The shapes of singing – Part 2 – Why can’t I just sing naturally?

You can. Nothing wrong with it. Many popular and successful performing artists stick with a natural sound; they sing like they speak in terms of resonance. But to do extraordinary singing in terms of power, pitch range, or riffing, you won’t be just “talking on pitch”. There is more to it.

Things can get weird when well-meaning voice teachers don’t have enough clues about style. We make certain kinds of sounds in certain styles because of tradition, not how “natural” they are. To a classical teacher, a voice is “resonant” when it displays the qualities I listed in my previous post. Some of those qualities are required in various styles, but “resonance” in general isn’t a factor at all for a huge swath of the music world. Maximized resonance such as that required for opera is not any more natural than being able to bench press 250lbs. Both require training. Just because it’s not amplified does not make it “natural”.

If someone singing in a style similar to Pink, for example, were to go to a voice teacher to help her keep her voice strong and stable on tour, she needs a teacher who understands the sounds she makes and isn’t going to try to make them “maximally resonant”, because resonance is not an important value in this case. With such a singer, I would still have them experiment with optimizing vocal tract shaping, but for the sounds THEY need, not for maximal acoustic efficiency off-mic with an orchestra, singing in Italian.

Very rarely, I have had a singer who previously sang modern popular styles who wanted to branch out into classical. I’m happy to work with that because doing something outside of the Comfort Zone has a lot of value. But much more often, I have had a person with a mostly-classical background who wants to sound more authentic in a popular style. These people often feel “stuck” because they have been fed ideas from teachers about the shapes of singing that will never let them get to the sounds they are attracted to.

There are typical sounds and shapes associated with every type of singing. Learning how to make those sounds can come by surrounding yourself with those sounds for a long time, and can be aided by working with someone who understands how to make those sounds in easier ways.

The microphone is looked at as an enemy by a lot of classical singers, but it is a great liberator if you allow it to be. You can leave projection to the mic, and play with a huge variety of sounds (i.e., shapes, trying to stay on topic here) easily. You can sing more like you speak over a wider range with amplification, for sure! Classical singers hate to admit it, but there are times when even they should use microphones. If the room is huge or sound absorbent, for example, you will need it. For most of us, we will need it if singing with an orchestra that is up on the stage with us. Even the Wagner operas were premiered at Bayreuth with the orchestra down in a deep, recessed pit. You are allowed to be a “classical singer” without being incredibly loud. It’s OK, really.

Now – shoe on the other foot – it is hugely helpful for singers in popular styles to work with a teacher without a mic. You need to know what your vocal “source” does in great detail. It will help you with getting the sound right when you perform. There are matters of scale in amplification. There will be times when you may need to sing 100% acoustically, like for really small rooms with just a few people, for auditions, or when serenading your sweetie on the balcony in Sevilla. There may be coffee shop gigs where you need a small, single amp boost, and then you may need a dedicated sound team and a wall of speakers to play Madison Square Garden. How to make the sound that is true to you in all those settings requires that you know your physical, acoustic, vocal source. You don’t want to contort your body into different shapes and settings in order to overcome crowd noise, not-great monitoring, or reverb (natural or added).

It is ever a challenge for singers of all genres to be true to themselves vocally in many different acoustic environments. Know thyself.


One Reply to “The shapes of singing – Part 2 – Why can’t I just sing naturally?”

  1. Bravo, this is a really insightful pair of articles that brings a lot of loose thoughts about singing styles in line and makes sense of them. Your work is incredibly helpful – Thank you!

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