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Vocal Style

How to Find Your Vocal Style | Octave Higher TV E50

The Basics of Vocal Style

Vocal style is one of the most popular concepts that my students want to learn about. Here in Austin, TX, there are as many vocal styles to listen to as there are singers.

That’s because the truth is that for every unique singer, there is also a unique voice in music.

And while it can be very tempting as a beginning singer to try to imitate your favorite singers (ahem, Adele and Sam Smith wannabes raise your hands), the most important and beautiful thing about taking singing lessons at Octave Higher East is that we work with your voice as it is. Without all the baggage of imitation, you’ll experience what your true voice sounds like.

Sound good?

It’s amazing, and one of the most rewarding parts of being a voice teacher.

But, how do you find your vocal style?

First let’s talk about the elements of vocal style, then we’ll talk about how you can find your unique voice.

The Elements of Vocal Style

Since people began singing, there has been vocal style.

From opera to rock, RnB to musical theater (legit and belt) styles, vocal style is a term that distinguishes one singer from another and each style of music from another.

That means that vocal style is unique to each person and each genre of music.

Vocal Style

But when we talk about unique singing voices, what really causes someone to have or sing with a vocal style?

There are two parts to this explanation: a genetic and a musical component.

Genetic Components of Vocal Style

Genetics are definitely at play in vocal style and techniques. Last week, we talked about the three systems that make up singing.

With vocal style, we’re talking primarily about the phonation and resonation systems of the voice.

Phonation is the system of singing involved at the vocal fold or cord level. Phonation is the vibration that results from the vocal folds coming together to make sound.

Breathing for Singing

Resonation is the system of singing where we see an interaction of the frequencies produced by the vocal folds and the cavities and spaces within your body (i.e. throat, nasal passages, and cranium, etc).

Breathing for Singing

Both the phonation and resonation systems of singing are genetic. Which means that you’re born with a unique voice because your vocal folds and resonating centers are totally specific to you.

This is why you can never successfully imitate another singer. Unless you have the same genetics, chances are your body and therefore your vocal folds and resonance chambers will be somewhat different.

This is why it’s unfair to expect a 12 year old girl to imitate Janis Joplin’s vocal style for instance. Janis had a very thick belt vocal sound and a 12-year-old doesn’t have the structure and thickness of an instrument to pull this off.

The same is true for David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and even Elvis Presley’s vocal style.

vocal style

In one of my recent articles, we talked about the 3 Traits All Great Singer Share. One of the most important traits we discussed was Self Awareness. For singers, that means gaining an understand of what your voice is built for.

This is why it would be a poor choice for a high Tenor to sing Tom Waits.

Or if you’re a bass, then Sam Smith might be a stretch.

But genetics aren’t everything. After all, there are some fantastic singers out there that have an amazingly unique voice or remind us of some other singer. Which brings us to the musical component to vocal style.

Musical Components to Vocal Style

While genetics are hugely important in determining a person’s vocal style, there are singers that are able to find a unique voice in any genre because they are good musicians.

Every genre of music has its own vocal style. While there are unique voices in every genre, each musical style has a tendency to have a certain kind of singing.

You’ll notice that Metal vocal styles are quite different from legit musical theater. That’s because these genres have evolved to create some conventions of what works and what doesn’t.

After all, it’d be pretty weird to hear the vocal effects of a metal singer in a musical theater song. I can hear it now: “One…EE-YAAAHHHH…Day…GRRRRRRR…MOOOOOORRRRE.”

vocal style

The point is that as a singer, you can begin to learn the conventions of each music genre so that your vocal style matches the genre. The best way to do that is to listen to lots of different music and begin to speak the language of singing.

Are the vocals in rock music more or less aggressive? In general, rock vocals are more aggressive.

Is the vocal tone clean or dirty? Usually they’re dirty.

Does the lyric or the emotion take priority? The emotion. Rock n’ Roll is about passion!

Compare this to operatic vocal style where we are looking for very beautiful and full singing with a clean tone and emphasis on a lyric. You can see just how much your singing style is dictated by the genre.

So if I can’t successfully imitate someone else’s vocal style, but I know the kind of music I’d like to sing and some of the conventions of the genre, how do I find my own voice?

Here’s one exercise to help you find your own unique voice.

One Daily Exercise to Find Your Unique Vocal Style

I’m going to start with one of my absolute favorite exercises to give to students.

*You may want to record yourself doing this exercise for proof of your progress.

