What Do You Think About When You’re Singing?
As is often the case, events colluded this week to make me focus on one thing. Much more than I had anticipated. This time, the topic was singing.
Perhaps I was sensitive to it, in the midst of writing a chapter on singing. The topic danced in front of me wherever I went, though, between meeting up with friends, going to concerts and talking about the singer’s voice afterwards, and teaching a couple wacko lessons on the subject.
I often ask singers about their own singing, and the responses, if not absent, are often filled with silence and uncertainty. I attribute this in part to working with musicians who are reluctant to talk about themselves at length, and also to the fact that most of them are roots singers. Roots isn’t always recognized for its virtuosic singers. But I want to know: what do singers think about?
Here’s why. I am an amateur singer. In other words, I grew up singing in choirs, musicals, amateur bands. Now I occasionally sing with friends or at jams, maybe a bit in class to demonstrate something; where I sing the most is in the privacy of my house. I love singing. I like feeling the placement of melodies in my throat, of figuring out where my chest voice crosses into my head voice. I may have a bit of perfect pitch; I can tell when a band plays a song live in a different key from the recording. I know what an F feels like in my voice versus a B. I can recognize pitches played on the piano. I attribute this to years of gruelling ear training (which ranks alongside scrubbing the bathtub or doing balance beam somersaults as one of the more despised activities of my youth).
Here’s also why. When I sing, I’m not trying to sing like myself. I’m trying to sing like the person whose song I’m performing. Let’s say I’m learning Billy Joel songs on the piano. I want to force that vibrato on the ends of the phrases from “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, or feel the difference between the ½ step lower sheet music in my voice from what he does in the live performance of “Vienna”.
Sorry. I won’t hang on Billy Joel longer than this moment. My point is, I want to sing like other people. I want to sound like Dwight Yoakam’s backing dudes when I sing “Nothing But Love” with my duet partner.
Because I don’t care for the sound of my own voice.
I first became fascinated with this idea when I played an old man in a high school musical and had to force my voice down to the tenor range to play off the other old man character (played by a bass singer). As I started listening closely to recordings, I’d either try to imitate voices I heard or match people who were trying to sound like one of their own influences.
For example – I’ve said this before – I think Hayes Carll sounds a lot like Steve Earle, even if he’s not trying to.
Don’t you think? It’s not just the southern accent, it’s the delivery of their lyrics, the drawn out phrases in certain places, or the tendency to strain at the upper reaches of their register with a tighter throat.
Some singers are very conscious of their voices. They get coaches and develop technique. Others don’t. I spoke to one well-established singer in the summer who told me he hadn’t given a second thought to his voice until one pivotal moment when he was forced to.
I guess it’s a matter of necessity in some cases. If you think you don’t have a strong voice, maybe you want to improve your skills. If the lyrics are at the forefront of your songs, maybe you want your voice to make them as present as possible. If you grew up listening to Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline, perhaps you want to emulate the voice you admired as much as you can. Some people come by that gift naturally:
Does that make them any less appealing as a singer?
We place so much emphasis on the songwriting component of music that I think we sometimes fail to recognize that a good voice can override whatever the original songwriter’s intent was. That is, good interpreters sometimes get the critical shaft because they didn’t write their own songs. Conversely, good songwriters sometimes don’t get their voices recognized because listeners are all hung up on their lyrics. Aren’t the most meaningful songs the ones where the meeting point of a great set of lyrics and the perfect voice to convey their emotion meet up? When that doesn’t happen, we focus on the songwriting or the voice to make up for the loss on the other side.
Is it better for instrumentalists to copy their predecessors’ styles? We’re certainly okay with that in a genre like bluegrass, where the maintenance of tradition is far more important than developing an individual style. (Usually.) If you try to sound like another singer, though, you might be doomed to tribute act.
Of course, gender adds a whole other level of complexity.
The castrato “tradition” in opera, while a terrifying prospect, makes for intriguing gender identity discussions. Ever seen this clip from the movie about Farinelli (not for the squeamish)?
Those heroic male roles played by men now have to be played by women in male costumes. So here we have women imitating castrated male singers from the Baroque era, while playing male parts. How nuts! (or…not. ha ha.)
It might be worth thinking about who you’re imitating as you go about the week. Also why you like who you do. And why some singers don’t think about their own singing.