Hoping to join the ranks of Broadway-caliber vocalists like Kelly O’Hara, Sutton Foster, and Andrew Rannells? Or are you ready to nail your audition for “The Voice” or “American Idol”? Whatever your career aspirations, this guide on becoming a singer will introduce you to the people, tools, and techniques that can help you build a career. From vocal training to the best warm-ups for singers, here’s how to become a professional singer.
To become a singer, you need two key things: natural talent and a willingness to work hard enough to transform that talent into a profession. Were you the kind of kid who spent your days singing along to your favorite TV show theme and forcing Mom and Dad to sit and watch while you put on a show of song and dance? Do you still feel that passion to perform in the spotlight? If you’re born to be a singer, you probably also love the minutiae of rehearsals and practice-making-perfect.
But many of the requirements to be a successful singer depend on your desired career path. If you aspire to Broadway, then need a bit of acting and dance training in your back pocket. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Broadway performer—even the ones who identify as a singer who acts rather than an actor who sings—who can't deliver on all performance fronts.
If you're more interested in hearing your voice on the radio or selling out the House of Blues, you'll need to craft your personal brand and image. You may also be expected to acquire press and media training so you can comfortably sit for an interview or be on-camera. If you have your sights set on making it big, know that a career as a famous singer goes beyond the 9-to-5 routine and becomes a full-fledged lifestyle. That means presenting yourself confidently in ways that have little to do with your voice.
There are six dominant styles of singing. Whether you’re a southern belle wanting to be the next Kacey Musgraves or Carrie Underwood, or you’re a song-and-dance man aspiring to the Broadway stage, it’s important to familiarize yourself with all of music’s various forms and genres. After all, wouldn’t a knowledge of bluegrass help when you’re cast in “Bright Star,” hip-hop help if you’re cast in “Hamilton,” or pop/rock help if you’re auditioning for the touring company of “Rent”? Below, we break down each singing style:
- Pop: Pop music is the candy-colored, confectionery dessert of the music world. Why else do you think Katy Perry dresses the way she does? But just because it’s universally appealing doesn’t mean it’s any less difficult or simpler than the categories below. The best of pop strikes a chord and makes you dance because there’s a universally resonant message behind it.
- Rock: Rock singing has certainly evolved since the days of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and now umbrellas a number of different sub-genres and a wide array of voices and growls. One of the main things that sets rock apart from pop is a harder edge, often through drums, guitar, and harsher instrumentation (but hey, there’s always “rock/pop”).
- Country: Country music as we know it today runs the gamut of deep rootsy twang, southern rock, folk, and country-pop. There is no “one” way to be a country singer, but its use of soulful lyricism and vocals with a certain Americana drawl is what sets it apart from the rock and pop above. If you’re interested in becoming a country singer, you have to befriend beer and heartbreak.
- Opera/Classical: Classical music perhaps requires the most amount of professional training. If you’re going to study voice in college, you’re likely going to know the classics forwards and backwards. Classical and opera are both rigid in practice, but utterly emotionally freeing.
- Blues/Jazz: Jazz and blues are often compared to or paired with one another, and that’s largely due to their shared tone and themes. But what sets them apart is that jazz is known for smooth, easy-breezy vocals while blues is a little harder and more soulful. They call it the blues for a reason: it’s got pain behind its eyes.
- Hip-Hop/R&B: When you thinking of traditional forms of singing, you may not immediately think of hip-hop, but it’s not all spoken-word rap. Look to most artists of the genre, and their songs feature rap, yes, but also rhythmic, rhyming song verses. R&B is cut from the same cloth as hip-hop, but features more traditional soul vocals.
Another way to approach training as a singer is to hire a vocal coach and voice teacher. What’s the difference? “Voice teachers give an understanding of breath support and resonance by guiding students through vocal exercises (otherwise known as vocalises) and breath exercises,” singer and vocal coach Arden Kaywin says. “They help you put that technique into practice in your repertoire.” A good voice teacher should have a degree in vocal performance (either a BA or MA); it’s helpful if they’ve also had a professional singing career themselves so they have an understanding of the industry.
A vocal coach, on the other hand, walks a singer through a particular song or genre. “They coach your songs from the standpoint of interpretation, intention, genre, and musicality,” Kaywin says. “They are generally not singers and, while they often have some knowledge of vocal technique, it is not their job to teach you how to sing the song or fix the vocal issues giving you problems in the song. It’s their job to help you take your performance to the next level once you’ve worked the technique with your voice teacher.”
Maybe you’re Broadway’s next big thing or a soon-to-be chart-topping pop star. But building a career as a professional singer can also include a lasting career as a backup singer, a cabaret performer, a cruise ship or lounge singer, a theme park performer, a wedding singer, a kids’ musical entertainer, a musical voiceover artist, a commercial jingles singer, a voice teacher, or—if you write your own music—a songwriter or composer for other vocal artists.
