Today we’re joined by Meghan Nixon, of HowToSingSmarter.com. You may be confused by the title: singers want to sing louder, higher, stronger, more confidently – but “smarter”?
As you’re going to discover in this conversation, singing smarter is perhaps the most important thing you can do to improve your experience and results as a singer.
During the course of her career in music, Meghan has helped hundreds of people become better singers and musicians. She works with voice and piano students of all ages, levels and genres in her busy private studio in Arvada, Colorado. She is a classically-trained vocalist with a degree in Jazz Performance from Michigan State University and has performed in Jazz, Rock, Funk, R&B, Bluegrass and Folk bands. She’s been teaching voice for 15 years and focuses on healthy singing technique, ear training and musicianship.
In this episode Meghan shares with us:
- The framework she puts in place with all her students that helps them approach new songs, sing the right notes, and even sight-sing music they’ve never seen before.
- The truth about “tone deafness” and how she helps first-time singers to quickly get the hang of singing in tune, and
- How she went from being too scared to even try improvising as a singer, to knowing clearly and confidently how to assemble the right notes at the right time.
We loved chatting with Meghan about what it means to “sing smarter” and how it can help all those of us who aren’t necessarily “natural singers” to feel just as confident and capable as those who are.
Listen to the episode:
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Meghan: Hi, this is Megan Nixon from HowToSingSmarter.com, and you’re listening to the Musicality podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Meghan. Thank you for joining us today.
Meghan: Hi, Christopher. I’m so happy to be here.
Christopher: I’d love to start at the beginning. Could you tell us a bit about how you got started making music?
Meghan: Yeah. I have always been a singer since I was a little child. I started piano lessons at eight and voice lessons at 11. My voice teacher, my piano teacher were best friends and from a very small town in Michigan in the US. Just from there on, my love of music and my abilities bloomed. I knew that I always wanted to go to school for music and do this as a living.
Christopher: What were those early experiences of learning for you? Did you feel like you were just a natural and everything was easy or was it more a matter of hard work and study and discipline and cruel teachers who made you do a lot of homework?
Meghan: I did not have any cruel teachers. I had some really spectacular teachers. I would say that some things came naturally to me, but a lot of it I had to work at. I am definitely a practice singer, I would not say that I came out of the womb sounding amazing. I do remember distinctly when I was 11 years old, and I think I’ve heard a recording of it since, where it was my first voice lesson and my tone quality was really nasally, SWV was really popular at the time, I don’t know if you remember who they are. It wasn’t a good sound, but it didn’t take long for my teacher to show me how to do it the right way. Some things came naturally, but I would say I put in 100s of hours of practice to become a really good singer.
Christopher: You were singing through high school and through college, then?
Meghan: I was. I was in choir from when I was a little kid to all through college and high school. I would say that my challenges in high school and college were more on the ear training side of things. That was not something that I was super natural at. I had a really great choir director who did a lot of ear training exercises with us as a class. For instance, he’d have the major scale written on the board and then we’d jump around intervallically and a lot of the kids around me could do it, so I would just listen and follow. To me, it was like pulling a note out of thin air. There was no context. Knowing how to get to do to fa did not mean anything to me. I didn’t know how you could hear that without singing do, re, mi, fa, but just do fa was not something that made a lot of sense to me.
In college, I ran into some similar things where I kind of felt like I almost had a deficit as a musician. I knew I was a really good singer, but I didn’t think my ear was up to par and I thought that was just something that I wasn’t that good at. I was a jazz major and so improvisation is a big part of that and that is huge as far as ear training goes.
I remember particularly one, I think it was even called ear training class or maybe musicianship class, and we were supposed to do a line where we would end on a nine. Maybe it would be like a chord, you’d sing a line and you were supposed to resolve here. I knew what the nine was conceptually, I knew it was the second scale degree, but I had no idea how to hear that, how to land there. If I was playing on it the piano, that’d be easy, I’d know what note it was. I just wasn’t good at it and I didn’t know why, and I didn’t have any teacher who specifically taught me any techniques that were really applicable that I could practice in all 12 keys and then suddenly, I can hear the nine now. It was just some random thing that these people were somehow pulling out of the air that I just couldn’t do. It wasn’t … I’m sorry, go ahead.
