it's my tip in a vox
October 18, 2011 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Quick-fix singing tips?

My fledgeling little for-fun band got a gig doing some covers, and I'm singing main vocal on a few songs. I'm told I generally have a decent voice, but I'd be interested to hear some basic tips. This is folk/roots music, so I'm not necessarily looking to sound "polished" per se, just, I don't know...good. Two particular points of question that I have are 1) how to make a cover sound at least minimally distinctive (especially in absence of any sort of genre change-up or significantly different arrangements) and 2) how to make volume changes sound good and natural, as one thing I've noticed in listening to self-recordings is that I don't have great volume control.

But any tips will be of interest! I have never been taught anything technical or explicit about singing, so go nuts. Thanks.
posted by threeants to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You should not do a cover unless you can nail it or sing it in a very different way. The more you sing, the better control you will have. If you can't sing the cover perfect, then ask the band to experiment with the tempo and/or the tuning and try and find an interesting sound that showcases your voice. Mash ups are fun- start out with one song and then switch to another, similar sounding song midway through.

A few non-musical tips:
Make eye contact with your audience.
Encourage dancing by moving around on stage.
Have fun. If you are clearly enjoying yourself, the audience will forgive imperfections.
posted by myselfasme at 3:57 PM on October 18, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have mentioned that this is kind of going to be background music, not a rapt audience, so I'm more interested in sounding decent than knocking people's socks off.
posted by threeants at 4:00 PM on October 18, 2011

Maybe some other folks out there have something for you, but I've been wracking my brain trying to put what I know into quick-fix format, and it's not happening.

I can tell you that you need to breathe correctly and not force *anything*, and that you will gain volume control and develop your own style through lots and lots of practice... but you need some basic vocal coaching. I wonder if there's anything decent out there on YouTube or something, because ultimately you need someone to show you rather than tell you how to exercise and control your voice.

In the meantime, sing scales everyday (sing them slowly and with focus), watch your posture (stand up straight, don't cant your head back), keep your throat relaxed (if your neck or throat feels tight at any time, you need to pay close attention to staying relaxed). Breathe into your abdomen; your shoulders should not move with your breath. Your power should come from your diaphragm, and your stomach should be held firm to support your voice. Stay hydrated.
posted by Specklet at 4:07 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let your jaw hang like an idiot.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:13 PM on October 18, 2011

If I were you I'd strongly consider voice lessons. Even a few lessons can be really valuable, if you have a good teacher.

Otherwise, Specklet has some very good tips.
posted by bunderful at 4:14 PM on October 18, 2011

Stay hydrated.

Yes, drink tons of water. 2 liters a day at least.

Find your "centre": the place a couple of inches below your navel, and a couple of inches in towards your spine. Breathe from there, and sing from there. Your neck, jaw and upper chest should do as little work as possible.

A warm-up exercise:

Put your hand over that centre spot. (You may also like to put your other hand on your lower back, opposite it.) Take in a long, slow breath. Then blow little puffs out making "fff" or "sss" sounds. Six or eight, then when you get to the last one, make it last as long as you can. With each expulsion of air, feel your navel bouncing in towards your spine; do it from there, not your upper chest. When you've blown out the last of your air, your body should automatically take a good breath in, again towards your centre.

You can do this standing or lying on your back (with knees up.) If lying on your back, an old-school trick is to put a largeish book over that centre spot so you can feel it move.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:39 PM on October 18, 2011

Good advice above about support, posture, hydration, etc. above. I'd recommend a couple other things to sound like you're a step above a complete n00b.

First, sing through the ends of your phrases. A lot of novice singers peter out at the ends of phrases. Each time you take a breath, fill up competely so you have enough air to finish your phrases strongly. Then concentrate on finishing each phrase exactly the way you want to, not the way you have to because you're out of air.

Second, mind your consonants. It can really smooth out your delivery if you 'sing to the beat' and take care of the consonants at the beginning of the next beat instead of the end of this one. For example, instead of "Thisss land is yourrrrrrr land, thisss land is my land" you can sing something like, "Thi slan dii zyoh rlaa, nthi slaa ndii zmy laaa." Not to that extreme necessarily. It looks really awkward spelled out like that. But it's the sort of thing where if you do it right other singers might notice and appreciate it, but 99% of the audience will only know that you sound like you know what you're doing. Because you're singing more efficiently, spending more time singing the open vowels instead of clambering over the hard consonants.
posted by Balonious Assault at 4:59 PM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Good points about the phrasing and yeah, sing the vowels, not the consonants.

That reminded me of something else: keep your mouth open. Most people think their mouth is open waaaay more than it actually is. Unless you are (briefly) forming a consonant, your mouth should be open a *minimum* of two fingers' width, which in the beginning is going to feel huge. And drop your jaw, like Obscure Reference says; your mouth should fall open, not be forced open.
posted by Specklet at 5:06 PM on October 18, 2011

Ha, your title made me laugh.

