We recently had the pleasure of hosting a masterclass with Alana K, an expert vocal coach who helps touring musicians improve, manage and maintain their voice (from Cradle of Filth to Ne Obliviscaris to everything in between, so a lot of her teaching is focussed on both clean and scream vocals).
Most of my background as a vocalist has been from the sidelines. When you’re recording vocalists, you need to know how to coach them to some extent, and you definitely need to be able to sing melodic ideas to other band mates in a rehearsal situation (it’s no good telling a drummer to jump to the A minor pentatonic lick - they likely won’t know what you’re talking about).
It’s also incredibly useful to be able to sing and play guitar together, as most punters have no interest in listening to a guitarist on their own!
But actually practicing and improving your vocals is hard without direction, as we can’t see the instrument - it’s inside us, and it’s different for every person.
That’s why I’m going to share 5 tips from Alana’s workshop to give you some much-needed direction, along with video summary for those who want to see some of her exercises in practice.
#1 - Find the right register for your voice (and the song)
There’s more than one way to sing, and the way you approach singing can change the tone of your voice and the mood of the song.
4 key registers are (from low to high):
Vocal fry is for super low notes, particularly in male gospel or choral music. It’s often tougher for women to master but not impossible. Great for screamers.
Modal register is for normal talking and singing. Great for folk and spoken word-style vocals and most vocal styles where the words need to be very clear.
Mixed register is a combination of modal and falsetto, which is great for giving a varied vocal performance but difficult to master for most guys.
Falsetto is for the the airy, high notes. Great for sounding a bit softer or more surreal, but also just generally important for reaching the super high notes.
It’s ok to move between registers (transitioning, which takes practice) but think about where you’re aiming for each note, each phrase or each song and adjust your technique accordingly.
#2 - Expand your range with Major 5th scales and ambulance sirens
Having trouble reaching high or low notes? Maybe you just find you lose your pitch when you get into a certain range?
Alana talked about transitioning, which is moving from one register to another, which is an area many vocalists struggle with.
To help, try singing the first 5 notes of a major (or minor) scale. Now move up a semitone and sing the pattern again. Keep going until you reach your limit, then go back down.
You can use your guitar to help - just play through the major scale on a good starting note, shuffle up a fret and use that as your reference. You’ll be able to hear if you have the correct note or not - and try to stick to the correct octave!
Similarly, you can make an ambulance-like sound, starting low, going high and coming back down smoothly as a great way to push your range up and down over time.
#3 - Breathe and focus on your exercises (when you brush your teeth)
Breathing deep into your stomach is not a natural skill for all of us.
To test this, try breathing normally. Does your stomach bulge out as you inhale?
If not, you’ve got some breathing to work on! Breathing deeply not only helps give you more control, volume and endurance for your vocals, it can have great health benefits for you too (many meditation experts will recommend similar exercises.
So, next time you’re brushing your teeth (not literally as you brush - before or after, dummy), stand in front of the mirror, put your hands on your hips and breathe deeply into your stomach - in through your nose, out through your mouth, in a controlled manner.
I can attest to how effective this practice can be. Through my martial arts training, we used to practice meditation a lot. I can now slow my breathing down to 1-2 comfortable breaths per minute, slowing my heart rate in the process, which is great for dealing with stress, the cold, pain - pretty much anything!
All it took was short, daily practice, which, if you combine this with your vocal warmups and exercises, will give you big advances in your breathing skills and vocal techniques.
#4 - Practice singing harmonies today
We often talk about how to harmonise melodies on the guitar, and those same tricks can be used for vocals too!
Let’s say you have a melody that goes C - D - E. One of the most effective ways to harmonise this is to go up a 3rd through the scale, playing E - F - G at the same time. This will make the two harmonised melodies sound like a chord.
You can do the same thing with vocals by learning to recognise the interval of a 3rd by ear. If you need help, check out musictheory.net for a bunch of free ear-training tools.
If you get the starting note correct, and you have a good ear, you can improvise the rest. In other words, you don’t HAVE to play a third above each note to make it sound good if you don’t want to, but it’s a great starting point.
Next time you’re singing along with your favourite song, try listening for the harmonies in the background. If there are none, make up your own by singing an interesting counter-melody.
Incredibly useful skill as a backing vocalist and songwriter, but also great for helping you come up with soloing ideas on guitar too!
#5 Get yourself some vocal help
Probably the biggest thing I learnt (and it shouldn’t have been a surprise) is that there’s a lot to learning vocals.
Even though some people are born with great pipes and a great ear, most of us aren’t. Even if you are one of the lucky ones, you can always get better.
I watched Alana give little tips to probably 5-10 people in her workshop, all unique to that person that will make a massive difference to their technique and singing abilities, and it’s very hard to diagnose and uncover these problems and little tips on your own (think back to when you were first learning guitar - knowing the best hand position and all those little things probably weren’t immediately obvious).
If you have even a passing interest in being a singer (even if it’s just for fun), get yourself a couple of lessons to master the basics. You may only need a few small changes to go from an ok singer to a great one, or to go from a person who is tone-deaf to someone who can hold a tune!
Our next masterclass will be from our Chord Lord, Mitch Parker, talking about mastering guitar chords for rhythm and lead playing. You can get tickets for it on our website, even if you’re not a current student.