Vocal Suicide?

Nothing draws more faulty vocal advice than the scream. 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, jazz and the traditional songs of 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 simply call it vocal suicide. 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 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! I found the unbiased answers I was looking for in sports medicine

It’s hard to fathom, being a musician, the physical toll professional athletes’ pay to play. 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 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. 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 kill yourself to sound dangerous.

When added up, strength, conditioning, practice and preparedness equal survival. On top of that, you’ve got to have the right personality to 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 with yourself. If you don’t have the personality of a screamer than don’t scream! 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. 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. Taking these pro-active steps will make all the difference between an aggressive art-form and vocal suicide.

Confidence Is . . . ?

Is Your Voice Spent?


Choosing the Right Cover Song

Want to Sing for an Audience?

Stage Presents

Preparing yourself for the stage is no different than preparing for Christmas. Even though most of us wait until the last minute, the reality is you can start planning right now. Summer months are a notoriously hard time to network and gain momentum in the industry – be it the national or local club scene. So use the hiatus to improve your skills. The best time to learn new warm-up routines is when you are not under any pressure to perform. Expanding your range and experimenting with different tonal options should also be explored outside of band practice. Another productive use of time is to record yourself a cappella using a primitive cassette or micro recorder to see if you’re telling the story of the song with conviction. The point being that inferior equipment should never prevent you from conveying the sentiment of the lyrics.

When the band finally regroups you’ll be way ahead of the game and able to focus on the details. Just think of yourself as Santa Claus and your band as a bunch of elves. Choosing a set list is like deciding what you will give as presents. Rehearsing is like wrapping and planning how you’ll present the gifts. Bands tend to waste an incredible amount of time due to unproductive rehearsal habits. Most musicians use band practice to work on their individual chops. Which means the practice of playing as a unit doesn’t occur until they’re on stage. Which means the art of engaging an audience doesn’t occur until many, many gigs have been played – if at all. Singers are just as guilty. Individual skills need to be addressed at home. Band practice is to develop group synergy. Shows are for the audience.

Hitting the stage unprepared is hard work. The mind races with commands to the body as you try and navigate through a warehouse of emotions. Your distress when you inevitably get overwhelmed is broadcasted through awkward body language and stressed vocal tones. It’s as easy for a listener to identify as a large man in a red suit with white fur trim. An audience always assumes a performer is up on stage because he or she wants to be. It is confusing then, when a performer projects an uncomfortable vibe. People naturally pull for a performer – they want you to succeed up there. So they focus their attention on what you’re thinking rather than what you’re doing. Don’t think the show is going well? Then neither will the audience. Wish you had prepared more? So will they. It’s not their fault. The least you can do for an audience is focus on something positive. It’s easy to sabotage a performance by wishing you were better than you are at that moment. It’s the same as handing someone a gift and then apologizing for not buying something better the moment it’s opened.

Of course there is always a risk when you give someone a present that they won’t like it. That’s especially true when performing for strangers. This is typically what makes us stress out and procrastinate until time runs out, leaving us scrambling to put something together last minute. If that sounds like a familiar routine it’s important to remember how it feels to be on the receiving end, whether it be a gift or a show. It’s a pleasant surprise to be given a gift – especially from a stranger. It’s also a wonderful feeling to be in the audience anticipating what the performer has planned for the show. As performers, we forget the most basic truth about gift giving. It’s the thought that counts.

Since the thought behind a performance is what really moves an audience, it’s a good idea to always ask yourself just one question before you step on stage. Why are you about to sing? Hopefully, you reply with one of three answers. You love to sing. You love to perform. You love the songs. Any or all of these statements are all you need to front a band. Love is what’s inside Santa’s bag. It’s the bottomless reservoir that every performer draws from. Each song represents another gift for the audience. Be generous when handing out your stage presents and the love will come back to you. Be well prepared for that moment and you will be as relaxed on stage as Santa in the summer time.

