Let us ask: how do you feel about your singing voice?
We’re guessing that whether you consider yourself “a singer” or not, your answer probably isn’t “my singing voice is amazing and I am 100% comfortable with how it sounds at all times!”
If you’ve ever felt unsure about your voice – maybe that’s even held you back from trying to learn to sing – or if you are a singer and you’re trying to tap in to “your sound” or “your true voice” – stay tuned.
Today we’re joined by Nikki Loney from Full Voice Music. Nikki is a professional singer and voice teacher and creates resources to help other voice teachers with young singers in particular. Nikki was introduced to us by Sara Campbell, our former piano pro at Musical U who’s a voice teacher and singer herself, and she made the connection because Nikki’s speciality is something near and dear to our heart here at Musical U: helping people “make peace” with their voice.
It’s easy to imagine singing as a technical skill, like learning how to move your fingers right to play guitar or piano. But although there is that pure technique that must be learned, singing is unique among instruments because it is so deeply and intimately a part of who we are.
And that means that for many beginner singers – or those who want to begin, or even those who dream of beginning but feel it’s beyond them – the biggest barrier is how we feel about our own voice.
This is such an important part of the the big bundle of “learning to sing” and it’s rarely given enough attention in the establishment of learning to sing – so that only those who are already comfortable about their voice and being a singer actually learn to sing.
As you’ll be hearing, we have a shared passion (slash rage) about how society and culture treat singing and how things can be made dramatically better and more welcoming to those who’ve felt locked out of the world of singing – as well as those who are on the path but have hangups about how they sound.
Nikki has some fantastic insights from a breadth of experience teaching, and in this conversation she shares:
- The gift for singing that she had growing up – and it’s not what you might think.
- How she found her own voice – and what literally it means to do that, to “find your voice”
- How to know if you’re good enough to start singing lessons and what specifically can help you to find the right teacher
This conversation was a total delight and we know that whatever relationship you have with singing there are going to be some fresh perspectives and we hope some powerful encouragement for you in this episode.
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
- The Full Voice
- The Full Voice podcast
- Sane Singing, by D. Brian Lee
- 10 Things Your Voice Teacher Wants You To Know About Singing Lessons
- The ONE Word That Will Make Your Students Sing Better
- Helping Students “Make Peace” With Their Voice
- Strategies For Shy Singers – The Full Voice podcast episode
- Vocal Exploration Exercises – The Full Voice podcast episode
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Nikki. Thank you for joining us today.
Nikki: Oh, Christopher, thank you so much. I am so honored to be here. I am so excited.
Christopher: Likewise. So I have so much admiration and respect for the way you approach the topic of helping people get singing and it made me super curious about your own singing backstory and how you came to learn to sing and find your own voice. Can you tell us how you got started in music?
Nikki: Oh, sure. I have to say that I was super lucky and super blessed. My dad was, well, is, he’s still will us. My dad was a singer in the 60’s. He was an R and B singer and he was in the Toronto scene and he played and performed. He played guitar, he sang and it was his passion and he’s always shared his love for singing with me. So when I was little, little, little he would pull out the guitar and he would teach me songs and whenever anybody came over to the house I would have to sing for them which was fine when I was a little girl but when I became a teenager I was a little resentful of it but he was relentless and made me sing everywhere and anywhere.
He encouraged me to sing in choirs at school. He encouraged me to participate in every opportunity possible and he was and still is to this day my biggest supporter. He still comes to my shows. I don’t perform as much as I used to but when I do he’s there and I, it’s truly a gift and I didn’t recognize how special that gift was until my early years of teaching voice when I saw, in some of my students who didn’t have that support and it became really clear right in the early days that, you know, the kids that had the support from mom and dad would stay in lessons. They were successful in lessons and the kids that were just dropped off and didn’t have that kind of support system they struggled and often they wouldn’t stay in lessons for very long and so I started to recognize how lucky I was with my dad’s support and my mom, too. My mom was always there but my dad was my biggest fan and he fought for every opportunity that I could get and he, I mean, I was in the recording studio when I was, like, 14.
Nikki: I was, yeah, I was singing in a school assembly and there was a songwriter in the audience who was, like, “Well, she’s got a beautiful voice and I want her to record this song,” and my dad’s, like, “Sure. Let’s do it,” and he, it’s, just, those opportunities just were always available and I just was surrounded by people who were super supportive and who, just, you know, people were always saying lovely things and “You sing so beautifully. I love hearing you sing,” and I was really lucky because I know that’s not what happens for a lot of people.
Christopher: Yeah, for sure. So you mentioned, you know, there were moments where you weren’t really up for performing at home when your dad’s friends were around or whatever but apart from that it sounds like you were, just, kind of, thrown in at the deep end and swam. Was there any kind of performance anxiety or any uncertainty about your identity as a singer or did it all just kind of flow naturally enough?
Nikki: Well, in my, that’s a great question, actually. In my early, when I was really young I was always singing with my dad so it was, I always had him beside me. It wasn’t until I was older that I took more of a solo role and by that point I had had so much experience singing in front of people but when I went to college, so, oh, and that’s the other support I got, too. I just want to mention, like, I know that some people’s parents discouraged them from studying music postsecondary and that, of course, that wasn’t the case. My dad was thrilled when I said, “I’m going to a school for music.” He was, like, “Of course you are.” So, but when I went to school I studied jazz. I studied at Humber College and that was probably, I was really thrown into, well, improvisation. Improvisation scared me to death. Do want to hear a funny story about improvisation and fear?
