Finding Your Voice: The Basics of Singing

This article is part of a series intended for musicians that are interested in learning secondary instruments & new skills that will expand their versatility.

Also visit: 15 Guitar Tips for Non-Guitarists

This article was inspired by a handful of my instrumentalist friends recently asking me for tips on basic singing technique.  They’ve either been offered gigs in which backup vocals are involved or have to work with singers quite a bit and know that in order to better communicate with vocalists, it’s helpful to understand what they do.

While I was prompted to write this article by those specific friends, it is appropriate for anyone interested in singing.  I’m talking singers of rock, jazz, choral work, opera, hardcore, yodeling… you get the picture.

So who wants to learn how to sing? Who wants to learn how to sing with more control? Who wants to understand his/her own voice better, to be a more confident singer with more flexibility and better endurance?

I do I do!

Great! Come with me…

Helpful Tools:

1. A mirror

2. A recording device

3. Privacy. It is in your best interest to really be practicing and not performing. You want to work and rework your weaknesses, not sing the nicest parts of songs for someone you know is listening.

Diagram 1
Diagram 1

Diagram 2a
Diagram 2a

Diagram 2b
Diagram 2b

Step One- Posture:

1. Stand with your ears, over your shoulders, over your hips. It’s easy to remember and an easy alignment to achieve.

2. When you stand in the above position, your chin will be at rest. Keep your chin down. It is common to see singers lifting their chins when straining to sing a high pitch. One might think, “It’s a higher note, so I’m gonna bring my mouth up higher to sing it.” Nope! Lifting your chin actually makes singing more difficult. It cuts off the air supply traveling through your trachea (less air= less control and focused sound). It also changes the position of your soft palate, which in turn makes it difficult to achieve full resonance through your largest resonating cavity, your pharynx. (Singing is all about air being manipulated into specific vibrations through your vocal chords and then resonance cavities, which are spaces in your head.)

Step Two- Breathing:

1. Keep your shoulders still while inhaling and exhaling.

2. Breathing in is a little more controlled while singing. Physically you are filling your lungs, but it helps to let your lower abdominals release and, for the lack of a better word, your “tummy” to pop out.

3. Breathing out, in the form of singing, is very controlled. Teachers and choir directors often say, “Sing from your diaphragm.” Which is odd because your diaphragm is just below your lungs and they are normally pointing to their lower abdominals at the time. Your diaphragm sits on your stomach like a hat and is not consciously controlled. What are controlled are your lower abdominal muscles and rib-action muscles, or intercostals. (Rib-action muscles are the side muscles at and just below your ribs.) The most controlled stream of air is a combination of the steady contraction of the abdominal muscles in conjunction with the holding of an expanded position of the rib-action muscles.
In other words, your tummy pushes in, while your ribs stay expanded.

Step Three- Sing!

1. Start by singing vowel sounds by themselves (A, E, I, O, U)

2. Here are the variations of vowel sounds I would like you to start with
[ɑ] as in balm [ɛ] bet [a] base [i] bee [ɔ] ball [o] obey [u] boom

(Letters within [] belong to the International Phonetic Alphabet used by singers.)

3. Try singing [ɑ] [ɛ] [a] [i] [a] [ɛ] [ɑ] (aaahhheehhhhayyyiiiyyyaayyyeehhhahh)

4. And then [ɑ] [ɔ] [o] [u] [o] [ɔ] [ɑ] (aahhawwohhooohohhawwaahh)

If this is difficult to understand in print, just sing vowel sounds you know in this same way.

Do this on one pitch at a time, and slowly. If you really focus the sound, you might hear overtones (ringing sounds above the main note), which are beautiful and almost hypnotic. This is a slow droning exercise to help you get to know your range and how your tone sounds and your mouth feels while singing different vowels. It is also a good way to practice your slow and controlled breathing.

5. Now, sing your favorite song, or whatever you feel the need to work on. Record the first try, listen to it, record it again trying to make improvements (but don’t record over the first try.)

6. Next, try singing that same song, only singing the vowels of the words (still singing the melody of the song.)

I.E. “Blackbird singin in the dead of night…”
“aahiihh iihh ih ih uh eh uh ahhhh…” (Don’t breath in between each vowel sound. Sing it as if you were singing with the words, breathing in between sentences or phrases.)

This can be a tricky thing to do, so slow down and be patient with yourself.

7. Once you feel like you’re comfortable doing that, record yourself singing the song with the words again.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the control over your tone, air flow, phrasing, and your confidence with the song will have improved a lot between your first and latest recording. Don’t believe me? Listen back.

