The past week, two singers who take voice lessons with me in my Marin studio expressed amazement after listening to other singers. One student had heard Angela Lansbury singing “By the Sea” from “Sweeney Todd.” She specifically noticed how easily and efficiently she breathed, yet how powerful her voice and performance were. On the other hand, the other student, who sings in a different musical genre, was mortified at the poor vocal technique of her musical colleagues. I feel this is a very telling point in students’ progress. Through observing others, they are validating what they are learning themselves.
It’s not unusual, once you start taking singing lessons and learning about the breath, support, resonance, vowels and diphthongs, how the vocal folds work, that you start to listen to others. We start to hear the difference, for example, between a breathy vs. a resonant, focused sound. Some people, who love the TV singing competitions, start to look at how the featured performers position their tongue, drop their jaw, use their bodies. The student also starts to notice a professional singer’s timbre, ways of expressing. The student begins to make judgments about what works and what doesn’t. What they like or don’t like. They become more discerning.
This fine-tuning of our ears as voice students is very helpful because others may be mirroring something that we need to work on. For instance, if I tend to swallow my sound and need to work on a more “forward” position of the tongue, seeing a pro with a forward tongue and ringy sound can help me trust the “mechanics” of resonance. It may send me scurrying to a mirror when I practice. Am I really doing what I think I’m doing? This is a good question that only the mirror (or your teacher) can answer. On the down side, everyone’s vocal set-up is different in terms of face and body shapes. If you see someone with a “lantern jaw” really opening his or her mouth, that may be too much space for someone with a smaller mouth. So, technical imitation must be done with discrimination and care.
So, what is it that we are discerning? After all, everyone has his or her personal preferences. Some singers like a very nasal sound that to my ear is bothersome. Or, in a recent rehearsal, a cast member greatly praised one of the leads for how beautiful the sound was. To my ear it was pretty, but too breathy, especially in the higher register. To my ear, the singer lacked training. Of course, technique isn’t everything. There have been many wonderful, effective performers that a vocal coach might judge as having terrible vocal technique.
I feel that as voice students what we are really noticing is that “vocal training,” an efficiency of movement and bodily organization that leads to a free, expressive, and easy sound. In many ways, the more vocal training, the less you see it. It is “a way” of singing that allows you the fullest range of expression. In classical singing, for instance, if you have not mastered freeing the root of the tongue, resonance, range, and flexibility fall by the wayside. In musical theater, if you have not learned “speech-like” singing throughout your whole range, some roles just wouldn’t be available to you. As a crossover singer, I was very excited in my last concert to be able to switch from opera to musical theater successfully and tirelessly. That is what vocal training did for me.
I hazard to say that the degree of vocal training varies with the challenges of your style. A male rock singer will need to be able to fully belt a high F or G. A crooner need only find a comfortable key. A coloratura soprano needs a lot more vocal training to reach the highest part of her range than, let’s say, a legit musical theater ingenue, who might only need to sing a high G. However, vocal training can extend you past your performance range, keeping the voice flexible and available for those challenges around the corner. The key is the outcome. If you are tired after singing or hear glitches and bumps in your range while singing, that’s a problem. Vocal training helps our voices stay healthy and balanced.
So, when you sign up for singing lessons, don’t be surprised if you suddenly start to notice – and perhaps get a bit “judgy” – about other people’s singing. It’s a sign that your ear is getting more attuned to the wonderful world of the voice.