  1. Start by gently saying the word “Mum” (as in British mother) out loud at a comfortable volume
  2. There should be no strain or breathiness in your voice
  3. Next pick one of your favorite songs. Ideally, one that you don’t consciously imitate
  4. Take a part of the chorus that’s in a comfortable range and rather than singing the words, sing the melody on the word “Mum”
  5. For every change in melody or syllable, sing the word Mum instead
  6. Continue singing this melody on “Mum” a few times until you have forgotten that you’re singing your favorite song and are just singing the melody on Mum
  7. Now, using the same relaxed “uh” feeling that you found on the “Mum”, begin to sing the words. The idea is that you’re transferring the relaxed and natural “uh” sound to the melody you’re singing

A Few Things You May Notice

You will notice that the melody sounds more relaxed and feels more natural to you. Try recording this version and seeing if you notice anything unique about your voice. It should sound like you and no one else. If at first it’s not clear, repeat this process until you begin to hear your own voice, rather than that of the original singer.

For the science nerds out there, we used the “Uh” vowel in “Mum” to relax all the articulators in the resonation system (especially the tongue), forcing you to sing in your own voice.

Pretty cool, huh?!

Please note, you may not like the sound of your natural voice at first, but I absolutely promise you, there is something unique and beautiful about every voice. You just may not have found it yet.

If this exercise doesn’t help, consider booking a free trial lesson so that I hear exactly what’s happening in your voice.

Breathing For Singing

Breathing for Singing | Octave Higher TV E49

Everything You Need to Know About Breathing for Singing

As a voice teacher in Austin, Texas, one of the most common goals new students have is to learn breathing for singing and to breathe through the diaphragm.

Often times, students will ask for breathing exercises or breathing warmups and they think that I am going to make them hold their breath or give them an aerobic workout so they learn how to breathe properly for singing. I promise, I don’t do this often in my voice lessons.

The truth is that while breathing for singing is very important, recently it’s been proclaimed as the ONE BIG SECRET to singing success. One that no one knows unless they take lessons.

Here’s why that’s not the case:

First of all, singing involves three big systems that work together.

Respiration System

We have the respiration system which involves the diaphragm and lungs and provides the fuel for singing.

Breathing for Singing

But that’s only ONE part of a large system.

Phonation System

Next, we have the phonation system which is the vocal cords (vocal folds) coming together in your throat to resist air. The resulting vibrations from that resistance produces sound and creates the raw material for the voice. Using the fuel analogy from the respiration system, phonation is like the motor that’s converting the breath from the lungs and diaphragm into energy.

Breathing for Singing

Resonation System

Finally, we have the resonation system which is the way the vibrations and frequencies produced by the vocal folds vibrating interact with the cavities around them. The mouth, pharynx, nose and nasal cavity are examples of resonating chambers. To use the fuel analogy, this would be the carburetor in the car ensuring the best use of this energy.

Breathing for Singing

Before your eyes start to gloss over with boredom from all these science terms and you start to wonder “Why the heck isn’t this guy giving me breathing exercises? I just wanted to know how you sing from your diaphragm!”, I say all this to prove a simple point. The breath is only one small part of the whole system that makes up a great singer! And in my honest opinion, it’s also the easiest to master.

The truth is there are lots of singing problems and vocal issues that no amount of breath support will help because the issues are not with the respiration system.

All that said, there are a few important things that you should know as a developing singer, especially if you want to learn how to breathe when singing high notes.

First, we have to make sure that the respiration system of singing is supported. And a lot of this comes down to breathing muscles and singing. So here are the most important exercises to ensure that your breath is supported.

  1. Maintain a healthy posture

As simple as this sounds, posture is an incredibly important component to breathing while singing, especially if you’ve been having problems with losing your breath while singing or experiencing shortness of breath.

*You may want to grab a mirror for this.

  1. A general rule of thumb is that you want to ensure that your head is even above your shoulders, not jutting forward or pulled back.
  2. Then make sure that your shoulders are comfortably positioned at your sides.
  3. Using your shoulders as a guide, ensure your hips are evenly spaced and in line with your shoulders.
  4. Finally, using your hips and shoulders as a guide, ensure your feet are evenly spaced and in line with your hips.

Got it? Good!

It’s really not complicated.

You should feel that you are in a powerful stance and ready to take on anything.

If this feels uncomfortable or new, double check your position in the mirror and ensure the previous steps are accomplished.

Congratulations, you have taken a huge step in making sure you are breathing effectively and efficiently for singing

2. How to sing from your diaphragm

Now, with your posture corrected, we can move on to the fun part of engaging the right muscles for breathing.

