When we say Western vocal music. a number of genres come to mind – classical, folk, pop, rock, jazz, contemporary, and film music. The range is quite mind-blowing!
When did you first start loving Western vocal music? Was it the sound of Gene Kelly Singin’ in the rain, or Michael Jackson questioning the Man in the Mirror or Idina Menzel letting it go that made you or your kid want to explore your own vocal chords? All such memorable songs! Perhaps you also unwittingly reach for your remote control imagining it to be your mike as you journey from the 20th to the 21st century of Western music!
It is possible, however, that some songs are not within your range, much as you would like to sing them, or just don’t sound the way you imagined they would in your head. Fret not, it is entirely possible to train your voice to sing the songs that you always wanted to sing. High or low octaves will become more accessible to your chords with these tips. Let’s explore them!
How to improve your Western vocal music skills
1. Practise vocal technique
Every singer knows the importance of practising different voice strengthening and supportive techniques. If you have ever seen any backstage videos of artistes, you would have seen many famous singers do quick warmups to ensure their voice is coming out the way it should.
So, it is essential that voice techniques are an essential part of Western vocal lessons for beginners. Let’s see what all voice techniques include: maintaining posture, practising breathing exercises, practising voice range, focusing on tone creation, getting the right sound placements – all of which increase voice endurance and control. A good singing teacher will definitely guide you to practise these techniques as much as (if not more than) the song that you wish to learn.
The beautiful thing about music is that there is no end to learning. But, at what age do you stop needing a vocal coach? Listen to Celine Dion answer this question as she explains what vocal warm-ups she does.
Vocal exercises with scales
- Practise any scale while you enunciate ‘Mi, mi, Mi’, ‘Ya, ya, ya’, ‘Yo, yo, yo’ ‘Ee, ee, ee’, Aa, aa, aa’, and ‘O, O, O’.
- Do lip rolls of any scale or tune.
- Hum the scales. This will help you feel warmed up inside.
Protip 1: Always work your way up or down the notes if you have to reach higher or lower octaves. You can also try patterns of ascending and descending the scale to enable you to sing challenging songs with quick change of pitch.
Why breathing exercises?
Breathing exercises like pranayamas can enhance your ability to hold a note as well enhance clarity of voice and richness of voice production. You will feel confident if you have more breath left after you finish a song. Sound breathwork can ensure that you can maintain the same tone and energy throughout your song.
Looking for Western vocal music classes online? Would you like to learn from educators who are also performers? SaPa is the place for you!
2. Don’t try to sound like someone else
Think Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson, or Garou. You know you will recognise them no matter where you hear them. So distinctive is their voice in a world of seven billion! If there’s one thing you can bring to the table that no one else can, it is your voice. It’s yours. You can try variations, inflections, and nuances and explore and expand your own range. But don’t be afraid to sound like YOU.
If you think you sound different from everyone else (not in terms of melody and notes 😉 ), and worry that you are not able to pull off a song because your voice is not, say, husky enough, maybe you have not chosen the right song for your voice. Otherwise, having a voice that can be recognised in a crowd could be a huge differentiating factor. So, play to your strengths. A good singing coach can help you choose appropriate songs that match your voice and range.
Protip 2: Use a metronome or metronome app to help you maintain tempo.
3. Practise smart if you cannot practise long
Of course it would be great if you could make time, say 7 times a week to practise! In the absence of such an ideal scenario, practise as long as your schedule permits but make sure you are regular. Beginners could find 30 minutes long enough while more advanced learners might find an hour insufficient to master a song. So, work with your routine to identify the length of time that works best for you.
During your practise of Western vocal music, you should include certain basic, standard practise exercises: body and vocal warm-up exercises, scales, breathing exercises, and other vocal techniques like humming, lip trills, lip buzzes, and tongue trills that help the muscles in your voice chords to relax and feel strong.
Note: You may not have time for everything every day but make sure that you do some basic warm-up and vocal exercises every time you practise.
How to sing better
- Sit or stand upright with your back and neck straight to enable free flow of air from your diaphragm.
- Do breathing exercises to ensure your passageways are clear to avoid that embarrassing voice break midway through a song.
- Don’t lift or lower your chin for higher and lower notes respectively.
- Ensure that you follow clean oral habits. Avoid smoking, drugs, and any other external stimulant that could damage your voice.
- Ensure you have a healthy, tried and tested, balanced diet.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
Some singers avoid ice cream (or anything cold), dairy products, citrus fruits, excess of salt and sugar, soda, fried, processed, and refined foods, and all forms of junk food. Know your relationship with food and customise your personal diet plan to one that works for you, helping you have a healthy and enduring voice.
4. Learn to balance your chest voice and head voice
What’s that now? The chest voice is the same voice you use to speak. It has a fuller tone as it engages the full vocal fold of your chords. The chest voice is so called because you can feel some vibration in your chest if you keep your palm on it when you sing or talk. In terms of voice registers it is called M1. Typically, you access the lower octave notes with the chest voice.
The head voice is used to sing the higher octaves. You will feel some vibration at the back of the head when you go to higher pitches, hence the name head voice. It is important to practise the head voice well so that you don’t strain your vocal folds.
Head voice & Falsetto
Also, there is a difference between head voice and falsetto. Falsetto is a thin sounding high voice that may be difficult to sustain. The Bee Gees’ falsetto became quite a distinguishing feature of their songs. Think Stayin’ Alive!
The head voice is also called the M2 register. If you practise it well, you can produce a rich-sounding and balanced high sound.
What gives your performance a good range is a mix of both chest and head voice. When you sing in a mixed voice, you sound powerful with both lower and higher notes. This will ensure there are no voice breaks when you ascend or descend.
Pro Tip 3: Lip rolls engage the vocal folds and help you transition between the different registers. A great way to exercise your chest and head voice.
Here are some tips to improve your voice.
5. Record & listen to yourself
No one would blame you for believing that there is so little to differentiate between your version of ‘Everything you do’ and Bryan Adams’. Yes, it must sound eerily similar. Okay, maybe an odd high note, here and there, is a tad out of reach for your naturally endowed voice but apart from that…Does that mean…(!!) Wait, just a second. Have you ever really heard yourself?
When you sing and listen at the same time, you might not get a realistic idea of your voice. Your energies are divided between getting the song right and listening for the right pitch, tone, and tempo. That is why it is advisable to record yourself and listen. You might then be able to spot those slight differences that kept you and Bryan apart! Importantly, it will give you a good base to rectify your performance wherever necessary. On the other hand, if you still think you sound great, you just made a cover song!
6. Train your ears
Just as writing needs reading, singing needs listening. You must listen to songs from different genres of Western vocal music. And those oddballs who made their different voices stand out. Get a feel of what music works for different kinds of voices. And try out different ranges to see what you are comfortable with and what you would like to be better at. It is important to know what you would like to sound like. The explorations in this journey are the stuff life should be made of!
We’ll leave you with some dos and don’ts to maintain your voice by singer-songwriter Bindu Subramaniam as she shares tips from her own global experiences:
- Have a regular and consistent vocal warm-up routine like lip trills and long notes – whatever works for you.
- Hydrate well. Carry a bottle of water with you wherever you go.
- On performance days, talk less to avoid straining your vocal chords.
It is always best to learn Western vocals online or offline with a teacher. You will progress correctly and more smoothly. Find an educator for Western singing classes now!