The world is filled with different styles and genres of music. Music is found in every culture, and although there are commonalities, each style of singing is different. Because of this, the music of one’s own culture growing up has a profound impact on the singer. Think about it: you can most likely make your voice sound like someone else, and even your accent is enculturated from the people you talk with day by day. In some cases, a person will not even realize he or she has an accent until moving to another place, even for a few months. I remember going to camp as a kid, and people would arrive from other parts of the country, they would leave worried they would sound different “back home.” I went overseas to teach, and the students thought I had a “funny accent.” Singing is no different than speaking in this case. The difference is singing “accent,” or style.
Most people have a favorite singer who they emulate, and wish to sound just like them. Here’s the problem with the idea of copying someone else’s voice: we were all made with different voices. The only way to sound like someone else requires the singer to modify his or her voice in an unnatural way, causing tension in the throat. So how can one sing different styles of music without tension? The keys is keeping to the basics of singing (correct breathing, open throat, and free of tension), and modify the vowels/consonants naturally. This will not create perfect copying of an artist’s sound, but it can create the proper style of singing.
The basic principle of all vocal music is the telling of a story through music and lyrics. Whether the genre is Hip Hop, Broadway, Classical, or any other, the singer’s job is to tell the story, both verbally and nonverbally. The verbal aspect of singing is the creation of stylistically appropriate sound with the voice, and the use of the articulators (tongue, teeth, and lips) to communicate the words. I’m sure you have heard a song on the radio you enjoyed, and could not understand part or all of the lyrics (until you looked them up online of course). If the singer does not communicate the lyrics effectively, the story of the song is incomplete and will not have the full effect on the audience. Even covers of someone else’s song can be told with a twist in the story through text emphasis. You may have heard a song done as a cover and thought differently of the lyrics. This is due to the singer either articulating the text (better or worse) differently, or a change in musical emphasis.
The singing is not the end of the storytelling, but rather the beginning. Studies have shown people communicate more nonverbally than verbally. In other words, you judge what a person means more by their body language than what is said. There have even been studies where people were shown video of different singers, using the same vocal recording for all the singers. People thought they heard differences in the music because they saw a different person “singing” the song. The singer is not just about communicating with the voice. The whole body must be involved. Too many singers forget this concept, and believe they are perceived a certain way (“I sound really good”) when the audience could not get past the singers body language (“He looked like he was not interested in the song at all”). There are several acting techniques that can begin to assist the singer’s awareness of body language. Look up pantomime skits online, and pay attention to the body language.
How does a singer know what the audience sees and hears? The simplest way is to either visually record yourself, or have someone watching you perform and critique it. The video recording may reveal more to the singer about posture and facial expression, but the singer is still biased (you either think you look great or horrible, in my experience with singer’s self examinations). The outside observe should not be too close to the singer, otherwise their bias will also show through, connecting their knowledge of the person outside of the performance to the singer.
Try and practice standing in front of a mirror and singing different types of songs. It is important to show visually what each line in the song is depicting. If the line is about death, a smile and raised eyebrows may not be the correct nonverbal. Likewise, an upbeat positive song should not look like a dirge. Another technique to focus energy on the nonverbal is to audiate, or sing the song in your head, while lip syncing along with the correct nonverbal. This eliminates one of the variables, the voice, and allows the singer to focus on the physical portrayal of the song. This technique may seem silly at first, but remember practice makes permanent.
Another technique to achieve the appropriate level of communication for any song is to visualize in your head the perfect performance of the song repeatedly. People captured in war use this technique to survive. By imagining they are somewhere else, they do not give in to despair. One military officer visualized the perfect round of golf on his favorite golf course, every day several times a day for the years he was incarcerated. After his release, he played the best golf game in his life, even though he was locked in a small cell for years. The key was envisioning every aspect of it: what the weather was like, how the club felt in his hand, the direction of the wind, where the ball went after each stroke, etc. If the singer envisions the performance in its ideal state, the mind can recreate that state in the actual performance.
Since every genre and style of music is different, I will not give specifics about each genre of music and how to sing it. Instead, I would encourage you to listen to different singers from different genres. Try singing that style, keeping the head free of tension while staying true to the music. In the demonstration video, there will be some examples.
Assignment on Videos
After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.
Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.
1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?
2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?
3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?
4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.
5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?