How quickly should I breathe in on The Sing Thing exercises?

I feel a sharp pain in my throat when I approach the higher notes, is this normal?

In Down To The Bottom I can't produce any sound on the lower notes, is something wrong?

What is vibrato?

How do I choose a singing teacher?

Which is the best microphone and pa?

I have heard singers talk about registers and chest and head voices, what are they?

In what way is it possible to damage the voice

I'm interested in working as a session/backing singer, can you suggest a way forward?

I rehearse regularly with my band and I always come away frustrated because I can never hear myself sing. They're so loud!

How quickly should I breathe in on The Sing Thing exercises?

On the CD I breathe in quite quickly, but remember I am practised at this. Breathe in as quickly and as deeply as you can without discomfort or undue physical activity. Think ahead a little, send messages to the muscles to release a little ahead of time. We want to get in the habit of breathing in quickly quietly and fully, but you'll have to build up to it. Think more of releasing and letting the air flood in that forcing or hauling it in.

I feel a sharp pain in my throat when I approach the higher notes, is this normal?

No it is not. I have had people complain of this before. It is almost certainly bad use of the voice. I would guess that there's too much work going on in your throat and that you're trying to get the higher notes by constricting the larynx. Try working up to the higher notes gradually, stop as soon as you're aware of the beginnings of discomfort. Repeat the exercise and see if you can feel what it is you're doing/changing as you approach that area. Once you are aware of it you may find you're gradually able to let go of it – remember you'll probably need more air pressure once you start to let go, feed this air from low in your abdomen.

Just a few words! Any continued pain or an extended change in the sound of your voice should be checked out by a doctor. My experience of GPs is that they're not particularly sympathetic to singers/voice users - once they've established that there's no dangerous condition. Understandably they're not much interested in someone fussing about the tiniest change or mildest discomfort when they're often dealing with life threatening cases. Don't be intimidated however. If your doctor has cleared you of any serious disorders of the larynx / pharynx etc. and you are still worried about your voice. Ask to be referred to a voice specialist who will be equipped to video your larynx and watch how you use it and give you a definite response. You may have to go private and pay for this, but it's well worth it– for peace of mind alone!

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In 'Down To The Bottom' I can't produce any sound on the lower notes, is something wrong?

Not necessarily. As I'm careful to say on the CD, this exercise goes very low. It's more about how you approach your own particular lowest notes rather than ultimate lowness. Be on the look out for any gripping or constriction as you get lower. Notice whether you start to drop your chin, if so try not to. Remember low notes need a lot of air but with a broad gentle flow, be careful not to over blow. Gently try and encourage a sound, feel as if your vocal tract is enormous and loose and free, then feed the note from your lower abdomen. I find low notes some of the most physically enjoyable to produce.

What is vibrato?

"Pulsation of pitch usually accompanied with synchronous pulsations of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give a pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone". Seashore (1938).

Some consider a good vibrato to pulsate between five to eight times a second. Too fast and it becomes a bleat, too slow and it is heard as a wobble. Considerable acoustic research has been carried out on vibrato but little is known about the physiology. Personally I have little to add. I tend to sing without vibrato, only adding it to the ends of notes. I find the wide vibrato of some, not to my taste.

How do I choose a singing teacher?

Voice is probably the most difficult instrument to teach. The mechanism is hidden and is intimately affected by personality and emotional state. The teacher is not able to play the student's instrument but has to rely on sonic and visual information and perception. Singing teachers often respond with imagery such as 'feel as if you are drinking the sound' to encourage the student to relax in the throat. This method of tuition leaves the door open for charlatans of many guises. It is difficult for the student who is not making progress to discern whether it is the teacher or themselves who is lacking - or both.

1. I have come across teachers who I now realise were simply not up to the task.

2. I have come across teachers who were very good but I now realise I was not ready to receive what they had to offer.

3. I have come across teachers who were good and I was ready to receive but whose method simply didn't suit me.

4. I have had excellent experiences with teachers.

My advice is this: Unless a teacher is obviously on another planet, give them six months of your earnest endeavour. If you don't understand what they're asking of you, get them to explain, and explain again, (they should try different images). Don't be afraid to ask for understandable explanations. If at the end of six months trying you are still dissatisfied, express your dissatisfaction - don't simply fail to turn up or cancel lessons willy-nilly. It may be time to try someone else. A sincere teacher will accept your decision and will also welcome you back should you latterly decide to resume lessons with them.

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Which is the best microphone and pa?

I took some of my microphones in to The BRIT school when we were covering mics in the class. These along with some of the schools mics were put to the test (all were dynamic stage mics). Various singers came up and tried them. The results were totally inconclusive. Different mics suited different voices. Some sounded better with the cheap mic - a £50 Beyer. Some preferred the SM58, my preference is for a Beyer M88. Others swore by the Electrovoice dynamic. The extremely cheap mics - £20 or so - were not liked by anyone. The pa used for this test was a reasonable Ohm system. Bear in mind that marketing is a high priority. Many less expensive systems are designed to sound impressive in the music shop, only after you've bought them and started using them do you discover their short comings. Remember the requirements of amplifying voice are different from the requirements of amplifying music in general. I am yet to hear a 15" speaker + horn cabinet sound natural in the critical vocal mid range. You get boom and nasty tizz and a dip in the middle. This is not so obvious when playing back music, particularly rock.

