Finding Your Own Singing Voice (Part 1)

I’m going to start this off by saying that by no means am I a professional voice teacher. I haven’t gone to school and studied voice like many professionals. I’m merely an enthusiast with a ton of practice and experience who wants to impart that knowledge to others.

When people ask me how long I’ve been singing, I tell them it’s been about sixteen years. So, about half my life at this time of writing. Three months shy of my sixteenth birthday, I took my first singing lesson and thus learned how to properly warm up my voice and develop my range and tone. That’s when I began taking singing more seriously.

Until then, it never occurred to me that you could take lessons for singing. If I wanted to sing, I opened my mouth and out it came like all those singers on the radio. Singing was natural to me. It was something I did as I did my homework and when I took part in the elementary school choir in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade.

The reason I began taking voice lessons is because I decided to join my high school choir. After years of squawking on my clarinet in the band, I decided instead to squawk on my voice in the choir. I wanted something a little different.

When you want to learn how to sing with others and how to handle multiple singing parts and harmony, being in a choir is a great thing. It’s why I like to layer my voice. I love hearing multiple voice parts, especially when it’s your own voice, in harmony with one another. (Charlotte Martin, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Florence + the Machine, I’m looking at you!)

However, if you want individual attention for developing your own voice, you’re better off taking private singing lessons. Public school music classes like band, orchestra, and choir are performance-based. You’re not going to learn about your own instrument when you’re one of sixty people. The teacher doesn’t have time for that. At the request of my choir teacher, I began taking weekly singing lessons with the mother of one of my classmates, who was a professional voice teacher.

Those lessons changed my life in so many ways. You learn a LOT about your voice when you become a voice student. Namely, what you are good at singing.

I really think that anyone can sing. Even those supposed “tone deaf” people who were humiliated on the first few episodes of every season of American Idol could probably sing decently if they were given a chance to develop their own voice and learn what they are good at singing. In my opinion, if you can speak, you can sing. Will it sound like the folks on the radio? If you’re one of the lucky few who have that naturally, sure. But most likely not, if we’re being honest here. (Keep in mind those people on the radio have spent hours recording dozens of takes for each line in order to get the perfect performance. Those singers also have tons of post-production effects like compression, reverb and, in many cases, Autotune added to their voice to sound slick and perfect, the audio equivalent of magazine models who have been Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives.)

By the same token, just because you can sing doesn’t mean that you can sing anything under the sun. When you take the time to develop your own voice, you learn that every voice is different, including yours. Some voices are raspy, other voices are huge and imposing, and others are somewhere in the middle.

You also learn what genres are best for your voice quality. Very few people can belt like Adele in “Hello,” sing a feather-light Ellie Goulding tune like “Anything Can Happen,” then both scream and sing a Linkin Park song like “Numb.” (My throat hurts just thinking of that!)

Most people sound good within one or, at most, two genres.

So if you have a bit of a twang to your voice, then try singing country, folk or Americana. About a year ago, I heard this twenty-something guy at a local open mic night who sounds exactly like an older-style country artist but without the crackle of vinyl behind him. He has the twang, the range, and the tone for that kind of music. And what does he sing and sound best in? You guessed it: traditional country music.

If you have a low voice like Anita Baker, try singing jazz.

If you have a naturally loud voice like Ethel Merman, try out some musical theater tunes.

If your voice is light like Kylie Minogue, try dance-pop.

Most people are going to want to sing like their favorite artists, but in some cases, that’s not necessarily the genre you sound great in. What’s important is to experiment and find what you are good at singing. Don’t emulate exactly, but just try out different things until you’ve figured out what sounds best for your voice.

And for heaven’s sake, if anything hurts, stop immediately. That old adage about “no pain no gain” will NOT work for your voice. It will only damage your voice. If your voice hurts as you try to belt like Kelly Clarkson, stop. Remember, only Kelly Clarkson can be Kelly Clarkson. You have your own voice!

Are you “born with it” like some people think? In some ways, yes. You can’t change your skull structure, your throat muscles, or the size of your vocal cords. But you can change your tone, range, and certainly your confidence, which plays a HUGE part in singing, as you’ll see later. Even some “professional” singers who honestly don’t sound that great can get by with tons of confidence.

When I first began singing, my voice was lightweight and breathy with an ease in lower notes. I found out that I was apparently good at singing random folk songs in French with my voice teacher. That’s why I continue to sing in French. Later as my tone became clearer, I realized I was good at old Italian art songs. I can still do some of the classical songs I used to do, but only in passing.

These days, I’ve found that I sound best either when singing in an ethereal way over medium to heavy electronic music like Goldfrapp or LEVV, with a touch of dark Depeche Mode as a contrast to my voice, or when singing just piano and voice, where I get to ratchet it up a bit like Charlotte Martin and become more dynamic with my voice. Once I became more confident, I realized that I had a louder voice than I ever thought I had, so I use that to my advantage to make my songs more interesting.

Those are the times when I sound my best and which work for my voice type.

Other genres like R&B wouldn’t work for me, not without me retooling the melody or the timing to work with my voice. Blues wouldn’t work either. Also, really poppy songs like “I Got You” by Bebe Rexha don’t work either. I know. I’ve tried just for fun. You don’t want to hear it!

And that’s OK. Because I’d rather sound my best than try something that doesn’t work!

And really, don’t you want to sound the best you can? I know I would!

The key is to figure out what you can do. Being positive is another part of singing that most people don’t realize. It goes hand in hand with confidence. But that’s a story for another time!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll be talking about making a cover song your own and how that can help you find your own singing voice.