Christopher: Sure, yeah.
Nikki: So with my father I was always singing songs that I had heard and listened to and I was very good at imitating the sounds of other singers and sounding and singing exactly like the recording and that was just what I did but, of course, when you go to school for jazz you’re supposed to improvise and you’re supposed to come up with a solo and you’re supposed to scat and I had never, ever in my entire life done that. And I remember my first ensemble class, you know, we’re all playing this jazz standard, which I learned and I knew the head really well and then the teacher is, like, “Okay, now we’re all going to solo,” and started going around the class and I’m dying. I’m, like, I’m, I have no clue what to do and, like, all color drained from my face and my stomach tightened up into a knot and I literally was, and I had never felt that before.
I had been so comfortable because I was in my element and now, all of a sudden I was supposed to make up this solo and I just looked at the teacher and I think I squeaked out a few notes and he was very kind. His name was Pat Lebarbara. Amazing saxophone player. And he recognized that, you know, I had never listened, I wasn’t listening to jazz and it was a new art form and new genre and he was very kind.
He took me aside and he said, “Don’t worry about it,” you know, “You start by singing the melody, and he gave me some tips and got me started but I had never experienced that level of uncomfortableness and being completely out of my element and my whole experience at college was really exciting and terrifying because finding my own voice and learning to play with melody and learning to just be free and just be willing to make mistakes was really challenging and there was a lot of tears and frustration because I had been so confident before and all of that was taken away and then I had to build it up again and it took a good, I would say, probably, like, three years, well it was three years in college and then it wasn’t utnil years after I graduated from college that I felt that I had found my authentic voice and I felt comfortable in my ability as a musician but, yeah, but I always have flashbacks to that class and I, I’m glad because it allows me to help my singers because I appreciate how they feel and how terrifying it is when you just don’t know what to do so I channel that fear when I work with them.
Christopher: I want to talk a lot more about that as well as finding your voice and what exactly that might mean but before that, why did you put yourself in that situation as someone who had been singing, imitating singers, having a great time of it, then it was time to go to college and you chose to major in jazz singing which would require this of you?
Nikki: I know, right? That was a great, that’s a great question. So I, my dad, again, insisted and is really supportive and I had to take vocal lessons, obviously, all the way through high school and I had fantastic teachers and I studied classically so I studied classical voice with private teachers but then I was also performing pop music, country music with my dad and with others and the options back in the day, so we’re going back twenty-something years, the only really options for post-secondary back then were classical voice, which was not my passion and the other one was the jazz program.
Now, it’s much different now. There’s so much more available out there for people who want to study postsecondary but there are really my only two options back then and I had been working with a lot of fantastic musicians that had graduated from that program who were doing a variety of things from jazz to contemporary music. A lot of them were session musicians and they all spoke really highly of that program, so that was really the only option for me because I wasn’t interested in a classical voice program at the time.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well, I didn’t know you were going to tell that story but I feel like in that story it is, kind of, everything I wanted to discuss with you so that’s ideal and the first thing there being, you made reference to how this helped you come to own your own musicality. You felt like you knew what you were doing in music at the end of the program in a way you hadn’t before and you also made reference to finding your own voice and I guess that’s opposed to imitating other singers and I’d love to hear more about that. What happened those three years that had that impact on you and what did it look like to have found your own voice?
Nikki: That has a lot to do with the amazing musicians that I met when I was going to school. We’re so, when you surround yourself with passionate people who are, just, really crazy about what they do, I mean, that energy just, that just, you absorb that, right? You know, when we surround our people who are growth mindset and passionate we just learn so much from them and I really had a great group of musicians and started to get some recording studio experience and it’s funny because I first got my recording studio experience because I was really good at imitating, like, certain singers.
That, kind of, got me in the door and being able to, you know, when you work with a producer and they are, like, “Well, I want this kind of sound,” that’s a really great skill to have as a studio singer but as I started to work with musicians and I started to write my own songs it became really apparent that I wasn’t going to sing these songs well if was trying to sound like somebody else and, again, it was uncomfortable for a while because I really didn’t know what sounds would go with the words that I was writing and there was a lot of discussion about it and the other thing that I think was really helpful is because when we were songwriting we were always recording ourselves so we would have an idea, we would record it and then you’re listening, you’re always listening back and I know it’s one of the hardest things for musicians, whether you’re a pro, whether you’re an amateur. That raw data of your voice or your sound coming back at you is, I mean, it’s so difficult sometimes to hear that but we need to hear that so I was always listening to my voice and critiquing it and it was one of my friends who was, , a fantastic singer and he was so helpful because I was, of course, like a lot of singers, telling everybody what I hated about the track and what I didn’t like, and, no, I don’t like this and I don’t like that and one of my friends turned to me and goes, “Yeah, but what do you like? Like, what sounds are you making that you like?” and then he was very good and he was, like, “I really like the way you do this,” and “I really like the way that that verse sounds, the way you said that word,” and I realized, that was one of those big light bulb moments and that’s something that I try to teach my students when I am working with my singers in the teaching studio is we can criticize ourselves all day long but it’s far more productive to listen to something, go, “Wow, I really like that word,” even if it’s a word, like, “I love that word I’m singing.”
