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    They’re singing so out of tune . . . they could be a big star!?

    Image - cat sitting on drum and singing with drummer

    Rocker cat singer - hard out technique

    Bad singing technique – is it really such a barrier to making it big?

    Have you ever noticed how many singing stars habitually and regularly sing, ‘out of tune’, nasally, with shallow gaspy breathing and / or loads of throat constriction? This is something that quite frequently preys at the back of my mind when I listen to a number of not only, ‘new on the block’ but also iconic contemporary singers. In recent years the show ‘American Idol’ coined the word ‘pitchy’ to describe singers who couldn’t sing consistently on the right pitch. That word has now passed into the vernacular and become the default comment where the judge seemingly has no other useful insight. However, ‘pitchy’ has struck me as meaningless in so many ways, as there are a number of globally famous singers who have managed to turn consistently off-key, nasal, guttural or constricted singing into a signature style without apparent detriment to a mega career.

    What is bad singing technique anyway?

    But before we get down to my list of mega-stars with less than traditional technique, let’s dig a little deeper. When we talk about ‘bel canto’ technique there are a number of basic criteria used to identify what constitutes a good technique. This list would include the following concepts.

    1. ‘Appoggio’ – or consistent supported sound – a sound that ‘leans in’ to the support of the expanded rib cage and engaged abdominals.

    2. A smooth legato with ‘tall vowels’ that optomise the 4 resonating spaces of the body (chest, throat, mouth and sinuses)

    3. Masterful ‘messa di voce’ – the ability to ‘lean in’ to a note with a steady crescendo and decrescendo.

    4. A silent ‘quick release’ open-throated in-breath that expands the abdomen and flares the ribs . . .

    and the list would go on. However, when we get to contemporary styles the criteria becomes murkier, for instance:

    Good or bad singing technique is in the eye of the genre?

    1. In jazz technique it can be useful to sing with short clipped vowels and long consonants, have a breathy tone and sing a vibrato-less note that morphs into strong vibrato at the end of a sustained tone.

    2. In pop music it’s acceptable to slide up or down to the desired pitch using a pronounced vocal fry to start the note a la Brittany Spears. It can also be a good thing to sing with an unsupported breathy tone or use a pronounced strong glottal to start the sound. Nowadays it’s very common for a female pop singer to ‘unhook’ the head registration from the chest and exploit the pronounced ‘break’ between these two registrations a la Sara McLachlan.

    3. In musical theatre style it’s desirable to have a huge amount of edge or, ‘twang’ on the sound and exploit what in other genres would be considered an overly strident or ‘driven’ approach to producing sound.

    Concepts of good or bad singing technique become more arbitrary. More a matter of style and interpretive licence.

    I’ve often encountered this ambiguity in my singing studio. Say a singer asks me how they can sing a folk rock song with better technique. It becomes more meaningful to address this question by looking at how what is done can be changed to create a result more interpretively in tune with the singer’s vision of the song’s meaning. For instance, if the singer has an habitually breathy onset, but is singing the climactic passage in a song about the pain of lost love, it would be useful to give that singer the option to sing with a firmer, more glottal onset, a stronger tone with increased volume and a more frontal ‘edgy’ placement.

    Technique is really toolkit

    Image - Toolkit

    Singer Toolkit

    Therefore, I find my self speaking often to my singing students about the singers ‘toolkit’. The toolkit is the myriad options at their disposal to achieve the heightened stylistic and emotional effects they wish to convey per the genre they sing in. Basic healthful production is always paramount, but within that basic parameter the interpretive options are vast.

    Really when we’re talking about good vocal technique we’re really talking about the ability to –

    Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and be able to replicate it, or change it on demand.

    This means if the song and style calls for a soft dynamic with a breezy under-supported quality we can do it, and if it calls for a strong, highly compressed onset with aggressive frontal resonance we can do that too. A singer is an artist who paints with the canvas of sound vibration, the more diverse and vibrant the palette, the more expressive the artist.

    Finally, here’s my list of the top 5 stellar career singers who depart from traditional ‘good’ singing technique

    Image - Neil Young

    Singer Neil Young

    No. 1 Neil Young A brilliant singer-song-writer whose thin, reedy tenor is synonymous with many of the greatest anthems of the seventies. Neil’s delivery has always been low-key, exploiting a nasal, vaguely monosyllabic style with variable shades of,  ‘under the note’ delivery.

    Image - Bob Dylan

    Singer Bob Dylan

    No. 2 Bob Dylan Another great icon of the sixties and early seventies, Bob’s notoriously nasal and conversational delivery style defined the music of a generation. In most people’s minds in anthems like, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ the singer and the song are inseparable – sibilant nasality and all!

    No. 3 Joe Cocker This artist has enjoyed admirable longevity despite a high-pressure pharyngeal technique that makes me massage my throat muscles in sympathy! (When I was younger I couldn’t actually listen to this artist, the intense pressure on the vocal folds I heard would make my own throat close-up in distress!) However, for many who adore this artist, they associate the high vocal pressure delivery with emotional intensity and authenticity.

    Image - Christina Aguilera

    Singer Christina Aguilera

    No. 4 Christina Aguilera OK Christina has what is often described as a, ‘mean set of pipes’ but often, particularly in her more recent career, uses an extreme belt style delivery with loads of sub-glottic pressure and the chest voice dragged up from hell to high-water. I find this distressingly ‘hard out’ and worrisome. I miss the soft, sustained singing and occasional flagelot or ‘whistle tone’ that this artist was once capable of producing. However, legions of fans love these vocal habits associating them with a powerful and unique vocal presence.

    No. 5 Michael Buble OK – I’m going out on a limb with this one. He’s here because of being what I at least find offensively bland. It distresses me that many of my students are interested to sing the jazz standard (originally written for a 1965 musical), ‘Feelin’ Good’, but would rather listen to the bland Michael Buble version over the (for me) unforgettable Nina Simone version.

    Image - Michael Buble

    Singing - Michael Buble Image from Wikipedia

    Michael Buble is a charming, good-looking light jazz option but one a little heavy on the post-production sanitising and very heavy on the auto-tune. Better to have some idiosyncratic technical kinks than to be the auditory equivalent of highly processed cereal. My ears tell me Michael Buble has more to often than this, ‘normalised’ product and has good enough musicianship that he should ditch the auto-tune.

    So, do you agree or disagree? Who would be on your list?

    Other related posts:

     Top 5 Tips for How to Sing: No. 5 Trust your Gut

    Top 5 Tips for How to Sing: No. 4 – Always go back to the joy!

    Top 5 Tips for How to Sing: No. 3 Practice smart not long

    Top 5 Tips for How to Sing: No. 2 – Embrace your mistakes!

    Top 5 Tips for How to Sing: No. 1 – Get present!

    Next post coming up ‘Easy on the Auto-Tune Please!’