BBC talent show judge

Singing; it’s just not natural

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Singing; it’s just not natural

There is a prevailing myth, infuriatingly re-enforced recently by a BBC TV talent show judge, that the act of singing is the most ‘natural thing’ in the world and consequently, an apparent lack of ‘natural’ ability is clearly the result of unfavourable genes or a general deficit of god-given talent. Singing induces a level of self-criticism and self-consciousness like no other past-time (with the possible exception of dancing) and lots of people give up at the first hurdle, somehow neatly luxuriating in the certain knowledge that Mother Nature was having a joke at their expense. As a singing teacher, I find myself coaxing my students back into their saddles when they’ve had a go at Becher’s Brook at the Grand National on their first foray out of the starting gate. Singing is not the most natural thing in the world, it requires breath control to sustain long phrases, you need to access a range of notes beyond those used in spoken word, and be able to create a ‘tone of voice' to convey meaning and emotion and different styles of music have specific vocal requirements. The ingredients may all be natural and certified organic, but they need to be blended in exactly the right measure.

PS Check out the microphone* in the picture; made of plastic tubing, party popper, polystyrene ball, pop sock and black paint. Don’t believe everything you hear and see. Just saying.

(*made by Marie Atkins)

Q: Why can I sing along to the radio so easily, but can't seem to sing well on my own?

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Stop listening to yourself singing & start ‘feeling’ what it’s like to sing

Is this you? Standing in the kitchen, radio blaring, singing joyfully and unabashedly along with Aretha, Jessie or Frank. Singing so brilliantly. So effortlessly. Then, you switch the radio off and carry on singing. Those high notes that you hit with such ease now possess an uncannily feline quality and there’s a definite hint of braying on the lower ones. What was left of the melody of I Say A Little Prayer has morphed, rather poetically, into the tune of Old MacDonald Had A Farm. You could be starring in a one-man/woman production of Shrek.

I am obviously exaggerating (any similarities with my family members, is entirely coincidental), but the fact of the matter is that singing is a physical act and exactly like riding a bike, swimming or playing football, requires learning. Singing along to the radio, relies almost completely on auditory feedback, in other words, you are using your ears exclusively to match the pitch and rhythm of the song being played. If there is no learned technique or physical ability to sustain the sound and you attempt to sing without the radio singer, your voice is likely to become untethered and set uncontrollably adrift. To sing confidently, tunefully and independently, you have to engage a host of muscles, which is what gives you the ‘feeling’ of singing.

This isn’t to say that using your ears isn’t vitally important in singing, it is, but much less so than you might think. Controlling the pressure and flow of air (using your ‘breathing muscles’) as it passes through your vocal folds (aka cords), is important for tuning and for producing good tone. Muscle tension in your jaw, tongue and neck can adversely affect the quality of the sound and put a strain on your throat and did you know that if you don’t lift your soft palate while singing, the sound will travel out through your nose rather than your mouth (4 muscles are involved with lifting the soft palate). I am simplifying, but you get the picture. For the geeks among you, there is a lot of easily-accessible, on-line research exploring the bio-mechanics of the vocal process,

All singers need to find these muscles, work out what they do and learn to isolate them and that way you will have complete control over the quality and type of sound produced. Like any new discipline, it takes a lot of practice to coordinate all these muscles, but be assured that what feels unnatural to begin with, will soon become habitual. You’ll know that you’re on the right track when your singing has started to feel effortless and enjoyable.

I want to encourage all you singalong-a-radio singers; there is hope, a lot of it, so don’t be so harsh on yourselves, just acquire a bit of knowledge, practice a lot and you’ll be well on your way to feeling yourself sing.