If you can find those sweet moments that are, that you really like, you’ll start, you change the way you listen to things and I like to do that with my singers as well, like, I’ll say to them, you know, “Who’s a singer that you like?” and we’ll listen to the track and we’ll go, “What qualities in this voice do you really, that you like?” And I’ll share some of my thoughts. I’ll go, “I love the way she uses,” you know, “she uses her chest voice here. I love the way she uses that breathy sound,” and we’ll start to listen in a different way and if we can do that with other singers then we can certainly do that with ourselves so it was my friend that really encouraged me to start listening to my voice in a positive way and he was so, he was such a positive guy and I think that was one of those big moments where I started to hear my voice differently, rather than, just, “I hate that note. I hate that sound, that note.” You can do that all day but you’ve got to find those sounds that you do like.
Christopher: Fantastic, and you gave a couple of examples of observations, there, you might make and things you like that, I guess, would become part of your palette or how you think about the way you sing. I wonder if you could flesh that out a bit more for us. If you imagine yourself on day one of three years of college and at the end of the process, what kinds of things were you exploring to find your voice and what did it look like when you were, like, “Yes, I know how to pick a song and sing it as me.”?
Nikki: That is a great question. When you’re singing other people’s songs and you are, when you’re listening to the sound quality in your voice and you’re imitating you disconnect, I think from the lyrics. At least that’s what I noticed with a lot of my students. Like, a lot of people don’t really look at the story that they’re telling and I always tell that to my students. “You’re a storyteller. You’re a storyteller that is using words and the music and pitches so when you’re imitating you’re listening to just the sound quality that the singer is making and you’re trying to copy that.
And when I started songwriting and writing my own lyrics I started to think about how I was going to express it because the words actually meant something to me because it was my story and in doing that, my story, my ideas I started to realize how I was inflecting and coloring the words. Some teachers call it word coloring. Some teachers call it inflexion, like, when you put the emphasis on the words when you sing and that was, that had a lot to do with finding my own voice and really thinking about how I wanted to tell the story. A
And then in writing my own music, telling my own stories I was able to go back to songs, cover songs, or jazz standards that I had sung and thought, “Well, what is this story? What actually is this song about and what does it mean to me?” and that opened up a whole other opportunity of expressive singing and, of course, performing, when you are a good storyteller, I mean, is just such a, it’s a different relationship with the audience, right? You’re not just singing them a bunch of notes or “Here’s my highest note and here’s my lowest note.” You’re telling them a story and you connect with the audience at such a huge level and it’s a beautiful moment and I honestly would say that’s didn’t really happen until my 30’s. (Laughs)
Christopher: Despite having been singing from such a young age.
Nikki: Yeah. Yeah, because, again, I was listening to the sounds that the singers make and then, and I would like to say that that’s an important skill for a singer to have. Like, we want to be able to hear sounds and then know how to create them within our own voice but if that’s where our focus is then the text, the lyrics, the story might get pushed to the side and I think authentic singing is also authentic storytelling and when you can really connect with the story, you will connect with the audience.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well, one thing we like to do on this show is take these, kind of, fuzzy, abstract ideas in music education and really pick apart what’s going on, you know, things like, talent or gift or having a good voice and try and figure out, like, what is there there in literal, specific terms and I love the way you just talked about finding your voice because it was very practical. It was very specific and I think people listening can really understand now what that process looked like where often, you know, it can just be seen as a magical transformation that happened through your dedication and passion to singing.
Nikki: No, I, you know, I would love to say that it was a magical transformation. It was a long journey and I think that as a singer, well, as in any musician, our relationship with our instrument, whether it’s our voice or whether it’s guitar, it’s a long journey and as we grow, as we connect with other singers or other instrumentalists we learn from them and we’re inspired by them. It’s a slow process which is difficult, I think, for humans because we want everything to happen right away but it’s, I think it’s just part of growing as a human and an artist, right, as a creative person. Those, creativity is not an instant thing. It happens in waves and you have to kind of be okay with that.
Christopher: At this point you would be thinking, I guess, very much, as a teacher and when you look back on that period you can see with a teacher’s eyes what was going on. I’d love to know in the moment in that period how much was it a conscious process of thinking, “Okay, I’m going to listen with these questions in minute and I’m going to adapt this part of my voice and I’m going to change my performance in this way.” Were you consciously trying to shape your voice in that way and come to the point were you felt like you knew your voice or was it kind of a subconscious thing from the environment you were in and the kind of exercises you were doing?
Nikki: That’s, wow, I’m going to have to think about that. I’m going to go with, it was, in the beginning, it was very subconscious and I think it was the feedback that I received from, whether it was my colleagues or my musicians that I was working with and then the audience. Like, I think I started to recognize that because I, I didn’t recognize it at first but I, it was slow and then it was the realization that I’ve changed my focus.
One of the things I think that is challenging for singers and for musicians, we get really, really stuck in technique, right? We, and you should, like, you want to understand how your instrument works and how you use it. You want to have healthy technique, obviously, because you don’t want to injure yourself and that is important but it causes a disconnect with the emotional and the feel and the authenticity and so I think my perspective had changed into more storytelling, into more expressiveness.
