Learning any new skill can be daunting, but the voice has levels of complexity that make it a unique challenge.

The fine-tuning and coordination of muscles and energies we scarcely feel (or feel in illusory ways) can confuse and discourage the beginning singer (as well as the more experienced).

In this episode, John breaks down the difficulties of learning to sing, both technical and mental, and gives you his best advice for getting through this challenging period of your vocal journey.

Episode Transcript

Episode 79 – On Being a Beginner

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious time with me. Okay, my book Teaching Contemporary Singing is available on amazon.com in both Kindle and print edition. So by early by often makes a great Christmas gift even though we’re nowhere near Christmas and I’m sure very few people on your Christmas gift list, want to be voice teachers. But if they do, my book is highly recommended. I’ve actually hit number one and a number of categories and a number of countries. And then it was quite a bizarre experience to see on the vocal music book chart. My Kindle book being knocked out of the number one position into number two by my print edition. So I actually held the top two slots. I kind of feel like the early Beatles you know, just owning the charts. 

But I appreciate everybody who’s picked up the book. Please spread the word. It’s really getting good reviews. If you’ve read it, please give it a review. It really seems to be helpful. People are enjoying it and it’s just really breaking down my system for teaching voice and if you’re a singer, I highly recommend it as well. Number of singers have read it, say they get a lot out of it, and it really just goes through how to teach yourself. If you read the book, you’ll understand a lot more about the voice unless you’re smarter than me and then, it’s going to be a boring read and you will have learned nothing. But for some of you, you might learn something. So teaching contemporary singing is available now, there’s your commercial also you can go to johnhenny.com for more information on me. I’m going to be opening up my contemporary voice teacher Academy very soon. 

This is the program where I take you, really take you in depth on how to teach voice. I have monthly webinars, there’s quizzes, there’s certification testing. If you’re interested in that, go to johnhenny.com and click on the teacher training up in the menu and you can get on the waitlist if the doors aren’t quite yet open and you’ll be among the first to know or if the doors are open. When you listen to this, you can jump on in. So that’s johnhenny.com. You can also sign up for my email list where I give you my thoughts and ramblings. Two, three times a week on all things singing and a life of an artist and you can even see about studying with me. I find people who enjoy the podcast. We ended up working well together. 

Funny how that works. All right, but today I’m going to talk about being a beginning singer. I got an email from a listener in Poland who’s a new singer and she recently discovered the podcast and began a bingeing on it. I’m getting a few emails of people bingeing on this podcast and I don’t know if I recommend bingeing on this and I understand it’s a growing problem on college campuses but people are bingeing on this podcast and she’s a binger and she’s gone through quite a bit of it and she says she’s learning a lot about the voice. But she’s been studying voice for a couple months and beginning to get frustrated and this is very, very common and I can distinctly remember being a beginner, and I’ve talked about this before on the podcast, but I am not a natural singer. 

It didn’t start off as a natural singer. I played the drums actually because I couldn’t sing my attempts were much less than satisfactory and finally I went out and I sought out a voice teacher and began my diligence study and at the time I was gigging on the drums and I was working on Art Garfunkel’s version of I only have eyes for you and they just happened to do it in the band. We did that song. So on a gig as that song came up, I said to the band leader. Hey, can I sing this and he looked at me really surprised and said, sure. So I sat down my drumsticks and I walked up to the front of the stage, my first time on a mic and I remember on my right where the guitarist and the bass player and they were just looking really surprised like what the hell John’s gonna sing. 

So they started the song and the first words came out of my mouth and I’ll never forget the feeling of hearing my voice coming back at me from the monitors, which I was not used to yet. I hadn’t practiced with that. I mean it was just, it was insane that I was doing this and it was awful and I remember seeing in my peripheral vision, both the bass player and guitarist huddled over trying to stifle the laughing fits they were having and I was only three words into the song and there was another three and a half minutes to go and if the world could have swallowed me up hold at any time of my life, that moment would probably make the top five. It was horrific and it was somewhat soul crushing and when I don’t even remember doing the rest of the song, I just remember seeing them laugh, the horror of realizing I had the whole song to go, the rest is a blur. 

Then I sat back down on the drums and thought, I’m just going to stay here for awhile and that these experiences of beginning to sing and taking these first steps, it’s not uncommon. We are dealing with an instrument that takes so much control over muscles and coordinations that we really can’t feel and that we have very little awareness of and we have to combine that with language and changing vowel sounds and all kinds of balance and you know it when you play the guitar, your sensation of the instrument. The frets get a little smaller as you go up. Maybe your fingers get a little more cramped up, but you don’t go through what singers go through. There is no big gap in the middle of your fretboard that you have to try and put together. I love what a friend of mine, Mike Goodrich would talk about, and I’m going to horribly paraphrase this, but he would say “when you play guitar, you buy a guitar and you have your instrument. 

