The idea of learning to sing, for many of us, is more than a little bit scary. For me, it seemed like a somewhat magical skill that some people simply had (and which I lacked). I learned very early to avoid Karaoke, and never even did much singing in the shower. A friend of mine explained the problem very well:
When you learn an instrument, you can always blame the instrument. When you learn to sing, you are the instrument. If something is wrong, it’s entirely a criticism of you. So it’s hard to remove the ego.
No wonder singing can be so scary. It’s just you (and maybe a microphone). I know from personal experience that just a couple off-hand comments about my lack of pitch from friends was enough to scare me away from singing as a youth, and for years I never opened my mouth again. All of that changed, though, and in this blog post I’ll explain how.
Learn to Hear
The first thing I did in order to start learning to sing was to spend time with ear training software. Being able to hear (and, eventually, reproduce) a pitch is one of the most fundamental and essential skills of singing.
Free from Skill Cookbook
An online catalog of the best resources for learning music, all completely free.
The Music Skill Guide
An Evidence-Based Approach to Self Improvement, available from Amazon and on the Kindle store.
The Joy of Craft
I enjoyed starting with apps because they simplified the whole process. Instead of the complexity of a song, you’re just learning to focus on recreating individual notes. Simply using the perfect practice plan for thirty minutes a day is enough to drastically improve your ear, which will make everything else easier down the line. Here’s a complete review of all of my favorite ear training apps.
Learn to Breathe and Speak
The next fundamental skills necessary for singing well are deceptively simple: breathing and speaking.
When I first started, I thought that singing was about simply saying words with the correct pitch. In truth, there are different types of singing voice (like the “chest voice” or “head voice”) which come from different parts of your body. For the novice, the hardest thing is to learn to breath deeply, stand straight, and annunciate.
Let’s break that down. First, you want to stand with your arms relaxed at your sides, your back straight and your feet shoulder width apart. Now take a deep breath and exhale while saying the letter ‘s’. You’ll notice that it takes a long time, because not much air is escaping. This is all the air it takes to sing, though.
When you do sing, you should feel like you’re over-emphasizing the vowels. As English speakers, we have a tendency to “swallow” or “mumble” these sounds. Building on your ear training, from the last section, try to open your mouth almost comically wide when speaking the “do, re, mis” into the ear training apps.
Curious about the nature of real singing, I signed up for lessons with a singing tutor. She helped immensely in developing the confidence necessary to sing well. One of my biggest takeaways was that singing requires volume.
I was surprised to learn that it is much, much harder (if not impossible) to hit high or low notes when you’re singing quietly. Ironically, then, the lack of confidence many of us who are afraid of singing have means that we’re afraid to sing loudly… and that’s what’s holding us back from getting better.
To progress on your singing journey, you’ll need to find some space where you can sing at any volume with confidence. I found this part especially hard, since I live in a small apartment in a city. There’s nowhere I can go that I cannot be heard by my neighbors. I ended up planning my singing sessions for times when they were not home, and over time, the fear began to disappear.
Like with learning any skill, the most important part of learning singing is to make it a daily habit.
A good way to begin is to listen to your favorite music and find a song that you know well, and which is in your basic vocal range (meaning, when you talk, your voice is around the same pitch as the singer). Then, you can look for “[your song] Karaoke” on YouTube to find a version of the song with words on-screen. Just taking the time to sing it a few times each day is enough to begin seeing serious improvement over time.
Soon, you’ll probably start humming it to yourself throughout the day, and someone may even compliment your singing. This is the sort of progress which can snowball into a true singing habit.
As you get serious about your singing habit, you’ll want to protect yourself from some of the major mistakes. It’s possible, for example, to sound good yet hurt your vocal chords. In fact, this happened to the famous singer Adele: she has a wonderful voice, but by pushing it so hard every day without proper training, she’s actually damaged it. That’s why it makes sense to take the time to use proper singing educational resources to avoid the worst mistakes…
Websites, Software and Resources
There are many, many other sub-skills involved with singing. Understanding rhythm, for example, has been a major challenge for me. When I first started learning to sing, I found it difficult to start singing at the right moment (I “missed my cues.”) All of these can be learned, though.
I’ve already mentioned my blog post covering ear training apps, and that’s a great place to start, but here are some more singing-specific resources and sites I’ve found to be useful. Many of these websites feel dated, but thankfully the skills involved in singing haven’t changed over the years so the information is still perfectly relevant.
- Singorama is a voice training website that includes a guided program, software, and other useful tools. It’s the most complete online course I’ve found so far, though the full course will run you about $100.
- Become a Singing Master: the free tips and tricks posts on this site cover all of the typical information that a singing coach would work through with you, so you can learn some excellent exercises and drills as well as some of the terms and vocabulary used in singing. If nothing else, it’s worth your time to browse around and see if anything resonates with you.
Still, I wish there were something a little bit more… polished. Games like Rocksmith and Yousician for learning the guitar have set a high bar for quality musical education apps. Trying to figure out how to use all these different resources to learn to sing and play the guitar is one reason I partnered with Udemy to create an online course. In this course, you will learn not just the best resources for singing, but how to avoid the common mistakes in teaching yourself musical skills. I’ve spent over a decade researching the most effective learning techniques, and this course includes hours of lectures, links and other content to help you develop your musical skills in a fun and effective way. When you use this link, you’ll also receive a large discount for being a reader of the blog (and help support all the learning research here!)