I didn’t start out a confident performer the way many untrained popular singers do. My professional career began for the simple reason that I couldn’t bear to watch from the sidelines any longer, and at 22 I was already older than many singers embarking on the pub singing circuit. A year singing backing vocals allowed my inner stage persona to develop and also left me with a permanent preference for being part of a team even when acting de facto as the “front man”. Another singer played me Sarah Vaughan’s wonderful album After Hours and for the first time I knew I was hearing something I could replicate, and jazz singing became my goal. Here was a vocalist with a lovely sound, who did not sing particularly high or loud, two fundamental vocal skills that I was struggling to develop. The more I performed the more opportunities opened up for me, and I started to want my own high notes, my own powerful rock ‘belt’. If you have been reading my blog you know the next part of the story, the angle I want to explore in more depth is why information connecting vocalising functions with their relevant anatomical and muscular controls is still a new idea to so many singers decades after the original research.
I went looking for teachers – many of the singers I knew had developed their powerful, flexible voices without any input from a teacher, but I did not seem to be able to break through my limitations without more information from outside sources. My first teacher seemed to have only two tools in her kit; she made a sound for me to imitate, and when I couldn’t, she suggested a metaphor to help me replicate what she was doing. None of her preferred metaphors helped me (I remember something about feeling “a long ‘Ah’ down the back of my throat”). I freely admit that if they had worked I might never have gone looking for alternatives, and I suspect that is the situation for most singers even now. In both popular and classical singing, some people pick up the vocal qualities without effort just by listening to others making the same sounds – whether that ‘other’ is a teacher or a favourite singer – and many who can’t do that find a teacher whose metaphors are clear enough to help them bridge the gap. Then – crucially – they often go on to teach using the same metaphors, under the impression that these metaphors are in some way “true”.
A classic example of the sort of thing I mean is being told not to sing “on the throat”. A teacher might even say that your voice “does not come from your throat but from your diaphragm”. This is nonsense of the worst kind, because acting as if it is true may well have some positive effect and thus permanently confuse any singing student who has managed to benefit from this inaccurate concept, entirely through their own ingenuity. Improve your breathing technique and your singing will improve as a result. You can tune up the engine of a car and it will run better, but it still needs wheels, it still needs fuel, and it still needs effective gearing mechanisms for transmitting the driver’s knowledge, sensory awareness and muscular activity to that engine. Actually, driving makes a pretty effective analogy for singing – particularly for someone like myself who had to struggle to learn both! In singing as in driving success requires the coordination of several different muscular functions that must interact to produce a seamless result …
So apologies but I am back to an old theme – if you want to have a good voice you will have to build it yourself from scratch. You cannot go out and buy it, as you can a great instrument. You cannot borrow it from someone else – if you only listen to Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder or John Lennon, everyone will know. You cannot mistreat it or it will fall apart – if you ignore the signs of damage you can ruin it permanently – Jimi Hendrix may have smashed up his guitar on stage but he could go buy another; self-abusive singers can sometimes maintain a career in pop, but not in classical or musical theatre where the demands of performance are too high. Ignore pain or unintended vocal ‘noise’ and you too can smash your own instrument to pieces, indeed if you mix ‘noise’ into your ‘tone’ you are already gambling with your vocal health. Some singers may manage to survive an element of vocal self-abuse, but if you are often sore after performing, or are losing your voice regularly, or are unable to produce a clear, noise-free vocal tone, you are unlikely to be one of those survivors.
So what is this alternative approach that I am attempting to sell you? – that you don’t just have one voice, the quality of which is down to some sort of genetic luck-of-the-draw, but that every human comes into the world with the most flexible instrument in existence fitted as standard, one that you can learn to play in as many different formats as interest you. The voice may be most obviously a wind instrument, but that wind instrument can switch from woody to brassy at will, and we can also borrow techniques from the strings and the percussion sections too – plus in the larynx we have our own personal built-in trombone slide.
Humans can produce convincing versions of the widest range of instruments imaginable – only the synthesiser – and possibly the lyre bird, although I doubt it - have more sound qualities available, but for us it is easier to inject the emotional warmth of a true instrument into our phenomenal range of vocal sounds – even naturally chilly falsetto.
