[This article was written by professional voice teacher and vocal producer Arden Kaywin.]
I’ve been a voice teacher and vocal producer for many years now and one of the things I’ve noticed from working with singer/songwriters is that they often don’t give the same kind of advanced focus and preparation to their vocals as they do to the songwriting and production of their songs.
It’s easy to believe that since you wrote the song and have been singing it throughout the writing/production process that your vocals will be ready when it comes time to record. That is true to a degree: you will be ready. But there’s a difference between giving a “ready” performance and giving a “knockout” performance.
Here are some insights into my work with singers to help them access that “knockout” performance
1. You are NOT a singer, you are a storyteller
In my experience, many of the things that trip up a singer vanish when the singer is really immersed in telling the story of the song. Where should you start?
Read your lyrics to yourself.
This exercise will help you connect to your lyrics in a deeper and perhaps new way. Read them as though they were a page in a book and try to tap into the head space you were in when you wrote them. It might be emotional to go back there, but allow yourself to feel everything that inspired the song. You will have all the benefits of accessing the raw emotion without the danger of being overwhelmed by it once you are in the studio or on stage.
Once you have read your lyrics several times over, answer these three questions.
- “Who am I talking to?
- “What one or two words best describe the overall emotion behind these lines?”
- “If this were a movie, what just happened that’d compel me to say these words?”
Then use what you discovered to speak the lyrics aloud as though you were an actor performing a monologue. Really tell the story from that emotional place. Do it several times and explore the emotional arc. Be conscious of where the sentences or thoughts begin and end instead of pausing where the rhythmic rests would be if you were singing the same phrase. Take your time. Connect to the story behind the words. Then come back to your music, but don’t fall back into “singing” autopilot. Instead, keep telling the story.
2. Let somebody else be your ears
Don’t assume that because you wrote the vocal line, you must know the best way to sing it. In fact, because you wrote it, you are likely too close to it to honestly hear what you are doing to it vocally. This is where you need another set of ears.
You want someone other than your album producer or band mates; someone who’s ears are not burnt from hearing the song over and over who can give you an objective opinion on what they hear you doing.
If you have access to a good vocal producer or vocal coach in your area, I would recommend going to coach the song. If you don’t have the access or the funds, then I recommend asking one or two select musicians or singers you really trust to listen to you sing the song and give you their thoughts.
Here are some things you want them to listen for:
- “Does my performance sound organic and honest or does it sound like I’m trying too hard?”
- “Does my phrasing sound intuitive to you and organic to the track or are there any places where it feels awkward?”
- “Did you feel satisfied by the vocal or were there any places you felt like I didn’t go far enough to build intensity or emotion?”
- “Could you understand all the words?”
3. Plan your breaths
Make sure you know exactly where you will breathe within each phrase and then don’t stray from that plan. Take some time to experiment with breaths in slightly different places and figure out what feels best.
Here are a few tips on that.
- Don’t wait until you’re dying to breathe – the best time in a phrase to breathe is when you are “comfortably out of breath.”
- Don’t rush the breath by waiting till the last beat before your next entrance to breathe – you usually have more time then you think so release into your breath earlier, more slowly and more peacefully.
- Never breathe in the middle of a word unless it’s a distinct stylistic choice.
Use those tips to find a comfortable plan for your breathing and then practice the song with those same planned breaths every time so that your body internalizes those moments and will relax into the safety of that consistency.
A peaceful breath is the most important thing to a singer (see my earlier blog “Don’t Take A Breath”) because the quality of your inhalation directly affects the following sung phrase for better or for worse. So spend a moment making sure you know exactly where you plan to breathe throughout the song so that you are not taken by surprise. Your performance and the quality of your sound will benefit from it.
4. Have a warm-up practice
Take the time to do a vocal warm-up before every session. Singing is an athletic endeavor; don’t let anyone tell you any different. As a singer, you rely on your body in the same way that a football quarterback does. He’s got to have good technique in his arm and body to be able to throw that ball over and over without injury. He would never go into game without warming up, and neither should you sing without warming up. If you have never been good at keeping to a warm-up practice before you sing, not only are you risking physical damage to your instrument, but you are wasting time (and possibly your money).
I have met singers who warm up by singing their way into a session, meaning, the first hour or so of recorded takes end up as useless because their voice has been warming up that whole time. Instead, begin the practice of a reliable vocal warm-up before you get up to sing anytime, in studio or not. It is worth it to anyone who relies on their voice as their livelihood to treat it with the same care and respect as the quarterback does his arm.
If you can work with a professional voice teacher who can guide you through some warm-up exercises that are best suited to your technical ability, that is ideal. Use your smart-phone to record the warm up in the lesson so that you can take that warm-up with you and do it anytime, wherever you are before you sing. If you do not have access or the funds to work with a professional and are unsure of what a proper vocal warm up should entail, there are plenty of YouTube videos, and even apps now, that can offer general guidance. I will say though that going this route and starting a warm-up practice without the initial guidance of a voice teacher can sometimes do harm because a singer can end up reinforcing bad technique in the warm-up without realizing it. Singing should feel good when you are doing it right. If something is uncomfortable, tense or hurts while you are warming-up (or singing in general), that is your body telling you that you are not doing it right and you should seek guidance from an experienced teacher.
5. Stop caring
I know, this is completely counter-intuitive. You’ve just spent a ton of blood, sweat and tears (and likely money) getting your songs to the place where you’re ready to record vocals. . . there’s no universe in which you don’t care. But in my years of recording and working with singers I’ve found that if you do all the preparation and practice leading up to the session, it becomes much easier to let go of the outcome in the moment and that is when the magic happens. Some of the best vocals I’ve produced have come in those sessions where I was able to set up a psychological environment where the singer felt safe enough to throw caution to the wind and was willing to stop micromanaging every sound that came out of their mouth.
Getting to that place requires not caring. Don’t care if you make a bad sound (you can always do another take!). I tell my singers to please be willing to make a bad sound, otherwise they are holding back. I am not advocating abandoning your technique. To the contrary, I’m saying that if you’ve done the preparation, the underlying technique of the vocal will be there without you having to think about it so you can let go and tap into the soul of the song.
Some tips towards helping yourself let go and not care.
- Do the advanced preparation work.
- Keep any entourage in the vocal session to a minimum. Nobody should be in the studio other than you and your producer.
- Give yourself permission to make a bad sound. It takes the pressure off and opens up possibilities.
- Don’t listen back to every single take. In fact, try not to listen back at all and trust your producer to get what he/she needs.
- Take a moment before each take to close your eyes and put yourself back into the story of the song. Remember who you are singing to and see them right there in front of you as you sing to them.
I hope these tips will shed some light on what a vocal producer focuses on and how you can use this knowledge to better your own recordings. When I’m working with an artist as a vocal producer, my goal is to help them access a level of connection and vulnerability in their performance that they are not able to find alone and often don’t even know they are capable of. It’s this vulnerability that listeners relate to. It is what makes the difference between a good vocal and a great one. The exercises and experiments I use (like the ones above) help the artist break through their default habits and tensions to get to a place where the performance really soars.
Author bio: Arden Kaywin is a voice teacher and vocal producer in Los Angeles, CA. For more info on Arden’s vocal production services go to: www.ArdenKaywinVocalStudio.com.