Breath Control

By Lis Lewis

Breathing is the single most important element in singing. In order to control your voice you have to put out exactly the amount of breath you need for the sound you want. That breath needs to be as focused as a laser beam. How you exhale controls the quality of the sound, the volume and partially controls the pitch and the tone. How you inhale governs how you exhale.

Most people in their everyday lives inhale into their upper lungs i.e., their shoulders go up as does their chest. When the air is in your upper lungs, you don’t have the kind of detailed control you need. The muscles available to control the air are the wrong ones: throat, jaw and tongue muscles. These little tiny muscles are easy to find when you want your sound to be louder or higher but they will wear you out and cause serious vocal problems. A singer (or a swimmer or runner–anyone who has to control their air) should fill their lower lungs allowing the bigger, stronger muscles of your abdomen and diaphragm to do the work. This means that instead of a breath that is vertical, with your chest filling with air and expanding upwards, the breath should be horizontal, with your stomach expanding outwards.

Test Yourself

Put one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your back, both at about waist level. Inhale by filling your lower lungs with air so that your hands move apart, the air filling the space between them. As you exhale let your stomach go back in gently. Think of your stomach as a balloon that inflates and deflates. Your chest shouldn’t move, not even an eighth of an inch. As you get better at this, your back will also move out when you inhale. Try putting your thumbs one on each side of your spine, at about waist level. Relax your shoulders. Now inhale into your thumbs. This helps you feel the outward movement of your back. Lie down on your back. Relax for a minute. After a few seconds you will notice that you are breathing into your abdomen. This is because when you were an infant, this was the natural way to breathe, but as we age and our stress levels increase, our breathing tends to move upwards. Unfortunately, you might lose the abdominal breathing once you stand up, but with practice it will become natural again.

Fiery Breath

Here is an exercise called Fiery Breath, to help you get comfortable with this new way of breathing. Put one hand on your abdomen. Inhale into your abdomen and exhale forcibly so that your stomach muscles push in and the air comes out suddenly. Repeat this–inhale, abdomen out, exhale forcibly, abdomen in–thirty times picking up the tempo as you get comfortable with it. Breathe through your mouth. As you go faster you may find that you’ve fallen back into the old habit of breathing vertically again. In that case, stop and start over by breathing slowly and gently into your lower lungs until you have the feeling again. Fiery Breath is only meant to make inhaling properly more intuitive. When you sing, you don’t need to exhale forcibly. There is very little need for a great deal of air pressure if you have a strong voice. It is very easy to get hooked on the feeling of ‘pushing’ a lot of air into your vocal cords and actually it can be very harmful. Your vocal cords will tend to tense against all the air you are shoving into them instead of stretching to the pitch. Singing requires finesse, not aggression. Try singing a song a capella (without instruments). Think about your breathing. Initially you may feel that you can’t get enough air, but that is because your lung capacity is underdeveloped. Your lower lungs will stretch out and your ribs in the back will loosen up and make room for the larger inhalation. This way of breathing will become intuitive and you won’t have to think about it while you sing. If you breathe properly and don’t use the muscles in your throat, tongue and jaw to control the air, you will find that you have a lot more air to use but you don’t need as much.

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is a muscle that sits below your lungs and causes them to fill with air. Once you put the air in the right place, you must learn to control it with your diaphragm and abdominal wall. This is what is meant by the expression ‘breathe from your diaphragm’. Not only do these muscles need to be strong enough to give you power and volume, but they need to have even more control and strength when you want to sing a fast and accurate lick, or a big jump in pitch, or very, very quietly.

Building strength and control begins with proper breathing. Be patient with yourself. After breathing vertically thousands of times a day all the years of your life, a new way to breathe takes lots of concentration. Remember that your voice is an instrument like any other. It takes time to learn to play it – time and patience and practice.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

Your Live Show

By Lis Lewis

You’ve seen good shows and bad. What makes one work when another doesn’t? Assuming that the songs and the musicianship are up to snuff, there are some other elements that can invigorate your stage show. What makes a good set? What should the order of the songs be? What is the purpose of talking between songs and do you really have to do it?

Tyson Ritter of The All-American Rejects

The point of your live show is to take the audience on an emotional journey. Every word, action and sound should move the show forward drawing the audience into your life. When you play live, you can talk, you can move, you can interact with them. Your personal reaction to the songs, to the musicians and to the things that happen during your set, allow the audience to get to know you. The less spontaneous you are on stage, the less likely your audience will be to connect to you. They could have stayed home and listened to the CD.

Talking Between Songs

Imagine this: you’re at a club and a band you haven’t seen before comes onstage. They play through their entire set without saying a word. Or here’s another possibility: the singer starts talking as soon as they hit the stage; “Don’t forget to tip your waitress” or “How you all doing out there?” or “This next song is called…” Neither of these two approaches gives the audience insight into the personality of the singer. The latter might work for a Top-40 band whose job is to sell drinks, but if you’re an artist with original material, this kind of talking is generic and meaningless. You don’t need to pander to the audience; you aren’t one of them. After all, you’re onstage in the light while they’re out there in the dark watching. Don’t hide behind empty chatter. Speak when you have something to say that will reveal your character to them.

Here’s a rough outline for when and what to say between songs. Don’t talk until the third song. Just rip through the first two songs without stopping. For the third song pick one that you feel a special connection to and tell a story about it. It can be about why you like the song, why you wrote it, or a story that sets the mood for the song. Give yourself an outline of what points need to be said in what order. For instance, let’s say you are going to talk before a song that you wrote about a high school romance. There was a girl who you had a crush on for the whole of your junior year. Tell how you watched her in the hall, your friends teased you about her and you finally got up the nerve to ask her out. When she said yes you were so elated that you wrote this song. Try to organize your thoughts so you tell the story in the right order but don’t memorize the exact words. Be specific and give details that everyone can relate to it.

