Before I dive into some of my top tips for singers, I’d like you to think about something. As vocalists, we don’t just commit to the physical act of making music and sound, we are an entire human being. Whilst studying vocal health education further I came across the term,
“You are a whole human being, not just a voice.”
And this really struck me. We must look after the physical, technical and psychological aspects of ourselves as human beings in order to achieve our vocal aspirations. Our mind and body must work in harmony for us to sing with ease and freedom.
Singing is a journey. In order to develop we must understand that practice really does make perfect. Like honing any skill, there is no quick solution. As unique beings we all work at varying speeds and travel along our own timeline. There is, however, an opportunity to watch yourself go from strength to strength and experience how some simple steps can see big results when you commit to yourself.
I always ask vocalists to first identify what it is that they are looking to get out of vocal lessons/study or performance. This can be anything from wanting to gain more confidence with their voice to wanting to achieve a bigger vocal range. Having an idea of where you want your main point of focus to be will allow you to witness your own development. Taking stock of where you are and where you want to be will help to inform you when you finally get there! Of course, you may not know specific goals yet and that is also fine. Getting started and simply singing is the best place to start.
It’s important that vocalists make sure they are fully prepared to sing to keep the voice safe, well looked after and well supported. Now, each vocalist will be different – each is unique and no one singer the same. Even though we have the same internal mechanisms that allow us to sing, our bodies are different and should be embraced for that fact.
Dependant on what you have experienced the day before, for example, will mean each vocalist will need a different level of warm up. Some voices need more time than others. The most important thing is that we find balance otherwise either too little or too much vocal warm up can put our voice at risk of tiring or potential damage. What your warmup consists of however, can be the same for all of us. It doesn’t need to be fancy and involve lots of vocal acrobatics!
SOVT stands for Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract. In simple terms it means the mouth is partially closed. During SOVT exercises there is less impact, collision and stress on the vocal folds.
A popular way to approach SOVT is with straw phonation. There is less impact and stress on the muscles while still allowing them to stretch. Can’t find a straw? No problem! You can use a tongue/lip trill, MMM or NNNGGGG sounds to achieve the semi-occluded vocal tract exercise. See some steps below!
Preparing the voice is key, so using all the above can become a consistent part of your practice. Granted, warming up and preparing the voice isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But when it comes to singing it is important that you feel you can just let go and let out your sound!
Start by singing through some of your favourite songs whether these are covers or your own. What you want will direct your focus here. Having an awareness of the full experience is good, however we also want to make sure that by the time we get to performing our muscle memory can kick in with all the technique stuff and we can just let go and have fun.
Our instrument is our body. This is something that I find incredibly fascinating and has been a big reason behind so much of my interest in singing. Your voice will develop and go through many changes. You will have great days and bad days. There will be times you feel out of control of your sound and times where everything just falls into place.
Remember, the key is your initial drive and love for your instrument. If you care, you will commit. And it is that commitment that will allow for a more open-minded and incredible experience for your voice.
Check out these useful videos to further your vocal knowledge:
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I could start this blog off with the standard approach that every one seems to adopt when giving out advice to vocalists; practice, eat healthily, stay hydrated, keep clear of dairy, don’t scream, don’t shout, don’t whisper, don’t drink alcohol… don’t have a life! But I wont. Because let’s face it, cutting out all of those things wont help you to lead a normal life will it?.
In all seriousness though, everyone already knows that to be better at anything, you need to be on top form both physically and mentally and the tips above are all important (if not generic) rules to being the best version of yourself. But that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to becoming a better singer. I should say now that this is just my personal opinion and purely based on my experience, my career so far and my observations as a gigging vocalist out on the live music scene week in and week out. I hope I can offer an insight into how I became a better vocalist and they are all things I wish I’d tried a lot sooner into my journey as a singer.
I’m going to rewind a good twenty years (wow, showing my age now) to when I first heard a song by Jessica Simpson called ‘I wanna love you forever’. I would sing that all day in my room, along with Jess, and I truly thought I could nail this. And then one night I sang it, without the lead part in my ears, at a karaoke bar. Nope, it wasn’t happening. What the hell was happening? It was way too high for me and I sound like a screeching cat. I couldn’t maintain any power to go for the big notes (the thing I thought I was absolutely nailing in my room at home). I was mortified. I wanted the ground to just open up and swallow me whole. I was totally overcome with fear for that song from that point onwards and that was the last time I ever sang it.
