Learning to Sing
Basic Vocal Techniques
I remember the first time I got on a bike. My little 10 year old body climbed over the frame my mother was holding up while I tried to figure out all of these new places to put my hands and my feet, where I was supposed to sit, and figuring out this new motion that meant that I was pedaling. It was a completely different world than walking (something that I’m sure was as difficult to figure out, since I seem to have blocked it out of my memory), and I wasn’t completely sure that I could really pull it off.
My biggest concern was falling over, so my mom’s promise was that she would hold on to the seat while I pedaled to make sure I stayed upright. As I started pedaling, though, she redacted her promise and I soon found myself alone, pedaling for my life trying to stay upright. While I was excited that I was riding a bike and staying balanced, I soon learned that there was a whole world of skills I had not yet learned related to bike riding. For example, as I came upon the gravel pit marked by a “No Trespassing” sign, I was unable to turn and avoid certain failure. Once I had entered the gravel pit, I was unable to figure out how to brake and effectively stop the bike. My only solution was to abandon ship, and I soon found myself on the ground with my new bike several feet away.
Years later, as an adult, I decided to return to bicycling, both as a way to keep in shape and a way to explore new territory. Perhaps my first ride after decades of not being on a bike was a bit ambitious. After driving several miles up into the mountains, only to discover that the trail was one constant and steep climb, I discovered that it was much too much work for my significantly weak lungs and out of shape legs. Fortunately, I have a good wife who encourages me to stick with things and convinced me to keep riding, starting with less demanding trails. In a very short time I was back in shape and ready to attack the very same trail I had tried at first, and was much more successful. While there are still skills to master and strength to gain, I can see the progress I have made, and am willing to continue mastering the skills I’ve learned.
Some of you are coming into this class to sing for the first time, while some of you have been at it for years. Many of you may have sung years ago and are looking forward to singing again. In many cases, the situation is the same for each of you. To learn to sing well you have to coordinate a variety of processes, from breathing correctly to moving your lips, tongue, and soft palate into the right place, all way staying open and relaxed. In addition, there are hundreds of tiny muscles inside your voice box that you can’t even feel (let alone see) that need to be coordinated so that you can change the pitch and even the intensity of your voice. Many of these muscles will have never been used in the way that we will ask you to in class.
As a result, your muscles may feel like they are rebelling, and you may think that the best solution is to just dive off the machine you’ve set in motion. Don’t give into that temptation! Remember that the muscles related to your voice are simply learning how to do something new, and that is going to take time and patient repetition for them to be able to have the strength to be successful at it.
Just like in my first mountain biking excursion as an adult, as a singer you cannot begin singing the most difficult of music in the loudest voice at the widest range. Instead you have to start with basic exercises that will help to train and strengthen the muscles to be prepared for that big, dramatic moment. Every chapter we will talk about a different aspect of your voice, give you an opportunity to discover and become more aware of the muscles or the sounds that we are trying to pay attention to, explain to you what is happening in your voice, and give you some exercises to practice at home so that your body will get more effective at the new technique you have just learned.
Learning to sing can be broken down into three major areas that are best approached by looking at the three parts of a bicycle horn: the bulb, the honk, and the horn. Squeezing the bulb pushes air through the honk, creating a sound that then bounces around in the bulb to make that unique sound that sends pedestrians scattering. In the voice, the breath (the bulb) pushes air through the vocal folds (the honk) and create sounds that bounce around the spaces in the head, the mouth, and the nose (the horn) until it final comes out to make a beautiful singing voice. As a singer, we have to learn how to work each part of the voice independently so that they can work together to make a beautiful sound. Each section will deal with one of these three areas. While we may leave one area for awhile to work on something different, keep practicing the exercises so that you are ready to learn more advanced techniques when we come back to that part of the voice.
Another big part of learning to sing is finding beautiful music to sing. In this class, we want to expose you to a wide variety of different types of songs that you can sing. Some will be familiar to you, while some will be completely different. All of them, however, will be beautiful and fun to sing. Take advantage of these opportunities to try something new. While it may not be your favorite flavor, it might be something you like to come back to every so often, and it definitely increases your versatility as a singer.
As we work together this semester, remember that singing should always be fun! Every opportunity that you have to sing, either with the class or in front of the class is an opportunity to do something that you love enough to join us for this semester. Our goal is to help you to have fun and to learn ways to be a better singer.