The Real Source of 99% of Vocal Problems

Vital Performance Tip

When Auditioning – Think Like A Dog!

What makes people winners isn’t their talent – it’s their mindset. All you have to do is think like a dog.

I had a great canine companion for many years and, though she didn’t speak a word of English, she had no trouble getting me to do whatever she wanted. Like all Labrador Retrievers, chasing a tennis ball was in her DNA. The problem was that tennis balls don’t throw themselves – so she needed my help to pursue her passion. Often, she would prance into the room and drop a goopy fluorescent-green ball on my foot as an obvious message that it was time to play. Whenever I told her “no” she was undaunted. She would simply back up three paces and begin to stare intently at the ball. If I didn’t budge after five minutes, she would run up and grab the ball and place it back on the floor and refocus on it all over again. Watching her do this, you couldn’t imagine anything else on her little doggie mind but, “Hey, idiot – throw me the ball!” And you know what? I always did.

What my dog taught me about a focused intention is a great lesson for all performers. When you take the stage as a singer, the audience will yield control of the room over to you for about 30 seconds – which is all the time you’ll get in an audition. In that incredibly short amount of time, the audience will naturally make two critical judgments: What is this person’s intention and is she or he competent enough to pull it off? This is not a conscious judgment, mind you, but the unconscious answers to these questions will color every conscious opinion that follows. What kills a performance is if you fail to make it clear what you would like the room to do or feel. Without a clear intention, your audience will revert back to a random gathering of individuals instead of a group with a single focus.

Consider this example of a typical unfocused performance. The singer’s internal thoughts are expressed in italics. (The intro begins) Oh no, my mouth is incredibly dry. What if nothing comes out when I start to sing? (Begin to sing) Wow, I sound so strange through this PA system. (Approaching the first chorus) Okay, big breath now to make sure you support that high note. (Entering into the second verse) OMG I hit the high note! Wow is my heart pounding! Why is that guy just staring at me with a blank face? He must know I’m nervous. I’ve got to look less nervous! I’ll walk over to the other side of the stage and make some eye contact. (The second chorus begins) I should gesture with my hands or something. I must still look really nervous. Is that guy one of the judges? Okay, big breath again to support the high notes. (The bridge and third chorus finale) Shoot, the songs almost over and I haven’t moved enough. C’mon now, big arm movements for the finish! (Song ends to polite applause)  

Since none of these scattered thoughts add up to an intention, the audience will become unfocused and left unfulfilled, even if the singing was beautiful. Now imagine what the audience’s reaction would be if for an entire song your only thought was, “Hey everybody, let’s dance! Hey everybody, let’s dance!” It’s easy to predict that everyone would be bopping to the music by the end of the song and burst into applause in appreciation of your zest and flare. Or, if you love to sing but are not completely comfortable with the performance being all about you, your intention can be to focus the audience on the song. For instance, you’re singing a favorite of yours and thinking all the way through, “I love this song. . . I love this song. . . I love this song.”

You can’t possibly plan for all the nuances and details that a single driving thought will bring out during your performance. Nor can you be ignored when singing with this mindset. It’s as infectious as being around someone who can’t stop laughing. If you can’t think of a focus point then let the song’s lyrics guide you. Just be sure you end up with a single intention, like joy, sorrow, love, etc. Make your intention obvious and make it meaningful to you. There’s absolutely no way of knowing whether everyone in the room will agree with you, but no one will ever fault you for going for something. In fact, most people are very happy once they have been lured into an intentional emotion that connects them to their feelings and to the feelings of others around them. They will thank you for reminding them they have a heart and call you a great singer for making them feel alive.

Now I can’t guarantee that you will sail through all your auditions but I can guarantee that the person who does get something you were passed on will have demonstrated exactly what my dog taught me years ago. So stay focused on a single intention throughout the entire song and people will respond to your singing like never before. I’ve seen it make tennis balls fly!

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