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Bad Singing Habits Vs. Good Singing Technique

My interest in singing started in my later high school years and has grown into a life long passion and professional career as a musician and well respected voice coach here in my later 30's. But, it wasn't always smooth sailing as I honestly made every rookie mistake in the book and fell prey to many common bad singing habits along my journey to building a voice I'm now extremely proud of.

Let me save you from making the same mistakes that I did by sharing the story of my own 20 year journey building the voice of my dreams vs. the bad habits that held back my progress for many years.

How I got started as a singer

Like many rock singers, I stumbled into the role of a singer as we struggled to find a singer for our band and simply stepped up to the plate with no idea what I was doing, and a voice that was worse than just green - it was red from pushing and straining. All jest aside, my voice sucked, and everyone agreed. I saw a singing teacher a few times, but I just wasn't really into the idea or invested in becoming a better singer, I just wanted a few tricks so that my singing didn't suck as much - I had no illusion of having a good range, I just wanted to get through the songs and focus more on my guitar playing.

There was a few things I took away from these early lessons, like better breathing which helped a little - but nothing really blew me away, and my singing continued on a downward spiral until the songs I had been shouting became too difficult and the bands I was fronting just dissolved time and again because we either couldn't find a good singer - or because the singer (me) was terrible.

At this point I stopped singing for a while and focused more on my guitar playing in my early 20's and didn't gig very much as I was disheartened at the whole process. In this time I became more interested in the music my parents had listened to when I was a kid; Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jim Croce, Free, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Springsteen, and I started playing around with singing some of these songs, and to my surprise there was a few of these singers that seemed to sit pretty well with my voice, the lower songs of course - but I could see that these guys were "real" singers as opposed to many of the heavier metal singers I had been emulating in my earlier stage as a singer. I just loved the way Paul Rodgers sang, and there was something truly magic about Jim Croce's voice - so I resumed my singing lessons in private without the stress of rehearsing with a band each weekend, and I really started to respect and understand that there were people "who sang" and then there were true SINGERS who held a magic control over their instrument far beyond just a naturally nice sound or fluking a high note here and there - guys like Steve Marriott, Glenn Hughes, Eric Burdon and the queen herself Aretha Franklin.

I went to classical singing teachers, local rock guys (who were mostly hacks), I bought a few books and a CD course - being pre-YouTube days there really wasn't that many resources online geared towards singers - and I started to 'understand' many of the techniques that I now teach and employ with ease myself, but I was never really able to apply them or achieve them the way I thought they were supposed to work.

Hopping from teacher to teacher looking for "the secret" to great singing, or stopgaps lead to many generic instructions and bad habits, which I'll do my best to explain from a technique perspective;

Yawn

"Yawn while you sing" is a stopgap intended to help you raise the soft palate and lower your larynx.

Keep a wide smile

Often misunderstood as a wide smile 'at the mouth', the 'internal smile' really refers to a high smile under the eyes to open up the nasal resonator and partially widen the soft palate.

It's like a bowel movement

This the poor man's version of support and diaphragmatic compression, also, don't poop yourself...

Whinge or Cry

The 'cry' mode in singing refers to a tilted larynx resulting from medial compression and extension of the thyroid cartilage.

Imagine a marble in your mouth

Marble mouth as I like to call it, is often used to help students release the root of the tongue, and potentially raise the soft palate.

Put your tongue out

Fear the lizard tongue! This is obviously poor form.

Open your mouth

Maintaining an oval embouchure when you sing is important, but opening your mouth excessively will cause constriction and tension

Open your throat

Ugh. Open Throat technique really refers to managing resonant space in the pharynx while partially closing each element of your vocal mechanism including the folds and glottis.

Hold your breath

This is an attempt to create compression but actually causes pressed phonation

Sing like a dying cat

Yes, people actually say this - it refers to supraglottal compression and narrowing of the vowel

HUH HUH HUH HUH

Intended to help you 'kick' at the sternum, this often creates a glottal onset and causes tension - risky business!

Sing passive aggressively

This one has a little merit and refers to mixed voice tonality with partial contraction and partial tension.

