I recently had two clients who use their voice in their respective professions (one instructor, one lawyer), and they came to me with specific issues they wanted to improve.
In our initial chat to get to know each other, each of them was well aware of what they wanted to work on. And then, with a sheepish grin, they asked, “Is there a way I can do this without having to sing?”
Thus I was inspired to write this article to shed some light on how when it comes to improving your voice and expression, singing is far more effective than speech alone.
Improving your voice, just like learning any other skill, requires consistent and deliberate practice over time.
Because you have been speaking the way you do pretty much most of your life, undoing your limiting vocal habits and learning the best techniques for strengthening your voice takes a lot of work.
With singing as a tool, there are numerous exercises to tackle specific vocal issues which speech exercises alone cannot resolve.
And since you’ll need exercises to improve your voice anyway, whether through singing or speech, doesn’t it make more sense to choose the tool that maximises your results for the same amount of effort and time that you’re putting in?
Here are three reasons why singing is far more effective in improving your voice and expression than just speaking.
1) Singing exercises a much wider range of your voice than speaking.
When we speak, we use only a very limited part of our vocal range.
What is a vocal range? Your vocal range contains all the pitches that your voice is able to produce. Using the piano keys as a reference, each key represents a unique pitch according to western music. The set of piano keys that you’re able to sing is thus a visual representation of your vocal range.
Most people have natural access to a 1.5 to 2-octave range, which is around 18 to 24 pitches. But when we speak in our everyday lives, we regularly use perhaps around 5 to 10 pitches, depending on how expressive our speaking voice is.
A person who has a monotonous, “dull” voice typically engages only 3 to 4 pitches of their voice, while a person who is more dynamic and expressive in their speech engages more of their vocal range.
Thus speech exercises only work that limited part of our voice, neglecting the rest of the pitches that we’re able to reach, which are much higher and much lower than our normal speaking range.
Singing exercises, however, gives us more access to work on our entire vocal range.
Exercising your entire vocal range strengthens your voice as a whole, giving you more natural access to the pitches outside of your normal speaking voice, thus holistically developing more colour and dynamism in your voice.
It’s like if you want to be physically stronger, you have to follow a full-body workout routine. You can’t just do crunches only, or push-ups only, or lunges only and expect to build muscles everywhere else on your body. At the same time, you’ll also want to choose the most effective exercises that develop different muscle groups over a short time.
In the same way, if you want to have a richer, more resonant and powerful voice in a short time, singing exercises that work on your entire vocal range are the best way to go.
2) Singing trains you in effective breath control, which is essential for having more power and resonance in your voice.
The breath is an essential part of vocalisation. Our voice functions most similarly to wind instruments (such as the clarinet or trumpet), which require air from the player passing through a vibrating mechanism (such as the reed against the mouthpiece in a clarinet) in order to produce sound.
In the human “instrument”, our lungs provide the source of air, and as we exhale, this air causes our vocal cords to vibrate and thus produce sounds which we refer to collectively as our voice.
When we speak, we don’t necessarily need a lot of air, because we seldom drag out our words and syllables.
But when we sing, songs give us many more instances of holding the same pitch for a longer time, and musical phrases usually last longer than spoken ones.
In musical phrasing, we also have to be able to transition from one pitch to another smoothly and seamlessly.
This requires a certain level of breath support and control, which not only means we have to inhale deeper to take in more air, but we also have to learn how to control the exhaled breath such that we can sing musical phrases without running out of breath prematurely, and to keep the sustained pitches steady for as long as they need to be.
Breath support and control also play an important role in developing more power and authority in a person’s voice.
The volume and “strength” of your voice is also determined by the amount of air passing through your vocal cords, which is the basis for vocal projection. If you’re projecting your voice in the right way, your throat shouldn’t hurt or feel strained.
In addition to specific exercises for breath control, most singing exercises allow you to simultaneously practice breath control and support in a way that speaking exercises are not able to.
