According to family legend, I would happily sing in front of my dancing classes, accompanied by the teacher on piano, at the age of four – but either my grandmother is lying to me, or I’ve deleted the memory on the grounds of sheer implausibility. Somewhere between 4-year-old me and mid-20s me, that singing confidence took a nosedive. I’d only sing in a loud group at parties where the guitar was louder than all of us and the beer was plentiful, or by myself. I play piano, and I’ve always really wanted to be able to sing along with what I play, but my voice always came out whispered and weedy. There were just two options: not sing, or sing better.A few weeks ago, I took up group singing lessons.The first few weeks of lessons have taught me a few things I already knew, a few I didn’t, and a few I didn’t realise were plain wrong.
First, the basics:
- Sing with good posture: feet solid on the floor, shoulders relaxed, and use your diaphragm.
- Twenty beats is a looong time when you’re trying to hold a note with ever-decreasing lung capacity. Ration your air.
- Sight-reading music is not as scary as it appears, I promise.
- The average range of male and female voices differs a bit – but not too much (the one man in our class gets very confused sometimes with everyone else singing an octave above him. Poor chap).
And then the things that surprised me:
- Singing is hard work! I got so dizzy I had to sit through the whole first class. And thus, the first New Commandment of Singing was revealed to me: hydrate thyself before class, or thy blood pressure will force you to a chair and thy voice will not be All That.
- We all have a “high voice” (which vibrates mostly in the head) and “low voice” (vibrating mostly in the chest, which you can feel with your hand) while still being your “natural voice” i.e.: you sound like you, not a trained opera singer. Previously, I thought my “high voice” sounded really unnatural, so I avoided it. I’m learning how to use it properly – and that it’s still me.
- The variation in average range of voices: I have a low-ish female voice that is likely to get lower as I get older (like my teacher’s). And that’s OK.
- I’m not the worst singer in the class. We all thought we alone would be, but we’re all pretty good.
- Don’t be afraid to try for the high notes – if you’re not confident, don’t try to belt it out. Go for the note, not the volume. Don’t drop an octave just to be safe – try it. If it’s in your usual range or close to it, you’ll usually get it, even at a “˜whisper’ volume. For me, who hates hearing off notes to the point that I screw up my face like I’ve just smelled a rotten egg – while simultaneously also getting notes wrong frequently myself – this kind of confidence trick was incredibly refreshing.
I signed up because I want to be able to sing better to myself – and sometimes with my friends when someone breaks out a guitar of an evening. But what I’m discovering is how satisfying it feels to really exercise my lungs and stomach and voice, how emotional singing is for me, and how freeing it is to not be afraid of the sounds that come out of my own mouth.