What If I’m A Bad Singer, and No One Will Tell Me?

After watching too much American Idol… I think we’ve all asked ourselves this question, right? We watch people that are “bad at singing” and worry that, that could be us. That we could be completely embarrassing ourselves, and no one will tell us.

First of all, I’m convinced that the largest majority of “bad” singers on American Idol realize what’s happening. In fact, I know someone who made it all the way to the judges/on TV purposely trying to be the “bad” singer. These folks have at least 4 auditions before reaching the judges, and have paid their own money to come back multiple times. Television likes to exploit insecurities in people. We like watching it, because we relate to it and/or find it interesting. The odds of this happening to you without your knowledge are slim to none. And as long as you’re not on national television, who cares if you sound a little weird sometimes, right?

Many of my students have asked me, “Do you think I’m ACTUALLY good at this? Is there a point in pursuing this, or am I really bad and should quit now?”

Here is the bottom line: If you want to sing, you should be singing. Everyone can get better, sure. We all have places in our voices that need improvement. Show me someone who wants to sing? You’re showing me a person who should. Now, does this mean you’re Whitney Houston and you’re going to be famous tomorrow? Likely not. But you shouldn’t give up.

In my travels, I’ve seen INCREDIBLE singers who never “made it big”, and people who had lots of pitch and tension problems, become super stars. Have you ever heard Bob Dillon sing, for goodness sake?

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder:

Everyone’s tastes are different. Someone who is a PERFECT recording artist to one person, sounds like garbage to another. So, who are we to say someone is good or bad? That’s just… “your opinion, man.” Do you have someone in your life who has told you that you can’t sing, or shouldn’t? They’re wrong. Period. If there’s a song in your heart, you need to sing.

“Ok Emily, everyone should sing… does that mean I always sound ‘great’ when I do?”

In the most loving way possible… NOPE. 🙂

Back to what I said about the whole “everyone can get better” thing… That’s true. Here’s a small list of what MOST people perceive as a “great singer”, even if they don’t know it.

1. Singing on intended pitches:

Our ears and brains have an agreement on notes being “on pitch” or “in the key” while we’re singing. Many people are born with naturally incredible pitch matching abilities. Some are not, and have to work harder to hear a note and sing it correctly. You can absolutely improve your ability to match pitch. I see it in my studio every day! It is important to know that being on pitch is essential to great singing.

2. Being physically comfortable:

Why is it we can hear two people singing the exact same note, and think one sounds better than the other? As I said before, it could be just preference, but a big part of it is perceived comfort in the body. Our bodies know when other people’s bodies are uncomfortable, or “in pain”. When a singer looks/sounds like the note they’re hitting is hurting or uncomfortable, we perceive that as “bad”. Our empathetic selves don’t want to see/hear others in any sort of pain. It’s important to try (eventually, when we’re not learning a new skill in singing) to become “comfortable” in our bodies, throughout our songs.

3. Doing something difficult:

On the flip side, our bodies also know (even if we know nothing about singing) when something is hard to do. So when we hear someone belting out “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman, we can tell… THAT’S HARD TO DO! And we’re impressed. Most people have to train to get their voices to do things that are very difficult, while maintaining #1 (great pitch) and #2 (physical comfort) while #3-ing (doing something difficult).

So, what I’m saying is… “normal”, talented humans struggle with all of the things you’re struggling with in your voice at one time or another. I can basically guarantee it. The most important thing to remember is that you CAN ALWAYS improve your singing. That is absolutely in your control. But never, under any circumstances should you stop singing. You were born to sing. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.

How Do I Choose A Great Voice Teacher?

There are tons of vocal coaches and voice teachers out there. These days, most teachers even teach online, so you have access to thousands of people to take lessons from. So, how do you know who’s good and who’s not?

Let’s be honest. Each person needs different things, and a teacher/coach who is great for one person, may not be that great for another. However, in my opinion, there are some significant signs to judge whether or not your potential teacher is knowledgeable and capable. Did you know that you do not need a degree to teach voice? Anyone can say that they are a voice teacher or vocal coach because it does not require any type of certification. But you must know, just because someone has a degree, doesn’t mean they are a great teacher. So, here are some ways to tell if you’re connected to the right person.

1. Does the teacher have actual experience singing and performing?

This particular question varies from person to person as far as preference. I believe that to be a great teacher, you need to know what it’s like to have some sort of career in the field you are teaching. Did this teacher graduate from school and has been just teaching ever since? It’s not imperative that your teacher is constantly performing now, but they should have had time in their lives that they performed regularly. In my opinion, your teacher should know what it’s like to need vocal stamina and be able to impart their knowledge from actual experience.

2. How long has this teacher been teaching voice?

Just because someone is a great performer, doesn’t mean they are a great teacher. Ask your potential coach about their teaching experience.

3. Are they interested in teaching the style of music you would like to sing, or are they trying to get you to sing the style they teach?

This is a tricky question. I learned a ton from a teacher who taught and sang a very different style than I was interested in singing. Just because the teacher doesn’t sound exactly like you and what you want, doesn’t mean they can’t teach you great technique in your style. What you have to watch for, are teachers who believe that the style you’re interested in singing is somehow damaging or a “bad” style. There really is no such thing. If you learn to control your voice and sing without pushing your cords, any genre is going to be just fine. There is no harm in learning different types of music, but if your teacher is trying to make you an opera singer when you came in to sing R&B, you should choose someone else.

4. Do they have knowledge about the physical voice and how it actually works, or do they basically speak in “feelings” and metaphors?