Christopher: Sorry. The people around you, could they explain how they did it, or did it seem like they just kind of instinctively knew?
Meghan: Yeah. I went to school with a lot of natural singers, kids who really had, it almost was like everything was just aligned perfectly from when they came out of the womb, and that’s not most singers. I did encounter a lot of kids like that, and they just heard it because they’d heard it over and over and it made sense to them, but my ears just weren’t there, I needed an extra step, I needed something applicable that I could sit down at a piano and figure out. As the instrumentalist, even if they couldn’t hear the nine, they knew where it was and so they could press that button. As a singer, you can’t do that, you actually have to hear it.
Christopher: It can seem like cheating can’t it when a pianist, he just pushes the right button and the right note comes out. For a singer, it’s not that simple.
Meghan: No. It wasn’t until I actually started teaching myself after I graduated, which was pretty much right after I graduated, I’ve been teaching private lessons for about 15 years, that I started to figure out not only how to teach myself those things but how to teach my students those things. If I couldn’t do it, certainly I couldn’t teach them. I just found that it’s simply a scale and I got better at it very quickly once I realized that, that it wasn’t a deficit that was something that was born in me. It was simply something I hadn’t known how to practice correctly.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. Were there any particular teachers or resources that helped you find that path to being able to do it?
Meghan: I had a lot of great teachers, I really did. The one who focused the most on ear training I would say was my high school choir director, but that wasn’t a one-on-one scenario. He probably didn’t know that I couldn’t do it, because I’m sitting next to a girl who can and I can follow her. It really was just me sitting doing and being like, I’ve got to figure out how I can hear these things. I just worked out some little exercises. I don’t think that anyone showed me how to do it, I just think knowing how to play the piano is a huge part of that, so I always encourage singers to take piano. It’s really the singer’s best friend.
Christopher: Yeah. It’s almost the opposite the singing isn’t it, in that everything is so visual and linear on the keyboard and you’ve got that structure.
Meghan: You’ve got the correct answer. You know what I mean?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meghan: Singing is very different. I know instrumentalist think singing a lot of time seems kind of like an intangible study, you know what I mean, because it is very different. That’s one of the reasons too that singers sometimes get away with not knowing as much because the nature of the instrument is that you can intuit some of that stuff. The kids I went to school with who had just natural ears and they could hear that nine but I couldn’t, it’s almost a disadvantage, because you don’t have to sit down and work those things out, sometimes you can figure them out just by working with your body, but then you’re left with not knowing how to communicate that.
Christopher: I think that’s such an important point and as you say, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Singers can get quite far just on instinct and listening without really understanding what they’re doing or how to get better. The catch is, if they really want to be good or they really want to develop their musicality and be able to communicate with other musicians, they’re actually in a much blurrier place than a lot of instrument players who’ve had to do it step-by-step throughout.
Meghan: Yes. I would say most of my friends are singers, just through all parts of life and my husband is a piano player. One of my best friends is an amazing singer, but she does not like to teach and she doesn’t feel like she has the tools to teach, because she was just always so natural. I had to work step-by-step to figure so many things out that I feel like I really have a template of how to teach somebody else how to do that.
Christopher: That’s great. That led on in due course to you creating the website HowToSingSmarter.Com. Was there a particular inspiration or particular thing that made you think, “I should bring this online. I’ve cracked something that other people don’t seem to be teaching.”?
Meghan: Well, at first I created it kind of as supplementary to my students who were studying to me privately. I’ve got like 40 private students I teach every day but Sundays, it’s something I really enjoy. I put that online for them initially but I think all signers can benefit from this. I’ve had so many students who are adults who will come in to me, and someone 20 years ago, a teacher, a parent told them that they couldn’t sing and so they’ve been avoiding even Happy Birthday in public for the last two decades or three decades. I realize there’s so many people like that who really think they can’t sing, that this would be really beneficial to a wide group of people, because singing is a pleasure that every human should be able to happily partake in.
