Top vocal coach and Performing Arts Medicine specialist, Line Hilton, shares the most common mistakes singers make and explains how to get the best from your voice and career.
- Believing “someone will discover me”
Many young singers think success will come to them. They live in expectation of being “discovered” by a record exec or manager who will make it all happen for them. This is a myth. I’ve met thousands of singers from around the world and never come across anyone who has been “discovered” in this way. The cold, hard truth is this: singing is one of the hardest career paths a person can choose.
If you don’t believe me, do your own research. There are hundreds of biographies and documentaries on successful singers that reveal the realities of life in the music industry. The path to becoming a successful singer is typically long, arduous and littered with rejection and disappointment.
If you haven’t got grit, passion and drive you won’t do the work required or find the energy and motivation to continue along this pathway. I can’t tell you the exact formula to success, but I can tell you I’ve never encountered a successful singer who sat at home waiting to be discovered or ever gave up.
- Not setting specific and achievable goals
How will you know what you need to do, how to measure your achievements or how to read the signs that you have arrived if you haven’t created a plan and set your goals?
I love the SMART goal setting model. It ensures we are setting realistic goals, with measurable outcomes within a target time frame.
To be SMART when you set goals; make them:
S – specific
M – measurable
A – attainable
R – realistic
T – time-based
My goals for all my projects are pasted around my office walls, (and on the back of the office door) on removable whiteboard sheets. Even if your goals and plans shift, you need a framework to stay on target and move forward. You can also share your goals with the people who are helping you along the way so everyone is working from the same page.
Break your goals down into smaller chunks – short term, medium term and long term. If you have a major goal such as “performing a solo gig at Wembley Stadium” there will be many things that need to be achieved to get there. Reverse engineer the goal to figure out what needs to be in place before that can happen. Research how an artist gets to Wembley – it doesn’t happen out of the blue – and make a plan. I suggest you do this with a mentor, teacher or coach.
- Failing to warm up before singing
When you sing, you use muscles, ligaments and joints. Just as you would stretch and warm up before you go for a run, you need to prepare your voice before you sing. Your vocal folds stretch and vibrate far more when you sing than when you talk. They may have to sustain long notes or move quickly over notes on melodies and riffs. When you sing for several hours, as you would in the studio or at a rehearsal or gig, you make significantly higher and harder demands on your vocal folds. Failure to warm up the voice will increase your chances of vocal fatigue, or worse, injury.
- Neglecting general health
Good vocal health starts from the inside. Your general health and wellbeing will inform your voice and performance. If you’re dehydrated, ill or low in energy your voice and performance will suffer. You may get away with it for one or two performances but the more you “push” through, the higher the risk of causing injury or damage.
A great vocal coach will ensure your voice stays fit-for-purpose and will occasionally push you beyond your comfort zone and bring you back on track when you stray.
Consider also how your lifestyle is affecting your voice and adapt it accordingly. This may mean taking active steps to boost your immunity, avoid allergens, substances that cause voice side effects and situations where you could pick up an infection, lose sleep or experience high levels of stress.
- Ignoring symptoms of vocal health issues
Ignore voice issues at your peril!
Warning signs to watch out for in your speaking and singing voice include changes in your vocal tone, pitch changes, loss of sound quality, fatigue, loss of voice, loss of upper or lower range, pain, effortful singing or speech or unexpected cracks or flips.
The sooner you get the issue seen to, the sooner you can get back to good vocal health. The longer you ignore the issue, the more likely you are to develop a serious problem. This, in turn, will increase the need for more serious medical intervention and the time you take off to recover.
Find a reputable ENT/Laryngologist in case you need your vocal folds checked. A laryngostroboscopy is the only way to know what’s going on. Also, ensure you’re singing teacher understands how to rehabilitate a sick voice should you require it.
All professional singers need to get “scoped” at some point in their career; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad singer.
- Not practising effectively
Singing a song over and over again is not good practice. Nor is working for hours at vocal technique or waiting until the weekend to do your whole week’s practice quota.
Most people are familiar with the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert; but this concept is incomplete. Research psychologist Dr Anders Ericsson discovered that “experts” didn’t get there through practice alone, they engaged in deliberate practice strategies.
Some characteristics of deliberate practice include:
- It is not inherently enjoyable
- It can only be maintained for limited periods of time due to the intense concentration required
- Specific goals for improvement need to be set and reviewed regularly
- It must have opportunities for feedback and correction from the student themselves and their teacher/mentor
- It requires repetition
- The practice tasks must be well defined and challenging but doable
- The practice tasks must focus on the student’s weak areas
- Practice should take four to five hours, daily (including weekend) with naps and regular breaks.
- The singer doesn’t recognise that they are a vocal athlete
As we cannot see our instrument, we rely on proprioception and our ears to operate it. This means we need guidance to target the specific intrinsic muscles that control our vocal folds and larynx, and to help us control the air/muscle balance in a way that supports singing.
I often ask singers: if you were planning to run in a marathon how would you prepare? Would you go straight out and run the whole 26.2 miles? Or create a training schedule and possibly get coaching? The answer is invariably the latter. Yet the number of singers I’ve met who perform without warming up body or voice astounds me. In the average two to three hour gig, your vocal folds may come together up to a million times. It’s common sense to prepare your voice.
Performing is a physical activity, and touring requires stamina, good health and mental focus. When you’re young your body and voice can easily recover from abuse, misuse and overuse. But your recovery reset button has an expiry date that depends on your physiology, vocal style, the frequency of use, additional day to day voice use, health, stressors and even luck.
In addition to warming up to sing a singer needs a vocal work-out programme to maintain a healthy and safe technique. This will improve vocal agility and control, strength and range, improve vocal flexibility and sustain. The best way to do this is with the guidance of an experienced singing teacher. One who can help you develop your voice without interfering with your unique vocal sound.
It’s also important to factor in vocal and physical rest. Research has shown that rest and sleep are an integral part of the body’s healing, rebuilding and strengthening processes. If you’ve used your voice for singing it can take 48 to 72 hours for your vocal folds to fully recover. Experiment with the time and see what works for you.
If you look after your voice and body, you’ll be rewarded with many performance successes. And more importantly, so will your audience. Everyone deserves to hear the singer on a good night, but it’s up to the singer to do the preparation and training to ensure that every night is a “good night”.