(This post originally appeared in The Bel Canto Chronicle)
In my last Bel Canto Chronicle post (Want to learn to sing? You need a teacher!) I laid the smack down on blogs and websites that presume to take the place of a decent voice teacher. There is obviously also a thirst out there for steps to take before lessons. A lot of the questions come from kids still in high school—maybe they don’t know any teachers, maybe their parents aren’t willing to pay for lessons, who knows. At any rate there is a demand for information on just what to do if you want to sing classically.
I refuse to write a post on what to do instead of lessons—you need lessons! But in lieu of that I have thought up what I think is a pretty darn good list of suggestions for what you can do before you have lessons, if you think classical singing might be for you. So here are ten things you can actually DO without fear of vocal injury or learning improper technique; ten steps you can take right now if you want to be a singer but you aren’t in lessons. Have a look and get started! In bocca al lupo:
- Do your research, but remain skeptical.
Ok, you’re here, so you’re probably already doing this one. Go ahead, do all your google searches and scan youtube for all the singing tips you want, get it out of your system. There are, after all, some pretty decent informal sources out there (I flatter myself to think this blog one of them). But it’s in your best interest to remain skeptical, because none of the information you take in at this level is qualified by the approval of your own private voice teacher. And there is a lot of information and tutorial material out there that is poorly written, misleading, just plain silly, and sometimes even dangerous. Look around and start to get a feel for the dialogue about singing, but take it all with a grain of salt, huh?
- Start listening to good classical singers.
Although you should never try to base your sound on aural imitation of someone else’s voice, it is very helpful to listen to good singers to get ideas for timbral and stylistic choices, and to hear the results of a given technique. When you start singing vocal modeling can be a tricky thing; your voice is unique to you, and you want to sound like yourself! But at the same time some modeling of technique can prove a very fast (if risky) way to discover and secure technique for your own instrument.
In the meantime, listening to good singers is invaluable if you haven’t heard many yet. You start to get used to (and fall in love with) the sound of a voice used optimally. You also begin to become acquainted with vocal literature (songs, Opere, etc.), which will help you down the road when you are learning said literature for yourself.
Do a little research here and make sure the singers you hear are the best. Why settle for less? This is by no means a complete or perfect list of the greatest singers on record, but here are a few names to check out if you are just looking for a place to start: Maria Callas; Joan Sutherland; Renée Fleming; Anna Moffo; Marilyn Horne; Joyce DiDonato; Janet Baker; Cecilia Bartoli; Jussi Björling; Luciano Pavarotti; Plácido Domingo; Jonas Kaufmann; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Robert Merrill; Bryn Terfel; Sherrill Milnes; Thomas Hampson; Samuel Ramey; René Pape. If it’s legitimate classical singing you want, steer clear of “crossover” singers like Josh Groban, Paul Potts, and Jackie Evancho. Some of them may have lovely talents but they are not classical singers and they sound nothing like the best.
- Go hear a good singer live!
There’s nothing else quite like hearing a great classical singer in person. Go see an opera! Oh goodness, it’s fun! If you’ve never been to one I suggest Puccini’s La bohème because it is relatively short (usually a little over two hours), potent and very beautiful. Some other popular opere are quite a bit longer (like Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro), but if comedy is your style you might enjoy Figaro or the strong wit in Don Giovanni.
You don’t have to go to New York or Los Angeles either (although there’s nothing wrong with that if you’ve got the dough!). There are lots of regional opera companies in smaller cities, and they need your support! Have a look online and find a company near you, and price the tickets. Hint: a lot of them offer student discounts and matinée specials.
Don’t rule out recitals, either—but try to see the best singer you can, for the most inspiration!
- Get into shape.
For all kinds of reasons, really. Because you want to live longer. Because you want to be healthy enough to play with your grandkids. Because you want to look great in that new swimsuit. In opera and classical singing it’s hip to be hot these days, and although the proverbial “fat lady” still takes center stage from time to time, the cold hard truth is that your physical appearance does play a role in casting and hiring decisions.
But more importantly, you need to be able to breathe well, engage your entire body, and understand things kinesthetically in order to sing well. So if you’re a bit of a slob but you want to sing, start by de-slobbing yourself. It’s possible that poor dietary choices could slow your vocal progress by agitating acid reflux, causing your body to produce excess mucus, or preventing the membranes and the instrument from being properly hydrated. You need to be very well hydrated to sing well, as a rule. So start drinking water like a fish, start eating a bit healthier, and start working on that bod (with the caveat that heavy weight-lifting or other strenuous exercises that initiate considerable amounts of sublaryngeal pressure can be detrimental to your vocal health—if it makes you grunt a lot, maybe don’t do that).
