Ali-Key Swanmie is a triple threat performer always looking for ways to hone her craft. She is a mezzo-soprano who loves belting show tunes.
Some people are born with golden vocal chords, ready to sing straight from the womb. Then there are those who have to try (very) hard to sound even halfway decent. This article is for those of you who fall into the latter group (myself included) and are looking for easy ways to improve your singing. However, those who are naturally gifted in the vocal department can absolutely benefit from this as well.
Whether you dream of taking to the stage as a famous Broadway performer or you just want to be able to sing along when Taylor Swift comes on the radio, this list has plenty of tips to help you meet your vocal goals.
1. Drink Water…Seriously. Do It.
This is one of the easiest (and arguably most important) tips for singing improvement. It seems so simple, but too many people’s singing problems can be traced back to not getting enough H2O. If you want to be a good singer, you have to drink water. A lot of water. Every single day. Not only will drinking enough water help with your singing, it can also help prevent a slew of health problems, such as arthritis (arthritis.org).
The amount of water you need to drink will depend on different factors, such as height, weight, and how much caffeine you consume (caffeinated products, especially coffee, are very dehydrating). The easiest way to monitor your water intake is to do the “urine test." If it’s pale, you’re on the right track; if it’s dark or bright yellow, keep drinking!
Water temperature is also important. Cold water will constrict your vocal chords, which can cause a lot of damage. Warm (but not too hot) water is your best choice for maximum benefits. If you struggle to down your daily water, consider putting a little lemon juice, cucumber, or fruit slices in to sweeten the deal.
The easiest way to make sure you get plenty of water is to carry a water bottle with you at all times. On the bus, working at your desk (my 39 oz water bottle is currently right by my side as I write this), at the store, at work, at home, everywhere! Always have your water close by. As my triple threat teacher says, “Hydrate to be great.”
2. Breathe & Sing Through Your Diaphragm
This is an “easy” tip that takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to correct and perfect (some get it quicker than others; remember to be patient with yourself!). Breathing through your diaphragm gives your voice the support it needs, especially for those super high belty notes. It also gives your voice a better all-around tone.
Here’s a video explaining how to correctly use your diaphragm to breathe while singing.
3. Practice Often, But Don't Forget to Rest
Just like any other skills, frequent practice is required for singers. It’s important to make time to practice every week. Fortunately, singing can be done while you’re doing almost anything—cooking, cleaning, driving, you name it.
As important as it is to practice, resting and caring for your voice is just as important as practicing. Make sure to give your voice at least one day of rest (or one day of lighter singing only if you must sing) every week, and use proper techniques while belting or hitting those high notes. If you’re willing to put in the effort, it will be more than worth it.
4. Know What Foods Affect Your Voice Negatively/Positively
What you eat is another one that’s often overlooked, but it can play a big part in how you sound when you go to belt those tunes. The old standby is to avoid foods that contain dairy. While some people swear that dairy affects their voices by creating more phlegm in the throat, studies have proven that it’s actually just a myth; foods like ice cream, yogurt, & cheese don’t actually cause any more phlegm to form in the throat (nytimes.com). If anything, it’s most likely the coldness of the foods rather than the contents that can hinder your singing. Don’t forget to drink warm water after eating something cold!
Another common tip is to avoid spicy or greasy foods, but not all people are negatively affected by them. In fact, some people find that it enhances the quality of their voices. The only real way to know what will work for you personally is to try it! Pay attention and see how your throat feels after eating different foods. The more you understand about your voice, the better you’ll become as a singer.
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5. Know Your Voice Type & Embrace It
It may be a bummer sometimes, but unfortunately, we do not get to pick what vocal range we are born with. The problem is, too many people get caught up in vocal labels: soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, contralto, mezzo-soprano, bass, etc. Each voice type has pros and cons that come with it. Just because you might be an alto doesn’t mean that you can’t sing beautiful, jaw-dropping solos like the sopranos. (Far from it! Judy Garland and Adele are both two famous contraltos with killer voices.)