A career in music is what you make of it. Set your sights on the dream ahead (whether that be fame and fortune or just a steady paycheck and a passion quenched), but also don’t get discouraged if something unexpected comes along the way. The unexpected can still be artistically satisfying—and to succeed in the arts, you must be adaptable.
There’s no one path to becoming a singer. Justin Bieber’s singing career famously took off with a viral YouTube video—and he’s not alone. Other pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen and Shawn Mendes launched their careers on YouTube. Other famous singers have achieved success by auditioning for vocal competition shows including "American Idol," "The Voice," "America’s Got Talent" and "The X Factor."
If you’re more interested in musical theater, auditions will certainly be a part of your career path. If you don’t have a manager or agent who’s in direct contact with casting directors of various performance projects, an online casting platform like Backstage is the best way for aspiring performers to access casting calls. These gigs can help you bolster your résumé and get you an agent to take your career to the next step. Plus with thousands of vetted casting opportunities across smaller projects like regional musical theater productions all the way to productions on the Broadway stage, there are plenty of opportunities.
Backstage has several subscription options available.
Once you become a Backstage subscriber, explore our online casting notices. You’ll see that each one is broken down by type of production, type of role, whether or not it’s a paid job and if it’s a union or nonunion job, its location, the age-range for talent sought, and the list goes on. As a singer looking for work, you’ll want to tab down to the production type module and selecting “Performing Arts: Singers.” If you’re a musical theater actor who are a trained singer who wants to break out onstage, our musical theater listings are also worth checking out with the “Theater: Plays” or “Theater: Chorus Calls” selections. Search results can also be filtered based on what your preferred search preferences are. Save those preferences for future use, since new listings go up every day.
To choose the right audition song, you must develop an intimate relationship with—and understanding of—your voice. Know your strengths and capabilities as a singer. Know your limitations.
“We all carry a certain amount of insecurity about our voice—that’s natural. But then we start comparing ourselves to every popular singer and convince ourselves there’s no way we could possibly sound as good as they do. Then we get discouraged. Ultimately, this kind of thinking leads aspiring singers to give up,” says Los Angeles-based vocal coach Roger Burnley. “But the key here is to remember and to believe that you do have a great voice, it just needs to be developed. And it doesn’t need to be developed to sound like someone else’s voice. It needs to be developed to sound like the best version of your voice.”
Voice teacher Andrew Byrne also chimes in with his advice for choosing an audition song. “The job of your audition song is to make you look amazing,” he says. “In an audition context, a song is an interview tool; it needs to be tailored around your voice and personality to show you off to your best advantage. If you feel empowered to make informed decisions about your repertoire, you will love performing it, and that always shows.”
In tailoring that song choice to your own distinct voice, you must consider the song’s key, the song’s intro for the audition, the song’s tempo, and the cut of the song (usually 16–32 bars) you choose to sing. All of these elements are adjustable to fit your needs a performer. “The more customized and specific you are with your audition songs, the better they will feel to you, and we’ll get to enjoy your singing so much more,” Byrne concludes.
Every singer's warm-up routine is different, but you should never enter the audition room cold. Common warm-ups often consist of vocal exercises like doing scales and lip and tongue trills, sirens, hums, and kazoos. But many singers also do breathing exercises to expand the lungs and flex the diaphragm. Others enjoy a mug of hot tea with honey (and various other concoctions).
Various industry professionals have also weighed in over the years with their personalized take. New York-based speech pathologist Tom Burke, for instance, swears by meditation. “Many singers and actors are aware of the effect of meditation on managing their nerves, anxiety, and ability to focus, but many are unaware of the additional, seemingly miraculous effect of minimizing warm-up times and releasing muscle tension,” he says. “Singers and actors have often noticed that as little as two minutes of meditation can ground the voice, open the throat, improve resonance, extend the range with greater ease, and more.”
Voice teacher Andrew Byrne recommends learning how to warm up your voice in public. Especially if you’re in a city like New York, you’ll be spending a lot of time commuting this way and that––may as well make the most of it! “In a perfect world, we would all have a sound-proofed room where we could warm our voices up right before our audition. We could then walk in confident and relaxed, knowing that something beautiful was about to leave our mouths,” he says. “In reality, we’re often running around all day, and we barely have time to do a quick hum before we start belting for the rafters in front of a room full of people.”
One way to fix that? Mouth the words to your song while you’re on your commute. “You will be warming up your articulators” like your jaw, tongue, lips, says Bryne. He also suggests you sing aloud with your hand covering your mouth (a lot of sound won’t escape in full voice because the air will be going through your nose), or you can sing your audition song through a straw (literally keeping your mouth on a straw and enunciating your song aloud) to create a semi-occluded vocal tract. “This is a fancy way of saying that the tube of your throat is partially/mostly narrowed and lengthened. In addition to making the sound quieter, this technique helps your vocal cords meet more efficiently,” Byrne says. “Regularly practicing your songs (or monologues) through a straw can reduce vocal fatigue, and improve clarity and lower pressure.” Who knew?
