Everyone can sing. We sing to celebrate, we sing to mourn. We sing together for a sense of community, for comfort, for praise. Whether singing or listening, emotions are magnified and expressed with remarkable potency. Singing is one the most joyful, natural and liberating things we can do.

This node is not designed to be a comprehensive guide. In fact, I'm only going to tell you how sing in one particular style, of hundreds. Here you will not learn to sing like the Tuvan throat singers, to listen to whom you need a subwoofer. I will not tell you how to get harmonics in the roof of your mouth. Neither I am going to tell you how to sing in Indian or South American styles. I will not tell you these things because I do not know them. I've spent most of my life being trained to sing in a particular way, and this is what I am in position to impart.

The object of singing in a conventional European classical style, since perhaps 1580, has been to produce as clear and ringing a sound as possible. The finest example of this tone at the moment is Andreas Scholl: his voice is perfection itself. Thing is, it's tempting to try and create ideal tone by straining for it, to create this sound artificially by engineering your vocal apparatus into unnatural shapes. Not only will this eventually destroy your voice, as will any contrivance in singing, it doesn't sound as good. The most important thing you can do when singing is to relax. Seriously. It is totally essential that you are at ease when singing. Unfortunately, the only thing you can do to achieve this Holy Grail of singing is to sing. A lot. For years. This is the uncomfortable truth of singing: it takes a lifetime to get it right. A tenor will only truly reach maturity aged 35 or so, (it's something to do with the skull solidifying, apparently) and basses will, typically, get there a little younger. People don't tend to let this worry them. For men at least, this is because you have a good chance of experiencing something close to vocal perfection as a treble. As boys, many people have a clarity of tone they will never match post-puberty. This is a pleasant thing for people to hark back to. Hence the not losing sleep thing.

We are blessed with vocal apparatus that is astonishingly flexible. The sheer array of sounds we can produce is startling, if you step back and consider it. Think about the gamut of accents, the panoply of languages. The first thing to understand when learning to sing, whatever the style, is that your vocal apparatus is not contained in your throat. In the same way that a football team needs strikers to score, we need our voice boxes to sing, but similar quantities of support have to be provided. Briefly, the following bits of you are involved in singing, to greater or lesser extents: sinuses, jaws, palate, tongue, larynx, shoulders, chest, diaphragm, and stomach. You should be standing straight, but not so your chest sticks out. If you know any Alexander technique, this is absolutely where it goes. Imagine an invisible hair running from the top of the crown of your head up into the sky - you should be just dangling on that hair. More on what to do with all these things in a moment. Bear with me here.

So, then. Relaxation. Your whole body needs to be so much at ease that singing feels like pouring maple syrup into a huge bowl of honey: it should be smooth and effortless and satisfying. It's easy to sing with the larynx: it sounds acceptable for five minutes, and then becomes incredibly painful. So much so that talking hurts. This is a bad. Singing should not hurt. Ever. You owe it to your own voice not to abuse it such that it becomes painful. We're getting there: hard theory coming right up. A trained singer can sing for hours on end, night after night. This is because they sing with their whole bodies, and not their throats.

Now you're feeling all relaxed and alert for sensations of tension, we can start with the next most important thing. This is breathing. A singer needs lots of breath. Right? Hence the volume and length of phrases. Right. Find a long mirror, right now, and look into it. Look at your chest. Now breath in, sharply, without moving your shoulders. Go! No, without moving your shoulders. I don't want to see them shoot up like that. At all. Try again. It should feel like air is going into your stomach, or even your abdomen, not your chest. Like when you're breathing in your sleep, right? That's exactly how you should be doing it. None of your chest above your nipples should be moving, really. Have another go. That's it. Much better.

Why all this breathing pedantry? We-e-ell. Two main reasons. First, take a breath into your stomach, but just let it stay there. Don't exhale for a moment. Now slowly exhale. Right? Now try that taking air into your upper chest. Hold it? now exhale, slowly. Hmm. I don't know whether you noticed, but you have infinitely more control using your stomach. Breath control, that is. It's crucial to singing long phrases, all sustained like. Second, have another of those chesty breaths. Feel all the tension around your shoulders and larynx? That's a bad thing. Ok? Stomach breaths = relaxed larynx = better sound.

Boom! So now you're all spectacular breathers! Excellent. Ri-i-ight. There's, uhm, one more Really Important Thing in order to sing well, and it still isn't in your throat.

Your diaphragm is the bit of you that sits under you lungs and gives you hiccoughs. It's also what enables you to conserve all these big relaxed breaths you're taking now. To do this, ladies and gents, we have to break a cardinal rule, and tense the muscle. This is called support. I'm not a very physical person, to say the least, and the only regular exercise I do is singing. The only muscle in my body that gets regular and intensive use beyond that incurred in everyday life is my diaphragm. When I tense it, it domes over my solar plexus like some absurd piece of crockery. It's like I've had implants or something. But then look at violinists. They have crazy muscles in their hands. Anyway. The stronger your diaphragm, the more total your control over your breath, and hence your sound. This is not something that you can get right instantly: you have to realise which is the muscle in question and learn how to operate it independently of others. From there, it's practice, I'm afraid. To find which muscle it is, try tensing your stomach, as though you'd an impressive six pack to sport. At least, I have to pretend. Look for movement between your ribs. Yup. That's the one, just there. See it? Sadly, only time can transform this into the wall of steel, the barrier of forged Yukoshiro fury that professional classical singers have. When you do this, you're also using your abdominal muscles too. But right now, let's take a break, seeing as how you grasped the three most important things on your way to becoming an accomplished singer.


