My friend Rob has this running joke about singers from the 90s – He’ll have to tell you some time… Except, you don’t know Rob, so I should just tell you.
I’ll butcher the point – Rob is a much better storyteller than I am.
In the early 90s, we had this terrible trend of singing in a high falsetto that sounded really empty. There’s a specific song that comes to mind, Rob will start to sing it, and it will undoubtedly make me chuckle.
“She’s so high- high above me, she’s so lovely.”
You might love this song, I won’t knock you for taste here. It’s a stylistic choice, albeit a bad one (haha – such a backhanded way to say that). It’s a goofy way to sing and although it genuinely is just another way to get there with your voice. It was a fad, it’s not an excellent execution of technique and, it is a funny way for me to start off a silly story about me.
I have a vivid memory of singing when I was nine and having the person next to me ask me to stop singing because it was hurting his ears. It hurt my feelings as much as it hurt his ears. Young Crazy Legs would sing the way I sing now, with reckless abandon to anyone in earshot. I had no understanding of range or pitch. I just sang because I loved to sing, and therein is the point. All of us like to sing. Sure we have exceptions to that rule. But that love to express yourself rests within most of us. Remember that love, tap into that love when you’re practicing and improving.
I recall being sixteen and singing songs entirely in falsetto. I remember people laughing, and I had no idea why (silly Crazy Legs). I thought that the song was played with these chords, so I had to play with these chords. I learned around that time that you could change the key with a capo (or transposing the song). Music moves in block forms. Once you understand the shape, you can move it to fit you! What a fantastic thing to learn! It seems daunting, but if you feel nervous about learning it, you shouldn’t. It’s straightforward! I didn’t know that I couldn’t sing some songs in the keys they were recorded in! I would get really frustrated because my voice is low. Hell, most of the time when an artist tours, they lower the key a half or even a full step. This helps so that they don’t wear out the performers’ vocals on a never-ending tour! Even the pros are doing it.
Until a couple years ago, I sang almost wholly through my throat because I wanted to have a different tone. This is incredibly bad for your voice! If I didn’t change the way I sang, by now my voice would be gone. It also prevents from hitting notes that you should be able to nail. The part of your body that you sing through is like a thick as tissue paper. It can’t sustain long term terrible technique. The honest truth is, most of the time, it doesn’t sound appealing to sing through your throat. You’re not getting a good tone, you’re choking the tone. You do not sound the way you should sound with your unique voice. I know, I know! The term “unique voice” is something a grade school teacher would say to you. But it’s one of the times life can be sappy and authentic at the same time.
My brother lance will famously tell the story of when I was 20, I would put toilet paper in my nose when I was singing to prevent myself from singing through my nose. I have done it all kiddos. It’s a funny story to tell, and the image still pops into my head from time to time. Haha – Ahhh, good times.
My point through all of this is that I have had some big problems with singing.
Singing is hard – actually, singing correctly can be easy. It just takes a while to get it right. Some people are just born with a breathtaking natural tone. Some people learn to sing a certain way. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I wanted to write on this subject because I’ve heard a lot of singers singing out of their range lately. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, it takes time to find your money range!
If I wrote a column on singing technique… I mean honestly, it would be pretty useless. I have taken lessons, but I have a crappy technique when singing. I’m not afraid to admit it! I’m working on getting better and preserving whatever is left of my voice.
This is a music blog though, I do want to give you my take on how to find the right key to sing in, especially with the guitar. Most of this is just through transposing with the capo. It can be with changing keys and playing different chords. There are a few different apps I have used, I pay for the yearly subscription to Ulitmate Guitar, and I have not once regretted it. It has a transposition button that is LIFE CHANGING.
I mean, that’s as far as I going to go with that. This column is not on transposing. Its purpose is to help us spot some mistakes we’re making with choosing the key. We should ask ourselves a few questions when considering where we want to end up.
What is the highest note in the song - This seems pretty basic. Find the highest note you have to sing in your tune and if you can't hit it. Lower the song. There are songs you can get away with changing that high note. If you're singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" you can get away with bailing from hitting the high note because it's not the cornerstone of the song. If you're singing Dream on, you have to hit that high note. Otherwise, what's the point of singing that song? Everyone wants to hear that song because of the high note. Now, you can, and you should change the key to find that high note in your range. But the fact still remains that you have to do some groundwork and try the song in a few different keys to see what the highest note is in the song.
Remember that it is harder to sing and play the guitar at the same time. If you have a key changing app – I like using the app “djay pro 2” – it is kind of pricy at $50. But it helps to lock down what key you need to sing that song in, it’s stupidly easy to use – Anyways, just remember that it will be a little harder to sing while playing an instrument and to be kind to yourself.
Are you strained throughout the song? - Once again, pretty basic! Even If you're hitting every note, but it's consistently at the top of your range, lower the key. It won't sound good if you're always yelling instead of singing (sabotage by the Beastie Boys excluded). So, why aren't you changing the key? Is it because you're afraid that you'll annoy someone by changing the key? Or because it's time-consuming to change the key? Those are not good excuses! This can also be used to help if the song is too low. You want to feel really good about hitting that big note or feel comfortable through most of the song. It's almost effortless to do, and you absolutely should put the time in before performing the song for anyone with ears.
Every single song you sing, remember these two things.
A. Learning where are your sweet spot is. And how to adjust to find it.
B. Understanding your voice and tone is unique. It is YOUR tone, it is your voice.
After we have that seared into our brains, I want to expound on a few points.