When ‘playing’ the voice, nimble fingers become subtle, synchronised adjustments of breath and vocal folds, however thanks to the flexibility of our vocal tract we can be a piccolo, a flute or any of the different saxophones simply by expanding or contracting our internal resonating chambers.
Every note may not be beautiful, but our potential range is rivalled only by keyboard instruments, and to access it we combine adjusting the thickness and length of our vocal folds with changes in mode and angle that are easy to differentiate and isolate if you put in the necessary practice. Again, like a piano, we can coordinate our breath, vocal folds, and internal muscular sphincters to go from piano to forte in an instant (inserting Bjork here…).
Percussion may be our most recent conquest: reproducing sophisticated rhythms has always been popular, African click singing is gorgeous and Indian singers are true masters of rhythmic complexity – but now young men in particular are exploring the enormous range of percussive possibilities afforded by our consonant sounds and adjustable throats, and sophisticated modern amplification equipment is allowing sounds that would not have been audible in the past to fill vast auditoriums, and delight a whole new audience more excited by beat than melody.
I hope you are beginning to see the possibilities – dedicated performers put in the necessary practice to develop muscular control in structures so internal they can be hard to distinguish without a bit of guidance, which is where a technique that enhances sensory and muscular awareness such as - oh I don’t know, Feldenkrais maybe – can give you a real advantage, and speed up the process of differentiation and muscular control that is a necessary part of the skill set of any instrumentalist.
So why don’t more singers want to explore the full possible range of their chosen instrument? Many instrumental players think we are simply lazy; that it is too easy for singers to please an audience with only the barest minimum of musicianship and an over-developed sense of self-belief. I don’t think it is that. I think the current paradigm that singing is special, that it is a gift; that each person has one unique voice that they need to discover and then nurture is a deceptively limiting idea that appeals just as much to singers as it does to their adoring audience. It just isn’t true; anyone can sing, anyone can imitate other voices, anyone can improve their tuning, anyone can sing like a professional – all it takes is lots and lots of practice!
Your Voice Is the Perfect Instrument!
Sunday March 16th – Please note the change of date to Sunday.
Blog Extract: Humans can produce convincing versions of the widest range of instruments imaginable – only the synthesiser has more sound qualities available… When ‘playing’ the voice, nimble fingers are replaced by subtle, synchronised adjustments of breath and vocal folds, however thanks to the flexibility of our vocal tract we can be a piccolo, a flute or any of the different saxophones simply by expanding or contracting our internal resonating chambers. Every note may not be beautiful, but our potential range is rivalled only by keyboard instruments, and to access it we combine adjusting the thickness and length of our vocal folds with changes in the way we produce sounds that are easy to achieve – if you put in the necessary practice! And again like a piano, we can coordinate our breath, vocal folds, and internal muscular sphincters to go from piano to forte in an instant…
I hope you are beginning to see the possibilities – dedicated performers put in the necessary practice to develop muscular control in structures so internal they can be hard to distinguish without a bit of guidance, which is where a technique that enhances sensory and muscular awareness such as Feldenkrais can give you a real advantage, and speed up the process of differentiation and muscular control that is a necessary part of the skill set of any instrumentalist. For more on this subject read the unexpurgated version here.
Coming up Sunday April 27th – Developing Presence In Performance
VocalDynamix is designed to help anyone who wishes to develop a conscious, flexible, strong, healthy voice, whether their interest is singing, speaking well as an actor, or freeing their natural voice as part of a healing and/or spiritual process, or any combination of these elements.
One-to-one Singing and Voice training also available:
General rate – £40 per lesson
Ongoing study package of 3 lessons in a 30-day period – £90
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2 private lessons for £65, or 2 lessons and 1 class for £100
- full details of all my classes here.
No apologies for posting this again – the very musicianly Bobby McFerrin, singing the lovely and under-appreciated Smile:
…and to finish, the glorious Sarah Vaughan singing Once In A While, a song you don’t hear that much…