Finesse, not muscle.

There are a lot of muscles around the larynx. These muscles fall into two categories, intrinsic and extrinsic. Understanding what each of these muscles do are crucial to becoming a good singer. 

Just kidding.  

While yes, there are plenty of muscles in your throat around your vocal cords. However, you do not need to be able to name or understand them to sing better. There's nothing wrong with learning the anatomy of the voice, but don't let that distract you from singing. Some people enjoy learning every single detail in what makes something work. And that's awesome, but this is not the blog for those types of people. This is a blog for singers, who just want to sing better. 

Basically, stop thinking about your larynx, your diaphragm, power, and most importantly your "range."

There are several things to think about to make singing easier, and very little of it is anatomy. 

  1. Relax
  2. Breathe in
  3. Breathe out
  4. Open your mouth
  5. Tongue forward*
  6. Enunciate
  7. Repeat

I promise every single singer in the world, and my students know, if you focus on these steps, you WILL sing better.

*Keeping the tongue forward can be tough for beginners. It's very easy to pull back. Let the tongue rest touching the back of your bottom teeth on vowels and most consonants.Using a mirror to practice will quickly dissolve that problem if you haven't already figured it out.  

Where does the finesse come in? Well, that's easy and it should be easy. Ironically, singing "easy" is uncomfortable to many learning singers. I used to feel if I wasn't pushing, or really flexing for high notes I wasn't giving it my all. And that didn't feel right. But let's think about that ... what instrument involves pushing, squeezing and strength, over finesse and experience? I can't think of any. Sports are a bit different, pushing yourself is what a good sport should do. And it feels great when you accomplish something with the right mindset to go big or go home.  But singing isn't a sport, it's a musical art form. Art, while sometimes forced, doesn't need to be. Especially when learning. Stylistically in the moment is another story, but that also comes AFTER the finesse. 

Finesse is like watching an accomplished pianist play Rachmaninoff, Chopin, or Gershwin in a beautiful flowing and "easy" way. It's like watching Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix make the guitar look and sound like it's an extension of their body and soul. They aren't muscling through those notes, they are elegantly playing them. When played on a Steinway Model D concert grand piano or a hand-wired Marshall full stack turned up to 10, that's where the "muscle" comes from. Just like singing through a powerful PA system with a microphone in your hands or a fancy recording studio, the finesse comes from you as the artist, let the hardware in the performance and practice be the muscle. 

The more you pull back the pushing, the straining, the compressed air, the flexing, the muscle, you'll find your voice very susceptible, very fragile, and that's a good thing. That's your real voice. That's the voice that wants to be on a microphone. That's the voice that wants to tell a story. That's the voice that can hit all your high and low notes easily. That's the voice that needs to be worked on, get experienced, and get confident with. That's the voice that will grow into the "powerful" voice you didn't realize could come so easily. It just takes finesse. Finesse takes time. Not musicle. See... that's where this was going... 

So, let the air in, let the air out, sing quietly, don't be afraid to flip, sing easily, focus on the simple easy things, the logical things a preschooler would understand. Open your mouth, enunciate, relax. Speak the words on the pitch. Do it again. The more you do it, the more you build experience, the more you build finesse out of your true unique stylistic voice. That finesse, turns into music. 

Once again, if you just skimmed and missed it... finesse takes time, not muscle. 

Get to singing!

- Chris Keller

Stop singing scales.

"But Chris, I've seen old videos on Youtube of you singing scales. I want you to teach me how to sing like that." 

Short answer, no. I just can't. I want all my vocal students to be singers, not vocal scientists.

Why? Because I've grown, not only as a vocalist, but as a singer. A singer sings for the song, not for the note. It's taken me 30 years to realize "showing off" is not music. Music is an art form. Music should touch the soul, bring out emotion, make you cry, laugh, smile, dance, and just plain feel good.   

Of course, I want everyone to improve their craft, and improving does take some technical work, but when a musician puts the technique first, you have an emotionless combination of physics and math. 

I've learned the hard way, it's not about hitting the highest note, or the fastest run on piano or guitar, it's about singing it like you mean it. Ironically, putting the lyrics first, focusing on gemination, diphthongs, and constant air flow, as I've talked about in my other blog posts on my site, will improve your technique, tone, depth, volume, and ... help you hit the notes. I mean, ALL THE NOTES, even the notes in the "easy" part of the song you THINK you sing just fine. I know, I know, sounds crazy. But it's true. 