When you want to play piano, you buy a piano and you have your instrument. When you want to sing, you have to build your instrument. Our instrument doesn’t come fully formed and our learning path is nonlinear. If you want to learn guitar and you go to a guitar teacher, they will likely show you your open chords. You’ll first learn your E chord, then your E minor, maybe your G, your C, and there’s a linear path, and then you start to learn your pentatonic scales and you go to page seven, page eight, page nine, and you march through and yeah, you’ll get quicker is going from chord to chord, but you don’t, once you’ve been playing the E chord for a week, you don’t wake up not being able to play the E chord and spending a half hour just being able to play the E chord again. But boy, it sure is that way with the voice and you can be feeling that you’re making real progress, you’re doing great and the next day you wake up and it all seems wiped out because of just what this instrument is. 

It’s an instrument of flesh, human flesh and it’s constantly changing. I mean I’ll say to people to go man, my voice feels different today. I go, it’s your body. It’s like there is no snapshot of saying this is your exact voice, this is your exact range. This is exactly what it’s gonna feel like to sing. That’s almost like saying what do you weigh? Well, you have a brain, you have a guess of what you weigh, but in any moment you don’t know because it’s constantly changing. Depending on if you just use the restroom, if you just ate something, took a drink of water, I mean you’re burning through fat as you’re sitting there not eating. It’s a constantly changing number and so your singing ability is constantly shifting and constantly changing depending on what you’ve eaten, how much rest you’ve had, stress all of these different things and you can go through periods of time where you feel like you’re going backwards and improvement in anything is never a straight line. 

It’s not like you keep moving from success to success and keep improving a certain amount each and every day and never go backwards. It’s very often you’ll be kind of banging your head against the wall and you’re kind of going up and down, up and down within this narrow parameter of what you feel your skill set is, and then you’ll get a breakthrough and those breakthroughs are wonderful and you think, Oh my gosh, I’ve got it. Then you come back the next day and it’s not there like it was that day, but you know what? The breakthrough jumps up and then it usually falls down a little bit, but not back to where you were, and then it’s a period of up, down, up, down, up, down, banging your head against that wall and then another breakthrough which then tapers off a bit up, down, up, down, up, down, and it’s this long squiggly graph that in the moment, in the day to day can feel like nothing’s happening or you’re even getting worse. 

You can’t have the 30,000 foot view as a beginner. You can’t look back at your path and say, Oh yes, that makes sense. I can see that I had to be patient. As I talked about in the last podcast episode, I can see where my improvement was up and down, but over time there was a huge improvement because you haven’t spent that time. So being a beginner, you really just have to take it bit by bit and step by step. And the other problem with the voice is somebody going to study piano, doesn’t expect to play a song on the first lesson, get all the way through the song and they don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. If they don’t know how to play an F sharp major scale, there is no reason they should be able to know that. But with singing, there’s this innate embarrassment if we’re not able to do it right, if you hit the wrong note on the piano, Oh well, okay, let me learn how to do that. 

Let me practice this. We are our voice cracks. So we sing out of tune and it’s horrifying to us. There’s a huge psychological component. And then there’s also those who seem to have more of a natural gift for singing. And I’ll let, I’ll let the science debate that there’s, some people that, that will argue there’s no such thing as talent. The 10,000 hour rule. I’ve seen it. There’s, there’s definitely, if it’s not innate talent, which, which I believe does exist. In my experience there is starting really young, having a certain type of awareness and focus, being able to pay attention to certain details, a kinesthetic mind, body awareness of, of how the voice feels. I find I will find people who will learn to sing through the registers prop pretty darn well on their own. And I asked them how they figured it out and they’d go, Oh, that just felt like the right way. 

But that’s not most people and that’s not most really good singers or people who have become really good singers. They have to struggle. And they were beginners. And, one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with is a top session singer here in Los Angeles. I promise you, I’ve heard his voice, he’s sung on all kinds of movies and the soundtracks to movies, even video games. And he’s just brilliant. And he struggled with his voice. Struggled was not a natural singer. But when we’re beginning, we’ll look at, at friends and family or someone, we know that that can do it well naturally. And we think we should be able to do that. And you can’t put those demands on yourself. Again. You have to be patient. This is going to take a while. And even, I, I distinctly remember my musicianship levels that with, with the drums and people will argue if a drummer is a musician or not. 

But one thing drummers do have or should have is good time and good rhythm, a good sense of steady time. And I had worked very hard to develop that and to develop groove and I was pretty darn good at it. When I began singing, I couldn’t keep time. My brain was completely overwhelmed with all of this new information. It was very much like, I decided many years ago to learn to play poker. So it was going to be me, John the walking into the big poker rooms here in Los Angeles. A lot of people don’t know LA. I don’t know if it’s still true, but LA had more poker tables than anywhere else in the U S including Vegas. I mean we have these huge poker places and so I decided to enter a poker tournament and I mean I was practicing with the software and reading books and figuring out all of the odds and the best starting hands in the position, et cetera, et cetera. 

