You might be a newbie to the singing game and trying to figure out your fastest route to success. You might have been knocking around for years and want to know how you can take your craft to the next level. Either way, it’s always good to know what is going to give you the best bang for your buck when it comes to vocal training.
Throughout our years as vocal coaches we have seen it all. We’ve experienced the old school tactics of placing books on the head whilst blowing a candle and also heard of more contemporary ideas involving puffy cheeks, water and a rubber tube. We don’t know about you but, on paper, the latter sounds way more exciting.
Before we get stuck into the “must-haves”, let’s define what we mean by “success”. The truth is it can mean anything – selling millions of records, grabbing a role on Broadway or simply being happy with the way your voice sounds. Although we believe that most singers would define themselves as “successful” if they were totally content with their voice, these must-haves are the cornerstone from which many singing goals can be achieved.
Sorting your spaces out
It begins with the spaces. “Spaces?” we hear you tunefully yell. Anyone who has spent time studying the voice will know that the sound that leaves our mouth is a direct result of how we shape the spaces in our throat and mouth. If you need to read that sentence more than once for it to sink in then please do. Of course, we have to consider the development of the intrinsic muscles of the larynx, and just how much air we blow through all of that when talking about sound production; but there is no doubting that the vocal tract, and it’s positioning, has a huge impact on singing.
What we do with our lips, jaw, tongue, larynx (also called articulators) and everything connecting them ultimately decides whether we sound awesome or not. In addition, it guides whether singing is easy, or if we have to trawl through the metaphorical mud to reach the end of our song. With this in mind, it makes total sense that establishing deep awareness and control of these spaces should be a priority for any singer.
One of the best ways to become a vocal tract master is to experience the many different ways in which you can move it: wide, closed, long, short and all the differences between these extremes. With every word you speak, you are arranging your articulators into very precise positions so that other human beings can understand you. Sure organising these spaces for particular sounds is trickier for higher pitches, but no one forced you to be a singer. The higher we sing, and the more advanced we become, the greater the importance of nuances and precision.
You may have been reading the last paragraph thinking “do they just mean the sounds we make when we do vocal exercises?”. The answer to that question is “yes”. There’s no secret here, the tried and tested vowel and consonant combinations are top of our list. And yes, there is a reason why your vocal coach cries when you haven’t practised your scales.
Here we are chatting about flexibility; the ability to stretch easily without breaking. Think yoga “people”, or Dhalsim if you’re a 90s video gamer. Flexibility is preached the world over in the fitness world because it helps you avoid injury when you push a joint or muscle to the max. In singing, we are constantly taking our instruments into new and more extreme places. But what is it about those singers who can go to the limits and return relatively unscathed?
Well, muscular flexibility can certainly play a huge role. If the vocal folds stretch easily we get more range and more consistency in tone across the range. If the muscles that suspend the larynx are flexible we also can explore really high notes, deal better with the less favourable vowel shapes (like [i] as in feet) and belt easier. That sounds like a dream list already and that’s only a few of the possible areas of flexibility. If we move down to the torso we are moving into breathing territory, and if the breathing system is flexible we are much less likely to blow our voices into oblivion from high lung pressures.
You can train in a decent level flexibility if you need to but some people are just, enviably, more flexible than others.
Reducing tension and exploring slash increasing full range of motion in any muscle group that contributes towards voice is a great start for your research.
“Well, that’s an easy one!” We hear you cry. “I have lots of time.” Yes and that’s the point – it’s not just about having time but what you do with that time. We’ve spoken a lot about the things we can do to change the way our vocal tract behaves and to improve our flexibility, but the results only come when it’s done.
You might think this is an obvious point to make, but the word “obvious” isn’t synonymous with “actually understood and executed”. It may be because it seems too easy, but truly, if more people spent around 2% of their waking hours practising (that’s a 20 minute workout in a 16 hour day awake) we’d see a lot more successful singers in this world.
So what if you agree, but would still rather spend that 2% scrolling through Facebook for the eighteenth time that day? Understand what turns you on. And we’re not talking about fishnets and high heels. Do you need an incentive? Do you need someone to reprimand you if you don’t do it? Are you bored of the usual workouts and need a new approach? These are all choices within your control. Whether you need a reward, punishment or something novel to get your wheels spinning, work it out and get to it. This workout isn’t going to do itself.
Explore what makes you stand out, your style and your authenticity. Putting everything else aside, this could arguably be the most important must- have if you’re talking about what many people would consider success, i.e. earning wods of cash for doing what you love. The greatest artists have their niche and they own it. Bruno Mars has absolutely nailed it, and even more so with his New Jack Swing approach to pop. Adele, Sam Smith, and Ed Sheeran are also distinctive in their sound and their songwriting.
Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
Whenever we listen to music we are inadvertently researching style. However, the difference is often made when we go mental and truly obsess over an artist – to the point where we start to sound like a parody because we’ve been influenced from listening so deeply. It’s like those two best friends at school who talk exactly like each other. The more time you spend with that person the more likely you are to pick up their traits.
Over time, singers have many phases of love for one another and end up with a unique concoction of all of the singers they ever listened too; add their own life experience and cultural influences on top of that and you have that person’s unique sound.
To make sure we don’t end up sounding like an inadvertent tribute act (which, ironically, yields a fairly decent income) we need to find many different artists to obsess over. Let’s repeat that we need to find many different artists.
You may have been searching for a secret or quick fix here but we stand firm in our approach: engaging with your instrument regularly is the most powerful way to ensure you achieve success in singing. Take that training and immerse yourself in hours and hours or different genres and styles of music, and you should be sounding pretty hot.
Take this article as your friendly nudge to kick start your vocal workout regimen, and in a month or two, once you experienced the results (and happiness that comes with that), please tell us all about it… we love success stories.