chords are attenuated, you need less air to vibrate at 440HZ.

To practice good breath control, yawn and hold a note. Then try to duplicate the feeling while singing normally. Anyone care to elaborate? I can't figure out a way to explain this well...

anyways, good luck and cheers!

Wolf
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Postby Maelendiir » August 24th, 2009, 11:06 am

Apologies for bumping this post back up, but I thought this was a fantastic article which the newer members of the forum may have missed if they didn't look through the older posts.

Excllent job :)

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Postby Nathan080 » August 25th, 2009, 9:24 am

No apologies necessary, excellent post, long forgotten :).

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Postby Chris C » August 25th, 2009, 7:22 pm

Hi,

There is indeed some good information in there, but I'd be cautious about seeing it as an overview of what singing is about. It seems more like his personal story than a complete picture.

For instance
That is why doing scales is the easiest way to produce a resonant sound. There's no words, no consonants, no changes in pitch.


I don't know what he meant there - but scales ARE changes in pitch. You start on one pitch and move to another pitch in a series of predictable steps.

I'd also say that statements like this can be a bit misleading to a beginner:

An effective method is, start with the AHHHH, let it resonate and then just change the shape of your mouth. The real difference among the vowels is as simple as that.


Changing the sounds is not really quite as simple as that might sound. To a newbie, advice about changing the shape of your mouth can sound like nothing more than pushing your lips into different shapes, in a rather exaggerated sort of way. But to a singer the ‘mouth' is the whole box and dice - not just lips, but palate, tongue, and even consideration of the various connected chambers where the resonance occurs. Sure, movement of the lips might be something you could exaggerate in a specific practice routine, but overuse of facial gymnastics would be considered the mark of a beginner when done in performance. (but don't take that as gospel, or read too much into it, because I'm not a teacher either... :mrgreen: ).

There are also long vowels, short vowels, and endless regional accents to consider. There might be five written vowels (AEIOU), but there are numerous ways of treating them vocally. Using five of the long vowels sounds is indeed the common starting point for vocal exercises. But even knowing which those five actually are can be confusing to a beginner when read off page. One book I read suggested the word "I" (as in me) as demonstrating one of the sounds to aim for. Yet, depending on where you live, the phrase "I'm mighty pleased to see you" can sound like "Arm mardy..." through to Eye'm M eye tee" (and even reading my crude attempt at phonetics will be pronounced differently depending on whether you're from the US south, Ireland, England, Australia, France, etc. and what sort of school you went too... :? ). In that case they were shooting for something closer to "arm" than "eye". Another book called it a "modified i (ah)" and quoted "Ah-ha" as the target sound. You can't beat hearing a demonstration. :)


I understand his use of bench-pressing etc as an analogy - that's his thing - but if the message you take from that post is the idea that singing practice is mainly about pushing higher and higher notes then a beginner may do more harm than good with that approach. He also implies that having days where you put in lots of practice, followed by days when you do nothing, is a good pattern. I think that many singing teachers would disagree with that. As with learning any instrument, most teachers that I've come across seem to suggest short daily sessions rather than ‘big days' followed by days off.

You really do need to learn a lot more about breathing technique (a cornerstone of singing) and how and where the sounds are produced, resonated and projected (because it's not just one place or method) . For instance learning about what's called 'chest voice' and ‘head voice', etc. Understanding what they are, and how you transition smoothly from one to the other is a major step in learning to sing properly. Expanding your range is indeed an important part of learning to sing, but it's easy to over-emphasize, compared to other aspects. There really is a LOT more to it than just pushing a bit higher every day. I'm sure he'd agree with that too, it just doesn't necessarily come across unambiguously.

Apologies if that sounds harsh, but singing is very easy to misunderstand and get wrong. Dennet340 doesn't appear to be a singing teacher, he seems more like an enthusiastic and accomplished learner who is sharing his enjoyment. That's great, but it should be taken in context. He makes some very useful and accurate points, but it also seems a bit patchy, which makes it easy for a newbie to come away with the wrong messages. As he says at the start - it's just his 2c worth. And this has just been mine, so I hope it doesn't sound too critical. 8)

I'd recommend having a few lessons from a professional before relying on books or internet advice. If that's not an option then at least check out some of the books that have CDs demonstrating what they mean, or look at sites like Eric Arceneaux's where you can view some useful free videos and then choose to buy more if you wish.

Or why not just start by reading the articles already here at Guitarnoise

Singing articles at Guitarnoise

Singing 101 by Nick Torres would be a good one to start with.

If you like the idea of a book with a CD then The Complete Idiots Guide to Singing seems reasonable to me. It's inexpensive, thorough and easy to follow. But there are many books and course available - that just happens to be one that I've read. You can search the book's index at that site and get a broader idea of some of the things you should be learning about. But even that book recommends getting some lessons from a good teacher too!

You can search the contents pages by clicking on the arrows to the right and left of the pages here. Click past the "Contents at a glance" to get to a more detailed run down.

Singing


Cheers,

Chris
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Postby Maelendiir » September 1st, 2009, 11:24 am

Chris

I see your points here, all of which are valid, of course. It does make (what I would consider an) already great article even better, however, so thanks for the input! That aside, it is always nice to read about peoples' musical successes

:note1:
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