Sure, any one of these tricks might help you in the interim - but these bandaid solutions to poor technique unfortunately do only that, cover the true source of your issue. You've probably seen a million YouTube videos with these instructions touted as the magic solution to all of your singing woes, and of course they seem to make a difference in the short term - but without learning how and why these stopgaps are having that short term effect, you're really not learning anything about your voice and not improving your technique in any manner, and here's something I don't often share publicly:

I was guilty of all these bad habits

That's right, I sang with a wide smile, I clenched like I was constipated, I practiced HUH HUH HUH and MA MA MA over and over again until I actually lost my voice for a time from overuse and tension.

Thankfully I found a singing teacher who immediately pointed out the folly of my ways - searching for trick after trick and 'secrets' that really did nothing but make me fork out my hard earned dough for the same instructions over and over again with limited results - I'd try one of these tricks, it would make me think I had improved, I'd buy the course or a singing lesson, and within a few weeks I was back to straining and struggling again without having learning anything actually tangible that I could apply to my singing.

In teaching me to form my vowels properly, maintain a correct embouchure, balance properly between TA and CT engagement and properly place my frequencies - I actually started learning exactly how and why all of the above methods had started out as an easy friend, but eventually turned on me and led me right back to square one;

There IS no 'secret' to great singing

That's right, simply yawning isn't going to help you develop proper control over the soft palate and an understanding of how to properly tune your vowel sounds. You can yawn all you want, but the second a tricky word or troublesome vowel comes along that soft palate is going to slam down hard and your vocal health will suffer. Simply clenching your belly isn't going to effectively manage compression and teach you to use each of the three main pressure valves within the glottis to manage your airflow properly - you're going to go for a high note with too much pressure, and again your vocal health with suffer because you didn't actually learn to balance between supraglottal compression and medial vocal fold closure. I could go on about how each of these coverup solutions is going to effect your voice in a negative way - but I'm sure you've probably experienced this yourself already, or you will soon.

The key to improving my heavily abused voice and reclaiming my vocal health was to head back to the start and learn the absolute basics of vocal technique again - correct support, vowel formation and vocal placement. I'm sure you can imagine that after ten years of solid practice and having sung as frontman in many bands through those years, I was pretty upset to be told I was only allowed to sing lip trills and basic resonant sounds while my voice recovered, and that my new singing teacher wasn't interested in seeing me again until I had mastered these three basics, but I'll tell you what - it absolutely worked.

I had spent YEARS piling on trick after trick, and advanced technique after technique from vowel modification, to masque placement, to glottal compression - when my true issue was a result of a very poorly formed foundation. Within weeks of this new approach centred on mastering the fundamentals of singing, I saw more progress than I had seen in years and I once again regained the love of singing that I had lost years prior from when I first discovered the joy of hearing singers like Paul Rodgers and John Fogerty sail away in the high range with ease.

From this point of reclaimed foundation, my voice continued to grow and build with time and further training until I realised something which at that point was almost unbelievable... singing was easy.

That's right, I didn't have to clench or hold, I didn't have to push, or mangle my vowel sounds, it wasn't a secret part of my voice that I hadn't experienced before or some silly approach like strangling a cat or fumbling with marbles in my mouth - it was just easy.

How Long It Really Takes To Become a Great Singer

If I can be completely honest with you, beyond that initial ten years of struggling and straining and ultimately losing my voice along the way - it took many more years before I was confident enough to sing for another band, and release music professionally with the understanding that this new voice I had build was here to stay, and would continue to grow and strengthen through the years.

From my own experience, I've been able to streamline the process of Foundation -> Growth -> Balance so that you see the gains and progress that took me so many years in a much shorter and more efficient timeline. Realistically, you'll see immediate improvement in your control of your voice and continual growth as you work through each stage in the powerful "foundation first" method of singing - which I'm excited to share with you.

Before we get started, I just need to find out where you're at as a singer so that I can set up a detailed plan of action for how you too can enjoy the benefits of a rock solid foundation, continual growth and eventual balance in your singing. The quiz below is just a few short questions that I'll use to work out the exact issues you're experiencing so you can gain the most from the powerful approach I've developed. You can get started with the questionnaire below;

What happens now?

Shortly after you've finished the quiz above, you'll receive a detailed plan for how to become a better singer along with some followup material that is going to help you make serious progress with your singing.

In the meantime, I suggest checking out some of the coaching materials in our Technique HQ: