Vocal Technique

"I Can't Sing", "I Don't Sing" and "I Won't Sing"

This post is a preview of content from my upcoming book:S.I.N.G. A 4-Step Process For Finding Your Voice

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Do you sing?

We live in a culture filled with “non-singers”, people who claim they don’t sing, or hate singing, or can’t sing, or just won’t sing. In my years as a professional singer, choir director, and vocal coach I have run into thousands of people who make these claims the second they hear what I do. I once introduced myself at a PTO meeting in a new school district and was immediately greeted with three parents saying, “You won’t make us sing, right? You’re not going to make us sing. Just so you know, I can’t sing.” While most of the others shared similar fears in hushed tones.

How interesting that singing is at once a joy and relaxation for many, and a terror for others. We can hardly make it ten feet or ten minutes in the modern world without hearing song, whether on the radio, television commercials, youtube, iPods, elevator music, or any of the dozens of popular shows featuring singers from Glee to American Idol to America’s Got Talent. We hear singing all day long, we teach it in schools, we used to do it in church every Sunday, we did it around the campfire as kids and on the bus on the way to summer camp. What happened?

I don’t believe in people who can’t sing. I believe there are people who can’t sing yet, but I’ve never met someone who had tried the books, audio programs, choir, classes, and lessons for a few years only to still have no ability whatsoever. I have met people who can’t ride a bicycle yet. I have never met a healthy person who has been taught for weeks, months, or years how to ride a bike, slowly shifting from tricycle to training wheels to the big time, who still fell every time.

I’m more likely to believe in people who don’t sing than people who can’t sing. However, I’m suspicious of these as well. Let me tell you the story of my brother, a first rate army medic and a classic bro.

Tim loved racing fast cars, snowboarding, dirt-biking, getting into fights and hitting on girls. He still does. He wanted to be a firefighter for a while, eventually deciding to enter the army, and is now the top medic in his squad. He went from almost flunking out of high school to actually flunking out of college to earning top scores on his medical exams and being recommended to the West Point Academy.

Tim was the man’s man (and a bit of a ladies’ man too). I was polar opposite. To this day we look nothing alike, sound nothing alike, and act nothing alike. If our mom didn’t insist on showing the pictures to anyone who will look, I wouldn’t believe we were born of the same woman.

He loved sports, I loved drama and music. He struggled with math and spelling, I had near perfect SAT scores, perfect AP scores, and qualified for MENSA. He went to all the parties and was the popular kid, I was mostly home playing video games or memorizing lines. He was in shape, I was 300lbs (luckily that changed).

All this is to say we could not be more polar opposite. My singing was always demonized by him, he hated music, thought anyone who sung was a disgrace. I never heard him sing a note through our entire time living together. He was the classic “non-singer”.

Then one day we were driving across the state together, talking about pretty girls (the only topic we share an appreciation of) and listening to the radio, and I notice something odd. As some popular songs come on, there’s this monotone drone coming from the driver’s seat. I asked cautiously, without any judgement, and found to my surprise that he admitted he would sing along with the radio sometimes, and when he’d party his friends would all belt out the chorus like crazy.

This paired with my “non-singer” mom and grandmother singing their hearts out at a concert I put on, showed me that people who say they don’t sing often mean they won’t sing.

It’s not that they can’t sing, it’s that they can’t sing yet.

It’s not that they don’t sing, it’s that they don’t sing in public.

It’s that they won’t sing unless it’s totally safe (i.e. In private, at a loud club where they can’t be overheard, or when they’re drunk enough not to be held accountable).

In the last several decades I’ve worked with dozens of people who call themselves “tone-deaf” or some variation. There is some truth to it, some people have more experience and ability with matching pitch than others. If you are one of those people who “can’t carry a tune in a bucket”, rest assured, I have never found a person who couldn’t learn to sing decently in a matter of months or at most a year. If you are free from severe physical or mental disabilities, know that you can’t sing yet, but you can sing.

And if you say you don’t sing, I’m not sure I believe you. Never? Not even once? Not in the shower, or the car, or the club, or happy birthday for your son? Not even when the whole crowd screams the “ba ba ba’s” of Sweet Caroline?

You do sing, you just don’t sing in public or on your own… yet.