The problem with doing scales too much, especially with a prerecorded program or even with a live accompanist slamming out arpeggios on a grand piano, is the focus. The focus is put on hitting the first and highest note, and blending with the piano/cd rather than paying attention to every single note in the middle of the scales and the approach with the voice. Why blend the voice to a piano or an audio program? The voice is fully capable of being it's own strong solo instrument. In fact, it's the most capable and unique instrument ever in the history of all humankind. It's part of being a human. It's nature. It's God given. It's part of the body. It's easy. It's a part of the soul. Stranded on an island, you have your voice. Walking to the car in the parking lot, you have your voice. Expressing your love to your significant other, you have your voice. Angry at the world, you have your voice. 

I used to be a vocal coach that wanted everyone to sing better. And I still am that same vocal coach, but my entire perception and approach has changed. Hitting a high note wasn't an issue for me, however, singing a song on command from start to finish, was an issue. I got tired of being the "guy with the awesome voice" that couldn't sing a song anytime and anywhere with a smile on my face. I took it too seriously. I missed some amazing opportunities. My focus was more on flexing my voice to the top with loads of compression. And it wasn't fun. My clientele was following right along with me. They also wanted to sing the high notes "easily and full" as I did, and that was their focus coming to me as a vocal coach. After a while, I started to get frustrated teaching.  I wasn't enjoying it like I should have been, something was truly missing. It took a tragedy to realize what it was.  

September of 2012, I lost my only sibling suddenly, my little brother, Geoffrey. It killed me inside. Those that have had an untimely loss understand the feeling. Through the pain, I realized I loved music, but had little way to express it. I knew notes, and I understood the "proper" way to sing and play them.  But that was it. I knew I had a love for music, I knew it was inside, but I wasn't showing it. I had plenty of supporters and believers in me and my musical talents. They consistently told me to stick with music and at the time, I was unsure why. After a couple months of grieving, I picked up the guitar, an instrument my brother was proficient in, and I told myself "I'm going to learn songs."  

Lots and lots of practicing, a move from New York City back to Nashville, and a lot of thinking later, I understand why I sing and why I'm a vocal coach... to share and enjoy my voice and teach others the same.   

The amount of joy after singing a good song, start to finish, my own song or someone else's, focusing on the content, the emotion, the sound that I'm creating, the rhythm, the dynamics, the love, is overwhelming at times. I used to "impress" myself when I got a note in a full mix above a high C.  That got me some vocal students. Awesome. But now, I'm proud of myself when I sing a song with ease, every lyric, every chord, without worrying about mistakes. I can do it time and time again without mental and physical fatigue. I'm happier than I've ever been with my music, with my vocal coaching, and most importantly, with my voice, which is truly, truly, the sound of my heart. 

So, please, stop singing scales. Sing a song. Sing a song, not because it's technically challenging, but because you, as the singer, enjoy it and find a connection with it. I promise you, you'll sing better than you ever have before. 

- Chris Keller 

Chris Keller Vx Studios

Gemination? Time to elongate your consonants.

Gemination, or as I tell my students time after time with a smile, "Elongate your consonants!" What does this mean? Well, it's difficult to hear and understand at first. It's one of those things when you get it , you'll hear yourself and every other singer do or not do it. And you won't ever forget it.  

Elongating consonants is the act of making the consonant itself longer and more audible. Typically, when a singer tries working on consonants for the first time it's easy to smack into them and go straight into the vowel. After all, the vowel is more important anyway. Right?  I don't believe so. Especially not in commercial music. Consonants are just as important as high soaring vowels during the final chorus of the ballad. Why? They are the set-up to just about every vowel you ever sing. They shape the word and give your singing the percussive rhythm that draws listeners in. Consonants make songs catchy. Consonants give those that pay more attention to the lyrics than the high notes, guitar riffs, or drum fills something to really zone in on. From past experience, and especially down here in Nashville, voicing strong lyrical content as a singer or songwriter will get a singer much further up the music industry ladder than just hitting a high note. 

