Voice: The "Natural & the Trained". Various thoughts on preparation of the use of Voice.

Before anything else (as far as voice is concerned) was the developement of vocal expression through sound to speech, and how the "voice" is used to convey our feelings and thoughts. In time, depending upon our social upbringing, music is introduced into the equation. From lullabys to simple "sing-song" ditties, a child learns to respond to and engage in this simple form of communication. Later, that development becomes more complex.

At an early age, with a good ear and the ability to mimic what is heard, a child soon learns to use their voice in a variety of ways. As far as singing (everyone can sing, not all become accomplished), there is something that happens that is acknowledged by listeners and qualified as "pleasant to the ear". Most of us learned to sing by what was available for us to listen to. We learned to develop our voice by the positive reinforcemnt given by listeners, and, to a lesser extent, what we, ourselves, found pleasing. Of course, older or adult singers, radio, songs sung in school or church, etc. have an impact in this development. There are "natural singers" that have the ability to produce sound that place them above others. At some point, a "training" comes into play, either self taught (through mimicry) or by an individual that may wish to provide the guidance. My brother and I sang at an early age. We were able to produce harmonies that were pleasing. Later, in school, someone took it upon themselves to provide direction for our talent. Later still, when we were old enough to have our own likes and dislikes in music, we sang the songs we liked with our own style. Mimicry (as a means of self training) plays an important role, with us wishing to sound like a favorite singer, or style of music (classical, rock, blues, jazz, traditional/regional, etc.). Then there's also the "established trained way"/"formal training" which incorporates breathing, projection, balance, scales, development of "one's ear", practice for perfection, etc.

The gist of this discussion is: how did you, as a singer, develop? What influences can you cite as meaningful and having an impact on how you use your voice?

 

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I performed once with a very good friend of mine that has a beautiful voice. In preparation to sing at a singers session (which he had never done), I gave him some recordings of Irish ballads, sea chantys, pub songs, etc. His take on the music was to "mimic" the singers of the various songs,....right down to the twangy sounding, enunciation/pronunciation, nasal sounding, exaggerated phrasing, etc.,....  It worked out ok, but there was no variation or improvisation to his performance. Singing with him (harmonizing) was both frustrating and fun: frustrating because I couldn't vary from what he was doing without throwing him off; fun because I knew exactly what he was going to do, and as long as I stuck to what he learned, we'd be ok. I laugh thinking: What if we did a Bob Dylan song? Would he attempt to sound like Dylan? THAT would be a nightmare.

Just a couple of rambling thoughts.

I think it is in the foreword to the English Book of Penguin Folksongs that Bert Lloyd tell the tale of the two farmhands who went to a recital of folksongs in the village hall.  "It's nice for him to have that piano going, i suppose."  "Yes," said his friend, "Doesn't half get in the way of the music though!"

I think with your friend he was suffering from the classical training.  Musicians and singers are taught to follow the dots perfectly and penalised if they don't.  It's only when they become "great musicians" that they are allowed to expand on what is written down.  Consider how a cadenza is played.  A cadenza is a bit of a sonata (say) that invites the player to make it up.  Good old improv!  Have a look next time you come a cross one and I'll bet a sardine to a salmon that the sleeve notes will tell you who wrote the cadenza.  They've lost the plot and are being over reverential to the written music.

Similarly, traditional singers, at least in my experience, use a 'natural' singing voice and don't try to overproduce the sound.  The whole operatic voice overpowers traditional songs.  And the classically trained voice tries to sing the dots as the classical musician has been taught that what is written down is what must be reproduced.  I get a song in my head and then sing it with eyes closed and it is the unaccompanied singing that lets the traditional way of singing out.  Once you accompany the voice, then you are putting a corset on the song.  Perhaps, you could try getting your friend with the nice voice to sing entirely by himself and persuade him to try the liberation!  It's like swimming naked in the sea; by golly, it's great once you are over your inhibitions!