I wasn’t worried so much about technique and that took a while for me to consciously recognize that my focus had changed, so I would way it was a slow process from just letting go of all my fears and worries. Does that make sense?
Christopher: It does. It does and it clearly was a journey. It’s a story and I love that we’ve approached these topics from your own story because I wasn’t expecting to but it’s fascinating because I think a lot of what you teach now and what you do with your students, it sounds like the roots can kind of be traced back to those formative years which is really fascinating and maybe we can address that same question now from the flip side, which is as a teacher now. When a student comes to you and you feel like they’ve got the technique okay by they’re still in that, kind of, imitation mode and they’re saying to you, “I’m writing songs. I don’t feel like I’ve found my voice,” what kinds of things would you be doing with them to help them in that process?
Nikki: Well, again, I really like to talk about the lyrics. I really like to, we do a lot of exercises in the studio where we talk about the character, the story. There’s, I mean, there’s acting techniques that I often draw from which are really helpful. There’s the, and I have to shout out to my friend Nate Plumber because he gave me these. Like, there’s three questions that you have to ask yourself when you’re singing a song and the first one is, “What do you want?” Right?
What do you want? You’re singing these words, what is it that you want? And then the second question is, “What are the obstacles? Why aren’t you getting what you want?” and then the third question is, “Can you overcome, or do you overcome the obstacles or can you overcome the obstacles?” And that, when you kind of dissect the lyrics like that, that’s where some of the emotion, not some, all of the emotion and the intensity can come from.
So I always do this, especially with pop songs because, again, the kids, my young kid students, my teens and even some of my pro singers, they’re singing contemporary music, are often, they’re not relating to the text so, you know, I’ll take an Adele song. So what does she want? She wants the guy. What’s the obstacle? He’s either married or he’s moved away. She’s not going to get the guy. And then the third question is, does she overcome? No, and that’s why the song has that raw emotion to it, because she’s not getting what she wants. S
So we use those kind of techniques to talk about lyrics and connecting to the lyrics and where you’re going with that energy. One of the things I would say to people who maybe are struggling a little bit of performance anxiety, when our focus shifts from technique and notes and pitches to the, what the song is really about I feel that you kind of disconnect from a lot of the stage fright, because you’re too busy thinking about what this song is about to be thinking, “Oh, my goodness. Those people are looking at me,” or “I just sang a bad note.”
Like, those things are not on your radar when you’re connecting to the words and I think that that has a lot to do with it. We get distracted and we’re, we’ve got all our fears running around in our head. Well, what is this song about? What is the feeling that you feel when you sing this song? What do you want? And that’s a really good technique for stage fright, which is, put your focus into the story and you’ll feel so much better and you won’t have the, I call it the disk space, you won’t have the disk space to get all upset about, you know, the things that you, the fears that you, you know, the false narratives, right? You don’t, you won’t have time for that. So that’s one of the tools I use. Like, if you’re stressed out about your performance you’re not thinking about the song and story enough.
Christopher: Mmm. That’s amazing. I feel like fiinding your voice is kind of a lofty concept and in your own story it came in quite late in the process. You know, you were successfully singing and performing for many years before you found your voice but it sounds like, actually with your own students this isn’t a super advanced skill you teach them one day. It sounds like this is something you would be talking with them about from the outset, continually.
Nikki: Mm-hm. Yeah. I really, well, first of all, I think the human voice is, just, such an incredible instrument. It’s so, I always remind my students, there’s no other voice like yours. There’s no other sound than your sound and I also remind them that the human voice is capable of making a lot of different sounds, expressive sounds, singing sounds.
There’s so much that we can do with our voices and I want them, I encourage them, to explore sounds, their sounds, and explore other singers’ sounds and I always challenge them, like, they’ll sing a song for me and I’ll say, “Okay, that was awesome. I liked this, this, and this.” “But what if you tried it like this? What if you tried it like this? What if you sang it a little differently? What if you used this sound? What do you think? ” You know, what if, and that exploration, I love that word.
I love to challenge my students to get out of the good and bad mindset so instead of, “This is good and I like this,” and “This is horrible and I don’t like this,” exploring gives us that freedom without, you know, punishment or, you know, there’s no bad end to it. Exploring allows us just to see those colors and I, when I work with students of any age, but especially the kiddos, I always tell them and their moms and dads, I always say, “Look, in my teaching studio I want you to try a whole bunch of styles of music. We’re not just going to sing one style. We’re not just going to sing pop. I want you to do a classical study just to see. Just to see how it feels. Just to see how it sounds.”
I love when my kids get to their teens because I love introducing jazz and I, that was never, that was something that I didn’t have, which, that introduction, when I was younger which I think made me so uncomfortable in my college days so I kind of want to make sure my students at least have a taste of it so they’re not going to have the fear that I did and the worries that I did.
So we’ll do some jazz standards and we’ll talk about improvisation and we’ll do some pop songs. We’ll dive into musical theater and putting the acting in and in it’s not, you know, it’s not super focused. It’s more, “Let’s see what this genre is like. Let’s see what this is like. What does your voice sound like when you do this? What does your voice sound like when you do that?” and I think that approach is, I just want them to have doors open for them. I don’t want them to narrow their training so that they feel limited later on. I want them to be able to go, “Okay, you know what? I am going to try. I am going to get up and sing with this jazz band, ” or, “You know, I am going to audition for the school play,” or “Yeah, I am going to sing in the choir at church,” or whatever. Like, I want them to have that flexibility and that freedom so exploring allows us to find all the different colors, the different sounds in our voices and be confident with them. Does that make sense?
