These 6 coaching tips are for aspiring professional singers, singer/songwriters or anyone who wants to improve their singing.
I have been singing on stage, in clubs, in beer joints, in restaurants, in church, in the studio, and on the street for fifty years and in all that time I have never been an opera singer, I could not force a rousing applause by hitting those high soaring notes, and the whole of that time I sang the melody as I, or the songwriter I was covering wrote it, without adding superfluous notes, scales or hand movements. I have released three albums, two Rock albums with my band of twenty years, and one solo Americana album. When I was younger, however, I had more range. At 25 I could sing 3 1/2 clean octaves. Now in my later years I sing two and swapped range for vocal quality and character. (That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.)
I don’t offer that as a brag, or an excuse. I offer it as a way of demonstrating that singing well is not as difficult as you think.
I will be writing this for the singer/songwriter/performer but…
…If you already are a fantastic singer, or you have taken thousands of dollars in vocal lessons and it paid off, I would hope you would continue reading because there just might be something helpful for you as well.
I have taught many singers on how to improve what they already have. I did that in the capacity of a coach, mostly to songwriters who wanted to perform their songs so that their work might be heard, and to performers ready, or already in the studio who upon hearing their voices were not satisfied with their recorded performance, or as a producer getting the best out of a client.
I am going to assume for the sake of brevity, that those reading this will mostly be people who sing in public, would like to sing in public, or are about to or want to go into the studio and record a song.
Okay then let’s get started:
1. Sing louder
Most people start singing along with the radio, Spotify, Pandora, with buds in ears from an IPod or Smart Phone, or they sing in the shower, or they sing to and with their friends, or on stage with their school’s musical theatre program. All of those are very good starts. All of those things build the first thing any singer needs:
Confidence is important but…
Somewhere along this point your friends and family will tell you that should try out for American Idol because you are fantastic. They love you, so of course they would. But there is a huge chasm to cross from that and singing professionally. It is however a great start. So unless you are an absolute natural and born with a perfect singing voice (most of us are not) don’t go out and audition for America’s Got Talent just yet.
2. Be authentic
Sing in your own voice. I have coached so many gifted singer/songwriters that are timid. That is to say that they compensate for their fear of being rejected by either singing too quietly, or singing with an affectation, justifying themselves by saying their friends and family think they sound like…
Don’t do that unless you can sound like a lot of artist and you intend that to be your stick. If you raise the volume it will allow those listening to hear the words you wrote and it also allows your flaws to be heard. Don’t be afraid of that. If you tend to fall off key, or don’t have as many notes in your vocal arsenal as you would like – all those things can be fixed.
If you can’t hear it you can’t fix it.
3. Get out of your head.
Over thinking what you are doing is the number one performance killer. In LA in the 70s acts, both solo, duos, and bands had to do showcases to a handful of label folks in order for them to see if you were a sellable commodity. But before they were on that stage it was unofficially mandatory for these acts to perform on stage at a number of different venues. Each of these venues had something to challenge the performers. As an example some were loud and alcohol filled, some were dinner houses that called people to be seated in the middle of your song, over your PA. Others had a particular clientele often not your kind of folks. The reviews from these venues helped labels to see two things 1. your grit as a performer. And 2. To help to determine your demographic. I have seen fantastic acts fold up, crash and burn on the showcase stage after doing so well out in the world. They were so worried of failure that they just blew it.
Your song and your voice is beauty that this world needs; if it is there don’t hold it back. There are hundreds of ways that claim to fix stage fright. My imagining people standing in front of me wearing underwear has never been helpful to me.
Here is what is true: you will be nervous. Those people out there want you to be good; they don’t want to humiliate you. If you have done the work you have nothing to fear.
I have forgotten words on stage, I have tripped and fell, I have burped right into the microphone and much worse – nothing happened other than me dusting myself off, getting out of my head the fear that something terrible was going to happen and continuing. And you know what? I don’t get stage fright anymore. And you know what else? You may always have stage fright no matter how good you are. That has nothing to do with your performance unless you let it. You are the performer, separate from those that are listening. You are putting yourself up there to be special – that is your choice – so be special.
Singing is no different whether it is on a stage in a coffee shop, in a theatre, or in front of thousands of people. The song doesn’t change. You singing the song doesn’t, or shouldn’t change. The only constant in all those scenarios is YOU. Trust the work you have done. Trust yourself and sing.
4. Be consistent
I have sat in front of singers in a rehearsal situation and was floored by their performances and then watched them ruin the same song on stage. Singing is about choices. Every song has any number of ways that it can be sung. Do I sing this part softly? Do I belt out the chorus? And so on.
The real difference between an amateur singer and a pro is that the Pro finds the best way to sing a song for their voice and sticks with it, an amateur can’t make up their minds. If you are a new singer/songwriter and you wrote a song that you believe is wonderful, sing it in your living room until you are sick of it, find the best way for you to deliver it and deliver it that way no matter when or where you sing it.
5. Dynamics Dynamics Dynamics
The first point on the page was to sing louder. The reason why that was number one was so that as a singer you could begin to make distinctions. Volume changes, tone changes, pace, hard, soft, sweet, harsh, joyous , or sad, all are dynamic elements to a song. It will be the difference between your audience giving polite applause or cheers and whistles. You may have the best singing voice or the worst, they are received the same if the singer has not mastered dynamic singing. Tom Waits arguably has the worst voice in the singing world – but he is a star because he uses his voice masterfully to dramatically deliver his songs.
Frank Sinatra was a great singer not because he had a great voice but he was masterful at delivering the lyrics. There are great technical singers and there are great character singers. If you want to be a technical singer go take lessons. If you want to be a great character singer keep reading.
Here is the first must do for you as a charecter singer. Buy a Zoom recorder or other portable recording device and pick a song you absolutely love, with words you understand and connect with, and record it, load it to your computer and play it back. You will not like it.
Your ego will be most certainly hurt. You will wonder what your friends are listening to, or whether you can ever trust them again to tell you the truth. Don’t give up!!!
Put your ego away and take it on like a job. Think about the lyrics and find what emotions are behind the words in front of you – make notes. Sing doing your best to convey those emotions as you sing the words – and record it (don’t worry about the sound of your voice yet – just sing) with you to conveying the emotions as you mapped them out, put it on your computer, play it back, now compare it to the first attempt, re-map it and do it again and again, each time noting the differences in each performance. This little exercise took me decades to understand. It is the Grail for a singer or singer/songwriter. If you do this exercise you will hear and know why the pro music folks charge a fortune for a critique. You will be able to separate yourself from not only the song you wrote, but also you will honestly hear yourself as a singer. When you hear yourself and how you are able to change the sound and feel of a song with just your voice you are on your way to having the tools of a professional singer even if you are not a technical singer. You will also be more efficient when you record your work. When a producer asks you to make a change you will have the vocal skills to do it. That work will be better received even if you are not the best singer in the world. You will hear the song as those in the industry hears the song and with your ego in line, you will be a better singer/songwriter.
6. Get the marbles out
If you do the previous exercise you will hear yourself as a singer. Is your singing voice clear? Do you mumble the words? Do you tail off at the end of a verse where the last words disappear in a breath? Do you breathe too loud when starting up a verse, or chorus?
Let’s add something to the last exercise. When you hear the above flaws in your singing, let’s see if we can fix them.
If you are mumbling, jamming words, leaving words out it’s a problem. If you’re singing covers all you need to do is listen to the original singers pacing and work at pronouncing the words the same way. Now that is fine if you aspire to be a good karaoke singer, but you can do better.
Note: Even if the singer has ‘characteristics’ don’t try and copy them, sing the melody of the song, but sing it as you would sing it, using your voice, your emotions, your feel. You have heard so often on singing contest shows ‘Make the Song Your Own’ that is what that means.
If you are a singer/songwriter you have a big job to do beyond just the singing. Again using the method in #5 you will not only hear how to improve your vocal performance but you will also see problems with your songwriting. I have never written a song that by the time I was standing in front of a microphone in a studio I hadn’t already edited my song a dozen times by either changing words into other words that sounded better sung, or pruning the hell out of my lyrics – again so it sounded better sung- a better performance.. Let the words be heard and sing them like you mean them.
Good professional songs (recorded) will be constructed for the singer, the singer will have a good clear well controlled voice (character or technical), the singer will be a good, disciplined, and self aware.
I will offer another helpful device to help in getting the marbles out, taught to me by a mentor of mine years ago. The next bottle of wine you drink don’t throw away the cork. Instead sit at the piano, or get your guitar and then put the cork between your front teeth. SING! SING? That’s right sing around the cork – you will note you’ll have a hard time with Ms, Ws, Ts, Fs – that’s fine keep singing until you can approximate a natural voice. What this does is force the back of the throat to open up. Your vocal chords will relax and you’ll learn to feel words being formed when you sing. If you do this as often as you can for a month I promise your voice will sound better and it will be easier for you to sing.
All 6 of these coaching tips will improve your singing .
As you probably noticed none of the five points were really singing lessons. You can go get those from brilliant singing teachers. I am not a brilliant singing teacher but I’m a pretty good singing coach.
Ken’s albums available for download
The American Music Show by Ken Lehnig
Keep the Sun From Going Down by Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Band
Four Directions by Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Band
Singerman by Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Band