Unfortunately, I threw my beloved dinosaur of a phone, my Motorola M3788, in a pile of vomit the other weekend. Then, slightly inebriated, I rushed to the toilet to administer urgent first aid to my 4xAA compatible baby. It was all I could do not to shout 'Clear' and break out the defibrillators as I rinsed it vigorously under the tap. It was there when I got mugged, it was there when I hit it three times with a wrench, it was there when I used it to break open a padlock. Dammit, this damn phone had been with me since I was an angst-ridden teen raging against the bitter injustice of society. And before last week, too. The way home was a blur of tears and blind anger. My baby, my 200g go-anywhere so-uncool-it-was-achingly-hip battered sellotape-bound baby. No longer. Rest in Peace. You will be missed.

So now you're relaxed, breathing well and using your diaphragm, and prepared to wait for your voice to grow -which it will, given time, what more is there to know? Anyone for some dos and don'ts? I always thought they were fun, anyway.

Do

  • Drink lots of water, all the time.
    Let's face it, you probably don't drink enough. Through breathing and pissing and sweating you lose a huge quantity of water each day. Singing is especially draining in this way. You're putting a deal of strain on your throat, and it giving it an unusual degree of use in singing. It needs hydrating for best tone, and for less pain too. If you've been oversinging and your voice hurts, rest it and drink some water. You'll feel better. If you're singing very intensively, say on the day of a concert, it is a very good idea to have a bottle of water with you. Take small sips.
  • Know your limitations
    This is totally crucial. Knowing where your voice stops means you don't abuse it. Respect the tool that you have, and it will work better for you. Do not ask it to do things that it cannot do. This is unreasonable. It will complain. And it will hurt. Be careful, and everybody wins.
  • Have fun, dammit!
    Uh? yeah.

    Don't

  • Screw up your voice before you sing
    Coffee, citrus fruits, alcohol, chocolate, dairy products. Damn, those are the things I love too. The first three dehydrate you (=bad), in reverse order of badness, and the second two clog up your throat, muffle your tone, and generally piss you off.Sorry.
  • Smoke
    Uhm. Yeah. Do I need to explain this one? It's a big big bad, I'm afraid. Sure, have an occasional joint. Not sure, smoke every day. Sorry, again.
  • When you sing high, don't lift your chin
    Noooo! This is the all-time number one extreme bad of all badaliciousness that ever demonised the discipline of singing. 1. Why are you singing so high in the first place? It hurts, doesn't it? So that's naughty. 2. When you sing in your upper register, lifting your chin tightens your vocal chords. Ack! You lost it! Hmm. This is an instinctive mistake that tenses your jaw and larynx, and is hence undesirable.
  • Be really stupid
    Another obvious one. So, don't go to a NIN concert and sing along and then expect to.. you get it. Right.

    Well, I'm pretty much all patronised out. One more nasty thing, though. A demon of the ancient world, this foe is beyond any of you:

    Sight Reading

    Sight reading is a skill that is hard to master, but that's not why it has its own section. It has its own section because it is a dangerous beast not to be McFlurried with. The goal of sight reading is to master the basic notes and words of a given piece. Right? The goal of singing is to produce a beautiful and mesmericly wonderful tone. Right? Hint: these two things are in opposition. When you sight read, it is all too easy to blunder blindly onwards, with no regard for your voice as you endeavour to learn this fiendish piece of Bach. He's definitely the worst. It's like he writes for a string quartet and then puts words to it. And you're like, bastard! Anyway. I'm just advising extreme caution when sight reading. It is very easy to wreck your voice for a week with an intensive session. See Knowing your limitations.

    Please, be patient. This takes a lot of time. Also remember that like much in life, it is not the destination that matters, but the journey. Don't lose sight of the reason you?re doing this in the first place. The objective is to have fun. This is not some horrible self-improvement programme. To an extent, the whole point is that you can do what you like with your voice. No-one can tell you how empowering and soul-drenchingly orgasmic singing can be: you have to experience it for yourself. I'm just trying to nudge you in the right direction. Thank you for listening.

    Last edited: 10/8/06 - adding diaphragm/abdomen comments. I wonder whether to edit this into something less juvenile - comments/opinions welcome.


    I suspect that the sheer size of this topic means that this node will always be a work in progress. Any amendments, suggestions or complaints to me by 1st class /msg please, and your additions will be gratefully incorporated. I'm aware that this node can never be finished. Thank you again, and good night.

    Some people have complained that all this does is tell you about your apparatus, and not how to pitch, etc. Other people have complained that it abuses the word brief. For the former, go to Ear Training : Interval Identification. For the latter, this is as brief as it could be and still be of any use at all. Thank you.

    Sources:
    I owe all of my knowledge on this subject to the string of professionals who have taught me to sing. They need acknowledging, if only for the joyous gift they have given me. Particularly Charles Brett and Julian Smith, under whose vigilant gaze I have learnt these five years past, but also Hilary Parfitt, Peter Knutsford for really encouraging me when wee, Andrew Lumsden, Peter Shephard, that lovely lady who taught me All things bright and beautiful aged six, and my parents for noticing that I always sang when happy from a very young age. Whilst I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my teaching staff, I truly believe that anyone who gives themselves an honest chance can have as much fun as I've had. It's not too late to start. Just try: you'll see.

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