In this section, we’ll be moving from chesty and costal breathing to abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing for singing

*Again, a mirror can come in handy here.

  1. Standing with your correct posture (see above), place your hands on the bottom edge of your belly, like you’re pregnant and holding your stomach.
  2. With your hands in this position, begin to feel the movement of your breath.
  3. Take a deep inhale through your nose and see if you feel any movement in your hands around your stomach. If you’re in front of the mirror, you can also check visually to see if there’s any movement in your body as you’re inhaling.
  4. Exhale and begin to breathe comfortably.
  5. Now that you’re aware of your breath, see if you can begin to breathe in a way that physically moves your hands on your belly. We want the belly to extend and push the hands out as you inhale, and the belly to contract and bring the hands in as you exhale.

As you practice moving your breath to the much stronger diaphragmatic breathing, you are beginning to find the proper breathing techniques for singing.

Again, check in visually to make sure that you don’t see these things:

  • The shoulders rising
  • the arms moving outwards or sideways
  • The stomach contracting with the inhale (remember, you want the opposite. Your belly should always expand with the inhale and contract with the exhale)

These are tell-tale signs that you’re breathing in a less-than-efficient fashion. This would be clavicular or costal breathing, rather than abdominal or diaphragmatic.

If you catch yourself doing any of these things, simply reset your posture and try to move your breath to the abdomen.

3. One Daily Breathing Exercise for Breath Support

With the posture and diaphragmatic breathing in place, I’d like to show you the most effective breathing exercises for singing.

You can do a lot vocally with just the posture and breathing in the right place. So if you’d like to grow your breathing capacity for breathing while singing a fast song for instance, follow this exercise and repeat it daily.

This exercise was made famous by the castrato singer Farinelli. Farinelli was famed for his ability to sustain notes an incredible amount of time. I like to use these breathing exercises for singing warm ups.

*You will need a metronome or a clock with a second hand to do this exercise.

Set your metronome to 60 beats per minute. Don’t worry, your clock is already set to this tempo (ha!).

  1. Gently inhale through your mouth for 4 counts. *As an aside, it’s always better to breathe through your mouth than your nose when singing. Just be careful not to make a sound as you inhale through your mouth. Ideally you want to take what I like to call it a “scared breath” because it’s a quick inhale through your mouth but it is very quiet.
  2. Next, hold the breath in the diaphragm for 4 counts.
  3. Finally, exhale the breath for 4 counts.
  4. Repeat this exercise immediately after the exhale, but this time inhale for 5 counts.
  5. Continue to inhale, hold and exhale for greater counts until you feel ANY discomfort. Please don’t pass out or hyperventilate trying to get to 12 on the first day.

A couple of things you will note

First, you will have to very gradually control your inhales and exhales as the counts get higher. This is fantastic practice for your breath support.

Second, take note of the feeling of “holding” the breath. This is the feeling we want to have as we are singing. This small amount of pressure creates a strong tone, but it shouldn’t feel like a huge rush of air escaping like you feel when you exhale. While technically we sing on the exhale, the feeling of “holding” the diaphragmatic breath is much closer to the feeling of sustaining a long note.

In Conclusion

While there is no ONE BIG SECRET to singing, breathing for singing is incredibly important. A lot of breathing singing exercises are helping your body become more efficient at breathing and singing from the diaphragm.

Once good breath support is accomplished, there is still a lot of work to do with the other two systems of singing: phonation and resonation. Consider checking out this blog or booking a free trial lesson to get you on the road to a more beautiful voice.

Musical Theater Audition

The #1 Mistake in Musical Theater Auditions and How to Avoid It

I work with so many great singers preparing for a musical theater audition here in Austin, TX. From observing tons of great singers prepare for showcases and auditions, I can tell you that this city has a very active and evolving musical theater scene.

While it can be tempting to think that preparing for a musical theater audition is all about making sure your singing voice is perfect, sometimes the strongest singer is not the one who gets the part.

Let me explain:

In the voice studio, we’re usually working exclusively on vocal technique. For example, a singer is having a hard time hitting a high note. When they do, they flip to falsetto, or sing flat due to strain.

My training and experience has given me the tools I need to help this singer through their bridge; so instead of singing in falsetto, they’re singing in a strong head voice.

But sometimes, we need to put vocal technique aside and work on “acting out” or “performing” the song. This is because unlike pop music where the raw-gut emotion and vocal chops ARE the performance, in musical theater acting out the song is a MUST.