Christopher: It does. It makes a lot of sense and I love it all but I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute.
Nikki: Oh, my gosh. I love it.
Christopher: (Laughs) A moment ago you said you liked to tell your students that every voice is unique. There is no other voice quite like theirs and I have no doubt there have been countless students whose response is, “Yeah, mine is just that bad,” and for our listener who is thinking that and heard you talk about, let’s try this, Let’s explore that, maybe I’ll feel ready for the church choir, there are going to be listeners who have heard all that and thought, “That is all so far beyond me. Like, I’m not even good enough to get into that exploration stuff. My voice sounds bad. This isn’t really an option.” What would you say to those people?
Nikki: Well, the first thing I would do is I would give them a big hug.
Nikki: And I would like them to know that they’re not alone in that fear, in that worry. I have quite a few students in my studio right now who at some point in their life somebody has said unkind things about their voices and I, that, which is trauma, really. Those kind of comments, especially if you were told at a, like, if you were young and somebody said, “Oh, you shouldn’t sing,” or “You should just mouth the words,” that stays with you for a lifetime and I, might heart is heavy for those people. I really, truly feel for what they’ve been through and one of the things in my teaching studio is that, like, I really want people to make peace with their voice. I want to get them to know their voice.
What I would say to them is that there is, like I said before, there are so many colors and sounds that the human voice is capable of and we just need to be brave and there is also, I think we have to, kind of, approach it in a vulnerable way, like, we have to be, we have to be brave, we have to be vulnerable and, but there are sounds there that are beautiful and if you really struggle with that, and I know that there are people out there who struggle with that, I highly recommend that you reach out to a teacher who can help you find those colors, can help you find those sounds because they’re in there. I don’t believe that, like, I truly believe all my business cards.
It says, “Yes, everyone can sing,” and I truly believe that and I get very, very (no pun intended) vocal with people who put down other people. Like, I’ve got a dad who constantly tells me how much his wife can’t sing and I’m, like, “Do not say those things.” Like, “Don’t say that. I don’t believe that.” I also would like to, just, mention the culture, the pop culture of the whole Canadian Idol, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, our good friend Simon Cowell and his really, I mean, that whole thing where people would go and sing horribly and he would make fun of them, unfortunately has created this environment where people think it’s okay to do that and it’s not. It is not okay to say those horrible things to people.
You know, art is subjective. There are singers who I love the sound of their voices and there’s singers who I don’t. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad singers it’s just that those sound qualities or their emotions, I don’t connect with it but it’s not, I have no right to pick on anyone’s voice and when my students bring in songs that they want to sing and maybe I’m not a fan of the vocalist and I’m, this, I’m saying this to teachers out there, we do not have any right to criticize the singers that our students, like, connnect to. We have not right. I am not going to go into a lecture about how it’s horrible singing and it’s this and it’s that. The music and the sounds that bring students to us is so personal and we need to stay out of it. And there’s always something we can find that’s positive about something unless it’s, like, death metal screaming. That may be, may be —
Christopher: Hey, we have members at Musical U who are super into their death metal screaming.
Nikki: Right? Exactly. But as a voice teacher I don’t know how to approach that but, yeah.
So we, the music that you listen to, the sounds that you like, no one can take that away from you and there , the human voice is incredible. There are beautiful sounds in there. Find somebody that can support you through that and talk to them about your fears. But the one thing I will say, which is, again, the rule in my teaching studio and what I try to teach my students, the negative self-talk where we’re constantly saying things like, “I hate my voice. My voice sounds horrible,” I strongly urge people to be very mindful about the words that they use when they’re talking about their voices.
Some people do it and I’m doing air qoutes here in a joking way but truly it’s not. Those unkind words chip away at our confidence. They chip away at who we are and when we, when we’re on repeat and we’re constantly saying those things over and over and over again, we will believe them. So a lot of people that have come to me who are really struggling with their voice have a very deep-seated narrative about their singing and so that’s really one of the first places where I start which is that we have to come up with different language for your voice.
And I would like to say for anybody that’s either working with a singer or with a teacher or anybody who is thinking about working with a teacher, when you come in to a teaching studio saying, “I hate my voice,” that’s not really giving us a lot of feedback and it’s difficult for a voice teacher to help you. It’s like going to a hair dresser and saying, “I hate my hair.” The hairdresser’s going to go, “Okay. Is it the color? Is it the cut? Is it the way it is after you shampoo? Like, what is it about your hair that you don’t like?” and they can give you a better cut.
I know that’s a silly analogy but it’s the same thing for singers. What is it about your voice? Is it thin? Are there notes that you’re having a hard time with? Is it, do you struggle with pitch? Are you having a hard time matching pitches or is it the quality of the voice, is it the intonation of the voice? When you can create and use a better language about what you hear you’ll work more productively with a professional and they’ll be able to offer better strategies so that you can make better progress.
