Changing Vocal Identity

A colleague recently posted a question about this situation: A student makes great progress on an exercise leading to better vocal function, but does not take that better function to his singing. “Everything reverts to the way it was” as soon as he starts singing. It frustrates both teacher and student.

I am reproducing my answer here, with minor edits.

I have dealt with similar things in students and even in myself at times. Just last week I had a student for his third or fourth lesson who said “Oh, the exercises help that? I thought they were just for warm-ups.” This, even after previously explaining the purpose of exercises. I’m working with another talented young actor who I call my “Little Robin Williams”. He’ll go through three or four vocal characters per song, and although  “his own” voice is very beautiful, he is challenged by presenting “one voice” for three minutes at a time.

Two important points before my complicated answer: 1. Have you, Teacher, explained your concerns clearly and simply to the student? 2. If the exercises are what the student needs, leading them to a new place, it may take some time before the better results in the exercises are consistently transferred to their performances. Tell your student that fact.

If those two points have been taken care of, the present situation could continue indefinitely until the singer begins to change his self-concept as “singer”. Until he came to you, he was not someone who did vocal exercises. As a vocal exerciser, he has bought into the idea that he must be flexible, experimental, and make all kinds of sounds. As a singer, which he has been much longer if he is a normal human being, he is bringing with him a self-concept that is many years old and was set long before he studied. Self-as-singer may be an extremely limited view.

Fortunately most people seeking vocal study want to change their singing, or know they need to change, or want to explore new possibilities. However, when the new possibilities are right there, ready to be incorporated (literally means ‘taken into the body’), and might lead to an abandonment of old ways, the egoic mind can hold on and fight to keep its current identity. Conscious or unconscious beliefs such as “I’m not someone who sounds like that [better vocalist].”, “Exercises are one thing, singing is another.”, “I don’t think I’m any good.”, “So far my label is ‘not so good singer’, I have no idea how to re-label myself as ‘good singer’. It’s not who I am.” et cetera.

This guy may have Dad issues and all sorts of psychological stuff. No matter, that’s not your job, even thought it affects your job. You just need to deal with here and now. It seems like he is bringing to you a self-concept that is stuck in his past, and isn’t quite ready yet to become someone new, in a sense.

So, if all of that is on the right track, what can you do? Enter, whimsy, experimentation, and imagination! Mimicking different spoken and sung ways of vocalizing. Impersonating different people, real or imagined, while talking and singing. “As if” exercises can be an enjoyable way to try on new identities. Have him sing as if he is:

  • drunk
  • sleepy
  • joyful
  • nervous
  • angry
  • overjoyed
  • elated
  • annoyed
  • 90 years old
  • 4 years old
  • Pavarotti
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Jason Mraz
  • C Lo Green

Feel free to make “good” and “bad” sounds. Talk a phrase, then sing it. Little chunks of playful experimentation. Song as acting. Have him take characters to the stage, even if it’s “not that kind of song”. Pretending to be someone else can be a very freeing exercise. With experience, the boundaries between identity, portrayal, superficial effect, etc. become clearer.

Often the teacher can be as kind and gentle and careful as possible about “the issue” while the student is still hearing and/or telling himself “You, Jack Spratt, are perfectly capable of singing with a free laryngeal suspension, so man up and do it!” No, no, no. If he can step outside of “being the old Jack Spratt”, he can be freed from a certain kind of immobilizing self-talk.

The above ideas have been developed from various coaches and teachers. They’ll shake things up!

One thought to “Changing Vocal Identity”

  1. I enjoy your posts, Brian, because these are exactly the kinds of things I used to ponder and couldn’t seem to find discussion for awhile back. You express the question and your answers really well.

    No matter who I am working with, I say many times right from the start, “you think you are here to sing but the process will take you through many personal and inner changes that are ultimately in your best interests. Singing is both an act of freedom and an act of courage. Don’t study with me unless you are prepared to to embrace both.” It is really a message I am reiterating for myself, over and over and over.

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