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  • Wan Tat Cheah

Honest Advice for Beginners and Advanced Classical Singers

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Wan Tat Cheah, a Malaysian baritone and postgraduate vocal student at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, offers advice to singers on a range of different aspects related to singing, including motivation, choosing suitable repertoire, practice routine, and being true to your self and your own voice. Wan Tat was a guest artist on the Support Your Singing online course.

Wan Tat Cheah Baritone Performing in the Enchanted Island
Wan Tat Cheah Baritone Performing

What motivates you to sing?

Have you ever asked yourself why you would like to learn to sing? What is it that makes you want to sing? Is it that you love a certain song so much that you really want to sing the song well? Or is someone telling you that you have a wonderful voice and that you should start singing? No matter what the reason, it’s important to have the passion. No matter what age you are, it’s never too late to learn to sing and perform.

We always try to explain and give a meaning to anything we do. Sometimes we complicate the situation by trying too hard to make everything make sense. For example: my parents work really hard to be able to send me to study abroad. Is it because they feel it is their duty as parents or because other parents do this for their children? Some people might argue that their parents send them to study abroad to show off their ability to afford to pay expensive school fees. I think a rather simpler answer is more appropriate in this case. It’s because of love: the love of parents willing to give their children the best education they can. The mind sometimes complicates matters where simple explanations suffice.

It’s the same in singing. It doesn’t matter what motivates you to sing, as long it’s a good reason to keep your passion burning. If you currently don’t have a good reason, try to take it slow yourself. Dig deep and try to be as true to yourself as possible. I’m sure you can find yourself a good reason. It’s always of benefit to discover your inner self.

Love is the chemistry that helps you to dedicate yourself in good faith to the success and enjoyment of your work. To put this in the context of singing, it can be as simple as the love in music, love for the sound you make, love for singing, or love for performing.

So, we start practising and learning singing. We’re either self-taught by singing along to the radio, or performing a mini recital during shower time, or we find ourselves a singing teacher to have a professional singing training. Then we commit to our passion for singing. I’m not here to criticise how or what you should do or shouldn’t do in singing, as this is not the topic I would like to share today. I would simply like to explore motivations for singing and explore the benefits of committing to this passion.

The benefits of singing and getting to know your instrument

According to some researchers, singing activates endorphins, which are the brain's feel-good hormones. It is also an aerobic exercise and a natural stress-reducer, since the deep breathing required to sing brings more oxygen into the blood and helps improve circulation. This is just one of the benefits of singing. Now, I would like to share the most beneficial part of learning to sing for me:

Learning singing allows me to understand myself more.

I have started to understand my capability as a singer and what I would like to do in my singing career. Singers spend a lot of time practising and learning songs, trying to interpret music in an aesthetic way, trying to understand the secret of singing beautifully. However, we sometimes forget that we – the singers – are the one that sing. The vocal folds vibrate to create intonation and the variation of tongue and lip shapes allow us to produce different consonants and vowels.

Therefore, it’s reasonable to say that you – the singer – are the instrument in singing.

For example: when I first started learning violin, the teacher introduced the instrument to me; what wood the violin is made from; the use of the bow; what is a sound board; how to apply rosin on the bow; how to look after my instrument; and how to produce different tones and colours. This will not be possible if you don’t understand your instrument well enough in the first place. Therefore, how can we sing optimally if we don’t understand our own body: the singing instrument?

Everyone is unique, and our voices are unique too. Your unique voice is in part determined by the size of your body and throat, your mouth shape, lung capacity, and even the language you speak. Therefore, there’s no way we can copy the voice of a world famous singer and reproduce this with our own body, which is different to theirs in the first place.

If we were able to clone a singer as an experiment and have the real singer and the clone live separately in different environments for some time, at first they might produce exactly same voice and interpretation. After a year I doubt they would still sing in exactly the same way. Because there’s another factor that determines what your voice is like: the way you live and the environment, or to put it a simple way, the choices that you make.

Your mind governs how you interpret a piece of music: your interpretation will be unique. If you are given a score which has all the dynamics and phrasing written in, or even some performance directions, two vocalists in the same vocal range will sing the music differently, despite the fact they have the exact same score and their musical knowledge may be at the same level.

What will happen when you try to imitate the way a singer you admire sings? Well, from my experience, I used to listen a lot of recordings of Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovcky when I was just starting to learn singing 6 years ago. Whenever I got new repertoire, especially an aria, I would just go YouTube and listen to either of their recordings and learn from how they sung. The consequences were that my tongue and jaw held extra tension in order to produce the ‘mature’ voice. It was not a voice I could naturally get at my age. From what I heard in my inner ear, it sounded very rounded with a warm tone. However, if I recorded myself, it was clear the difference between listening with my inner ear and listening through my own recording was significant. The voice I produced had so much tension in it.

Therefore, I will encourage when learning a new song, try to not learn it through a recording. If you can’t read music, try to ask someone to record the tune for you. It’s better than listening to someone singing and trying to learn from that. You might not realize it, but it will constantly, bit by bit, build up the concept of how this song should sound, instead of how your truly natural voice can sound singing the song.

Some advice on choosing a song to learn: don’t necessarily choose your favourite song. It might not suit your range. First try to find something you will find easy to sing, then gradually increase the difficulty of your repertoire. This will help you to familiarize yourself with the way you use your voice. Consistent practice is important in learning, and if we consistently practise in the correct way, the improvement will be significant. Very importantly, singing can bring you a lot of joy, but make sure you sing something that you enjoy and which is not too hard for you to sing. A little technical stretch is good for developing your voice. However, too much stretch will be a risk to your vocal folds, especially if you don’t have a solid technique.

If you are someone who learns faster when you are happy, choose something that’s technically singable for you. For example, if you are a mezzo-soprano, try not to force yourself to learn the Queen of the Night’s aria. For a baritone, try not to learn a tenor aria, even though tenors always get the more beautiful arias compared to baritones!

It’s ultimately a question of knowing yourself, and singing can help you do this in so many ways.

This post was derived from a talk that Wan Tat Cheah gave when he joined the Support Your Singing online course as a guest artist. It has been kindly edited by Harry, a course participant.

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