A Couch to 5K plan, but for singing?
May 23, 2013 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Lessons are expensive and I never want to sing for an audience, I only want to improve my voice for singing in the car and shower. Is it possible to teach yourself to be a better singer?

I looove singing, but only when I'm by myself. It seems pointless to take lessons with a professional voice teacher when nobody will ever hear me, but I hate it when I'm belting a song out in the car or shower and I can't quite hit a note or can't emote with my voice the way I wish I could.

I did attempt to learn from my incredibly talented friend (who is now a professional opera singer with one of the leading companies in the world, SO PROUD of her!) Unfortunately, the second I was in front of another person (especially someone as amazing as my friend) I clammed right up and couldn't make a peep. That's another reason for not wanting to go to a voice teacher, I'm terrified of singing in front of other people unless it's supposed to be funny, like belting 80's hits at karaoke where nobody is trying to sound awesome.

I understand that whatever I do will be less effective without a trained ear to point out my mistakes, but I don't need to be a great or even good singer, just a better one. What are drills or exercises I should be doing? Any free online resource recommendations? How much time do you need to spend practicing every day to notice any improvement? I know absolutely nothing, so lay your knowledge on me.
posted by keep it under cover to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
I think paying a teacher for a lesson or two would be a good idea, you'll get specific advice for helping you push through your weak points. A good teacher will not make you feel self conscious, and will potentially teach you more in an hour lesson than you'll year in a year experimenting yourself.

If you want to practice every day to improve, you'll probably see some results in 20 minutes a day. HOWEVER, this doesn't mean singing 20 minutes a day, this means practicing. You'll want to sing things which cause you to work on your weak points, and really focus on what you're doing. You may be singing the same 3 notes over and over again for 10 minutes for a week, but that is the type of thing that will make you better. This only works if you are practicing the things that need practice. If you can already sing those 3 notes really well, singing them more won't help you at all.

Alternatively, you will get better just by singing more and more. The key is to not just mindlessly sing, but to focus on what you are doing.

The best thing you can do to find your weaknesses is to record yourself singing, and listen back to it with a critical ear. Make a note of the things you don't like, and then practice just those things for a few weeks to improve them.

It is worth noting that most people don't like the sound of their voice on a recording, so at some point you will want someone else to give you some criticism. It will likely sound better to others than it sounds to you, and they will hear things that you don't.

A last word of advice, a lot of singers do amazing feats of vocal gymnastics, and while that sounds fun, I'd advise against working on those types of things. You are much better off working on being able to sing a simple melody so that it really has an emotional impact than working on being able to fit 30,000 into the national anthem. When you get to the point where you can sing one note and it really moves you, than add another. Don't rely on flashyness to impress people, that's the type of thing you can work on once you feel like you are a strong singer and are ready to add something to your vocal toolbox.
posted by markblasco at 6:35 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are some iOS apps that offer singing drills, though they are not free.

The one I downloaded is Erol Singers Studio. It has different drills where you try to match the patterns that it plays for you, and some breathing stuff and whatnot.

The trouble I'm having with it is twofold -- one, when I'm off-key I don't know how to get from what I'm doing to what I'm supposed to be doing, and two, I don't know how to translate any of this to actually singing anything other than these exercises.

But if you have a sense of how to use drills, it does seem kind of neat in terms of how it monitors and provides feedback.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:39 PM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Getting used to singing in front of other people is part of becoming a better singer. You need to do a systematic desensitization program, like for phobias. A voice teacher is a valid first step (hey, it's a stranger - you don't *have* to come back next week, and it's kind of her fault if you're not getting better - low stakes all around).

If you don't have a teacher, though, just do one note in front of someone. Next time, two words.

Tell them this is what you're going to do.

They'll be supportive, but they won't know whether to compliment you. The rule is: no compliments. It's impossible to know if someone's any good after just one phrase, or one a-cappella song, anyway. You'll know if you're good in a year or so, and it doesn't matter anyway. Singing is fun.
posted by amtho at 6:44 PM on May 23, 2013

I took a few lessons and I should have done it years earlier. It was amazing how much it helped. And best of all, it stuck. Long after I stopped lessons and stopped doing exercises I still sing light years better even though I only do it for myself.
posted by lpsguy at 6:46 PM on May 23, 2013

My local community college had some vocal classes, some specifically for beginners. It was easier to train in a class setting, knowing (or hoping!) I wasn't the worst in the room.
posted by hydra77 at 8:42 PM on May 23, 2013

I felt the same way you do and I just bit the bullet and paid for voice lessons. They were totally affordable, and I told my teacher up front that I was just taking the lessons because I am a bad singer, and that I generally just sing in the car. Once I had set her expectations really low I felt less self-conscious. She was very encouraging.