If you won’t sing, that I believe. I have seen the crossed arms, pursed lips, angry expressions, and “just try to make me open my mouth” eyes on children, teens and adults when they find out what I do. If you won’t sing, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that I understand your apprehension, and that you can slowly break out of the shell and find your voice again.

Why won’t you sing?

Every “non-singer” has a story, it might be one moment, or a series of comments that led up to the decision to never sing again. We all sang as kids, children of all cultures are observed to make up their own songs while playing and often just sing things to themselves during the day. These children’s songs share a lot of interesting similarities which are starting to be explained by advances in the science of music and acoustics as well as study of neuroscience and how the brain processes sound. Suffice it to say, kids are musical, and chances are good you where humming and mumbling tunes before you were speaking.

When did that change? For many it was before school even started. An exhausted parent shouting at you to keep your mouth shut. A brother or sister telling you to cut that awful noise. A friend laughing when your voice cracked or didn’t sound right. For many it came later, most boys never sing again once their voices start to change and they lose control of the sound. Many girls get very shy in the adolescent years and refuse to risk embarrassing themselves in front of peers (or worse, in front of boys). Some of us were told by the music teacher to “just mouth the words in the concert, you’re not a singer, honey”. Some auditioned for the choir or the musical and didn’t get in. Some forgot the words on stage once and never sang again.

What was your moment? When did you decide singing was a thing other kids did but not you? When did singing become something to listen to but never do?

Gordon McKenzie worked for Hallmark Cards, and his story is often told but worth repeating.

He’d often visit schools to talk about being an artist. After introducing himself, he’d ask the students, “How many of you are artists?”

In kindergarten almost every hand shot up immediately. A few less in first grade. About three-quarters in second grade. In third grade there were a few hesitant hands barely lifted from the desk with eyes on the floor.

By the time he got to sixth graders, the story goes, not one of them raised a hand. Being an artist had become “uncool”, art was a thing to look at, not do.

I’ve replicated this experiment with singers, and the results are much the same. You still get the occasional kid in the choir, the star of the musical, or the one who’s been taking lessons since before they were born. The vast majority, though, decide by middle school that singing isn’t for them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t want it though.

Earn a person’s trust, and ask in confidence if they would say no to a magic genie who could make them sing well in an instant. You’ll never get a no.

The hitch is that our culture believes there are “singers” and “non-singers” and that it is mostly genetics and luck. The media perpetuates this by showing us the top 1% of amazing singers and the bottom 1% of absolute embarrassments (Often decent singers deliberately sounding terrible to get on TV). If all you see are the top 1% and the bottom 1%, over and over again, for years and years, it doesn’t take long to forget about the 98% in the middle, where most of us (you included) lie.

I know you are a 98%er. You must be. If you were a top 1%er you’d be out touring with Beyoncé and Pink. If you were a bottom 1%er you’d have had your moment of fame on the American Idol blooper reels by now.

Realize that your view of singing is warped by the singers that you’ve been exposed to. If you haven’t regularly sung in choirs, musical theatre, garage bands, or other informal gatherings, you’ve likely only heard the polished studio recordings, the live concert professionals, and the absolute train-wreck national anthem performances on YouTube. You have yet to be exposed to a singer like you. One who hasn’t sung much but who can learn with a bit of practice and guidance.

I can’t provide the practice, you have to be willing to put that in, but I can provide the guidance.

S.I.N.G. is a strategy for bringing you from never singing, rarely singing, or poorly singing to the level of a decent amateur. I’m not making claims to make you the next pop sensation, get you a record deal, or even give you the ability to win the next karaoke contest.

If you follow the S.I.N.G. process, though, I can promise you will feel more comfortable singing on your own, have a new fun hobby, and probably gain the confidence along the way to branch out and sing with others. People watch movies without becoming film critics, cook meals without becoming chefs, play flag football without getting signed by the NFL. You can sing without worrying about being a star, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than the stars do.

Record Yourself To Improve As A Musician

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A recurring theme in my teaching is the concept of "leverage points".

Leverage points are actions that give you a big bang for your buck, a high return for the amount of energy you put into them, and there is usually a major reason why they work:

Most people don't do them.

