Here are some helpful hints for singers! Click the tips below…
Tips for Singers
Good posture is all-important for proper singing. It allows for easy movement of your breath in and out of your body. It also aids in effective projection of your voice and makes the choir as a whole look good.
Stand if you’re able, or sit up nice and straight. Close your eyes and imagine a string running from the pit of your stomach out through the top of your head. Pull the string taut and feel how your body realigns itself for a clean, clear airflow.
Keep your head up, not buried in your book. This is essential for many reasons: letting your voice out clearly and easily, keeping an eye on your conductor and engaging with your audience.
Check the illustration. For proper posture, there should be roughly a 90 degree angle between the centre line of your body and your mouth.
Don’t worry, we’re not out to convert you into vegan marathon runners and gym junkies! How you maintain your health is entirely up to you. We will point out a few things, though.
You can’t sing well when you’re tired or sick. Your concentration and your energy level suffer. Not only that, coming to rehearsal with a bug puts your choir mates at risk. Stay home, take care of yourself and get well. While you’re recuperating, you can memorise a few songs too, right?
Keep up an appropriate level of exercise and fitness. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about a suitable regime. We’ll just point out that the better you feel, the better you’ll sing.
You can’t sing well on a full stomach, nor on an empty one. Make sure you have something light to eat before a performance or a rehearsal.
Stay hydrated. Bring a water bottle to rehearsal and performances. Room temperature water is best; cold water may feel more refreshing but it will constrict your vocal cords and impair your tone.
Get adequate rest. Just how much you need varies from person to person; just make sure you’re awake and alert and able to focus on your singing.
Stay aware of your body. Stand when you can, sit when you must. Powering through because “the show must go on” is an admirable goal, but if you collapse in the middle of it, the show stops anyway.
Your voice is a muscle. As with any exercise, you must warm it up. This can take many forms, most of which you can do on your way to a rehearsal or a performance.
Credit for several of the following tips goes to musicnotes.com, who are a great source of information as well as one of the largest publishers of downloadable sheet music in the world.
Say this fast a few times to get your lips warmed up and ready to go. It’s also a good reminder about where your sound is to come from!
Say this many times, making sure that each syllable is distinct. Now speed it up gradually as fast as you can. These sounds all come from the front of your mouth and enforce good vocal placement.
Even though they’re usually spoken, many “tongue twisters” are great for developing diction and vocal agility.
Repeat each syllable nice and long on the same note. Make the final YOW an octave higher and give it a bit of a punch. Make sure you hit that high note dead on. Repeat with the next note up the scale. Make very sure your sound is coming from the front of your mouth – vowels like this are the easiest sounds to lose in the back of your throat.
Sing this quickly all on one note, then go up a note. Change to LEE-LAA etc., then to TEE-TAA etc., or any other letter. Watch your voice placement!
Three Blind Mice
– but sing it like this:
- Three blind mice (normal volume)
- Three blind mice? (soft, questioning)
- See how they run (a little louder)
- See how they run (same volume, more agitated)
- They all ran after the farmer’s wife (full volume – but don’t yell!)
- She cut off their tails with a carving knife! (full volume)
- Did you ever see such a thing in your life (soft, almost a shocked whisper)
- As three blind mice! (normal volume)
One of the gentlest ways to start warming your voice up is with a hum. We recommend starting with some major pentascales and going up by a half step as high as you comfortably can.
Repeat the process, this time going down by a half step as low as comfortably possible.
You can also hum minor pentascales, arpeggios, octaves, etc. Just hum until your vocal cords start to feel warm and ready!
Take a breath, and send the breath between your lips and let them vibrate. Make sure your lips are relaxed, and you will find yourself doing a lip trill! When it comes to using lip trills for a vocal warm-up, you will want to take it a step further and add pitch to your trill, so that you are essentially “singing” via lip trills.
Lip trills are very beneficial as a vocal warm-up for several reasons:
- They help relax your lips so that you can deliver clearer diction and vowel sounds
- They take the pressure off of your vocal cords during warm-up
- They warm up your diaphragm and its surrounding muscles for better breath control and support
Try singing some pentascales or arpeggios through a lip trill, and for even more exercise, try singing through an entire piece on a lip trill.
Sirens, or “octave slides,” sound exactly like what their name suggests: sirens. To break it down, a siren means sliding on an “oh” or “oo” from your lowest comfortable note all the way up to your highest comfortable note, and back down again. This exercise can seem obnoxious and silly, but it’s incredibly effective. Sirens warm up the very highest and lowest parts of your registers while also connecting these registers. If you struggle with a smooth transition from your chest voice to your head voice, this is an excellent exercise for you!
