Last week I found out that Sondheim’s Into the Woods is being made into a movie-musical with (of course!) Johnny Depp as the Wolf and Sophia Grace as Little Red Riding Hood. Enough is enough.
In these articles, I’m going to make a distinction between someone who can carry a tune, and a singer, because pop culture has been telling us that there’s no difference. There is. Look at it this way – we can all throw some chicken in a pan and eat it shortly thereafter without poisoning ourselves, but would you call us all cooks? Of course not. When you want a great meal you go to a great restaurant, or if you’re lucky enough to live with a cook you beg them to satiate your need for real food.
More specifically, I’ll be discussing vocal technique as it pertains to musical theater (though most of what I say can also be said of classical technique, and, somewhat, of pop as well). The comments I make do not pertain to voices like, for instance, those of CocoRosie, Bjork, or Sleigh Bells, as these are a completely different animal. Singing is an art form, and therefore can be done evocatively in a million disparate ways; I’m discussing a mere fraction, but one that has taken the forefront of popular culture.
With shows like America’s Got Talent, “actor-singers” like Lyndsay Lohan, and recent movies like Les Miserables it’s no surprise that most American’s have this idea that everyone is or can be a singer. Hollywood and the music industry have also blurred the lines between what a singer is and what a performer or personality is.
This confusion is also perpetuated by the simple fact that everyone walks around all day with a vocal instrument, using it to speak, and singing along to songs they like. But pop culture has been lying to us, and the mere fact that someone has vocal chords and can, perhaps, carry a tune, stay on pitch, or even belt a little, does not make them a singer – it just makes them someone who sings. Saying that something is being used proficiently or not is not an aesthetic judgment, them’s just the facts.
A singer is someone who has knowledge of and control over their voice as an instrument. When I say “singer” or “a good singer/voice” or “a real singer”, what I really mean is proficient, skilled, with technique, healthy, sustainable, and communicative.
If someone marks themselves as a musical theater singer by singing that repertoire for a critical audience (say, a movie theater full of people), they have to be able to actually sing in that style. Why? Because if they can’t they’re not doing their job. Because the power and meaning of a piece of music and a musical are found in the singing and music (that’s why they’re musicals, not plays), they’re depriving their audience of that power and meaning, of art, and even of an otherwise transcendent experience. This is not hyperbole. We all know that singing has an incredible power when it is skillful. By allowing actors like Amanda Seyfriend to screech at us because she and Hollywood have decided that even though she’s not a singer it’s ok to take on the role of one, we (and she) are depriving ourselves of meaningful and moving experiences. It’s the musical equivalent of being force-fed McDonalds (in Amanda’s case, day-old McDonalds).
So, why is vocal technique so important? Why am I making such a big deal about having it?
The point of it is this: 1. to keep the voice from breaking down like an old truck, and 2. to allow a singer to communicate emotions of their choosing. “Communicate” means they’ve succeeded in evoking the emotion(s) in you that they were trying to evoke, otherwise they’re just fumbling around.
You know how a really pretty girl can take a lousy picture? It’s because she hasn’t spent time in front of the mirror figuring out how her face feels when she’s making certain expressions. So, when she tries to make a sexy face she might wind up making a stoned face instead. Vocal technique teaches your body to make the sexy sounds instead of the stoned ones. Like any other course of study, it requires consistent rote repetition, and once you have internalized it, it allows you to be boundlessly creative.
Facts about the vocal instrument as it pertains to singing:
- It’s an instrument. Visualize your body as a tall tube of air with things that get in the way of that air (tongue, flaps of skin, jaw, etc), help the sound waves to resonate (e.g. nasal cavity), and otherwise shape this invisible friend. It’s distinct from your speaking voice, BUT the way you speak day-to-day affects it.
- Stop putting your hand to your throat like you’re the fucking Little Mermaid – vocal production is a full-body sport.
- Sport? Yes, singing is exactly like any sport you can think of, and who should this surprise – it’s done with the body. Obnoxiously so for those of us who want to drink and smoke. It requires the body to be healthy, weight gain/loss affects it, it relies on muscle memory, if you don’t exercise it every day you loose it, and after a certain age it just can’t do what it used to. If you wondered why singers are cray-cray – this is why. That’s a hell of a lot of stress, and we use good technique to combat it as much as we can. It’s a sport, a science, and an art.