So ditch the negative self-talk and the self-vocal-loathing and think of what exactly is your struggle? What sound? And I have a few students in my teaching studio. They’re actually, I love them. I like forward to their lessons every week. They’re older gentlemen. They’re in their forties, almost fifties. One of them is semi-retired. They’re guitar players and I’m so proud of them. They’ve found their courage. They reached out and they’re like, “I really want to do more singing in the band that I’m playing in,” and I’m, like, “Yes, let’s do it,” and what we’ve found is, and again, they came in and the first thing they said is, “I hate my voice and my band doesn’t want me to sing,” and but what I discovered is they were just singing in the wrong register. They were trying to sing songs that just physically weren’t, they weren’t really capable of but when we found songs that were in the keys and in the registers they sounded fine and they’re so happy.
Christopher: That’s fantastic. I love everything you just said and I’d almost end the interview there because I think, how could you improve on that but there are more things I want to ask you so I’m going to continue on even thought I kind of want to let you do a mic drop and just walk off the stage.
Christopher: I super-appreciate what you said about the cultural context of getting feedback about your voice and I think it goes for your internal dialog, too, when we see things like X Factor and we assume it’s okay to have that in a critic and it’s positive but it is not and I was reminded as you talked of this Buzzfeed article from a little while back which I forget the exact title of, but it was, basically, “Ten jokes from the T.V. show ‘Friends’ that are just not okay anymore’,” and it was looking back at episodes and pointing out, like, there were jokes about being fat, there were jokes about being gay and at the time that seemed like fair game. It seemed funny, it seemed fine and looking back ten or 20 years later we’re like, “Really? Like, that’s not okay. Like, that’s just really negative and unpleasant,” and, you know, if you go back further in history it’s even more stark, the kind of things people used to think were okay to joke about.
Nikki: Of course.
Christopher: And I feel like we’re kind of at that moment where, hopefully in the next 10 or 20 years people will realize, like, you should not be making fun of someone for the way they sing. You should not be criticizing someone’s music tastes. That’s just not okay. And I think it would do so much for aspiring singers and those who want to get into singing if we did not have that cultural atmosphere, where, you know, there’s the gifted few and everyone else should be a bit ashamed of themselves.
Nikki: Oh, my goodness, I agree with you 100% and that conversation comes up in my teaching studio a lot. It comes up with parents and with the kids because a lot of my students love those shows and I often remind them, you know, there’s, when they do the shots of the audience, right, the audience is chuckling and laughing and jeering and they’re, they’ve made an assumption.
The example that made me irate was the Susan Boyle. You know, when she walked out on stage and here’s this, this plain woman and everybody’s laughing and all the kids are, everybody’s, like, whispering to each other, I was disgusted and then everybody was shocked because she had this beautiful voice and I even had students that came in, “Did you hear her singing?” and I found that so offensive. I’m, like, “I’m sorry. People, older people who aren’t really beautiful are not capable of singing beautifully? Like,really?”
Christopher: Like, she wasn’t okay until we’d known she can really sing and then it was fine for her to be a human being.
Nikki: Exactly. It was, and I found that really offensive and usually when I tell people that they’re, like, “Yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t make sense.” I said, “T.V. reality shows, those competition shows have created a very, well, they’ve continued that myth, that opinion, that, yes, you’re born with it or you’re not, , as you know as a music educator, is not true.”
And I’ll use the example of my son. My son loves baseball and people will say to me, “Your son is so good at baseball,” and I will laugh and I will say, “My son does nothing but play baseball and he wasn’t born with it. He was interested in it and that is what he wants to do and so, yes, out of, like, 10,000 hours of throwing a ball and catching a ball his coordination is really something but he wasn’t born with that. He’s put in the hours and people just assume that, you know, you’re born with this beautiful singing voice and I hear that from parents.
Parents will call me up and say, “Could you assess my daughter to see if it’s worth lessons and my, and this is, I’m kind of sarcastic, but it’s, like, “Sure. I’ll do it right now. Question number one: does she like to sing?” “Oh, she loves to sing,” I said, “She’s ready for lessons. Bring her on in.” That is the only prerequisite that I have and, you know, I said, the benefits of singing lessons, you know, are just, there’s so many. It has nothing to do with the talent or ability or any of that. Like, just, if you love to sing then nurture that, right? So that mindset of we have it or we don’t is so damaging and yes, I agree with you.
The thinking that we have the right to critique people is just, it’s so unfortunate and when I do recitals for my studio I always get up and before everybody performs I welcome the audience and I thank everybody for their commitment and thank everybody for the opportunity to work with their kids because I really, truly, I love what I do and I love that opportunity. I really cherish it but I remind people that, you know, it’s, first of all, it takes an enormous amount of courage to get onstage and we have to acknowledge that. We have performers today that, this is their first performance and we have performers that have been singing their entire life and there is awesome in every single person that gets up and you’re going to see it and I always remind them, you know, that this is, there’s something in each performance that’s special and you’re going to see it. You’re going to find it if you’re looking for it and I find that I think that’s really helpful because, you know, a lot of them, are, like, “Well, she didn’t sing very loud,” or, you know. Well, yeah, she’s eight.
Nikki: So, yeah but I think just reminders like that and just checking in with that mindset is important.