I'll cover more leverage points in the coming weeks, today, I want to share how a really simple tool that you already possess can make you a much better musician almost immediately.

If you are reading this post, you are doing so on a computer or a smartphone, either of which likely has a built in microphone and camera. In an ideal world we'd have studio quality sound and HD video but let's bootstrap it and get started with what we have.

You're thinking "Record myself? I sound/look awful on tape, and I hate listening to it, this is stupid and it probably won't help at all"

Everyone thinks this.

That's why it's a leverage point.

When you pay for coaching or lessons, what you're really paying for is a body of knowledge attached to an objective set of ears/eyes. The sound you hear in your head when you sing, and the way you think you look when you conduct, and the way you think you sound while you're playing is not the way your audience perceives you. This is why a coach is so invaluable, they can see what you can't, and provide guidance in correctly glaring errors and improving performance.

The problem is that, for most artists, you have 1-2 hours a week of objective observing happening, and you aren't even in control of it!

Have you ever had a relative or a friend hear their own answering machine message, or a random video of themselves and say "I don't sound like that!"

You know that they really do sound like that.

So do you, when you listen to a recording of yourself.

I know it's painful, I know it's hard, I know you cringe and want to convince yourself it's not that useful to do anyway.

And that's why no one does it.

And that's why if you do, you'll have a huge advantage in your field and grow far quicker than you would otherwise.

Recordings allow you to freeze time, analyze deeply, listen objectively, and really hone in on your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a coach, you can look for the concepts you work on in lessons "Is my vowel shape correct? Am I breathing properly? How's my posture? Was that left-hand cue as clear as I thought it was? How's my eye contact? Am I really that breathy on my top notes? Why is my left hand half a second behind my right hand when playing chords?"

This sort of self-analysis is the key to sustained growth in music. Over time you will learn to get better at doing it without a recording, but if you want to shave a few years off the path, invest a few minutes a week in reviewing videos of yourself. This time pays off in so many ways, and as much as it will continue to hurt (I've been doing it for a decade and it doesn't get any easier) it will give you a huge advantage in music.

Now that doesn't mean you need to make these videos public, no one needs to see them except for you. However, one day you may have a really good performance and just happen to have captured it so you can put it out in the world, through your website, youtube page, resumé, or some other channel. Now when a big audition comes along, you can look back and boost your confidence by comparing how you used to perform to how you're doing now, and remind yourself of your most common errors. And you may get lucky and have a great recording you can use for promotion and applications for years to come.

Check out www.youtube.com/user/ChristopherGKeene for several dozen videos of my conducting from many angles and many years and many different choirs. I can list 100 errors in each video (even the 2 minute ones) and watching every one has made me such a better conductor. I know that watching them after the concerts has also made each member of my choirs a better musician.

Facing objective feedback isn't easy, but if you have the bravery to take on the task, you can leverage your effort and accelerate your growth as a musician.

How to Improve Your Auditions

A parent of my student asked what her daughter can do to start preparing for an A Capella group audition.  Below, inspired by my reply , is a three step plan for improving your audition skills.  It's not easy and it's not quick, but the most effective things rarely are.

Learning to audition is a tricky process, as it is mostly an experiential thing,  You can learn all the technique in the world and practice every day, but when you are in the moment there is the element of stage fright which is so difficult to overcome.

As a professional musician and coach who has trained hundreds of musicians and performed in hundreds of concerts, I still feel that nervousness and anxiety each time in front of an audience.  In my experience, and in the experience of the countless professional musicians, actors, dancers, speakers, and other performers I've asked, it's not that the feeling goes away as you progress.  What happens is we learn to take that feeling and reinterpret it as excitement, passion, or some other positive emotion.  Intellectually, I know that the buzzy feeling I get on stage today is the same one that had me shaking before auditions in high school.  Emotionally, it feels like excitement and anticipation, and it tells me I'm ready to go out and give it my all.

"That's all well and good, but what can I do to get there?"