So what was so different to when I was singing along with the track in my room?. Well firstly, I didn’t have her support (cheers Jess, thanks for nothing) secondly, that song was just not compatible for my voice at that time in my life. I also have a sneaking suspicion it probably wasn’t even compatible for Jessica Simpsons real voice either, but we’ll keep that between us. And thirdly, I was not confident enough to pull off such a big track yet. I’d been able to blag my way through a Mariah Carey song or two throughout my teenage years but here I was presented with my first set back and reality check. I was 18 and thought I was ‘ready’ and then fear totally blew me out of the water.
Fast forward twenty years; six bands later, a few record deals, a bunch of singles, co-writes, a reality TV winner, thousands of students and some amazing session singing opportunities across the globe, I have found I don’t have any fear now when it comes to trying out new songs and styles that aren’t necessarily in my comfort zone. The amount of contrasting styles I have had to sing for my job, using different areas of my voice each time meant I’d probably tried everything at least once and wasn’t scared anymore of it ‘sounding bad’. I’d let go of all that tension and begun to trust in my ability.
FYI, it’s ok if something doesn’t work for you vocally. Either change it up or practice till you’ve got it, or simply just lose it from your set. No one’s judging you as no two people have the exact same voice and ability.
But becoming a better singer is so much more than just practicing. Let me tell you what I had to do in order to be a better vocalist.
… And I’m still learning every day.
Here is my 'BIG TOP FIVE’ to help you become a better vocalist.
Fear is one of the most crippling factors to your vocal development. Fearing not reaching notes, not sounding good, what you look like or what others think can put an end to you moving forward. So let go of the fear and just start to relax. And relaxing begins with letting go of tension within your body, your neck, your shoulders, your throat and even your tongue. Simple exercises like shoulder rolls, improving your posture, exercising the mouth and face can all help to relieve tension. When your body is relaxed expect to achieve better results vocally.
Make sure you’re singing what is right for your voice (lesson learnt the hard way for me) but always continue to challenge yourself with new material as often as possible. Find out your range but more importantly, where your sweet spot is. Your ‘tessitura’ - the range within which most notes of a vocal part fall. Tessitura is the most acceptable and comfortable vocal range for any given singer where the voice presents its ‘best sounding’ characteristic. Basically the best parts of your voice aren’t necessarily based on your range but more about where your voice sits and sounds its best. Once you know where your voice sounds its sweetest and is at it’s most comfortable, it’s much easier to find songs that will show you off in the right way (I have a number of great exercises that help you find this ‘sweet spot’ and am always happy to help answer any questions).
This may sound stupid (or pretty obvious) but you’d be surprised at the difference great articulation and facial expressions can have on your singing. I think this comes with confidence and points 1 and 2 play a major part in gaining the confidence to experiment vocally. Little exercise - Try singing a line from your favourite song, take on board how you sound doing it, now try singing it just like the original artist, copying any tones and embellishments. Is there a difference in sound, did you have to change the way you say things or elongate words, notes to fit with them? This will open your eyes (and ears) to new ways of singing. Obviously you don’t want to be a copycat singer, but it really is interesting to start using your faces, mouth shapes and posture to find new and interesting ways of singing.
Tone is what's known as the colour or timbre of your singing voice. Every voice has a specific colour, which can be described as warm, dark, or strident. Two singers singing the same song in the same key may sound different — the reason is tone. ... More specifically, you recognised your favourite singer by the tone of voice. I truly believe that you can’t teach tone, it is something you possess already but you can find and develop what tone you do have. It’s always worth thinking about how you are singing certain songs. Does the song require you to convey certain emotions? Is it sad, happy, upbeat etc… Great tone and understanding is what separates an average singer from a great singer. E.g - If you have a nasal tone try working towards reducing the higher end. And if you have a boomy loud voice, try turning the ‘volume’ down a touch and experimenting with a softer tone. Your voice is an instrument and doesn’t need to be so full on all the time. Let the lyrics and story of the song navigate your vocal and stay aware of your tone throughout.
Read through your lyrics, understand your song, make sure you believe what you are singing. If its sung half heartedly with no connection, your audience will disengage from your performance too. The same goes for your original songs too. You must believe what you’re singing in order to fully engage the listener. It might be a beautiful ballad or a cheesy pop song… whatever it is, believe it when you sing it. If you don’t believe it… who else will?
Aaaaaaand of course drink plenty of water, rest when you can, don’t over sing and get plenty of practice! Am I even a singer if I don’t mention those things?.
Join us at our campus in Brighthelm Gardens, Brighton on Sat Apr 13th at 12:00 Noon for our Open Day.