To me, this is one of the most important questions. When we are learning to improve our voices, our brains don’t respond well to things like, “Use less of your thyroarytenoid muscle.” to change and control our voice. A good teacher will not say that stuff most of the time, but it’s crucial that they understand it, and know how to use the right language to help you. If your potential coach only speaks in metaphors (feel like the waterfall is coming out of your nose) and never gets down to actual instructions on what to do, it’s possible that they don’t actually understand the voice. If you’ve gone through a few lessons and they’ve only spoken about breathing and “ringing”… it may be time to look for someone else. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most people benefit from some figurative talk in their lessons. Just watch out for teachers that can’t actually describe the technique in a literal sense.

Keep looking for knowledge. Keep striving for excellence. And above all… KEEP SINGING!

Why Does My Voice Hurt When I Sing?

Often, new students will come in and tell me that they think they’ve hurt their voices somehow, because when they try to sing it, hurts.

Of course, there are many reasons that you could be experiencing pain while singing. If you are genuinely concerned about the welfare of your voice, you should absolutely consult your laryngologist. However, I will let you know the common reason for pain while singing (that I continuously see in my studio) and it’s not as scary as you may think.

Let’s start off by debunking a myth. You cannot actually feel your vocal cords. If you’re straining your voice, you won’t feel your actual folds straining. In fact, a vocal injury is detected in singers by changes in vocal quality, not in how your vocal folds “feel”. Those changes in quality of sound should prompt you to see a doctor.

Phew. That’s outta the way. Now onto what is making you feel discomfort.

What you are actually feeling when your “voice hurts” is muscle tension. When we are straining to sing, we engage the muscles we use for swallowing, which we really don’t need very often for singing. After a time of holding and engaging them, these muscles get sore and tired from being employed for the wrong job.

“That’s it, Emily? I’m supposed to just… RELAX?”

If you’ve ever had a partner that tells you to “calm down” when you’re stressed out… you know that this “just relax” tactic never works. So, if you’re feeling tension, here’s a couple great ways to tell your hard-working muscles not to work that hard:

Muscle Holds
Depending on where your tension exists, muscle holds can be some of the most helpful ways to calm your oh-so-sore muscles down. If you’re feeling a SQUEEZING or PINCHING feeling next to your adam’s apple, try taking two fingers on each hand and placing them RIGHT NEXT TO your adam’s apple. Not too far away, and not right on it, but directly next to it. Apply a TINY bit of pressure to that area. Try singing with this hold in place.

Another hold that works? If you are having pain in the big, strong muscles on the sides of your neck, or you’ve noticed that you look like you’re giving birth while singing a song… try this one. Use “karate chop hands” and place them on the sides of your neck, where your big neck muscles stick out. Use the sides of your hands to apply a little pressure to those sternocleidomastoid muscles. Try singing that way.

Tongue Exercises
Most people don’t think about how big our tongue muscle actually is. We see just a part of this powerful muscle. It fills our mouth and lower part of our jaw, and goes all the way to the top of our larynx. Do you feel pain right above your adam’s apple when you sing? Does it ache into the underside of your chin? Well you, my friend, are likely pulling your tongue down while you sing. It’s a tough habit to cure, I would know. I struggled with it for years. What to do? Sing your song with a strong “K” sound at the beginning of every word. This action forces the tongue to stop retracting and do it’s job.

You can also put the top your pointer finger right in the spot where your chin and your throat meet. Not like you’re pointing at it, but like you’re pointing to the wall next to you, with your flat knuckle touching the top of your chin and the side of your finger on your throat. Try singing and not letting the top pull down. You have no idea how much easier this will make your singing.

Need another suggestion? Stick your tongue out as far as it will go with your mouth open and exhale strongly (like a panting dog or a DRAGON!). That helps to stretch that area out.

Think of your voice like a new puppy. You can’t always reason with it… but you CAN train it with consistent actions. It’s muscle memory. Find a great teacher who can diagnose your issues and help you reach your vocal goals.

Most importantly…


The Joy of the Journey

If you don’t enjoy running, training for a half marathon is a real drag. I would know. I signed myself up for a 13.1 mile run through the Denver Metro area. The thing is, I really HATE running. Like, a lot. The day-to-day practice is pretty miserable. There’s no one cheering for you along the way while it’s raining. No one is handing you water and telling you to hang in there. It’s just you, your headphones, and zero accountability for turning back. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I see people who look like they’re really digging the training. They look happy, thin, healthy, happy… happy… not sick and barfing… I envy those folks.

So why keep training? Why bother? For me, it comes down to a feeling of accomplishment. When I have to work hard to do something, I find more value in it, and I’m THAT much more proud of myself for completing the task. Some days I feel defeated. Some runs go better than others, but I keep at it, or I won’t improve.

Fitness is a journey, right? You don’t just wake up one day, 20lbs lighter and able to bench press 220, right? Our voice is the same way. It is important to remember, that it still takes dilligence and perseverance to accomplish your vocal goals. You will not just wake up one day and be 90s Mariah Carey. Especially if you don’t put in your hours. It’s true, some people are blessed with excellent “vocal metabolisms.” Meaning, some people just start at a little more of an advantage than others, but that doesn’t mean that hard work won’t take you to their level and past it. You just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work! But there is one big difference between running and singing, if you’re like me anyway. Singing is actually FUN work! Practicing can be a time of joy and discovery, instead of a dreaded experience.

The most important thing to have in your vocal tool belt is patience. Patience with yourself. Take the time to notice your accomplishments. Take the time to congratulate yourself for them. And be gentle with yourself. This is a beautiful journey that you’ve chosen to embark on. Revel in it.