Screaming Shakespeare

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.

Picture This When Singing High Notes

Why You Should Untrain Your Voice

 

K.I.S.S. In The New Year

Happy 2004 everybody!! I’d like to suggest a slogan for this New Year: K.I.S.S. The acronym stands for “Keep It Simple Stupid.” It’s a great reminder for those of us who love to complicate our lives. It’s also a great way to approach the voice. Ironically, most vocal problems are the result of complications brought on by the singer, not the situation. The warm up is a perfect example. Too often, we zip through a cursory little routine and then hit the stage. If you don’t stop to consider whether the voice feels ready, you’re bound to get some surprises when performing. Not only is it a major distraction to negotiate around an unfamiliar voice, but it’s a sure path to problems. A slow and simple warm up is so integral to singing with ease and power that I have created a vocal version of K.I.S.S. as a reminder. Before I reveal what that is, let’s explore the important aspects of an effective routine.

The mission of a warm up is to turn you from non-vocal status into a smokin’ singing machine. To arrive at maximum potential, you’ve got to allow enough time to deal with stubborn tensions and coordination issues. A good way to begin warming up is with a hum. Keep your lips together but let your jaw hang down so your teeth are separated. At a very low volume, let your voice find the pitch that requires the least amount of energy to produce. The hum should tickle your lips. Sustain this note for as long as comfortable and repeat with long slow relaxed breaths in between. Test other notes in the neighborhood and see if they can be hummed as easily. Don’t test the range just yet; the goal is to make the voice feel good first.

Next, change the single note hum into a three note melody. Start on your original easy pitch and let the voice rise up three notes and then come back down three notes. Use this simple melody to become aware of any behavior issues. Are you humming the high note as easily as the others? The littlest inconsistency is worth correcting; it will only become a bigger problem when singing. Keep repeating the melody until all three notes feel exactly the same. Once this is achieved raise the starting note of the melody and explore your range. Remember: K.I.S.S. Don’t complicate the process by doing to do too much too soon. Let the voice come to you.

When humming feels slippery, it’s time to move on. With the word “me,” sing a five note scale (1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1) placing the “M” on steps 1, 3, 5, 3 and 1 (ME-EE-ME-EE-ME-EE-ME-EE-ME). This should sound smooth; not choppy. Singing this way allows the vocal folds to assume a little more load while still retaining the advantages of a hum. Watch that your air does not dump out while making the EE. Always let the voice crack and blank out on high notes rather then push them. Let the registers change reflexively, never adjust your face or increase the volume to avoid head voice or falsetto. Give things time to coordinate. Hang around awkward areas with a focus on keeping your behavior simple. Switching the EE vowel to an AH (MA-AH-MA-AH-MA-AH-MA-AH-MA) will increase the work load at the folds even more, but wait until the EE is responding well before doing this.

A good indicator that you are warmed up is an independent tongue and jaw. To encourage this, let your jaw hang open and place your index finger on your chin. Using the same five note scale above, alternate between AH and EE vowels without moving the chin (AH-EE-AH-EE-AH-EE-AH-EE-AH). Your finger is there to remind you to let the tongue do the moving – not the jaw. Just the rear portion of the tongue needs to rise to pronounce an EE; you don’t need to spread your mouth or smile. When this action becomes easy you should increase the speed. Make sure you don’t drive harder – singing fast does not require fast air. Only after you are able to access your entire range without pushing should you explore singing louder. Gradually increase the volume of these scales until you reach what you’ll need on stage. Watch for volume-based tensions creeping in. Slowly roll your shoulders and move your head around while vocalizing to make sure you don’t get locked up.

If you would like to hear what these exercises sound like, there is a download available of this routine at http://www.getsigned.com/page/GMM/PROD/BAXWARMP3. The advantage of warming up with this audio guide is not to imitate me but to help stay focused on the simple goals. There is only one question to answer when warming up. Is the sound you’re making easy to produce? That’s it. If the answer is yes you get to move on. Try something a little more challenging. If the answer is no you should address whatever is making things difficult. It’s important to begin this process around mid-day; even if you’re at work. You can’t spend an hour or two on your voice if you’re due on stage in ten minutes. There’s no need to worry about over-warming if you stay focused on flexibility. So, if you’re into making resolutions make this the year you adopt a new approach to singing. The more time you spend gently preparing the longer you’ll be able to sing afterwards. You’ll never burn out if you remember my little twist on K.I.S.S: When warming up the voice, “Keep It Slow & Simple”.

Rx for Stage Fright

It made the Beatles vomit before their stadium shows. It kept Barbara Streisand from performing for over a decade. I watched it make Steven Tyler pace nervously in his dressing room before a show at the Boston Garden. From butterflies to panic attacks, stage fright is nothing more than a fear of the unknown. How will the audience react? Will I forget the lyrics or sing out of tune? Will my voice hold out? Since none of these questions can be answered before hand, anxiety builds.

Preparation can help. If you are well rehearsed and in good physical condition, any reasonable person would expect to perform well. But stage fright is not a rational fear, and performers are not reasonable people. It doesn’t matter if it’s all in the mind; dwelling on worst-case scenarios puts a real clamp on the voice. Trying to talk yourself out of these mental tail-spins only makes things worse. What’s important to remember is that anxiety means you care. Apprehension is good, positive, energy which heightens reflexes and expands our abilities. Your job before a gig is not to deny fear, but to manage its symptoms.

Fear triggers a fight or flight response, making the body rigid, shutting down digestion and increasing the heart rate. This creates a lousy environment for singing. At the first sign of nerves get your body moving. Swing your arms and legs like a wide-sweeping pendulum. Slow, steady, controlled movements are calming. For most of us, loading the equipment before the gig can serve as a good physical distraction, so focus on lifting properly — don’t rush.

Nervous dry-mouth robs the vocal folds of vital lubrication, no matter how well you hydrate. When the digestive system shuts down, the saliva ducts close; the water you drink never reaches its target. Placing almost anything in your mouth should stimulate the saliva glands to reopen, but watch for counter-productive side effects. Forcing a meal on a nervous stomach causes cramps, gas and excessive mucus. Chewing gum can make it difficult to release your jaw later when singing. Sugar-free lozenges are okay, but I find it easier just to suck on my finger. The salt gets my mouth watering without coating the throat.

A rapid heart-rate shallows breathing. To reduce your pulse, inhale on a slow ten count, hold your breath for ten, then release for another ten counts. Incorporate your voice by singing long, low volume, single notes. The longer you sustain, the better the next breath will be. Repeat this until the voice stops shaking. Don’t rush the process by adding force. When single notes become steady, vocalize on scales or light phrases from songs, slowly challenging range and volume.

If you freak-out on stage, take command of your thoughts immediately. Barrage the irrational feelings with bits of reality. Recite your name and birthday to yourself. What is the date? This may seem ridiculous, but I’ve coached many people through panic attacks who could not recall how old they were for a minute or two. Most of all, remember that an audience is human. People will pull for you if you let them know how you feel. Missed lyrics and bad pitches are instantly forgiven if your heart is in the right place. Would you think any less of a performer who looked nervous? Of course not. So, give your audience the same credit and open up. Don’t let fear keep you off the stage.