Would you like to feel more motivated to practise your singing? Use my 16 top tips to help you move forward. Why don’t you have a go today?
I have to say this is one of my personal favourite topics and one of the least talked about professionally. There are techniques for singing and so how it functions that it is mind-boggling. There are CDs and books written from the 1900s up to the present day giving vocal exercises galore.
I also personally think that not every method has the whole truth about singing, but brought together they form a wonderful tapestry of more skills than any singer can take and use.
But what does a singer do with these exercises and how do they know whether they are using them correctly? When as a singer you only hear a portion of your whole sound and never as the audience hear it, how do you judge whether you are getting it right and not just spending time practicing bad habits or simply getting discouraged?
Unlike an instrumentalist, a singer should not be rehearsing for hours on end, especially at full belt. If you really understand how to practise your songs, your learning time can be cut by more than half, leaving valuable time to explore other areas of your performance and work on your craft in other ways.
# 1 Loosen it up
Your first goal in practice is to generally loosen your vocal cord muscles, ligaments and reduce tension. The use of lip trills, speech exercises and siren sounds and hums can loosen up, even out your breath and stretch your ligament range when you are singing. Many singers simply add too much pressure initially or hold their breath and their posture can be slouchy and bad from long days sitting down in the office.
No athlete forces their muscles into submission but too often singers go straight in with singing their songs. Decide whether you are feeling on top form, have had a hard day at work, been unwell lately or are just a little tired as these will all determine how long you may have to warm up for (your head as much as your voice) and what your energy level is likely to be.
# 2 Have a routine
Begin with the exercise routine given to you by your teacher. In the past I sang straight open vowels as it was the traditional approach. Some naturally placed voices (and what I mean by that is a voice whose tone and pitch fit with full access to frequencies and harmonics in the voice) are able to sing in the centre of the vowel and may begin initially with open vowels, but personally I like to use consonants before vowels (as in speech level singing exercises) to fast track that process.
I’m a big fan of new approaches to exercises because we are learning more and more about how to help singers and I really don’t think that an approach that takes years of doing exercises that have little success is a great one.
# 3 Question why
While doing these exercises ask yourself “Why?” Why are you doing this particular exercise? When I asked a group of students at a university why they practiced, answers varied from feeling good, being able to sing the song to “I was actually told to in order to get it right”.
What is that exercise designed to do? If you don’t know ask your teacher, they should be able to give you a valid answer. Why have they chosen it for you? If you have a clear understanding of why you are doing a particular exercise you will be able to build up a reference library of exercises that you can tailor-make to your vocal strengths and weaknesses and not simply act mindlessly singing exercises with little idea of their effect. Exercises can be practiced wrongly and cause as much damage as not doing them at all.
# 4 Start quiet
Make sure initially you are not practising too loudly at the start, but only increase the “leaning” and “pressing” or volume aspect once your muscles can respond without constriction in the throat or locking the breath.
# 5 Little by little
Little by little increase volume in a balanced way so that all of the vocal range will sympathetically come together. No blasting the bottom at the expense of the top and vice versa.
# 6 Find a private space
If you share a house or find it difficult to get some “alone” time, consider hiring a church hall or room to practice in. This is a great way to simply let off steam. Sing your heart out, test whether you are actually a bigger voice holding yourself back through trying not to disturb the neighbour .
# 7 Slow it down
Slow exercises down if you need to concentrate on sections of the voice that need extra work. For example you may be singing an exercise and flip in the middle over the break, or it goes a little woolly. Simply stop, repeat the exercise and pay more attention to the sensations you are feeling. If it continues try another exercise, walk around, change something rather than ignore what is going on.
# 8 Be thorough
Sometimes it better to just practice one exercise for 10 minutes really thoroughly, thinking of the sensations, rather than whip through a routine which you pay little attention to.
# 9 Move!
Walk around, swing your arms, move in your practice time and make a habit of making sure you are not increasing tension at any point.