Confirm your place for this event by completing the Open Day Web form — REGISTER HERE
Learn more about our BA (Hons) & Masters Programmes for musicians and creatives. Students can study On-Campus in Brighton or Online through Distance Learning. Funding is available and all programmes are accredited by the University of Chichester.
The Open Day will include a Vocals Workshop hosted by Amba Tremain & Hannah Boulton.
What to expect from the vocals workshop:
- Overview of the Vocals Department
- Life as a session player with Amba Tremain
- Performance & Q+A with Hanna Boulton
- Vocal Techniques: Tips & Advice for all musicians
Amba Tremain is a contemporary singer,songwriter,musician and vocal coach. She has worked with many high profile artists including Boy George, Newton Faulkner, Ella Henderson and Roachford. She’s also been awarded a gold disc by the BPI for her contribution to the album ‘Somewhere’ by the late Eva Cassidy. Amba and her band, ‘Blame Jones’ have had just under 300,000 monthly listeners across streaming platforms. She’s featured on over 90,000 worldwide playlists and is also a prolific session vocalist and keyboard player. Her other roles include Musical Director of award winning organisation ‘The Urban Vocal Group’ and Director of the ‘Breaking Through’ Artist Development Programme.
Hannah is a Brighton based Singer/Songwriter who has amassed over 100K followers on YouTube. Her influences include Eva Cassidy, Beady Belle, Kimbra and Katie Melua.
Confirm your place for this event by completing the Open Day Form — REGISTER HERE
First up, here are some of my key tips for vocalists who are preparing for live or studio sessions. Remember the 3 P’s - Punctuality, Preparation & Politeness!
The famous saying - If you are on time then you are late - always arrive in good time for a session, time is money and quite often the Producer will be working to a strict timeframe with various session players booked into specific slots throughout the day.
Working effectively to this plan to meet deadlines can be very stressful!
In an environment such as this, preparation is key, undertaking a session for a Producer who is under a lot of pressure to complete to working deadlines requires a singer who is efficient, responsive and well knowledgeable in their approach to different styles & theoretical understanding/terminology. Always ask for the tracks and any top-line ideas in advance - learn all parts (Inc. Lyrics) and develop ideas just in case they ask you to ad-lib… (There is a good chance they will)
Do not underestimate the impact of manners, being courteous, supportive and polite within your role can carry you forward in this industry. You can have all the talent in the Universe, but if you present yourself badly or act in any way aloof or disrespectful this could damage your reputation as a session singer & aspiring industry professional. The Music Industry scene is smaller than one might perceive, people talk, a lot of work comes from word of mouth.
Whether you’re taking to the stage or a studio session, it is important to warm up - why?. A session may only be scheduled for 1 hour, it can take around 30 mins to warm up your voice to reach its optimum potential, therefore if you haven’t prepared and warmed up before the session you are compromising your performance, and vocal ability and this may impact on whether you are hired or not again in the future!.
It is likely you will have 1 to 2 hours to record multiple takes and parts, and sometimes you will be required to record vocal lines for 2 to 3 songs in this time and must be warmed up and ready to go. It may be you are getting ready for a gig, your set time may (most likely) in the early stages be a short set, I’ve learnt from past experience that warming up not only relaxes and prepares your instrument, but can be great for moral as a band before going on stage if you undertake some warm ups together!.
Fatigue can be a real limiter in a high pressure environment, be sure to hydrate well before your session and have a bottle of water to hand. Avoid foods with Dairy and Acidic properties as these can cause a horrible reflux. Important to note: Water has to travel around the body and hydrate your vital organs before eventually reaching the vocal folds & larynx. Even when the rest of your body is hydrated it can take around 20 mins to work through your system to then fully benefit the voice, so a quick sip just before you sing is not going to be very effective. If you have hydrated but suffer from dry mouth, a splash of fruit juice to your water can help to get the saliva glands going… A tired voice can cause swollen vocal folds; again water can really help with this, soothing the lactic acid built up from over working vocal cords. Moral of the story - Water to a Singer is like Fuel to an Engine. We will not run efficiently and optimise our instrument without it, so be sure to hydrate efficiently, this is your linctus.
This allows us as singers to tune into our instrument, body scanning, identifying areas of tension, especially around the neck and shoulders, try working through the following exercises to warm up physically:
• Neck rolls
• Shoulder rolls and shrugs
• Spine roll
• Jaw rattle
• Jog on the spot (if it’s good enough for Beyoncé then it’s good enough for us, right?!)
• A one minute group power stance before going on stage can help you feel super charged, connected as a band and ready to entertain your audience.
This is a great little tool for warming up your voice, without putting too much strain on your vocal cords. Start by simply humming a static note through the straw moving through different pitches, then use hills and sirens - squeezing your diaphragm to create bursts of airflow through the straw - like an starting an engine, finally hum a siren through your straw - work from the lower end of your register up to the higher end and repeat. (See if you can find a metal straw, this is not only kind to the environment, but is the straw that keeps on giving)
Start with something simple like:
Major Arpeggios: 1 3 P5 3 x 3
The 5 tone scale - 1 2 3 P4 P5 P4 3 2 1
Ascend & descend chromatically on a Hum, lip roll/lip bubble (To achieve a lip roll/bubble - press your lips firmly together and blow through, like blowing a raspberry but without sticking out your tongue!) and… remember to relax!
Octave repeat and / or 1.5 octave - Some effective sounds to get started: Woof, Mum (Dopey - Think Disney’s Goofy), Bup (helps secure cord closure) & Nay (Nasal).
Focus on the way your voice responds to each sound i.e Dopey VS nasal, Aspirate (breathy) VS harder attack - feel the difference?! Pay attention to your technique - if you feel strain reduce volume and work with the lip rolls, humming and perhaps sounds like Woof & Mum for now.
When developing such exercises it is important to seek professional advice to monitor and develop effective technique in relation to your natural singing voice. Read Amba Tremain's blog - ‘Vocal Health Tips for Singers‘ for some great tips on how to look after your voice! https://www.waterbear.org.uk/vocal-health-tips-for-singers/
You should now be ready to sing through your parts with ease - you can always start by humming the melody to gently warm up your vocal cords.
I’m currently sitting here sniffing away, battling yet another cold... I should probably take out shares in Lemsip. And would you believe it, I’ve had about 30 people (today alone) tell me that what I need to do is ‘take a break’. OK, let’s look at the logistics of that for a second. I’m a self-employed singer. I don’t play, I don’t get paid. However, luckily for me I have my fingers in lots of pies and have the advantage of turning my hand to teaching and playing (I am also a musician). But, what about those who have built their whole lives and careers on just their voice?. What about those who sell millions of records and sell out stadiums to adoring fans?. What happens when they get told they HAVE to rest?
In recent news, the legend himself Mr. Ozzy Osborne has yet again postponed, cancelled whole tours due to needing time to recover from pneumonia. Which, might I add, has been labeled the after effects of a ‘rock and roll lifestyle’? Come on guys, the man is about 102 years old. It’s always going to be tricky to get over something like that when you're getting older. Sorry Ozzy, I know you’re actually only 70 (SEVENTY?) And let’s just go back a little… What is this ‘Rock and roll lifestyle’?. Is this now what’s to blame every time a singer cancels a show? Or is this just tabloid propaganda to help kick up a stink, sell newspapers and possibly gig tickets? Let’s blame it on the drink and drugs because that’s far easier than just admitting some artists are exhausted and have worn their voices out.
I’ll be brutally honest, I’ve had my fair share of illness’, vocal recovery time, near death experiences (possibly a slight exaggeration) and I am as about as ‘rock and roll’ as Linda in Lidl’s who works the graveyard shift. The simple truth is, people get sick. People’s immune systems vary, some people don’t value their health and sometimes they do, just a little too late.
Rewinding back to 2 years ago when I had my second bought of laryngitis in a year, I was definitely beginning to make alternative career plans. My voice had all but disappeared, I had a constant cough and I’d lost a whole area of my voice somewhere, who knows where, but let me tell you... for a brief moment in time my unintentional whistle tones rivaled that of Mariah Carey. But it did not sound pretty and I was broken to the point of straining all the intercostal muscles between my rib cage and being hospitalised. All because I didn’t take a break! Vocal damage had well and truly set in and I now needed to seek the help of a professional.
That professional was a realist. She knew she couldn’t take the doctors approach as I was a self-employed singer and this was my life and income at stake. A doctor would suggest complete vocal rest, but a vocal health specialist knows that sometimes that just isn’t possible. You need to stay supple, warm, exercised, hydrated and limber throughout your recovery. It’s tricky to find a balance but your voice is a muscle. And when you stop working that muscle, things start to seize up. You’ve got to keep moving… just very, VERY gently.
So you have a world tour lined up, 30 shows back to back, you’ve rehearsed, screamed, celebrated to within an inch of your life, you do two gigs and BAM, your voice has gone. If you were a guitarist and you broke your hand two shows in could you carry on or would they get in a dep? The truth is, you’d be replaced on a world tour… but you can’t replace the lead singer of a hugely successful international band, can you? The answer is no. You’d have people crying out for refunds left right and center and angry fans taking to social media in uproar. The practical thing to do is to postpone and reschedule your shows for another date when you can give the fans what they really want.
