How Singing Is Different from Speaking or Singing for Non-Singers

We’re all pretty much comfortable with talking. Beyond breathing and eating, we’ve been talking longer than anything else. We’ve even been talking longer than we’ve been walking. So it’s not surprising that after spending so many years talking, it’s a pretty natural and non-worrisome thing to do. But singing is another matter. Even after possibly years of school music instruction, many students and even adults are immediately worried and reluctant when asked to sing. This becomes especially difficult when the only thing standing between us and a part in a musical that we want is singing that song for the audition. How does the reluctant singer, the one who just doesn’t want to be heard even attempting to sing, manage and succeed at singing in an audition, in a music class, or anywhere else where others will hear?

As with most learning, it’s best to start with something that is familiar, and work from there to learn something less familiar or new. So let’s start with talking. Singing and talking both involve producing audible words with the voice, so that’s where we’ll start. Say the sentence, “I wish that I could sing” audibly in your normal conversational voice. So far, you’re on solid ground. Now, say the sentence again, but this time in a higher pitched voice. Not a squeaking “Mickey Mouse” voice, but in the sort of voice a student says “what did I do?” when accused of a misbehavior. Keep it at a comfortable, conversational volume. Say it a few times like this, and notice exactly what you’re feeling in your throat. You may notice a little tension. That’s okay, I’ll address that tension in a minute. For now, you have just experienced the first difference between singing and speaking. Singing includes the use of a higher pitched part of your voice than speaking. This means that your vocal folds and the muscles that surround them are asked to do things their not used to doing, making singing uncomfortable. So a major part of learning to sing is learning to use those muscles and the vocal folds in a new way that will produce good results and avoid fatiguing and possibly harmful tension.

Now I want you say that sentence again: “I wish that I could sing.” This time, I want you to exaggerate the vowels, like this: “Ahy wesh thaht ahy cuhd seng.” Still speak it in that higher voice, but exaggerate the vowels. As you do so, open your jaw wider than you would if you were talking. Try that a few times, and try to notice at least some of that tension in your throat go away. The more you open your mouth, the more relaxed you’ll feel. Also try to relax your throat as if you were just starting a yawn.

Now do the same thing again, but this time, not only exaggerate the vowels, but sustain them too. “Aaaaay weeeeesh aaaaay cuuuuuhd seeeeeng.” Remember to open your mouth as you do this. Put a hand on the back of your neck, and you’ll start to notice some vibrations there. That’s one indication that you’re doing well. Try saying the sentence, still in a high speaking range, a little louder and start to enjoy the resonance and ease with which you are producing these words.

At this point, we are ready to discuss a second difference between singing and speaking: how the breath is used. Stated simply, it takes more air to sing, and it takes a different use of our breath to sing. To get the hang of this aspect of singing, we’ll do a couple of exercises. The first one doesn’t involve using our voice at all. Take a deep breath and then make the loudest hiss you can until you run out of breath. Do this several times, while noticing the muscles that are put to work in your stomach area. Notice what those muscles do in order to propel the air out of your lungs and into the hiss. Do several hisses until you are quite familiar with what this feels like, then attach an “ah” to the end of your hiss, like this: sssssssssssaaaaah. When you release to the “ah” be sure to open your mouth as you did in the previous section. Don’t try to sing loud, just keep the same airflow you had during the hiss. You will hear a nice full singing voice. Try it with other vowels to follow the hiss too. “Sssssssaaaaaay.” “Sssssssseeeee.” “Sssssssssoooooh.” “Ssssssssoooooo.” Each vowel must be sung with as open a jaw as possible. Any adjustment that is necessary should be made with the tongue and or lips, leaving the jaw open throughout.

Now try singing the vowels without the hiss, but maintaining the same use of your breath as when you used the hiss. Sing them all on one pitch. “Aaaah Aaaay Eeeee Ooooh Ooooo.” Next, try preceding the vowels with a consonant. “Paaah pay pea po pooh.” Try other consonants as well, always being sure to arrive at the vowel with all the things we’ve worked on so far: open jaw, relaxed throat, vibrations on the back of the neck, and an engaged abdomen learned from the hiss. Do you see how different this is from conversational talking?

Now you are ready to sing our sample sentence, “I wish that I could sing.” Notice where the vowels are and where the consonants are. They are not the same as you’re used to. “I” is a vowel sound: aay. Be sure to sustain the “aa” and only throw in the “y” at the end. We want “aaaay,” not “ayyyy.” Still on a single pitch but high in your speaking voice, sing the whole sentence. Sing it all on one breath. The consonants will be sung just like they were in the exercise. You want to articulate the consonant and go right on into the vowel. It is the vowel that gives you the music. The consonants start and end each note, but they are not part of your singing sound. When you’ve sung the sentence on one pitch, and it has flowed well from one word to the next, try singing it to the tune of the first four measures of “America” (My Country ‘Tis of Thee). You’ll sing the sentence twice, two measures each. As you gain proficiency and confidence, try it starting on higher and lower pitches to gradually enlarge the range in which you feel confident singing.

What I’ve covered here won’t be all you or another reluctant, terrified singer need to become a Broadway star, but it will provide a good start on overcoming your fears and inhibitions over singing in public. Start with the hiss and other exercises often, even after you’ve gotten the hang of it. They will return you to where you left off when last you sang, and will help strengthen and reinforce what you have accomplished so far. With practice, I’m certain your wish will come true.

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