I summarize how to improve at singing for beginners in a 5 minute Youtube video: practice precision of pitch.
A year ago, I decided I wanted to get better at singing, but I had no clue where to start and no formal vocal background. My first vocal lesson taught me a lot. Like any other skill, the short answer for how to improve is deliberate practice. In this guide, I’ll share concepts and practice tips that explain how to improve at singing for beginners.
What do I mean by deliberate practice? When you practice singing, keep the following concepts in mind:
To understand these 3 concepts, I find it useful to think of the body as a musical instrument. Sound resonates through your body when you sing similarly to how sound resonates through a piano body when you press a key. In general, I’ll often compare singing to playing piano, but you don’t need to know anything about playing piano or music theory to improve at singing.
If you're a beginner, I recommend focusing on precision of pitch first. In other words, sing along with a reference and make sure you're hitting the right notes. This is why a roomful of people singing "Happy Birthday" doesn't sound great - people start on different notes and don't hit the right notes in the song. If you're new to music theory, I explain what a note is in a 2 minute Youtube video.
Both singing and pressing a key on a piano produce a note. Each note has a pitch (how high/low the note is) and duration (how long the note is). When you want to produce a specific pitch on a piano, it’s as easy as pressing the key. Producing a specific pitch when singing is more difficult.
Improving precision of pitch will vastly improve your singing because the sound will be clearer and more melodic. If you don’t have much musical background, it can be difficult to evaluate pitch by ear. You might only be able to tell whether the pitch sounds good (song recordings) or bad (drunk karaoke). Singing games, such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero, are a good place to start because they evalute pitch for you. The top section shows a graph of pitch vs. time, and you can visualize the relative changes in pitch.
You can also use the app Sing Sharp, a gamified training program for practicing singing.
If you can evaluate pitch by ear, you should record your singing. Playing back the recording allows you to drill sections that sound sloppy. Watch out for the following hard-to-sing sections:
After you have identified problem sections, you should practice very small chunks of notes from the section and focus on precision of pitch.
I’ll explain how to actually manipulate your body to sing precisely in the section on air.
A piano helps a lot with practice because you can compare sung notes to played notes. You don’t need to know how to play piano to make this comparison though piano knowledge makes things much easier.
I often transcribe pitches for songs using Musescore software. For example, I’m learning how to play and sing Blackbird, and here’s the vocal part corresponding to Cynthia Lin’s cover. The durations are completely inaccurate, but if you click on the starting note and press the right arrow on your keyboard, you can play through the song one note at a time. I found this especially useful for the chorus (Blackbird fly…), which has many high notes, large jumps in pitch, and vocal runs.
Next, I’ll talk about tone, which is the unique quality of your voice. Many adjectives for describing tone are confusing. I don’t know what a strident tone means, let alone how to produce it.
I’ll just compare breathy vs. nasal tone. You can produce either breathy or nasal tone by controlling where sound resonates on your face. For breathy tone, the sound vibrates more in the back of your throat. For nasal tone, the sound vibrates more by your nose - you can put your hand on your nose to feel the vibrations.
At my first vocal lesson, I received feedback that my tone was too breathy and soft. This is common among beginners who are shy about their singing abilities. However, breathy tone isn’t always worse. It depends on the context of the song, and you can control your tone with practice.
It’s useful to know what breathy and nasal tone sound like, so I recorded several vocal tone comparisons where I intentionally exaggerate the differences. I recommend listening to The Sun (Too Nasal) because that’s what I sounded like when I first started. Note how my pitch is much less precise and my tone is much rougher.
Finally, I’ll talk about air, which you use to produce sound. Learning to breathe properly (through your diaphragm) is important so you have plenty of air for producing sound. Figuring out how to do this is difficult because you can’t (hopefully) see your lungs and diaphragm. There’s many different metaphors and visualizations for describing the process - I like to imagine air flowing into my body and filling up my stomach like it’s inflating a balloon.
Here's an exercise for practicing how to breathe from your diaphragm: Lie down on your back, place one hand on your stomach, and place the other hand on your chest. Breathe normally, and pay attention to your hands. If the hand on your stomach is being lifted, you’re breathing with your diaphragm. Practice breathing so you lift the hand on your stomach and keep the other hand still.
A common application where you need plenty of air is for singing high notes precisely. A common mistake is to tense up and scrunch your face in preparation for a high note, but this reduces your air intake. Relaxing makes the note easier to sing. To increase air intake, you can reproduce a yawning sensation, the feeling of openness in the back of your throat just before you yawn. This raises your palate to create more space.
The fun part about singing is that you can improve at singing by practicing whatever you what. You don’t have to drill scales! I like to practice different songs for different moods. I’ve found singing to be incredibily therapeutic as part of orthorexia recovery. Accurately reproducing the pitch and lyrics of a song help me understand the artist’s emotions, which in turn helps me understand and express my own emotions.
These concepts and practice tips have helped me significantly improve at singing in the past year. For comparison, here’s my first ever ukulele cover of I Will Follow You into the Dark, and here are more recent videos from my channel. You have to start somewhere, and I know you’ll get better over time.
For Youtube tutorials from a professional voice coach, I highly recommend Felicia Ricci.