• Ryan Jenkins: The Online Vocal Coach

So, You Want to Learn How to Sing!

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

How long does it take to learn to sing?...

This is a question vocal coaches are asked often. A Google search will provide you with a time scale of anywhere between a week and forever. So, I suspect you’re wondering why on Earth I’m even bothering writing this blog… The truth is, there are variables that contribute to becoming a good singer and even more to becoming a great singer. These variables are important to understand and all budding singers should be aware of them. For that reason, I am sharing them with you. Much of the advice in this blog can be translated to learning any new skill as the length of time for a person to train in anything, depends on their ambition, determination, time, experience, and support.

In his book, ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, Malcolm Gladwell introduces us to the concept of the 10,000-hour rule. The 10,000-hour rule essentially states that for a person to become an expert in a subject or activity, they must practice it in the correct way for 10,000 hours. However, let's assume you practice one hour a day, that’s 10,000 days of practice. 10,000 days is equivalent to just over 27 years… That’s a long time, and the rule itself should not be taken literally, but the underlying principles are worth noting.

Although I agree that as a practising musician you are continually learning, the technique needed to learn to sing effectively does not take anywhere near as long as suggested. Assuming you’re new to singing and you’d like to know roughly how long it will take to begin to see a significant improvement, we can answer that by exploring three key areas, experience, practice, and expertise.

Gain Knowledge and Experience

I’m a firm believer in the notion that almost everyone can sing, and I certainly stand by the notion that singing is NOT something you were born with or gifted by the Gods. Plus, we all sing in the shower and the car so it's not an activity for the gifted or elite.

It's true that singing is a skill which takes practice and dedication to learn and develop… but it can and should be learnt!

So if we're considering how long it will take, it's worth noting that your starting point will very much impact on the time it takes to develop your voice. If your parents were musicians or even played a musical instrument or sung, the likelihood is that some of that skill will wear off on to you in that you would have been exposed to music as a skill either directly or indirectly. Additionally, if you were exposed to a lot of music growing up, be it live or recorded, you too are likely to have a bit of a head start.

Your vocal mechanism needs to be able to work in a connected fashion with the brain, this involves masses of ear training. One of the best ways to develop a musical inner ear is through listening. Therefore, if you were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to and enjoy a variety of music as a child, you are likely to develop the ability to sing more effectively and efficiently.

But what if I wasn’t exposed to music at an early age?

The simplest answer to this is it is never too late! Fuel your senses with as much musical experiences as possible by listening to recorded music, watching live performances, and surrounding yourself with musicians. Children are curious, this enables them to explore subjects without self-consciousness, allowing them to fully engross themselves in whatever they find exciting. As adults we become concerned with what’s right and wrong, what others may think and continuously question our intentions and the realistic successes that might or might not be gained. If you are an adult interested in learning to sing, you must once again become curious. Allow your mind to wonder, to daydream. Revert back to those child-like thoughts of ‘I want to do this and I can do this!’, rather than ‘I’m not able to do this, I don’t have the time or the confidence!’

Practice Effectively

The first thing I must make clear is that practising for every hour of the day is not effective practice. Regular practice, even every day is good, but it needs to be spaced to give your interconnected vocal system time to process any new learning. If you’re a singer that currently practices all day every day, stop! Initially, this will work for you, but over time you will exhaust your voice and your brain. Develop a practice schedule that contains structure and purpose - don’t just sing the same song repeatedly.

On the other hand, if you’re a singer that doesn't practice and wings every performance, consider how much better you would be and how much quicker you’d develop if you practised in a structured and purposeful way.

For a new singer, with little experience, take your time. You would serve yourself well to learn the foundations of singing before jumping into belting out a Whitney song! Learn how to breathe, how to stand, how to direct your sound, how to shape vowels and improve vocal resonance. There are many great vocal coaches on YouTube who will teach you the basics for free. Alternatively, if you feel you need additional guidance in taking the first step, hire a singing teacher or vocal coach.

How to practice is a skill, one that is learnt over many years of making mistakes and altering one's behaviour. Like anything, it can be taught, and it can be learnt. Nevertheless, take heed of this warning, if your practice is inefficient you are likely to do more harm than good. Remember, give yourself, structure, time, and space to reflect. Do you know what you’d like to achieve? If so, set yourself goals.

Setting yourself the goal of wanting to be able to sing is not enough, there are a whole host of questions that you need to ask yourself along every step of your journey. Why do you want to sing? To what standard do you want to sing? Is there an artist you aspire to be? When do you want to achieve your goal by? Who are you doing it for? Is it feasible? What are my barriers? How can I overcome my barriers?

I could go on with an endless list of questions I remember asking myself along my own vocal journey and there were many times I didn’t like the answer. The truth is, understanding that you don’t always have the answer or that the answer provided is not favourable is also part of becoming a better singer.

Because of the amount of questions one needs to consider, and the depth of knowledge often needed to answer those questions, it is often best to seek out some expert guidance. Sometimes all we know is that we want to sing because we admire the skill and would like to be able to do it… An expert, such as a vocal coach, singing teacher or mentor can support you in answering some of the questions as well as providing you with the skill to unlock your voice’s potential.

Seek Expertise

Teaching yourself to do anything is difficult. If it were easy to teach yourself to do things, there would be no need for teachers, coaches, mentors, and consultants. That’s not to say you can’t teach yourself to sing, as previously mentioned there are some fantastic vocal coaches on YouTube who will talk you through and teach you vocal technique, but how do you know if you’re doing it right, if you’re both the student and the teacher?

This is where a vocal coach is essential in developing your voice further. Learning to sing is not easy, and because the voice is such a unique and varied instrument, you need someone who knows the craft to be able to guide you and provide you with feedback in order for you to improve.

Learning to sing and mastering a voice are two very different entities. However, a rough guide, based on my own experience as a voice coach, would be as follows:

Lower range development: Will improve rapidly with improvements being realised within a handful of lessons.

Pitching: An improvement can be seen within the first 3 to 6 months.

Transitioning between registers smoothly: This is dependent on the specific issue but usually after a few months of study.

Achieving a professional standard: Developing skills such as belting and advanced tone manipulation can take years of focused study.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, singing, particularly at a high standard, is not just the act of opening your mouth and a beautiful sound comes out. Your brain and body must process vast amounts of information, information that will likely be confusing to the untrained singer. You need to ask yourself whether you are capable of processing that information by yourself with the help of online tutorial videos, or whether it is more beneficial for you to invest in your voice and seek the guidance of a trained professional.

For most non-professional singers, the act of singing is enough, the thought of thinking beyond directly making a sound is enough for them and anything else reduces its element of fun. I completely understand this and for those individuals, my advice will always be, sing safely! At the very least seek guidance on some basic technique, explore some good warm up routines and practice singing safely. For those who want to take their singing further, I encourage you to explore the science of singing, learn to manipulate sound and become obsessed with your own voice but also with the voices of others. Seek expert guidance and be prepared and willing to invest in your instrument.

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