Warming up by singing through your vowels is a great way to focus your tone and energy before you start singing through your repertoire. Sometimes when we are tired or distracted, our tone can close up without us recognizing it, so taking a few moments to consciously focus your tone will result in a much more efficient practice. You can start on any note and move up or down by a half step as you go. Sing through the vowels “ae-ee-ah-oh-oo” and do your best to connect each vowel, not breathing until you move up to the next note.
Arpeggios are not only effective as a vocal exercise but as an ear training exercise as well! The quicker you sing arpeggios, the more difficult it gets to hit the center of each pitch. As you sing, really focus on moving from one pitch to another with precision. You can sing arpeggios on a vowel sound such as “ah” or “oh,” “solfège,” or, you can add a phrase with the same number of syllables as there are notes. For example, try: “Mighty fine weather today.”
Solfège ladders are a lot of fun! You will start at do; then you will sing do-re-do, then do-re-mi-re-do, and so on, until you get to the next octave! Here is what it looks like all together:
This exercise causes you to focus on pitch and syllables at the same time, so it’s a great way to fire up your brain when you’re working on memorization. Start slow and work on increasing your speed.
Solfège ladders are also a lot of fun to sing in a round! Have one person start the exercise, and when they reach measure 3, have the next person start from the beginning. You can do this with as many people as you want! The more you have, the more difficult it is to hold your part!
Arpeggiate Alternating Major and Minor Triads
This exercise is definitely more difficult being that it’s an ear training exercise as well an intonation exercise. Start by arpeggiating a major triad, go up a half step, and then arpeggiate a minor triad, go up a half step, and repeat the process. You can do this on any vowel sound, solfège, or phrase.
HA-HA-HA (Great for chest voice)
The last exercise we are going to show you is a lot of fun! This exercise is perfect for singers looking to strengthen their chest voice or increase their chest voice range. It’s simple–all you have to do is sing “ha” on each note of a descending pentascale.
The trick is to allow for space between each note so that your emphasis is strong on each pitch. Think of these notes as staccato as well as accented. Sing these notes in your chest voice and push yourself to increase your range each time!
We all know how to breathe – we do it all the time. But when we sing, we have to adapt our normal breathing patterns to give us more control and capacity. This means becoming conscious of exactly what’s going on.
Breathing happens from your diaphragm, not your ribcage. We do NOT breathe by raising and lowering our shoulders; while they may pull up on the ribcage, they don’t expand it. Watch a professional singer; they don’t move their shoulders!
Breathing comes from the diaphragm, the muscle below the lungs. As you breathe in, think of your diaphragm dropping and the air flowing into your lungs. Let your stomach and your abdomen move outwards naturally; it’s okay.
If you must use your ribcage, think of it only as a reserve tank. It is in fact called “rib reserve”, and it should be used only if you know there’s going to be a sustained passage. Even then, think about your ribcage expanding, not your shoulders rising. Use your diaphragm breath first, then the rib reserve if you need it.
Stand or sit up straight (more on posture in another tip) so the air has a clean drop into your lungs. It can then also flow more easily out through your mouth.
Credit for the following tips goes to musicnotes.com, who are a great source of information as well as one of the largest publishers of downloadable sheet music in the world.
Exhale on a Hiss
A widespread (and very impactful) breathing exercise is one in which you will inhale for a specified amount of time, and then exhale on a hiss or “sss” sound. Find a metronome, or download a metronome app, and set it to 80 bpm in 4/4 time. Next, practice different amounts of time inhaling an exhaling. Remember that as you inhale, you should be breathing from your diaphragm, not your neck and shoulders. You can use this chart as a guide to get yourself started:
Challenge yourself with this exercise and time how long you can exhale on a hiss before you run out of breath! Just make sure that you give yourself time in between each inhale so that you don’t get lightheaded.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped, muscular and membranous structure that separates the chest and abdominal cavities in mammals; it is the principal muscle of respiration.
The Straw Technique
Another excellent breathing exercise is exhaling or humming a tune through a straw. When your breath is concentrated through the straw, you are solely focusing on breath support since your face and body will be remaining still. You can follow the same format as the “hiss” exercise, or you can hum the song(s) you are working on through the straw. You can inhale through the straw, or you can inhale outside of the straw if you feel lightheaded. Next, use your exhaled breath to carry your hum through the straw. Try and hum an entire song–it’s harder than it looks!
Make sure you are not biting down on the straw, but gently placing it between your lips so that all of the air you exhale is exiting through the straw.
Lay on Your Back
Laying on your back is another useful breathing exercise because it forces you to breathe with your diaphragm. Try singing through one of your voice pieces while you are laying on your back and place your hands on your stomach. Each time you inhale, you should feel your stomach expand, and your diaphragm move down. As you exhale, your diaphragm should move up and your stomach should flatten.