Set List

A set is like a play with a beginning, middle and an end. It should have highs and lows, sweetness and sadness. It should develop and evolve. Usually you start on a high note – up-tempo – with a song that is the epitome of your band; right away we get an idea of what we’re going to be hearing and the style of the material. Also the song should be accessible – the chorus should have a good strong hook and a melody the listener could walk away singing. Your audience doesn’t know you yet and you want to give them an easy way into your concept so they can appreciate and relate to the band. Then you can get a little more complex, maybe a darker mood or more complicated melody. Once the audience starts to know who you are you can take them down to a ballad. You should only have one or two ballads in a 45-minute set. After a deep ballad (meaning very slow or lyrically dark) work your way back out gradually to something a little lighter; you might do a medium tempo song or something with a laid back groove. Then you can go more up-tempo again with something driving. Don’t put one song after another that is in the same key or has the same tempo because your songs will sound the same. The set should have variety and flow, as you lead your audience through all the emotions the songs depict.

Mean What You Sing

The most important element of a great show is the charisma of the lead singer. You could stand stock-still and if you convey the strength of your conviction and the intensity of the meaning of the song, your audience will respond. By adding movement, inspired interaction and a well-planned set list you will only enhance the show.

There’s no one way to create the perfect set. The rules are to be broken when your artistic sense says you must, but they are a good starting point. They can help you approach your set knowing that every moment on stage has to be part of your artistic picture. When your music, your charisma, your maintained intensity and fidelity to your artistic vision are paced properly, you will know it. Your audience will know it. And there’s no better feeling in the universe.

Your First Demo

By Lis Lewis

Rihanna in the studio

If you’ve been singing all your life, by the time you get to high school you’ve been in every choral group available, maybe you’ve joined a band or started singing at parties or events. At some point you realize that in order to sing more, you’re going to need a demo; a demonstration record that shows off your voice and the styles you sing. Even if you come to singing later in life, there will come a time when you’ll need one.

The skills you need to make a demo are very different from the ones you use when you’re performing for an audience. Of course you have to able to sing in both situations but that’s where the similarity ends. If you miss a note onstage, nobody will notice. In the studio you can hear every sound you make, every missed pitch, every slide to a note, every breath you take. You feel like you’re under a microscope. In front of an audience you don’t have to be so careful. And, in being careful in the studio you lose some of the emotion that you have in a live performance. Onstage the audience can hear you, see you and feed off of the energy in the room. On CD they can only hear you. So the pressure is even greater for a truly emotional performance on CD, and yet it’s more difficult.

The first trick is to have your vocal skills down cold. Know the song inside and out, hit every note accurately, and slide only when you want to for effect. Practice until you can do these things in your sleep. Then when you go into the studio, you’ll be ready to concentrate on the emotion and not on technique.

Some people feel that they can conquer the lack of emotion in the studio by bringing in an audience. I’ve rarely seen that work. Having an audience can be distracting. If people are talking in the control room while you?re singing you might feel like you aren’t interesting enough, which adds to the lack of confidence that can make a dry performance. In fact, I usually recommend that you have no one in the studio at all except the engineer and producer. No girlfriends or boyfriends, no band members, no visitors. That way you can turn out the lights, close your eyes and sing your heart out without embarrassment.

Choosing Songs

When you’re ready to work on your demo, there are some decisions you have to make. What do you want to do with your demo when you’re done with it? Get into a band? Get studio work? Get gigs? Find original songs to sing? Get the interest of a music industry professional? Each of these goals needs a somewhat different demo.

The kind of demo you’ll need can be divided into two basic types: artist or working singer. If you are aiming at becoming an artist, you will eventually need to find or write original songs and develop a unique and charismatic persona that is readily identifiable. Therefore your demo should reflect a consistent style, not a broad range of material. If your aim is to be a working singer, for instance session singing or top-40 gigs, you should record as wide a variety of styles as possible to show your flexibility. These two demos will be completely different.

If you’re an artist who’s been writing your own songs you should record them. If you are interested in attracting a manager or record label, you’ll need to have original material. There is very little point in sending an industry professional a demo of cover songs. What they want to hear is how you are different from everything that’s come before, not how you can sound just like the people you admire. They also want to hear hits, new songs that will send you rocketing up the radio charts. This kind of demo is more expensive to make because you will have to have musicians to play your songs and it will take more studio time to record.

If you’re an artist without original songs, you might want to enter a talent contest, find original songs, or get into a band that writes songs. You’ll need a demo that shows your voice and style. You can use songs that have already been made famous by someone else; “cover” songs. Pick songs of a similar style though preferably not by the same artist. Show your interpretation of them so the listener can see your personality. Think of how Sarah McLaughlin might sing a Janis Joplin song.

For a session singer or top-40 singer demo, you want to sound as much like the original artist as possible. Make sure that you choose songs that you can sing very well, i.e. don’t sing an R&B song if you can’t do the runs. Of course each song should be in a key that suits your voice. The range of styles for session singing can run the gamut from classical, musical theater, jazz, to rock, pop, R&B, blues, country, boys choir and even an a capella song that shows your ability to sing harmonies. Typically a studio singer’s demo will have short sections of songs rather than the whole thing. Pick a spot that shows you doing something well for instance a breathy part or a fast run of notes or a big build. A singer who wants to be in a cover band; one that plays parties, hotels, or weddings; might have more than one demo: a Top-40 one, a jazz standards one, a classic rock one, etc.

