Simple steps to improve your singing
There are so many things you can do to help yourself to sing better. I’ve put together some tips for improving your vocal performance. These tips are for everyone, whether you’re an absolute beginner or an experienced opera diva.
The way you stand really affects the way you sing. If you slouch, all the parts of your body that you use to make a sound get squashed — your lungs, your vocal chords and your mouth. Stand up straight!
- Relax. If you feel tense you won’t sing as well.
- Stand with your feet apart, about shoulder width.
- Let your shoulders drop and relax your abdomen.
- Don’t let your head drop down — singers often look down to look at music or just to hide from the audience! Your head should be upright and you should look straight ahead, so imagine there is a string pulling you up from the top of your head.
- As you learn the notes, you will need to look less frequently at the sheet music. Then it’s easier to hold your head up, look at the conductor and sing with confidence.
Believe it or not, it’s very easy to get your breathing wrong. You don’t think about breathing in day-to-day life, but for singing you need to breathe in a controlled way to keep enough air in you to support your voice. Running out of breath is a very common mistake!
- Nervous singers often forget to breathe because they are concentrating so hard on the music.
- Breathe before you need to. As you learn the notes with a choir, you can work out together where the best places are to breathe, so always look ahead in the music so you know where your next breath is coming from.
- Breathe deeply from the lower part of your lungs to get the most air in. Imagine you have a rubber ring around your waist (your diaphragm). The trick is to try and push the imaginary rubber ring outwards with your body. Breathing with the diaphragm like this means you will get much more air into your lungs than by puffing out your chest. Then you will be able to sing for longer without running out of breath – try it, it really works!
- Be careful not to raise your shoulders as you breathe in – keep them relaxed and level.
- Deep, controlled breathing will help you to feel less nervous.
- If you feel light-headed when you sing, there is probably a problem with the way you are breathing.
- Keep practising — you will get better and your lung capacity will improve.
- Give up smoking!
There are some excellent video masterclasses on the BBC website which show you breathing exercises. Try these out and you’ll notice the difference in your singing.
Watch footballers, rugby players or athletes — they all warm up before a game to prepare their bodies for top performance by stretching and doing aerobic exercise to increase oxygen in the body. If they don’t warm up, they may play badly or pull a muscle.
It’s just the same for singers: the vocal chords need to be warmed up before you sing or you could strain and damage them. You can do this by a combination of breathing exercises and voice warm-ups.
The BBC has an online video demonstrating warm-up exercises — try these out yourself and learn to use them to help your singing.
When you first start singing you need to work out what your vocal range is. This just means finding the highest and lowest notes you can sing. Adult voices in choirs are usually divided into four main ranges:
- Soprano — higher female voices
- Alto — lower female voices
- Tenor — higher male voices
- Bass — lower male voices
These ranges all overlap. Not everybody’s voice fits exactly into these ranges — some women can sing as low as tenors (listen to Alison Moyet’s voice), and some men have voices in the alto range (think of Jimmy Somerville).
To help you find your voice, try these:
Singing words with clarity and precision is essential when giving a great choral sound. The consonants give you sense, but the vowel is the heart of the word; it communicates the melody.
When you enjoy singing, it’s easy to get so carried away with the music that you forget the words! Just as it’s important to sing in tune, you need to convey the meaning of a song, so your audience needs to hear the words you are singing.
As a singer, you need to articulate (pronounce) words more clearly than you would when you are speaking normally, especially if you’re in singing in a large venue like a concert hall.
- Breathe deeply and use your breath to make hard consonants like a T or a K explode from your mouth. It may seem exaggerated, but it will sound ten times better.
- If a word ends on a consonant, remember to sing the full length of the note and place the consonant at the end — “booooook”. The best choirs learn to do this all together — if fifty singers place a T sound in different places, it sounds like a machine gun! “T-T-T-T-T!!”
- The same goes for words ending in S — place the S at the end of note and keep it short — “graaaaaass”. If you try to sing the S at the end, it will sound like “snakessssss”!
- If a word begins with a letter B, D or hard G, the sound is sort of half-way between a vowel and a consonant, so you can prepare the vowel by quietly singing the note through your nose a split second before beginning the word. For example, the word “Bread” may sound like “mmBreeead”. This helps you to find the note at the beginning of a phrase.
Singers all need to work together, and following a conductor is the way to make sure everyone sings the words at the right time. Your conductor will use his or her hands to show you a beat for the music, to indicate to you when to start singing, when to slow down or speed up, and when to stop singing. Everyone needs to do it together, and you can only do this by watching – guesswork doesn’t work!
Of course, you want to look at your music score too, so how do you look in two places at once?
- At rehearsals you will naturally begin to memorise the music. When it comes to the performance, the more of the music you know, the easier it will be to take your eyes off the score and look up, looking down briefly to remind yourself of the notes as you go.
- Get used to looking ahead in the music – look at the notes and words you are going to sing in a couple of seconds’ time and take a snapshot in your head, then look up at the conductor’s beat. This is especially important at the end of a song, when the music may slow down.
- Hold your music up – it’s good for your breathing but it also makes it easier to move your eyes between your score and the conductor. Even when you’re looking at the notes, you can see the conductor’s beat in your peripheral vision more easily.
Have you ever got lost in a piece of music? It’s probably because you forgot to keep counting. Counting up to 3 or 4 is such a simple skill, and yet so often we forget to do it! Counting the beat in your head will tell you where to place notes, how long to hold long notes, and how long to wait during rests in the music.
Imagine you have a metronome ticking in your head. Keep that tick-tick-tick-tick going in your head – but keep your eye on the conductor for changes in tempo!
Very often choirs go out of tune. There are a number of techniques you can use to stay in tune with each other.
- Listen to each other, and to any instruments that accompany you, such as a piano.
- Tired singers often go flat. Take a break, especially if you are singing after a long day at work.
- Smile when you sing. It helps you to stop going flat – strange but true!
- If you have a very high note to sing, imagine you are looking down on it. Relax and approach high notes from above, and it will feel less like you are straining to get the note.
Whether it’s Jerusalem or Michael Jackson, the secret of conveying emotion in a song is singing with honesty, singing from the heart. Be yourself, not a pop star.
The Magic of Vowels & Consonants
In singing, the vowel is the heart of the word; it communicates the melody. But consonants are also important to give sense to our words. What does a choir sound like when it stops singing consonants?