So You Want To Be A Singer? by Angela K. Mack
(Previously published in a harmonica magazine)
There is something inside all of us that yearns to express our deepest emotions in song. The blues is a genre that provides a lot of freedom of expression despite one’s musical background. The blues has traditionally been music that is, first off, authentic and secondly, full of color. As a vocal instructor, I wish to highlight on these issues as well as other essentials to singing.
Some of the best songs sung are from personal experience. Think of those songs that you love to sing to and think about how they relate to your personal life. Sometimes, the songs may be songs of real experience and other times, they may be songs that fulfill a gap. For example, there might be a song that you love whose main message is about being poor. You love the song because you can relate to being poor. This is a song of real experience. On the other hand, you may be one without a true lover and songs about passionate romance might be your thing. They fulfill a need to something lacking in your life. The singer has to personally relate to the song that they are singing. The singer must be able to read, respond to, and communicate the lyrics of the song effectively. In that sense, the singer is often an actor.
Aside from relating to the song, the primary mechanics of singing must be recognized when singing effectively. One of the first exercises that I have my private vocal students do is to lie on their back on the floor. I coach them to place their hands on their belly and pretend to go to sleep. As soon as they relax, they find that their belly rises slowly and rhythmically with each breath. This is the diaphragm and the “powerhouse” from which one’s vocals should spring forth. Singers of all genres need to know how to tap into this wellspring.
This leads me to explain that an effective singer must provide what is called “color” to the song. Any great piece of art contains contrast. In my opinion, the greater the contrast, the greater the art is. In singing, this means to be quiet when the lyrics call for quietness and to belt out with gut wrenching passion the words that mean the most. Provide contrast within the song. Perhaps sing some parts with a lazy enunciation then other parts with clear cut and thought provoking speaking. Make the quiets as quiet as you can and then surprise everyone with your loudest statements in song.
Next, the human voice is an instrument. Every instrument is influenced by its size, shape, and material. Some of us have this working for us. Others of us have a real challenge. Let’s say you nail down how to use you “powerhouse” (diaphragm singing). Excellent! But if you are burdened by physical ailments such as asthma or allergies, your sound might naturally become restricted. Likewise, if you have a small mouth or throat, you may have a tougher time belting out the notes that you want to. A full and big sound requires an “instrument” that is free of constrictions (which are what allergies and asthma do) and size limitations (such as mouth and throat size). The goal is to be able to have the capabilities of being open and loud when the proper time warrants. Sometimes, human anatomy can get in the way. I have had vocal students who nailed down their diaphragm breathing yet had chronically swollen tonsils which completely defeated the purpose of loud singing. Remember, the goal is to have the capacity to be open. If you struggle with any of the above, you may have a more difficult time reaching depths of “color”. Please consult your doctor to see if these issues can be resolved.
Further, in regards to tone, blues singers often have that “rough and raspy” tone that naturally comes from drinking and smoking. Please know that these attributes can be learned without damaging the rest of your body. You can learn how to constrict the throat while singing and achieve similar effects without creating other health issues. This requires practice and experimentation.
Pitch, for the adult, is a little more challenging to nail down. It is said that all babies are born with the capabilities to sing on pitch. What we are exposed to as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers can influence the rest of our musical lives. Basically, you have your parents to thank or curse for your sense of pitch. Adults with pitch issues should try to experiment with or take lessons on the piano. Listening to a lot of music also helps the musical ear. If you are an adult and can’t sing on pitch, you have your work cut out for you. Remember, there are always exceptions to the rule. But overall, you need to invest in private instrument lessons and intentionally listen to a lot of different styles of music.
Enunciation is another aspect of singing that must be addressed. Usually, classical singers and musical theater singers learn the art of diction. However, in the blues genre, diction isn’t a high priority. Obviously, you want your audience to understand your words. In which case, vowels sung with the mouth three fingers up and down are a great starting point gauge. “T”s and “D”s are often neglected. Overall, my biggest exhortation to my students is “Open your mouth!” I find that opening ones mouth is very difficult for many. Most are shy and aren’t used to such displays of openness. Not only should the singer open the mouth up and down but also wide at times. “Wide mouth enunciation” brightens the tone and allows for more natural volume.
In closing, “some things are better caught than taught”. Put on that song of your favorite singer and listen. Ask yourself, “Why do I like this song? What is the singer doing that I like? What are the words about? What contrast is in this song? How is the enunciation? Is it lazy or clear? Are the notes correct? Can I sing effectively along?”
My gut is that everyone can sing. Hopefully, I gave you some things to think about. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com if you have more questions.