I do remember a few things from those voice lessons though and lately I’ve been trying to put them into practice to at least get back to the place I was 20 or so years ago when I sang with groups and gigged and practiced regularly. The unfortunate truth is that for the last 20 years while teaching I’ve been neglecting the techniques I learned way-back-when and it shows. I do have a bit of an excuse, though not a very good one: when recording lessons for my students to practice I unconsciously began singing softer and in a more constricted fashion so my voice didn’t overwhelm the guitar, which of course was what I wanted my students to hear most on the recordings.
That doesn’t mean I had to abandon what I knew to be correct singing technique. It’s certainly possible to sing softly and also sing well but that comes down more than anything else to breath control, NOT constricting the throat – and that’s what I was doing. For a long, long time. And I paid the price.
Breath control does not come from the throat, it comes from the lungs and especially from the gut. In order to exercise control from those regions I should be standing up when I sing and my posture should be relaxed but straight, not slumped over. Any good singer will tell you that, trained or untrained. But while I’m teaching and demonstrating guitar method that is just not practical. I don’t want to be standing while my student is sitting….that looks awkward and bit silly and possibly pompous, I think. And I cannot expect my students to stand with me and play. Although I encourage them to use a strap even when sitting and playing, 99% of them would find it very difficult to stand and play. If I could get them to do that when they are practicing at home perhaps they would accept it at lessons but my guess is that is not going to happen. So there is my dilemma as it relates to correct breathing/singing technique.
So for the last few months I’ve been trying to be aware of my breathing at all times when I sing. Little things that I remember from voice lessons, like taking a breath the moment before I sing a phrase and varying the depth of that breath to be sure I won’t be struggling at the end of the phrase. Sitting up as straight as possible. The natural tendency with every guitarist whether sitting or standing is to slump forward because the depth of the guitar makes it very difficult to see the front of the neck if you don’t slump. But slumping is very bad in terms of keeping a straight line for the air to escape in a controlled fashion from your lungs and slumping while sitting is even worse.
Opening the mouth wide is crucial too and this is definitely something I have to remind myself to do. Part of my unconscious attempt to sing softly over the last 20 years while teaching has involved keeping my mouth much more closed than it should be. I’m trying to remedy that but it’s hard to do. A mouth that is open wide, regardless if you’re singing softly or loud is the “open gate” for the breath to escape. This also helps in keeping the throat relaxed.
Then there is the hurdle of pitch. No matter the overall quality of our singing, if you sing “in tune” you will sound much, much better than if you are flat or sharp. There are many exercises to help with this but two things that have worked for me in the past and I’m trying to re-establish are practicing singing while picking out the melody to a song; this allows me to focus purely on the notes I should be singing pitch-wise rather than trying to find the melody buried in chords. The other thing – and this is crucial where harder passages in a song is concerned – is to kind of “sing” that note in your head a moment before you go for it. Just like when playing a guitar solo while improvising, if you have an idea what the next note will sound like BEFORE you attempt it, you will find far more success. I think the vast majority of singers who are not professionals just kind of listen to what’s coming out of their mouths rather than having an idea what it will sound like before they sing it. Then, to a greater or lesser degree they adjust their tonality as needed. If a singer is having a rough time, you can hear this happening.
Knowing your real range rather than just your comfort zone is an essential part of the process. Those darn high notes are tough for everyone but some singers seem to hit them with ease; this is because they are employing the techniques I mentioned above, especially breathing deeply and remaining relaxed. Most of us can hit notes that feel out of our range if we work on it and you know what? Believe it or not, most people sound best in the upper part of their singing range. When I listen to recordings of myself singing I know this to be true. The trick is to not make it sound like you’re straining. Remember to breath! If you listen to a recording of yourself in your comfort zone I think you’ll be surprised to hear that everything you’re singing sounds too low, in terms of overall vocal quality otherwise known as timbre. Forcing yourself to stay relaxed might seem to be an absurd concept but it is essential for good singing but if you’re relaxed those high notes will come, with time.
But what about that delicate subject, our age? There is no doubt that even the best singers lose some of their range as they get older. I’ve heard reports of some bands like the Eagles, known for their crystalline high harmonies have recently begun playing some of their songs in slightly lower keys, and I know for certain that some individual singers like Bonnie Raitt are doing that. But that’s just fine! Better to learn a song in a more comfortable key than the original version and have it be more comfortable to sing than the key that was used by someone much younger with greater range. I’ve been doing this with quite a few songs lately and I like the results, although in some cases I can’t exactly replicate the chord inversions on the guitar that were found in the original. So it goes.
I’m determined to keep working on my singing, no matter what. Because I know that when everything works as it should it is oh so gratifying to know you nailed a song, both in playing and singing.
Peace & good music,