Hey David, I agree with your comments. I can't imagine Pavoratti (<-spelling???) singing "Heather Down the Moor" or a bawdy sea chanty (Gilbert & Sullivan?????).  It would indeed be comical!!! My friend, however, has no formal training. He uses his good voice by mimicing what he hears. I have to admit that I am also guilty of using mimicry when singing alot of songs; not so much to sound like a particular artist but to express an "expected sound/feeling" to a song. For instance,.... a sea chanty has a certain "swagger" to the tune; a ballad may have an emotional expression in the voice that adds to the tune's sweetness or sadness; a pub song may have that "devil-may-care-let's-have-another-pint" sound that gets the pub attendees stomping their feet and singing along. My poor attempts at "sean nos" have been put on hold (I was told my pronunciation of Gaeilge needs alot of work, but I do try to practice it alone & not in public). My trad singing (unaccompanied) is also a work in progress since I'm trying to develop my own style & expression, and don't really wish to intentionally sound like someone else. I will sing trad songs in public and have done well (at least not too bad where folks would get up and walk out!!!!). The liberation you speak of is exhilarating and comes/develops with confidence, practice (doing it!!) and time. As far as swimming naked in the sea???? Are ye taking into account chilly weather and the demoralizing effects of "shrinkage" when you cite your "gotten-over" inhibitions????? LOL }; )

Cheers, Danny

I've taken to practicing my Voice with a good mic, amplifier and set of headphones (amp muted by headphone input). It's surprising what you think you hear (in an ambient setting) and what's actually coming across to those listening (myself included). It's done and helped alot for the subtleties such as lilts, emotional expressions, clarity, and staying in tune/on key. Some singers may stop one ear with their finger to have the same personal effect. Although singing in an acoustic environment (as a singing session or in a pub) you don't have the assistance of a mic for projection. But I still can appreciate how much better my voice is sounding these days.

Danny, it sounds like you are getting at least partway to where you want to be.  One of the essential differences between traditional singing and classical or even modern theatrical styles of singing is to do with how you present yourself.  The Commanding Officer (wife) used to perform in lots of amateur musicals.

They would joke about TTA as the preferred style on stage.  TTA? Teeth, Tits and Arse.  It's how stage performers do it, all projection out to the audience.  

Now watch a traditional singer perform a ballad.  Eyes closed, focussed on his or her inner space.  Then notice how the audience respond and how he draws them into him, rather than he reaching out to them.  The knack is in creating your inner space and singing in it.  make the audience do some work.  That's why amplification is not always a good thing. Forget about the projection.  That's ok for rowdy sea shanties and the like.  For the more lyrical and poetic songs, have confidence in the audience's response.  If you are doing it right, they will shush each other up.

Have fun

David

Thanks for the supportive words, David. You know, you're right about the projection thing. The last session I attended we were doing the "music round". When it came to my turn to suggest a song, I started talking about "Waltzing Matilda" (just to the session mates, not the talkative audience). They didn't know that the song isn't about a woman but about the swagman's blanket (being his only companion, keeping him warm at night and affectionately calling it Matilda). Anyway, I started playing and singing a slower version of the song,... ballad-like,....as you put it,...eyes closed singing with ALOT of feeling and emotion in my voice. I didn't notice at first but the pub got quieter as I went along. By halfway through the first chorus the pub was quiet and some patrons were joining in. That kind of feedback from an audience is like a drug. By the last chorus (repeated twice), EVERYONE was singing along. At the closing/last strum of my guitar, the sound faded to about 3-5 seconds of silence, then cheers and applause from all there. I'm sure the song being so familiar to many was an encouragement for the patrons to join in, but there was that moment when I KNEW I had them all with me. What a feeling!!!! Cheers. mate!!! I hope all is well by you and yours. Always a pleasure,

Danny

The way I heard it, "Waltzing Matilda" is about a Swagman (hermit/homeless man) trying to survive in Australia by living off the land. His only companion and item of comfort is his blanket named Matilda. Living free and alone has taken his mind to a special place. His poaching of a Jumbuck (rabbit) and the rage of the squatter (landowner) cause him to commit suicide to remain free. Any Aussies out there wish to confirm this?

Thanks for that info Peter. Takes me back to an evening in the 1960s when the local chamber of commerce put on a reception for commonwealth students coming to the Potteries. I was at the University of Keele and heavily involved in the Folk Club when we were asked if we could provide a musical contribution to the evening. Free food, just try and keep a student away from the party. Now I like Aussies. Give them dogs's abuse, of course, but it's mutual so good fun all round. The plump one kept shouting for Waltzing Matilda (which we always thought WAS the Aussie Anthem). Get your body up here, we told him. And I started. Guess who knew the words! Correct. It was the whingeing Pom! He bought me a beer! And I bought him one back!

