by Colleen Cook
How many times have you heard, or maybe you have said yourself, “I can’t sing.” These words are anguish to me, because in my life singing alone and with others has been the source of some of my greatest joy. To think that so many people miss out on that joy because someone told them they weren’t good at it, or they perceived they weren’t is too sad.
Before working for the Renaissance, I had the privilege to teach vocal music in the public schools and privately and was able to study under some of our generation’s greatest voice scientists and voice pedagogues at Shenandoah Conservatory during my graduate study. Through all of that, one thing was completely evident: nearly everyone can sing. (I only qualify that statement because there are few individuals with vocal injuries or disabilities that do prevent them from singing. But, that is not representative of 99% of people who claim they cannot sing).
Learning to sing is like any other physical skill. As an athlete trains their brain and their body as they prepare for their first 5K or their hundredth marathon, so a singer trains their body to perform what their brain desires. A successful singer engages their entire body in singing, not just their larynx and mouth.
The first day you put on a pair of running shoes, you don’t expect your body to run like an elite runner, but for some reason most people expect their natural untrained voice to sound like a professional singer. And, when it doesn’t, many feel enough shame about their untrained voice that they give up for life. Having personally helped dozens upon dozens of people develop their singing voice from not being able to carry a tune or even match a pitch to successfully singing with performance groups and even pursuing singing as a career, I’m here to say that the idea that “you can’t sing,” is just not true.
If you’re a beginning singer who wants to get better, here are three tips for getting started:
- Train your ear to coordinate with your voice
Sit down at a piano, keyboard, or pull up this handy online pitch pipe and play one pitch. Then, try to sing that same note on the syllable “la.” Does the note you’re producing sound like it’s higher, lower, or the same as the note you are trying to match? If your note is higher, try sliding down until it sounds the same. If it’s lower, try sliding up until it sounds the same. If it sounded the same, then try another until you’re consistently matching pitch.
- Get a handle on your registration
One common pitfall for beginning singers is matching the appropriate registration. The female voice uses “chest” registration, “head” registration, and a “mix” registration. The male voice uses a “chest” registration, “mix” registration, and “falsetto,” registration. Simply put, each registration coordinates different muscle dominance in your larynx to create a heavier/fuller or lighter/clearer sound. Your “chest” voice is likely similar to the voice you speak with – it’s a full, robust sound that we sometimes associate with lower pitches. Your “head voice” or “falsetto” is a headier, maybe initially airy, lighter quality of registration. Your “mix” is a mix of the two, very commonly used in contemporary singing styles.
Here are 3 videos that will help you to identify your vocal registers:
- Start Simple
Your first race wouldn’t be an ultra-marathon, so don’t start with a pro-level song as you’re learning to sing. Choose a simple melody that you like with a limited range (that is, the distance between the highest and lowest notes); I recommend starting with a lullaby, hymn, or children’s folk song. Practice singing every note on pitch first, then make some choices about vocal registration. Once you have a handle on those things, consider where you might make some dynamic choices, that is, how loud or soft you’ll sing. Then, practice, practice, practice!
Remember that vocal technique is only part of great singing; at its essence, great singing is also great storytelling. Think about how your face and body will subtly communicate the emotion of the song you are singing, and what vocal choices you can make to better tell that story.
Be encouraged that as you practice these three skills, your voice will improve! And, if you’d like some further help, seek out a voice teacher for a few lessons to help guide your growth. Happy singing!