So why do we need to elongate the consonants? Why can't it just be a hard fast "T" in the word "take" or a quick loud "L" in the word "love"? It can be, but it won't implement the the emotion you as the singer are trying to convey. There are two main reasons why elongating consonants are important.

Technique 

  • Related to my last blog, High Notes? It's all about the approach., long consonants are a great way to approach higher notes, and every other note. The simple act of holding a "T" or "S" and an "H" requires a fair amount of air to slip through. The moving air is really really good. This will relieve a lot of the compression and tension that is created when hitting a consonant and the popping into the vowel. While the consonant is forming, the vocal cords are already buzzing, the light steady air flow is going, and going into the vowel will be just a slight bit easier. That slight bit of ease will add up over a long performance. And last but not least in technique, this will help your motor memory. Over elongating your consonants while learning new songs, or even your old songs, you'll notice it's more difficult to forget words. Why? Your body gets used to shaping the consonant at that particular moment in the song. Just like learning an instrument, motor memory is key to playing everything better. Looking or finding the note on the guitar or piano isn't fun for anyone. Trying to remember the lyrics isn't very fun either. I think a lot of us have learned that the hard way.  Even if you consciously forget the lyric coming up, your body and brain hasn't. Just keep going and you'll be surprised how the right word appears.  

Performance

  • Listeners will understand your words. Simple as that. It's extremely easy to forget about the importance of lyrics while working on breath support methods, scales, and expanding your range. To most of us, the whole reason we take voice lessons are to become a better singer. Not just to get better at scales. By lengthening your consonants, you will sound like a singer first. A singer that connects to and emits emotion with their music. Those who are involved in theater have often heard the director say, "I'd rather you give me too much, than too little." This is a very important lesson. While the performer knows the song, knows the words front to back, backwards and forwards, the listener does not. The listener, even if they know the song, doesn't usually know the song as well as the performer. As the singer, you are putting on a performance every time you sing for others. Give them your words. Make sure they understand every word you say. The listeners will thank you for it.  While it may seem silly at first and even a bit challenging to over exaggerate and lengthen your consonants, it won't seem that way to the listener. In quicker songs, elongating the consonants leads to a percussive nature to the voice. The rhythm in which you chose to sing your lyrics is more present. Who doesn't love a good groove? Even in a song without a time signature, your voice has a flow to it. Let the consonants set the pace. Not only will your listeners enjoy, as the singer, you will get more into what you're singing. Easier vowels, better reception, getting into your natural lyrical groove, all this will boost your singing confidence. That is definitely going to make your performance better. 

How should you practice this? Like I said, it can be a little difficult at first to understand and hear the difference. My favorite way to have my students pick it up easier, is to have them imitate well spoken movie stars. Long time Hollywood stars such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and my favorite, Christopher Walken, speak very naturally with this technique. Were they trained in it specifically? In a way, yes. A lot of this actually stems from acting. What these actors as well as many others do so well, is convey strong emotion without pushing the volume while generating a hypnotic flow to what they say. Rappers also do this extremely well at a much quicker pace. Listen to Eminem, Tupac, or Jay-Z, every consonant is very clear. It's not as fast and hard of an attack as you would think. It's very well enunciated. As my friend Jimmy Gnecco once showed me, there is a much deeper impact when saying something quietly with long slow consonants than just a sloppy shout on a high note.

Try saying "Are you talking to me?" very slowly. Make the consonants long, not the vowels. "Are (Yyyy)ou (Ttttt)alking (tt)o (Mmm)e?"  Try again. Space out the words. Keep doing it over and over. Let the air flow. Make sure the consonants are longer than usual, not long vowels. It will sound silly at first. For fun, try lengthening the vowels one time. Now that sounds really really silly. Go back to the consonants. Next, pick a phrase from your favorite song. Just speak it, very slowly, space out the words a bit, focus on the long consonants. Do this over and over. As you build speed back to normal, you'll notice your consonants are not any harder to say this way. In fact, you'll notice it's a bit easier. You'll fall into your percussive lyrical groove and want to keep going. When you go back to singing in the original key, it will feel more natural. And your listeners will be able to sit back and relax and not have to think about what you're saying as much. They will enjoy your overall performance that much more. 

Are you elongating your consonants? Gemination is key.