The Best Instrument (Part One)

What Do You Already Know?

Anyone reading this who can also hear and speak has the capacity to do something much more powerful.  You can sing. Singing provides physical, psychological and spiritual benefits.  Singing will increase your quality of life.  Everyone who possibly can should sing.  If you don’t know how, you can learn.  Some of you who can speak and can’t hear can learn how too.  If you think you can’t carry a tune, you can learn that.  If you don’t have much natural aptitude for listening and repeating with accuracy, you can learn to listen with greater focus.  There are only two general things you need to figure out in order to pursue this goal to be a good singer.  Both are vital.

1.)    How much natural ability do you already possess?

2.)    What kind of singing inspires and excites you?

If you’ve only read my past tirades against American Idol, you might think I’m some kind of musical snob.  I’m not.  I really believe what I said in the first paragraph.  I think the bad singers on American Idol know the answer to #2, and skipped over #1.  In order to know how much natural ability you have, you have to do some experiments.  You have to run some tests, real tests, with an academic basis.  You have to learn some music theory basics, just a few.  This is not as hard as it sounds.  I’m only trying to distinguish it from doing things like singing along to Karaoke tracks or your iPod or CD player or singing in the car or shower.  All those things are fine and can be fun, but they don’t provide enough information to answer question #1.  You need to check out your voice in comparison to something or someone outside yourself.

The most reliable source of information is a teacher.  If you know the location of a public school, the school usually has some kind of a music teacher.  You can contact that person and make an appointment with them to find out your vocal range and level of ability.  If you have no problem going into a church, they also have music professionals.  You don’t have to join the church to ask for this kind of help from an organist or choir director.  If you can’t follow either of these alternatives, there are teachers you can pay, however there’s a risk involved in paying just to audition.  Paid vocal coaches have a vested interest in having you continue to pay, for lessons.  They might not be honest with you.  It’s not that hard to find a teacher or a musician who will help you for free.  Music teachers want there to be more good singers in the world.  That’s why they became teachers.  They will be happy if you want to become a better singer, no matter how little you know at the start.

Here’s what will happen.  The teacher will probably use a piano.  They will hit notes on the piano and ask you to sing those pitches.  You’ll sing notes as high and as low in pitch as you can.  That’s your RANGE.  Almost everyone is able to sing one OCTAVE’s worth of pitches in a major scale, which is also called IONIAN MODE.  That’s the “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” thing.  Those with more aptitude might be able to sing two octaves or more.  The gifted singers will have three octaves, and maybe more.  Where those notes lie on the piano determines whether you are a (from high to low) SOPRANO, ALTO, TENOR or BASS singer.  There are subdivisions within those four types and some classifications that overlap ranges too, but let’s keep it simple for those who are starting out and may be scared.

If the teacher is also a singer, or a conductor of singers, they will be listening for your TONE.  They will be checking how solidly you can hold a pitch, whether or not you have vibrato and how “round” your vocal tone is.  By round I mean dark-sounding, pure, rich, deep, clear, focused.  Your voice is an instrument, one of the most flexible, adaptive and expressive kinds in existence.  The teacher is comparing your voice to their knowledge of other instruments, and other voices.  They have training in the physiology of singing, and can teach you how to produce a better-sounding tone.  They will be checking your ability to follow a sequence of notes and how long you can sing without needing to take a breath.  Depending on your level of natural ability, improving these things can take mere months or many years of practice.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  If you want to be a good singer, you have to do it, period.  The best motivator is to explore question #2 and determine what kind of singing turns you on.

Coming Up in Part Two – The World of Singing Traditions

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “The Best Instrument (Part One)

  1. The statement that makes a profound impact on me is in the very first line of this article.

    “Anyone reading this who can also hear and speak has the capacity to do something much more powerful.”

    I can read and understand, I can hear and I can speak. That gives me all the potential I need, to live a full, meaningful life despite being paralyzed from my neck down.

