Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Technical Elements of Vocal Style

In this article I would like to talk about an interesting observation that I have made over my 26 years as a vocal coach; not too many people realize that there are several aspects that have to be addressed with regards to singing in general. First of all, when we talk about singing we are talking about two separate, but very much related elements: physical sound and emotional style. Physical sound is what is achieved by proper utilization of the technical aspects of singing, i.e. breathing (support), structure, placement and projection. Emotional style is essentially how the singer relates to the song and anticipates and complements the style of music, i.e. rock, alternative, country, R&B, dance etc. A common view is that while the technical aspects of singing can be learned through instruction and repetition, style is only developed naturally over time. There is definitely some truth to this statement; some people just naturally have it within them. As a Vocal Coach/Consultant, I strongly believe in the advantages of instruction in the technical aspects of singing. However, I also believe that it is a mistake to completely separate style from technique and I believe that style CAN BE TAUGHT in the same way that a student can be educated in how to stay in tune, project their voice, etc. 
 
As an analogy, you can find quite a few parallels between singing and figure skating. If you are familiar with figure skating you will know that the participants are always judged by two criteria: Technical Merit and Artistic Merit. Again, in this instance it appears these components are separate due to the fact that they are judged separately and, as with singing, appear to be opposites. Upon closer examination though you will realize that the two are very much intertwined. After all, a figure skater that is falling on their rear end is most definitely not going to get high technical marks, therefore, the marks for artistic impression will not matter. Similarly, a figure skater that can land all their jumps perfectly but skates to the music in a robotic fashion is not going to win any medals either. 
 
As with figure skating, the technical component of singing is the platform on which the artistic expression stands. As mentioned earlier, the main technical components of singing are support, structure, placement and projection. Abdominal support is responsible for the height of the sound. Upper diaphragm support is responsible for the width (body) of the sound. Structure - is the structure of the syllables and they are stackable one on top of each other on the central line of the body. Placement is the domain of the four main vocal chambers, which are the same as your sinus cavities. An "aimed" projection is the natural outcome of the previous three. (I talk in more detail about these technical components of singing in my book, Vocal Science - Flight to the Universe). Learning how to use these components properly will also prevent the occurrence of voice disorders and voice problems.
 
Once you've achieved mastery of these four components you have achieved technical control of the physical sound. The next step is to dress it up so that it is original, emotional, exciting and affecting. This is akin to a figure skater whose costume and movements reflect the music that is accompanying the performance. With regards to singing, the physical sound produced must correspond with the style of music and the musical instruments used in its production. Recently, I saw a popular pop singer deliver what was clearly an R&B song with a classical sounding voice. It didn't sound very good because the sound of the voice was so alien to the style of music being played by the band. She actually had a strong sounding voice and, thus, would have received high marks for technical merit if there had been official judges, but also definitely a failing grade for her artistic interpretation. In this instance, the TOTAL PERFORMANCE was not achieved. 
 
I strongly believe that style can be taught. In fact, many people approach me to coach them specifically because they want to sing a particular style of music. One of my recently signed clients, a dance/R&B singer, had a recording session booked and asked me to come along for assistance. When I arrived at the studio, the session was already underway and I quickly realized that the song they were recording was not one that we had previously worked on. Moreover, this song was very demanding because it required a combination of three distinct styles: pop, dance and R&B. The song required that the singer sometimes had to change between styles as frequently as every second line. The producers were high calibre and definitely knew what they wanted, but were having trouble transferring their instructions on how to do it to the singer. She also knew what they wanted but did not exactly know how to achieve it. This is where I stepped in and was able to provide assistance. By quickly instructing my student how she could attain the requested stylistic elements, the song was successfully recorded in much less time than even the producers anticipated. 
 
The majority of students that come to my school for instruction have a definite idea about the style of singer they want to be, but they don't always know how to achieve it. From the very beginning of instruction, I always teach them the obvious, such as how to stay in key and project their voice, but also work with them on the stylistic elements of the songs they are singing. This is often done by breaking the songs down to individual lines and practising the ways in which each syllable should be sung depending on the style of music. For example, if you are singing an alternative rock song you should be attempting it in a voice that is a little more raspy and somewhat nasal and less smooth sounding and with less or no vibrato. Please note that the rasp should be achieved without straining your vocal chords and is done by correctly coordinating the use of your facial and abdominal muscles. Quite a few of my students sought coaching from me solely because they wanted to achieve this raspy type of voice without damaging their voice permanently. This is one example of how the artistic style should be based on the foundation of flawless vocal technique.
Some tips on how to approach various other styles of music are as follows: 
 
R & B: sing with a very wide smile. This will open up your resonator (natural amplifier within your facial muscles) and place your syllables as tightly as possible using your cheekbone muscles. This will prevent any vibrato in the voice. 
 