No matter what kind of demo you’re going to make, it’s good to get as much experience in the studio as you can beforehand. Rent some studio time just to get used to recording. It doesn’t have to be expensive; many musicians have a home studio where they can record your voice on a small budget. If you use karaoke tracks to sing to, you don’t have to hire musicians and the whole process takes much less time than it would if you took a band into the studio with you. Singing to pre-recorded tracks can give you experience singing without an audience, help you adjust to headphones and become comfortable with the feeling of being under a microscope. After you get used to the differences between live performance and recording, you’ll look forward to the opportunities you get to record.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

Singing With The Band: I Can’t Hear Myself

By Lis Lewis


You are an acoustic instrument – your instrument is your body. The sound travels around inside your ribcage and head, bouncing off of your bones and muscle, and it comes out of your mouth sounding like you! In this way you are similar to an acoustic, hollow body guitar or a piano and different from an electric guitar or synthesizer. These last two instruments don’t have a body for the sound to roll around in; instead the sound is carried electrically.

Acoustic instruments tend to get better as they age because the wood warms the tone as it mellows. A well-maintained guitar from the 1950’s will usually sound better than a brand new one of equivalent quality. Even the human voice gets warmer with age. Women tend to reach their vocal peak in their mid forties, men in their late thirties.

This should help explain why external factors matter so much to a singer: sleep, weather, diet, mood and allergies. There is an actual physical effect on the instrument caused by these conditions. This isn’t an excuse for you not to perform when you are sniffling but a way for you to understand that the sniffles affect you.

Since you are an acoustic instrument it’s hard to balance your vocal with the electric instruments in your band. You amplify your voice with a microphone that allows you to be heard beyond the limited distance your voice would normally carry. Even so, it’s difficult to compete with musicians who have turned their amps up as far as they’ll go or with a drummer who is pounding away behind you. On top of this, all of that noise onstage goes into your microphone and is amplified along with your voice. As a result it’s hard to turn the mic up loud enough without getting feedback. Most other acoustic instruments will have similar problems except the drums because they’re so loud to begin with. An acoustic guitar, a flute or any other instrument that uses a mic to amplify their sound would have the same problems.

If you can’t hear yourself in the rehearsal room or in a show, your instinct will be to shout. It’s a very normal response. Even the guitarists would want to turn up their amp if they couldn’t hear themselves. In the case of the guitarist, however, turning it up won’t damage the instrument. Shouting will damage your voice in the long run, and even in the short term it isn’t helpful. If you shout at tonight’s rehearsal, you will have a weaker voice, or no voice at all, for tomorrow night’s rehearsal. Even worse, when you listen back to your rehearsal tapes, you will hear that you sound awful. Don’t shout.

What To Do?

First, make sure your voice is healthy and strong. Too many singers blame their band members for things they should take care of themselves. Warm up before you go to your rehearsal or performance. Build your strength and endurance with good vocal technique. Pay attention to your health, your diet and your workout. Your whole body has to be in good shape for your voice to work properly.

Second, rehearse dynamics. Every time you play a song, note the settings on the amps so they don’t get turned up in the next rehearsal. Talk about where the builds are in each song and then keep the volume down before the build. There is a certain amount of energy generated by volume but if the volume is at ten from the very beginning, there?s nowhere to go.

Third, create a space for the vocals. If the drummer is riding the crash cymbal all the way through the verse, no one will hear a thing you’re singing. When the time comes that you get a good producer interested in working with you, he or she will come into rehearsals and rework the instrumental parts and arrangements to leave a sonic space for the vocal. If the keyboard parts or the guitar parts are playing in the same frequency range as the vocals, the producer will change those parts. Think of the vocal as a diamond in a ring – it has to be placed in the perfect setting. Any solo should be treated this way – as a jewel that needs the right accompaniment. While the singer is singing, he or she is the soloist.

Last, consider investing in in-ear monitors. They help block out other sound so that you only hear what is being sent to them. Most likely you would put your vocal, some background vocals, a chordal instrument like keys or guitar into the in-ears. When you can hear your voice you won’t be tempted to shout. They work amazingly well although they do take a little getting used to.

When you understand the strengths and limitations of your instrument, you can perform like a professional. Your voice can be strengthened, your range increased and the muscles made more flexible but it will still have its limits like any other instrument. Treat your voice like an honored guest: house it, feed it and respect it and it will serve you for a lifetime.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

Top 5 Tips For Better Lyrics

By Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler

I’ve written lyrics for over thirty years; I’ve had 150 of my songs cut by famous singers like Liza Minnelli and Dianne Reeves; written songs for a hit off Broadway Musical and have had songs on the Soul, Pop, County, Dance and Jazz charts. But when I started teaching lyric writing about 2 years ago I was still surprised to find out that there were some simple things my students weren’t doing that could have made their songs a whole lot better. I call them “My Top 5 Tips for Better Lyrics”.

1. Come up with a great title

This is by far my most important tip. Dianne Warren, who has written more hit songs than anybody writing today, could have replaced the title to her #1 song by Toni Braxton, Un-Break My Heart- with the title Please Mend My Heart. It means the same thing but it wouldn?t have had one tenth of the commercial impact. Un-Break My Heart is unique and catchy- you’ve never quite heard that thought expressed that way. The consumer today is besieged with songs and video games and movies and if they’ve got a choice between a song that’s called Happy Times or a rockin’ rouser called “You Give Love a Bad Name” which one do you think they’ll pick. But I can’t tell you how many students come to me with the most boring, pedestrian titles on their songs. A great title is more than half the battle, it tells you what to write. It attracts the listener and gets them hooked. Don’t even write word one with out a great title!

2. Be Specific

New lyricists inevitably tend to be vague and non descriptive with their words.
The best way I know how to illustrate “being specific” is through a song written by one of the greatest lyricists of all time, Johnny Mercer. In the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn, who plays a country girl who’s came to the big, bad city is having a moment of doubt on a Manhattan fire escape, when she sings these lyrics from The Academy Award winning song Moon River:

“We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend
My ——- friend, Moon River and me.”

