Keep the sound spinning – what are they getting at?

For the first installment of this series let’s talk about the commonly used word “spin”.

I refer to a sung sound that has vibrato and a sense of ease. We generally don’t think of Janis Joplin, Billie Eilish, or Phil Collins as “spinning the tone”. They are on a different track. On the other hand, we have Kelli O’Hara, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lawrence Brownlee, who can be said to sing notes that spin.

When you are spinning a basketball on your fingertip or keeping a merry-go-round rotating on the playground, you continue to apply just a small amount of energy, at the right speed, force, direction, and interval to keep it going. You don’t throw the yo-yo at the ground as hard as you can to get it to go; it has to be just right. A voice can be overwhelmed by too much breath pressure, excessive tensions, and striving to make more sound than the voice can give easily. When a singer is holding a note beautifully, we have a sense of delight and ease when it is “spinning”. It is being fed just the right amount of energy, with good efficiency, to turn the energy into a musical sound. An evenness of sound and a regular, pleasant vibrato are signs of what we call a spun tone. We tend to apply this term to lower and medium volumes more than loud ones, but they all can “have spin” if they are sustained and vibrating regularly.

As a reminder in the studio, “letting it spin” can mean “back off a little bit” or “we need to get your breath energy in sync with your resonance” or even “we need to find a key for this song where you don’t strain at all”. It generally needs to be experienced by a singer, accidentally or organically, before it is a helpful directive. Very few people have the combination of kinesthetic sense plus the ability to translate a metaphor to the body, to make it happen by being told to spin, unless they have already experienced it from the inside.

“Spin” and “bloom” are sometimes used to mean the same thing. The blooming of a flower is also something you can’t force. The plant has to be ready to bloom, and it needs the right conditions. Conditions for the singing version would include: optimal breath pressure, good-enough fold closure, instantaneous balanced onsets, a vocal tract shape that resonates the sound well, optimism, enjoyment, and commitment to the lyric as music. Avoiding cheerleading, hangovers, and rage also help.

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