And when you’re able to inhale deeper and exhale with better control, it becomes easier to speak louder and have more power in your voice, plus your speaking voice will also sound more stable and more resonant.
3) Singing teaches you how to manage your psychological barriers towards expression.
Most people who are hesitant about singing usually have some sort of embarrassment, anxiety or fear around having to perform in front of others.
Some will say they are able to speak or teach in front of a large audience, and might even be used to doing so as part of their profession, but the moment they are asked to sing in front of others (even when it’s just one other person), they’d immediately decline and state all kinds of reasons why they can’t do it.
Even people who love to sing have a similar kind of shyness around singing, depending on the size of their audience and who’s in it.
Our psychological barriers to expression are amplified when singing is involved, and there are numerous reasons for this.
A most common one is not having an enjoyable experience when learning music as a child.
You could have had “music” teachers in elementary school who were really the Math or Science teacher assigned to teach an additional subject they know nothing about or aren’t passionate about, so they aren’t able to instil an appreciation for music in their students. And chances are they, too, didn’t have an enjoyable experience with music as a child, from whomever their “music” teacher was.
(This is part of a larger issue where arts programs in schools suffer the most when there are budget cuts, and music is seen as “good to have” but not fundamental to a person’s overall developmental growth).
And even if your music teacher was knowledgeable and passionate about music, they may have been overly strict or impatient in the way they taught. One of my clients’ high school choirmaster used to single out individuals who sang the wrong notes and sometimes yell at them in front of everyone else. Out of fear and wanting to avoid embarrassment and getting punished for making mistakes, my client would just mouth the words to pretend she was singing.
Outside of school, you may have had a family member who was known for singing beautifully, and perhaps you were told you could never sing as well as them.
Or your family doesn’t appreciate music and the arts, and you grew up being told to stop wasting your time on such hobbies and focus on “learning something more practical” instead.
All these, combined with our other negative experiences around humiliation, anxiety, making mistakes, judgement from others, feeling unworthy and not good enough, etc. form and feed our psychological barriers towards expression.
Thus whenever you sing, especially in front of others — even if it’s just your voice coach, you’ll discover that all of these things within get triggered and amplified.
Which also means that when you’re working on your voice and expression through singing, you’re coming head to head with your internal barriers, and with the support of a skilled voice coach (who is aware of this), you’re also learning how to confront and manage them.
You might still think that you don’t have any issues with this because you have no difficulty speaking to a large audience, but rehearsing your speech and delivering the words flawlessly isn’t quite the same as making an lasting and unforgettable impression and impact. The real test comes when you’re able to throw that script away and speak from a more authentic place within yourself.
Have you ever wondered what is it that makes some speakers and teachers far more memorable and impactful than others? And why do some leaders seem to have more charisma, and are able to attract a large following around them?
The answer to this lies also in their ability to transcend their barriers to expression, which allows them to be more comfortable with who they are, thus they are able to engage an audience in an authentic and relatable way, and build connection with others, which is what we all crave now in a world where we are so fragmented within ourselves and from one another.
So if you want to be able to make an impact on your audience and in the world around you, It’s essential to manage and transcend your psychological barriers to expression, and one of the most effective and direct ways to work on this is through singing.
Once again, here are three of the reasons why singing is far more effective as a tool for improving your voice and expression compared to just speaking.
1) Singing exercises a much wider range of your voice than speaking, so you’ll have a richer, stronger and more resonant and powerful voice in a short time.
2) Singing trains you in effective breath control, so it’s easier for you to speak louder and have more power and resonance in your voice.
3) Singing teaches you how to manage your psychological barriers towards expression, so you can create the impact you want in the world around you.
By working on your voice and expression through singing, it ultimately gets you more in tune and more connected with yourself such that when you express yourself — whether you are teaching, speaking to someone you love, getting your ideas across — your audiences are more easily engaged and can receive what you’re really trying to share with them.