The voice is both the most important and misunderstood instrument in popular music. On the local scene the vocals are often an afterthought, barely touched on in rehearsals, under-mixed live and hurried in the studio. On the national scene the singer IS the band. On top of this pressure, many performers are insecure. The prevailing, idiotic, mentality that a REAL singer should be able to make anything work causes people to dwell on their weaknesses rather than their strengths. I call this the impostor syndrome. True, singers are strange animals, but a little less so if you consider there are two distinctly different breeds: The egos and the alter-egos. Expecting one to sing like the other will cause problems every time.
Obviously, a loud-mouth makes a great vocalist. An extroverted, uninhibited person is as natural for the singer slot as a seven-footer is for a basketball team. Performers like Celene Dione pop out of the womb singing. They are encouraged as kids and win talent contests as teenagers. These gifted, 100-watt egos gladly stand up in crowded restaurants and belt out tunes or bust into free style raps at parties. But what about the rest? What if the desire to sing and perform is in spite of the personality? Is there a height requirement for the NBA? No. Just don’t expect much encouragement on your way there.
It’s difficult for some people to understand, but not everyone sings because they love the sound of their voice or think they have talent. Many become singers by default. They sing because their songs require them to, or it fills a void in their heart. Often, they begin their journey as guitarists, drummers or keyboard players and gradually step into the vocal limelight. Most often, they are shy, unassuming people who require the “safety” of the stage before metamorphosing into their alter-ego. That’s the way Clark Brown explains it, a soft-spoken student of mine who becomes a ferocious predator when he sings. He describes his transformation as a cathartic experience — a great high. From the audience, Clark appears to be living the dream; he’s completed an album with Geezer, on TVT, and is now touring across the States and Europe. Yet, he will be the first to tell you he doesn’t consider himself to be a great singer. Like many alter-egos, he struggles with an impostor complex, night after night, just to get his fix.
In the studio, alter-ego singers need more time and space. If you have yet to capture a compelling vocal on tape, but know you have one in you, don’t despair. You simply need to create the proper vibe. Don’t be embarrassed or expect a studio to do this for you. Choking in the studio is nothing more than stage freight, which I will discuss next month. There are steps you can take. First, make sure the song is right for you. Then, find an engineer or producer you trust and clear the room of strangers. It’s useless to pretend that people watching while you’re making love to a song doesn’t bother you — it will show in the tracks. Jimi Hendrix was terribly insecure about his voice. To come out of his shell, he would turn the lights off and hide from view of his producer. What a tragedy it would have been if he had surrendered his delicate poetry over to a loud-mouth vocalist. On the other hand, Steven Tyler, a 110-watt personality, throws everybody out of the studio when he sings, including the producer. The difference is he doesn’t feel like less of a singer for doing so.
If you are a loud-mouth personality, you don’t need my encouragement to sing. I’d tell you to warm up before hand but I know you won’t listen — not until you lose you voice. If you are an alter-ego type, my advice is to explore many different music styles, vocal ranges and backing instrument combinations until you find your niche. Everybody has one. It will boost your confidence and make you feel more like a singer. Incidentally, if you listen to Aerosmith’s first album, you’ll hear a different vocal sound. Steven told me that, back in those days, he was insecure about his voice and placed it in the back of his throat to sound cool. Millions of albums later, he now knows exactly what works for him. So, keep the faith and don’t let it get you down if your first few projects don’t connect. Experimentation is what the local scene is all about.
Stroll into any arena across this country during a massive open-call audition and you will witness the exact same spectrum of singers. Ten percent will be very good – great even – and they know it. These singers have their voices and song choices raised to a professional level. For them, this is not an audition. They could build a career on their own but are hoping to bypass the hustles and hassles of marketing themselves with some TV exposure. They relish their role as top gun in their neighborhood bar and look to expand that to the national stage.
Another ten percent of those who show up at an open-call are goofballs. These exhibitionists thrive on busting cultural taboos and bask in the amazement of gawkers. They are the equivalent of the drunks at Karaoke bars who bark into the microphone as their entourage cheers and documents the event for FaceBook. For these clowns, this is not an audition – it’s center ring. In order to ensure that everyone knows they’re not serious they exaggerate their vocal inability beyond belief. The worst thing, in their minds, is to be mistaken as a member of the third type of singer at the circus.
