Voice lessons can help good singers become great, while ensuring the longevity of their craft through proper technique. While some genres may herald an untrained voice, taking singing lessons ensures that you won’t damage your voice. And trust me, you and your bandmates will thank you for that. If you’re looking for the best online voice lessons, Berklee Online’s course Popular Singing Styles: Developing Your Sound is 12 weeks of intensive instruction where you’ll not only improve your singing, but also learn how to develop your unique sound as an artist.
In these five online voice lessons excerpted from the course, you’ll learn how to start supporting your voice with proper breathing and learn how various pop vocal styles are produced.
Anatomy of Breathing
Any time you study singing, you are working on improving breathing techniques to best support and develop your vocal instrument. Although voice teachers use different methods to teach breathing, which can get confusing at times, it is important to understand how breathing works anatomically as you practice achieving the sound you desire.
Because breathing is fundamental to staying alive, human beings are naturally very protective about it. When we sing, we use breathing intentionally for an artistic result, but that often seems to trigger the body’s fear of not having enough air. When we work on breathing for singing, the first step is to trust that we will be okay, that we don’t need to gulp in vast amounts of air to sing well.
1. First, we allow the body to breathe in fully, and lower in the mid-torso where the lungs are largest and the ribs can expand to enlarge the chest cavity. Focusing breath here also helps to lower the diaphragm muscle more. Much of breathing technique focuses on how best to breathe in.
2. Then, we use the breath in a pressurized system against the vocal folds. This both gets the folds vibrating to produce sound, but also has a lot of influence upon how the vocal fold muscles respond.
3. Third, we picture what is happening in the larynx and mouth, controlling the rate of release of the air while we sing, to manage factors such as volume and quality of tone.
4. Finally, we repeat the process. How we inhale immediately after singing a phrase, such as catching a breath in between words, is a big part of breath technique study.
Agility and Flexibility
When we talk about being agile and flexible vocally, we are describing coordination, not building strength in your throat. A singer cannot make their voice physically stronger. This is because building muscle strength requires lifting weight, and of course the muscles that move your vocal folds cannot do that. Instead, when you practice exercises and techniques, you are gaining more fine motor control of the tiny muscles in your larynx together with your overall vocal system.
Voice training builds more communication between your thoughts and your body about how you want to sound, which notes you wish to sing, how loud or soft you are, expressing the lyrics, when to take a breath, and how you’re moving from note to note. Being flexible vocally gives you options, and makes singing easier. Agility enables you to sing more efficiently, to minimize vocal fatigue, and to enhance your overall vocal range."Being flexible vocally gives you options, and makes singing easier. Agility enables you to sing more efficiently, to minimize vocal fatigue, and to enhance your overall vocal range." —@prof_jeannie Click To Tweet
So, how do you gain agility and flexibility for singing? First, warm up your voice well as you would for any singing you do.
When you warm up your voice:
- The vocal muscles, ligaments, and tissues in your larynx, and pharynx (areas of the throat behind your mouth, larynx and sinuses), become physically warmer, making them more elastic and flexible.
- Your breathing coordination for singing moves into your awareness.
- You shift out of unconscious speech patterns (everyday movement) to adjust how you use your voice, such as eliminating vocal fry.
- This vocal warm-up and technical work helps to release extra tension in your larynx and pharynx. This prepares you for healthier belting.
- Your thoughts shift to focus on singing, on the small details that require concentration to execute well and without added tension.
Clean vs. Breathy Tone
The tone of your voice is your calling card. It is an aspect of yourself that makes you you. Although some voices may be similar to one another in overall type or range, your voice has its own sound due to the combination of many physical structures, including your head, larynx, overall body, and how you speak.
When you sing, air comes up from your lungs and passes through your vocal folds, which then vibrate together on the air currents to produce a pitch. That pitch is then shaped in your mouth and in the other spaces of your vocal process, giving it resonance and tone. Assuming there is no vocal abnormality or damage, when the vocal folds come together efficiently, the sound will be clear. However, if there is space between the vocal folds when they meet in vibration, we hear both the note as well as air “leaking” from in between the folds. This is what we call a breathy tone.
