From "Bad" to "Good" Singer: What does it take?
First of all, I don't like nor do I use the title of this post when referring to singers or singing. I don't believe there is such a thing as a "bad" singer. Because it's what many beginning singers are searching for on google, I'm making an exception this time. So these are YOUR words not mine.
In reality, a "bad" singer is just a singer that has never had the chance to learn where their own vocal habits sit, to learn which habits they want to move towards and to learn the path to get there. So a better term is perhaps a beginner. That also isn't the best term because some singers have been singing for a while, but just like a violinist who never had a lesson and therefore had to guess her way to playing, they are somewhere between a beginner and an experienced player, except they have questions/struggles/sticking points on their instrument because they didn't have a clear path from the outset.
In the process of learning how to sing, I realized there were major gaps among the knowledge/experience base most voice teachers have when it came to what the journey is like to go from a singer with no initial skill to sing in tune (like where I started) to sounding "good". This is not the fault of the teachers, but rather a result of the science of voice lagging behind the science of...everything else. Now that the science has caught up, teachers are catching up too...and I'm fortunate to have started with no ability as a singer. My lack of ability enabled me to walk the journey that many beginning singers are experiencing and connect the dots to see what the main internal movements are of singing and the skills those movements require to execute them well. This means that you can get a clear starting point for progressing in your singing, or if you're feeling stuck in your technique, you can see the root issue more clearly.
There are 3 over-arching skills in singing. Getting from "I don't like how I sound" to "okay, I sound decent, yay!" requires these 3 main skills.
Breathing, Tuning & Shaping
Because our habits with singing are (probably) mostly unconscious, you as an individual singer will be at your own place among these 3 skills...which may be totally different from another singer. For example:
Francine and Freda are twins that have had the same level of training, genetics, etc. Only their vocal habits in speech and singing are different. Freda might be doing really well with her tuning, but because her underlying breathing technique needs more skill, she may be running out of air half-way through a phrase and experience an unsteady, breathy tone.
Francine on the other hand, can last easily for her phrases, but hasn't developed yet a clear sensory map of where notes are in her voice, so she often under or over shoots notes and accidentally sings out of tune.
So although these skills are all needed when it comes to singing, it will be unique to you which skills you'll want to mostly focus on in the beginning to experience the best sounds with most freedom for your current stage in your singing journey. To sing well, all these skills need to be working synergistically as you sing.
Singers are always fine-tuning these 3 skills. I highlight them for beginners, but I still revisit these same skills almost daily in order to progress. So let me give you an example of a beginning singer and an advanced singer working on the same skill of tuning:
Frank and Fred:
Frank is 45 years old, and has hardly ever sung in his life. After taking his first lesson, he learns that his speaking voice sits close to the bottom of his range, so when he needs to suddenly jump to a higher note in a song, that coordination isn't very familiar, so he often doesn't get close to the target note. To get familiar and nimble with this higher part of his range, he practices slowly sliding up to this pitch and jumping to this pitch among various exercises, learns what that pitch area looks like on sheet music, learns where that pitch area sits on the piano, and gives his voice the many experiences it needs to reawaken that part of his voice that's been lying dormant most of his life. So after several weeks/months, Frank is able to sing that note correctly and confidently when he gets to that point in the song.
Fred is 45 years old, has been singing since he was 5 years old, and is struggling with a particular line in one of his songs on his album. For some reason in the recording studio the word "sun" falls slightly out of tune...just a few cents...not enough to where the average listener would notice, but enough to set off his perfectionist streak. After working with a teacher, watching himself in the mirror, and having a hand on the chin, he eventually senses that on the "S" consonant sound on the word "sun", he is slightly protruding his jaw forward, which is causing a little constriction in his throat (you don't want to protrude your jaw when you sing in general) and holding his breath slightly which is throwing off the tuning. After he gently releases a bit more air and relaxes the jaw, he finally gets the word "sun" to the tuning he's aiming for. That pitch area at that volume and vowel sound "uh" has always been tricky for him tuning wise, so over his lifetime he's unraveled many little tensions here and there to get a little better each time in that area.
So now we've covered how the same skills may be worked on in a different order depending on the singer, and how these skills are lifetime skills in singing.
So what are these 3 main skills?
Breathing technique supplies the airflow needed to sing. If we run out of air, we can no longer sing as freely/easily. If we block the airflow excessively with our throat, we may last through phrase but find ourselves "singing from our throat", which basically means that are throat is having to work too hard to turn that air into sound, so the muscles around our vocal folds have become rigid and it's hard to move them to change pitch, vowel, volume, etc. Then on the other hand, if we don't filter enough of the air into sound, then we may have difficulty getting volume, strength, or stability in our singing. So the skill of breathing technique is really a set of skills that help all the other skills in singing.
Tuning is the ability to sing in tune. Singing in tune requires ease and freedom in the throat, a steady and easy air pressure via breathing technique, steady shaping in your mouth/throat, familiarity with where a note is in your voice and a very clear concept of the sound you are going to sing (without the help of listening to a singer) and how that sound fits in with any other sounds that accompany your singing.