Why I’m glad I didn’t take traditional singing lessons…

I grew up singing. I sang at nursery school, I sang at church. I sang at public school in the choir and when I was 13 started a “band” with my sister. I played bass guitar and she played drums. We also had two friends in the band who sang and played guitar. We would perform at church events, community events, and frankly, anywhere we could. My parents were very supportive and it was a huge part of why I am still singing and performing today.

I didn’t take singing lessons as a child, but I did take piano lessons. I can remember the hurdles I had with my voice early on. I can remember the limits I had. Even though I had a “nice voice” it was mostly chest voice. The highest note I could sing comfortably was a C above middle C, and that was pushing it. I struggled with this limitation for years as I went on to play and sing in different dance bands for over 20 years. I got good at belting but I had trouble lasting a gig that was more than three nights in a row. If I had a virus I was doomed. I knew I couldn’t make it through even one night without being hoarse.

I studied classical voice when I was in my 30’s and pregnant with my first child. It was something that I always wanted to do. I practised hard and took the Grade 9 Western Conservatory practical exam after two years of training. After that, I quit. I had learned a lot, and it was some of the most vigorous singing I had ever done. However, I didn’t want to sing classical music. I wanted to sing contemporary music.

The reason I am writing this post is to tell you how glad I am that I never had traditional singing lessons as a child or teenager even though I wanted them. To put it simply is that classical singing lessons would have changed my vocal sound, and I would never have been able to sing popular genres the way I do now. The reason I know this is because I experienced myself what singers with trained voices are experiencing as they try to sing other styles of music. Unfortunately, traditional classical training gets in the way. Popular and contemporary music focuses a lot on music written under the first bridge, through the first bridge and usually climaxing near the second bridge (not over the second bridge). Singers usually approach the second bridge with more chest in the “mix” than head voice. This is the problem. Classically trained singers have trouble disengaging so much head voice in their mix. They are not familiar with their speech level chest voice which is very common in popular music.

The best thing that happened to me is when I stumbled upon Speech Level Singing (SLS). I had been reading and researching it for years, and finally decided to enroll as a student/teacher. (Yes, I still take voice lessons!). SLS was the technique that saved my voice. I can now sing hour after hour, night after night, with consistency, great tone, power and strength. It has been the only technique that made sense to me. I am now able to strengthen my mix daily and stay healthy and ready for regular singing day after day.

My comment to you is this. If you take traditional vocal lessons, you need to realize you may be altering your voice in a way that you don’t really want to. Traditional training approaches the voice from the high end first. You end up with this beautiful head voice tone. However, the chest voice can suffer and leave you wondering why you can’t sing certain songs the way other singers do.

Times are changing and there is no better time to tell singers about these differences than now…..so spread the word!

Do you have trouble singing on key?

There are a few different reasons why people have trouble singing on key. We usually assume it is because they are not “hearing” or “listening” to the music well enough to copy. Teachers will generally assume this is an ear-training issue. While I don’t totally disagree, I want to draw your attention to a couple of more points.

Singing is no different than playing an instrument….the instrument just happens to be your voice. Your voice is made up two vocal cords (vocal folds) that must come together (adduct) to varying degrees in order to make pitch. The higher you go in pitch, the more adducted your cords must be, and they need to be able to hold that closure while singing. Every person is genetically predisposed from birth to have a unique set of vocal folds. Some are thicker than average, some are thinner. Some are longer than average, some are shorter. Some are more flexible than average, and some aren’t very flexible at all.

The vocal folds grow and change as a child ages and grows into adulthood. Genetically we can be cursed with a “poor” set of vocal cords from birth. Also, during childhood a great many things can affect the voice……like continuous cough, asthma, and frequent shouting or speaking loudly. These abuses can cause the folds to swell and create the inability to “adduct” fully and properly. Also, poor speech habits can have drastic effects on the singing voice. If words are produced with improper vowel and consonant formation, (which can also be a issue of poor breathing habits), then the singing voice can be doubly doomed. Unfortunately, these problems can be interconnected, because if genetically you have poor vocal cords then speaking properly is obviously going to be difficult which in turn affects your singing.