Now she didn’t sing “good old country” friend or “gee you’re such a” friend- although both fit the line and are correct descriptions of her friend. No, Johnny Mercer had her sing “Huckleberry” friend. He couldn’t have been more specific. Huckleberries grow by the river, a country girl would know that, and it also has literary echoes of Huckleberry Finn, who was a country boy who ran away from home. So here we have one word that lifts the whole song up to another level. Johnny Mercer must have thought so to, because he called his autobiography, “My Huckleberry Friend and Me”

3. It’s The Music Stupid

As much as we’d love to think as lyricists we’re the end all, I’ve learned no matter how good the lyric is, if the music is bad- the lyric can’t save it. So you need to find yourself a great melody writer. But here’s the catch, you won’t find one unless you’re a wonderful lyric writer. And most professional melody writers know a good lyricist faster
than you can say “prosody”! Al Kasha, my first lyric writing teacher and winner of two Academy Awards said: “A great melody can take you into the top 10, but a great lyric coupled with a great melody will allow you to stay there.”

4. Writing Is Re-Writing

Ask any professional songwriter what separates him from an amateur and he’ll say it’s his ability to rewrite. But so many of my students come in with their “precious” first drafts thinking every word is gold. They think this because it came to them during a moment of “inspiration”. I’m all for inspiration- but “perspiration” is much better. Here’s how I do it. On the first pass (with or without inspiration) I try to get as much of the song lyric down as possible, filling out lines that stump me with any words, as long as I can see the complete song mapped out in front of me. Then in a few hours, or a few days I come back to the lyric and look at it “critically” and put x’s in front of the lines that can be improved. I keep coming back to the lyric until it?s as close to perfect as I can make it.
This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. But, remember it’s not the quantity of songs you write, but the quality.

5. What You Say Counts

Any one can learn the techniques it takes to write a song. But not everyone has something
truly unique to say. When I started out in my lyric writing class with Mr. Kasha, for some
reason he really liked my songs. Looking back on those days, I realize that it must have been because of my “content”, because back then truthfully, my songs didn’t have much technique. While other people were bringing in their latest, perfectly rhymed, yet anonymous odes to love and dreams and sunshine, I was bringing in my roughly written songs about The Great Gatsby and Moonlight cruises and my mother who was a singer with a big band. Unconsciously, I was doing something right. I was writing about what I knew and things nobody else had written about. Getting in touch with what you feel is the quickest way to have “content” in your songs. Keep it real.

Wow, I feel like I?ve only just touched the surface- the “tips” of the iceberg– and guess
what? I’ve got 5 more tips I didn’t even get around to. But, like any teacher at the end of his lesson here’s the homework- Come up with a great title- then come up with a idea or story that fits that title and then write and re-write till perfect! You can’t lose.

Mark Winkler is a singer/lyricist who has had over 150 of his songs recorded by such artists as Liza Minnelli, Nancy Wilson, Randy Crawford and Kenny Rankin. Contact him for lessons at (323) 874-4220 or

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

What Is My Range?

By Lis Lewis

We’ve all heard about Mariah Carey’s five-octave range. How is that possible? What do you have to do to have such a huge range? In fact, how do you figure out what your range is? Even if you know how high and how low you sing, how do you translate that into what your key should be? So many questions; let’s start with the basics.

Most of you know that you have two voices (registers) although voice teachers have been arguing forever about how many there actually are. Some say there is only one; some say there are as many as seven. Let’s go with the most agreed upon version: low, middle and high. The lower one is called ‘chest voice’ because of where it resonates (in your chest, of course). The upper one is called ‘head voice’ I bet you can guess why. The middle voice, also called ‘blend’ or ‘mix,’ is both voices working at the same time, an overlap of the two voices, which allows an even and smooth passage between the two without loosing tone or strength.

Some singers, like Mariah, have a voice above head voice that’s called ‘whistle tone’ or ‘altissima’ (meaning ‘the highest’) or sometimes ‘super-head’. Think of that very high stuff Mariah likes to do and you’ll get the idea of what it sounds like. It’s a tiny, thin voice, almost squeaky sounding. That’s what helps her to have so much more range than most people. Even once you find it, assuming your voice has that range, it’s hard to move around in it. It takes years of practice, which Mariah has had.

Make The Most Of It

Joe Cocker

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to make the most of what you have no matter how big or small your range. As an example, Joe Cocker, one of the most emotional singers there is, has a relatively small range. Yet he sure knows how to use it. On the other side of the coin, I have seen lots of singers with huge ranges but with weak spots that keep them from being able to connect it all. So, even though the question I’m asking here is ‘How big is my range’, a better question would be how well can I use all of the notes I have.

I know a lot of you think that the only real voice is chest voice. What do you need that thin weak upper voice for? But listen to Freddie Mercury, Brian McKnight or Jeff Buckley. When it’s strong and used well, it’s wonderful. But there’s another reason to work on your head voice. Let me put it to you this way; if you want a strong bicep, you have to have a strong tricep. (We’re talking arms here; I know I switched subjects, but bear with me.) Bicep and tricep are ‘opposing muscles’. You can’t have strength in one without the other. Think of head and chest voice in the same way. They give each other strength and flexibility. So if you want a big strong chest voice, work out your whole range.

