It’s a common myth that some people can sing and others can’t.
I’ve heard many people in the past tell me that they’ve never been able to sing or just haven’t got the voice for it. The fact is, unless you have certain health issues or problems with your throat which make it impossible to do so, just about anybody can sing as most of us are born with the tools we need to to the job.
The difference between those who can sing and those who can’t is merely those who can devote large portions of their lives to practicing, developing and taking care of their voice, and those who can’t – do not.
Before I decided to become a singer, I had a terrible voice and couldn’t sing for Adam. When I started putting the time and effort in and made it my goal to add vocals to my guitar skills, my voice improved and after a few months of practicing, it developed into something I could happily project in front of a live audience and actually get a good response.
But unless you take care of your voice, treat your vocal chords well and keep practicing regularly, things just don’t stay that way. Just like going down the gym, as soon as you give up exercising and stop taking care of yourself, everything goes down the pan.
So if you’ve just started singing or perhaps you’ve been practicing for a while and are starting to sound o.k, here’s a few tips that will help you on your way and keep your voice sounding great. I’ll also be mentioning a few things to avoid to ensure you don’t croak like a frog throughout your performance.
First and most importantly, every singer always needs a good vocal warm up before they sing, whether practicing or getting ready to go on stage, a good warm up is vital. Many new or inexperienced artists risk doing permanent damage to their vocal chords because they either couldn’t be bothered, or are unaware of the importance of doing a warm up before they sing.
It’s simple – your vocal chords are muscles and need to be treated with respect to avoid damage. Damaging them can be extremely painful and even a minor injury to your vocal chords may stop you singing for weeks or months at a time, and in bad cases, may stop you singing altogether.
It’s a common problem and one I’ve spoken about in my Singing Success review. Either through laziness or ignorance, many artists, amateurs and professionals spend years performing without an effective warm up routine. Sooner or later problems start to appear.
After a prolonged period of time, abuse can cause nodules to form on the vocal chords due to the excessive strain of hammering your voice without properly warming up.
If you were an athlete, you wouldn’t consider running a race without warming up first. You might get away with it for a while but sooner or later you are likely to pull a leg muscle or do permanent damage to your ligaments. The same goes for your throat and vocal chords.
As you develop as a singer, you will find your vocal workload greatly increases as you tackle larger sets and more difficult songs. A larger workload, practiced more often, means you risk serious strain by not preparing yourself properly.
You should spend at least ten minutes warming your voice up before any performance. It should be more like fifteen to twenty minutes, but sometimes you just don’t have the opportunity to do this, so just do as much as you can at the time.
Warm up’s can be pretty embarrassing if done in public and you don’t want to be making all those weird noises when you are setting up your equipment before a gig, so if you’re preparing for a public performance, make sure you get your warm up done in private or somewhere more appropriate beforehand.
A lot of people out there who want to be singers smoke, including myself, and for most people quitting is not easy – quitting for good that is.
Years ago we used to be bombarded with images of pop stars on TV and video smoking all the time, and although the impression of smoking being cool has declined somewhat in the last few years with people being more aware of the dangers of smoking, government health drives, bans on advertising and smoking in public, not only does the addiction for those who are hooked remain, but the image implanted in our heads over the last few decades – of the lifestyles that bad ass rockers and pop superstars lead, still makes many of us think it’s possible to smoke like a trooper and be a great singer at the same time.
Perhaps it is possible to smoke like a trooper and still be a great singer, but that depends on what you call a great singer.
A lot of famous pop/rock stars are considered by the general public to be great singers, but actually, many aren’t quite as good as they may seem.
Many successful artists have relatively limited vocal ranges and tend to stay within the same octave or two throughout their careers.
I’m not saying that having a limited vocal range makes you a bad singer. Even with a very limited range you can be an excellent singer as long as you make the very most of what you have and use your voice to it’s full potential – adding character and expression to your performances .
What I’m saying, is that an artist may create good songs and be very successful, but just because they have a few hit records, doesn’t make them great singers.