- Start training your breath now.
If you decide to take voice lessons, you’ll be working to train your breath a lot. Why not get ahead of the curve and start right now? There are all kinds of things you can do to start working for a proper singer’s breath. Look for exercises and activities that increase the amount of air you take in, like basic cardio or yoga breathing. There are other things that yoga can help you with too, like getting a good, deep belly breath, or working on back expansion (breathing “into” your back).
You can start to train your diaphragm with exercises as well (a very important muscle for singing, but often poorly understood). The diaphragm is autonomic—that is, you don’t directly control it. You have to make it work indirectly. A great exercise to strengthen it is to take a deep breath and then pulse a series of hard, crisp consonants with a lot of air, pushing in from the belly on every sound (think “k,” “t,” “p,” or even a well-controlled “s”).
In general, any breathing exercise that will increase your breathing capacity or breath control is probably a good thing to do.
- Brush up on your piano skills!
No, seriously. You have no idea how helpful this will be! Singers rely on pianists and the piano. You’ll give yourself a real leg-up if you have any piano experience. Maybe it would be easier for you to get piano than voice lessons right now due to your location or age. If the opportunity comes, jump on it!
As a child I took a few lessons with my mother but eventually abandoned it for guitar and popular music (until college). I had a blast doing what I did with music in my teens, but I have never regretted taking those lessons—and I have often (usually while teaching) regretted quitting them so soon! If you end up studying voice at a University you will have to take piano classes anyway, so you might as well get started right now. Go tickle those ivories.
- Learn how to read music.
I suppose this goes hand in hand with number 5 (and number 3—we’ll get to that), but it can’t be emphasized strongly enough. If you want to learn to sing, you really need to learn to read music. And the better you learn to read it, the better off you’ll be. I mean, sure, start with the basics—melodic contour, key signatures, meters, rhythms, yada yada yada. Learn it all so that you know it for score study, as we all do. But then, if you really want to be a singer, go the extra mile and learn to really read music, like as in really good sight-reading.
Think about it. If I give you a paragraph of something in English and ask you to read it aloud, and you stammer through slowly and with many mistakes, then ask to have a week to practice it—are you literate?
The best way to grow in your music literacy, once you know how to read music, is to sight-read through as much of it as you can. Practice makes perfect! But if you haven’t the foggiest idea how to read music, get started now, before you look for a teacher. It will save you both lots of time and awkwardness down the road.
- Join a choir (?)
This is a suggestion that, if you follow it, could prove to be the best or one of the worst vocal decisions you ever make. So choose wisely. Singing in a choir can be downright dangerous if you are unwittingly falling into poor technical habits. Even if you don’t suffer from vocal injury or even fatigue, bad vocal habits picked up in a few weeks can take years to reverse. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
That being said, a good choir is a magical thing. For starters there’s all of the good technique you’ll pick up, and all that experience learning to read well and to sing with musicality. But in a good chorus you’ll also be exposed to that connection between musicians and between singers and an audience that makes music great—and if you don’t have another place to sing, that alone might be worth the risk. But if you’re sure that you want to be a classical singer, I really think you ought to…
- Take trial lessons.
You’ve done your reading, your listening, your breathing exercises. You’ve been ramping up to it for a few weeks and you’re finally ready to start the search for a maestro/maestra, someone into whose hands you will commit your vocal health and development. Excited? You should be!
Do some research here too and make sure you’re taking lessons with reputable, qualified teachers. Save yourself a little embarrassment and find out at the front end what they charge (a lot of teachers will give a free trial lesson, but it’s rude to make the assumption) and what they expect you to have prepared for the lesson, if anything.
If you live in a community with a thriving art and music scene, you might have all sorts of options and places to look for teachers. If not, a good place to snoop around is the nearest University music school. Happy hunting! It’s a necessary step in your journey, because the next (and most important) thing you need to do is to:
- Study with a teacher!
Yup. I know, I know—I’ve already said this! But it’s the bottom line: you need to take successive lessons with one good teacher in order to learn to sing well. So do your round or two of trial lessons, weigh your options, and then call up your top choice and see if they are willing to work with you. If they take you on, all further vocal tips and advice (especially technical) you read or hear about should be filtered through them before you make any attempts. They have the experience, the pedigree and the know-how; they will protect your instrument while nurturing you as an artist and helping you unlock the hidden potential of your unique voice. Work hard, study diligently, and have a blast! You’re on your way.