The important thing is that you respect your vocal type and work inside of your range, not outside. When you try to go against your voice type, you make it harder on yourself, especially if you’re in musical theatre. Even though you may not be able to play some of your dream characters (or sing some of your favorite songs in their original key), there will be a character (or a song) perfectly suited to you and your voice. Christine Daaé’s songs may be way too high for us mezzo sopranos (and altos) but you may find that Miss Hannigan is a great fit. Maybe you can’t match high notes with Ariana Grande, but you can belt Adele songs like nobody’s business!
It’s all about working with what you’ve got. Play to your strengths, improve on your weaknesses, and accept your limits—you’ll be a better performer when you do!
6. Warm-Up (and Cool Down) Fully
Never skip or rush warming up your voice. It seems like a no-brainer, but all too often (especially in youth theatre), singers tend to completely skip vocal warm-ups. That’s setting you up for all kinds of vocal trouble. What happens if you don’t stretch before a workout? You’re at serious risk for pulled muscles, sprains, or worse.
If you don’t warm your voice fully, you’ll risk straining and hurting your voice and possibly causing severe damage like vocal nodules. Not fun. Make sure to do plenty of lip trills, sirens, and scales. They may not be the most fun part of singing, but there’s a reason why we do them.
To "cool down" after a vocal workout, "sirens" work really well. Choose a vowel (I like "ah" or "oo"), start at the top of your range and slide your way down to the lowest note you can hit like performing a big yawn.
Singing is not something that you learn once and then are done with. Developing a strong, confident voice is a continuing process that takes dedication and patience and part of that is trying new things. Don’t be afraid to change your routine up; try a new warm-up routine, expand your singing repertoire with a new song, push the boundaries of your strengths and weaknesses.
Experiment with different music genres. What is the easiest for you to sing? Broadway show tunes, mainstream pop, or country?
It’s important to take the time to experiment; the more you try, the better your understanding of what you can do. Embrace the process, and have fun experimenting!
8. Don't Try to Suppress Your Voice
Sometimes, if we don’t want someone to hear us or if we’re unsure of whether we can hit a certain note or not, we try to suppress our vocal volume. This will actually be more of a hindrance than a help, as it can actually mess with our chances of hitting the note correctly. Don't try to suppress your volume; it's okay if you hit a wrong note! The more you allow yourself to hit wrong notes (remember, you are still learning!), the more right ones you'll hit when it matters.
When you sing, it’s important to open your mouth fully, dropping the jaw and lifting the back of the throat to allow maximum space for the sound to come out. It’s also important to keep the focus of your voice at “the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue,” instead of at the back of your throat (www.spiritsound.com). Suppressing your voice ruins your chances of hitting the note and can cause discomfort in the throat. Avoid trying to forcibly quiet your voice. If you've got a nice, strong set of lungs then it's time to let the whole world know!
9. Care for Your Voice Outside of Singing
Your voice is a gift, an instrument that needs special care. Try to avoid talking loudly and/or for long periods of time as this will tire and strain your voice. Screaming should be avoided like the plague as this can severely damage your throat, possibly for up to months.
Even if you’re not singing, warming up your voice before long speaking engagements or the like will greatly benefit your voice in the long run. Something that is a huge help vocally is to “reset” your voice after a lot of talking or singing. This video demonstrates how to “lift” your voice placement for less strain by using a straw.
10. Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
There is nothing wrong with needing a little guidance. The right voice teachers are worth their weight in gold and can be the push in the right direction that you need.
If a teacher currently isn’t in your budget however, purchasing a singing instruction DVD can provide invaluable insight (I use "Love to Sing" by Roger Love and pull it out every now and then as a refresher). If that's not your style, there’s always YouTube. There is a plethora of vocal instructors who post quality videos giving singing tips and tricks. This one that explains the science of the “twang” is especially nice for belters.
Now the rest is up to you! Grab a bottle of water and get to work!
© 2019 Ali-Key Swanmie