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Action Points for Rock Singers (Part 1)

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Published on 06-24-2016
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Let's be honest. Being a 'great' Rock vocalist has absolutely no checklist to follow. If you look at current and past Rock legends, each one of them has qualities about their voices that seem to contradict 'correct' technique. They also seem to lead lifestyles in the health and fitness, diet, and alternate substance departments that create even more contradictions. How do singers like Brian Johnson (AC/DC), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) even have voices after 30 years of screaming at the top of their incredible ranges? Why is it that singers like Bono (U2) don't actually carry pitch that well but are still so fun to listen to? Who ever let Tom Waits step up to a microphone and how does that guy's voice sell any records? Surely the rock gods out there don't follow all of the lemon juice, no dairy, warm-up guidelines that many vocal instructors harp on. And clearly, the diversity that surrounds Rock and Roll singing leaves so little boundaries to be followed or broken in terms of style and direction, how does anyone figure out how to be a good Rock singer?

Over the last decade or so, I have not only been able to solve some of the mystery behind 'good' rock singing, but have successfully trained my vocal chords, brain and body to deliver a voice that I am truly comfortable with and proud of. I love to sing and (though it's taken me years to come to this) I actually like to listen to myself sing on recordings. If you'd like to hear my work as a vocalist, you may pop on over to the Phase 3 section here on JamPlay and click on "Songs with Chris" or check out the "In The Style of Tom Morello" lesson series where I perform a very Audioslave-like original in celebration of Morello's unique guitar style. You may also check out my work on iTunes or Amazon, and listen to full samples at www.myspace.com/chrisliepe, or turn on your favorite local radio station and the odds are, you'll probably hear me singing on a jingle here and there.

Now, I'm not just trying to promote my singing, although I hope you do enjoy my music! More so, as you listen to me sing and read through this article, keep in mind that I will be sharing things in this article from my personal singing experience that have helped me achieve the sound you hear on my recordings. My goal here is to help demystify aggressive, contradiction-laden Rock singing, and give you some tools and perspectives to cling to as you pursue your sound and develop your own voice.

A lot of the stuff I share in this article series may fly in the face of all you've ever heard about vocal training and care. Remember though, great Rock vocalists generally don't live by any "rules." They just sing. They sing with passion, authenticity, and in a way that makes people want to listen to them. Sure, there are some rock singers that have trashed their voices over the years, but rest assured, the suggestions I make here, if followed but not taken to any extreme will strengthen you as a singer and not burn you out!

The first and most important thing I have learned about singing is that it is mostly a mental game. The secret to great singing starts in the brain. It definitely doesn't end there, but training your mind to be the backbone of your voice is by far the most important factor in developing your own voice.

Any of the following quotes ring a bell?

"When I get in front of people, or I know people are listening, I don't sing out like I do when no one's around."

"I don't have a good range, especially when I'm playing guitar."

"I can't sing that... I can't hit THAT note... better lower the key so I can sing it in MY range."

"I can only sing aggressively --like screams, growls, or hi energy belts for a few minutes, then my voice is fried for days."

"When I have a cold, I can't sing... if I don't drink enough water, I can't sing... if I don't take my throat spray with me, I won't last on stage... If I don't eat an apple in the morning, I won't..."

Most aspiring singers --especially ones that have been locked into being a bedroom performer, limit their abilities by simply convincing themselves that any (but not limited to) of the above statements are actually true. NONE of the above statements NEED to be true for you as a singer. The most common limitations I see are "note fright" - getting mentally worked up right before you need to hit the highest note in a song, and thus, screwing up the high point of a beautiful song, and those related to stamina. Granted, proper technique goes a long way to helping with both of these issues, but most vocal students get it backwards. In order for any technique training to actually work, you must convince yourself that you CAN hit that note, that you can belt with the best of them, and that you can express yourself aggressively for an extended period time without destroying your voice.

I've sat down with so many vocal students who do all the warm-ups, sing all the scales, learn all the songs but can't get past the sheepish, self conscious brick wall because they are afraid of making a fool out of themselves. Here's the irony: When a singer who is not confident in their abilities, and squeaks out unsure melodies, they DO look like a fool. They invite harsh judgment upon themselves cause they are too worried about what other people think. 9 times out of 10, the students who can't get over their introverted sheepishness fail to learn proper singing technique. It really is very simple. No confidence = No development.