And so I came in and I sat down at that table and here I go up my first poker tournament and as soon as those cards came, my brain started racing. I was completely overwhelmed. I peeked at my cards and forgot what they were and had to peak again. I couldn’t remember when it was my turn. I couldn’t remember what chip value was, what it was, my brain just went into a panic because there was so much new information. It was overloaded. And this is the same as beginning to sing. It’s going to be overloaded. What you need to do is you need to dial down your expectations and you need to just take it slowly and just, just worry about getting the basic coordinations going, basic sustains, chord closure, some Val modifications beginning to work through that transition. And look at this, this mix we talk about and this magic blending from the lower to upper register. 

You may not be able to do this at first and because what is happening is you have these muscles inside the vocal folds that fatten them up for the low notes and then you have these muscles that Polen stretch the vocal folds for the high notes. Well, the muscles that fatten up the vocal folds are bully muscles. They like to jam up and hold on and the muscles that we use most often when we’re speaking, we’re usually in that condition. The muscles that we want to stretch and pull the cords, especially in the extremes of singing that we don’t use in speech. Well these muscles take time to develop and what will generally happen is the muscles within the chords called the thyroid retinoids or the TA muscles. If you want to sound really smart, those muscles have to let go for the other muscles, the CT CRICO thyroid muscles to pull and stretch. 

And when you’re mixing, when you’re, when singers are blending through these registers nice and strong, these muscles have this antagonistic relationship where they, they pull against each other and the TA begins to let go but not completely as the CT begins to pull. But what will generally happen is the TA will stay jammed up so that the CT doesn’t get the pulse here and you get stuck. And then finally the TA lets go completely and you get add and then it flips and it falls apart. At first you ma, you may have to allow this flipping condition for a period of time and I can’t answer how long, but if those CT’s aren’t really developed and the TA, the muscles in the folds are really hyper developed and really wanting to squeeze, then you’re going to have to let that flip go for a while until the CT’s get used to the TA’s get used to letting go and the CT’s get used to starting DePaul. 

And then you can start to engage more of the TA against it and start to bring in more intensity. But if you rush that or if you try and rush that, you’re going to go right back to this jam up or flip scenario. It is only in taking time. It is only an understanding that you are brand new to this. And this skill takes years and years to develop the 10,000 hour rural, rural, rural rule. Oh, that’s a hard word. You know, I’ve been recording my audio book and man, all of the tongue twisters, I, I’m reading the book and I’m just constantly tripping over words. So this thing is like killing me. So I’m very aware of my miss, a slight mispronunciation of words. But anyway, this 10,000 hour rule usually works out to 10 years. It takes about 10 years of consistent work to get world class at something. 

So if you’ve only been doing something for a couple of months, you’d got to give yourself a break and you gotta just enjoy singing. And I, and I also recommend finding a couple of easy songs that you can just sing and just enjoy where there’s, there’s no technical demands on you because you can’t lose the joy of this. It can’t become drudgery cause you, you, you won’t do it. And, and when people lose the joy of music, it’s a, it’s a terrible thing. You have to keep the joy in it. You have to give yourself patience and just do what you can do. You will get better. There is nothing wrong with you. If you think you are tone deaf, I am here to tell you you are not. It’s extremely rare. I’ve never met anyone who is tone deaf. I’ve met people who are tone shy who really have to work at it, a bit, but it tone deafness, it, I’ve never run across it. 

And if you had it, you, you, my understanding is your, your speech would have no undulation of pitch. It would just be very flat. Like you literally can’t hear perceived pitch. So that’s not going to be your problem. And unless there’s physical damage you can sing. If there’s no neurological damage, you can develop the coordinations. It may just take time to develop awareness. I mean, I, I learned to play drums on a pretty high level. I’ve learned to play out a serviceable level. I play enough piano to teach. I like to bang around on guitar. Not very good, but I really, really enjoy it. But I’ve spent a lot of time working in music and, and the voice is the only instrument that I remember quitting twice, throwing my books and saying, I can’t do this. I quit. This instrument will drive you crazy. 

I’ve seen experienced skilled musicians come in who are playing with some pretty big names in their bands and just going out of their minds like, what is with this instrument? This instrument is so hard. It is hard. Give yourself a break. You’re a beginner. It’s okay to be a beginner and just begin at the beginning. It’s a really good place to start. All right, I thank you again for spending this time with me again, johnhenny.com to find out more about me. Please share this podcast with your friends, your singing friends. You can go to iTunes and review it. You can talk about it on social media. Just kind of put it out there, recommend it to your friends, help grow this thing. I so appreciate the support. If you have any topics that you would like me to cover, you can email me [email protected] and until next time to better sing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.