Nikki: And we all have those voices. We all have that self-doubt. I know every creative human being on the planet has those moments and, you know, you have to take that deep breath and, again, you know, surround yourself with supportive people. Maybe it’s a teacher. Maybe it’s a friend who loves music as much as you do and just support each other, you know?
And the other thing I always, I wanted to put out, too, and I always encourage my students, make sure you take the time to compliment others and support others. Like, if you put that energy out and that positive reinforcement out you’ll get that back, right, and so I’m always encouraging. I will always say to my teenagers, I say, you know, “Can you go find the younger students and just tell them how much you enjoyed their performance?” or, “Can you tell each other what you thought of the performances?” Like, I always encourage that kind of interaction because I think sometimes we need a little nudge, you know, “Hey, did you like that performance? ” “Yeah.” “I liked it, too. Go tell them.” (Laughs)
Christopher: For sure. So we focus a lot at Musical U on helping people take those first steps in singing and we do it in a fairly practical, scientific way of, like, let’s get you matching pitch and let’s get your voice under control and there’s value in that but I also really love the way you talked about it just now in terms of the mindset and your response to, “Is my daughter good enough for voice lessons?” I love that but I wonder if we could talk a little bit more for the person who’s listening and even having heard you say that is kind of feeling like, “I’m not ready for my first singing lesson.”
Like, singing lessons are serious business for people who want to get really good at singing and you need to be kind of okay at singing before you get in there with a teacher because “I don’t want them to laugh at me,” or “I don’t want them to, kind of, cringe when I sing. Like, I’m not really ready for that one-on-one situation yet.” Is there a thing they can do to prepare themselves for it or is there anything they should know about that student-teacher relationship if they’ve never been in a singing lesson before?
Nikki: Yes, there is. Sometimes people have this opinion that voice teachers are, well, one, the big one is we’re trying to change voices. We’re trying to change your voice. Professional voice teachers, first of all, we don’t want you to actually come in and sing perfectly for us. That’s actually not very helpful and we don’t sing perfectly all of the time, either. So I would like for those of you out there that are listening and you’re, like, “I’m not ready for that,” I want you to know that your voice teacher wants to champion you. We want to support you. We are not ever going to laugh at, I never, ever, in a millions years would I laugh or make fun of a student.
I have never turned a student away no matter where they are. I recognize and I think most of my colleagues would agree how much courage it takes to ask for help. How vulnerable you can feel, I mean, I don’t like going into a store and asking for help so I appreciate how scary it can be but really, I, when in my teaching studio the teaching studio is a safe space. It’s a space where you can show the teacher where you’re struggling and it’s so important to show the teacher, like, this is what I’m not good at.
We actually need to see what you’re not good at and if I can give you a little bit of inspiration, the voice, sometimes, a lot of times, there’s very small corrections that a teacher can give you that can make huge improvements so sometimes it’s little things that we see and we notice and we’ll go, “Okay, you know what, if you relax your jaw a little bit that sound’s going to get a lot nicer,” and so there is, it might not be the huge ordeal that you’re thinking and the one thing that I would say, too, is if you’re thinking about lessons one or two lessons isn’t going to help you.
You want to, like, you might want to have a trial lesson with a teacher to see if you’re a good fit and if that teacher makes you feel comfortable and they should be interested in making you feel comfortable but you want to commit to, most teachers offer packages, you know, like, I offer four, six and eight packages because one or two lesson is going to probably confuse you and you’re going to leave a little more confused and overwhelmed than you arrived but it takes a while.
It’s a really intimate relationship and it takes a while to get comfortable with a teacher and the teacher needs to get to know you and to know your voice and as you get more comfortable and you get more relaxed you’re going to show them more of your voice and they’re going to be able to offer you more and more strategies and corrections and ideas that you can take back so if you can get over that initial, awkward first couple of lessons it can truly be an amazing relationship and if you connect with the right teacher you will, just, I think it can be, just, really beautiful.
I’ve seen a lot of my adult students, like, I was telling you about the gentlemen that are the guitar players. They’re having so much fun in their bands now. They’ve found songs they connect with, songs that they can sing really well. Some of the guys are now doing harmonies and it was a hard struggle. We had to work hard on that but it’s so wonderful and they are, they’re enjoying themselves. Their music is becoming a joy again rather than a stress where they’re worried because they weren’t meeting certain expectations. So the initial, I’m not going to lie, the first couple of lessons with anyone can be a little stressful and a little nerve-wracking but once you get over that hump it can be an incredible relationship. Discovering your voice and what I call making peace with your voice is a gift that you can give yourself but it requires some courage and some vulnerability and hugs.
Christopher: Very good. Well, you touched on what I think is often the other barrier, there, for people which is “Okay, I could definitely get along with Nikki and I can see that she’s a nice, encouragnig vocal teacher and we’d have a good time but how do I know the singing teacher I go along to will be like that? Is there anything people can do to increase their odds of finding a teacher who takes this kind of encouraging attitude?
Nikki: That’s, yes. Most, that, I think you want to do your research, so you want to check out, most, I mean, most professionals will have, like, a website and they should have, like, their teaching philosophy. They might even list some of their performance experience.
