Vocals exist in a unique spot in the musical world. Most of us have a casual relationship with singing - we sing along to our favorite songs in the car, in the shower - we may hum and vocalize to ourselves just as our minds idle. Some of us have a natural gift and sound quite good as we do these casual acts of singing, while some of us may have a harder time finding pitches or resonances, but regardless of where we lie on that spectrum of talent, most of us still feel that casual relationship, which introduces a few hurdles to the new vocal student.
It’s very clear to the beginning guitar or piano student that they’re starting at square one and that the path forward is going to be a process of learning fundamentals, of building muscle coordination, of slowly learning more and more difficult pieces and techniques. A newcomer to guitar hears a Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, or Stevie Ray Vaughan song and easily knows that pieces of that difficulty come later in the process - but a new vocalist may hear Freddie Mercury, Beyonce, or Michael Jackson sing and be able to sing along at least partially. Those vocalists and nearly every other vocalist you’ll hear in recorded music have years and years of training and experience under their belts, so it can be very frustrating to have this immediate partial ability to sing along with them, but then have that ability run out when a key change hits or they go for the highest or lowest notes in the song. Often times it’s very tempting to push your voice to be able to do those parts and that’s where it’s easy to strain your voice. When you’re a new vocalist, remember that you’re likely listening to some of the best vocalists in the world, and it will take time for your voice to develop to that level.
To really get the most out of vocal lessons, you want to shift your thinking away from, “I sound pretty good singing along to songs; I’d love to do that with a band” to, “I’ve decided vocals are going to be my primary instrument and I’m going to start progressing as a musician by strengthening my skills as a vocalist.” Just singing along to songs doesn’t cut it for practice, there are exercises to increase your control, strength and range, there are general musical concepts to study, and on top of those is then individual song study.
So, my fledgling vocalist friends, keep singing along to Beyonce on the radio, but know that your journey as a vocalist is going to take a lot more foundational work until you may be up to her level. Vocals are your instrument and should be treated like any other instrument! Be engaged, be analytical, and respect the process that's involved in become a strong vocalist. You can do it - and with a good vocal instructor guiding the way your voice will be stronger than you even knew it could be!