Don’t Get A Grip

I can’t talk about range without talking about tension. I can almost guarantee that you are tensing some muscles that should be relaxed when you sing, especially when you try to sing higher. Does your throat get tight? Do you feel vocally tired after singing the song that’s got those high notes? Do you have to sing loud to get those notes? Do you start to lose them when you’ve been singing for a while? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’ve probably got tension when you sing. If you do, you will not be able to reach your full potential: in tone, in range or in dynamics. You should find a good voice teacher who can give you exercises that will relieve the stress and give you freedom when you sing. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

Okay, on to the real stuff. If you can access your head voice (the upper one), sing an ‘ooo’ (like in ‘too’) and slide down from a high note in head to a low note in chest. You don’t have to start as high as possible, just somewhere in your head voice. Try not to skip anything in the middle. It should sound like a siren and get your dog howling. If you’re new to this, notice the ‘break’ between the voices and try to smooth out the transition. After you work on getting it to be smooth, try going from the bottom up. As you get toward the top of your head voice, let your mouth open a little so the vowel shifts from ‘ooo’ to more of an ‘ahh’ (like in ma). This is your basic range. Of course I’m not there watching and listening to you so I can’t guarantee you that you’re doing it right, but if you are going from chest to head, you can get a sense of how big your range is. If your throat gets tired, give it a rest.

After working on it for a while, try this to see if you can get higher: as you slide up into head, take a slow bow from the waist (like you?re taking a curtain call). Start bending while you’re still in chest and get to about a 90-degree angle by the top note. Don’t force the top – it should be thin sounding, not pushed. Do that a few times (unless your throat is feeling tight or tired, in which case stop). Now walk over to the piano or the guitar and find that note.

Finding the bottom is usually easier. Slide down until you can’t sing a note anymore. It will get a lot quieter so plan on using less air pressure. Hold the lowest note you can and find that one on an instrument. By the way, unless you have perfect pitch, which very few people do, you won’t know what note you’re singing without an instrument to give you a reference. You might know relatively what it feels like to sing in a certain range and you could make an educated guess about what notes you’re singing. But we have no buttons or keys or strings that we can look at and say “oh, right that’s a ‘G'”. Perfect pitch (many people who have it say it’s more of a pain than it’s worth) means that somehow you know what note you’re singing without having to refer to an instrument. I don’t know how they do it; it looks like a magic trick to me. What are they doing – hearing notes from the planets? Maybe they’ve got a built-in saxophone. It’s a mystery.

And The Key Is?

Now: how to use your range. First, if you’ve noticed a break between your two voices, it’s time for some voice lessons. That has to get fixed. You might have the biggest range in the world but you can only use one at a time because they are disconnected. Oops. Next, when you have a song you’re working on, decide what you want your voice to express. Is it tender and intimate? Is it aggressive? The lower end of your chest voice has more warmth, more bass tones – it tends to sound sexier, more vulnerable or personal. Think of Toni Braxton or Luther Vandeross. As you work up toward the higher end of chest, the sound becomes more urgent, more intense. That’s why most people try to push it up higher and higher. They never want to leave. There is a limit to how far up your chest voice can go (and still live to sing another day). DON’T PUSH!!! These are words of wisdom, folks; pay attention.

Once you’ve built a ‘blend’ (so there is no break between voices) you’ll be able to sing from chest to head without losing the tone (that doesn’t mean you’re ‘belting’ which is only chest, it means you are using both voices so there is a gradual shift from chest to head, like a cross fade). You’ll also be able to sing in that range at any volume, as opposed to yelling. That means that this area of your voice can become the most exciting, the most flexible part of your voice. It’s the perfect place for those final choruses that need to have energy and intensity without killing you. In the earlier choruses you can put the high note in head, or in a lighter blend so there is a build through the course of the song.

There is no one key that is right for you. There will be different keys for different songs. The key you choose will depend on what you want the song to sound like and where the melody sits. If the melody is fairly low and you want it to have energy, you will choose a higher key, which raises the melody up. If the melody is high you might need to lower it so you won’t dread singing it when it comes up on the set list. If the melody is all over the map, shoot yourself. No, sorry. You have to find just the right key for all the notes or change some of them. Please remember to communicate to your band when there are parts of the song that are intimate. They shouldn’t be playing all over the place while you’re at the bottom of your voice where there’s no volume.

Different keys will bring out different aspects of your voice. They will also make a difference in how you write a melody. Don’t write in the same key over and over. It’s boring for the listener but even more important, you will tend to write similar melodies. If you change keys, you will write melodies differently because you can’t use the same parts of your voice in the same ways. Experiment. Even a small change in key can make a big difference.

I hope you can see that it isn’t how high you can sing, or how big your range is that’s the most important thing in singing. No one but you knows whether the note in one song is higher than the note in another. What does matter is being able to use what you’ve got to the fullest potential of your instrument. That’s what will make you feel great about your singing.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

The Right Style

By Lis Lewis

All your life you’ve listened to music. At various times in your life you’ve turned to different artists and different styles to give you comfort or make you dance. There isn’t one style that meets all of your needs. When it comes time to record your own record you might feel that you want to show your versatility and sing a variety of styles. But if you are aiming for a record deal you will need to narrow down what you present to its essence. Instead of a little of this and a little of that, you must show the world one strong complete package that makes a clear statement-one style.

Most singers love more than one style of music. You’ve heard someone like Gwen Stefani sing her brand of ska music and then branch out to hip-hop. Or Garth Brooks defining himself with country music and then making a rock and roll album. Every artist would like to be able to explore different types of music. But even these two artists who are so talented and flexible started with one remarkable personal statement in one style. No Doubt’s first record wasn’t a little ska and a little hip hop. It was all the same brand of exuberant, savvy pop/ska. While you are developing your audience and your fan base you need to have a clear strong vision of who you are and what you represent. Are you a rootsy folk/rocker like Mumford & Sons? Are you a pop singer/dancer like Britney Spears? Are you an angry political rock/rapper like Linkin Park? Or are you a romantic soul R&B singer like Usher? The audience needs to know who you are and recognize you. If you are a ‘jack of many trades’ you have no clear identity.