Pop: the pop style is essentially the same as R & B but with a much lighter application. More laid back and in a sort of "boyish" or "girlish" style. 
 
Classical: is definitely a more vertical application - not rounded like in R & B or Pop. The use of proper vibrato is an essential component of this style. 
 
Country: is a mix of classical, pop and R & B. You could often hear a slight crying feel and a minor nasal application. Quite a few country singers use a light, breathy sound, which is also often used in pop singing. 
 
Gospel: uses a classical application, but lately gospel is being associated with the R & B style. I guess it is really a combination of the two. 
 
Hard Rock: uses a heavy-duty application of the classical style. Often using lots of vibrato will help to distinguish the singer from the loud guitars and drums and enable him to "cut through". 
 
In all of the above cases, the singer needs to have a strong technical foundation to their singing. Style is achieved by varying and applying the technical elements in different ways. You can find out more about how to become a better and more professional singer, by reading some of the other articles available through my website, www.vocalscience.com.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Psychology of Performance - Pavlovian Conditioning

Psychology of Performance - Pavlovian Conditioning: In this column, I would like to talk about something human psychology-related. When I speak at Music Conferences, I often make the statement that vocal coaching is not really about working on the voice, it is about working on the mind. I like to think that one reason that I have been successful over the years is that while I did receive a very comprehensive musical education, I have also tried to learn things from other scientific and artistic disciplines and use them to enhance my capabilities as a Vocal Coach/Consultant. One field that has bearing on pretty much every human endeavour, including singing, is Behavioral Psychology. In 1891, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments using dogs to prove that behaviours are conditioned over time via repetition. In essence, he programmed the dog's brains so that they would react in the exact manner in which he wanted them to. For example, if he wanted the dog to learn the command to sit, he had to say it with a very firm voice and put the dog into a sitting position - always rewarding the dog with a treat. Eventually, the dog learned the command and with the command "sit" would do it himself while salivating, obviously at first expecting the treat. Pavlov proved that their saliva was produced in anticipation of the reward. Furthermore, the dog does not know any language. The Russian master would command "Sit" in the Russian language, the Japanese in Japanese, etc. The dog recognizes the sound and responds accordingly. Now let's suppose that the dog got into an obedience school in which the masters weren't sure of what command to give and what response they wanted to receive. With the command 'sit', they were making the dog 'lie'. With the command 'lie' they were making the dog run and so on. The dog would get completely confused and not know what to do anymore. Furthermore, let's say the dog then enrolled in a different obedience school and the new master started giving him the correct commands. The new master would be perplexed - he couldn't understand why the dog was lying when he was commanding the dog to sit and why the dog was running when it was commanded to lie. 
 
Obviously, the signals were mixed up. With vocal coaching, I meet the similar situation every hour of every day. Many singers have mixed signals and "run" when they should "lie". To recondition the mind and the response of the body is not an easy task, but it can be done; however, in a lot of cases with a great degree of difficulty. Therefore, I am use a structured set of speech and singing exercises to condition the mind and body to work in synchronicity and synergy. In many ways, what I am doing is similar to another scientific methodology - neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is basically a methodology that has been designed to help people change and reprogram people's behaviours by "installing" a certain set of instructions into their brains. Similarly, I have found that while all people are given a voice, nobody per se has given instructions on how to use it, at least not in a scientific way. The "manual" and "programs" that I give singers consist of special speech and singing exercises that train people in a way that is really not all that different from the way that Pavlov trained his dogs. After I have supervised the repetition of these exercises over a consistent but relatively short period of time, the way that singers use their voices are the result of a programmed instinct that will give them optimum results with a minimum amount of effort. 
 
