Singing is the first music-making experience most of us ever had. It came naturally without a single lesson probably before you even went to school. You probably started with a nursery rhyme or other well-known song, and you sang for the simple pleasure of it. And your mom probably thought you were amazing!
She probably still does. But now you need to make sure that others agree with her. We are drawn to singing for all sorts of reasons. You may be a good songwriter, and want to perform your own work. You may love recording your own music, and need some vocals to fill out your sound. You may love performing, whether in a band or a karaoke night. And you prefer not to suck.
Virtually everyone can sing, but some are naturally talented at it. Talent isn’t everything, though. However much talent you have or don’t have, you can learn to sing better. Here are 5 concepts you need to understand to make your vocals more expressive.
1. Vocal Range
A singer’s range is the set of notes between the highest and lowest pitch they can sing. Vocal ranges vary widely between individuals, and in general women can sing higher than men. A related concept is tessitura, which refers to the pitch the singer is most comfortable singing in.
Some singers have great vocal range. The woman with the greatest recorded vocal range is Georgia Brown, who can sing eight octaves from G2 to G10. The man with the greatest vocal range is Tim Storms, who can sing six octaves. Your vocal range is probably much more limited, and you need to be aware of that.
A set of standard (2-octave) vocal ranges have been defined as follows:
- Soprano: C4 – C6
- Mezzo-soprano: A3 – A5
- Contralto: F3 – F5
- Tenor: C3 – C5
- Baritone: F2 – F4
- Bass: E2 – E4
Most likely you can sing in more than one of these ranges (and Georgia Brown can sing all from Baritone to Soprano and beyond), but you’ll probably have a strong preference for just one range. A knowledge of your preferred range will allow you to show off the best of your voice.
Most singers can also sing in two registers: the lower (chest) voice, and the higher (head) voice. Men singing in their head voice is known as ‘falsetto’. Some singers have made falsetto a trade mark of their singing, including the Bee Gees and Smokey Robinson. With practice, you can smoothly change between your chest and head voice.
It is important to know your vocal range so that you can choose (or transpose) songs in a key you can actually sing. Nothing sounds worse than trying to sing outside of your range. Your tone will be uneven, weak or squeaky, and you may eventually do damage to your voice.
It is possible to extend your range through regular practice. Most singing books and teachers can teach you voice exercises and techniques to hit higher and lower notes. Try not to hit too high a note until your voice has warmed up. Before your voice has warmed up you will have a narrower range anyway.
The way we phrase a line of music conveys the meaning and mood of a song to the listeners. Phrasing is strongly influenced by where we pause and breathe as we sing the lyrics, which words we think are important and emphasize, and how we relate emotionally to the words.
Don’t underestimate the importance of phrasing. Singers without superb voices can become successful through the use of good phrasing, and great singers develop their own distinct style of phrasing. It is phrasing that turns a melody into a memorable performance.
Incorporate the following devices where appropriate into your singing to improve your phrasing:
- Linger over a long note.
- Change the inflection on certain words.
- Staccato interjections.
- Use of grunts, screams, whispers and other emotive sounds.
- Use vibrato on long notes.
- Incorporate falsetto into your singing.
- Use a throaty huskiness for appropriate phrases.
When you are singing in a group, make sure that all singers use the same phrasing, especially when singing harmonies. Watch one another’s lips so that you start and finish each syllable together. Aim to sound like one single unified voice.
When you are learning a new song, try different ways of phrasing the lyrics to see what works. Reading the lyrics out loud in your speaking voice can help you determine the natural phrasing.
Singing in tune is important, but it is not entertainment. The ability to inject emotion and excitement into a song is what moves the listener.
Interpretation is how a singer expresses their individuality through the meaning of a song, and is closely related to phrasing. Simply showing off your vocal ability is not interpretation, and will usually distract the listener from the song. Engage the audience with your emotions and energy. Learn to emote through your voice, your face, and your body language.
The most successful interpretations of songs are sung by those who believe and feel the words they are singing. It is usually a mistake to force yourself to sing a song you don’t like or don’t believe in. Singing a style of music that you don’t relate to also makes it difficult to express yourself effectively.
A great way to learn about interpretation is to listen to how different singers perform the same song. Pay attention to the musical arrangement, the tempo, the phrasing and the body language of the singer.
Vocal harmony requires at least two voices singing different parts that are designed to sound good together. Adding harmony to your vocals can lift a song to a new level. And effective harmony can make even a mediocre voice sparkle.
Singing in harmony is more difficult than most people realize, and becomes increasingly difficult with the number of other singers you need to harmonize with. Careful planning, experience and rehearsal are required for consistent results. You may be able to learn a harmony part more easily if you can read music. But learning your part is just the start - blending your voice with the other singers is the important thing. And it is not just the pitch of the note that needs to harmonize - your tone and feeling must also blend.
Harmony parts normally complement the melody part being sung by the lead singer. Listening carefully to the other singers is essential, or your pitch, timing or phrasing may drift. When singing harmony as a backup singer, learn to put more breathe into your voice so that the lead singer’s sound is more dominant.
5. Vocal Health
Today’s vocal styles incorporate a wide range of sounds, from sensuous rasps to screams to whines to screaming falsettos. It is important not to push yourself and your voice, or you may damage your vocal cords. Singing with a strained voice does not sound good, and my have long-term consequences. Looking after your voice is an investment in your future.
Here are some hints for good vocal health:
- Look after yourself in general. Get plenty of sleep, sufficient exercise, eat sensibly, avoid smokey or dusty locations, and drink plenty of water and much less alcohol. That doesn’t sound like most singers I know!
- Warm up your voice gently for several minutes before singing.
- Rest your voice as much as possible. This doesn’t mean whispering!
- Avoid raising your voice in conversation - learn to speak clearly instead. This will also improve your diction.
- Go easy on your voice if you have a cold. Don’t expect the same range, and don’t push it. If possible, use a steam inhalant.
- Don’t drink with ice before singing - it constricts your vocal cords.
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