My advice is this: Buy the best speakers you can afford, audition them thoroughly with different amps and mics. Speakers are usually quite reliable, if they're working well when you buy them, they are likely to continue to do so if you don't over drive them. I have obtained bargains with second hand speakers. Listen carefully to check there's no fuzz in the sound, make sure the high frequency unit is working (these ore often the first to blow with abuse). Check that the cone/s of the main unit/s is/are not split. Check the surround, particularly if it's foam, which can deteriorate with age.

I have found that amplifiers make less difference to the overall sound. I would rather have classy speakers and a basic amp than vice versa. I recommend buying an amp new or second hand from a shop that gives a guarantee. Unlike speakers amps can have all sorts of intermittent faults that may not show up when auditioning. They can be difficult to repair and of course dangerous. If you know what you're doing, grab a second hand bargain from a private sale, otherwise play it safe and go to a shop.

One final thing. Make sure you have proper leads. Do not use guitar leads for speaker leads, get the proper thing or make your own from two core mains cable. Make sure all mains leads are cleanly and tightly wired and in good condition.

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I have heard singers talk about registers and chest and head voices, what are they?

The vocal folds operate differently at low and high pitches and this contributes to distinct qualities that singers and teachers call registers. Below is a heavy going description by Nadoleczny

"The concept of register is understood to be a series of consecutive, similar vocal tones which the musically trained can differentiate at specific places from another adjoining series of likewise internally similar tones. Its homogenous sound depends on a definite, invariable behaviour of the harmonics. These rows of tones correspond to definite objectively and subjectively perceptible vibration regions on the head, neck, and chest. The position of the larynx changes more in a natural singer during the transition from one series of tones to another than in a well-trained singer. The registers are caused by a definite mechanism (belonging to that register) of tone production (vocal fold vibration, glottal shape, air consumption), which allows for a gradual transition however from one into an adjoining register. A number of these tones can actually be produced in two overlapping registers but not always with the same intensity.

In what way is it possible to damage the voice?

In my experience the voice is actually quite tough, but there are three main conditions that I know of. You may want to do some research for yourself. The best know condition is Singer's nodes or nodules. These are areas on the edge of the vocals cords that contain something similar to scar tissue or calluses. Constant bad use and the attendant bashing of the cords causes this tissue to develop. This results in a breathy/hoarse/weak tone. The cure ranges from 1. Resting or reducing the workload of the voice and of course improved use to prevent recurrence. 2. Total silence for a period of time and then gradual use with improved technique. 3. An operation to cauterise the nodules, followed by total silence and then re-education.

Another condition is sometimes called Clergyman's Sore Throat. This is a gradual thickening of the vocal folds that occurs over a period of time, due to bad, or simply over use. This again results in a hoarse tone and a limited range. I believe that this condition - once established - is permanent.

The final condition I'm aware of is Impaired control of the laryngeal muscles. Like the leg muscle of some marathon runners, over use can result in the muscles more or less giving up. This leaves the singer with an uncontrollable wobble in the voice as the muscles do their best to respond (this is not to be confused with a wide vibrato - see Q.1). Again rest is the answer. I believe with this one the muscles can pack up entirely........for good! All in all it's best not to get involved in any of the above. If all is well. Excellent! If you're getting warning sings, get it sorted now, in good time.

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I'm interested in working as a session/backing singer, can you suggest a way forward?

Session singing seems to be one of the most difficult areas to get in to, possibly because of the sums that can be generated from TV commercials that go national or even global. You and your singing will need to be reliable and unless you want to specialise in an already restricted arena, you should be able to sight read - to some extent - and be able to adapt to different styles. Being friendly and well presented helps. I have got all my session work by word of mouth and recommendation.

If you are just starting out you might try approaching your local studios and placing a card on their notice board so bands stuck for a singer or backing singer can give you a call. You could run an ad in one of the free ads papers. You'll have to be prepared to work for little or nothing to start with and there may well be some time wasters but you'll be gaining experience and confidence. Don't forget, the role and attitude of session and backing singers is very different from that of a lead/solo singer.

Good Luck.

I rehearse regularly with my band and I always come away frustrated because I can never hear myself sing. They're so loud!

This seems to be an enduring problem for singers. Basically once you've registered your dissatisfaction the band members should have enough respect for you and the music to turn down. I know from bitter experience on both sides of the fence (guitarist and singer) that this rarely happens. It may get to the stage where you'll simply have to refuse to sing unless they do something about it. Explain the difficulties to them - they may not realise how difficult it is to pitch and how uncomfortable and damaging it can be when you push your voice and how un-rewarding the whole business becomes.

Make sure you're using a good unidirectional mic. Try and avoid extremes of eq on the pa - except for cutting a frequency that's causing feedback. Position your speakers carefully so that you can hear as much of yourself as possible without inducing feedback. Use a monitor (though this can sometimes make things worse).

Finally, if they really won't shape up. You may have to vote with your feet... better than wrecking your voice.

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