    My attitude is that if singing makes you happy in your heart then do it. Singing is not for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate beautiful music and gifted, talented singing voices. I get far more joy out of sitting back and and drowning my soul in the music.

    • Gee, I wonder who I wrote that line for? (hmmm)
      It may not be for you YET, but I’m probably not going to let you off that easy. I have to try a bit more. Forgive me.

      I know your life is meaningful. There’s another dimension, another side to your brain you can’t access from the left brain/language side. You only open the door to the right brain a peek by listening, but it’s a good start! It gets opened wide when you become an instrument yourself, and you CAN do it. It might be one of those tools that make you nervous (at first). Perhaps the next installment will help.

  2. Pingback: How To Play The Violin Like A Master Pro- A Brief History Of The Violin | Modeling Tool .net

  3. I do most of my singing when I’m alone in the car, to my own lyrics too LOL …or in the kitchen when I’m doing mundane stuff like prepping veggies when I’m bulk cooking. The kids are encouraged to make up silly ditties and songs too and especially my son, shows a real love for singing (often the louder the better) but he’s not brave enough to want to sing in public, pity ‘cos he’s got rather a good voice and he can stay in tune (ok, mostly LOL).

    • You’re a good mum. Be brave. sing your made-up lyrics to the kids. They will LOVE it. I discovered the joy of that one with Blondie, the girl in Odd Jobs 3. She said something about brushing your teeth in the morning because of the acids in the night. I started singing (to the tune of Pat Benetar’s “Running with the shadows of the Night”)

      We’re scrubbing out the acids of the night.
      Oh, baby take my hand it’ll be all right…

      She laughed all day, and even made me breakfast!

  4. Pie

    I’d love to sing. I have the urge at times to go for it full throttle, but I usually bottle it, therefore, my warblings are sporadic. I’ve had stints in choirs (a great place to hide) and occasionally sing to myself at home. I think I’m an alto, but I have no idea of how many octaves I can do, my pitch and all those other things you mentioned. My stamina is rubbish, as I have to take a lot of breaths and I’m only good for two songs max. I could ask musicians I know to teach me, but I find that intimidating and I like to keep my friends! Perhaps I should look into finding a teacher unknown to me and finally get some lessons, so I can sing with full confidence.

    It’s criminal to not use the instrument you’re born with. It’s time for me to get out of jail.

    By the way, the pic of that bird is lovely.

    • I agree about the bird. It was taken by an amateur photographer in Singapore I believe. The copyright was really hard to see but it’s there in the corner of the pic. Stamina comes from practice, and a few basics like not smoking. I agree also that you’re guilty of insufficient use of natural resources. Find a stranger to teach you, before I have you arrested.

      • Pie

        I don’t smoke, so it’s just good old fashioned lack of lung power and/or strong diaphragm.

        • Diaphragm doesn’t matter (long as you have one), That’s old theory. Lung power comes from repeated practice taking deeper breaths + holding them longer. The rest is all shaping the larynx. I’ll do a physiology chapter after the next one on different traditions.

  5. Susan

    I can’t imagine a life of not singing. I didn’t decide to really go for it until my 30′s by which time it was too late to have a career in opera. Noting your earlier post about Charles Ives, I once sang a set of his songs in recital. They were a lot of fun. But try going from singing to whistling without a beat in between to lick your lips.

  6. Cat

    My friend’s a chorister, and she’s really good. Like, she’ll place at all-state and everything. I have ZERO natural ability when it comes to singing, but I took some piano as a kid and was apparently a whiz. My teacher wanted me to get really into it because I was good, but I was too young to care so that kind of died.

    All of my favourite vocalists are chicks. I think I just like female voices better or something? I love voices that are recognizable and unique, like Edith Piaf. And more modern day, I like Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, A Fine Frenzy, Adele… I also have a random thing for chicks in rock like Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wish Courtney Love hadn’t gone completely batshit because I adore Hole’s music. Le sigh.

  7. Nice level of information here. There is so much data around about this subject that sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees but you have pitched this at just the right level so that the lay person can understand – thank you!

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