It is common for me to see young boys and girls (any age from 4 and up) with an unusually low or raspy voice, or with poor speech habits, who have trouble matching pitch above their speaking voice pitch. This is because it is much more “effort” for them to zip their vocal cords properly than the average little boy or girl with a normal speaking range. These little low voices have trouble singing on key because they need to be able to hold the cords together to sing at a higher pitch than they are speaking. To some of these little guys, they have never experienced the sensation of holding their vocal cords together because the effort is either too difficult, or too unusual in that they have never easily experienced vocal cord closure.

If you are wondering if this is a problem for your child, you can simply try the following examples to get good vocal cord closure. Can she make a fire siren sound? Can he meow in his high voice? Can she “scream” without using extensive force? These guidelines will let you know how well they are able to adduct their vocal cords.

The bottom line is that it is more “effort” for these little ones to match pitch. They need more encouragement and more experience doing it correctly. The more they sing higher or talk higher, or imitate higher sounds, then the vocal cords with start to engage in this muscular activity. It’s very important to get these little ones who have low or abused vocal cords started with high sounds/noises as young as possible. The older the child gets then he/she thinks he can’t sing on key and stops trying to match pitch all together. They don’t necessarily lose their love for singing, however! They will still go around singing, but unfortunately everyone around them will notice that they are not in key. The vocal cords end up only being engaged at their speech level (the pitches near their talking voice) and they never experience the sensation of their vocal cords zipping up.

Have you experienced anything that rings true with above? Do you have questions or comments? Why not drop me a line. Susan

How to get a “mixed” voice


Everyone’s voice has a low section and high section. The low end is your chest voice and the high end is your head voice. The essence of good singing is utilizing both the chest voice and the head voice at the same time. This is called your “mixed voice”. Make sense?

Your chest voice is where you speak. Try saying “A – A – A” like the “a” in cat. Say it with some umph, and a little bit nasty. Make an open big mouth and say it again. This is your engine….and yes, it can sound rather obnoxious. But, don’t disregard this, this is your power house!

On the other end is your head voice. This is the light, airy sound at the top of your voice. Some people can’t access it very easily. Try and do a sigh with your light high voice. This is head voice.

The ideal voice is when the chest voice and the head voice work together at the same time. Unfortunately, often what will happen is one voice will “outweigh” the other, creating an imbalance of sound and sensation.

If you have any background singing with a choir or training with a classically trained teacher, then you were probably encouraged to sing with your head voice brought down even to your low notes, This can create a very strong head voice, but unfortunately doesn’t match up in balance with your chest voice, leaving you light and airy on your bottom notes with minimal strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you have been singing pop, country or rock music on your own and copying some “not-so-well-balanced” singers, then you may have developed a strong chest voice without allowing any head voice in the mix. You may notice that you have to sing louder and louder as you go higher and higher, and eventually you just can go further. Your sound is likely harsh and well, possibly, very annoying. And, let’s not forget to mention that you probably hurt!

“Getting in the mix” is the vocal workout you need. If done correctly, it will help your voice be stronger and more flexible than you ever thought possible. You will be able to sing any note you want.

It worked wonders for me, and I know it will for you too!

Have you got any questions? Why not drop me a line!

What should a child’s first instrument be?

Well, that’s easy … the piano, correct? But, let’s think about it. Children are actually learning to use their first musical instrument when they start to coo and babble. They start using their voice as a baby when they mimic the sounds all around them. This is how they learn to talk, and this is how they learn to sing. Their vocal cords are their own personal instrument, with its own unique sound. This is the first instrument that they learn to use.

When babies and toddlers are encouraged to copy sounds frequently, they remember how to do it and soon it becomes “normal”. This all leads to singing on pitch.

Your children will get singing and musical education at school, but we all know that music curriculum in most schools has been decreasing over the years. The more musical engagement you can encourage at home, the better. Does it matter if you are on pitch? Well, in the beginning….NO. It matters that you are singing and that you are enjoying music with your child.