If the music you sing only encompasses tracks that stay within a limited vocal range, then you may be able to get away with being a big smoker get a good response without having to limit your intake, but if you want to be a versatile singer and start hitting notes all over the place, then you must keep your throat in top condition and the one habit that will massively limit your abilities is smoking.
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter how much Liam Gallagher drinks and smokes the night before a gig, it probably doesn’t make the slightest difference to his singing ability as his songs don’t require a huge amount of skill to perform. All he needs is that raw vocal tone he belts down the mic. In fact for his voice, smoking and taking drugs probably helps.
Rappers are also fortunate in what they can get away with as the style of music doesn’t usually require the artist to have a voice like an angel. Apart from a few choice chorus notes, most rap songs involve spoken rhythmic wordage with a bit of a melody thrown in somewhere in the middle, so again you don’t need a 4 octave range to rap.
But if someone like Mariah Carey went out and smoked a pack of fags the night before a gig, without a doubt she’d have no chance at all of hitting the supreme high notes she performs in many of her songs. As a world class singer, her songs require such a high standard of perfection to perform that nothing less than a voice box in perfect condition will do.
Know Your Limits
I have a reasonable awareness of my limits and know that I can give my throat a certain amount of abuse and still get away with performing to a degree. But if I smoke more than a few cigs in an evening and maybe add a few pints on top, I have hell’s own trouble hitting the killer notes in my set the next day. I can still get away with most of the the easy songs, but as soon as something vocally challenging arises, I’m in trouble.
Even the songs I can get away with are much more of a struggle to perform.
You try singing the last few notes of Muse’s Plug in Baby after a heavy night on the cigs… you won’t stand much of a chance.
We never realise how difficult a song is to sing, or how good the original singer really is, until you try and perform it yourself.
It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, stop smoking and your voice will improve.
Even if you can’t stop or don’t want to, cut down to one or two a day. This can be done over a period of time and soon you will become conscious that every time you have a cigarette, it will affect your voice – making it harder to hit the notes you strive for every time you practice.
Stopping smoking seriously reduces the chances of developing lung cancer, throat cancer, mouth cancer, gum disease, heart attacks, strokes and emphysema. Keeping on top of your addiction will keep you feeling healthier and help you conquer any vocal challenge that arises.
Save yourself from yellow teeth, smelly breath, premature ageing and countless throat infections, colds and flu you might catch throughout the year. It is well known that cigarettes practically nullify all the vitamin C supplies in your body every time you have a fag. How can your body fight infection under these conditions.
Stopping smoking has countless other health benefits as well as well as saving you a shed load of money, but even more importantly, ditching the cigs will stop you from polluting those around you, including your loved ones and children.
It’s also a sad fact that every cig you have takes you one step closer to death.
If you can’t hack it, get nicotine patches, gum or an electronic cigarette, they are pretty good nowadays.
Alcohol is almost as bad as smoking, so the same goes as above. If you can’t give up, then try to cut down.
Often, drinking and smoking will go together, so if you go out and get drunk, you will probably smoke a whole lot more and increase the damage being done to your throat. Even if you don’t smoke when you are out drinking, the strain you put on your voice, shouting over the local band or dance floor to your mates until three in the morning, won’t help your cause.
The chances are, next day you’ll be so hung over you won’t be able to practice singing. Your voice will be knackered and you’ll have a stinking headache, ultimately reducing the time you can spend practicing, lessening your vocal ability.
You don’t have to ruin your social life completely, but just tone it down a bit. You often hear singers on TV saying they have to behave themselves when preparing for a performance and have to leave parties early to gig the next day. It’s a drag, but the best singers out there keep the partying to a minimum and save everything they’ve got for a great performance. That’s the real prize, getting a buzz out of your performance, not a few beers and a sore head.
Guitarists might get away with having a bender the night before a gig if they can still hold down a good rhythm or tricky solo, but a singer’s voice is not so forgiving.
Look at the state one of our nation’s favourites, Amy Winehouse used to get herself in when she’d go on stage or live TV after a heavy session the night before. She would try and wing it because she had a gruffy voice anyway, but you could hear it straining and croaking under the stress she was putting it through to hit the notes, rendering her unique, God given voice that led her so successfully to fame, sounding awful.
