What’s That Noise?

A wind has been blowing down Broadway over the past 15 years, causing some turbulence within the vocal community. In an attempt to captivate an emerging audience of AARP card-carrier teenagers of the 1950s, who now prefer reality TV, we have witnessed a plethora of productions demanding vocalists to sound like “they have had no training”.   As a result, we have the need to analyze the difference between a sound of what is perceived to be “trained” and the sound of what is perceived to be “untrained”, because it is unreasonable to expect anyone regardless of style to perform eight shows a week without some instruction. Important to note here also is the confusion among teachers in the description of a “sound” and the description of a “vocal function”. On top of that, to adequately define a vocal sound objectively and specifically warrants an analysis that entails frequency, fundamentals, harmonics and formant properties. This is hardly the language of Broadway directors and producers, who use words such as “high belt,” “float,” “legit” etc. and know amongst themselves exactly what they mean. These words, by the way, are irrelevant in the music business of rock and pop. That doesn’t mean that those singers don’t use the sounds or mechanisms, but rather it is simply that they don’t care what it’s called if and when they use it. Recording artists are not required to fill the expectations of others in the business of presenting specific ensembles of theatrical characterizations.
How can we as teachers navigate these terms and sounds usefully to be of service to our clients? Firstly, it means separating to our students the “what it sounds like” from “what it feels like”. To imitate and execute a preconceived sound will bring a derivative result that may be acceptable, but the lack of that magic “soul” connection will bring a mundane result. For instance, the Voce Vista software system is a truly wonderful invention for teachers and students alike, and it is a likely tool for voice scientists and teachers to confer on definitions.   However, it is only a means to an end in assisting communication amongst ourselves, as it will never dictate the creative spontaneity of an artist wishing to avoid the derivative. To lock a student is a static moment with an adjective that describes a sound is to literally lock the breath that was meant for the “money” note in a left brain failure to execute!
So what does one do to sound untrained? Rather the question should be, “what should one NOT do to sound untrained?”! Reminds me of a time in the distant past, far more distant than I would like to admit, in fact, where I dutifully worked on my art songs with my singing teacher and, to front my punk band at CBGBs (yes, punk the first time around, folks, when it was called New Wave!), I felt that my only option would be to throw all vocal technique out the window. I did that and guess what happened? Opting for months of full to partial vocal rest (contrary to current wisdom, by the way) instead of the surgical removal of the damned polypoid violation, I embarked upon the initially painful but ultimately rewarding journey that changed my life to come. I was fortunate to have a genius speech person (hats off to NYC’s Joan Lader) and a desire to learn everything I could about the vocal mechanism. I began by memorizing Venard. But something was happening to my body in speech therapy on a sensual level that sounded and felt like the same “ringing” that I FELT in my head that my singing teacher was asking for in the art songs. The behavior modification of the speech therapy involved the invoking of what FELT like head resonance in the spoken word! There was no vibrato and it didn’t SOUND like the art song but it FELT the same. Aha!
I graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in classical voice and theatre and continued my studies for 4 years in the United Kingdom at The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I continued my classical voice studies alongside perfecting Shakespeare, Moliere and Oscar Wilde, pushing down my 16 year old squeaky speech to the depths of my chest. Why? To SOUND like a Royal Shakespeare Company actress, of course! I considered such to be the “proper” way to do things. But then, there was the “fun” way to do things, like yelling with a hairbrush for a mic in the mirror while listening to Janis Joplin. I had this very static idea of what “real” singing was “supposed” to SOUND like. And a very static idea of what “non proper” SOUND is like. I was never in touch with what anything was supposed to FEEL AND SOUND like. Proper or improper, I was going for an idea that I was hearing in my head at the same time I was trying to execute it! In other words, all imitative! Driving from the passenger seat.
An American composer visiting the Old Vic School had gathered students to help present a workshop production of his new musical. I sang the song according to my idea of the “proper” way, which frustrated him no end. “Just sing the song, and stop putting all that “stuff” in it,” he would say, to which I would say, “I AM just singing the song, thank you very much, and there is no “stuff” there”. The “stuff” to which he was referring was the vibrato and held notes that I was reproducing through imitation to be correct. I had to cast aside all voice lessons, he said, and he instructed me to go home and figure out how to sound exactly like a record by Karen Carpenter. When I performed with that sound, I FELT like a corpse. I felt like I sounded horrible and was baffled to receive a thunderous standing ovation! But, the next time I tried that same method of “feeling like the corpse Karen Carpenter trick”, it was a disaster. Another standing ovation would not happen anytime soon after that!
So, to sound “untrained” is to sing like you speak? Not exactly, folks. Well, not to get the job, at any rate. A voice that is not balanced, or rather not educated in dynamic registration will be subject to the same pitfalls in any genre. The spatial reasoning that occurs because of notes living “up there” or “down there” in the imagination (created by a lack of ability to navigate the breaks) causes the same distracting discomfort and self-consciousness in any genre. So therefore, a speaking voice that is not balanced in the same way, will not translate to acceptable singing.
But how to accomplish this without the IMITATION process, which does not work even if the student is asked to imitate something that is correctly performed? How do we teach them how to FEEL it? With our imagery, of course! That is why we voice teachers get the whack job reputations that we do! Where it gets tricky is when our imagery is purely anecdotal and we include it in our instruction merely because it works for us! The imagery must be explained in scientific terms or it will be mistrusted as voodoo.
So, then, shall we say that voice training is not genre specific? Not exactly, because even though the muscle memory to accomplish mesa de voce in classical music is used for extreme registrations in rock doesn’t mean that the student will know to translate its use, especially if all they are doing is imitating! There is no context for mesa de voce in the rhythmic callings of rock, pop. r&b and country.   The rhythmic emphasis does not allow the time to indulge in a crescendo and decrescendo. However, good, solid vocal training in any genre must include breathing, dynamic registration, articulation, resonance, pitch accuracy and authenticity. My point is that any training needs to be mindful rather than delivered as something to imitate. In commercial music, vibrato is a careful choice, not de rigueur. And what about head resonance in commercial music? It is VITAL!! Not necessarily as a sound, but as an imagined feeling, to preserve healthy vocal function.
This is one of the many functions of speech behavior modification in my practice. Head resonance is not a “sound” in practice, but rather it is a sensation that creates, for lack of a better word, a “noise”. Not “singing” with all the associations the client brings to that word. Placement, that is epitomized in my exercises as a physical sensation, is simply channeled in the imagination in brief arbitrary moments during daily speech. Those same sensations are generalized to the exercises in my singing warm-up. The “noises’ are not to sound like “singing”, so that the client does not try to sound good or sound anything, but rather FEEL to ENJOY the pleasantness of the flow and ease. Once the feelings have been labeled physically, they become imagined and simply channeled in arbitrary moments in speaking and in song performance. The imaging of head resonance keeps the larynx low and released. The speaking warm-up combines mindful imagery surrounding onset, flow, support and resonance. Those same sensations provide the foundation of the singing warm-up. Not only does healthy speaking minimize the wear and tear between performances, but it also provides a mindset of “feeling the feeling” instead of “imitating the sound” with all that baggage associated with genre specifics. It is as if they are wearing a brightly colored rubber suit that allows then to bounce effortlessly from octave to octave. They are too busy doing it to listen! What they wear to speak, they just keep wearing to sing! They lose their self-conscious, meaningless judgments of genre specifics and their individual, authentic selves emerge to shine!

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