Monday, July 25, 2011

HELP: singing lessons needed

I cannot sing worth a damn.

When I was at John Song's house during spring break, we played Rock Band (with James, too). After the requisite Taylor Swift song, John told me my singing was "endearingly pedophilic." It's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about my voice.

I know I suck: after all, as a kid, I never took singing lessons, never sang with a youth choir, never even listened to non-classical music until I was 11. (My first album was Ludacris' Word of Mouf, from Raju -- what does that tell you?) I had poor posture, was often short of breath while playing sports, and was pretty quiet in general. As a result, I never exercised my vocal chords, and I didn't know how to breathe.

Second semester freshman year at Yale, I joined the Gospel Choir. There were no tryouts, the bass section was super-chill, and I attended practice every week more for the camaraderie than the music. Sure, I sang, but our songs were powerful, and I was in the back; e.g., nobody heard me. I performed in 5 or 6 concerts before I dropped out, and during that time was never singled out to practice. Nobody ever caught on that, well, I didn't actually know how to sing.

Two months ago, I started playing guitar. When I learned how to strum and sing, I became painfully cognizant that my singing voice was weak, underfunded, and throaty. It had taken me tens of hours to learn how to sing and strum simultaneously, and yet, after I had learned, I was embarrassed to show others simply because my voice was so bad.

I asked advice from everyone. Dylan told me to sing from my stomach. Jason told me to really listen to myself. Tommy told me to sing as loudly as possible so all the nuance would be lost. James tried to teach me one night, but with his 17 years of classical training, it was like a dolphin trying to teach a kangaroo how to swim. Nothing worked. Thankfully, at that point, I didn't care too much.

That changed a month ago, when I learned I (along with Christy and James) was to be hired by the city to do a live performance during one of their wine tasting events. It would be the three of us in front of Willoughby's singing pop music to 40-year-olds. With less than five days before the big event, I'm panicking, because I. Can't. Sing.

I was hoping Youtube would come to the rescue. Two months ago, I watched two hours worth of Eric Arceneaux teaching me the basics of singing. I've come back to him tonight for hail-mary tips before Friday. In the public interest, I thought I'd share some of his insights with you. (His Youtube channel has over 14 million views).

Poor singing is caused by insufficient warm-up, lack of vocal exercise, poor chord closure, and poor register coordination. 20 minutes of vocal exercise a day will strengthen the muscles. His favorite exercises are:

1. Replace all the words in the song with a bratty “a” sound. It's the "a" in "cat". Use this "a" sound to sing a staccato melody. Don't force anything; let it come naturally, and after the exercise your throat should not be hoarse or hurt.

2. Squeeze the two sides of your mouth and perform a lip roll to the melody. Don’t overly push; keep the lip roll steady and even. The key to power is not through force, but through freedom. The lips have to be flapping.

3. Sing from the diaphragm. Do not take breaths that are high and tight (e.g. where your chest goes up and stomach is sucked in). You have a lower diaphragm that you should be utilizing; if you put your hands on the sides of your waist,  every breath you should feel an expansion and contraction of every part of your mid-section, from the stomach to the back to the sideward expansion of the ribs. 

Again: bring the breath down low by standing up straight, relaxing the shoulders down and drawing them back so chest is comfortably lifted, slightly bending the knees, and pulling the hips under and knees over the shoulders. Squeeze the body firmly, breathe and expand all areas at once. When singing, put a hand on the throat. If there are large vibrations, something is wrong.

4. Take relaxed and open breaths. Singing should not be forced; the throat should not be tightened.

5. The more frivolous exercises, in my opinion: (1) Make a "shhhhhh" sound really loud and really strong until all your breath is gone. Repeat. (2) Gasp. Put a hand on your larynx and make sure it's dropping when you gasp. Repeat. (3) Stand up straight, bend one leg slightly (just one), bring other leg up all the way to touch your chest (you can lean against a wall to do this), and hold for 15 seconds. Pay close attention to form. Breathe deeply. (4) Do a lip roll starting out in your head voice and working your way down to chest voice. Like, "bbbbbbbbbbbbb" deeper and deeper.

6. Scales. While playing scales, open your mouth, stick your tongue out, and keep your jaw perfectly still as you say, "Ya-ya" to the scales all the way up. Make sure the jaw does not move. Repeat with "La-ga," "Ya-ga," "Ta-la," "La-ga," and "Ah-aw-uh." (For the last one, go from head to chest voice smoothly.) You can also do this with the sound, "Goog."

He has 112 videos, and I've only covered 8 of them above.

No time to hire a voice coach before Friday. What I need now are some basic tips for going from a 10th percentile singer to 50th percentile. I've been practicing, but I haven't had anything "click" yet. Anyone have tips?

Update: someone does have tips! Thanks. You know who you are. =]

1. To practice breathing correctly (singing from the diaphragm), lay down and sing. When you lay down, you naturally breathe through your stomach and this is the "correct" way of singing. 

2. Practice panting and or laughing. Pant like a dog, but do it controlled and to a beat. Laughing is good too for strengthening your diaphragm. You could do both of these laying down if you are not breathing correctly yet.

3. practice singing the vowels sing a-e-i-o-u in one long breath and really stretch out your mouth. You're making your mouth more flexible.

4. Pick a song to sing, listen to it, record yourself singing it, and often times the reason why you may not sound as good, is because you're not moving your mouth the same way. Try over exaggerating all the consonants and vowels. Start with slower songs or ballads where they have those "strong" / "powerful" notes where they just hold it (think "rolling in the deeeeeeeeeeeee ee ee ep" the deeep is held out. if you can't actually hit that note, sing it an octave lower.

5. If tune is an issue, sit by a piano or guitar and play a note and sing "dooo". It's all about listening. If you really want, you can record this and see where it's off. If you can't quite put your finger on it, sing into your guitar tuner.

extra tips:
- when singing super high, or super low notes, do not raise your chin or lower it. Relax your vocal chords.

- when singing higher notes, support from the stomach. you should be pushing air through flexing your stomach. there's this thing called "the italian secret", the idea is if you are an italian opera singer, imagine you're taking a really constipated dump and you're pushing really hard. You push through your stomach/abs. This is the same as when you sing, just don't poop anything out.

- this should have been first on the list, but do warm up properly. A great way to warm up is to laugh a lot or panting. Try pushing air through your stomach and sing "hee hee hee" really pushing air through each "hee" like you're breating all your air out in each one.

- finally, last tip, imagine your voice going through the back of your head and through the top of your head so that all through your mouth is moving and producing a sound, the sound is going up and not straight out of the mouth

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