Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Finding Your Voice

If you want to get a sense of the self-involved arrogance of some practitioners of European classical vocal tradition, go browsing through YouTube for the various lessons on vocal technique people offer. I have no issue per se with anything that's being taught, and in fact most of it I'm finding useful and interesting (as somebody who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about singing), but the language that's used is so rife with assumptions that I want to reach through the monitor and shake these folks. What you find, again and again, are words such as "you don't want to sound like..." referring to perfectly natural musical expression of individual voices (and what my friend Keith calls "idiosyncratic vocal texture" which happens to be something I swoon over), or absolute assertions of what a "good" sound is, by which they don't mean "good" but a very particular highly-stylized and spectacularly unnatural sound, by any definition of "natural" that makes sense to me. Now, I'm not saying this is "bad" -- or that I don't understand and appreciate the skill and technique and even the musical tradition that classical singing techniques come from (I mean "spectacularly" here in quite a literal sense and I do love and worship spectacle) -- but what you see is a complete loss of that context, as expressed subconsciously through word choice. I get that these value-judgement comments are meant to be taken as value judgements only within the very specific context of the traditions -- but for the most part I do not believe that the people making these judgements get that at all, or -- particularly -- how specific their context is.

I recently saw Tim Eriksen give a workshop, during which -- in response to a question from a trained classical singer -- he pointed out (as observation, not criticism) that in the entire world there are only three cultures where "singing" is completely stylized: throat singing, Japanese opera, and European classical tradition (everywhere else it's just singing). Those are highly-skilled techniques (even high art, I think it's fair to say), but you'd think that the practitioners would at least understand this, rather than hold themselves up as *the* standard of what "good" singing is in a universal sense. As if everybody else would want to sing and sound just like this, if they only had the skill and training (which gets back to what I'm seeing as the assumptions and even the arrogance).

I was thinking about some of these issues recently as I've been listening to a CD by the Bay Area group Oak, Ash, and Thorn, much of whose repertoire comes from the folk/traditional world I know. It's unfortunate that I've just spoken critically of what I see as a purviewed arrogance before bringing this CD up, because I don't mean to imply this at all for this extremely skilled group of nice guys (one of whom I met and sang with at last year's Midwest Morris Ale). I just mean to point to what I'm hearing here as an example of what I mean by differing traditions in approaching songs and approaching singing as a whole. I mean, these guys are really really good (and I could write several paragraphs on what specifically they are doing vocally that is so good) -- but what I think about is why what they do is so different from what interests me in singing these very same songs.

So let's start with the differing purposes here. To me, the chorus/traditional song culture is about pulling people in for a collective experience -- so that my definition of "good" singing and "good" arrangements are those that work towards this goal. But a group that performs on a stage (and, I want to say, before an audience that has been taught to believe that "good" singing is "European classical tradition" singing) works towards something else. So, for example, a big thing that strikes me here is that the songs are nearly every one of them performed at what I think of as "Renaissance Festival" speed -- meaning twice as fast as you'd sing them in any other context. (If you search YouTube for "Bring Us a Barrel" you find a group at a RenFest singing it at the sort of breakneck speed I speak of here, since at a RenFest the goal is not really to have people join in.) The speed thing is not specifically about vocal technique, although it does show a flashiness and skill, but it's part of what I'm calling differing purposes.

What struck me most, though, was that these guys sure have pretty voices but they sound pretty much like every other very good classical small male ensemble. If you told me they were a subset of Chanticleer, say, I wouldn't hear the difference. Think of how much work and how many years they spent erasing idiosyncracy from their vocal sound (just like the YouTube instructors tell you to!). It's beautiful, yes, and something I'm pretty certain I could never do, but it's not what I would say should be a universal aspiration of "good singing". Now and then a small something comes through and I hear a recognizable voice and I think, "Yeah, that's really what I wish they would do more of" -- since these guys really do have strong musical voices and a sense of fun that I think is necessary here. I suppose that might reduce the goal of "blend", though. Do I have to bother saying that "blend" is not something I think of as a relevant goal to what I would be doing with these songs (and why I find The King's Singers -- supposedly the gold standard -- impossible to listen to)? The first few songs I heard on the CD, songs I know and sing, sounded like madrigals (rather than drinking songs). And then the next songs actually were madrigals. Ok. But boy, talk about mixed purposes.

And then there's this odd diction thing, what I think of as "choral ensemble diction". In some cases it's just weird -- they sing a setting of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and each time the word "pussycat" comes up they sing "pooh-see-kat". But mostly the diction thing comes with the letter "t", which they seem to be forming with their tongue at the front of the roof of their mouth rather than the middle. It distinguishes that from a "d", that's for sure. And I think that when you have a large vocal ensemble, you probably need to do things like this so that the words are understandable. (My solution would simply be never to have a large vocal ensemble perform on a stage, but that's just me.) So yes, you understand every word. A good thing, right? But it comes at the expense of natural speech.

Pretty tone, good support, clean intonation, vocal flexibility and musicality -- these are all things that I love in any singing context. Good things to work on. But folks: You have a voice. It's yours. Just sing with it. Use it to communicate. Use it to have fun. Use it to bring a roomful of people into your fun. To achieve this, it is not necessary to "place" your voice so it it not "nasal", or to sound like a Court musician. It's not easy and it takes practice and experience, but find your own way here and I for one will love you for it.
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