Some of us will never have the voice to be a professional singer but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be effective in the singing that we do enjoy. I have never been one of those people who can simply open their mouth and produce a beautiful sound. In truth, I have a love/hate relationship with my voice. On the one hand I love singing. On the other, I’d love to sound so much better than I do. It’s always a surprise when people complement me on my singing but it really does happen.
Many of us are uncomfortable with the sound of our own voices for a variety of reasons. Some of us know that we struggle to hit high notes and feel extremely self-conscious when we have to use our upper range. Others of us are worried about our voices sounding too breathy, too nasal or too harsh. Many people struggle with their voices because of comments which others have made, maybe many years ago.
These feelings can undermine our willingness to sing at all and they can certainly get in the way of singing in public, particularly when microphones are involved. Yet most of us have voices which are more than adequate. Usually what we need is a little more confidence and maybe a few ideas about how to make the most of the instrument we have. That’s what this article is all about.
Almost all of us will benefit from some professional tuition or from using som of Musicademy’s vocals training CDs or DVDs but if you’re not ready to take that step here are a few ideas for you.
First of all, we need to sing regularly in order to get comfortable to our voices. Simply singing quietly along with the radio station, CD or mp3 we’re listening too can do a lot to loosen up our voices. Don’t feel that you have to over extend yourself. It’s amazing how many notes we can sing when we’re not pushing our voices hard. Doing this can also serve to warm your voice up a little before you’re about to sing in public.
If you are going to sing publically warming the voice up can both help to improve our tone and prevent damage to our vocal chords. Quietly singing scales at different pitches, gradually getting higher in pitch is often more helpful than we think it will be. If you want some easy vocal warm-ups which can be used anywhere you could consider the Musicademy essential vocals warm-up CD or downloads. Use them at home, in the car or on your mp3 player before a service or rehearsal.
My next point is much easier to make than it is to do – but it can be a real help. All of us need to become comfortable with the type of voice we have. Some of us have soft, breathy voices; others make a loud, full-bodied sound; some produce a slightly more nasal sound. If managed correctly all of these are fine. Many of the problems we encounter occur when we try to emulate people who sound completely different to us. The fact is that we simply don’t need to do this. Using our God-given voice effectively is much better than trying to sound like someone we’ve heard on an album or at a conference.
To begin using your voice effectively you really need to work out what kind of voice you have. Some of us will already know. Others of us won’t be quite sure. Still others may think they know but actually sound quite different to others than they do to themselves. The best way to figure out what kind of voice you have is to find someone you trust and ask them which of the different categories you fit into. This isn’t easy and you will feel vulnerable doing it which is why it’s important to find someone whom you trust and who will be kind whilst not sacrificing honesty. The last thing you need if you take this step is for someone to tell you that you sound awful, but equally, you don’t need to be told only what you want to hear.
Once you’ve established what kind of voice you have you need to be aware of the benefits and pit-falls of the way that you sound.
Soft or breathy voices are absolutely fantastic for expressing slow and reflective songs. The voice won’t overpower and will fit in with the timbre of the music. However, it is possible for there to be too much breath and not enough ‘note’ in the voice. This can lead to some confusion about pitch. If you fall into this category vocal warm-ups are particularly important. Don’t try to push your voice hard to get a typical pop or rock sound. Rather ensure that when you sing scales you’re definite about the note you sing and moderate the amount of breathiness in the sound. You also need to pay close attention to the rhythm you’re singing and ensure that you pronounce consonants clearly. Accurate rhythm and clear consonants will help to ensure that you can still carry quick praise songs which may be more challenging for you.
If you have a voice which is naturally loud, robust and full of tone you are likely to fit into singing loud, rhythmic praise songs quite well. You may also enjoy singing more powerful ballad-style songs where the melody line uses long notes that you can wallow in. This is both a strength and a weakness – you need to make sure that you’re not pushing too hard on these notes or holding them for too long. The main practice strategy you should have is to sing quietly. Don’t try to change the sound but try to make it as soft as you can (even on high notes).
Those with more nasal sounding voices will find that they can cut through a mix to be heard clearly above other instruments. This is particularly good when working with a large band and singing lead vocals. Many pop and rock voices have nasal elements and it can sound great. The danger is that you can sound like you’re singing through your nose. When you sing each day you should try to focus on the sound coming out of the middle of your mouth. Try to imagine that the sound is projecting straight out of your mouth. Imaging that all of the notes are coming straight from the front of your lips. This should help to moderate elements which are too nasal. Also make sure that you don’t push too hard – this will only accentuate the worst elements of your sound.
These ideas are all good but one of the main things we need to do is to ensure that we’re singing in tune. This is mainly about listening both to any instruments and to ourselves. It’s often not easy to hear how in tune we are so this is something best done at home. Again, you may wish to ask someone whom you trust about this if you’re not sure. One thing that can help is to record yourself singing along with your favourite song. You could do this using computer programs such as garage band, the voice recorder on your mobile phone, an old cassette recorder or even your camcorder. Listen back to yourself. How in tune are you? If you’re out of tune often it’s simply a case of trying again and concentrating on listening carefully. If you repeat this over a period of time your tuning should gradually improve.
When you’re singing in public it’s important that you know the songs well. Perfectly good singers are sometimes undermined simply because they’re not absolutely certain of the notes they’re trying to sing. If you can, listen to the songs and make sure that you rehearse properly. You can also make to most of your voice by knowing your range and trying, wherever possible, to sing within it even if this means changing the key of songs. If you’re in the congregation and a song is too high you could consider singing a harmony part if you’re able to.
If you’re using a microphone it’s important to use it well. Sometimes it will be more appropriate for you to be further away from the microphone than others and you should always sing directly into the mic. I cover microphone technique in more detail in another article which you may like to read.
Finally, when you’re singing in public be yourself and try to enjoy it. Have confidence in what you’re doing and try not to compare yourself to others. Make sure that you mean what you’re singing and that you are involved in the worship – this has a huge effect on how your leadership is perceived. Remember, when you’re leading worship it’s not a performance. If you can convey the mood and sing in tune that is often what’s required. Personally, I find that I sing better church than I do in my living room but I’m still not kidding myself that I should take on many performance songs – I’ll leave that for the ‘real’ singers.