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Dealing with S.V.S. (“Sloppy Vocal Syndrome”)

The following post, adapted from The Developing Artist, deals specifically with bands who suffer from what I call “S.V.S.”, or “Sloppy Vocal Syndrome”–that is, a tendency to be lax on lead vocals in favor of the instruments. It’s a problem that can keep a band stuck in mediocrity, and since I hear a lot of bands who suffer from it (and would be very good otherwise), I originally wrote this post to offer some helpful advice on what do about it.

Often, instrumentalists jokingly refer to singers as “singers” and to instrumentalists as “musicians.” (As though singers are not musicians.) While it’s kind of funny because it’s untrue (vocalists are definitely musicians), it also highlights a subtle issue with some bands who think this way without realizing it, creating a problem I call “Sloppy Vocal Syndrome.”

The fact is, it takes a lot of musical discipline to be a good vocalist. Vocals can be one of the most difficult areas for us to keep up to par, especially where live performance is concerned. Solo singers usually understand this, but bands sometimes don’t. We sometimes have this subtle reasoning that if the music is good enough, the public will be more forgiving of our pitch problems or sloppiness. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that the vocals are part of the music. And because your music is only as good as its weakest element, mediocre vocals may actually be defining you as a mediocre act, stopping you from moving forward.

Your fans might never verbalize it, but when your vocals are consistently sloppy, it sends a message that you aren’t as legit the pros. And if you’re trying to get a record deal? Fugghedaboudit. You can’t get by on your charm when it comes to marketing to a wider audience, and the industry reps know it. Sloppy vocals won’t sell records, no matter how much you rock in other ways.

The good news is that addressing Sloppy Vocal Syndrome (or S.V.S.) could actually help propel you to the next level. If you are carrying the vocals for your band, here are some tips to help with improvement.

The difference between talking and singing is similar to the difference between walking and running. If you try to run without stretching your leg muscles, you risk cramping and injury, and you certainly won’t run as fast. In the same way, when you try to sing without warming up your voice, you will struggle more with pitch and possibly even damage your vocal cords. A few minutes of those silly-sounding vocal warm-up exercises will help you sing more on pitch, and sing more safely. If you don’t know any vocal exercises, you can find some online at thesingingvoice.com, or any of a number of other sites.

This might seem obvious, but the more you sing, the more vocal control you’ll have. Singing only at performances isn’t enough time for you to fine-tune your vocals, unless you’re one of those privileged musicians with a gig every night. Don’t be afraid to practice in the shower, in the car, or anywhere else you have a few moments.

Your voice works by passing air over your vocal cords, so try this exercise: stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath. If your shoulders come up when you inhale, you’re only using the top part of your lungs, and your singing will be restricted; if your abdomen (stomach) expands, you’re using your full lung capacity, you’ll have more vocal control, and you won’t strain as much. Incorrect breathing is one of the primary suspects for pitch problems. Practice breathing from your abdomen until it becomes second nature, and your pitch should improve.

Taking vocal lessons doesn’t necessarily label you as a novice. Many of the best singers still take lessons from a vocal coach to keep their vocal chops in shape. It depends on your budget, of course, but no matter how much raw talent you have as a singer, you can always benefit from vocal coaching.

The point is, your voice is an instrument—and unless you’re an all-instrumental act, the voice is your band’s lead instrument. Singers are musicians; in fact, the only difference between a vocalist and an instrumentalist is that the vocalist’s instrument is built in. So treat your voice like an instrument.

It’s important to point out here that good vocals aren’t necessarily flawless vocals, and sometimes the sound of the voice is more important than pitch. (This is especially true with screamo bands where there really is no “pitch”.) A raw or raspy sounding voice can still be appealing, even if it isn’t always on pitch. But there is a profound difference between raw vocals and sloppy vocals, and you need to be able to tell the difference.

Finally, some tough advice for bands in general. If you’re suffering from S.V.S., and your lead vocals are suffering as a result, you’re not going to move forward unless you do something about it. That means you need to be honest about where your band is vocally. When you’re auditioning vocals, keep a high standard and don’t settle; vocals are too important for that. If your lead vocalist is sloppy, but could improve with some coaching, it’s important that you face that truth together, and get that coaching. If  you’ve just put the wrong person on vocals–as painful as it might be–it may be time to consider a personnel change, or at least switch some people around and let another bandmate have a crack at the vocals.

However you solve the problem, don’t make the mistake of assuming the vocals aren’t that important to your band. Sloppy Vocal Syndrome can be difficult to deal with, but facing it head on could help take your act to the next level.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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