But where do you begin? You have the audition next week, you’ve picked out your song (for soprano, alto, tenor or bass) and you’re singing it pretty well. But after seeing some professional musical theater auditions, you know there’s more to it than just a good voice and the right piece.

You need to learn to “Act Out” the song

While singing Adele, Sam Smith or Freddie Mercury in the past has helped you develop a phenomenal voice, now they’re no use to you because they don’t act their songs and are not playing a character.

For musical theater, you are playing a character with LINES. Some of them sung, some not.

It’s very important for you to understand this character WANTS something.

What do they want?

Start by looking at the lyrics.

If we use the Tenor piece “Lost in the Wilderness” from Children of Eden as an example, we see that the characters Cain and Abel are in the wilderness starving and lost.

Let’s take a look at a section of the lyrics to see what these characters want:

“CAIN:
All these years of this cruel joke
The best harvest going up in smoke
Praying for a future from these silent stony shelves
How much more of this must we take
This is the morning we finally make a future for ourselves!
ABEL:
But Cain if it’s God’s will…
CAIN:

Is it God’s will or have we all been conned

Brother we will never know

We will never grow

If we never go

Beyond”

In the first verse, we see that Abel is trying to remain faithful and follow God’s orders, but Cain has a tremendous amount of doubt whether God will come to their rescue in the wilderness.

We can also see in the first verse that Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness and join him in search of a better life.

If you listen to this performance, you will naturally hear Cain’s emphasis on the lyrics: “joke”, “smoke”, “take” and “conned”.

Why is that? Are those the most important part of the melody?

Not at all.

In fact, the most important part of the melody is the middle of each line (“years”, “best harvest”, etc…).

But the singer chose to emphasize these words because he knows that it his job as an actor to embody Cain’s desires and his singing must ALIGN with those motivations.

Since, Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness, it makes sense that he is emphasizing the negative side of things (“joke”, “smoke”) as well as appealing to Abel’s sense of self-preservation (“ourselves”).

And while the melody doesn’t reflect the importance of those words, the singer certainly emphasizes them.

As a result, we have a clear understanding of what Cain wants and how he’s trying to get it.

How can you apply this to your own musical theater audition?

Begin by looking at the lyrics. Read them out loud normally like you’re reciting a speech.

You’ll notice the natural emphasis of the words may be different from the melody’s emphasis. Begin highlighting those words on your lyrics sheet.

Once you’ve found the natural emphasis of the piece and you’re starting the understand the character, write your character’s motivation for singing at the very top of the paper. In musical theater, there is almost always a reason your character is singing. Find it.

In our example, we would write: “Cain is trying to convince Abel to leave the wilderness and join him in search of a better life.

Finally, you can begin to “act out” the song by emphasizing your highlighted words when you sing the melody.

In conclusion, “acting out” a musical theater piece comes from an understanding of the character and his/her motivation. With an understanding of their motivation, you can make educated choices in which parts of the lyric to emphasize. Then you’re well on your way to successfully acting out the song and getting the role of your dreams!

Great Singers

3 Traits ALL Great Singers Share | OHE TV E47

3 Traits ALL Great Singers Share

One of my favorite things about teaching a lot of singing students in Austin, Texas is recognizing the patterns that make great singers in my studio.

While it’s true that my voice studio is a judgement-free zone (and always will be), I learn so much from every student that walks through the door.

Something that I’ve been watching for a while are the traits of my students that experience the most success in their voice lessons with me.

I think it’s incredibly important that every singer have these traits and I would go so far as to say that ALL amazing vocalists share these 3 traits.

The good news? You can acquire every one of them.

This also means there are no natural born amazing singers out there, because every great singer has worked to achieve these 3 things.

1. Great Singers are Musicians

This may seem like a no-brainer, but let’s take a closer look.

Some vocalists find it easy to sing in a mix between their chest voice and head voice. Or it’s easy for them to imitate Adele’s flip or Freddie Mercury’s edge.

This doesn’t necessarily make them a good musician.

How long does it take them to memorize a simple pop song? If it takes several weeks, this could mean they don’t understand the genre as well as someone with songwriting experience would.

If I put a piece of sheet music in front of them, are they able to follow the notes, or do they give up and just depend on their ear to ride it out?

In either case, the singer could benefit from improving their musicianship.

So what are some things you can do to work on your musicianship?

First, a great singer is rarely only a singer. Often, they play an instrument or have some working music theory as well.

