In my last blog post (The Singer's Dilemma) I promised to deliver some tips on how to 'sing with feeling' without succumbing to the physical side effects of 'feeling all the feelings'. We tread a fine line as performers when we endeavour to clear the way for our audience to lose themselves in the music and find themselves in the story-telling. We strive to be unique, genuine and interesting yet accessible and relatable.
So how do we make that honest and open connection with the music and our audience without getting in the way of our vocal technique or our audiences experience?
Here's some of my favourite approaches for you to try…
Plan your breathing:
Make sure you take the time to go through your score or lead sheet and look at all the musically appropriate places to breath. If there’s a rest in the music there’s probably a good chance that this is a good place for you to take a breath. Make sure you go through your score or lead sheet and analyse the lyrics for important moments that would be enhanced by a break or a breath. If there’s a comma, a full stop or an exclamation mark in the text, this would normally be a place you would break or breathe in speech. Even if the music doesn’t indicate a break or a rest, adding a breath in these places will enhance the phrase, making it more meaningful, expressive and easy to understand. Don’t forget that the breath not only powers the voice but can also be used to enhance expression and connect more deeply with the lyric and the audience. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
The connection between the breath and the tone or the way we initiate tone immediately after the in-breath is known as the ‘onset’. I guess you could compare it to the different ways a guitarist plucks or strums the strings in order to create a different effect to the start of a note or chord.
Know your onsets and how to use them. Voice researcher Jo Estill identified three main vocal onsets that can be used in speech and singing;
Glottal Onset/Stroke - True Vocal Fold closure precedes airflow (eg Uh-Oh)
Aspirate Onset - exhalation begins before True Vocal folds close either abruptly or gradually (eg ha-ha, he-he, hey-hey)
Smooth Onset - exhalation and True Vocal Fold movement occurs simultaneously resulting in a coordinated, balanced tone (eg yeah, you, yes)
The onset that you choose (yes, you can choose!) can have a significant influence on the tone that follows and therefore engender a certain feeling or response from your audience. A carefully chosen and executed onset can go a long way to expressing desperation, sexiness, sadness, sincerity, or even anger in the sung phrase without you having to actually go through all of the other physical and phycological side-effects of these emotions. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Vocal Quality does not refer to how ‘good’ the voice is but rather the characteristic of the voice, the vocal tract configuration, the placement of resonance, vocal fold mass or body cover etc.
Know your qualities and how to use them. I’ve listed several commonly used vocal qualities as identified in the research of Jo Estill below. It should be noted, however that many vocologists and voice researchers differ in their exact descriptions of vocal qualities and the examples below are just a smattering of known vocal qualities;
Speech: the sound and set up of every day talking, sometimes labeled as ‘chest voice’ and often heard in folk, jazz, pop and rock music.
Sob: the sound and set up of a suppressed, mournful cry. Although emotionally intense this vocal quality is very soft and best used when singing with a microphone. Sob can be heard in jazz, crooning, laments and lullabies.
Twang: a bright and brassy quality often mistaken as nasal and associated with country music, R&B and musical theatre singing. This vocal quality is extremely efficient and can increase your volume by up to 600% with no more effort at the level of the larynx.
Other vocal qualities include; falsetto, opera, belt, breathy, covered, honky, pressed, fry (pulsed), ventricular, yawney… just to name a few.
Just like onsets, you have control here. Not only can you chose from a myriad of vocal qualities, you can blend qualities together and adjust how much of a given quality you add to your sound in order to create your ideal tone, assist in negotiating technically demanding phrases or notes and to expand your expressive options. A well chosen vocal quality or blend of qualities can allow you to deliver an emotionally intense lyric in a sensitive and evocative way for your audience without you having to tip-toe along the tight-rope of emotions that are tied to that vocal quality. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment!
Check out Sam Smith in this live performance accessing a multitude of vocal onsets and qualities. He’s not the most flashy, visually dynamic performer (or technically amazing singer for that matter - he’s had some pretty well-reported vocal problems which resulted in surgery and enforced vocal rest) but there’s no denying his ability to convey a broad palate of emotions in his performances.
This one might seem kind of obvious but I’m often surprised to find that many contemporary/commercial music performers don’t use dynamic variation as an expressive tool. Dynamic variation is a powerful tool to add to your expressive arsenal but can be a technically demanding skill to acquire for many singers as singing loudly and softly in certain parts of your range can prove difficult if the breath, resonance and vocal load are not under control. Just remember that dynamics are relative. If you start on 11 you don’t really leave yourself anywhere to go and are probably restricting a lot of your vocal options, both technically and expressively. There’s a whole other blog post in those last few sentences so before I get too carried away let me just say that I encourage you to explore all your dynamic options from soft to loud, crescendo, diminuendo, forte piano and everything in between. I especially encourage you to try the opposite of what is indicated in the score/chart and popular recordings in an effort to discover what expressive possibilities lie in doing the opposite of what is expected or what feels natural or automatic. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover and how your audience responds.
Go through your song phrase by phrase and identify the most important or expressive word/s. Work on your vocabulary of vocal gestures, ornaments, rhythmic devices as well as qualities and onsets and experiment with all options to create colour and interest. You should take the chord of the moment into consideration when selecting notes outside of the melody so a working knowledge of functional harmony will magnify your options here. I think it’s also important to use good judgement when embellishing notes. Remember your main goal is to draw the audience in and heighten their emotional experience. Sometimes adding over complicated runs and vocal gymnastics, while technically impressive can detract from the emotional intent. Look to the lyrics for inspiration, defer to the stylistic conventions of your chosen genre, record your practice and listen with a critical ear, remembering that your aim here is to ‘sing with feeling’ in an accessible way for your audience. We are usually our own harshest critics so if the recording appeals to your critical ear go ahead and bust out those chops at your next performance and see how it goes!
There is no substitute for mirror practice when it comes to developing your facial expression. If you allow yourself to be facially expressive and committed to both text and subtext of the song you'll often find the voice will follow. It's a really good idea to practice your facial expression with a mirror or camera as I have found that I always imagine I'm being more openly expressive than is actually the case. I'm not a super showy, flamboyant performer so I don't tend to use a lot of big arm gestures but if that feels natural for you then go for it. I would however advise that you also observe yourself in the mirror or take some video footage in the practice room or at a gig and sit back and honestly assess what you see. Are your gestures distracting or do they really enhance your performance, add meaning to the music and draw your audience in? Are you fully committing to the gesture or is it a bit half-hearted? Do you have an unconscious habit of fidgeting your fingers that might make other gestures seem less deliberate and therefore a bit meaningless? I always think it's most important to examine the face, particularly the eyes before thinking about what I do with my hands.
So there you have it! These expressive devices should inject some colour and meaning into your performing. Like everything else, you’ll need to practice and experiment and with time and patience you’ll find a balance that facilitates your most expressive, engaging and genuine performance while hopefully maintaining a manageable amount of emotional engagement on your part. Remember to focus on the music and giving it up to the audience rather than listening to your ego or being overcome by the emotions you’re trying to convey. Good luck!