Now the hard part: what style is the best one for you? The easiest place to start is to look at what you love. You can’t sing something you don’t love. There are too many people out there singing their hearts out who love the style of music they are singing. You could never compete with them if you don’t love what you sing. Second, the songs you sing best will be the kinds you have listened to all of your life because you understand them the best. If you have never listened to a blues record you can probably cross blues off your list.

But just because you love to listen to it doesn’t mean you can sing it. Try to be discerning about the difference between what you love to listen to and what you sing well. Even though I’ve listened to Aretha Franklin all of my life, and even learned to sing a lot of the runs and licks that she sang, I would never try to sing a song in her style. I just don’t sound right doing it. If you can, be objective. If you can’t, ask someone who can tell you.

Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan

Each style has conventions: when do you use vibrato, should you use your head voice, when do you slide, how elaborate are the runs, is your voice rough or sweet. If you could hear Sarah McLachlan sing a Sheryl Crow song, you’d know what I mean. She would sing it lighter and prettier. She would use her head voice where Sheryl Crow would belt. Sheryl Crow is tougher and her voice has more gravel in it.

You learn these conventions and absorb them through years of listening and imitating the artists you admire. If you’ve been listening to Christina Aguilera then you will be used to singing long strings of notes and working with syncopated rhythms. You’d be learning entirely different licks and sounds if you’ve been singing with Pink. All styles have characteristics of their own. When you understand what makes a style unique you can learn how to sing it.

Another major factor is the songs. If you are writing your own songs they will indicate your direction. Each genre of music has a specific approach to lyrical content and rhythmic and harmonic elements. If you write complex intimate lyrics like Radiohead then you probably aren’t going to sing romantic R&B. Of course there is a lot of overlap which is why, every now and then, an artist in one genre will cover a song from another genre. Ray Charles did an album of country songs. Shawn Colvin did a record of mostly rock songs. They blur the lines between styles.

But each style still has it’s attributes and your job as the singer is to know what they are. As you sing various styles to discover the one that’s perfect for you, you may find that you want to combine elements from different styles into one as Mumford & Sons did when they put their folk songs over the kind of driving rhythm elements that rock has. This is the mark of a creative person. What about combining an electronica track with an aggressive rock guitar? Yes it can be done.  All of your songs will have a common concept and stylistic approach. They will express your vision, your stories and you. They will do it through your songs and voice and tracks. And they will have a unique but consistent style that is yours.

Background Singing

Rose ButlerBy Lis Lewis

Jumping up on stage to sing with your friends at a local bar is nothing like professional background singing which is among the most demanding of singing jobs. The basic requirements are a great voice, sightsinging skills, a fast ear for harmonies and the ability to blend.

Those are the vocal skills. You also must be good with people, adaptable in difficult situations, easy going and a team player. Not to mention the business skills it takes to run your own business and network constantly.

Possibly the most well known background singer in the business, Rosemary Butler’s credits are frightening. She has toured, recorded, and performed live and on video with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston just to name a few. She sang all of the background parts on the single, The Rose. She has just come back from performing on the American Music Awards in Nashville with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

Donna Davidson’s history is equally intimidating having sung for virtually every country artist in Nashville as well as Michael Jackson, Belinda Carlisle, Natalie Cole, Amy Grant, Ray Charles and Henry Mancini to name a few. Both singers also do session singing for commercials, film and TV.


Apart from the astounding credits, Donna and Rosemary are quite different in their approach to their careers. Rosemary started out as the bass player/singer in an all girl Southern boogie band in high school which opened for the Rolling Stones. Her band toured and recorded a couple of albums for ABC/Dunhill. “I met a guy named Catfish who wanted me to sing on his record and that’s where I met Bonnie Raitt. I got along with her so well and had such a great time and she asked me to sing on her record. On her record I ended up singing with Michael McDonald and Jackson Browne. Then they asked me to sing on their records.”

In Nashville Donna played organ and sang in her church choir and taught school. “The guy standing next to me in the tenor section was with the Anita Kerr Singers and they were looking for an alto. He asked me if I was interested in doing a session and I didn’t even know what he was talking about.”

Donna didn’t intend to become a singer for a living. “I just sort of fell into it and it was better money than teaching school. I never wanted to do a solo thing; I never wanted to perform. I was on the road for a year and it was too much of a grind. I thought it was a much better gig to show up, sing your part, go home and get your check.”


The Voice: When you go into a session, do they give you the parts or do you make them up? Donna: Sometimes the parts are completely written out and sometimes you do head charts, [a vocal arrangement that is done on the spot at the session usually by the singers]. The Barry Manilow record was all stuff from the twenties and thirties so it was completely written out. You just walk in and read it. On some rock and roll dates, the producer might have some ideas and you add to those or change them. You usually just have a lyric sheet.
Rosemary: It works both ways. I was working on the new Willie Nelson record. The producer let us go in there and do whatever we wanted to and then he approved it at the end.
The Voice: What are the requirements to be a good background singer?
Rosemary: Pitch. The ability to change your voice and vibrato in order to blend. Singing with Ringo Starr or Joe Cocker is very different than singing with Amy Grant or Dolly Parton. You have to be able to understand the way they breathe, the way they pronounce words, the color and tone of their voice, what their emotions are. It’s the basic experience of harmony – getting along with, adding to, making fuller, someone else’s experience, someone else’s vision.
Donna: Be adaptable and flexible and a good reader. I can sound any number of different ways depending on the style of what we’re singing. You never know what you’re going to get called in for. It could be rock and roll, country or a boys choir. Be there on time, be prepared, be easy to work with. You work under tense situations and close quarters so there’s not room for people to have any attitude.


