Singing myths are in abundance. Our resident vocal nerds delve into some of the common ones around, identify where they might come from and offer alternative approaches and resolutions.
We’re going to come out and say it: people say some crazy things in the singing world. Mostly, it seems that they are said with good intentions and inspired by some sort of logic. Sometimes though, concepts can become outdated, twisted and, in turn, a tad unhelpful.
So why do people still use funny singing lingo and give odd advice? Because it’s safe? Because it creates an exclusive (singing) club and encourages those who don’t know the language to feel inferior and unworthy? We joke (in a way) but whatever the reason, we hope with this article to dispel some singing myths and concepts about singing.
In all cases, it’s clear that there is some level of semantic confusion involved. Nevertheless, we’re going to shoot straight to the point.
“I’m a low singer”
Where it comes from: We could write a whole article on self-limiting beliefs, but for now we’ll just say this: there’s a (huge) chance that you just haven’t experienced what it’s like to sing high notes. Muscular tension from less-than-optimal daily speaking and poor singing habits also can inhibit movement smoothly through your whole voice.
How to resolve it: Expose and train the high notes, even if they are initially breathy and tight. Live in them long enough to produce a half decent sound and we bet that your Royal Lowness will start to enjoy an incredible vocal awakening.
“Nasal resonance contributes to your clarity”
Where it comes from: We can get strong sensations in our face and nasal passages when we manage to produce a clear and intense sound, which could be where this misconception has come from. Essentially, sound vibrations are travelling through the bone and tissue to our face from where the party really is: in our vocal tract. There is a fair amount of evidence which shows nasal resonance isn’t close to being a requirement, and vocal guru Dr Ingo Titze even goes as far to call nasal resonance a dull murmur (Vocology: The Science & Practice of Voice Habilitation) of the actual output of our voices. It’s best to stick to maximising output through the place that really matters: our cake hole. Nasality itself is almost completely useless as a singing strategy, unless you’re playing a very weird character in theatre.
How to solve it: Train to give yourself freedom with your instrument, and avoid nasality. The more freedom and control you have over your voice, the stronger the vibrations can be felt all over and the clearer you’ll be. You can also try using the bratty sound of twang, which IS NOT NASALITY. We repeat, IS NOT NASALITY. Twang is a boost of higher harmonics in the voice from shapes that are created in the vocal tract, and not the nose. It carries a bright and intense sound that you may feel in your face due to the reasons above, and it is often mistaken for nasality. Well produced twang will not change in tone if you plug and unplug your nose whilst singing a twanged phrase.
“I’m working on my whistle voice”
Where it comes from: For some, whistle voice is impressive. But if it was a truly wonderful and sensitive stylistic choice it would be on more records, but it isn’t. Why? Well, not every can achieve it for a start, but quite a few can. However, there’s much more emotional content and thrill in notes two octaves lower. Not knocking anyone who works on whistle voice…it’s your choice and has its place (hello Mariah). However, commonly singers are prioritising whistle voice training over the bottom and middle voice, which is where most contemporary material sits.
How to solve it: If we were you, we’d spend time where it really matters – working through the first two to three octaves of range and smoothing the break to create a balanced and even sound throughout. This will give you the ability to sing a wider repertoire in a variety of styles, belt stuff out safely and avoid vocal damage over time.
“You should be completely relaxed and free of all tension when singing”
Where it comes from: Probably from most singers. We’re all at some point (usually in the earlier days) singing with bulging veins and bloodshot eyes until our voice burns out. That is until a singing teacher thrashes us for it and makes us relax. And rightly so. Excess tension in the larynx, around the neck, head and upper body can ruin our singing and cause us to push and damage our voices.
How to solve it: Well, if you’re too relaxed you’ll end up sounding like a withered old crooner. Singing is a tension based sport. We rely on it for pitch, vocal posturing, and good use of breath. If you want a strong and excited sound that will stand up in contemporary music, you’ll undoubtedly have a little (we said little) tension somewhere, but ideally you won’t feel it on your voice much at all if trained properly.
We often need to be actively engaged in the whole body, in order to not feel like we are trashing our larynx when high energy singing. We especially need control of the muscle involvement around the abdomen. If we’re too relaxed here it can really come across in our tone and pitching, which is no good if you’re singing rock or something with a bit of bite. A lack of activity in our breathing muscles can also cause hyperactivity in the larynx, which is one of several primary reasons for vocal damage and fatigue. It was in fact a huge reason for the development of the straw exercise.
So, work with a qualified teacher to determine when and where you should encourage muscle activity to get the most expressive and free voice.
