To scream, or not to scream: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in your mind to obey the standards of culture and pursue a pure tone or unbridle thy passion and let rip a mighty wail. Regardless of which way you lean, it seems nothing draws a line between singers more clearly then the scream. There are those that can and those that can’t. Some singers seem willing and some simply won’t. More than pulling up chest register and beyond belting, let’s explore the truth about the singer’s equivalent of smoking the tires down a stretch of pavement.
The lineage from current flame throwers like Chester from Linkin Park and low-ball growlers like Sully from Godsmack runs back through signature screechers like Chris Cornell, Curt Cobain, Dio, Steven Tyler, Bon Scott, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, Janis Joplin, Wilson Picket, Little Richard, Ray Charles and hundreds more. The rockers were inspired by the blues and soul singers who were inspired by gospel and jazz. It’s arguable that the first person to turn vocal dysfunction into a calling card was Louis Armstrong. Yet, long before ol’ Satchmo rattled out swing tunes for mainstream audiences the sound of force was already a tradition in the Deep South.
Call and response hymns sung by slaves in cotton fields and marathon Sunday services challenged voices to the limit. The raspy sound that occurred as a result of vocal fatigue was considered a small price to pay for getting the message out. What began as an unintentional byproduct grew into a target sound. Lots of present day music fans and vocalists think of screams as a passionate, heartfelt way to express emotion. Others think of it more as a vocal tragedy. Unfortunately, those people on the disapproving side of the fence are often the doctors and instructors that screamers need most to save them from themselves. Hopefully, that will change as more mentors see an aggressive vocal style as an artistic choice rather than an irresponsible singer.
The learning environment was even less tolerant when I was a young singer trying to emulate my raspy heroes. I was routinely scolded about the dangers of pushing the voice and told horror stories of promising talents left voiceless due to their reckless ways. My college professors, who didn’t even acknowledge rock music as an art form, said without hesitation that screaming caused permanent damage, period. No further discussion. Yet the rock and gospel singers I found so inspiring seemed to be impervious to the rigors of their music. I wanted that same vocal immunity! Since the musical authorities would not provide me with direction I began hunting in some unusual areas for information regarding stress on the body. I found the unbiased answers I was looking for in sports medicine.
It’s hard to fathom, sitting comfortably in your living room, the physical toll professional athletes’ pay to play. Those uniformed gladiators make it look easy as they push themselves to the limit just like the screamers mentioned above. The difference is that athletes fully acknowledge the risks and prepare for them whereas singers are usually in denial. An athlete would never begin a game without warming up. Singers often walk on stage cold. Athletes train in multiple ways. They workout to improve strength and conditioning and then run drills to learn the skills required for their sport. Game time is not for developing talent. Singers often use gigs as an opportunity to improve skills. Walking on stage to shout out a bunch of songs with no physical preparation is the same as walking onto a football field with no pads . . . and receiving the ball.
There’s a huge difference between permanent damage and temporary discomfort. To prepare yourself for the demands of aggressive singing, you’ve got to vocalize separately from practicing songs. The exercises should isolate the jaw, tongue and facial muscles. Bracing these muscles before a scream sends a false message to the abdominal muscles that they should drive. Learning to release the neck and face will reduce the amount of energy it takes to create an aggressive vocal sound. Less force means less friction which means less wear and tear. While there’s no way to get a distorted sound without overloading the vocal folds, the amount of tension and force used is directly proportionate to the amount of irritation left in its wake. The truth is; screams are adjustable. You don’t have to give every scream everything you’ve got.
Vocalizing also significantly improves a singer’s strength and conditioning. Just like knees and ankles often prove to be the weak link in an athlete’s physique, the tiny muscles and ligaments inside the larynx are vulnerable when stressed. These muscles should be exercised to prepare them for the load of a scream. Serious athletes spend many hours in the weight room and target their weaknesses. Singers should too, only the weight room is anywhere you can work on your voice without being self-conscious. We singers are notorious for glossing over weak areas and focusing on what sounds good – especially if we think someone is listening!
When added up, strength, conditioning, practice and preparedness equal survival. On top of that, you’ve got to have the right personality to handle a scream. Another unspoken truth is that a reluctant approach to a potentially hazardous activity creates a greater risk for injury. Don’t confuse this with the ignorance of a dare-devil. Be honest and recall another line from Shakespeare, “to thine own self be true.” If you don’t have the personality of a screamer than don’t scream! No apology necessary. Don’t rely on the adrenaline of a show for courage. Instead, take passes at a particular phrase at half steam during your warm up to test the waters. Practice difficult lines without any facial tensions before letting your emotions pour in. By the time you’re on stage and approaching a scream your mind should be free of doubt and your body free of tension.
The aftermath of an aggressive set also needs to be acknowledged. Friction from the overload causes swelling in the tissues in and around the larynx. That’s the fact. Yelling and laughing after a show only makes matters worse. Athletes hit the whirlpool and ice down after a rough game in order to reduce the stiffness they know is coming. Singers usually wait until the next day to address their condition. Often, it’s too late. Once the folds become enlarged, every action of the larynx, even swallowing, becomes irritating. If you don’t have two weeks to rest, a warm down focusing on soft flexibility exercises will minimize soreness and provide a head start to the next day’s warm up routine. Don’t ignore the symptoms of fatigue. Warm down until your speech returns to normal. It’s ironic, but the more you respect your anatomy offstage, the less you’ll pay when you disrespect it onstage.
I have a recorded lesson for sale ($17.95) which re-enforces the issues I’ve outlined here along with exercises to gradually ramp up your voice for this type of singing. The lesson is available as an MP3 download at www.GetSigned.com. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about screaming is that less is definitely more. Just because you’re willing to torch your voice doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a passionate person. The reverse, however, is true. Passionate people tend to be willing to do anything it takes to drive their point home; even scream. Like mothers who constantly yell at their children, though, singers who never vary the intensity of their delivery numb their listeners into complacency. Instead, let the words of the song dictate your crescendos. Focus on the sentiment rather than wrestle with the melody. Pick your moments wisely and you’ll gain maximum impact. Don’t beat yourself up for nothing. Overdriving an already powerful set of lyrics will always be as inappropriate as . . . well, screaming Shakespeare.