By Cari Cole
Lately, we’ve been watching Lady Gaga absolutely crush her vocals. How did she go from a celebrity with a really good voice, to this newly evolved “superstar” status? What’s her secret?
It all started with her performance at the Oscars in 2015 when she performed “Sound of Music” at the Oscars. We were awed.
But her flawless vocals weren’t exactly effortless — Oscars executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan revealed that the 28-year-old singer actually practiced every day for six months for the 50th-anniversary tribute. “She worked half a year with a vocal coach every day to do that,” Zadan told ET.
Then, the 29-year-old songstress blew viewers away when she sang the National Anthem at Super Bowl 2016 and every live performance since. She’s on fire.
How does one go from good to great or even superstar status in 12 months? Practice, Commitment and Accountability. The trade secrets below are a part of my Vocal Mastery Program that I share with my celebrity stars and my private VIP clients that I now bring to you here!
Here are my Quick and Dirty Superstar Singing Lessons:
1. Smooth Moves.
Work on smoothing out your transitions from note to note, from word to word. Each singer is different so you’ll have to assume which is right for you. Some singers overemphasize their consonants (sounding more “musical theatre” like) and some don’t sing their consonants enough. In general, I find the first is more common. So I’ll speak to that (and you adjust if you are the latter.)
De-emphasize your consonants and sing more on your vowels by feeling them and letting them “pop out” more. Vowels are what we “sing on” not consonants. You can also try linking the consonant from the word prior to the next consonant or vowel in the following word to smooth out your sound. This creates more of a “legato” voice which is what singers benefit from with a solid vocal technique and training. It makes the voice sound effortless! Legato is your best friend baby!
2. Finishes That Are Just As Good As Beginnings.
A dead giveaway of a sub-par vocal is a big emphasis on beginnings and dropping off on endings. In voices that have mastered singing, you’ll notice the endings are just as great as their beginnings. Most of it has to do with mastering the breath. Once the breath is more relaxed and deeper, the singer is not running out of breath at the ends of phrases and can finish without struggle or dying off. Using a little vibrato or a smooth riff can help create smooth finishes.
Skillful voices are also quite deliberate with which beat they end the phrase on to create an irresistible rhythmic dynamic. For those of you who are musicians, holding over to the “and” of the 4 or ending on an upbeat or the downbeat of the following measure can create a super awesome effect ;). For those that aren’t schooled musicians, train with a coach (like me) who can show you these cool effects!
3. Clean Pronunciation.
Overdone or odd pronunciations can kill vocals on the spot. Because we hold out vowels during singing (and not in speaking) there are plenty of margins for error. Between diphthongs (words with 2 vowels – of which you only want to pronounce the 1st) and other weirdness resulting from drawled out enunciations, it’s time to do some cleanup. Sometimes unusual pronunciations work, so these are only for those that don’t.
And don’t worry, you’ll know… or your audience (or lack of one) will speak for you. Pop music (or any contemporary commercial genre) is more “conversational” in how you pronounce.
Notice how much Lady Gaga has cleaned up her “New York accent” in recent months as she works to smooth out her pronunciation. It’s always good to leave a little individuality in your voice, so don’t scrub it all out, just enough to sound polished.
4. Distinguished Dynamics.
Crescendos & decrescendos are the heart of great vocals. Crescendo = a gradual increase in volume of a musical passage. Decrescendo = a gradual decrease in volume of a musical passage. Think of the arc of a whole song and then think in sections. Where are the opportune moments for dynamics to build your vocal? Work off of lyrics and the instrumentation for cues.
5. Milking the Peak Moments!
As a vocal arranger, my job is to make the vocalist sound 10x better than they would on their own. A big part of that is creating “moments” – highlights in their vocal. And more than often, even extremely talented singers I work with still manage to leave opportunities on the table. It’s hard to be objective about your own voice or even more so on your own song. Covers are easier because the vocal interpretation is already created.
Every great vocal has a few “moments” where a note is either held out longer than expected, or a beautiful riff (a flurry of fast-moving notes) is added for a peak effect.
Quick ways to milk those moments are: Try holding a note at the end of a phrase out a little longer (hold the vowel out longer, not the consonant.) Milk it by holding it out, don’t cut it off too early! This gives the listener a chance to linger longer on the thought.
Try adding a riff for an emotional ending. Follow the music and the lyrics to find the peak moment? Milk it by adding a riff so the phrase lingers longer and increases the emotional impact.
6. Juggling Both Pillars of Pitch & Emotion.
Pitch matters – a lot, but so does emotion. It’s hard to do both well. Most singers get it after a lot of experience but tend to favor one or the other. But the superstars of singers do both extremely well. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jesse J, Sia, Jeff Buckley, Steven Tyler, Bruno Mars, John Legend — all master singers who have both. Don’t be discouraged because it can take years (even decades) of practice and gigging to get to that place of mastery.
In the meanwhile a few tips: When you focus too much on emotion, pitch can easily suffer. When you focus too much on pitch, emotion suffers. To work on your pitch (which will help you express more emotion) train in vocal technique 5-7 days a week for 45 – 60 minutes. For about 20-25 minutes use Hearfones (a device that forces you to hear the center of pitch and sing with better tone that I use with my students. Garners results in half the time!) Also, use my Singers Gift Warmups – a 50 minute regimen that opens and strengthens your voice for performance.)
To practice emoting, record yourself, listen back and analyze. Learn how to scoop, hold notes longer, sing more open on your vowels, smooth out your voice, work your finishes (all of the above) and connect more deeply to your lyric and your own emotion – all of which will create a more emotive vocal.
7. Attention to Phrasing.
Your voice is not only a melodic instrument, it’s a rhythmic one. The way you lay down the rhythm of the vocal line is called phrasing. How you phrase is one of those distinguishing factors of your voice. Pay attention to the rhythm of your vocal line and how it falls in alignment with the music. Every song requires a slightly different technique to make the vocal work. Sometimes you have to sit back in your phrasing – it’s called “singing slightly behind the beat.” Sometimes you have to be right on top of the beat, and some songs require being slightly ahead. The “behind the beat” technique works on most songs, but be sure to finesse and tweak to get in the saddle correctly. Your musicians and your listeners will love you all the more for it!