However, simply telling someone to get confident doesn't usually work. It's just as bad to have a little voice in the back of your mind saying: "get confident... Get Confident... GET CONFIDENT... What's wrong with you!! ...Why aren't you more confident!!” This kind of thinking is the same kind of destructive thinking that keeps you from singing out or hitting that note. You're working against yourself. So what's the solution?

A number of years ago, I set a number of goals for myself as a singer:

1. I wanted to improve my range.
2. I wanted to improve my stamina.
3. I wanted to improve my tone quality and versatility.

I'd studied a number of my favorite rock singers who were doing exactly the kinds of things I wanted to hear in my voice, I took vocal lessons, I read books, went to clinics, did Internet research, and practiced like crazy. During my practicing, I'd try to hit new, higher notes, I'd practice screaming, belting, singing in falsetto and every so often, I'd do something that really sounded great. These great moments were few and far between though.

When I'd go out and sing for other people, I'd NEVER try any of the things that I did in my private singing life. "If I yelped and squeaked like I did when I'm singing in my car or locked in my room, every one would hold their ears and walk out."

I went for years like this. I'd have my practice sessions in private where I was working on the voice I wanted to have and then there was my safe, on pitch, boring performance voice. I started recording my voice, doing sometimes 30 or 40 takes of just one note so that I could get it just right. Then I'd listen back to myself and say: "That sounds great, but why can't I just sing it like that on the first try? ...Other people can do it. What am I missing?"

The turning point came when I got a hold of some old live Soundgarden bootlegs. Up to that point, I'd been listening to my favorite singers on their studio albums and comparing my practice sessions to their studio work. When I heard Chris Cornell sing on those live recordings, I bunch of light bulbs went off and singing totally changed for me.

These recordings, in front of thousands of people, showcased a vocal performance that by-in-large was pretty good, but there were some truly awful moments. I heard him in an unpolished, organic environment of live performance. I actually heard some things in his voice as a live performer that I was hearing in my voice during my practicing. I went searching for live performances of my other heroes, and the same was true for them. I then came to the following realization: (and it has been the single most important factor in improving my voice) You have to NOT care about making mistakes. You MUST take calculated risks as a performing singer and go in to the risky situation EXPECTING to make a mess of it. Once you've squeaked or cracked a bunch of times in front of a live audience, or been so pitchy cats start meowing, your mistakes can't hurt you any more. Then you begin on this amazing journey of each mistake making you better.

Now I have to qualify that last paragraph. You can get away with a bunch of technical mistakes of you are asserting yourself as a comfortable, confident performer. The two work hand in hand. If you sing with confidence, even if you might sound horrible, then you will start to sound better. When you start to sound better because your gaining experience, you start to sing with more confidence, but I will repeat: It must start with confidence!! NOT with the pursuit of perfection!!

So the answer to the question: "How do you get confident?" It's really quite simple. Learn to yell and scream, yelp and squeak and sing wrong and pitchy notes all in front of anybody and everybody that may hear you. Get yourself and others used to every weird noise you make and make it part of your 'thing' as singer. Embrace what comes out of your mouth as YOU. Make everything that comes out part of your art as a singer. If you do this, your voice will start to develop at a rapid pace.

After I came to this realization, I started picking songs to sing that really pushed me. I'd go to rehearsals and totally massacre them at first. I knew it didn't sound that good, but I kept singing them with energy, confidence, and power. I even performed them for audiences. After awhile, just because I kept at it and kept strong, they started to sound better. I NEVER lower the key of a cover song any more. If a guy is singing it, and he can do it, then I WILL do it.

Here are some things you can do to overcome the mental blocks that were presented in the quotes I shared with you earlier:

1. Choose to be loud. The same voice you use when you're yelling at a sports game or yelling across a park to your kid can be the same voice you sing with! Don't worry about what others think. Just do it and see what happens.