In Review:

Stand in front of a mirror with ears, over shoulders, over hips. Breathe in slowly, letting your tummy pop out. Sing the vowel exercise with one hand on your lower abs, feeling them push in, and one hand on one side of your ribs, feeling them stay expanded. Watch in your mirror to make sure your chin stays at rest and your shoulders stay still. Then, record yourself singing, listen back, record again with improvements, listen again, etc.

Good work student! Please leave questions in the form of comments, which I will try to answer during your next lesson. If this was helpful, I will gladly continue to give these Internet voice lessons, so let me know what you think! (I am also a voice teacher in “real life” and if you live in New York City and would like to study with me, just send me an e-mail at erikalloydmusic@gmail.com.)

Diagram #1 and #2a were taken from, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, Second Edition by Barbara M. Doscher.

Diagram #2b was taken from, Your Voice at its Best by David Blair McClosky

My Piano Warm Up Routine

Here’s the truth: for the first 15 years of playing piano, I never warmed up once.

Actually, in hindsight I never even really practiced until I was 25 years old.  Can you believe that?  I’d always been able to get away with sight-reading everything and just sitting down and playing.  I never had any trouble.  And then I did.

At age 21 I developed tendinitis in my left thumb (technically: DeQuervain Tendinitis).  This should serve as a warning to any younger players that aren’t paying attention to warming up, practicing and technique.  I was playing in a rock band at the time – thrashing my chops from one end of a keyboard to the other – and doing whatever hand formations I needed to get from one lick to the next.  Not surprisingly, the quality of my playing in those days was often erratic.  I’d have good days and bad days, and I usually blamed it on my talent and not my technique.  I don’t think I knew the difference.

I went to doctors and they gave me cortisone shots.  I did that 3 times.  I do not recommend using this method for musicians.  Too much cortisone can melt your tendons, and where would you be then?  And this method doesn’t fix the underlying bad habits at all – in fact, it allows you to keep playing over your injury – making it worse!

I tried acupuncture, and that actually helped a great deal.  I don’t know how acupuncture works, but it does.  However, this also didn’t fix the underlying problem and as soon as I ran out of money for acupuncture, I had the same problem.

One of the problems I’d developed was bad technique habits, which I won’t get into here, and the other one was not warming up.  Over the years I’ve developed a warm up routine that works for me and I want to detail it for you.

The first thing I had to realize is that warming up is not practice.  I’m not trying to get better or work up new things with a warm up.  I’m concentrating on my muscles, ligaments and tendons.  I’m trying to wake them up and get blood flowing to them so that they will be loose, lubed and ready for anything.

I start with simple 5 finger exercises.  I start with 8th notes at around 100bpm, gradually increasing to around 120 bpm.  I like using Hanon exercises like the one below.  They are simple enough that I don’t need to concentrate on the notes. I can then concentrate on my hands and body.

I start lightly.  I don’t make my fingers support the full weight of my arm.  Not yet.  I just float my fingers slowly across the keys.

I also start my warm up one hand at a time.  I find each hand needs different things at the beginning.

I take the finger exercise up 2 octaves, then start back down.  As I near the end of those 2 octaves, I begin to allow my fingers to support more arm weight.  I never push down, I just let the weight of my arm sink into my figures.  The dynamics naturally go from piano to mezzoforte/forte.

I’ll take this 5 finger exercise up and down the 2 octaves at least 4 times, maybe more.  Eventually I increase the speed, but not too much.  Not above 130 bpm  This isn’t strength exercising or practicing – this is warm up.

After that I begin scales.  I play all 12 major scales, up and down 2 octaves.

I’ve found it important to not stop playing during this process.  I keep a steady stream of 8th notes coming from my fingers and move seamlessly from one exercise to the next.  Eventually my hand and arm will feel warm as if blood flow is increasing.  Actually, blood flow is increasing and that’s the point.  That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

Then I do the same with the next hand.

Then I play scales in 10ths with both hands (left hand starting on C, right hand starting on the E a 10th above).  By I should be mostly warmed-up and I increase the speed.  I bring it up to 16th notes at 100bpm, lightening the arm weight on my fingers as I get faster.

It sounds like a lot maybe, but this whole process takes 10-15 minutes and it is worth it.  If I’m going to a gig that I know I won’t be able to warm up at, I try to warm up at home before I go.

Warming up not only helps keep my hands healthy, it also makes me playing more consistent.  My hands respond better to my brain when they are ready to work.

How do you warm up?