It’s easy to turn on the radio and assume that famous singers always sound incredible, but the reality is that every singer has experienced vocal faults at some point. Here are just a few examples of some of the things that can go wrong.
Bad Vocal Habits of Famous Singers
Pitchy, Off-Key Singing
- Régine Chassagne (Arcade Fire)
- Taylor Swift
Singing a pitch is a complicated coordination between the brain, vocal cords, and breath. Some people don’t have this coordination quite right all the time, and therefore they don’t always sing the notes they want to sing.
In the video below, Taylor Swift is singing flat, meaning she is singing just slightly below the correct pitches. Even good singers sing flat every once in a while.
Régine, on the other hand, has trouble hitting accurate pitches in general and tends to go sharp (higher than she intended). Listen to her last note in the song for a good example.
How to Avoid Pitchy Singing
Like any other skill, learning to match pitch requires practice. If you have a lot of trouble singing in tune, devote five to 10 minutes a day to practicing this.
I have my students use Pitch Analyzer and a keyboard to do this. Just open the app, play a pitch on the keyboard, and try to match it with your voice. Pitch Analyzer helps you figure out if you are flat, sharp, or just right.
- Rebecca Black
- Miley Cyrus
Humans can breathe (and therefore sing) through both the nose and the mouth. The soft palate, located on the roof of the mouth behind the hard palate, lifts and lowers to block off the nasal passages from the rest of the breathing apparatus.
Singing with a lowered soft palate lets air out through the nose, causing a nasally tone. See this video from Miley Cyrus as an example.
How to Avoid Nasal Singing
Learn to lift your soft palate. If you have ever “plugged” your nose without touching it (when changing a diaper or jumping into a pool, for instance), you already know how to do this.
If not, try making a really nasally sound, then doing the exact opposite. If your soft palate is all the way up, you will not sound any different if you plug your nose with your fingers.
- Katy Perry
- Christina Aguilera (last note especially, at 1:53)
Throat tension is not only damaging, it sounds more like yelling than singing. In these videos of Katy and Christina, the vocals often sound closer to yelling than to singing.
Note the frayed, pressed tone and the lack of vibrato. If you watch closely, you will also notice that you can see both women’s necks visibly straining.
How to Avoid Throat Tension
There are two ways to decrease throat tension in singers. First and foremost, try to relax your throat. Work in front of a mirror or place your hand around your neck so you can feel your throat muscles better.
You can also move your neck around while you sing (from side to side, as though you are shaking your head “no”) to keep it from stiffening.
The second way to decrease throat tension is to focus on the fundamentals of singing. Singers throats usually tense up to compensate for a lack of proper technique.
Make sure your breath support is working, your soft palate is up, your posture is relaxed, and your energy levels are high as you sing.
- Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)
- Sarah Brightman
Your tongue is a huge muscle that stretches from the front of your mouth all the way back and down, where it connects to the muscles under your jaw. If any part of the tongue becomes rigid during singing, a distinct, clogged sound emerges.
The best example of this that I can think of actually isn’t a singer; it’s Kermit the Frog. If you tense your tongue and talk, you’ll find that you sound like the little green guy.
For singers, this clogged sound results in modified vowels, as well as a general distinct tone quality. Both Sarah Brightman and Eddie Vedder’s sounds are characterized by this sound.
Singing with tongue tension causes vocal fatigue and can eventually lead to vocal problems, so it’s not something you should ignore.
How to Avoid Tongue Tension
Many people are completely incapable of consciously relaxing their tongues, even when they aren’t making sound.
Start by resting your tongue on your bottom lip, so you can see it well in a mirror, and relaxing it (a relaxed tongue is fat and motionless).
Once you accomplish that, put your tongue back in your mouth and learn how to sing vowels without tensing your tongue. (The mirror is your best friend.) When progressing to words, focus on moving your tongue without making it unnecessarily rigid.
- Eddie Redmayne
- Kathleen Battle
When singing, the jaw should be loose and free. Tensing the jaw not only makes it harder to sing, it also sounds (and looks) weird.
Eddie Redmayne’s clenched, shaking jaw and matching vocals attest to this. Although Kathleen Battle (an acclaimed classical singer) still sounds lovely, it is obvious from watching her sing that her jaw is doing some bizarre and unnecessary work.
How to Avoid Jaw Tension
Avoid jaw tension by paying attention. Stretch it out before you sing, look in the mirror, and put your hands on your jaw to feel the muscles. If you notice yourself clenching, stop singing, stretch it out, and try again.
Always make sure that you are breathing, standing, and resonating well. Just like the throat, the jaw tends to clench when your singing technique is incomplete.
Damaged Vocal Chords
- Mariah Carey
- Kelly Clarkson
Vocal cord abuse and overuse can damage your vocal cords. Singers who perform lots of taxing music often suffer from vocal cord damage, especially after years of performing in tours and concerts.
Kelly still sounds good, but the newly acquired raspy quality and her avoidance of high notes are both red flags.
In Mariah’s recording, her cloudy tone quality, squeaking, and inability to hold out notes all point to severely swollen vocal cords.
Singers can even get calluses (nodes), polyps, or vocal hemorrhaging (bleeding welts) that require surgery. Adele, Sam Smith, Tove Lo, Keith Urban, John Mayer… the list of celebrity victims goes on and on.
How to Avoid Damaged Vocal Chords
Be kind to your voice! Don’t scream and yell, and don’t overuse your vocal cords. If you suspect that you have hurt your chords already, or if you don’t know how to sing or speak properly for your health, consult a voice teacher or a vocal therapist immediately.
If it hurts to sing or speak, consider taking a few days off and going on vocal rest (no talking or singing whatsoever). It’s amazing what good a few days of quiet can do.
While celebrities sing off-key through their noses, you can learn to sing in tune, with a raised soft palate and healthy vocal cords. Find a good teacher, ask him or her about these vocal faults, and practice a little every day. Soon, you might be singing better than some of your favorite famous singers!
Photo by Jana Beamer