The first step is to do the audition NOW, don't wait til next year or the next show, just giving it a shot and saying "I won't get in, I won't get the lead, but I'm doing this to get better at auditioning".  Honestly, the only thing that makes you better at auditioning is doing it more often.  I am pretty good at interviews and auditions now because I've done hundreds of them, and I'll still do them even when I don't want the part.  In fact I regularly interview and audition for new choir positions even when I know I don't have the time for them, just for the experience.  When I actually need a position, I bring not only my skill and experience to the table, but the dozens of interviews I've done as well.

Beyond that, daily singing will help to build skill more than anything. Consistent technique work will do so much to improve a singer. You can download a free CD of vocal warmups and exercises from my website.  What you can improve which will very much impress judges is ear training - the ability to sing in tune, pick up a part quickly, and read music. This comes first from a large amount of listening and singing.

After the listening/singing foundation has been laid, musicians need a systematic way to approach deciphering the language of music.  I've written on this before, and will again in the future, for now you must know that the scientific literature states that all systems of ear training (fixed/movable solfege, numbers, letter names, intervals) work about equally well, the differentiator is the instructor's mastery of the method and teaching ability, the amount of time students devote to practice, and the outside work of the students. Pick a system and stick with it, get a coach, or buy an audio/book program.

In the broader scheme, stage fright is stage fright, and working on it in any context will help to improve in auditions.  So public speaking, running for office in a club, reading a passage at church,auditioning for anything and everything that comes up, performing in front of family and friends, trying out for a sports team, doing announcements over the intercom, giving a speech in class, etc.

Getting over the fear of being judged by others and feeling totally comfortable standing up and showing your stuff in a relaxed way is incredibly difficult and takes a lifetime to master, best bet is to get started now and just practice it in the real world whenever you have the opportunity.

Action Step: Google auditions in your area for your artform, pick 3 that fit in your schedule (even if they are way out of your league or genre) and put them in the calendar today.  Good luck, though if you audition enough, you won't need it.

How To Memorize a Song in No Time Flat

There are several strategies for aiding the memorization process.  While many singers just sing through their songs over and over again until they know them, and this certainly gets results, it is not the most efficient way.

I suggest you not even think about memorization until you have mastered the musical elements of the piece, so that you can sing the pitches and rhythms accurately and expressively, with good breaths and appropriate dynamics.  Once that is secure, focus on the text.  Our brains attach musical pitches and rhythms to words easily, so once the words are memorized, it is very likely the pitches and rhythms will come along with them (provided you learned the pitches/rhythms thoroughly first).

The first step is to take out your music and copy down the text in your own handwriting.  Doing this with paper and pencil is important, as it has been shown in countless studies that physical writing leads to greater retention than typing.  When you write you engage yourself kinesthetically (physically) by moving the pencil, visually by seeing the words form from your hand, and aurally because it is impossible for humans to read and write words without hearing them inside our heads.  This is the process of ‘audiation’ that I often bring up in discussing solfege and music reading.

Use your own handwritten copy to refer to as you rewrite the text as least 3 times.

The second step will seem odd but this is where you will start to really make progress memorizing.  Take your handwritten copy of the text and on a new sheet of paper copy down just the first word or two of each phrase or sentence of the text.  Once you’ve finished copying only the first word of each phrase, flip over the full text and try to fill in each phrase by memory.  This should be harder than step one but much easier than remembering the full text on your own.  More often than not, it is the first word of a new phrase that trips us up, and once we get that word we can get the entire phrase with little to no problem.  This is a trait singers share with actors, as you’ll often find forgetful actors saying “line” and once they get the cue of the first word, they will rattle off a monologue of several pages.

Now that you’ve seen the power those first words of a phrase hold, again copy down just the first words of each phrase.  Now repeat just these first words out loud, in order.  Do this several times, until you can easily and effortlessly recite the first words of each phrase of your piece one after the other.

Congratulations!  Now that you’ve memorized the start of each phrase, you have likely memorized the entire text.  Grab a blank sheet of paper and test yourself.  If there are still areas of difficulty return to reading aloud to polish those sections.

You are now ready to return to the music and attempt to sing the song from memory.  I caution against going to this step too early, as many singers rely on the music to remind them of the text.  If you don’t learn the text separate from the music, it is likely that with the butterflies in your stomach and the stage lights on your face you will blank on one or more words throughout your performance.  Put the time in to learn your text and you will feel incredibly confident going forward.