# 10 Change it up
I often advise singers when practicing songs or exercises to stop at the “stuck” point and change the rhythm or take few notes out of context and play with it. Add a different vowel/consonant combination, look at it from a different angle rather than simply singing it straight through.
# 11 Drive carefully
Lots of students (adult learners!) practise in the car. I’ve done it too… but a word of caution: combined with the road noise and obvious lack of concentration and mobility, realise it is a far from ideal method. You would be better using hums and sirens that don’t require much singing out.
# 12 Refine, refine, refine
As you get more advanced at practise you will come to realise it is more about the detail and working little by little into odd, specific areas than pounding the pavement, bashing out lots and lots of exercises. Listen out for areas of the voice that need refinement and look for exercises that deal specifically with these areas.
# 13 Be open to suggestions
There are many methods that work effectively depending on your learning style.
# 14 Keep a diary or practise journal
See if you can find consistent areas that seem to crop up time and time again.
# 15 Clear your head
At the end of detailed practise go away for 10 minutes, clear your head and then simply sing for pleasure. Practise is about training muscle memory and increasing stamina and flexibility of your voice, but performance is about connecting and communicating the song to the audience out there. So to test whether things are improving, go away and come back and simply sing the piece through. You will soon be able to tell if you’ve fixed that section or if more practise is required.
# 16 Try it three times and move on
That’s my rule. If I try something three times in different ways and it’s still not working, I move on. It’s important that your brain doesn’t get “stuck” but that you have time to come back to it at a later date.
Example 30-minute routine:
- 5 minutes – stretch, move, get head in the right frame of mind, use siren sounds, lip trills etc to get the breathing and flexibility going.
- 10 minutes – moving from gentle exercising into moderate exercising that deals with specific areas in the voice.
- 10 minutes – song work – one song only. Begin with areas that need work if you have sung it before and avoid singing it over and over again.
- Use the 80/20 rule using sounds in the songs like lip trills, hums, consonant and vowel combinations to find where the voice needs to adjust. Then take a two-minute breather.
- The last 5 minutes – sing through as if it doesn’t matter. Just perform it and you will soon see where work needs to be done another time.
Please leave me your comments and what your favourite practise tips are!
Well it’s that time again! X-factor, The Voice… talent shows galore, not to mention the rounds of theatre and music school auditions that have just taken place.
Did you do any?
How did you get on?
Well, if you didn’t do so great, I have some very good news for you. You can improve – and sometimes very quickly – if you know the game you are about to play and stay focused on what needs to be done at each round of an audition process.
Just in case you are wondering if I failed any auditions (answer: yes) and how I coped with the disappointment and rejection (to be honest, not well at times…), I have most assuredly bought the t-shirt on failed auditions.
In fact I won a book for the most embarrassing audition story in a competition run by some teachers I know!
I have made all the mistakes so you don’t have to (if you listen up and get wise to the process). I have walked singers through the preparation required to get through auditions and had some stellar results. My singers have won major UK competitions, entered theatre schools and won scholarships as well as got through rounds of the TV competitions with only a few lessons.
So I am going to save you the heartache of rejection, but you must follow the rules if you want to play the game.
1) First things first
Your goal is not to visualize yourself winning the trophy at this stage (or at any). Your first priority is to get through the first round of auditions if there are several rounds. Be the best you can be at each stage in any competition or audition. Too many either fail at the gate because they over-think even attempting and then their nerves kick in because they made they whole thing so big in their mind that they fall apart as they walk in.
That’s no good at all, nerves are always going be around and you have to find a way to chunk down the goals into manageable pieces that you can mentally handle. That’s why when a young 16 yr old girl came to me because she had entered for the X-factor, I told her our only goal was round 1. That piece of information alone, helped her to focus her attention on what she needed to get better at right now. The upshot of it was that after just 3 sessions and a small performance class she passed round 1 after never having had a vocal lesson in her life, and walking in with a whispy voice and with no confidence and frankly no chance.
Focus on the task at hand which is doing the work to deal with just the round that you are faced with. Avoid future planning or overwhelming yourself with imaginings that haven’t happened yet!
