Besides being a keyboard player and pianist, I believe my biggest strength is my ability to produce vocals for artists. Since I arrived in Los Angeles after spending four years in Boston, I have been fortunate to work with some great singers.
As my career progressed, I have been asked many times to judge people’s songs and singing abilities and to give them a fair assessment of whether they have what it takes to make it as a professional singer. I have even spoken at conferences about this.
Honestly, it was always kind of awkward, and I never wanted to be cruel like Simon Cowell. However, I noticed that there is a huge difference between amateur singers who can’t even carry a tune and some of the pros I’ve had the luck to work with.
Why is that? Does it mean you have to be born with some kind of gift to make it in this profession?
Alright, let’s dive into that idea!
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Genetic Throat Problems
Personally, I don’t think you need to be born with superpowers to become a great singer. Unfortunately, some natural genetic defects could prevent you from singing and pose a lot of obstacles. However, with a lot of hard work and practice, these obstacles can be overcome.
I’m not going to give an anatomy lesson, but here’s the gist of the human singing mechanism: the most crucial part of your body as a singer is your vocal cords, which are located inside your larynx.
Air from your lungs is pushed up into the larynx, where the vocal cords create the actual sound of singing. Some people are born with vocal cords that don’t close and open correctly, which gives them a nasal quality or doesn’t allow them to create a pleasant sound.
Well, the good news is that if your vocal cords are damaged, you can get them fixed either with surgery or by working out your throat muscles. There are plenty of coaches out there who specialize in both voice and physical therapy.
These professionals will examine your vocal cords and teach you how to properly use them by retraining your body. Additionally, they will identify your vocal type and help prevent any future misuse of your vocal cords.
Lack of Strength
I once had the pleasure of being in a recording session with the amazing singer Chaka Khan, and let me tell you, she had some serious vocal abilities! I mean, I couldn’t believe the volume and power she could produce at any given moment.
After the session, I talked to her manager and asked how she did it. He said that when she was a child, she used to do gymnastics and even now she wakes up every day and does core abdominal workouts. I was like, “Wait, so you’re telling me all that power doesn’t actually come from her throat?” Crazy, right?
Anyway, if you’re struggling to get that power in your singing, it could be because you haven’t mastered proper breathing techniques or trained your core muscles. Strengthening your diaphragm is key to belting it out like a pro!
I know this might sound a bit unconventional, but if you want to strengthen your core, pole dancing and Yoga are actually great exercises. Many singers have started doing them and have seen a huge improvement in their vocal power.
Another important thing for singing is having strong lungs. Your diaphragm is what helps you get more air into your lungs, so it’s super important.
Swimming is a fantastic way to build up your lung capacity. Try doing some laps underwater and time yourself on your Apple Watch. Then challenge yourself to beat that time by five seconds for three weeks straight.
Believe me, you’ll feel and hear the difference!
Relative Pitch Issues
Okay, so some people can sing, but can they actually sing in tune? That’s a way bigger issue than just physical ability. Funny enough, the common idea is that not singing in tune means you have hearing problems, but that’s not exactly true.
The real cause of singing off-key is actually a mental problem, not an issue with your ears.
Now, there are some people who are born with perfect pitch, which means they can tell you the key you’re playing without even seeing your instrument, or they can name the exact note of a car horn outside.
That’s definitely a natural talent. However, most singers struggle with what we call relative pitch issues.
Basically, it means they lack musical knowledge, which makes it hard for them to judge the distance between intervals correctly. This means their brain doesn’t understand the difference between a half-step and a whole step, or they may not even know when they’ve hit the right “tuned” frequency on a scale.
So, this issue shows up as either singing too low or too high in music. We call it singing “flat” when you’re too low and singing “sharp” when you’re too high.
As a student, I spent many years trying to improve my relative pitch. The actual method to do this is to go to a piano or keyboard, play a middle C, and start singing any intervals above that until you can’t go any higher in your range.
This method creates a projection of the distance between the root note that you’re playing and the note that you are trying to hit. At first, you’re probably going to be way off, but as you start practicing, you might start hitting the note relatively, meaning you were closer to it than you thought.
Then, as you work even more diligently, you’ll start understanding when you tend to go flat or sharp.
For producers out there, this is an incredibly important skill to know, because part of our job is to know when the artist nails that perfect take. To know that, we need to know what the benchmark of great tuning is.
By the way, I also love using Melodyne and Auto-Tune plug-ins. Not only do they allow us to fix and tune singers after they’ve left the session, but they also provide a graphical representation of where pitch falls on a very detailed scale map.
I encourage singers to record themselves and then look at their waveforms in Melodyne, as it can help identify patterns of flatness or sharpness, shedding light on some of their pitch problems.
When working with an aspiring singer or mentoring someone who wants to be a singer, I always start by playing something on the piano that has three things: a precise rhythm, a melody that jumps different intervals, and a melody that goes up and down randomly.
I’ve noticed that the best singers also tend to have the best memory. Pitch and singing problems often stem from a subconscious insecurity in the melody itself.
If you’re unsure of yourself in the booth at a recording studio or on stage, chances are you’re not going to confidently hit those pitches. That’s why vocals, like any other instrument, require a melody to be ingrained in muscle memory.
We call it muscle memory when, as a singer, you’ve practiced something so many times that you don’t have to read or remember it – your body just knows how to sing it.
Here’s another cool technique I picked up in the melodic songwriting class I took at Berklee College of Music. Basically, you want to sing your melodies in all 12 keys to sketch it into memory.
That means not just learning it in the original key it’s written in. Start by transposing it by a half step, and keep going until you’ve gone through all 12 keys, including the next octave.
By the time you’ve done that, the melody will be ingrained in your muscles, memory, and brain. It’ll do wonders for your pitch and performance. Trust me!