Monday, June 02, 2014

How do you get to the truth of what your singing ability really is?

There is often a mismatch between how good you think you are as a singer and what your abilities really are.

pub singer

Some people vastly overrate their singing abilities (just watch X Factor!), whilst others with a fine singing voice really think they sound awful. How can we reveal a more accurate picture?

There are two extremes to incorrect self-belief:

  1. you believe you’re a much better singer than you actually are, and
  2. you think your singing voice is awful even though it’s not.

Both extremes can be quite persistent and it’s difficult to persuade people to see a more accurate picture. I’ll get to how you can get a clearer idea later.

Remember that judging a singing voice is all about context. Have a look at my recent post What make a ‘good’ singer? – it’s all about context.

believing you’re a better singer than you actually are

I’ve started small singing ensembles and set up advanced harmony singing workshops by asking people to self-select. The criterion is: you must be able to hold a harmony part on your own.

Unfortunately, many singers who turn up can’t hold a part on their own to save their life! They really believe that they can, and even when put on the spot and shown that they can’t do it, their misconception remains.

Then there are those X Factor contestants who can’t sing their way out of a paper bag. When they get four people saying “No!” they become quite angry and start to criticise the judges. It never occurs to them that they might be wrong and the judges may be right. They are deluded. But what really puzzles me is that their friends and family must be deluded in exactly the same way since they’ve encouraged their loved ones to sing out and be judged on national television believing them to be really good.

It’s at times like that we need to be cruel to be kind. This is not the same as saying that someone can’t sing (see Never tell someone they can’t sing – it is brutal, damaging and untrue). In the case of X Factor the criteria are very clear: you must have a great voice that will make you a recording star and sell records. If you don’t fit that, then you’re out.

thinking that your singing voice is awful even though it’s not

I republished one of my old posts on ChoirPlace recently: Why can’t I sing?. One guy left a comment saying that

“very few people are capable of singing in a manner that doesn't make the wallpaper peel and the milk curdle.”

He puts himself in that category, even though others have told him that he sounds OK (which he doubts!) and his niece has left a comment to say he can sing just fine.

When I say “everyone can sing” so many people respond by saying “except me!”. In some cases people just want to be special (“I’m the one person in the world that you’ll never get to sing well!!”), but in others they are just deluded. (see also “Everyone can sing” – what the hell does that mean??!!)

how to find out how you really sound

Here are some ways in which you can get a more accurate idea of how your singing voice sounds. But before you set off, you need to be very clear what you’re trying to find out.

Be very clear about your aims. Here are some possible reasons:

  • to sing professionally
  • to make records which sell
  • to have a ‘nice’ voice
  • to not upset others with your singing
  • to have the confidence to audition
  • to feel that you can sing whenever and wherever you want

Once you have got your question sorted, here are some actions you can take:

  • ask a professional – a singing teacher or choir leader. Be clear about what you’re asking them. Maybe get a second opinion as everybody’s tastes are different. Depends on what kind of choir they lead or what kind of singing technique they advocate.
  • ask a friend or family member – fraught with difficulty as they may not want to upset you (see What to say if someone asks you if they can sing). Ask them to be honest, but again be clear about what you’re asking.
  • listen to a recording – we’re always surprised when we first hear a recording of our voice. There is often a huge mismatch between how we imagine we sound and what a recording tells us. Neither of them is strictly accurate, but a recording should give you more of an idea how you sound to others. Be careful though because if you don’t like what you hear, it might knock your confidence. See also Learning to love the sound of your own voice.
  • sing with someone else – focus outwards and on listening rather than on voice production.  See if you can blend with the other person’s voice. Try some harmonies. If you’re enjoying yourselves and really work well off each other, there’s a good chance that you have a lovely voice. If it all goes horribly wrong, don’t assume it’s you. Try singing with someone else. If that doesn’t work out either, then maybe you have some work to do! Ask the other singers for feedback. Focus on making the overall sound better not just your part. See also How do I know if I’m singing in tune?

I’m sure I’ve missed out many other ways of finding out how we sound. Do let me know if you have other ideas.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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