How can I learn to control my singing voice, but keep my idiosyncrasies?
August 11, 2015 10:30 AM   Subscribe

As someone who spent a significant portion of her childhood in choral training, I know that some aspects of voice work, like practicing breath control and singing in key, are helpful to have in your arsenal regardless of what kind of music you make-- but I also have heard far too often a certain generic well-practiced classical or jazz or country vocal style (think "American Idol" contestants). How can I develop a stronger, more versatile voice that's nonetheless my own?

I am very, very much out of practice and I want to start using my voice as an instrument again so I can make music of my own, but, I don't want to iron out all my interesting textures. In fact, I'd like to learn to play some of them up, without, of course, damaging my apparatus.

There are no voice teachers in my small community who seem to teach what I'm looking to learn.

3 idiosyncratic-but-versatile vocalists I admire: Tom Waits, Melora Creager, Amanda Palmer.

My voice is childlike and I'd like to understand what's causing that, and/or, if possible, learn to lean into it in a way that works for rock and post-whatever. Old samples, but it's pretty much the same animal when unpracticed:

Perspectives, tips, resources?
posted by dee lee to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
(Disclaimer, I sing but am just an interested amateur, so pour on the salt!)

To some extent, I think part of the reason for that homogeneity among, e.g., American Idol contestants, is selection bias: these are people who are both very interested in developing a super mainstream-sounding voice, and people who were born with vocal tracts that are compatible with that aim. I think there's also an analogy with something like "I want to lift weights but don't want to bulk up" -- for most people, with the exception of a certain fraction of "naturals", bulking up is really, really hard to do even if it's intentional. Similarly, American Idol contestants work really hard on sounding that mainstream -- the way they produce and aim vowels along their whole vocal tracts, use/don't use vibrato, etc. is all super, super specific. So I wouldn't worry too much about ending up with that kind of sound accidentally, even after a year or two of training.

I think you have a nice voice! If I had to offer an uneducated opinion, I think probably some of the youngness in your voice comes from the kind of quavery/breathy quality your voice sometimes has, and a little sloppiness in pitch, particularly on larger jumps (e.g. the "another day" phrases where you go up a fifth in the second link are sometimes a little out of control). Those are things that a one-on-one voice teacher will definitely be able to help you with (breath support, agility, making a tone that is more "focused" and less diffuse/breathy). Some of the youngness is also the vowel sounds (slightly Joanna Newsom-y in places) -- that's something you could either keep or work against, as you see fit. But I also definitely don't think you should wait for more training before you start recording music of your own and maybe posting some of it to MeFi Music! ;).

As far as finding a teacher goes, I don't think you need to find someone interested in teaching your specific style in order to improve. I've only ever taken classical lessons, and even though it was over a pretty short time span (and even though I'd been singing in groups for years at that point) I still think my singing improved a lot, in ways that did actually transfer to the stuff I write myself, which is not classical or operatic at all. For stuff like managing your breath, tone, and agility, I think any teacher you "click" with could probably help you. That said, there absolutely are voice teachers who either insist on condescendingly micromanaging the type of music they think you "should" be interested in (either appreciating or performing), or who try to bludgeon you into a particular vocal range without concern for whether it's actually comfortable for you. If those are the vibes you're getting from people in your area, yeah, definitely run. You may want to try to find a teacher who teaches (e.g.) over Skype -- there do seem to be quite a few out there.

(As a postscript, though I've never used them myself, I remember coming across some more eclectic approaches like CVT and Estill, which both try to "unify" a lot of different styles into one method without prioritizing one specific genre. There do seem to be Skype instructors who teach one of those methods, and people who teach according to a method that aims at being more catholic than just classical or pop or jazz-specific may be less likely to be snobs who want to mold you into The Perfect Soubrette or Kelly Clarkson or w/e, so you may enjoy working with them more. But again, I think a good and humane classical or jazz voice teacher could probably help just as much while potentially costing a lot less.)

(Okay, actually, one more thing - some of this is also how you record your voice, i.e., what mic you use, how you position it, how loud you're singing yourself, etc. When I used a Shure SM-58 at home it always sounded either indistinct or covered and froggy, especially up close; I got a pretty cheap condenser mic [though these need phantom power] and my recorded voice quality instantly improved with absolutely no change in my singing ability. How you position the mic and how loud you sing are also critical variables there and they all interact with each other.)
posted by en forme de poire at 1:59 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The natural distinction between different people's voices comes from the shape of the vocal tract and can be manipulated somewhat by the mouth (this is how we create different sounds for speech). Modifying your voice beyond this puts you into the area of artificial distinctness, eg "affectedness", which you probably don't want. en forme de poire's reply above has a lot of true and good points. I remember many fellow students in college holding the belief that if they practiced or listened to their voice teacher 'too much' they would lose their individual timbre and start to sound like the voice teacher. Due to each singer's unique anatomy this is essential impossible - certain very practiced voice actors are able to mimic other voices well enough to fool an audience but even American Idol-type pop singers sound distinct at some level.

Since you have a choral background, you're used to 'blending', which homogenizes different voices by having each singer sing in a way that de-emphasizes the 2nd, 3rd and higher partials for a given fundamental pitch. This is accomplished by 'covering' your vowels (whatever this means to you - to me it's making a smaller mouth opening) and singing on half air (forcing less air through the vocal tract decreases vibrations in the resonating chamber of your sinuses). This leads to a really bland solo voice. To achieve your unique sound, unlearn both these habits. Your solo singing voice should emphasize your own vocal tract. A useful technique is to practice singing like you are speaking - relaxed soft palate, NOT opening your jaw too wide, natural lip position. Just loudly speak the lyrics, then do it again but on the right pitches. Viola. Unsurprisingly, this technique facilitates a less labored, freer sound than you're likely to get by 'trying' for it by other means.

This is the way I developed my own unique solo voice after years of choir singing, anyway. Voice lessons help, but focused, exploratory practice sessions help more, in my experience. I had to take a break from choral singing because my voice would often hurt after a concert set, which is a non-ignorable indication I was straining my vocal tract trying to conform to some supposedly ideal choral sound instead of using my own voice.

As a final note, singers with really distinct voices quite often accomplish it by unnaturally straining their vocal tracts, leading to short careers or injury. It kinda sucks but you're better served understanding how to use the instrument you have than trying to make it something it isn't.
posted by smokysunday at 3:58 PM on August 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

This might not be helpful - but I decided to recommend it anyway.

I would listen to Broadway voices. IMHO, there is more variability in the Broadway sound than in the pop world, where it seems to me a rather generic everybody-sound-exactly-the-same has become popular.

Many amateur singers post excerpts from their recitals on YouTube. Listening to a variety of people singing the same song can give you some idea of the variety of voices/vocal styles out there, and you may find one or two to emulate.

This was a godsend to me in my early 20s. Art Lund's recording of Joey, Joey, Joey from The Most Happy Fella opened my ears to how I could sound. It really changed my style of singing, and what I might even attempt to do with my voice.

Hope this helps.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:31 PM on August 11, 2015

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