Your range is the highest and lowest notes you can sing comfortably. Most of us have a feel for where we can sing best but may not know what the range is called.
Vocal ranges overlap a lot, as you can see by the chart, yet all ranges span roughly the same number of notes.
- Soprano – the highest-pitched range, usually female.
- Mezzo-soprano – many women sing in this range.
- Alto – somewhat lower than soprano. Altos can’t usually hit the higher soprano range; conversely, sopranos have trouble with the middle to low alto range. Usually female, but some men can sing a low alto part.
- Tenor – the highest men’s range. Few men are true high tenors.
- Baritone – overlaps the bass and tenor ranges. This is the commonest men’s range.
- Bass – the lowest common men’s range. Few men are true low basses.
Want to find your range? There’s a handy tool at https://playback.fm/vocal-range that can get you started. Or just ask your accompanist before practice one day.
Your voice has a distinct point at which it changes from one tone to another, often towards the top of your range. As you sing a rising scale, you’ll feel the change; you make your sound in a slightly different way. Singing across your change takes practice and work, so many singers opt to sing either down or up an octave to avoid it. That can push you out of your range, though, with unpleasant consequences for the sound of the song. The best bet is to practise singing over your change, until you can sing above, below and through it with ease. Try some of the Warmup tips like the Arpeggios, Solfège Ladders or Sirens.
It is a sad fact that most of us are lazy singers and creatures of habit. Many of us are also scared of the sound of our own voice. But voice is really what choral singing is all about.
Your voice should come from your open mouth. This implies a couple of obvious things:
Open your mouth! Don’t force it open ridiculously wide as that will strain it and make it harder to form syllables quickly. But do make the sounds larger than you would in normal conversation so your audience can hear you.
Sing your vowels — AH, EH, EE, OH, OO and repeat, exaggerating the size a little each time until it starts to feel forced.
Produce the sound from your mouth. This means getting the sound production up front, out of your chest and your throat — and definitely out from behind your nose! Try humming a sustained, comfortable note. Feel your throat, then further up at the back of your jawbone and finally right beside your lips. You should feel the strongest vibration at the lips. If it’s anywhere further back, you’re swallowing your voice and it gets muffled and dull.
Buzz your lips. Feel where the energy’s going from? Now open your mouth without letting the sound drift back. Sing a simple song – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” will do – while focusing on keeping the sound at the front of your mouth. With practice your voice will get brighter and you’ll waste less energy trying to push the sound out.
The shower is a great place to practice!
Smiling changes your whole sound. It relaxes your face and changes the whole shape of your vocal tract. It helps pull your voice up to the front of your mouth. That makes your voice brighter and more distinct so your sound is clearer.
Smiling also has a very positive effect on your mood and your outlook. It’s hard to feel grumpy when you’ve got a smile on your face — and that means you’ll feel happier when you sing.
Most importantly, a smile is contagious. Your audience will engage much more with a happy, smiling choir who are obviously enjoying themselves.
And yes, smiling even helps sad or serious songs sound better. The smile may not fit the mood of the song but it still makes you sound better.
This is vital to good performance and confidence! Learn the words – all of them. Learn the melody, but make sure you learn it correctly, not just how you think you remember it.
Learn the roadmap of the song – where the repeats are, which parts you sing and which parts you don’t. If the song is new to you, say the words out loud to yourself over and over. Hum the tune until it’s stuck in your head.
Once you know the song, you should no longer need your words in front of you. That means you can watch your director, and just as importantly, make eye contact with your audience!
Learning goes hand in hand with practice – so check out the next tip, Practise your music!
Learning and practising go hand in hand. Practice is something you do all the time, not just at rehearsals.
Sing a song over and over in the shower, in the car, to yourself on the bus – wherever you can.
Practise singing without the words in front of you – the shower and the car are good places to enforce this! Learn a verse at a time. Once you know it, move on to the next – don’t waste time repeating the parts you already know.
If you have a portable recorder or if you know how to record on your phone, record the song during rehearsals, then practise at home with it.
When you come to rehearsal, you should have a good grip on the song and be ready to polish it with the rest of the group.
An earworm is a tune or a song that gets stuck in your head that you just can’t get rid of. It hangs around, sometimes for days. It can be a commercial jingle (they’re the worst) or something silly like The Muppets’ “Ma-na Ma-na” song.
Sing your song to yourself enough that it becomes an earworm and gets stuck in your head. Just make sure you sing it right though – if your earworm learns the wrong tune it’s very hard to change its mind!
When you find yourself walking down the street or washing dishes or getting ready for bed and humming and snapping your fingers to “Do you hear the People Sing” or waltzing about to “Shall We Dance” – you’ve got an earworm!