The Voice: What about a CD?
Rosemary: I have a CD of backgrounds and a commercial CD and my solo work. [Ed. note; Rosemary has two gold records in Japan.] I update it constantly. Depends on what their looking for.
Donna: Show as many styles as possible using sections of songs. The wholeCD should be four minutes tops. Edit it so it’s interesting and well paced. [I] used both solos and small group stuff.

Getting Work

The Voice: How do background singers get work?
Donna: AFTRA has a producers list that is available to union members. Come to singers meetings at AFTRA and SAG. You have to keep your effort level up. You can’t really take it for granted because it’s very competitive and there are any number of people coming into town every week that would love to do what you do. It’s a combination of being prepared and being grateful.
Rosemary: You have to constantly be looking for work. I have to remind people I’m here and not on the road. You can’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to go out in the clubs and see people, invite them to your gigs to keep the relationships going. One thing leads to the other; you may be doing this really uninteresting song demo but you might have met the producer of your dreams. It’s like dominos. It may not be that exciting but then another door opens because of that opportunity.
Donna: There’s no real job security. You work on the strength of your reputation. You’re only as good as your last performance. It’s all based on what the other people on the date thought about what you did.


The Voice: Do you have any advice?
Donna’s: Learn to read. Get real good solid musical training. You wouldn’t call yourself a plumber if you didn’t own a wrench. Play an instrument like piano because it’s not a single note instrument. You are playing whole chords which include the harmonies. It helps you understand the structure, stay better in tune and understand whats going on musically.
Rosemary’s: Have a good time. Some people get into the studio and white knuckle it, you know, up tight. Stay loose and get out of your own way. If you trust your instincts, you allow your feelings to come through. Donna: It’s the best job in the world.

Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
Learn More.

Session Singing

By Lis Lewis

Susan Boyd and Jon Joyce are two very successful session singers. Between them they have had a record deal, a two year road tour, have done theatre, live tv, jingles, and backgrounds for recording projects. Jon is also a vocal contractor, i.e. the singer who hires all the other singers for a session, handles budgets and contracts, and is the laison between the singers and the producers, composers and ad agencies.

Susan Boyd

Susan Boyd

After years of working as an actress, singing roles in Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease, Susan started in jingles by doing demos for songwriters. “These two fellows I sang for got a chance to demo the theme song for a T.V. show called Angie and they got me to sing lead. There I met Ron Hicklin, a legend in this town among studio singers, who had been hired to contract the background singers. He has a huge black book with the names of hundreds of singers. He didn’t know me but he said he’d take down my number and he’d call me if anything came up. A year later he called and it happened that [the gig] was for Mazda. He was looking for a lead sound, a kind of Linda Ronstadt sound, so he hired me. I had no idea what I was doing when I went in? I was not as scared as I should have been.” For the Mazda ad she sang ‘Just One Look’, a Ronstadt hit at the time. It was used on network T.V. and radio for two years and earned her enough to buy two houses.

Jon has been singing since he was 12. His first recording was on the song ‘High Hopes’ with Frank Sinatra. With both parents vocalists, he grew up in the studio business. Jon’s father was the arranger for the Smothers Brothers TV show. From ages 18 to 25, Jon was a singer for the Red Skelton and Carol Burnett shows among others. “In those days,” says Jon, “there were regular production singers who did backgrounds for the guests who came on, sang the show’s theme and danced a little bit.”

Jon and one of his many musical brothers sent a tape of original music to RCA. Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, who had a production deal at RCA, really liked their voices. They signed a record deal with RCA on a project “that never saw the light of day”. But Bruce introduced him to Elton John who needed a group of singers to tour with. Jon contracted two other singers and toured for the next two years. “There’s nothing like having a credit like that in the session world. Everyone introduces you as ‘He just got off the road with Elton John’ and then anything that comes out of your mouth is perfect. You had to prove yourself before; now everything you do is just fabulous.”

Jon Joyce

Jon Joyce

It was the tape of his original music that got Jon jingle work. He says that if you send a tape of jingles that aren’t top notch, the producers may not even hear the vocals and may dismiss the spot because it’s poorly written or produced. Instead “put the best stuff of whatever you do on a tape and if it is original songs, give it as much variety as possible. You want the tape to be about five or six minutes long [using only parts of songs] showing a large range [of styles]. And it should be entertaining. The flow from one song to the next should be carefully thought out and fun to listen to.”

The Real Artwork

It is very clear, talking to Susan and Jon, that they think the real artwork lies in background singing. “For years and years, every once in a while Ron Hicklin [the contractor] would hire me to do something fabulous in a solo vein,” Susan says, “but it took another six years to break into doing background singing. He wasn’t about to trust me if I didn’t know what a three plus cut-off was, if I didn’t know how to feather, [see sidebar]. His personal motto was ‘never sing alone’ which means don’t come in early and don’t cut off late.”

It’s one thing to send a solo tape if you want solo work but how do you show off your ability to sing backgrounds? Jon admits that it’s hard. You get that kind of work through word of mouth. But he did hear one tape that was only keyboards and a vocalist who sang all the backgrounds herself. “It was a beautifully arranged thing,” says Jon. “It took your breath away and caught your ear right away. It didn’t show that she would blend with other voices but it did show that she was a wonderful musician with great ears. I don’t hear that very much when I get tapes. Susan adds, “In the case of this one tape where you don’t know her but you like what she does, if Jon had the opportunity he might hire her in a big group and if she was terrible other people would tell him and they would cover for her. And if she was good, he’d find that out too. When Ron Hicklin finally hired me in a group it was a forty-eight voice group for a Carpenters Christmas album. Forty-eight voices! He wasn’t taking any chances.”