Also, be aware that voice lessons (at least the ones I took) do not start by having you actually sing songs. My first lesson was just breathing exercises and other things like posture, anatomy, where I should feel different sounds and so forth. I did weekly lessons for a month and it was all just exercises where she would play notes on the piano and I would try to sing the note, or "do re mi" sorts of singing. So that also made it less embarrassing because it wasn't like I had to go in there and start belting out My Heart Will Go On or something. I admit that there were a few times I tried turning away from my teacher and looking at the wall so that I wouldn't feel like I was being watched, or I recorded myself singing alone at home and played it for her so that she could see I didn't always choke up. I thought it was very useful. But I did also find videos on YouTube that I practiced with as well. There are series of videos on YT that you can watch and try at home that go through some of the exercises. I watched a lot for "lip rolls" because I struggled with that.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:18 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't mean to be mean to you, but how do you think you can practice and get better when you don't know what you're supposed to be aiming for? It's notoriously hard to describe good singing technique and it's usually taught as a process of describe - demonstrate - attempt - feedback etc.

I used to work as a voice therapist (I'm still a speech therapist but I don't work with voice so much any more) and a fair few of my clients were people who had damaged their voices with poor singing technique. That's not the norm, but if you are singing a lot with no guidance and trying to do more and better, you are likely to develop bad habits.

If vocal coaching is really out of the question (I did 10 years of lessons and adored it!) then my suggestions for you are:
* Read up on abdominal / diaphragmatic breathing and practice using it for gentle singing
* Don't sing in the car unless your posture is perfect - people tend to slump (inhibiting breathing) and stick their neck forward (putting too much strain on the muscles around the larynx).
* Karaoke can be the single reason someone has done permanent damage to their voice - try not to screech along, especially not if tipsy because you'll pay less attention to the pain that is telling you to stop.
* Hoarseness or soreness are signs you have damaged your voice and should never happen from practice. Sometimes I get a hoarse voice from singing but it's only when a conductor treats the choir badly and causes overuse, e.g., a three hour rehearsal and then a two hour concert, singing over an orchestra, all on the same day. Hopefully you're not ding that.
* Identify your type of voice and don't sing along to songs out of your range
* In fact, it's better not to sing along to loud music - you'll get more out of having it on quietly and being able to listen to yourself and improve your pitching.
* Feeling tight or strained when singing should never happen. It should feel relaxed.
* Practice singing perfectly in tune - this is likely to require you to record yourself as you have no teacher
* Practice reading music if that's something you do.

These things should improve your singing without causing harm. For things like changing vocal tone or expanding range you need a teacher. If you want to learn more then read up and at least you should learn more about your voice.

I also clam up completely when I'm very anxious about singing, but that doesn't stop me performing to hundreds of people when I'm in the right mindset. Put me in front of a microphone and I'm awful. Have you thought about singing in a choir instead? Sit in the middle of a big choir and nobody will hear you and you gain confidence and have a great time.
posted by kadia_a at 11:16 PM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

You dont need a teacher.

There are plenty of online lessons about.

The key is practise as with any instrument.

Half an hour a day is plentty.
posted by BenPens at 3:51 AM on May 24, 2013

Try to find an amateur choir that's not too fussy about auditions. If your sight-reading is sketchy you can just follow your section by ear. With a decent leader it can be quite fun.
posted by ovvl at 7:33 AM on May 24, 2013

Speaking as a singer, I'm going to strenuously disagree with BenPens' statement above. The problem is that the sounds you produce sound so radically different outside your head that without a trained listener, you have no idea what you're practicing towards. I can produce a sound that inside my head sounds pure and light, and from outside sounds strained and pinchy. External feedback is essential with singing, to a much greater degree than any other instrument -- just think about how different your voice sounds on a recording than it does to you.

That having been said, I promise you that teachers have seen and heard it all, and that you may not need very many lessons at all to get you to the point where you could continue to improve just by recording yourself and playing it back.
posted by KathrynT at 9:23 AM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Alright, I was really hoping to avoid lessons, but I didn't realize that even a few lessons would provide a much bigger benefit than practicing on my own without any feedback. I'll sign up for a lesson to see how it goes!
posted by keep it under cover at 1:35 PM on May 24, 2013

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