Common misconceptions about singing
How do you feel about wearing the same clothes for 10 years? Not because of the size or anything, but assuming they are still fit to wear with good condition, colors are still clear etc? You would probably still feel like getting new clothes. Why? Because the clothes have served their purpose; and by purpose I don’t mean covering your body but also in the social sense, where you want to keep up with changing trends. So in this case, the clothes’ fashion value is already spent, and you want to find new ones that give more return on your investment in that area.
In this article, I’d like to point out some stuff about vocals and singing that you might have heard of from time to time and accepted as truth. We’re gonna challenge them a bit, put them to the test, and see if they are still worth holding on to. I’m not sure whether the clothes analogy was a good one (reading it now, I’m actually beginning to think that it’s not..), but it serves to remind us that we might be holding on to a lot of beliefs that hinder us from getting where we want to be, not just in the vocalist sense, but in other areas of life as well.
So before we start, I’d like to begin with a story about Bruce Lee. A guy went to him and said, “Teach me all you know about martial arts.” Bruce Lee held two cups to the person and said, “In one cup, there is all my knowledge of martial arts, in the other is your knowledge of martial arts. In order for you to receive my knowledge of martial arts, you must first empty your cup of all your knowledge of martial arts”.
This is, I believe, the very best way to approach learning anything – by letting go of any and all preconceived notions, and being open to receive. This is so you can actually hear and receive what is being said, not so that you accept blindly. You can still have your own opinion, but after you receive what the giver intends, not during. Let’s begin:
1) Singing is different from speech
This one is like the proverb “hiding in plain sight.” We have been conditioned to think that singing and speech is different, but the fact is, if you know where to look, you will begin to surprise yourself by how extremely rich your voice is.
For example, when you find out something surprising, and you exclaim “Oh, my God!!!!”. The next time you do that, try to apply “singing” terms to that. See if you can do it. How high is the pitch, for instance? I never heard a low “Oh, my God!!” before. How is the tone quality? If you answered high pitched, was it in falsetto, or was it in normal, “connected” voice? Because “Oh, my God!!” in falsetto to me would sound really weird. Try doing it! Your friend comes to you, tells you that so and so broke up because the girlfriend or boyfriend went off with someone else. Do the “WHAT!!??” first, because that would be the higher note.
Notice whether or not you flip to falsetto. Do you scream the note? Most probably not. It’s just a pure, connected “head voice”, as singing coaches like to point out. Try the same thing with other stuff. Like for example, when someone in the office does something great or funny in a presentation, and you want to cheer them one with a shrill, high – pitched “WOOOOOOOO!!!!! YEAH, MAN!”. The “WOOOOOOOO!!!!” part is usually higher. Imagine doing it in falsetto. LOL.
This proves that singing is just speech, but done in a slightly different way. It is still the same thing. So stuff that are used to improve singing should not be compartmentalized differently in the brain. This is often achieved by having a “singing voice” that’s somehow different from a “speaking voice.” And having to learn new terms like breaks, registers, head voice, chest voice, etc. These things, in my opinion, serve only to confuse you instead of getting you into the learning process.
2) There is a certain range in which you are born with (baritone, bass, soprano, etc.) that you have to accept and work with
This is a classic. Let’s go back to the cheering on example above. “WOOOOHOOOO!!!” If the above statement were true, a group of people doing this would be doing it in different ranges, and most probably different pitches; and the end result would be volatile. We might get a beautiful harmony, or more likely organized chaos.
But no, in my experience, no matter how large the group, the overall pitch of the “WOOOOHOOOO!!” remains the same. There’s even like an unwritten rule of how high the pitch would be. It never seems to go too low or too high. It always remains in the same range more or less.
This means that even though there may be baritones, basses, altos, or whatever else in the group, they could all produce the same exact pitch in unison. What happened to the basses? Where did the high note come from? The obvious answer is it never had to come from anywhere, because it was always there in the first place.
To give an example of myself: I consider myself to have a deep voice. By that, I mean that when I speak, normally engage the lower registers of my voice. So after years of doing it, whenever I speak or sing, my low notes have better tone qualities that come out of them. Why? Simply because they have been used more often.
Does that mean I can’t sing in a higher voice? I can. In fact, I can go up to the whistle registers. (I would be the first to admit that I need to work more on my higher tones.) But just to show you that it can be done. Everyone has the same set of vocal chords. They can be trained to produce whatever note that you want.
This has always been a mental block when performing, because my guitartist has this view entrenched so deeply in his mind, that he always insists on getting the song transposed lower. Even when I proved to him that I can sing high songs, he still insists that there is this range that we are born with and it doesn’t change. (He believes that he’s born in the higher ranges, which doesn’t make sense if you watch how all the muscles in his body strain to produce thin, heady high notes with not a lot of connection.)
3) Singing scales is the best way to develop vocals
I’ve fallen for this one before. Before I start, let me now disclose that I don’t have anything against scales. On the contrary, let’s discuss what scales are good for:
i) Getting familiar with notes that are commonly used in music. This is important when you want to improvise, you have a handy structure that you can use as a guide as to which sounds work in the key of a given song. But this one you can do with a piano or guitar. It’s more ear training than vocal training.
ii) Scales can be used as a great test of how agile and nimble your vocals are. But not useful as a tool to get there. Scales compartment the notes. If we want to practice, we would be better off not confusing ourselves more.
So those are the benefits of scales. Not all, of course, there are tons of others. But for the purpose of learning to sing or speak with power, they are not as practical as they vocal experts claim them to be. Let’s go back to the first example. The “WOOOHOOOO!!!” and the “Oh, my God!!!” are already connected, they are at a steady, consistent pitch, and they’re usually already powerful enough when used. I’ve rarely heard them wimpy, with no volume, or with fluctuations in the pitch.
When learning how to sing with scales, you essentially take a voice that works just fine already, but conditioning and forcing them to sing in scales, and starting from zero. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Why not take that ability, and adjust a few things so that it becomes a steady high note in a song.
4) Learning to sing takes too much time
Ok, so you know by now where I’m going with this. Yup, back to the first example. You already CAN produce great notes with your voice. You only need to apply that muscle memory into the context of a song. This is not much different. What’s singing anyway? It’s just controlled speech. Instead of random pitches, you speak in a certain key, less percussively and with purer pitches, to a steady beat and rhythm. It’s like acting with your voice. It’s actually a lot like voice acting.
So let go of all the searching to find that voice that you feel you need to be able to express your feelings. You already have it. Here and now. It’s like walking and running. Both activities use the feet, but in slightly different ways. You don’t have certain types of feet you’re born with. You just need to apply the feet that you have in a different way.