While expanding your vocal range takes rigorous work and months of exercise training, L.A.-based vocal coach Roger Burnley says to start by paying attention to the movement of your larynx while singing. This will improve your control, and you’ll start seeing adequate results in your higher register. You don’t want it moving too much—like a taut guitar string, your cords will get damaged if there’s too much of a push and too much movement.
He says a quick way to reverse that movement is simply by thinking your voice is doing the opposite of what it’s actually doing. “In other words, if you think that you are going down for your higher notes, you will reverse your old habits and keep your larynx more stable.”
Voice coach John Henny also advises that when reaching for the high notes, lighten up! Access the upper register when first learning to sing high notes. “Once these light notes are established,” he says, “the singer can increase vocal cord closure and singing intensity.” When stretching for that higher register, he also says to begin on open vowel sounds before adding consonants.
There is a right and wrong way to sing, and you want to make sure your technique and posture all align for healthy, strain-free vocalizations. You see it all the time: Singing professionally day in, day out inevitably takes a toll on one’s vocal stamina and health. (If it happened to Adele, it can happen to you!) While singing on Broadway eight shows a week or touring the country with a music act will be a workout for any vocalists, the best way to preempt injury is simply by investing in the proper training from the start.
First and foremost, vocal coach Arden Kaywin says singers should not smoke anything of any kind. “[It] is a sure-fire way to damage your instrument,” she says. “It thickens and stiffens the vocal folds, contributing to loss of range and hoarseness of timbre. It also dehydrates them so they are unable to vibrate flexibly and freely.” Another practice that goes hand-in-hand with smoking is excess drinking—don’t do it! Also avoid general vocal overuse for fear of fatigue, and avoid clearing your throat frequently. But the most important thing to add to your daily regimen as a singer? Stay hydrated!
“The free and flexible vibration of your vocal folds is directly related to how hydrated they are,” Kaywin says. “Drink lots of water (plain, normal water, not flavored or carbonated), because when your body is hydrated properly, so are your vocal cords.”
Are you a new singer who’s confused by some of the jargon being thrown around online and in lesson books? Below are a handful of vocabulary terms all singers––especially musical theater singers––should know.
- Alternate list: When an audition is full, the monitor may make a list of alternates on a first come, first-served basis. Depending on the audition type, Actor’s Equity members may be given priority, followed by EMC actors, and then non-union actors. Often at an Equity audition, actors will create a “non-official” list if they arrive before the Equity monitor; the monitor will usually accept this list as it stands, but they are not required to.
- Belt vs. Mix: The terms “belt” and “mix” mean different things to different people. The best definition is that a belt needs to sound like a call (basically a yell that sounds pleasant to listen to). A mixed quality gets most of its acoustic power through vocal placement (i.e. “singing in the mask”). I encourage you to ask your individual voice teachers about how to specifically develop these qualities in your voice.
- Blending: When you’re performing with a group of other singers in an ensemble or a choir, it’s important that you listen to those one either side of you and make sure you sound as close to one single voice as possible. You don’t want to stand out! That’s called blending. This is also done through staggered breathing.
- Callback: When a creative team wants to see more from an actor, they’ll give them a callback, where the actor will come back at a different time to sing/dance/read again. Often, the callback will involve preparing material from the show (see “sides”), but not always. One of the purposes of the callback is to allow more people who are involved with the show to see the actor’s work.
- Chorus Call/ECC: There are two types of Equity Chorus Calls (ECCs): one for dancers and one for singers. For dance calls, dancers will generally be called in in groups to learn a combination. There will then be a cut, where certain dancers will be asked to stay and learn more combinations and/or sing 16 bars, and others will be released. At a singer chorus call, singers will go in individually to sing 16 bars of their own material.
- Contrasting song: If you’re asked to sing a “contrasting song,” you should strive to show both a different side of your voice (if you sang soprano, maybe belt) and/or another side of your personality. If you’re unsure what they mean by contrasting, ask for clarification. Even better, present them with two choices: “If you’d like to hear my belt, I can sing ‘Astonishing’ for you, or if you’d rather see something comedic, I can do ‘Adelaide’s Lament.’”
- Dancer vs. Mover: If you label yourself as a dancer, it’s expected that you have extensive training in that department. If you have athletic ability and a knack for rhythm but lack formal dance training, you should classify yourself as a mover. Traditionally, a mover tends to favor character and dramatic commitment over precise steps and technique.
- Holding room: At many auditions, there will be a holding room where actors can wait for their turn to perform. Often, this is where the audition monitor will be stationed.
- In the room: When actors enter the audition space for their appointment, it’s usually referred to as being “in the room” (sometimes abbreviated “ITR”).
- Legit singing: The term “legit” refers to a singing style that is more closely related to classical singing (think of a song like “If I Loved You”).
Ready to sing your heart out centerstage? Check out our musicals audition listings!