Let’s move ahead a bit to age 3 or 4. A good age to know if your child is able to match pitch. Can they imitate a fire siren? Can you? If so, this means you able to zip up your vocal cords to make high sounds. They most likely can, but in some cases where a child has a deep or raspy voice (from illness, hoarseness or cough) they may be reluctant or unable to. This is where it is important to keep the child exploring their voice….making sounds that are more than just talking.

Singing requires the vocal cords to “zip up” because we don’t sing in only the pitches that we talk. In order to match the higher pitches, our brain has to know how to zip up the vocal cords and keep them that way.

An important note to mention is that the music you and I sing to is much lower than music children should be singing to. It’s important for kids to listen to music in their range, so they can copy properly. This is one reason music is so very important in the school. It’s vital for children to experience singing with their peers in a musical key that suits their voice.

So, why not think of your child’s voice as their first musical instrument. Encourage them to match pitch when they sing. This will go a long way in their future musical journey. It really is a use it or lose it scenerio. Children who “can’t carry a tune” grow into adults who “can’t carry a tune”.

The Music for Young Children program including Music Pups is a great way to engage in singing and musical fun with your child. There are classes all over the world. You can find them here www.myc.com and www.themusicclass.com.

Do you have a comment? Please leave me your thoughts.

Less is more….

Hi Everyone,

Less is more….so what am I talking about?  Well, a few things really.  Did you know that you need LESS air to sing high notes…not more. Most people use way too much air when they sing high notes. This engages the outer muscles around the vocal cords which causes fatigue and strain. Singing high notes should feel easy. When a singer is grimacing with the look of strain (not to be confused with emotion), you can bet he/she is using muscles outside of the voice box, and their larynx is probably rising as well. Ideally when singing, the larynx should remain relatively stable, and the singer should be able to reach any note without throat muscle interference.

In the words of Seth Riggs, founder of the SLS technique, you need to allow the vocal cords to do the work. That is, as you singer higher, the vocal cords should simply “zip up” and use less air.

The SLS technique will teach you how to do this.  But first, you may need to back up. You may need to do less. You will need to know your habits. You need to know what is working and what isn’t. A good SLS teacher will tell you this in the first lesson. Then you will be able to sing well in any style of your choice! Check out www.speechlevelsinging.com for a certified teacher near you!

Singers, has this happened to you?

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been so busy with the kids, performing at festivals and keeping up with my gigs. The weeks are just flying by. However today, I had a booking that inspired me to share my singing experience with you straight away.

First, let me mention that I’m a seasoned singer. I’ve been singing professionally for years.  And, for the record, sometimes I neglect myself.  Yes, sometimes, I don’t practise what I preach.  By this, I mean, I neglect my voice…I don’t bother to warm-up adequately before a singing performance.  Sometimes I notice, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Today, it definitely mattered. Today, I noticed big-time. Today, I should have warmed-up better.

I always do liproll exercises while I’m driving to bookings. Today was proof that I needed to do more than that, but didn’t.

I could tell right away in the first song that the notes near my bridge (A, B flat) were giving me trouble. If the song was mostly set under my first bridge then I would really “get stuck” when I had to reach the A or B. This is most of my songs! I found I was preoccupied with “warming” into those notes, instead of focusing on the audience and the song.

It took about 45 minutes of careful singing to finally get the notes around my bridge to set in comfortably. By then I was crooning and ready for the night. The problem is, the gig was almost over! Only 15 minutes left!  By the end of the gig, I was very warmed-up and ready to sing.

This has happened to me before. You would think I would know better. After all, I’m a singing coach. I preach about warming up the voice adequately all the time…………maybe next time I’ll learn, ha! Don’t let it happen to you!

Were you labelled tone-deaf?

Teachers have learned a lot from the previous generation. We have learned that one of most detrimental things that can be said to a child is that they sound bad and they can’t sing. These children grow up into adults who have never experienced proper pitch matching in a song, and therefore have never really experienced the true joy of singing. They have been labelled tone-deaf.

Many children who have trouble singing on key are children with deep or lower speaking voices. Music played in elementary school is generally written in a key that takes the song up to and over high C. This can be challenging for children whose speaking voices are lower because their speaking voice is further away from their head voice.

