By Cari Cole
It’s easy to miss these vocal faux pas. You’ve probably made many of them – I know I have. But chances are, you didn’t know they were faux pas until you got further on down the line. And, sometimes I still hear seasoned singers making these blaring mistakes. Thing is, if they cleaned them up they’d sound ten times better than they do now. This is not just my opinion, it’s a fact. I’ve witnessed minor and major vocal transformations in the wink of an eye or over years of practice. Funny thing is, after almost 3 decades of being a vocal coach, I can now fix in a few seconds what used to take singers years to turn around. The problem is getting the vocalist to remember the fix that fast – which over time with repetition, they naturally do.
Here are my top ten pet peeves when it comes to vocals and how to fix ‘em. They’re simple things to fix with just a little practice and some of your good ol’ lovin’ attention. I want to be sure you’re not coming out sounding less than you could.
1. Unnecessary H’s!
This is my number one pet peeve and a big faux pas. Here’s what happens. In the middle of a word sometimes you are changing notes as you hold a vowel. Sta-a-ay. Adding h’s sounds like Stay-hay-hay. Singing it smoother without adding h’s sounds like sta-a-ay. When a singer doesn’t have control, they most likely add the h’s because it’s easier for the laryngeal muscles to add the extra puff of air at the cords because it helps to change the note while holding the vowel – but well – it-don’t-sound-so-good. And certainly is a telltale sign of a singer who has no control. Practice your Smooth Moves people! Practice changing notes as you hold a vowel without any h’s (the best way is to record yourself and listen back to be sure!).
Exception: every once in a blue moon you hear it and for some reason, it works. But really, really rarely! And even then, it’s not smooth.
2. Glottal Strokes.
This is my number 2 pet peeve and the easiest thing to fix. Glottals happen usually on a phrase that starts with a word that begins with a vowel-like the word “at”. Instead of hitting the word smooth, the singer hits it too hard and it comes out AT with a hard clicking sound on the “A”. Listen to Britney Spears song “You Drive Me Crazy” from her Baby One More Time album. Listen at :38 seconds to the pre-chorus – Every time you look “AH-t” me. The “at” has a glottal stroke on the onset of the word. Producers always try to take glottals out as they don’t sound good. The way to fix it is to add a baby invisible “h” to the word. H-at. But don’t let us really hear the h. What that does is make the singer pad the onset of the word with a little breath which keeps the glottal from happening! A little more challenging if you’ve never done it before, but once you get it you never do it again!
4. Scoops That Fall Short.
I love the blues. I love the phrasing and sophistication that a blues singer has. One of my favorite rock singers that has an awesome blues phrasing is Paul Rodgers (from Bad Company). Blues phrasing is at the foundation of rock, pop, R & B, Hip hop, etc. But — nothing is worse than someone trying to sing what we call “blue notes” that don’t make the note. A “blue note” is a scoop up to a note, but good singers still hit the note in the center of the scoop. Be sure your “blue note” goes all the way home!
This term became a household word thanks to Randy Jackson on American Idol. Thanks, Randy – you made my job easier! Everyone knows that “pitchy” means singing off-pitch. It’s a fundamental thing that happens when you don’t practice enough, are not crazy about the song you are singing, or are “over-thinking” it. Practice technique on a regular basis for 45-50 min. 5x a week until you don’t have pitch issues anymore. They will go away the more you practice – promise! (Get my Singers Gift Vocal Warmups here. They’ll help you sing on pitch and with more strength and precision in no time!)
5. Unfocused Tone – breathy or brassy (nasal).
Unfocused or misplaced tone can be a total turnoff. Especially if your sound ends up in your nose or your palate. Nothing sounds worse than a nasal brassy sound that pierces right through your ears, or a palate-y over-compressed sound like “Kermit-the-Frog”. Work with a good vocal coach who can correct these problems.
Hint: If they aren’t correcting a breathy or brassy voice right away they don’t know what they are doing and it’s time to move on. The good coaches get the big bucks because they fix things fast – they have to! So don’t waste your money.
6. Stuck in Your Throat.
Some singers just can’t seem to get their voices out of their throats. This is a common problem. It doesn’t always pose a problem because sometimes it sounds pretty good – but it won’t last. Here’s a quick tip. Try opening your mouth wider (on the inside) and see if the sound bounces up to the roof of your mouth more?
7. Singing Outside Your Range.
Nothing screams unprofessional more than a singer who is singing outside of their comfort zone. It’s just not necessary. Singers who sound good sing where their voice sounds good – they don’t compete to hit the highest note they can. Try singing where your voice sounds and feels good to get the best out of what your voice offers. Practice technique to improve your range – the right way (My Singers Gift Vocal Warmups can show you how – more info here).
8. Vibrato Control.
Of all the tens of thousands of singers I’ve coached over the past several decades in New York City at my studio, the biggest dead giveaway of a singer who is in control is still their vibrato. While it’s a process of finer tuning for good vocals, try singing a vowel with a “straight tone” (without vibrato) and then moving into a vibrato tone.
Dynamics are the final giveaway. You can have all of the above right, but if you haven’t mastered dynamics your voice will sound stiff or stilted. In good singers there is a natural dynamic to their phrases – not all the notes have the same volume and intensity. Start by underlining the words you want to emphasize (pick the emotional words) and de-emphasize the rest. Of course, don’t let that underlined word jump out – still make it sound smooth. Using dynamics will give you that natural pro sound right away.