“I wasn’t born with musical ability”
Where it comes from: If you were here we’d punch you, however we’d probably try and talk to you first and if that didn’t go well….
Anyway, it could come from stories of artists who apparently never practised a day in their lives, or were really awesome at a young age. Whatever. We’d be willing to wager that that person’s behaviours, influences and actions over time were at the heart of their ability.
How to solve it: Some people are born into an environment that facilitates learning,. If your dad was success-hungry Joe Jackson and all your older brothers sang and played instruments, you’d probably be pretty handy in the music department too.
The Talent Code is one of many books that sheds research and light on this much misunderstood subject. It can’t be used as a reason to give up or envy someone anymore. You have to work really hard, surround yourself with the right people, and experience meaningful and purposeful practice in amounts that exceed normal social hours. Basically, lose your friends, get a bit obsessive and you’re good to go.
“Basically, we’d like to banish 99% of terminology used in well known vocal systems”
Where it comes from: Just so we’re on the level here, when we say systems we mean techniques and methods created to help the mass audience. Information distilled down into a format so teachers can teach teachers and, in turn, they can teach singers.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, teaching systems do offer some benefits. We started out using one for heaven’s sake. But, the reality is that singers are unique, their situation is unique and their goals are unique. Just because people can follow a manual on how to sing doesn’t mean it’s optimal, especially when it involves learning a whole new language and spending time focusing on trivial training concepts that lack evidence or value.
How to solve it: Find your own answers. Read. Network. Research. Reduce terminology, and avoid classification of every vocal sound or setting. Learning to sing will be a lot easier this way.
“You have to stick your belly out/hold your belly in”
Where it comes from: Some teachers would kiss your head if you said that. Others would kick you and shout suck it in. But looking at the breathing system as an oscillatory movement that constantly goes in and out, you could be imbalanced on either the in part or the out part. If you hold your belly in a lot when you sing, and some people do, you may benefit from letting it stick out for a bit. If you do the opposite – stick your belly out – you could trying holding it in. And your problem may be temporarily solved. But it might not work for the next person, who is imbalanced on a completely different part of their movement.
How to solve it: Again, it’s about balance. In order to balance something that’s gone one way, you need to go the other for a short while. That is not necessarily a sweeping piece of advice for the rest of your career, which is how some teachers seem to dish out this statement. But look at it this way: at the gym, if your chest muscles are tight and leaving you hunched over, you would be advised to work on your back for the majority of the workout to rebalance.
That is until you end up doing too much and start walking round like a pigeon. The same goes for what you do with your belly, and how that interacts with your breathing. However, just like at the gym you would strive for a continuous balance of both muscle groups so you’re neither Quasimodo, nor sat on Nelson’s Column – hence why this statement is only partly true, and only at certain times, or possibly never. Just get yourself to a teacher who can explain and train you, and someone who certainly wouldn’t say “stick it out…forever”.
“Sing from the diaphragm”
Where it comes from: A lot of you will have heard this. Have you sat and tried to explain it? It’s pretty easy to get yourself in a pickle trying, because it’s so unclear. It could be from taking a deeper breath and learning to fully fill the lungs, and maybe that made you sing better. Must be the diaphragm! Or that you feel some resistance or sensations deeper in the abdomen when you sing good and strong. Must be the diaphragm! You may have even been booked for a gig, or got a new girlfriend, which was also probably your diaphragm.
How to solve it: The breathing apparatus incorporates so many muscles in your upper body, so it doesn’t make sense to credit the diaphragm as being the sole powerhouse behind your singing. It’s only a part of the process. It is still important, but in singing there are many more exhalation muscles that create great power in the voice. One situation could be when a singer goes for loudness. Knowingly or not, they may use a strong closure of the vocal cords to achieve this, possibly along with a full breath. There will be a build-up pressure in the abdomen when singing starts as air is held in the lungs. You’ll likely feel this pressure in your chest and midriff. But this isn’t singing from the diaphragm, even though there’s some feeling around there. It’s primarily the closed setting created at the vocal cords trapping air. If the singer lets go of their closure the pseudo-diaphragm feeling would go away as air easily rushes out, relieving pressure in your bod. So, statements like this can lead you to focus on completely the wrong thing! Consider all of your instrument to truly understand the sensations felt in singing.
It’s a jungle out there. Off the back of reading this article, you could be fearful of opening your mouth… and quite rightly so. Again, we joke, it’s a free world and you can say what you like. Our mission is just to bring some clarity to what appears to be an unnecessarily overly complicated industry. Now, can you leave us alone, we have to spend some time practising singing our songs in our masks (sigh).