Sadly, because of her personal problems with drugs and alcohol she would often be intoxicated on stage and she used to regularly embarrass herself in front of huge audiences and national TV, doing herself no favours at all.
Mind you…because of her character it was almost expected and she would pretty much get away with it. Some stars just have the popularity and charisma to get away with anything and in her prime she had great success and didn’t give a damn anyway. So perhaps some people can get away with it, but most of us can’t.
If you want a good strong, clear voice and a great vocal range, cut the alcohol and cigarettes. If you want to yell down the mike like a strangled cat, keep partying.
Hydration – Water
One of the most important rules a singer should adhere to is to keep fully hydrated at all times. The best drink in the world is simply – water.
If you are one of these people who never drink water on it’s own without some sort of squash or cordial involved, then you need to start right now and get into it. People who don’t drink water often comment that it makes their throat ‘bitty’ and I used to think just the same.
When you start drinking plain water, it can have an effect on your throat and may taste very bland for a couple of days, but very quickly your throat will adapt and that sense of ‘bittiness’ will soon disappear. You will really start to appreciate the simplicity of life’s greatest drink and will notice the benefit that being well hydrated has on your singing. Your body will have all the water it needs to keep it’s organs and muscles working well and efficiently. As well as keeping your vocal chords fully lubricated you will find you have a greater sense of well being, general alertness and more energy than before.
Tea – Coffee – Caffeine.
Coffee and tea are diuretics and both contain caffeine. Caffeine has a negative effect on the vocal chords, dehydrates your throat and stimulates the production of phlegm, especially coffee. Try not to drink either just before you sing. If you do, make it a couple of hours before your session.
Better still, avoid these altogether and drink plenty of herbal teas or decaffeinated tea.
Many singers advocate drinks such as decaf tea with hot lemon and ginger (not too hot to avoid burning the vocal chords), hot lemon and honey, hot water and lemon etc.
Try some combinations out yourself and see which ones work well for you.
Green tea is amazing stuff, bursting with antioxidants that help fight illness, ageing and cancer, mentioning just a few of it’s many health benefits. Unfortunately most green teas contain caffeine. However, the caffeine in green tea works in a different way than coffee as the tea also contains tannin and L-theanine which together have a calming affect on the body and allow the caffeine to be absorbed more slowly.
The benefits of drinking green tea greatly outweigh any issues regarding the caffeine content and most green teas contain half the caffeine content of coffee anyway, so I would advise drinking green tea regularly but obviously not just before a gig.
Avoid fizzy drinks such as cola and energy drinks as they are crammed with caffeine and very addictive. You might get a quick buzz out of them but they will drop you like a stone soon after, leaving you feeling low and lethargic, needing more.
Dairy Products & Chocolate
Dairy products like milk and cheese coat your throat and the mucus membrane of your vocal chords, affecting your voice and making it much harder to sing. Make sure you stay away from them for a few hours before you sing.
Chocolate is another no go. Coating your vocal chords in chocolate before a performance is a bad idea and will close your throat, definitely affecting your ability to sing. Try to avoid until after your set.
Spices & Curry
Spicy foods inflame the vocal tract and will screw up your voice. Avoid
Peanuts & Bitty Foods
Try to avoid bitty foods like nuts or oats before practice or performance. They can easily leave remanence, causing irritation from small pieces left in the throat.
Even after brushing your teeth or swilling your mouth out with water, small remanence can easily remain undetected, finding their way down your throat just when you are in full swing, leaving you hacking for breath in the middle of the song.
Avoid Singing Loudly or For Long Periods of Time
Being a busker means I am often forced to elevate my voice so it can be heard over a busy street for long periods of time. Even when I’ve been training well and busking regularly, playing daily street sessions for at least three or four hours a time, even once you achieve a rock solid vocal ability and think you can sing for as long as you like and as loud as you want, I have often returned home with a strained throat thinking ‘ Oh no ! – I’ve over done it, Again !’.