2) Choose your songs wisely
Here is where many make a big mistake. They believe in picking either an iconic song recorded by an iconic artist that is generally too big for their voices or experience in the hope that the judges will see their potential. They hope that if they can get through a big song then it will show they are a really good singer. Mostly the answer to this is NO! It won’t show you can – it is more likely to reveal what you can’t do yet. If you pick a song by Whitney, Mariah or Beyonce or Ed Sheeran etc etc as well as the big opera tracks too and obvious Wicked and Les Mis numbers (I heard 5 versions of Beyonce’s “Halo” in one series of auditions I sat on!) you will be immediately compared to the icon, which is a tall order to deliver. Don’t do it unless you can walk it.
Instead, pick songs you can make your own, or that are a male song and you are a female covering it – I call these clever covers because you are not simply trotting out the same things as everyone else. Look for similar voice types to you or out of the box songs that you can be remembered for doing. Your goal is to stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons. Above all, make sure you can sing the song on a good voice day and on a not so good day and when you are tired and grumpy too. Can you raise the bar and turn on the lights? If you can only sing the song when you are at your best, then its not a safe choice and you many find nerves sabotage your moment.
The one most singers miss out. I have known singers who apply and then don’t do the work. It’s a kind of reverse psychology that goes like this “If I don’t get in at least I can say I wasn’t prepared”. Go figure! How crazy we get when we are trying to avoid feeling rejected and disappointed. We are so scared of putting the effort in and then not feeling ‘good enough’ that we will avoid feeling bad at all costs. Even the cost of succeeding. We are indeed complex at times. Sometimes you will put the work in and you won’t be good enough at that stage or that year. Don’t get down at this point. Go back, do more work, follow through, see how much you can improve. Push the bar a bit more, you must stretch yourself if you are going to grow.
Make sure you know what the meaning of the song is, pretty and vacant is not a strategy! Give it thought, work out what you are going to say, how you are going to walk in and out, leave nothing to chance. Think of answers to some of the questions you may be asked. Be prepared – no be over-prepared. You may not be able to control the outcome, but you can control the output!
4) Get feedback
Get in front of others and run the audition songs through. Be humble and learn to take the constructive help. You may be able to change a few elements that make all the difference. Never shy away from singing to professional people in the industry who can be honest and truthful as to what you need to do to improve. That being said, pick these people carefully, you don’t want a bitter and twisted opinion that is designed to erode your self-belief. But if you get it, use it as fuel to your fire and come back stronger. You need to be mentally tough if you are going to be a good performer. I didn’t say be defensive, but be able to take some criticism as it really is character building if given by someone who can see your potential to improve.
If you cannot get in front of a group before your audition, get in front of the mirror! It can’t lie to you. If your eyes are wondering everywhere or you seemed bored even to yourself (or desperate) then just know that is what your audience is seeing. I know many performers who always watch videos back so they can see what needs correcting from an audience perspective. After all these are the people who we are meant to be entertaining. Yes even judges want to be entertained!
5) Be a people person – at all costs
There is no room in the modern age for diva like behavior. Let’s face it there are thousands of people auditioning for what are in reality only a handful of places and judges will always favor someone they know they can work with and who gets along with others. Have manners and say please and thank you to the stage crew and the receptionist. People talk a lot! Don’t reserve your best behavior for those you feel have the decision making power. Treat everyone as you wish to be treated.
If your audition goes well, great, thank them. Hugs and kisses may not be needed at this point and this is not yet the greatest day of your life! But if it doesn’t or you get criticism, thank them for that too. Smile, and take the feedback. Then perhaps go and have a good cry, but only allow yourself a set time, say 30 minutes max, then wipe it away and get back to work. No wallowing and wailing how you were robbed. You have no idea why someone was chosen over you. Don’t get bitter, get better.
You may find this little test of character comes out in your favor when you next audition and they see the improvements and new maturity. It will only be a matter of time then that you be be hearing more yeses than no’s.