I love it when I'm shown that I don't know what I'm talking about!!!! Many thanks, Peter!!! My source for the "incorrect knowledge" of the song shall hear about this. I guess my "romantic appeal" of a homeless crazy man doing a "walkabout" (waltzing) and finding affection in his "blanket"/bedroll got the better of me. Now it "really" makes sense how Aussies have a strong feeling for this song. It was explained with certainty that the Swagman was an Irishman sentenced to transportation from Mountjoy Prison/Spike Island to Tasmania/Australia then escaped to roam the country. WOW!! IS THAT WRONG!!! Although I'm slightly embarrassed at my ignorance, I'm very happy you set me straight. Shows me I need to research and confirm before opening my mouth with confidence & certainty. Cheers to you, my good man!!! I owe you a pint,....or two.

Danny

The more I think about it, the funnier it is!!! I have to laugh at myself thinking and wondering why Australians would hold a song about a crazy homeless man and his sorted affair with his blanket so close to their hearts!!!! I hope everyone realizes I meant no offense to ANYONE of Australian persuasion, and laugh with me at my ignorance and weird sense of humour. Ignorance is certainly NOT BLISS!!!! Just funny as hell!!!!

Ran acrosss this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-rivera/shouldnt-you-be-fatte... in the Huffington Post the other day, and thought I'd give it as a bit of defense for the classical side.  I'm not fond of bel canto myself, so I am not an opera fan, but it does have its own attractive quality.  Ms. Rivera makes a good presentation of how and why the style was developed.  While I'm not an opera lover, I like classical music in general.  It really is impressive to hear a soloist in, say, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and realize "Hey! There's no microphone!" 

One of the peculiarities of Celtic, especially Irish, culture is that it was not a city, or even much of a village, culture.  People lived on small, one-family farms and seldom got together in large groups.  So Irish music developed as very much of a one-voice, one-instrument culture.  I found it interesting that while there are plenty of trad tunes, with melodies that are fairly traditional, there are no traditional harmonies for them.  Harmony and ensemble playing are very modern developments in Ireland.  The earliest recordings of Irish music have a singer or one melody instrument, but they are all accompanied by a piano.  The piano was because of the prejudices of American recording producers; they felt that one instrument, or an unaccompanied voice, just wasn't enough.  My Mom got an LP of John McCormick songs mostly from around 1920; we (my brothers and I) were tickled that on most of them he was accompanied by Edwin Schneider. 

I feel that this explains why sean nos is an individual, solo style.  When two or more people work together, they have to cooperate, regardless of what the work is.   In music, this usually means that if you have more than one person, you can't all be improvising at the same time.  Even in jazz, which prides itself so much on improv, the performers take turns improvising the lead, or the one big name pigs all the improv and the rest must follow.  No one is a slave to the printed notes, like classical, but even the leader is somewhat limited by what the sidemen are playing.  Sean nos is a free, liberating style precisely because you don't have to cooperate with someone else.  You can really pour your soul into a song, and ignore silly details like tempo or rhythm, and change the dynamics, or even the key, as you see fit.  Poorly done, sean nos can be self-indulgent and dreadful, but done well you can communicate really deeply to an audience. 

How did I develop?  I always liked singing, and sang some in the choir at Sunday Mass.  In high school, I lived far from school and the only extracurricular I could join was Glee Club as a freshman, since it was done in the free period after lunch.  I was a Tenor Cambiata, which sounded much better than Boy Soprano Whose Hormones Are Late.  As a grownup I did little public singing.  When I learned guitar and played for prayer meetings I found that if I played with a group I couldn't sing along; I screwed up both the singing and the playing.  So I mostly played; singers were more plentiful.  Later I got away from both playing and singing.  Recently I revived both.  But in my old age I've lost a step or two off the top end.  I may try a voice teacher to improve my general quality, and to see if I can get some of that top range back.   

Influences?  Well, like most people of my age Bob Dylan was an influence ("hey, if he can get away with that...").  The first Celtic trad singer I liked was Malcolm Dalgleish; he  had a "guy next door" quality that fit well with folk music.  I learned about sean nos from Brigid Fitzgerald at the Augusta Heritage Workshops; my first song was Arde Cuan (sp?).  And finally, the late Frank Hart, also at Augusta, had enough confidence to make me enjoy his singing (though he may have had even less technical ability than Dylan), and he showed me a big advantage of unaccompanied singing: if you screw it up, just start over and try again.

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