Learning to love your voice
I don’t feel that ‘it’s uncommon to not like your voice. I sure you can recall the first time hearing a recording of your voice. You have a video recorder on your phone, or if you’re a little older, an old answering machine or voicemail inbox message. Just because you don’t love your voice doesn’t mean you have a bad voice! It doesn’t mean you can’t improve, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t learn to love it. I’m assuming that Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) knows his voice is very different. But if he sang like the rest of us, he might not have a career! John Reznicek (Goo Goo Dolls) didn’t like his voice when he started! I can’t find the video, I had heard that when U2 was starting out that some of the fans begged the Edge not to let Bono sing. It’s a funny thought, and maybe I just started a rumor. I would love to think of those fans now. It’s laughable. Just be patient with your process. It takes time to hone it in! The world had perfect pitch with Whitney Houston, we don’t need more of that, I love the flaws in a voice! It makes it so much more interesting to listen!
Practicing Perfect makes perfect – If you want to git gud, you need a vocal coach
If you’re not getting coached, you’re not taking it seriously! Even if you’ve been blessed with natural talent (… lucky), you have to be active in keeping that voice healthy! Treat it like a muscle. If you’re not working it out, you’ll lose it. The voice is funny, in particular. Because it is REALLY easy to practice lousy technique (anytime I get to use the word lousy, I jump on that opportunity) – continued bad technique will end up frying your vocal cords down the road. I have used every excuse in the book to keep myself from taking lessons. “I want to keep my sound. – I don’t want to become like everyone else. “But a good teacher will not try to change you, they will help to guide you to IMPROVE and stay true to who you are. Finding the right teacher is a long road. But it’s a road worth traveling!
Water and sleep and drinking and smoking
Your instrument is your body, and unlike the guitar – you can’t get another one. Not unless that “Altered Carbon” show was actually a documentary.
I believe that most of us are dehydrated right now. You can not afford to be like most of us if you want to sing, though! Drinking alcohol dehydrates you, pills will make your insides a desert. Smoking destroys your vocal cords. Caffeine drys you out. You need to compensate for those shots of espresso! Soda might as well be considered anti-water. You need to compensate for drinking soda. If you are taking medication (first off, I’m proud of you for giving you something you need!), you need to drink more than most people! If you are singing, drink like a fish. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to sing and hit those notes when you’re hydrated. If you don’t sing, still hydrate! I have been drinking a gallon of water every day for the past few months – ok… I have missed a few days, but it has been LIFE CHANGING! I love it. Drink more than you think you should. Monitor how much you drink. I have to use a gallon of water, otherwise I will always come up short. Be obnoxious with how much you drink.Please, please, PLEASE!! Drink water.
Why do singers always get the diva treatment? Well because they actually have to get eight hours of sleep! You have to sleep! You can’t skip on sleep, you can’t make it up. You must be disciplined! I promise that is a quick fix if you have low stamina! EIGHT HOURS! That’s Dr. Legs’ Order.
Be patient with yourself, it takes a lot of time.
I’ve already touched on this, but it deserves its own bullet point. Overnight sensations happen through years of behind the scenes practice. The movie montage has really screwed up our concept of time and how quickly things should come to us! It takes a long time to get good! It takes a lot of time to get to where we want to be, and it takes years to get where you want to go. You’re not going to bomb every show in the meantime. You will consistently get better, and then one day be great! You’ll be good, it just takes a while to get to where YOU want to go. Even if you have natural talent, it takes a long time to get there! BE patient with yourself!
Don’t try to force a sound. Very few artists learned to sing the way that they sing. They just have a different tone in their voice.
Chris Cornell didn’t sound like he did because he tried to sound like Kurt Cobain – If you listen to his music, he sounds the way he does because his voice has that timbre. Sam Smith wasn’t trying to sound like a male Adele, and Adam Levine can’t sing like Johnny Cash, his voice doesn’t work like that. All of these singers, they have that natural tone. Sure they worked hard and improved and got to where they are now, and they have more range and stamina than they did before.
Even if you could sing like Freddie Mercury, stop for a minute and think about this… Would you really want to? I mean some similarities would be GREAT. But beyond that, the best you can hope for is a lovely tribute band gig. He already did it, and you will not be better than him. I’m sorry you will not do HIS voice better than HE did. You can learn the techniques he used and then create your own sound. The world could use more of that! Your body is shaped different, your voice is uniquely your own. I remember a John Mayer quote saying that you find your own voice when you are emulating your favorite artist’s voice. Is he wrong? I would lean a little more towards a yes then I would a few years ago. It’s ok to learn how to yell, to rap, to use vibrato, to learn how to be dynamic. But beyond that, I think you should just try to be you, at least at first! I don’t want to hear another girl trying to sound like Arianna Grande (who just seems like a less talented Christina Aguilera to me) I want to listen to a female artist that sounds like… well you can insert your own name here! I don’t want to hear some guy sing like Miguel. I want to hear Spencer Jones sing like Spencer Jones. It’s not quite a compliment to hear you sound just like “Danny Budofuko” (Fake name)
It’s not the end of the world to sound like someone else. It can be a good thing, it can be high praise. I just… AHH! As a fan of music and specifically as a fan of YOUR music… I want to hear more of YOU. Not Blah Blah Blah singing your songs.
Doesn’t that make sense?
She’s so HII-I-IGH, HIGH ABOVE ME
Hahaha, still gets me!
Ok, well. Be good, and we will talk soon.