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Tips for Singers:
Un-training - Improve Your Voice
by Mark Baxter - source Singer Magazine

Singer MagazineWe all know of someone who has an incredible voice and never had a bit of instruction.

These people just open their mouths and it comes out great. Lucky for them. However, the common belief that some people are born to sing doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to sit on the sidelines. Anyone can improve the sound of their voice. My advice is to think of it as un-training.

Learning to sing is a lot like strapping on a pair of roller blades for the first time. Some people are fearless, or maybe reckless is a better word, and fly off with little regard to the laws of gravity. They immediately fall flat on their butt, laugh, and get right back up to try again. Most of us, though, would rather not spend the day bouncing on the pavement. We approach the challenge with one agenda: do not fall. This mind set dominates muscle behavior. As soon as we are hoisted onto a set of wheels, we forget how to bend at the joints. We shuffle along stiff-legged, clinging desperately to any lamp post, tree or person within reach. The irony is that we still end up on the ground. A rigid body, which reflects our fear of falling, causes a loss of balance. The inability to loosen up also prevents us from developing a feel for shifting body weight from skate to skate. So at the end of the day, both personality types have sore backsides, but the carefree people have at least learned how to roller blade.

Pay a visit to a maternity ward and it’s obvious that we are all born with the ability to produce sound. Crying is reflex behavior. Singing is crying -- minus the tears. Within a short time after birth, our personalities emerge and influence this basic instinct. Some babies cry louder and more often. As toddlers, we begin to experiment with different vocal tones and the responses they provoke. When two year-olds whine enough, they will either get another cookie or be sent to their room. By the time we reach six, the results of these experiments have heavily influenced our personalities. We establish core traits which stay with us a lifetime. If you doubt this, visit a senior's center and notice how much a bingo game looks like a kindergarten class. It’s not that the seniors are acting childish, it’s that they are being themselves, again. What this means to potential singers is that, from a very early age, we have trained our muscles to produce sound in a particular way. Your particular way may, or may not, interfere with singing. If it does, then you’ve got some un-training to do.

We often brace in anticipation of singing a bad note as if it will hurt our bodies. It won’t. A bruise to the ego and a bruise to the vocal folds are completely different things. Like fearful skaters, it’s the singers who fear a vocal slip that cause themselves the most problems. Perfectionists,introverts and people who pride themselves on having good pitch are usually the worst offenders. Ironically, tone, pitch, emotion and longevity all suffer due to the over involvement of protective muscles like the tongue, jaw and neck. A cautious attitude doesn’t even insure that you will avoid vocal strain. Like falling, stiffening your muscles because you fear injury often causes more damage than if the body was loose.

Singing is a balancing act. The expectation that notes should always roll perfectly out of our mouths, especially when we’re just learning, is absurd. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re finding it difficult to let go. It’s not your fault. Pressure is placed on us the moment we start to explore our voices. For some reason, children are allowed to be clueless on every instrument except the voice. Nobody rips the violin out of little Suzy’s hands as she saws her way through, “Three Blind Mice,” but heaven forbid if she’s out of tune when she sings the same song. Kids that struggle with singing in grade school are usually detoured into sports programs or given a tambourine. Wouldn’t it have been great if they did that with math? Later in life, the stigma of falling off pitch or hitting a crack silences many would-be singers.

Most vocal problems can be traced back to speech. As kids, we’re taught the meanings of words and how to pronounce them, but not how to efficiently use our muscles when speaking. This is expected to happen naturally. It usually doesn’t. Normally, emotions dominate our motor reflexes and shape the way we talk. Speech becomes an extension of our personality. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they talk, not what they say. There is a difference, though, between normal and natural. Natural is efficient; normal is what we are used to. Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to the way we speak that our trained-in tensions go unnoticed until we start to sing.

Sit at a piano or pick up a guitar and the instrument is ready to play. Musicians tend to take this for granted, but starting with a pre-balanced, consistent, instrument is a huge advantage when learning to play. Open your mouth to sing and any number of obstacles can compromise range, tone, volume and flexibility. In other words, in order to learn to sing, you have to build an instrument first. Most instruments we play today are the result of many years of refinement. As techniques for making pianos and guitars improve, their sound and ease of play improves as well. Instruments basically stay the same from day to day. This provides a great foundation for developing the skills need to play. We don’t have that advantage with our voices. Many things can interfere with the “playability” of our voices, from talking all day to tension held in the jaw. Since most of these are not genetic or “natural” limitations, they are removable.

It is vital that you allow yourself to sound bad as you work to improve your voice. Find a private place where no one can hear you; it’s hard enough to tune out your internal critic let alone opinionated roommates and family members. Your goal when vocalizing is to minimize muscle involvement -- no matter how bad it sounds at first. For this reason, it is important to distinguish the difference between sound and feel. We often say a note feels bad when it actually just sounds bad. Sounding bad is okay, feeling bad is not. Some people will put up with tremendous discomfort in order to make something sound better.

Singing should feel like nothing, like rolling down a stretch of smooth pavement. Correct notes are just as easy to sing as incorrect notes, so don’t add any effort when you want to sing something better. Cracks are simply a momentary loss of balance. They do not hurt you physically, so try not to wince if one zings out unexpectedly. To gain control of your voice, you need to learn to release your face, jaw, tongue and neck. Just like relaxing your arms and legs when skating, this usually creates a short term loss of control. Re-visit this slippery feeling until it’s trusted and you will be rewarded with effortless singing. The only difference between singing and roller blading is that you won’t have to sit funny while you’re learning. Think of it as un-training and you’ll have a big head-start on the process

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002. Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Singer Magazine)

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