I think it’s important to find a teacher that has similar performance experience that you are either engaged in or you’re looking to participate in. I think one of the things that, ooh, I’m getting on thin ice, here. I’m kind of calling out some of my colleagues. If you are a contemporary singer you want to work with a contemporary voice teacher so somebody who is classically trained and is only experienced in classical is not your person and people can send me nasty emails if they want to but you want to check out their websites. You want to check out their teaching philosophy and I think if you are really articulate in what you are looking for a professional voice teacher should be able to say, “Yes, I can help you,” or “You know what, I might not be the teacher for you,” and, again, don’t take offense to that but “I’m not the teacher for you but here’s my colleague,” and I love doing that, like, there are certain, if people come to me and they’re looking for, like, advanced classical lessons that’s not me.
I’m not, I don’t specialize in languages. I don’t prepare students for a high-level classical auditions but my friend down the street does and my friend in Westdale, she’s an expert on that and they also know that if students are auditioning for a jazz program, well, Nikki is your girl and she can totally help you with that so even within our community we know our superpowers and we can refer out. So if you are a student and you can articulate what you’re looking for, you know, “I’m a musician. I haven’t done much singing. I’m looking to develop some confidence. I sing in acountry band,” like, if you can give those details to the teacher ikt they’ll either say, “Well, yes I can help you,” or “No, I can’t,” and, again, a lotof teachers will offer a trial, a couple of trial lessons. I would, and, you know, can I share a great resource for…
Christopher: Please do.
Nikki: …that’s not mine?
Christopher: For sure.
Nikki: My, there’s a really beautiful book that’s written and by my good friend Brian Lee. It’s called, “Sane Singing,” and Brian is a brilliant voice teacher. He’s down in the U.S. and his journey was very difficult. He had a couple of teachers that were not beneficial for him which basically put his singing career on hold for 19 years and his book, “Sane Singing,” which you can get on Amazon is probably one of the most beautiful written books about finding a good teacher and advocating for yourself if you are looking to learn how to sing.
And he talks about finding the right teacher and he talks about, you know, why it’s important to connect with the teacher and what teachers should be trying to do and he also talks about how you can assess your own vocal progress because sometimes that’s difficult, right? “Am I getting better? I don’t know. I think I am.” So I highly recommend that book. It’s beautifully written, it’s full of, so the one thing that I love, which we’ve been talking about today is about being kind, kind to yourself.
One of the things that Brian says is, if you have kindness for yourself and for others you will have a beautiful singing voice. Right? It’s like, it’s that whole energy so that’s a great resource for anyone that’s really stuck and doesn’t feel that they have the courage to make that next step to connect with a teacher.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you. Well, we’ll definitely link to that in the show notes of this episode.
Nikki: Yes, please.
Christopher: And I still have several more questions, Nikki, that I really wanted to pick your brains on, including talking about tonic solfa and how you use moveable do and hand signs and I think we’re going to have to invite you back on for a part two because I need to be respectful of your time today.
Nikki: I would love that.
Christopher: And tell people about The Full Voice.com and what you provide online if they want to know more about Nikki Loney.
Nikki: Oh, thank you. Well, my company, thefullvoice.com, is, we create resources for teachers working with young singers and, again, we’re trying to create fun and colorful and play-based learning.
Historically the study of voice has been very serious business and, again, a lot of teachers have not really been interested in working with singers because of that, the historic nature of teaching singing but we know so much more about kids, we know so much more about learning styles. We know so much more of the power of play-based learning.
So my company is really invested in embracing those philosophies, those teaching philosophies and creating resources for teachers to have educational and super fun vocal lesson and even though we’re geared towards kids and essentially we’re trying to help those foundational first lessons be incredible so that they have a lifetime of joy with their voice and even though our resources tend to be for the young singers there’s so much that translates for your teens and I make my adult students play the games too, actually. They have a lot of fun.
I think our adults, I mean, we always assume they don’t want to have fun but they do so Full Voice is about creating resources for the young singer, supporting the private voice teacher. We also connect with composers that are writing the music for young singers and it’s just a really supportive, fun community and we’ve connected with teachers all over the world. The podcast, The Full Voice Podcast, is for voice teachers. I do interviews with teachers from all over the four corners of the globe, just sharing their joy and their passion for teaching, for singing and we have free downloads and lots of sample so teachers if they’re interested they can get started on some of our resources, and, yeah, we have a lot of fun. I get to have fun with kids all week long. (Laughs)
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, as I said, I think, at the beginning of the conversation, I have so much admiration and appreciation for what you do at The Full Voice and I feel a bit guilty every time I listen to one of your podcast episodes and you say, “Hello, voice teacher,” and I think, “Oh, I’m not a voice teacher but I really like your show,” but I did just want to make the point, the podcast is fantastic and I often say when we’re talking to someone on the show who teaches teachers, often there’s really great material that even if you’re teaching yourself if you’re a student and in particular I’m going to link to a couple of podcast episodes, there’s one on vocal exploration exercises and another one on strategies for shy singers and both of those, whether a teacher or you’re a student are chock full of really useful nuggets as this conversation has been. So just a huge thank you, Nikki, and keep upthe great work because I love everything you do at The Full Voice and I know our listeners had a blast joining us for this conversation today.
Nikki: Well, thank you, Christopher. This has been so much fun. I really admire Musical U. You guys are, again, I feel the same way. You guys are just doing so much good work and giving passionate people, inspired people the place to learn. I think it’s wonderful. I’m so glad we’ve been able to connect.