Someone told you that you suck at singing. Is it true? Is it as bad as they say it is? No way. Can you improve your voice? Absolutely.
If you think you could never be a singer, now is the time to change your mind. I’ll help you decide whether your haters are full of it, or if they’re onto something. In this article, I explain why feedback often comes from a place of exaggerated truth. I show you how singers can resolve many common complaints. I also discuss why you’re probably not tone-deaf, and explain how to get tested if necessary.
Everyone has been told at least once in their life that their singing “sucks”. It’s a lie, or at least it’s a huge exaggeration. Worse, many people are told that they should never sing. Whether one’s intentions are genuine or malicious, that’s a hurtful and wrong thing to say.
I hear it all the time. In fact, you could say it’s even more common within professional singing circles. One moment, I’m singing happily to myself, unaware of nearby listeners. The next moment I hear someone wincing – “ooh… you shouldn’t sing those sorts of songs Hayden, they don’t suit your voice. Plus you were a bit flat on the high part. ” Day. Ruined.
Singers must learn to accept constant criticism, but for children and beginners, these comments can be traumatic. I want to assure you that most critical feedback is wildly exaggerated or wrong. You can fix most of these issues pretty easily. I want you to know that if you want to be a singer, you can be. Read on for a collection of common issues or complaints, and advice for dealing with each issue.
Tone-deafness is the hardest singing issue to solve. It’s also incredibly rare. True tone-deafness, known as amusia, is a defect in pitch processing, musical memory and musical recognition. Only 4% of people have congenital amusia (tone-deafness from birth)1. You can also get acquired amusia from brain damage, disease, or injury.
If someone ever told you that you’re tone-deaf, there’s a very strong chance that they’re wrong. Especially if the listener has no musical training. Other vocal issues can seem like tone-deafness to the untrained ear, so keep reading before getting tested.
The test involves playing two different notes and trying to identify which is higher or lower. If you think you might be tone-deaf, try an online tone-deafness test. The next step is to consider seeing an audiologist. If the results are positive, you might never become a melodic singer. Keep in mind that there are many other forms of music and singing that don’t need melody, like Rap. There’s always a way.
If you’re not tone-deaf but still struggle with pitch, it could be for many reasons. The next step is to diagnose the pitch problem and start fixing it. I urge you to see a vocal coach to guide you through this process.
Dealing with pitch problems
The most common pitch problem I see in beginners is trying to sing outside a comfortable range. When your sense of pitch is developing, you may be less accurate outside your normal speaking range. The first step to solving a pitch problem is to try singing the phrase in a much lower or higher key. With time you will become more accurate across your entire range.
Tension is another important cause of pitch problems. Tension can come from anywhere in the body and can affect every aspect of the voice including pitch. Once you’re singing in a comfortable range, start removing sources of tension. First learn how to align your body correctly, then study how to breathe comfortably.
If you’re singing in a comfortable range and you have no major sources of tension, great! Good old practice is the next step to improve your voice. Accuracy takes time to develop, and don’t worry if it takes longer than you expect. Use scales, arpeggios, and a playlist of various songs that you love. Sing every single day. It’s so simple to find time to sing. I play my playlist every time I get in the car. It’s not ideal for posture, but it’s the longest practice lesson most of us will get. My car stereo is one of my most valuable assets!
Tone Colour, also known as timbre, is the quality of your voice. A trumpet has a “brassy” tone colour. A banjo has a “twangy” tone colour. A badly-played violin has a “wailing cat” or “fingernails-on-chalkboard” tone colour. Your singing voice has its own unique tone colour that you can augment for different genres. Opera singers have big, resonant voices (and Italian accents). Country singers have nasal voices (and Southern American accents). Accents are part of tone colour because they are part of what makes the sound unique.
So what makes tone colour a common vocal issue? Well, what tone colour does a beginner singer have? Quite often, an untrained singer will use a very plain sound, almost like they’re talking. It’s this lack of complexity and resonance that makes many casual singers sound “bad”. Untrained listeners struggle to explain this concept, but they know something’s wrong. So they say something like “that was bad” or “you’re tone-deaf”. There’s a huge difference between timbre and accuracy! Luckily, tone colour is very easy to fix.
Dealing with tone colour issues
Like with pitch and all other vocal problems, begin by removing sources of tension. Don’t try to “manufacture” a sound that you think people want to hear, start with your natural voice. We then add a few ingredients to give life to your natural sound.
First, we add resonance. This gives your sound a sense of depth, volume, and power. It’s like turning up the mids and lows on your stereo equaliser. We create resonance by widening the space at the back of our mouth and throat. Specifically, that means gently lowering the larynx. Imagine you’re singing opera. A common mistake is to also lift the tongue, blocking the throat and creating a “swallowed” sound. Leave your tongue down and relaxed, and keep the entire passage of air open.
Next, we add twang. Twang gives your voice brightness, vitality and lift. It’s like turning up the mids to highs on the EQ. True twang is NOT nasal. To add twang, add airflow to your voice and brighten the tone. You should be able to hear this sense of airflow but it should not become breathy or nasal.
We always use the two together. We call this “chiaroscuro”, which is Italian for “bright and dark. ” Keep a fair amount of both elements, without adding tension or over-manufacturing. It should still sound natural and easy, but the result should be more pleasant to hear and easier to sing. The best balance of light and dark may change depending on the genre, and also where in your range you are singing.
If you’ve done all the above, you’re already a great singer! Performance is a reason experienced singers sometimes suck. Many singers improve their sound without learning to deliver a compelling performance. It’s an easy mistake to make, as we often think we’re delivering emotional performance… but we need to look in the mirror for a bit first.
Delivering an interesting and skilful performance also requires mental stamina. Without focus, we can be distracted by our technique, or the story, or the baby crying in the third row. Once distracted our expression can disappear without us even realising it.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your performance:
- Am I emotionally connected to the song?
- Is the song relevant to me personally? Start with the songs that affect you emotionally.
- Is the song appropriate for my audience? Make sure you choose songs your audience will appreciate.
- Am I performing with my whole body? Use your entire body to tell the story, but be careful not to let it get in the way of your voice.
- Am I performing at all, or have I checked out?
Watch your performance, then decide if your face is telling an emotional story. A mirror will give you instant feedback but won’t tell you what happens when muscle memory kicks in on stage. Use a video camera, or even better, use both.
Being told that you suck doesn’t have to suck! The feedback you get as a singer, though often hurtful, can be useful. You should now be able to take the feedback you get, interpret it, and use it to improve your singing.
This ability puts the power and confidence back in your hands. I hope that this article will convince more people to step out of their showers and cars to become singers. If you want a detailed guide to developing your voice, check out my free course.
What criticism have you received or heard as a singer? What did you do to improve your voice? Tell us in the comments.