“Soloists are not called upon to read alot,” according to Susan. “If you’ve got the sound [the producers] want they’ll teach you the song [but] if you’re a background singer, they don’t have any patience with you if you don’t pick it up real quick.” Background singers are required to read, blend, have good personalities and be team players, i.e. people who can subordinate their personality to what’s going on in the group.

“A producer assumes that you’re going to be able to sing the notes,” says Jon. “The subtlety of expression that he’s looking for is the thing that sets apart the pros from the amateurs, in terms of a phrase or a grace, and it’s inexpressible. That’s why there’s so many jokes about ‘could you sing it more purple.'” In addition, says Susan, “in the jingle business it’s not just ‘can you evoke the mood’ it’s also ‘can you do it in twenty minutes.'”

“The more you do it ,the better. Take any opportunity.” says Susan. “When I first came to town, this brilliant unknown guitarist, Alan Sylvestri, needed a singer for a porno film he was working on. He had three tunes he wanted done. I wasn’t ready to sing in the studio but I learned a lot. Meanwhile Alan is now this huge success writing movie scores.

Jon Joyce is a very active union member of both AFTRA and SAG. The AFTRA hotline number where you can get recorded information is (213) 461-1377.

When Rock Singers Need Help

By Lis Lewis

Rock singers often end up with vocal problems. Too often those problems are exposed in the press: shows canceled, recording dates postponed, bands replaced in tours because the singer had no voice. Rock and roll is a big noisy emotional business and singers tend to rant and rave until their voices are shot. The music industry doesn’t care because there’s always the next young rock singer waiting to take the place of the old used up one. But if it’s your voice, what happens to the rest of your career?

Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan

When you start singing in a rock band (or any band for that matter) you sing from an intuitive place. Open your mouth and the song (and the feeling) comes out. But when you start learning the skills of singing, you become more self conscious. You pay attention to details such as pitch, tension and tone. Suddenly you are thinking too much, and that interferes with the emotion.

There is a balance that has to happen between skill and intuition. Part of you should pay attention to the technique and part of you to the feeling and the attitude. If you’ve been singing from attitude for all this time, then there is going to be a serious backlash while you learn skills and it’s upsetting when it happens to you. But have faith; as your skills become more ingrained, the emotion comes back and you’re ready for a long career.

I have a student who is very confused about the fact that his voice is changing. I don’t blame him. Up till not he has been shouting and hurting his voice. Now he’s paying more attention to how he produces sound, and he feels better. His higher notes are stronger, and his voice doesn’t get hoarse. But his band mates tell him that he sounds different. And he doesn’t feel as uninhibited. I know just how he feels.

Imagine that you are an amateur tennis player. You’ve got a great serve and are getting lots of attention from pro trainers. Once you sign up with one of them, they start changing things. You get mad. You say, why did you sign me if you are going to mess with the very things that are good about what I do? The trainer would say to you, as I am now, you’ve got a gift but it needs discipline. You must be able to do it day after day, in bad situations as well as good. You’ve got to learn your craft so you can be on top of your game all the time.

While talking to a very prominent producer the other day, I mentioned to him that rock singers came into my studio for voice training only after they were in trouble. He agreed with me telling me stories of singers he was working with in the studio, singers who were signed to major record companies, who had no idea how to take care of their voice, how to warm up, what to do when they had vocal problems. They hadn’t learned how to play their instrument yet.

I was surprised to hear this from him since he is the producer of some very high profile hard rock acts. I told him that most producers seem to want singers to sing higher, louder, longer and don’t really know much about using the voice as an instrument. He didn’t disagree with me, but he did say that a lot of the time, rock singers making their first record for a big label end up having to start voice lessons in the middle of the recording. He added that their singing usually suffered while they were having to concentrate on their technique. It takes a while for any singer to absorb a new method of singing. The emotion of the song has to be put on the back burner until the new technique becomes intuitive.

John Mayer

Many singers put off voice lessons until the last minute because they’re afraid of sounding “trained”, of losing their emotional connection to the music, of changing. But change can be for the better. You know when you’ve hurt yourself by shouting or pushing too hard; you know when that high note is killing you. Wouldn’t it be great if singing was easier? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a partner who understood your voice as well as or better than you? What a relief it would be to have a person you could tell your worries and fears about your voice and have them be able to help. That’s what a voice teacher does.

What You Learn In Lessons

The kinds of things you might learn in lessons include the basics like proper breathing, pitch and tone control and strengthening. But you also learn how to hit the high note without straining, how to move easily and flexibly throughout your whole range and how to increase your range. You learn how to sing for hours at a time without getting tired, what and when to eat and drink, how to turn in a great performance time after time. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of major artists having to cancel shows due to vocal strain, or having to lower keys the longer they’re on tour. A healthy voice shouldn’t have to go through this. If you know your instrument, it won’t happen to you.

I have a very famous client who has been putting up a good front, acting like his voice is fine – as if it just needed some rest. But he knew he was in trouble. He was afraid to fix it. Everyone around him relies on his singing for their income. He couldn’t confess that he was losing his voice, that the high notes were suffering, that his throat hurt. He was also afraid that his recognizable sound might change. But he overcame his fear and started lessons. He really didn’t know what else to do.

After working on his technique for six weeks he feels stronger, more confident and more in control. He’s been incredibly serious about practicing because he knows how much is at stake – his career and the livelihoods of many, many other people. And it’s paid off. His range is bigger and more flexible, he can sing longer phrases. In fact singing is just easier. Now he warms up before every rehearsal, performance or recording date. He knows he has an instrument he can rely on and he knows how to treat it so it will last.

Don’t wait until you are having serious problems. If you want your voice to last your whole lifetime, treat it with respect. Find a good working partner in a voice teacher who can help you strengthen and maintain your voice. Develop your relationship with your teacher now so you have someone to rely on when you need it.

Scroll Up