This is why people come to see you – to be entertained. To entertain means, obviously, to be entertaining.
Nothing is more engaging than eye contact – it’s a fundamental thing about people. It establishes sincerity, interest and trust. So next time you perform, pick someone in the audience and sing your song to them. Some examples:
- Ask them, personally and sincerely, “Shall we Dance”? Make it feel like an actual invitation.
- Look them in the eye and try to make them believe that no matter how badly you slipped up, “You Were Always on My Mind”.
- In “Yesterday” you open your heart and your hurt and your longing – make them believe that you chose just them to share that with.
- If it’s a happy song, put that smile on your face and that twinkle in your eye as you romp through “Mairi’s Wedding”.
- Pick someone else for the next verse or the next song.
People are also attracted to movement. In the context of a choir, this takes some coordination. Individuals bopping about can be more distracting than enjoyable, so this is where it’s essential to follow your director’s instructions. All sway together, all clap together, all march together – whatever the song calls for.
Dynamics are more than just loudness and softness. They’re what makes a song punchy and animated or smooth and mellow. They put the mood into a song. They affect the balance between parts – do the men have a soft “oo” underneath the women’s parts or does the men’s part dominate with the women singing softly behind them? Or does the song require an even balance of parts to make the harmony shine?
Dynamics are always under your director’s control; this is why it’s essential to watch for directions.
So, how do you accomplish dynamics?
Singing louder never, EVER means yelling. You must remain on pitch at all times, even when singing full voice. Think of increasing your breath pressure, not forcing more air over your vocal chords. Forcing more air means you’ll run out of breath faster. Focusing on breath pressure lets you sustain even a loud note for a surprisingly long time.
Singing softer never means going breathy or vague. You must still remain on pitch, even when your entire section is singing so softly you can barely hear your own voice. Reduce your breath pressure; don’t cheat by letting air bleed past your vocal chords. Good breath pressure keeps your tone clear and clean.
There’s a whole range of dynamics between loud and soft. For example, “Do You Hear the People Sing” starts out very soft, like a crowd in the distance. As they march towards you it gradually gets louder and louder until your audience is immersed in the triumphant energy of the last chorus. There’s no sudden switch from soft to loud.
The mood of a song is how it tells its story. Your role as a singer is to put a voice to that story, to lift it off the paper and give it life. You are the one who gives that song a place in your audience’s heart.
Listen to the song. Does it make you feel happy? angry? light-hearted? wistful? lonely? grieving? hopeful? uplifted?
Now study what it is that evokes those feelings. Is the song quick and rhythmic, with a strong beat to carry it along? Is it slower, with more of a focus on lovely flowing melody? Is it in a minor (sadder-sounding) key or a major key? Does it switch from one to the other to reflect a change in the song?
Next, how do you sing a strong beat? Most of us think of a march, but most dance tunes have an easily followed rhythm. Short, snappy notes will liven up any song, whereas longer, flowing (legato) notes will smooth out the rhythm and change it more to a ballad.
Flowing, legato pieces have some challenges. Breath control is all-important, so you can sustain passages without interruption. Dynamics are vital, to maintain interest and to help convey the mood. Occasionally the tempo may change slightly as you pass from one phrase or thought to another.
Follow your director meticulously.
Terminology is simply language designed for a particular purpose. Over the years, music has acquired a vast amount of specialised terms. You don’t need to learn them all, but knowing a handful of the basics makes it easier for your director to, well, direct, and for you to understand what’s expected. So here are the basics. You’ll note that Italian is the language of music!
- Piano – soft
- Forte – loud
- Mezzoforte – medium volume, where most of us tend to sing
- Fortissimo – maximum volume, without yelling
- Pianissimo – very soft, but not inaudible
- Crescendo – getting gradually louder – but not always to full volume. Watch your director!
- Decrescendo – getting gradually softer – but not always down to complete silence. Again, watch your director!
- Legato – a flowing style, with the notes seeming to connect together – but without actually sliding from one to the next, much as a violin would play them
- Staccato – short, sharp notes with actual breaks between them, much as a drum or xylophone would play them.
- Pizzicato – literally, “plucked”, as a violinist plucks single strings. When singing, the notes and syllables are very short, but still sounded distinctly.
Tempo: (to get a feel for this, find a metronome or download a metronome app; here’s one. The settings are usually marked.)
- Largo – extremely slow
- Andante – pretty slow
- Moderato – medium
- Allegro – brisk
- Allegretto – moving right along
- Presto – very fast indeed
- Prestissimo – insanely fast. This is Flight of the Bumblebee territory.
- Accelerando (usually written accel.) – getting gradually faster – watch your director
- Ritenudo (usually written rit.) – getting gradually slower – watch your director
This is an ongoing section of the site!