Has the thought “I hope I sound good” ever crossed your mind before you started to sing? How about “Please just don’t be terrible”?
It’s possibly the most common thought we have before we open our mouths to sing, especially in front of other people. We want them to enjoy listening to our voice and avoid seeing them cringe when we don’t hit a note bang on. So it seems like a useful thing to aim for, right?
The problem with this particular thought is that it’s more like a vague wish than a clear direction for the brain and the body. And in order to train our bodies to produce the sound we’re after, we need to be a lot more specific than this.
So why do we think like this?
Well, for one, singing scares the pants off a lot of people. It feels personal and vulnerable (even to those of us who have been doing it for years). Our voice is unique to us and is an expression of who we are, so we tend to take criticism of our singing to heart.
When I was younger, I used to enter singing competitions. I didn’t know what was worse; waiting to go on stage (the giant knots in my stomach making me feel physically sick), the performance (shaking like a leaf), or getting my results (rolling the dice hoping for pure elation over heart-wrenching disappointment).
The problem with getting graded like this was that if I got an A, I would feel like a winner. But if I got a D, I would think I was a D. I couldn’t distinguish between my voice needing more training and me being a complete failure. And I see this in many of my students.
We link people’s feedback with our self-worth, and we can begin to forget why we started singing in the first place -- the joy, remember?
I think part of the problem is that we buy into this idea that singing doesn’t need to be learned like any other instrument -- you can either sing or you can’t. We weren’t born being able to play the trumpet, so why do we apply that idea to singing?
“But I want to know if others think I sound good!”
The other issue with aiming for “good” is that it’s entirely subjective and it’ll change from person to person, so you’re never really getting a clear answer.
I’ve lost count of how many times my students have turned to me, wide-eyed after singing something, and asked “Was that good?” as though it’s a simple question than can be answered with either a yes or no.
It’s very understandable to want feedback for your singing voice -- after all, we all want to improve! -- but here’s the problem with that question…
Using beige, generic words like “good” makes it almost impossible to answer, because the idea of what sounds “good” can differ wildly from person to person. I can say I love Janelle Monáe’s voice, and yet someone else can tell me I’m insane because they think her singing voice is dreadful.
It’s your teacher’s job to make sure you’re singing safely and efficiently, but outside of that they shouldn’t be telling you exactly what your tone should sound like.
You’re in charge of how you would like your “end goal” to sound, and it’s going to depend on the styles and voices that you love. Once you have clarity around that, your teacher can give you more specific help and direction.
So what should we say/think instead?
The first thing I ask a student after they throw me the dreaded “Was that good?” question is “What did it feel like?”
Because we tend to judge our voices based more on what it sounds like, some singers have no idea how to answer this question. They aren’t paying attention to how it feels, only the result that flies out of their mouth.
When we focus solely on the sound we’re creating, we tend to get into some pretty bad habits. We add tension, pushing and squeezing to get closer to the sound we want, only to find that it’s still not quite right (and feels pretty awful).
You want singing to feel pretty effortless from the neck up. Paying attention to how it feels means you can catch little technical issues yourself and give your teacher more information to help you find the sound you’d like without the strain or the vocal fatigue.
Yes, the sound is important too!
I know I know, you don’t want it to feel like syrup is simply pouring out of your mouth but the sound of it is intolerable…
Instead of aiming for “good”, we need to get more descriptive, more creative and more specific. Listening to singers whose voices you swoon over is a great place to start. As singers, we can learn a lot by developing our active listening skills. We can start to be able to hear differences in tone that convey specific emotions or fit into certain styles.
To give a few examples, Adele’s rich, powerful tone is the perfect match for her emotionally-charged ballads. Sutton Foster’s crystal clear bright voice sounds like it was made for singing musical theatre. The intensity and versatility of Freddie Mercury’s voice helped him redefine the rock genre.
As you actively listen to music more and more, you’ll begin to notice that a singer will sing the first verse quietly with almost a whisper to their tone, and yet sing the second verse with the exact same notes in a much stronger, clearer way. You’ll start to notice subtle changes to the way a singer pronounces their vowels for a rounder, more resonant sound, or to add brightness to the tone.
So to get started, listen to a song by one of your favourite singers. What are the specific characteristics you love about their voice?
Yes, describing the qualities in someone’s voice is tricky, but there’s no right or wrong way to do this. You don’t need the technical terminology under your belt -- you can use your own language to explain what it is that you like and would like to add more of in your own singing.
A few places you can start are:
- Volume (soft/loud)
- Clarity (clear/breathy)
- Fullness (full, rich or resonant/thin)
- Power or weight (strong, powerful/light, sweet)
- Brightness (dark/bright)
Now notice when the singer moves between different colours and how this evokes emotion or helps to tell the story in some way. Perhaps they start the phrase strongly but pull back the volume at the end to show the switch from angry to sad. Maybe it initially sounds warm and rich, but then as they go higher, they add some twang to add intensity. Do they add vocal effects like growls or distortion, or is it completely clean?
Know what you want
So how do you get the singing voice you’ve always dreamed of? Together with actively listening to the singers you admire, it’s about educating yourself to make the decisions that are right for your voice and what you’re wanting to perform.
So instead of asking yourself “Was that good?” you can replace it with “Was that tension-free? Did that sound full and resonant? Was my technique solid? Was that too bright for what I’d like here? Does that tone suit the style I’m working on? Are the emotions behind the song getting across?”
Getting more clarity around what you want out of your voice means you’re making more of the decisions and no longer relying on other people to tell you what sound you want.
Being an artist means creating something that is uniquely yours. You get to decide for yourself what “good” is, and then experiment yourself or enlist the help of a teacher in order to get yourself there.
Ear training is the key to determining what you want to achieve in your singing voice, what “good” sounds like to you, and how you can get yourself there. Apply active listening to your voice -- listen carefully to yourself as you sing, and pinpoint how you’d like to change your sound.
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