2. If you're trying to improve your range, figure out your top comfortable note and shoot for singing a minor 3rd above it. Tell yourself: "It doesn't matter how bad it sounds, or even if it feels like it hurts my throat... I will hit the note". Practice hitting the with POWER any way you can for short practice sessions... say 5 minutes or less. Experiment with holding your jaw differently, pushing from your stomach muscles, sitting, standing, smiling, frowning etc... You're training yourself to push boundaries and you're learning how it feels to do things differently. If you're doing things wrong, it will hurt (and that's okay in moderation), when you stumble on something that feels good and sounds good, remember how it feels and come back to it the next day. You start with a confidence that you will accomplish your goal of hitting that note and then you become a student of how your voice feels when you push it in certain ways. Stick with it, be patient, don't over do it, and it WILL come! Trust me! This is exactly how I pushed my range up from a standard tenor G to a D# in full voice.

3. If you struggle with stamina, it's probably not because you are singing to loud for too long. It's probably because you are singing timidly and trying to still sing sort of loud. Push from your gut! Your stomach muscles should be tired from a night of singing. If they are not worked or sore the next day but you are hoarse, you are actually singing with too much reservation. Seek to move enough air that only supporting from your gut can provide and you'll notice that your neck will relax, your jaw will relax and your notes will begin flowing out of you. The last thing you want to do when you start to feel like you're not lasting is try to hold back --With in reason of course. If you've been singing for an hour or more and your start to get tired, that's okay. I'm talking about the times when you feel tense and tired after only a few songs. If you're supporting yourself correctly and you sing regularly, you should have no problem singing for about 2-3 hours and walk away feeling great!

4. If you struggle singing when you have a cold, or you need a throat spray or a certain beverage to make you sing well, you're probably using a confidence crutch. Some colds that lodge themselves right in your voice box will leave you speechless and note-less. Most colds, however shouldn't stop the music. There is a strong tendency among the sick, to pull back and tense up when you have a cold. So it's not the cold that's making you sing poorly, it’s your drop in confidence and assertiveness when dealing with your vocal instrument that causes you to burn out quickly. If you have a confidence crutch such as a drink or spray, ditch the crutch and see what happens. Things such as throat sprays are a way of providing false confidence. You don't need that stuff to sing well. You need to sing with a good mindset and a lot of airflow!

Some thoughts about proper vocal care and training:

If I'm completely honest, absolutely NO food restrictions, vocal lessons, warm-up tapes, water in-take, honey sticks or lemon water ever helped me grow in to my voice at all. They don't even help me take care of my voice. I don't smoke, but I also have no problem having a piece of pepperoni pizza with a glass of milk right before I go out on stage or head into the studio. I stay up late and get up early. I breathe cold, dry air, and I drink ice water while singing. I rarely warm up for a concert except by singing a song or two during sound check or screaming a little in my car on the way to a rehearsal. I have eaten string cheese and yogurt while recording radio jingles, and clear my throat whenever I feel I need to. I'm not bashing any methods of vocal care, nor am I saying that warming up your voice isn't helpful for overall vocal health. But I am discounting it somewhat...

If your practice routine consists of preplanned warm-ups, some songs sung from sheet music to a backing track, and your vocal care consists of a strict diet, you are working against yourself as a Rock vocalist. Rock vocalists generally don't follow these standard, conventionally taught vocal disciplines. Here's what they do instead: They sing often (Every Day), they sing loud, confidently and well supported, and they focus on delivering a passionate, entertaining performance.

This is how they practice. Many times, the "vocal lesson way" doesn't encourage the unbridled, obnoxious and care-free development path we've been discussing in this article because it over-emphasizes precision and accuracy. Rock singing is about the performance and energy as a whole. If your mind is focused on simply hitting notes or using impeccable vowel formation, you'll probably be a boring singer (from a rock and roll standpoint) If you're pitchy, and pronounce your vowels wrong sometimes but your face is red with angst and your pouring emotion out of your eyeballs, you'll be perceived as a better singer.

Diet restrictions fall under the same category as throat sprays. Don't let these things be your focus. Eating well and exercising is good, but please don't eat so you can sing better. It doesn't work at all and it takes your focus away from where it should be.

In this first article of the series, we've focused on overcoming common mental barriers that plague aspiring Rock singers. In the next article, we'll take a more in-depth look at the physical aspects of Rock singing. Until then, sing with confidence!!

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