I came to singing quite late compared to most. No school or church choir for me. So when I started studying jazz singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I became very quickly aware of just how much I didn't know! But I was a quick learner and soon got to the stage where I was passing on my newly acquired knowledge in workshops and adult education classes as well as private singing lessons. I stopped teaching a couple of years ago but am often asked for lessons from singers who have come to see me perform or visited my website. I don't really have much time for teaching these days so thought I'd pass on these tips to help singers and would-be singers improve and make the best of their voices.
1. Breathing: I know it sounds boring but breathing really is the cornerstone of all singing. Or maybe I should phrase that differently... It's really all about breath control. The most common mistake seen with novice singers is that when they take a deep breath, they end up with their shoulders around their ears. Most of the expansion should take place in the lower part of the chest and this is known as diaphragmatic breathing. Sounds complicated but in simple terms it is just making sure that your lungs fill up from the bottom first and on no account should those shoulders be raised. Also be careful that you're not holding your stomach in. So often we try to flatten our stomachs by holding them in (especially if there's a bit of excess baggage in that area!) but to breathe correctly, especially at the beginning, we really need to let it all hang out! A good exercise is to practise deep breathing whilst lying flat on the floor which prevents shoulders from raising as we breathe in. After you have mastered diaphragmatic breathing you will then move on to controlling the flow of air and soon you'll be able to impress with those super long notes!
2. Mirror: I could also have called this tip Posture but I've called it mirror because if you're on your own you'll need a mirror to check your posture and the position of your mouth and jaw. Shoulders need to be relaxed and down, weight ideally balanced (no hunching and no putting most of your weight on one foot!) and the mouth needs to be open fairly wide with the jaw relaxed. This is the position that should be adopted for vocal exercises. We'll come to those later.
3. Relax: This follows on from the point about the shoulders - keep them back and down. But the throat, jaw and chest also need to be relaxed. I know - it's easier said than done! If there's tension in your throat you'll end up straining your voice. In most cases, if your throat hurts when you sing, then you're doing something wrong.
4. Listen: It always surprises me how little time singers who are just starting out devote to listening to other singers and instrumentalists. In jazz this is doubly important - in fact I'd say it's mandatory. As I mentioned earlier, I starting singing quite late and I'd never listened to jazz much before I started singing it. But I made up for that by listening to the greats like Ella Fitgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone etc etc for hours upon end. I also listened to instrumentalists like Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and many more. Most importantly, get out and go and see today's artists performing live. On that note (ahem), this link takes you to a list of my upcoming gigs. :-) Juliet Kelly Live And if you're a jazz singer, please remember that you also need to go and listen to instrumentalists as well as singers.
5. Record Yourself: I know it's painful sometimes but it really helps A LOT to listen to recordings and or videos of yourself singing. It helps you to hear where you're going wrong as it's sometimes difficult to tell "in the moment". And if nothing else, it will be a record of how much you've improved a few months down the line!
6. Lyrics: For me, performance is equally as important as vocal technique. And as a singer, if you only pay attention to the melody, tone and rhythm you may sound amazing but this may be at the expense of making a connection with the audience. Of course your technique matters and a great tone and a beautiful sounding instrument is important but as a singer you have the bonus of being able to communicate to the audience with lyrics. To make the most of this, think about the lyrics and the meaning of them and use this to inform the choices you make about your tone and phrasing.
7. Find A Teacher: This is not always absolutely necessary but if you intend to sing professionally, I would advise going to see a vocal coach or singing teacher at some point. It's probably most useful at the beginning as it stops you getting into bad habits but can also be useful later on to move your technique to the next level. Always get a recommendation as, like anything else, there are a lot of bad teachers out there as well as good ones.
8. Quit: Okay - I know this won't be popular but if you're a smoker, it really will help your voice if you quit smoking. There are a lucky few who can smoke 50-a-day and still have a beautiful tone and powerful lungs but these are very few and far between. Why not quit for 3 months and then if you really don't see any improvement in your breathing, your range or tone then start smoking again... ;-)
9. Find Your Own Style: When we first start out it makes sense for us to emulate the singers we love and that's totally fine. But there will come a time when, to stand out from the crowd, you'll need to develop your own style. Everyone has a different physical and psychological make up - why not make your unique sound your strength rather than trying to sound like someone else?
10. Practice: Couldn't leave this obvious one out! Little and often is more effective than getting all enthusiastic and doing 3 hours one day and then leaving it for a couple of weeks. Try to do at least 10mins a day to start off with. There are some excellent free videos on YouTube.
Wow! That turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be but I hope you've found some useful information here. Please feel free to comment and/or add your own tips. And please don't hesitate to ask any questions and I will do my best to answer!