"I'm tone-deaf." "I'm not really a singer." "Oh, I don't sound like them; it's not even worth it." When you're comparing yourself to Whitney Houston, Ariana Grande or Beyoncé, it's easy to feel like singing is out of reach.
But you don't have to be Grammy-award winning or a natural-born talent to be a good singer – singing is actually a skill you can learn and practice.
"Singing is the only instrument that people don't allow themselves to not be good at right away," says Trineice Robinson-Martin, a vocal teacher at Princeton University and Long Island University. She says your voice is like any new instrument. "You know, you're starting [to play the] violin, you're going to expect certain interesting notes to come out. But for some reason, we're not forgiving of ourselves when it's time to start singing."
Start with a little pep talk and follow these tips to help you build the skills and confidence to start singing – whether it's "Happy Birthday" to your best friend, at the karaoke bar or in a choir.
Watch Life Kit host Aja Drain demonstrate three warm-up exercises that can help you find your voice.
Give yourself permission to try
Instead of judging yourself from the get-go, set your expectations in a reasonable place. "Everybody can do music," says Joanne Rutkowski, an early childhood music specialist. "I play piano, but I'm not going to be a performer with the Cleveland Symphony...I'm not going to sing at the Met. But it doesn't mean I can't sing with kids and sing with adults and groups."
Give yourself permission to try, and don't worry about sounding "good" at first. Singing is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice and time to develop.
Practice stretching your speaking voice to your singing voice, and then practice some more
Singing isn't that far off from speaking! There are a few exercises that can help you make the transition from your speaking voice to your singing voice:
- Using an app like Pocket Pitch or SingTrue, play a note and try to hum or match it. You could also use a piano if you have access to one.
- Take a speaking phrase and start to elongate it. Make it a positive affirmation, like, "My voice is strong!" for the extra bonus of hearing some encouragement. As you repeat the phrase, introduce excitement into your speech – that'll help you more naturally slide into singing.
- Practice scales to hear how high and how low you can go. Rutkowski suggests starting at the top of your range instead of the bottom because if you start at the bottom, "you'll hit that ceiling, and you won't get past it."
There are also plenty of vocal exercises on YouTube. Here are a few I loved:
And if you want to make a bigger investment in your new hobby, you can work with a vocal coach. Or if you need social motivation, local choirs — religious or secular — can take the pressure off of singing alone. Find what works for you and stay consistent.
As you keep practicing, try recording yourself. That way you can listen back to hear how you sound – and how you're improving – and adjust as needed!
Focus on your breath
The way you breathe is crucial to finding your singing voice. Try to visualize your voice: put your hand on your throat and imagine your vocal cords as rubber bands vibrating as you breathe, causing them to make sound.
If you start to feel nervous, take a moment to focus on your breathing. "When I often tell people...to take a breath, they raise their shoulders," Rutkowski explains, instead of allowing the air to fill their bellies. "All that does is create tension."
Instead, As you inhale, feel the air fill your lungs and go all the way to your belly. This allows your breath to fill your diaphragm – a muscle between your lungs and stomach – and you'll give your voice power! You can then start "pushing that air out from...your belly, up out through your lungs, out to an open mouth," says Rutkowski.
Find your own singing style
You'll want to find what songs and musical styles make your voice sound and feel its best. To help people do that, Robinson-Martin established a singing methodology called Soul Ingredients, which focuses on creating strategies specific to you.
"I found that the people that have the most difficulty bridging the gap between where they sing and when they speak are the people that have really, really big differences in where they want to sing pitch-wise," says Robinson-Martin.
You may dream about sounding like your favorite artist, but your voices might just be different. So instead, it's crucial to start working in a vocal range that suits your voice.
Once you have that awareness, Robinson-Martin explains, "you can start listening for other singers that are out there that have that same sound...you can start mimicking that sound and...start to sing along."
Just be wary of copying. Remember, you're trying to find your voice.
Nikki Lerner, a professional singer and cultural coach, says, "Let Beyonce be Beyonce. Pray, let Billie Eilish be Billie Eilish, let whoever, be whoever. That's their identity. It's important for us to be able to say, 'And what do I sound like?'"
Think about singing as a gateway to yourself and others
This process is as much about self-acceptance as it is about actually singing. It's also about building community.
"Whether that's in a band, whether that's in a choir, whether that's just...you and a bunch of friends that just get together and,...sing some stuff, whether it's going out and singing karaoke on Saturday...there's something about music making that breathes," Lerner says. "It's really the breeding ground for a really good and deep community."
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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