What you eat/drink can actually make a pretty noticeable difference to your voice. Avoid dairy and other things that 'coat' your throat before singing. Go with stuff that's kind of 'clarifying': before one show I did, someone had lemon slices backstage to suck on. You may want to google what foods/drinks are good/bad for singing to get some more/better recommendations.
posted by imalaowai at 5:09 PM on October 18, 2011

Have you recorded yourself singing unaccompanied solo, and played it back? Most people are pretty saddened by what they hear. Good singing means a lot of feedback. Using what people have suggested here, try to get the sound to where you're a lot happier with how you sound. Then play a song by some singer you like, and try to repeat it with your recording setup (just the singing, not the accompaniment). Listen to it again. Figure out what you do that you like, and what they do that you could try to emulate. What you're looking for is a sense of conviction in your voice, so that someone listening can believe that only you could sing it that way.

As for volume control, it sounds as if you're trying to push it all from the mouth, throat and chest. That hurts, and you can't keep it up for long without busting something. Get your sound from as deep into your diaphragm and belly as you can, and let your throat relax.
posted by alonsoquijano at 5:42 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you need to learn to support. Good support comes low -- you take a deep, low belly breath, then firm up your core and pelvic floor muscles to make a nice hard sounding board to throw the sound off of. By doing that, you can keep your shoulders, throat, and jaw loose, and and create a much richer, more resonant sound.

Another problem amateur singers often have is trouble moving across their breaks. The break in your voice is the place at which the resonance switches between different spaces in your body; you'll hear people talk about chest voice, mid voice, and head voice a lot. A highly trained singer will be able to move from one of the spaces to another gradually, like starting a manual transmission car on a hill and balancing the clutch, gas, and brake. A less well trained singer will crack as they get close to their break. The way to work over your break, as cliche as it is, is to sing scales. I like to start with a five-tone scale (do re mi fa sol fa mi re do), moving up by a half-step. Then do a nine-tone scale (do re mi fa sol la ti do' re' do' ti la sol fa mi re do), same deal. Then a fourteen-tone scale (sol, la, ti, do re mi fa sol la ti do' re' mi' fa' sol' fa' mi' re' do' ti la sol fa mi re do ti, la, sol,), same deal. That last one will help you with creating good breath control, too. If you can't do them at first, don't sweat it. Keep working at it until you can.
posted by KathrynT at 6:17 PM on October 18, 2011

Some tips from an ex-engineer, here. None of these will help you sing. All of them will help you perform.

Understand how microphones work. Do not expect it to pick up as much of your voice if you move from one inch away to two inches away. Do not turn your head and sing/talk towards your bassist unless you continue to direct the sound through the microphone. Some singers practice the "lipstick on the windscreen" model of mic placement. Like nuking them from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

Rehearse with a mic and a monitor at least once before the first gig.

Have a soundcheck. Get what you need at that soundcheck. Learn what you want in a monitor mix before your first soundcheck. If you want the bass so you can stay on the beat, or your own vocals to adjust them, or the keyboard so you can stay on pitch, ask for it in your mix.

You can ask the engineer during the gig to adjust things if they need adjusting. Nobody minds if you point at the bass player and then up. Your engineer knows what you mean and the rest of the audience either doesn't notice, doesn't care, or is glad you're fixing stuff.

Speaking of that engineer, make sure he's there and will be at the board during the gig. If the band's goal is to have the audience hear the lyrics, make sure he knows that. If you're doing punk covers to thrash metal, make sure he knows that. If your songs can handle reverb and he's got the gear, ask him to put some on the vocals. It's the equivalent of Vaseline on the movie camera lens.

If the sound man helps you out, consider buying him a beer. He works hard. :)
posted by Mad_Carew at 7:02 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Pretend to, or actually, try breathing through a straw.

2. Feel that in your gut? That's where you want to take your breaths.

3. Breath from there, and sing from there.

4. The rest is vocal training, practice and experience.
posted by General Malaise at 8:51 PM on October 18, 2011

Hey, this thread is great for me!

I have two major hobbies that I practice half-assedly: singing in a band and zazen meditation. So now I've learned that they really do support each other.

In zazen, you work a lot with your posture, especially keeping your spine erect so that your breathing is completely unobstructed. And you put your entire concentration on the sensations of the breath in what's called the hara, Japanese for belly — it's exactly that central sweet spot beneath the navel, from where you're supposed to breathe.

Some teachers have you visualize breathing as if your nostrils were below your navel. For some reason that's a super-easy way to fool your mind into breathing just right.

This center is an important thing in both Taoism and Zen. So in Japan, they say, someone who's really got their stuff together and is a master of swordsmanship, or Zen, or martial arts, or calligraphy, or anything like that, is called "someone who acts from the hara."

Zazen is the furthest thing from a quick fix, but if you're into meditation, you might enjoy this connection. I just picked up my guitar and sang Wish You Were Here with a real Zen hara concentration, and it was just obvious that this is the right way to sing!

Now to work on those scales...
posted by mbrock at 4:20 AM on October 19, 2011

One more thing. If you have volume control issues and the engineer has a compressor/limiter, try it out. It lets the engineer raise your vocals generally, without letting your maximum volume destroy the mix.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:09 AM on October 19, 2011

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