Just as effective speaking is not monotone, good singing has a range of sounds. If you can only sing in a breathy tone but want other options in your sound, or if you constantly run out of air, your vocal technique—including breath support—needs to be further developed. On the other hand, singers who are classically trained may not use a softer, breathier tone at all, and may wish to “lighten” their tone at times.
Sometimes a breathy sound is desirable, increasingly so in today’s popular music. (Breathiness is even added artificially as an effect in the recording studio!) It can make the singer appear to be relaxed, casual, easygoing, or vulnerable. Stylistically, a singer may choose to use both breathy and clear tones in the same song, even within a single stanza or a phrase.
How to Match Pitch
To sing in tune, you have to hear yourself. But hearing is a complex process. How does hearing work? Your ears pick up waves of sound and translate them into nerve signals that are sent to your brain. Your brain then interprets what you hear, and if you are also listening to what you hear, your thoughts will analyze the sound and you’ll decide how to respond. When we sing, hearing ourselves is also further complicated by how you judge your singing, by hearing other sounds or instruments, and by the acoustics and comfort of the physical space you’re in. Your response to the presence of other people is also a big factor to how we hear, spilling into your thoughts and likely causing you to judge yourself while you sing.
There are three significant biological factors that affect pitch:
The Human Voice Is the Most Flexible Musical Instrument
The human voice is incredibly flexible, capable of producing a wide range of tones, frequencies, and pitches. We can sing many more notes than the Western 12-tone tempered scale. This flexibility is frequently used in contemporary singing. One example is bending a note through two or three pitches, in which you sing several sub-notes or frequencies that lie in between a set of fixed named pitches.
Singing the tones in between fixed pitches is a normal part of many styles such as blues, R&B, country, and jazz. Learning to bend notes and sing smoothly between pitches, by using exercises that have a melisma (a grouping of notes sung together on one syllable or vowel), such as an octave “siren,” is an important part of studying vocal technique.
Our Brains Hear One Note, but It’s Really a Chord
Second, here’s a fact that may surprise you: every pitch is actually a chord! Each note that is sung or played on an instrument (with the exception of computer-generated tones) produces a complex series of overtones that make up the unique quality of its sound. This set of overtones, or harmonics, is difficult to discern, so your brain categorizes the set as one pitch. A note that we identify as a single pitch is the foundational note in this series of overtones.
How You Breathe Affects Your Intonation
Third, breathing affects intonation, too. Subtle shifts in breath will change how the air flows through your vocal folds, which changes how they respond while you’re singing. Adjusting your intonation on a pitch is an ongoing feedback loop between the tiny muscles and ligaments in your larynx, your breath, hearing the pitch, your opinion about how you sound, and your brain’s response to all of this information. You sing a note, you hear it, you decide if you like the sound, and those thoughts tell your brain to signal back to your vocal tract and breathing, and adjustments are made. All of this happens in an instant.
Legato, Staccato, Vibrato
Legato (connected notes) and staccato (short, disconnected notes) are both important elements in music. Singers can use these devices intentionally to add color, rhythm, and richness to phrases. While vibrato is natural to most voices, some singers prefer the sound of a straight tone with no vibrato. Other singers have difficulty producing vibrato.
Air pressure enables your vocal folds to vibrate to produce a pitch. That vibration is different from vibrato. Vibrato is a secondary vibration of your vocal folds, causing an oscillation between two close tones. It is often produced when structures in the larynx rock or shake. When there is no vibrato, typically that is an indication that there is excess tension in the larynx or mouth, inhibiting muscle movement. When the vibrato is very loose or wide, that indicates that the larynx is too relaxed and under-supported.
Straight Tone, or Vibrato?
Ultimately using vibrato is a personal choice. However, because it is natural for most voices to have it, holding back vibrato altogether may introduce harmful muscle tension into your voice. The best course is usually to balance vibrato with straight tone. Let the text of the song guide your phrasing. Let the song’s placement in your voice, tempo, and dynamics help shape the lines with vibrato and straight tones.
I hope that these online voice lessons felt like a good place to start as you work on your vocal technique. Practice the skills we went over, and keep developing your style. If you’d like to learn more about various singing styles, Berklee Online offers courses in pop and rock, R&B, and jazz vocals.