singing tips

In Singing, There Are No Shortcuts

Have you ever seen those sketchy-looking Internet ads that pop up on those less-than-reputable websites?  The ones that entice you with titles like, “Get rid of belly fat with this one weird trick!” or “The secret about preventing [health problem x] that doctors don’t want you to know!”

It’s obvious to anyone with even a shred of common sense that these ads are total bunk.  As most intelligent people know, there is no “one trick” to losing belly fat, and doctors are not hiding valuable information about disease prevention from us.  The creators of the ads are obviously looking to make a quick buck on some weird gimmick.  Let people think they have been duped by [whatever/whomever] all along, and they will surely buy into our stuff!

 A few months ago, I came across this article from Backstage.  It’s entitled “1 Great Trick to Help You Sing High Notes.”

If about ten reg flags just went up inside your brain, you’re not alone.  When I saw it, I groaned inwardly, but I clicked anyway.  Maybe it’s actually a good article, I thought, and they just gave it a click-baity title to, well, get more clicks.  I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, however, the overall quality of the article matched that of its ridiculous headline.  While it does contain some accurate information, the main point of the article is very misleading, at best.

Sadly, there is tons of stuff like this out there.  There is this video.  And this one.  And countless others – if you search YouTube for “singing tips” or “how to sing opera” you will find a whole slew of videos with either false and/or incomplete instruction on how to accomplish any number of vocal feats – without having to practice for hours a day, or shelling out $$$ for a qualified voice instructor!

This stuff makes me cringe.  Why?  Because these sources feed into the “magic bullet mentality” when it comes to singing.  Our culture thinks that anyone can learn to sing (which is true) because it is easy (which is not true) – look, the videos make it so simple!  Why pay a professional, qualified, experienced voice instructor, when I can become a good singer just by practicing this one little exercise for five minutes a day?!  Only an idiot would waste their time and money on those con artists.

But real singers know the truth: there is no magic bullet in singing.  You cannot just practice a single exercise or technique for five minutes a day and expect to become a great singer.  Good singing – in any style – is an art that takes years to achieve.  It is a multi-faceted discipline that takes a lot of practice, study, time, and dedication.  

In other words, in singing, there are no shortcuts.

 Now, is *all* of the information in *all* of these articles/videos incorrect?  No.  Some of the basic facts are not wrong.  However, what the instruction is often missing are the appropriate qualifiers or caveats.

Take the Backstage article, for instance.  It is true that many inexperienced singers freeze when they know a high note is coming up.  They psych themselves out, and the high notes fails.  Is it possible that a little “reverse psychology” could be helpful for a singer experiencing this?  Sure.  But is it an absolutely sure-fire way to high-note success every time, for everyone?  Absolutely not.

Why not?  Because bad or non-existent high notes are often caused by a multitude of converging factors that can only be diagnosed and parsed out by a qualified voice teacher.  Simply tricking your brain into thinking you are singing lower is not going to fix the bad posture, bad breathing, tongue tension, and/or whatever else is contributing to your problems with high notes.

Or, take the opera singing video.  Is it true that the shape of the mouth varies with different musical styles in order to achieve a vocal color and resonance that’s appropriate for that style?  Yes.  However, is this the only, or the biggest, differentiating factor between opera and contemporary styles?  To quote Glinda from Wicked, “Don’t make me laugh!”

Or the guy in the video who demonstrates the “zzzz” vocalise.  Voiced consonants can be great tools for energizing the breath and achieving desired vocal placement, but only if they are produced in the right way.  The guy in the video said nothing, for example, about how the “zzzz” sound needs to come from the breath.  Someone unfamiliar with how their breath mechanism works would probably try to produce this sound from the throat, ultimately causing tension and hoarseness.

And let me be clear: these gimmicky videos are different from those “light-bulb” moments that happen in your voice lessons – when your teacher has tried nearly everything in her bag of tricks to get you to do technique x, and nothing is working, when – voila! – one random image or gesture or little tweak of some kind seems to do the trick.  These moments are different from the gimmicky videos, because they are usually informed by good pedagogy, and are tailored to the student’s learning style.  They will also usually continue to help the student for some time, or at least until the student’s technique plateaus a bit and the approach must be tweaked again for further progress.

So if you come across a voice instructor who claims to have the secret to singing success that will make you a star in matter of weeks, run far, far away.

And when you come across videos or articles like these, take them with a grain of salt.  Approach them with some critical thinking skills.  Apply your own knowledge of singing and ask yourself if it makes sense or not.  Or, if you’re unsure, ask your voice teacher.  He or she will be able to help you sort the good advice from the bad.