Almost everybody can get better. There are really, it’s only, I think statistically it’s like two percent of the population is tone deaf, which for your audience specifically means like, if I play this note and this note or sing those notes, a tone deaf person can’t hear that this note is higher than this note. They’re the same. Most people can hear the difference, and if you can, then you can learn to match those pitches. I think I’ve had one student maybe in 15 years who didn’t improve, and I’ve had 100s of students. I just thought it was, I want people to get joy from singing, because it’s such an awesome, I love singing. It’s my favorite thing to do. Everyone should be able to do it and almost everyone can benefit and get better from just some study.
Christopher: I think that’s a really valuable message and I know a lot of our listeners are probably instrumentalists rather than singers and probably have that hang up about singing, maybe they had the bad experience in choir as an eight year old, or maybe they just never dived into that world, so they assume they can’t do it. You’re absolutely right, we’ve had close to a million people take our tone deafness test at ToneDeafTest.com, and it backs up that research, that it’s really maybe two percent of people who genuinely can’t tell the difference. What I always say is, if you can enjoy music, you’re not tone deaf, simple as that, because you wouldn’t have the relative pitch to understand anything in what you’re hearing. If you enjoy music, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t learn to sing in tune.
Meghan: That’s a great point. I’m going to steal that.
Christopher: I think there were a couple of things that really drew me to HowToSingSmarter when I discovered it and they really resonated with the way we approach singing at Musical U. Those were, firstly as you say, the focus on helping people who are at that very beginner stage, learning to match pitch, learning basic vocal control and helping them pass some of that emotional anxiety about singing out loud in front of people.
Christopher: The other is the solfa system and movable do solfa in particular, which I think people put it into two categories. They either think it’s super basic and just for kids, or they think it’s super advanced and way beyond them. I love the way you teach it on your website, because you show that actually it’s just a very practical tool for getting a deep understanding of what you’re singing.
Christopher: Could you tell us a bit more about how you approach those two things on HowToSingSmarter.com?
Meghan: One was solfa, sorry, what was the other one?
Meghan: Beginners, singing in tune? Okay. Those go hand-in-hand for me. When I am teaching a student who has trouble matching pitch, and I mean, you know, a student comes in, the first thing I do is have them sing a simple vocal exercise. Maybe that’s a little too advanced. Maybe I’d have them sing, and then I gauge if they can sing that, then we’re cool and we go on to do some harder things. If they have trouble matching pitch immediately, then the first thing I’ll do with them is jump around within their register, having them close their eyes, listen to the note, hum the note, and then try to sing it. Usually within literally 10 to 15 minutes, people are much better at it. It’s about focusing on something that they’ve never focused on before.
They’re just going to, if they’re not actually focusing on, this is a pitch, this is an exact place, this is a distinct thing that you can focus on and then aim for and then hit. Then the next thing that we’ll do is start with the major scale, and that’s always where I start, because in music language, we almost compare everything to major scales or major intervals. More than half of the songs that we sing are going to be in major keys, it’s more common. Being able to sing that simple major scale in tune is the beginning to be able to sing a song in tune. I always say a major scale is like a really boring song. A song is just going to be some other version of those notes, but it’s the same intervals, it’s the same notes.
What we do is we start with me playing the piano as they sing, and usually it’ll stay there for a while if they have a hard time matching pitch, and I’ll show them how to play the C major scale on the keyboard, so they can go home, sit at a piano or even a virtual keyboard if that’s all they have available to them, and sing each pitch as they play it and try to lock in. When you sing a note with a piano and it locks in, you can feel it, there’s like a buzz, but if you’re … They’re trying to find those pitches, but then there’s that moment when I see it on their faces, that they can feel the connection between the pitch on the piano and what they’re singing. I really focus on the major scale and solfege is a really important tool for that.