The remaining 80 percent are comprised of sweaty-palmed, shallow breathing, hopefuls who have been in perpetual audition mode since the day they first sang. Some are quite good – great even – if it weren’t for that audible doubt in their voices and distress in their body language. Whether they’re in obvious audition situations or just singing in the car, there’s a constant question in their minds asking, “I’m I any good?” The beauty of these pressure cooker pageants of personalities is that they serve as a vivid metaphor for life itself. There are a few who grab the reins and guide life and others that relish hanging out at the back-end of the animal. Most of us, though, sit waiting for direction and wonder when we’ll be cast into the role of our lives.
To say life is not an audition is cliché but serves to remind us that the day we took our first breath we hit the stage. Ironically, what occurs on a theatrical stage or movie screen is merely a reflection of our lives – and music is the soundtrack. You don’t need permission to participate in this grand tradition of story telling, you simply need to be alive! That most people are unsure of who they are and what they have to offer is all the evidence a reluctant singer needs to sing anyway. Most of us have big dreams and most of us are not sure if we’re worthy of them. Singing anyway sends a message of hope to all those listening who have surrendered to their doubts. That people appreciate courage and honesty in a singer is easy to see. Every generation has a handful of low self-esteem musical anti-heroes.
Waiting for someone to approve your worth, as a singer or anything else, is a powerless proposition. The heartbreak of someone having their dream denied on national TV is a big part of the success of talent shows like American Idol, X Factor and The Voice. They blatantly reinforce our fear of rejection. Even though the judges soften the blow with encouraging words like, “You’re not right for this show,” or, “keep working on your skills and try again,” all we hear is “you are not worthy.” The producers know to edit each episode for maximum tears, with plenty of back-stories about how much it means for the contestants to be anointed a singer. Without this stress there’d be no ratings.
I’m not so idealistic to think there shouldn’t be winners and losers; I’m just realistic enough to know that television shouldn’t be viewed as a guiding light. With something as intimate and personal as singing, it deserves to be re-framed in your mind. If you don’t feel your voice is worthy of an audience then focus on the song. Do you agree with its message? Did it move you when you heard it? Why not focus on giving that experience to someone else? The desire to move someone with a song is all that’s needed to be worthy of a listen.
Even when you’re actually at an audition, it’s important to remember that your love of singing is not up for judgment. My two most memorable auditions were for a spot as background singer for a Billy Joel world tour and as lead singer of a classic rock band that I’m legally not allowed to name. The Billy Joel audition went about as badly as an audition can go. I had already attached my worth as a vocalist on getting the gig so when it didn’t happen I had a very hard time reconciling my passion. I sure didn’t feel like singing for a while. I did learn from that experience, though, and went to the second big audition with a very different attitude. I was relaxed and sang well. Even though I didn’t get that gig either I wasn’t bruised by the rejection because I didn’t attach the result to my integrity as a singer.
Don’t be fooled by that voice in your head blabbing on about perfection or being your worst critic for your own good. It’s all garbage stemming from a common cultural belief that real singers have a gift and the rest of us should just sit and listen. We all received a gift – it’s called life, and you’ve been cast in the leading role of yours. The script is waiting for your next word to be spoken and the storyline has yet to fully unfold. So don’t wait for applause or approval. Your show is not over yet. Instead, think of singing, no matter the circumstance, as just another performance in the story of your life.
I guess I’m writing to you because it’s so hard to find someone like you to talk to. I feel really weird because all of my vocal and life questions have come to a place where I realize they’re a search for an ideal that I’m trying to meet that never ever arrives. It’s like I’m always where I need to be with this idea that I should be somewhere else which makes where I am seem to “not be it” yet. I realize that all I really need to do in order to get the voice to its optimum place is subtract myself out of the picture and let it function as it naturally does… the more I want out of it, the more I manipulate the farther away from the natural functioning I get… so it’s all about removing my mental ideals and impositions from the equation.