You can also listen to new music every day. Learn to sight-read music. Take some lessons in another instrument. Jam and perform with other musicians. Listen to great singers, but ALSO listen to their bands.

2. Great Singers are Self-Aware

People talk about self-awareness all the time, usually in terms of how well a person understands themselves.

But what does this mean when it comes to vocals?

Say I have an 11-year-old boy that wants to sing Tom Waits.

Tom Waits has an incredibly gruff and damaged bass voice. If Tom’s voice was a drum, it would be the rusty kick drum that got lost in the flood last year.

Is that an appropriate choice for an 11-year old boy who breaks into falsetto on every high note?

Probably not.

Not only will those low notes be a stretch for the young man, but even if we transpose the song to a better key for his voice, he still won’t be able to imitate the growl or drama necessary for a Waits song.

The same applies to the 7-year-old girl who wants to sing Adele.

Adele’s melodramatic mezzo soprano voice is so large and cavernous, she sounds like a woman much older than she is. A 7 year old’s voice won’t be able to take that amount of pressure; even Adele can’t sustain it.

So, how do you become more self-aware as a singer?

Take some voice lessons. Learn where your bridges are and what voice type you are. It will go a long way in helping you find repertoire that is suitable and healthy for your voice.

3. Great Singers are Hard Workers

Some may say that this is a given.

You might say “Of course all the successful great singers are hard workers. They have to be.”

But I guarantee those same singers (the Adeles and Sam Smiths and John Legends out there) were hard workers before they got famous, and now they work even harder.

So, why should it be any different for you?

If they are at the level where they are making tons of money and touring constantly to support their critically acclaimed album, it’s because they worked to get there. They didn’t just become hard workers because they started making money at it.

At the same time, there are people who think that you can’t become a hard worker. That you are born that way.

But I truly believe that work-ethic is acquired. If the motivation is right, then the priorities and work ethic will follow.

So how do you build work ethic with singing?

Make it a priority. Set goals and find teachers that will help you achieve them, no matter how lofty they seem at first.

Finally, remember that each one of these traits is acquired over time. So don’t feel like you have to be an amazing musician, become enlightened or a workaholic overnight. These things take time and the more you make them a priority to develop, the more successful you’ll be.

voice teacher austin

Will Performing Make Me a Better Singer? | OHE TV E46

One of the biggest myths I encounter as a voice teacher is the thought that getting out and performing will magically make you a better singer. And in a music town like Austin, Texas, there is no shortage of performance opportunities for ANY singer.

First, we need to distinguish between a great singer and a great performer. While there are many people who are both, the paths that people take to get to each are different.

And when it comes to singing, practice makes perfect; not performance.

Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of excellent skills that a musician can only acquire by getting up on stage and doing it. But great singing is not one of them. In fact, most of the time that you’re performing, you’re only reinforcing bad technique.

It may seem counter intuitive that performing a lot could make you a worse singer but let’s look at an example:

A 17-year-old boy is going through his voice change. He hasn’t taken voice lessons before, his vocal break is rough and every time he sings high, he disconnects into a heady falsetto.

But his family and friends know that he has a dream of being a great singer so they encourage him to “just get out there and do it”.

After a few performances, he feels embarrassed on stage because of the falsetto and break in his voice and he says to himself that he “doesn’t have it”.

If you take this same young man and encourage him to take voice lessons, all of a sudden you’re actually addressing the problem of the flip in his voice. Now he can take a tool like a Gee Gee or a bratty “Nay Nay” and apply it to his favorite songs.

As a result, he starts to feel more confident and his high notes and range become more clear.

We’ve reversed the process from putting him in a position to fail to a position where he can succeed. And because the voice lessons are private, he can continue to hone his craft over time so that when he gets up on stage, he knows what to expect when he opens his mouth.

And by the way, this temptation to “perform your issues away” is not just for the teenage boy. I experience this with singers of all ages, especially singer/songwriters who don’t think vocal technique is any use to them.

They get out there and when the audience isn’t loving it, they blame themselves for being born with a bad voice and they think it has to stay that way. Whereas, if they’d had the opportunity to take a break from performance and could address some of these issues, they would know that EVERYONE has vocal issues and we all just learn to overcome them. Then, after a while they’d be able to forget about the vocal technique and just get up on stage and love the audience.

In short, performance will make you a better performer, not a better singer. And while you MUST be a great performer to make a career in music, great performance is totally different from what it takes to be a great singer. So get into the studio, take some lessons and start reversing some of those bad vocal habits so they don’t show up when the pressure’s on.