In many instances, the hardest part of improving an individual's performance is not "programming" the new behaviours, it is actually getting the singer to truly admit and, more importantly, understand that they have a voice problem. I call this the "Vocaholics Anonymous" syndrome because in many ways it is similar to the behaviour of an alcoholic with respect to alcohol. Alcoholics abuse their bodies through the excessive consumption of alcohol in a manner similar to the way that many singers abuse their vocal chords (and ultimately the ears of their audiences). In both cases, they usually feel pretty sore the next day. Similarly, both are often told by friends and family that they have a problem but they usually do not listen and cannot admit to themselves that they have a problem. The first step for any recovering alcoholic is for them to admit to themself that they have a problem. For a "vocaholic' the steps are pretty much the same. The singer first has to admit to himself that his current vocal technique (or lack thereof) is a problem and can lead to a voice problem or voice disorder. The 2nd step is to commit to doing something about it. The 3rd step is to get expert help and the 4th is to be able to establish the proper habit so that they won't fall back into their bad habits. As with alcoholism, the goal of any vocal coach should be to cure their students of their bad habits to the point that there is no chance they will ever fall back into their old habits. 
 
In conclusion, singing, like almost any other discipline, is based on conditioning. If your voice is conditioned the right way, you will sound better than you ever imagined possible. Like a dog, you need a competent master and a great obedience school. For more insights into how you can correctly condition your voice and mind, look for my future CM columns, visit my website at www.vocalscience.com , and look out for my upcoming 2nd book, Vocal Science II - Flight from the Virtual Music to Reality.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Voice Part II - As the Show is Progressing are there any "voices" left...?

The Voice. What is the purpose of the show? Are the judges looking for the next Susan Boyle or Paul Potts for that matter? And if they are, it is not such a bad thing, provided that the contestants remain to keep the quality of the voices that they originally came with. Due to my trade, watching every singing contest/competition under the sun, it seems to be that they have the same pattern where the judges pick, in most contests, the top of the top, cream of the crop singers to start with and then, for some very strange and mysterious reason, the contestants begin to deteriorate by each consecutive episode. The reason is unknown...?

My guess would be that either the contestants are trying too hard to win (nevertheless, "to help their families") and/or the so called coaches (i.e. actual singers and producers and not exactly coaches), are not really helping them to achieve the "absolute heights" with their voices. This remains to be a riddle, but since these auditions were blind in this particular case, and weren't based on looks, then what's left, you may ask, if not the absolute awesome voices. 

Just like Susan Boyle, whose career seems to be is not on the rise now as it used to be before a "hiccup" on The View, my guess would be that she's most likely experiencing a lot of difficulties to pick up the pieces (do to her voice problems), as beyond the voice, nothing much would be going on for her. She's not exactly projecting any sexual appeal or able to dance and prance on stage like Britney Spears. Similarly, my question is, what will be left of the, let's say, Top Three or the Winner, outside of the "LIVE" video portrayed on stage (which is very much so in fashion these days)? 

Frankly, I don't profess to know...

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Really Want to Sing...? But... I have three “locks” on my soul, five “whales” on my face and a “chastity belt”...?

What's that you may ask? That is my definition of so called wannabe singers who are claiming that they want to be singers and performers, but not willing to open up their heart and open up their soul.
The singing performance is next intimate to sex and the singer/performer should be willing to stand, so to speak, naked, in front of the absolute strangers, i.e. the audience. Meanwhile, the people who have desire to sing and perform in a lot of cases are completely "locked in", which also affects the sound of the voice, which comes out very tight, constricted and strained. The voice is a reflection of the state of being and an identification of the actual personality. In a lot of cases, when I free up the voice, I will get my up and coming singer/performer to "spread their wings" and finally start flying. I would say I succeed 98% of the time, but in some cases, the "blueprint" is so embedded in the person via upbringing, lifestyle, religion and false obedience of either parents or religion. 

To open up a person like that, you need the "forceps", just like in a difficult pregnancy to pull out the baby via forceps. Unfortunately, sometimes though, the baby comes out deformed and therefore, in the remaining unsuccessful two per cent, where even I could not succeed, the so called singer/performer remains to be deformed also. 

Strangely enough, neither the parents (primarily, we're talking about female teenagers in this case) nor the up and coming artist are realizing that it's not about the voice only. It's about the whole being. Not taking any of it for consideration, the parents become delusional and they tend to think that in spite of all of those factors described by me above, their very complex daughter is miraculously going to open up and produce a class act performance and nevertheless, conquer the world...?

I certainly wish all of them good luck, but also wish them to get a check with reality, at least from time to time, to realize exactly who they are and who their children are and try it for size, and see if there is a perfect fit.
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