It could be for a number of reasons …because the background noise of the street was too loud, or the cash was rolling in nicely on a good pitch and I wanted to make the most of it, or because I was having a great day and was getting a real buzz out of performing – pushing my vocals too loud and to their limit. Or it maybe simply because I wanted to get my practice done, and get as many songs out as possible.
When you’re having a great time belting out songs and feeling good about your singing, it’s hard to stop and think ‘Hang on, this is fun but am I doing damage to myself ?’. It’s no different than getting down the gym and overdoing it, pulling a muscle or becoming obsessed with playing the guitar and knackering your tendons from too much shredding.
Enough is Enough
You need to know when enough is enough. Save it for tomorrow, rest your voice and allow yourself to keep singing in the long run, rather than over doing it now, and knackering your voice for the next two months.
Take Regular Breaks When Practicing
Taking a 20 minute break every hour or two will give your voice the chance to rest and recuperate. Regular breaks will ultimately allow you to practice for longer, build stamina and lessen the chance of over straining.
When I’m busking, I find it hard to take a break and stop for 20 minutes, but taking time out to relax, adjust, stretch your neck, back, arm and finger muscles and give the set up a tweak will definitely pay off. If you think you can improve your pitch, move to a new one and start a new case. Relaxing and stretching for a bit will ultimately improve your chances of not sustaining an injury in the long term.
You wouldn’t spend two hours down the gym without resting every now and then and allowing your muscles to recuperate, so why hammer your throat muscles for two hours without a break also ?
Being fit and healthy will hugely help your ability to be happy and perform. Cardiovascular exercises like running and swimming will improve your lungs and breathing ability, enabling you to sing better. Frank Sinatra was an avid swimmer and used the breath techniques he gained from swimming to perfect his singing.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Supplements provide the body with nutrients and the minerals it needs to have a healthy immune system. Taking the correct supplements, including Vitamin C, will lessen your chances of cold. Make sure you get a good base mineral supplement also.
Avoid stress. Try not to worry about things which will ultimately put you and your vocal chords under stress. Thinking about nothing but problems in your life will only bring you down. Just be happy you’re alive and keep singing as much as you can.
Consider the fact that half the world’s population live in poverty and millions of those suffer terribly on a daily basis, living in dreadful and dangerous conditions unfit for any human being – you’ll soon realise how lucky you are.
Think about those living in third world, war or disaster zones or those suffering huge loss in their lives.. then look at yourself and see what you really have to complain about.
Be a glass is half full type, not half empty and thank your lucky stars you have a decent life.
It is important that everyone gets enough sleep. You need to recharge your batteries and missing out on sleep will eventually wear you out. Keep burning the candle at both ends and sooner or later you’ll go down with exhaustion or illness. Try and get 7 – 8 hours a night.
If you can’t manage to get enough sleep throughout the week, try and hit the sack really early at least one night a week. You’ll feel much better for it.
Try to drink at least two litres of water a day. Although your body gets enough water from the food you eat, keeping yourself well hydrated will help keep your vocal chords in good condition.
Change your Set
Don’t get used to practicing just one set, no matter how difficult it is. Even if you’ve not perfected it yet, give it a break and change to something totally different every once in a while. This will keep you on your toes and give you insight into new music, inspiring new direction and also revealing weaknesses in your voice your usual set may have hidden.
Singing something completely different every now and then will keep you from getting bored and help prevent you getting stuck in that rut.
Keep Adding New Songs
Keep learning new songs. As you progress, the songs you play will undoubtedly change, eventually leading your music to find it’s own way. Make sure you play your own songs aswell. Don’t get stuck playing the same set all year.
Strive to Improve
Always try to better yourself. The more you keep singing, the better you’ll get, until you really will be a great singer.
Clean your teeth 2 – 3 times a day, floss and upkeep them well. Clear but don’t rinse your mouth out after you have brushed your teeth. You will wash away all the protective barriers and fluorine in your toothpaste – tip from a top dentist.