When encountering a child who has trouble with pitch, it is necessary to first put songs in the key that is close to their speaking voice. This is where singing starts….at speech level. Then raise the key of the song by semi-tones with careful attention to the pitches that start getting higher than A above middle C. This is where their speech level must adapt to get the correct pitch. Do simple 5 tone scale exercises with them, and make sure they match the pitch. Give them lots of praise when they find the coordination that is necessary to find those pitches. Let them know when they are doing it correctly, so they know what they have to do …. over and over and over. Once they memorize the feeling of singing in their head voice, they will have much less trouble matching pitch.

The same theory goes for adults who have trouble matching pitch.  An adult needs to find the right teacher who can help retrain the vocal cords to stretch out and thin as they go higher in pitch. It will probably take longer to retrain an adult than a child simply because an adult has been in the habit of singing off key for much longer. Their vocal cords have not been experiencing the coordination necessary to match pitch and sing higher pitches.

Oh no! I’ve lost my voice again!

The dreaded laryngitis. It’s not uncommon among singers, especially during the winter season. You’ve just got over that cold virus,  and you sang too “hard” and talked “too loud” at the party last night, and now you are paying for it. The problem is you need to sing again tonight!

Unfortunately, there is no easy or fast fix. If you don’t learn how to treat your vocal cords properly and with care, then you will end up with swollen cords that can take weeks to return to normal.  

Instead you need to learn how to sing with dynamics and emotion without blowing so much “force” through your cords. Here is a test. Try to sing your favourite songs with intensity, emotion, and dynamics in your house while someone is trying to sleep! You can’t sing loud or you will wake them, but you can’t be boring while you’re singing. Can you do it? Do you have passion and intensity in your voice while trying to sing quietly?

There are exercises that can help you do this better. Learning how to “lean” into the notes or “press” into the notes creates intensity and warmth in your voice and you won’t need  much air to get louder sounds.  Singing high notes is especially difficult to do quietly…….but a good singer can do this! Working on the “cry” in your voice in the high register will help start the “attack” of the note, and then you lean into the note to sustain the warm tone. All of this is done with very little breath coming through your vocal cords!  Instead, the breath is held back by the vocal cords and is “under pressure” behind your vocal cords.

Let me know what you think? Did the exercise work for you?

“Feel” Your Voice, Don’t Just Listen

Good singing originates from the sensations you feel. When you sing a note that is close to your speaking voice, you should feel it resonate in your chest. Put your hand on your chest and try it, but don’t push or sing too loud. Singing (and talking) should be done at a comfortable “medium” volume. As you sing higher you should notice the resonance starts to leave your chest and you should feel a sensation in your mouth and the top of your palate and teeth.  As you start to go even higher the resonance shifts to the back of your mouth in the soft palate. This is where a lot of singers try to adjust their sound by reaching for those notes. Instead of “reaching” for the notes you should approach them with ease. Yes, the sound will be lighter but it will be true. Learn to “feel” what your voice sounds like in this relaxed state. This step is necessary in the process of creating a balanced sound that connects your entire voice from low to high.

That’s my head voice?

Have you ever had an “ah ha” moment? Well, that’s what happened with my adult student today and it was her first lesson.

She had developed the habit of only using her chest voice to sing. She ignored her head voice. I guess she didn’t like the sound. It’s actually quite a common habit among singers.

The problem is if we ignore our head voice, then we can’t reach the high notes “appropriately”. That is, with a “mixed voice”. Oh, you may be able to reach that high note, but what does it sound like? Is it wide and splatty, and overall just plain not nice to listen too? Probably.

You see, you can’t get a nice sound on a “high” note without using some of your head voice. That’s why you need to learn how to mix the chest with the head so you get a balance of each.

Are you not sure what is your head voice? Well, try to sing the vowel “oo” (like the hooting of an owl), and make high sounds……like the siren of a fire truck or ambulance. Is it breathy? Then you are likely using falcetto…..that is not your head voice. Try again, but don’t let the high note be breathy. Lean into it a bit. There you go, that’s your head voice!