Lets take the recent news of Oli Sykes, cancelling the Bring Me The Horizon tour in order to repair his ruptured vocal cord. "I've ruptured my right vocal chord," he continued, "and I've been told if I don't rest it immediately I'm in serious danger of doing permanent damage." – Oli Sykes. Fans are angry, some sympathetic and some were probably using this tour to decide whether they still even liked BMTH (what with the newer sound and direction the band are taking) but one thing disgruntled fans DO need to remember is NO ONE puts on a huge tour, invests thousands, if not millions into getting it right and promoting it, musicians don’t rehearse for hours a day and they don’t get to show time then turn around and say ‘Naaaah, I’ve got a bit of a sore throat and cant be bothered to gig now’. For someone to finally admit they need to rest, you know things are serious. Even those humble, self-employed ‘Saturday night singers’ don’t like being told to rest. But the reality is if we don’t we set ourselves back months.
It took me four months to recover enough to get back out there and gig the last time I had laryngitis. And I was terrified I’d never be able to sing again. So now when that first sign of a cold creeps in I take that rest. Even just a couple of days, I know my limits and I know the risks of continuing. So I have to weigh up whether I have the necessary recovery time either side of shows and whether its worth the vocal blow out.
Adele, Lindsey Buckingham, Oli Sykes, Ozzy… all of them. They will have been given the ultimatum. ‘Carry on the way you are and you wont have a voice once this tour is over. Or take a break, recover, reschedule. Your fans will still be there.’
My honest advice and Vocal Health Tips For Singers who are struggling right now is:
• Take that break. Even just a day or two. If you can feel the strain kicking in, you need to kick back
• Put yourself first and think about the long-term goals. If you want to have a long and fruitful career, treat your voice with respect now
• Hydrate. Water is everything and yes, we all like a beer or two at a gig, after party, night out… but if you know you have shows coming up, think wisely about what you’re putting into your body. To be the best you must feel the best
• Stop shouting. Sometimes we can’t avoid singing completely, but we are in control of how we use our voices the rest of the time. And if like me, you enjoy a live gig, be mindful of how much your raise your voice over the music to be heard by your mates
• If you are persistently ill, see a doctor. Don’t leave it or rely on throat sprays. Get the medical help you know you need
• Don’t stress. Easily said I know, but the more you worry and panic about your vocal performance the more strain you will feel
• Hum. Keep your voice moving but in a safe way that doesn’t add strain
With the appropriate training and care, all of these symptoms can be prevented. However even classically trained singers can damage their voices due to strain and illness.
• A breathy quality to the voice
• Noisy breathing
• Loss of vocal pitch
• Choking or coughing while swallowing food, drink or saliva
• The need to take frequent breaths while speaking
• Inability to speak loudly
• Loss of your gag reflex
• Ineffective coughing
• Frequent throat clearing
• To help prevent disorders caused by vocal abuse (including vocal cord nodes and polyps, and contact ulcers) you need to learn how to talk without straining your vocal cords.
• To prevent disorders related to acid reflux (including contact ulcers and laryngitis) see your doctor to treat the reflux. Medications can help to control stomach acid. Lifestyle changes also help some people.
• Eating smaller meals to avoid overfilling the stomach
• Not eating or snacking three to four hours before sleeping to make sure all food is well digested before you lie flat
• Raising the head of your bed a few inches to keep your head and upper chest higher than your stomach
• Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, chocolate and peppermint, which may trigger heartburn
• To help prevent vocal cord disorders caused by irritation (including laryngitis and vocal cord polyps), avoid smoking, drinking or inhaling chemical irritants.
For vocal cord disorders resulting from vocal abuse, there are two main treatments:
• For short-term relief, rest your voice. Speak or make sounds only when absolutely necessary. Try not to talk or whisper at all for a couple of days. However humming is great for vocalists, it keeps your vocal cords active without adding strain
For long-term relief, voice therapy. Learn the proper way to speak to avoid straining your vocal cords and seek out the help of a vocal health specialist.
- ‘Water bear’ is the common name for a Tardigrade.
- Tardigrades are micro creatures, found everywhere on earth.
- They are the most resilient creatures known.
- They can survive and adapt to their surroundings, even in outer space.
- Their resilience and ability to adapt and survive inspires us in everything we do. We love them.