Busting the Myths
Want to sing?
Good! Been watching American Idol
and think you can do better? Here’s a few myths about singing and a few things to keep in mind.
Myth 1: I should try to sound like my favorite singer.
Just Be Yourself
Trying to sound like Beyoncé? Don’t. The only people who sound like Beyoncé is Beyoncé. Start listening to your own
Myth 2: I sound good enough, I don’t need lessons.
If only. Singing is like the Olympics: If you want to excel, you have to train. Don’t trust your voice to just anyone, though. Take some practice lessons before you settle down. Boston Conservatory voice professor Monique Phinney advises: “Young singers need to find a teacher to explain the mechanics of the voice. A good first teacher will...explain vocal anatomy as well as the basics of breathing, posture, and resonance [the way your voice vibrates within your body].”
Myth 3: Classical music is boring. I shouldn’t sing it.
Nice try. Many pop and Broadway singers (including some Glee
cast members) trained classically. You should get to know Mozart and his buddies. Think classical music is boring? Try listening to some more. Start with a piece that has an exciting story (like the opera Carmen
or La Bohème
). Once you’re under way, be careful not to sing something that feels too difficult. (Hint: Your teacher can help you.)
Myth 4: All I have to do is sound pretty.
Sorry,...but no. If you’re a singer, you’re also a musician. Rhythms, keys, time signatures (you know, those funky numbers at the beginning of a piece that tell you how many beats there are in each measure and how long those beats should last)…these are your new best friends. Learn as much technical stuff about music as possible. Taking up an instrument can help.
Myth 5: If I’m a good singer, I don’t need to practice...the music will just come automatically!
Like any part of your body, you should keep your voice in shape. Here are a few dos and don’ts for when you get going, along with some advice from Tara Stadelman-Cohen, senior vocal pathologist at the Center for Voice Rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital:
• Practice for about an hour at least four days a week.
Give yourself some days off, though!
• Use vocal exercises before you get to the songs.
But pace yourself. Our expert pathologist says, “Practice habits should depend on the level of technical skill and current voice demands.” Try to practice different vowel sounds in different parts of your voice (i.e., high, middle, low) and in different rhythms.
• Speak words in rhythm before you start a new song.
Do this before you look at the melody; it will make things easier.
• Have fun.
Remember, singing should make you happy
. Don’t stress!
• Over practice.
Does your throat hurt? Stop singing. Stadelman-Cohen warns: “Practice should be often enough that conditioning occurs, but [should not be] to an excessive degree…”
• Talk too much.
Give your speaking voice some TLC. Stadelman-Cohen offers this advice: “A speaking voice should be comfortable and in the pitch range that is… appropriate (… not speaking too high or too low).” Try texting instead of screaming into your cell.
• Eat or drink too much.
Our expert suggests a healthy diet but says you should be careful with “specific foods [that] can… increase the likelihood of stomach acid irritating the [vocal chords] such as tomato products, carbonated and caffeinated beverages, and citrus products.” Go easy on the lattes and soda, too!
How Singing Works
The ABC’s of Do Re Mi’s
The tough part about understanding how your voice works is that 99.9% of singing happens inside your body.
You can’t see what’s happening, you can barely feel what’s happening, and by the time you hear
what’s happening, the whole process is just about over. Dr. James Burns, laryngeal surgeon (or “voice doctor”), breaks down what he calls this “most complex task” into three parts.
Good news: These are a lot less scary than what you would read in an anatomy book!
1. Breath: The Air in There
If your body were a computer and singing were a software program, the breath would be like the battery that keeps the hardware going and allows the program to run. Breath, Dr. Burns says, “provide[s] the power for the singing voice.”
Think of each time you fill your lungs as a recharge. Your body uses this power (the air) to produce sound as you exhale. As the air escapes your body, it allows the muscles inside your throat to bend, stretch, and, eventually, make some noise. And that’s just one breath. Think of how many you have to take if you want to get through a whole song.
2. Phonation: Good Vibrations
Here’s something that might sound crazy: Did you know that your vocal chords (those “folds” of muscle that hang out between your chin and your Adam’s apple) are actually horizontal
, as in parallel to your tongue
?* It’s good to get that picture in your head so you can start to understand phonation.
“Phonation” may sound complicated, but don’t worry, it isn’t. Dr. Burns explains that phonation is what happens when your horizontal chords “close against each other” and vibrate. This process is so fast that when you begin to sing, the vibrations can’t be seen with the naked eye. All of this moving and shaking has to make some
noise, right? So basically, phonation is just a big word for “vocal sound.”
*An amazing fact about your chords: They don’t stay in a fixed position. They can stretch and get thinner (as you sing high) or contract and get thicker (when you sing low).
3. Resonance: Is There an Echo in Here?
What happens if you sing a note in your bedroom closet? Now, what would happen if you sang that same note in your school auditorium? You don’t need a physics degree to figure out it would be a lot louder the second time around. Sound needs to go places if it wants to have an impact. The same thing is true inside your body.
The sound from the vibrations of your vocal chords has to go somewhere, otherwise it would sound pretty pathetic. Lucky for you, your body has special “mini-auditoriums,” or resonators where the sound can bounce and play around before it exits your mouth. These little echo chambers inside you include the space around your nose (your nasal cavity) and your chest. The chest resonator is a popular one— that’s where “Broadway belting” vibrates best!