The thing is, once I realized that this applies not only to singing but to everything in life I feel in a weird place… I feel like the “old me” that wanted to sound good and be good and do well in life, that was driven by all these voices in my head – that came from nowhere else than the conditioning I’ve been exposed to – is kind of a ghost that’s not being acknowledged anymore. My desire to become a “good singer” and to even “make it” have flattened out. I no longer feel this “drive torwards betterness” no longer this “competitive drive to go out there and make it.” It’s like I woke up from a dream. Apparently this “dream” was what fueled my “love for singing” and now that I feel like I kind of woke up from it, I no longer feel this “love.” I feel like the “old me” is peeling away more and more. Did this ever happen to you? I’m curious… I guess what I’m asking is what do you do when you realize that what you always thought you wanted all of this sudden is not what you want anymore… when you almost literally feel like you don’t want ANYTHING. It’s weird because it feels good and free because you feel like you have it all already, but it feels bad because you feel like you’re experiencing a sort of death of passion, of motivation, of drive.
Anyway, I just wanted to write and see if you had anything to say. I was and still am a huge fan of yours… I’ve bought all your material and even took a lesson with you about two years ago… I have a feeling you would probably have an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s just that from studying singing and discovering that less is more in that realm, I found it to be true in all realms. In a sense it feels like it’s all done and now it’s time to just live… instead of trying to do everything to then start living. I’m hopeful you would know what I’m talking about. Any words of wisdom would be appreciated. “G”
Thank you for trusting me with your feelings. I can completely relate and have struggled with the exact same issues many times in my life. It’s hard for singers to share this kind of stuff. It seems like you’re always supposed to have a passionate fire burning within if you’re a true musician. Well, the truth is: that’s not reality. Real emotions and passions ebb and flow like a slow motion surf; sometimes taking years between tides. One issue is that this is your first low tide, so it seems you will never swim in creative waters again. Another issue is that you were driving so hard and imposing mental ideals in the past in an effort to avoid your emotions — not bring them out. It’s not that you wanted to sing better, it’s that you needed to sing better to cure your vulnerable, insecure, awkward, powerless self. Now that you’ve matured a bit and can see that you are not the unlovable bub you thought you once were, well singing doesn’t seem like such a white knight anymore. I think this is fantastic news, because it means you are finally in a place where you can enjoy a real relationship with singing — if you want to.
Most teenagers mistake lust, and even co dependency, for love. Their emotions go through the roof when they meet someone new and then as soon as things calm down they feel the “love” is gone and move on. Some adults carry this mentality into later years with unfortunate results. Multiple marriages are almost always a symptom of unreasonable expectations. Young artists have this same relationship with art. They begin with incredibly high expectations; singing will change their lives. Because the imagined payoff is so high we are willing to work really hard to get better. The problem is, as you have learned, it’s not hard to sing well. Now that you realize this, you’re equating the reduced effort as reduced caring.
Now you can sing because you’re a singer — not because it’s going to make you rich and famous and fix all of your problems. True singers can go months, even years without anyone hearing their voices in public and still call themselves singers. My concern with you is that you’ll start to feel guilty for not pushing forward and decide that you are now a non-singer. There absolutely no reason to make such a declaration. You are what you are and the years ahead will play out just as they were always going to. I think it’s a mistake for people to deny themselves the joy of singing just because they’re not as obsessed with improvement as they once were or gaining public acceptance. Just as I think it’s a mistake for people to bail out of a marriage because it’s not cupids and month-a-versaries any more.
Please don’t feel embarrassed that you ever doubted your love of singing. Let things be for a while and if you ever feel inspired to sing — do it. Don’t deny yourself one of the great joys of being alive. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to post this email on my web site. There are thousands of people going through exactly what you are but don’t know how to express it. I think reading this will let them know they’re not alone. Ironically, this email is a great example of what makes for a powerful vocal performance. You are being open and honest, which are the most important ingredients for listeners to pick up on and start exploring their feelings and connecting with you. Isn’t that interesting that such a moment can be created from something you were originally disheartened over. Kind of makes you want to stand up and sing about it . . . ;)
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.
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”.