Once you get past something simple like being able to sing the major scale in tune acapella, the next thing that I do is just go in step-wise motion moving around the scale, and I would be pointing to a chart that has the solfege written on it. Do, re, mi, re, mi, fa, mi, re, mi, re, do, so we’re staying in step-wise motion. Then the next step once they get that is to start doing some jumping around and stuff like that. On HowToSingSmarter, I basically have, for each interval, I have a little exercise that’s worked out that you can practice in all 12 keys so you can hear how to jump from do to that particular note, fa, ti, re, whatever. It’s really helpful, because usually once we get through all those 12 keys, that student starts to hear that distance a little bit better. It’s all about context.
When I was confused about ear training in high school and college, I thought that you had to just pull those notes randomly out of the air. I didn’t think about it context of the scale itself. It’s one of the best tools I’ve ever used for helping someone improve pitch, even someone who has excellent pitch, then we’ll go on to a chromatic solfege scale, to something that’s quite a bit more difficult. It’s kind of like endless resource in ear training.
Christopher: It definitely can be and I love that you see it as the building blocks to get them through the various stages of understanding the singing and the notes they’re singing. I think what trips a lot of people up, we have a lot of people who come to our website who have been looking around at YouTube tutorials and they’ve been doing karaoke and they’ve been told that their pitch or tuning is a bit off, but they have no idea how to tackle that except to keep singing songs. If you start singing lessons with a trained teacher like yourself, they’re going to start you more from the beginning, but I think online, there’s a real danger that people just don’t understand there are building blocks. Start out just singing one note and getting that right, and then introduce a few notes from the scale. From there, some teachers will just go straight to songs, but I love that you actually continue on that kind of methodical path of let’s assemble a framework for relative pitch, something that you can apply in any key and to any song.
Meghan: Yes, exactly. Song study is definitely a big part of vocal study as well, learning vocal technique, how to breathe, making sure your tone is beautiful, those things. Nobody cares about any of that if you’re singing out of tune.
Christopher: That’s a great way of putting it, yeah.
Meghan: It’s interesting. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve had students come in with beautiful tone who have a really hard time with pitch. They’re not all things that go together, it’s different strengths and weaknesses, or I can have a student with great tone whose pitch is not very good. It’s all of those things put together that create something that’s appealing to listen to.
Christopher: If we imagine a singer who has got the basics of singing in tune, and then we imagine them on two parts, one of which is built on solfege and understanding these notes and their relationships, and the other is on maybe a more traditional song-by-song repertoire based path. What difference does solfege make? Why is that such a cool part of the way you teach?
Meghan: That’s a good question. Song study like I said is very important, because it builds pitch association and all of those things that solfege study does as well. It’s just a better way to break things down and focus on one little thing at a time, and then you get better and better and better. It’s supplemental, it’s something that goes with the song study to me. No one would want to come into voice lessons for years and just sing solfege. That’d be incredibly boring, right? In my, like a typical lesson for me, we’re doing that for 15 minutes and then we’re singing for 45. There’s always, you know, that interval that you’re having a hard time with is a perfect fit, it’s do to so, and that connection can help the student sing that in tune because now they recognize it.
Christopher: Great. I think for me as a singer in school years, I came across intervals and ear training only in the context of sight singing and this was how you did it. They didn’t actually teach us the ear training, they just kind of said, “This interval, therefore, sing the note.” I was kind of left stranded like you were describing earlier. People could pluck it from thin air and telling me it was a major third didn’t do anything to help me sing it.
Meghan: Yeah. That’s an excellent point and I think about that a lot and I talk to my students about that, because there’s a lot of people who want to be good at sight singing and it’s a really great skill as a singer who wants to be in a choir or who wants to be in a band or whatever or just someone who wants to be able to read music. Just like you said, if you’re looking at a piece of music and you intellectually know that you’re supposed to jump up a major sixth but you have no idea what a major sixth sounds like, it doesn’t matter. You can have all the information intellectually and if you don’t have the ear behind it, you can’t sing it. Ear training is first and then sight singing, or they can go together, but it has to be at the same time. You can’t start with sight singing.
Christopher: Agreed. I think you touched on something else interesting earlier, which was that for you, ear training and improvisation as a singer went closely together. Can you tell us more about that?
