By: Amanda White
Many of us start learning acoustic guitar to accompany ourselves when we sing, but in the process of falling in love with the instrument, some of us forgot that we also need to learn how to sing! Even if you don’t have visions of becoming a coffeehouse crooner, chances are that someone, at some point, is going to ask you to sing something. In this article, I’ll introduce you to some techniques used by professional singers that will improve your control, breath, volume, and tone.
1. Breathe through your mouth and nose at the same time. That’s not as hard as it sounds. You probably do it often without realizing it. A nose breath is too slow and too noisy, and a mouth breath alone feels too dry and scratchy. Breathing through both prepares you for good singing and ensures that the mic won’t pick up a loud, sloppy breath.
2. Breathe deep, not high. When you take a deep breath, don’t try to cram it all into the top of your lungs and throat. The breath goes lower than that—all the way to the bottom of your lungs. To make space down there, you need to expand all around your torso—your abs, sides, and back should all move outward. But your shoulders should not rise at all. Your lungs might not feel as “full,” but this just means that you are experiencing less tension.
3. Build toward a steady release of breath. Whether you’re singing a held note or a long line, you want the air to pass through your vocal cords at an even pace, not be blasted out all at once or in fits and starts. The more control you have over this, the longer lines you will be able to sing, and the more even and connected your phrasing will be. Practice taking deep breaths and holding a long “sss” or “ffff” for different amounts of time, ranging from five or ten seconds to as long as you can keep it up.
4. Support your sound. Singers create a stable base for their sound by engaging the muscles of the torso in a way that keeps the body from collapsing inward. A technique that has confusing connotations for the singing public at large, “support,” or appoggio, involves neither sticking the belly out nor sucking it in, but rather fixing the muscles of your torso in the expanded state reached at the apex of a deep breath. It’s the singer’s version of the athlete’s “engaging your core,” with more emphasis on a high, noble posture.
5. Don’t let your tongue get in the way. Tongue tension is a singer’s worst enemy. Although your tongue needs to move to create vowels like “eee” and consonants like “L,” you don’t want your tongue wobbling about when using vibrato or getting sucked up against the back of your throat (a common problem among bad singers). Let a wide, flat tongue be your default mode.
6. Stand up straight. Guitar players are in particular danger of slouching, especially if they glance down to look at their fingers as they play. You must keep your chest high and your head up to avoid squishing out all your breath or choking up your vocal tract. A good fix is to place the microphone high enough that it will only pick up your voice if your head is up (without being so high that you have to bend your neck back). Stools encourage better posture than chairs do. If you are sitting on a chair, scoot forward to the very edge of it.
7. Don’t choke your high notes. People get so nervous about hitting high notes that they clench their jaws and throats, strangling the note before it even gets out. Put the extra tension in your core muscles, an d let your jaw drop into a nice square opening—tall and wide at the same time.
8. Train with humming. For difficult portions of your vocal range, try humming the notes before you sing them. This keeps you from forcing too much air through, so you can find your balance at a calmer level than when you’re rocking out. Five- and eight-note scales, up and down, are most popular. Try them by humming the whole scale, or hum on the way up and sing “ah” on the way down.
9. Don’t let your guitar tension cause vocal tension. Guitar players have to press hard with their fingers, and during a dramatic or upbeat piece might have a lot of arm and even shoulder tension. Your body is all connected, of course, so there’s a danger that this muscle tension can interfere with your singing, transferring to your neck and jaw. Divert any excess energy into “support,” and be conscious of keeping free and open everywhere you can.
10. Singing should feel good. If anything hurts, you’re not doing it right. You probably have tension in your throat or tongue, or are forcing air too hard through your vocal cords. With practice, you should be able to sing for about an hour comfortably.
NSAI would like to thank Amanda White for her contribution of knowledge. Amanda is a singer of classical and rock music, as well as a columnist for Classical Singer magazine. A soprano who has performed many operatic roles, she also recently released her first rock album of all original material, Toyshop.
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