E CHURCH musicians are always looking for ways to develop our skills. That means taking voice lessons and conducting lessons, attending sacred music seminars, and putting in hour after hour of individual practice time. If we’re not getting better, we’re probably getting worse.
What can you do when it’s impossible to work with a teacher face-to-face? Some coaches do offer their services online. But in my experience, it’s difficult to trust that a voice teacher is really understanding how you’re producing sound when they’re hearing you through speakers. Sound doesn’t leave the body at one particular point and travel in a straight line, so speakers can’t replicate the experience of hearing a singer from five (sorry, six) feet away.
This is not to say online voice lessons aren’t worth the trouble. But if you’re leery about the concept, or if you simply can’t find a coach you’re eager to work with online, consider working instead with a highly qualified teacher you probably never thought to ask: you. Simply record yourself singing and then critique the results.
“Oh, but I hate how I sound on recordings!” I can hear you protest. You’ve just proven my point. You know your own sound so well. You know your strengths, and what you need to work on. Why not suck it up and become your own coach for a while?
Don’t think you have to invest in any fancy audio equipment. Even singing into your computer microphone can give you a decent idea of how you’re sounding nowadays. But if you already have a decent microphone and audio interface, you’ll be able to capture your sound with much greater fidelity.
Now, I’ve already mentioned the limitations of speakers when it comes to reproducing a human voice. But you can’t beat the price and convenience of singing into your own computer—and even a poor recording will let you evaluate yourself in several important areas. I like to listen for:
Vowel quality. Are you forming pure vowels, or do some of them sound “fudged”? Is your [i] vowel too tonguey? Your [u] vowel a little unfocused? I like to record myself singing a particular vowel with several slightly different tongue positions just to see if I can tell a difference.
Resonance. Again, your recording may not capture all the nuances of your sound perfectly, but you’ll be able to tell if your sound is changing drastically in certain registers or on particular vowels.
Vibrato. Is it there at all? Does it sound natural? Is it too fast or too slow?
Phrasing. Are you singing through lines, or stalling out? Are your breaths well-timed? Do you end phrases gracefully?
Dynamic contrast. I tell my choir all the time, “You’re never doing as much contrast as you think you are!” (I’m also quick to point out that I’m as guilty as anyone.) A home recording session is a no-risk opportunity to really “go for it” on dynamic contrast. What felt like too much as you sang it will probably end up sounding just right on the recording.
Pitch. We’re often unaware of how a recent technique change has affected our intonation in certain registers. Recording yourself can expose these little problems.
There’s still no substitute for working with a highly qualified vocal coach. But failing that, the next most qualified coach may already be living in your house.