Meghan: Yeah. I think a lot of people think this and I probably was one of those when I first started. I was always classically trained, so from when I was eight and then I got into college with a classical scholarship and it wasn’t until my, I think my sophomore year where we actually got a jazz department at MSU and I switched over. All of my practice, all of my study before that point had been classical music. There’s very little room for improvisation in classical music. When I was put in a scenario when I had to just pull it out of nowhere and improvise, I was terrified.
We did this thing on the first day when I switched from classical to jazz where we sat in a circle with all these other kids that I just met at 19, and we had to go trading fours. Everybody sings, there’s a piano player, and everybody sings four bars and then you pass the musical baton to the next person and they sing something in response. No one was great at it, but I could not even, I froze. I could not even get it to come out of my mouth. It was a terrifying proposition, that I was potentially about to sound terrible. I was practiced, I always sounded good, I was always on top of things classically but then when I had to create something on the spot, it was terrifying. It didn’t have anything to do with ears in that way, it just was my own fear of wrong notes. I think it’s Miles Davis who said something like, “There are no wrong notes, just poor choices,” something like that. I might be misquoting it, but that’s the idea.
I realized again after I had graduated that improvisation is not someone pulling random stuff out of the air, it’s somebody hearing the notes specifically in each chord, being able to take those notes and create a melody with it. You’re not singing, if you have a chord that’s happening, you’re not just singing anything, you’re singing those chord tones. Something that was really helpful to me as far as improvisation is that, and actually, I did learn this in college, my vocal teacher had us do this. Let’s say we have a piece, she would give us eight bars, we have to play the chords and sing up the chords, and then take it piece by piece, try to sing a pattern on that chord, maybe the same pattern even on each chord, so you’re starting to hear through those chords.
Then I realized, this is not just something that people are randomly hearing, this again can be taught, studied, perfected. There’s definitely a part of improvisation that’s on the spot, and that is really fun and it’s about the performance, but if you don’t hit the language underneath it, you’re not going to sing anything that sounds good. You know what I mean by that? There’s fundamental musical things that you can practice and learn that make you a good improviser.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that sounds like a great exercise and it’s similar to what we teach for instrumentalists at Musical U, is how to find those chord tones and use them as the basis for improv.
Could you give us an example of what that would sound like if a singer was improvising based on the chord tones?
Meghan: Sure. First, let’s say that, just starting on the most simple thing, I’m playing a C major seven chord. You would just start with … And maybe then you’d, if you don’t have a lot of ideas in what you’d want to do, you’d just maybe take those four chord tones and put them in a different order. Then you’d just try to see what comes out of your mouth and then you can test it back and see if you’re hitting the right notes. There’s the nine that I couldn’t hear before. Just actually sitting on one chord like that can be helpful. I do have an exercise that I do with singers that I think is helpful and also helpful to instrumentalists, which is just going through each of the five types of seventh chords and moving one note each time, because they’re only a half step away. For instance, you go … Then the dominant, then the minor, then the half diminished, then the fully diminished, just kind of as a starting point for jazz specifically, it’s a little more complicated. Just sitting in one chord and hanging out there and trying to create melodies using even just the four chord tones or then starting with the whole scale or trying to land on a nine or land on an 11 or whatever, but to do that as a singer, you have to know how to play the piano.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meghan: Or you have to have somebody do it for you, that or you can do it yourself. I wouldn’t have been able to figure out any of that stuff if I could not play the piano.
Christopher: That’s a great tip for people. I think a lot of singers shy away from the piano because it can be a bit intimidating as an instrument to fully learn and play. As you point out, just picking out some notes can provide you with a great basis for doing these kinds of exercises.
Meghan: Yeah. It could be simple. It could just, I have sung with some really excellent singers who I was absolutely surprised and amazed and they’d be like, “That music theory stuff, I’ll leave that to you.” I’m like, what? All I’m doing is figuring out our starting pitches by the chord that’s being played or whatever. It’s just so important and particularly to communicate with other musicians.
Christopher: It can be empowering too, I think. The chord exercise you just demonstrated is another great example of how having a framework in your head as a singer makes such a difference. You’re not picking notes at random, you’re not just following the notes on the page, you actually understand the meaning of those notes musically and they fit into a certain pattern in your head that you’ve practiced and learned.