Don’t Bite Your Nails
Biting your nails is a bad habit, give it up. Eating the dirt that has collected under your fingertips is gross. You’re much more likely to get colds and flu if you do this. Everything you touch when you are out, every time you visit the loo, every hand you shake, every germ you come in contact with is likely to reside under your finger tips. So don’t stick it in your mouth and eat it. Ugh !
Get Used to Performing – Nerves
Regularly perform in front of a crowd. This will keep you on your toes and keep you enjoying being a musician. It doesn’t matter where. If you are not ready to gig, go to ‘come and have a go’ nights, go busking, perform at your mates parties or offer to do a quick set at your local pub. Do anything that is going to get you used to performing and each time you put yourself in the firing line, you’ll get more used to dealing with those nerves.
Stretching and Massage
Give or get your self neck, arm, finger (guitarists) and back massages regularly. This will reduce the tension and stress in all these important muscle groups before and after you gig, helping you relax and prevent injury. Learn to warm up your muscle groups using targeted stretching routines. Warming down after your performance is also just as important.
Some singers like to wrap a towel around their neck for a few minutes to warm their voice up before they sing. Never tried it myself, but I’ve seen a few vocalists doing this before gigs. It could be that their vocal chords have been previously strained or are inflamed due to a sore throat or the onset of laryngitis and the towel trick is known to help sooth these conditions.
Don’t dowse your vocal chords in freezing cold water when you’re trying to sing. Keep your water bottle at room temperature at least. Athletes don’t take a cold shower right in the middle of their practice sessions, so don’t do this to your vocal chords.
Avoid Colds & Flu - People – Crowds
Don’t visit people, if you know they have the flu. Use some sense. If you catch it, that’s your singing down the pan for a week at least. Spending time in crowded places for unnecessary reasons hugely increases your chances of catching a cold.
Obviously if you’re gigging in pubs and clubs you can’t avoid certain situations and I’m not suggesting you become a recluse and avoid any public place, but close contact with mates or associates who are coughing and spluttering or spending time with people who are obviously ill or have been under the weather, will not help your cause.
Having kids really brings it home, and the colds, sickness bugs and other crap they bring home from school and nursery certainly raise your awareness of the way viruses spread and affect everyone around you.
Don’t get paranoid, but just think about cuddling that baby with a drooling nose, standing next to that bloke who’s sneezing over everyone or visiting that mate who’s dying of the plague.
Younger generations have a greater tendency to share things like drink, cigarettes, food, drugs etc. with each other and years ago I didn’t used to care about things like that either. You know what you’re doing, but you don’t give a damn and dealing with illness or colds and flu was not a problem. Give it a few years when your income or career depends on it, you’ll soon realise a bit of caution can make a big difference to your health and wealth.
Sharing is a wonderful thing and brings people closer, but having a ‘bite of that’ or going ‘two’s up’ on that fag or having a sip on your mates pint is a nice thought, but you don’t see grown adults doing it as they generally have more sense and care about their own well being a little more.
Wash Your Hands – Take Off Your Shoes
Taking off your shoes and washing your hands when you enter your house will effectively kill 90% of the germs you’ve picked up throughout the day and prevent you bringing them into your home. Why tread the dirt from the street through your home and across your living room carpet.
They say a cash machine has more germs on it than a toilet seat. What about door handles, push buttons, cash, public handle rails etc. Imagine how many public things you touch each day and how many other people with flu’s, colds and infections have been touching. A large number of the population don’t even bother washing their hands after going to the loo.
Don’t get paranoid about germs, but use your common sense when you are out and about. Alcohol hand gels are handy and help kill bacteria, but can be addictive so use them, but don’t become obsessed with them.
Allergies – Deal with Them
Make sure you deal with any allergies you may have, i.e. hay fever, smoke, cats etc.. If you’re not on top of these, your voice has no chance. A simple anti histamine tablet combined with nasal spray will usually do the trick, but if you suspect you may have an allergy, see your doctor for advice.
So there’s just a few things you should be aware of if you want to keep your voice in good nick.
If you have any other tips, feel free to post them in the comments below.
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