Focusing on how your singing feels rather than how it sounds can help you create a more nuanced and personal vocal performance.
“How’s my pitch?”
“Is my tone too gritty?”
“Do I need to sound breathier?”
When you’re working on vocals for your recordings or live shows, it’s easy to ask yourself a million self-critiquing questions and end up feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or even paralyzed. That’s why it’s sometimes best to ignore how your singing sounds and focus only on how it feels.
I originally heard this singing tip from my father, a long-time vocalist who has sung with large and small choruses across a variety of genres. At first, the approach felt counterintuitive, but after spending time singing and paying attention only to how I felt, not how I sounded, I found the experience to be transformative.
Here are a few reasons why not listening to yourself can actually elevate your singing — and some advice on how to put the strategy into action.
Learn to trust yourself
In general, the more singing you do, the more you’ll be able to rely on muscle memory to guide you through your performance rather than having to consciously think about the process every time you open your mouth. As you put in hours singing with the singular goal of feeling relaxed, fluid, and comfortable — and not worrying about actively managing or judging any aspect of your sound — you may find yourself thinking less about the mechanics each time, which is a very good thing. The more you can make healthy singing technique a default reflex, the freer you’ll feel as a performer and artist.
Your audience hears you differently than you hear yourself
The way your ears interpret your singing in real time can be quite different from how others experience it. Even if you perform with high-quality in-ear monitors, you’re still only getting an approximation of what your audience takes in, since your monitor mix inevitably blends in with the sound carried straight to your ears from within your body.
Some may see this dynamic as a curse, but it can be freeing as well. Unless you record yourself and listen on playback, you can’t know exactly what your audience hears when you sing — so what happens if you just stop worrying about your audience’s perception entirely? Less energy spent trying to twist your vocal performance into how you think you should sound means greater energy to pour into the emotion of the song itself.
Reduce vocal tension
When I actively worry about intonation or vocal tone, I find myself trying to micro-manage my delivery and technique, which can easily lead to physical tension. If I’m hyper tuned-in to my own vocal sound and perceive myself falling slightly flat on a high note, for example, an unhealthy level of throat tightness can be the next breath away.
Ignoring how you sound and focusing only on how you feel can change the equation. If you’re not actively worrying about hitting a note spot on, there’s nothing to correct, and no muscles to squeeze to get there. And the more you’re able to relax and enjoy the experience of singing itself, the better your pitch will naturally become.
Similarly, the more you can focus on singing in a way that just feels good, the better you’ll sound overall. I recently recorded myself singing without listening to myself and was pleasantly surprised by the result; on playback, my voice had layers of resonance and richness that I hadn’t heard before.
Less sound, more emotion
As mentioned above, if you spend your energy trying to tweak your tone or pitch as you sing, you’re ignoring the most important part of your performance — delivering a powerful vocal that means and communicates something. See what happens when you forget about everything other than melting into the song you’re singing and communicating something true and meaningful through your vocals.
Own your sound
It’s entirely normal to want to emulate your singing idols. The problem is, you live in your own body, not theirs. While some singers can develop the skills to become true vocal chameleons, most are best served developing their own unique voices — not trying to mimic others.
As you practice, perform, and record, see what happens when you ignore how you sound in the moment and focus purely on a relaxed and healthy vocal technique. Feel the message and emotion of the song, and pour 100 percent of yourself into your performance. You may be surprised at how uniquely your voice develops as a result.
In my own experience, when I started singing without caring about how I sounded, singing became easier. But more than that, when I’d hear myself on playback, I noticed subtle shifts in my pronunciation and phrasing that made my vocals sound more vivid, more like me.
Keep context in mind
Singing without listening to yourself is not an excuse to deliver a bad, ear-rending performance. It’s also not a license to throw good technique, pitch, and taste to the wind and wail like a dying cat (unless it serves your song!). Rather, it’s an intriguing strategy to experiment with — and if you like the results (as I did), keep going.
I hope that experimenting with this singing tip brings inspiring results for you. Have you tried this — or other counterintuitive experiments — that have helped you develop as a vocalist? Tell us in the comments below.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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