- Just like your body (and a fine wine), the voice matures over time. Pretend that when you were born your parents took a chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-sized you and put it in some special oven. As with actual cookie dough, the time it takes for the cookie to become golden-brown is dependent upon your size. The voice is the same. A singer with a larger voice won’t mature until their 40s, whereas a singer with a lighter, smaller voice can mature in their late 20s. This is why I become enraged when kids like Jackie Evancho go viral. The voice is a muscle. If you force it at a young age, you ruin it. (What’s that? You say they sound great though? Just like adults!? No, friend, they do not. 95% of them sound the way a 2nd-grade girl looks in her mother’s high-heels. Find one of these unfortunate girls on YouTube and watch how she gasps for breath, goes off pitch, and bobbles her little head or shakes her jaw as if she’s on a dashboard.)
- Though people with bigger builds do tend to have bigger internal structures, you can’t tell for sure how big a person’s singing voice is just by looking at them. That opera singers have to be fat is an old wive’s tale. Check out today’s opera singers; you’re pretty much not allowed to be fat anymore – truth. So, the size of a person’s voice has to do with the dimensions of the of the throat, larynx, and mouth (also somewhat the chest, nasal cavities, and sinus). There’s no magic here, it has to do with resonance. Also, a singer’s mouth generally opens like a Pez dispenser (not joking).
All this being said, voices vary, and some of us can get away with certain techniques that others can’t, eating dairy, or even smoking cigarettes and still have a working voice. However, it’s not how it generally works.
Ways to tell the person you’re listening to does not have control over their voice:
- When they hit a high note does your throat and/or body (particularly shoulders) tense up? Can you detect straining in the sound they make?
- After they’re done singing, is it hard for them to talk? Are they coughing, or hoarse? Are they holding their throat as if to protect it?
- Did you see their jaw shaking uncontrollably, or was their head bobbing?
- Did it sound like their voice had multiple personality disorder?
- Could you have driven a UHaul between the waves of their vibrato?
- Did you have to assume they were going through puberty late with all that voice cracking?
- Is their voice scooping down as if they’re attempting to drag an object up from the floor with it?
- Your average person is able to sing about 1 octave. A singer can maneuver through roughly 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 octaves. If you consistently hear them sing in the same single octave, it probably has more to do with their mastered level of vocal technique than how someone is writing their songs. We all have notes and ranges that are most comfortable to sing in, but someone who has good vocal technique can do more than just that.
Additionally, have you heard of auto-tune? Awesome. Let me explain it to you this way. Besides correcting pitch, voice editing programs (including basic ones such as GarageBand – go ahead, open it up, it automatically puts reverb on your voice) are used to “beef up” and otherwise stylize the voice. Think of it as musical Instagram. You open your mouth and make some sounds that your body naturally makes that hopefully sound good, and then you take all sorts of filters and layer them over your voice until it’s covered in pink lense flare, and has a blurred background focusing only on the best part of your face, and has somehow made your skin magically flawless! This is why when we’re listening to a song or watching a music video and you say, “they have a great voice!” I sigh a little. I don’t think you’re dumb, I just think you don’t have all the facts and that you don’t know how to use your ears in this way. Just like the mere fact of you having a penis or vagina doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at sex, the fact that you have ears, doesn’t mean you know how to identify all sounds with them. Your brain has a part in this.
So, what that singer you love so much DOES have is a great person sitting at a mixing board. You don’t know what their voice sounds like any more than you know what that girl who posts all the selfies looks like. Who’s your favorite singer? Ok, go find a video of them singing an acoustic set. Now tell me what you think of their voice. How is it different?
The difference between a singer and someone that sings is simple: singing is a skill and an art. Running to catch a bus is not the same thing as running a marathon. Same general idea, same everyday activity, same muscles, but used in a different and specific way that it takes time, persistence, natural ability, and knowledge to master.
Now that’s all said, part 2 will be a veritable parade of YouTube videos!! See you then!
Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes Conservatory. She was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner in poetry, and is the founding editor of SOUND, a daily literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics. @Elkawildling