Whether you are singing to win a contest or just singing for yourself–there are some basics to remember that will help you sound better. Singing is very much like a sport; specific muscles are involved, correct thinking, precise repetition, and courageous action all play a part in both. Also, like a sport, there can be added tension and pressure from performing in front of an audience. The difference that music can make in a singing performance, as opposed to say, a tennis match, is an advantage for the singer over the tennis player. One must find an almost musical rhythm in the body in sport to let the muscles take over as they should, but a singer merely has to become immersed in the emotion and rhythm of the song. Pretty simple – well, it is IF you’re also using correct inhalation, posture, and breath control.
Correct inhalation has various schools of thought, depending on the vocal expert. Some say “breathe through your nose”, others, nose or mouth. I say, nose AND mouth, while your concentrating on relaxing your abs enough to get a correct inhale. It’s harder than it sounds, because most of us are worried about how taut our tummies look and therefore NOT relaxing enough for the inhale. Lying down on your back and placing your hand on your stomach, then attempting to raise your hand with your inhale should give you some idea of the feeling. Trying to duplicate this standing up will show you just how much tummy tension you have. Keep your hand on your lower abdomen as you inhale. Eventually it will relax enough so that tension starts to leave your whole body and free up your voice.
Now check your posture. Neck should be long, shoulders down, chest up (“heart forward”), knees unlocked, a “readiness” in the balls of your feet as if you’re going to shoot a free throw. OK, good; now for the challenging part.
“Breath control” is kind of a misnomer. It implies difficulty and makes one think muscle tension is required when the opposite is needed. The Webster’s definition of control is, “To exercise restraining or directing influence over (something).” That really is your job when it comes to the amount of air you exhale. You must learn to expel it as slowly and steadily as possible. A good exercise for learning to control the exhale is the famous “little bees”, or “BRRRRRRRR” motor boat sound, done gently and evenly. Doing the little bees up and down the scales will teach you how much breath you actually need to support a tone. The rule is “only just enough”. We all tend to use too much in the erroneous thought that a higher note must need more air. Ironically, it needs less.
The similarity in hitting a great golf shot or great tennis shot and hitting a high note is not obvious at first. They all involve LETTING the body do it, not TRYING to do it. The larynx (pronounced “lar-inx”), your voice box, automatically adjusts itself to the action of the vocal cords. It is held in position by muscles from above and below. It will do the job of adjusting pitch IF YOU DON”T TRY TO HELP IT. The only parts of the singer’s body that work hard are the BRAIN and the BREATH.
The teensy little problem the brain has, after you’ve mastered the breath part, is it’s usually listening to what I call “the singer in your head”. We’re mentally comparing our sound to someone else, and EQ-ing the sound with our muscles(the dreaded tongue!). The brain must be engaged in feeling the emotion of the words (right brain), not comparing your voice to Elvis or Madonna (left brain) — in order for your muscles to relax correctly.
And that’s why we idolize and pay the big bucks to great singers—it’s dang complicated and takes a lot of practice! But part of what makes someone good is that they love to sing, maybe more than anything else in the world. That alone can makes the whole process fun! After all, the joy comes from opening your mouth and letting your voice be heard – whether you win a trophy or not.