Meghan: Yeah. I think of it like when you first are trying improvisation or let’s just talk about it’s a specific song, it’s like a field full of snow. Then you start making pathways through that field of snow and it starts getting easier and it starts making more sense and you can traverse that land more easily, because you’re trying things, you’re hearing things. Suddenly, there are all these pathways and all these choices, and you can go in this direction or this direction or this direction, because you trained your ear to do that. That’s when the creativity starts. Once you know the language, then you can be expressive.
I remember one of my first vocal attempts at improvisation, I thought it sounded awesome, but it did not. I think it was not so awesome, and what it was, I was just trying to make it fancy, I was just in my head Ella Fitzgerald and just try to go for the sounds that I thought were good, but I wasn’t listening at all. I was listening to me, but I wasn’t listening to the chords. Of course, Ella Fitzgerald had a monster ear, so really it was nothing like what she would’ve sang. It’s just, all of it can be broken down, skills that can be improved. I think that builds confidence. Obviously being better at something makes you more confident at it, but if you don’t know how to get better, then you’re just kind of stuck somewhere.
Christopher: Absolutely. I think there’s such power in understanding how you do what you do. It’s not enough just to be able to do it. If you can understand it, you can talk to other people about it, you know how to improve it. You can stand up on stage and do it knowing that you will do it correctly, because you understand the process. It makes such a difference.
Meghan: Yeah, absolutely.
Christopher: Fantastic. You have such useful and practical and unusual I think approach to teaching singing, and I love that the name of your website is HowToSingSmarter.com, because I think it is a smarter approach. It’s not just, let’s do a bunch of songs, let’s go to karaoke every week and hope we get better as a singer. It’s a very thought through and step-by-step approach to actually honing your craft and it’s developing your instrument as a singer.
Meghan: Yeah, thank you. That was my goal. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Christopher: Tell us a bit more about what people can find on your website?
Meghan: There’s a good amount of stuff that I’m adding. It’s not, I haven’t been doing it for a super long time, so there’s a good, I mean, it would take you a few months to get through what’s on there and I keep adding to it. Basically, there’s kind of two main parts that I focus on on HowToSingSmarter. One is healthy singing technique which is very important, first of all just to sound better, but also so people do not hurt their voices. I have so many people who, usually it’s younger people, honestly teenagers, who are singing too loud, singing too hard, trying to sing songs that are out of their register. It’s just really important to treat your voice as kindly as possible so there’s lots of how to breathe properly, lots of breathing instruction in there, tone quality, how not to strain, things like that. Some really fundamental things that are just important to understand as a singer. Then the other side is the musicianship side, which is ear training and sight singing and even piano. Like I said, I really think, the piano is such a beautiful map of music, of music theory. It’s really easy to understand when you look at it like that.
There’s lots of warm up exercises, there’s videos, tutorials. There’s lots of, like what I was explaining earlier, lots of solfege practice where we, I teach you how to hear mi and so and ti and re, not just from do but from anywhere in the scale with specific exercises that you can practice in all 12 keys that I actually play on the piano for you, so if they don’t play, it’s okay. They can just follow along. Then more complicated things that are similar where we’re hearing minor intervals and things like that. There’s a lot of ear training. I would say it’s heavy on ear training and technique.
Christopher: Fantastic. I think you were being quite humble when you said there’s not much on there yet. It sounds like there’s a wealth of useful resources for people.
Meghan: There’s some stuff, yeah. There’s some stuff on there.
Christopher: I would highly recommend if you’ve been listening to this and thinking that you’ve always worried you can sing or maybe you’ve dabbled and your tuning was off or you’re intrigued by this idea of solfege as a kind of framework for understanding the notes you’re singing, I highly recommend heading over to HowToSingSmarter.com and taking a look at everything that Meghan has created there. Thank you again, Meghan, for coming on the show.
Meghan: Thank you so much, Christopher. This was so much fun. I really appreciate having a chance to talk to your audience and hopefully helping some people sing better.