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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Well done, Jim! Your first posted comment piqued my interests: Defense of Classical (operatic) music. Alot of what you say is "right on the money"!!! It makes me more anxious to post my Blog on VOICE/SEAN NOS that I referred to here in an earlier posting. I'm taking my time before doing so because of my "Waltzing Matilda" blunder (see earlier comments in this group, as well as "VICTIMS OF THE BLARNEY" in the discussion section). When doing research, interviews and classes as well, sources need to be scrutinized.  It all tends to be subjective. There's Blarney,....and there's subjective truth, or "belief as truth". I'm trying to finalize my presentation for the Blog.

Of course, I have to take advantage of your descriptive posting to utilize my weird sense of humor: When you were a Freshman in the Glee Club, did you have that beard & glasses??? Tenor Ciambata,....sounds like a new "Subway" sandwich!!! Bob Dylan doing Sean Nos????? (Hey,.... he influenced ALOT of people, not only musicians). Well, I think my comedic urge has been satisfied (unfortunately at your expense). LOL };^)

Always a pleasure, JIM!!!! Cheers, mate!!!! Danny

Glasses?  Yes, I got my first glasses before I started first grade.  Beard?  Of course not; did you miss the part about no hormones yet?  (Hee hee!)

Didn't want to touch the "Hormone thing"!!!! {8^0    UUUUUHHH,....you know what I mean!!!!

I sang a lot as a kid...I was an only child, so it was one way I kept myself amused. Singing with the radio or records or while playing piano or guitar, as well as the singing we did in school.  I joined Glee Club in Junior High (much more boring in those days than on the TV show...but better than sitting in a regular classroom for that time period).  In 9th grade I auditioned for a small ensemble and got in...the first time I started realizing that other people might like the sound of my voice and that I might be better than I thought I was.  Sang in auditioned groups through high school and college (where I got a music education degree with music emphasis in voice, so I had lots of voice training).  I'd also had a bit of vocal training from my piano teacher while I was in high school.  When I finally got into Irish music, I found that I had to "unlearn" several things to be truer to the style. I worked to get more "life" into my singing style, allow myself to sing on the consonants sometimes, and even allow a bit of nasal tone (depending on the song).  I started listening almost exclusively to Celtic music (still do...once or twice a year, I take a week or two to listen to other music I like, but soon get itching for Celtic again).  One of my first influences in this genre was Connie Dover. Since she came to this music from a "trained" background, I can hear the mix of breath control and focus and clear, clean vowel production with the more traditional style. I think I decided to go with a softer sound mostly because I was trying to blend with several other people in my band...the focused sound stands out too much.  But I can still get there when I sing along with recordings by Connie and others, like Aoife Clancy.  Andy M. Stewart was also a big influence with repertoire and style.  I spent a lot of time worrying about where to put the ornamentation I was trying to learn (I didn't want to place ornaments where an American would if trying to sing like someone who grew up in the Irish tradition, for instance).  Altan was also another early influence.  A more recent influence, vocally and performance-wise, is Shauna Mullin.

Hi Devery,

In reading through your comment I was wondering if you might be able to expound on a few statements.

1 - "Unlearning" - From your training from Glee Club to your Music Ed Degree, I'm assuming you were taught to refine your voice through classical training. Your obvious ability to "listen and hear" the details of Connie Dover's transition from a "trained" background to a more traditional sound (recordings???) moved you to "unlearn" or "relearn" your own voice applications to Celtic music. Were you formally trained or self trained (mimicry???) in the finer details of Traditional Irish singing?

2 - "blending with other voices (in your band)" - Your music audio postings show-off that ability of blending nicely. I'm sure working in groups (Glee Club, ensemble, etc.) afforded you with experiences to refine those techniques. Your point of "the focused sound stands out too much" intrigued me to wonder: When doing solos in performance do you project a more "focused sound" as you do when singing with those recordings?,...or do you maintain that softer style as when singing with others?

3 - "singing on the consonants";"nasal tone"; "ornamentation" - Your statement of "didn't want to place ornaments where an American would if trying to sing like someone who grew up in the Irish tradition" was of interest to me. My own singing style (in ITM) is, at best, a form of mimicry. I have made contacts and arrangements for a more formal training in Trad Irish and Sean Nos singing but I think it's more for the Gaielge pronunciation (in Sean Nos) and the ornamentaion (my early attempts at ornamentation were pathetic "almost-yodelling-ramsheep-in-heat" warblings!!!), not to mention differences in area/location styles.  What exactly do you mean in that statement? If you're able to, please explain.

Your comment was enjoyable reading and I will be checking out your "Dover, Clancy, Stewart & Mullin" influences to listen to "what makes you tick"!!! Hopefully, YouTube will give me those chances. Cheers,


Let's see if I can answer your questions...

1. unlearning: I haven't had the opportunity yet to formally study traditional Irish singing, so it's all self-trained mimicry, as you called it.  I base my ideas on over 20 years of extensive listening to Celtic music via recordings and live performances, and things I've noticed over the years that sets apart these traditions from what I grew up with and was trained in.  I know there is a lot of variation in style, so I choose the performers I prefer, and emulate their styles (while allowing for the fact that I'm from Kansas and NOT Ireland).

2. blending: Thanks for the compliment on blending.  Even the head of the music department at my college told me, when I auditioned for a music scholarship, that I had a voice that would blend well (which also meant it wasn't really a solo voice).  Actually, though I can produce a nice focused tone, and can use it when singing with recordings where it is used (there goes that mimicry/blending tendency!), I rarely use it when performing because I haven't worked on using that focus without the "classical" mode engaged.  I worked to get "life" and "emotion" back into my sound for performing this type of music, and have just stayed away from anything that might tend to take me back the other way.  And it would also depend on the song.  My latest "party piece" calls for a much softer, breathier tone than I usually use, for instance.


3. ornamentation: That was how I felt early on, when I was first trying to figure out the ornamentation, and include it in songs that we wrote or where we didn't have a recording. I was terrified of putting the ornamentation in a place in the song where a person who grew up in the Irish tradition would NEVER ornament....  It took a lot of listening for me to relax about that...as I started to internalize the genre, I found that I started to naturally do the right thing (at least, I hope it's the right thing -- the Irishman who have me the accordion apparently thought I had the feel down).

That's great that you have made arranged to get more formal training.  I'd like to, but circumstances at the moment make that something I have to put on hold.

I hope I've answered your questions.  If not...ask some more.  It's good for me to actually think about the how's and why's...I usually just DO anymore.

Hi Devery, and Danny,

     I liked the exchange of ideas, and have a few more to throw into the mix.  By way of authority to talk about folk music, I was in high school during the Folk Revival of the early 1960's, and my wife was in college then and still has an excellent collection of  vinyl records from those days.  So,

     Opinion 1: While training is a good thing, a folk musician (and that certainly applies to ITM, or CTM (Celtic Trad Music)) needs this good thing in moderation.  Devery, when you say "I usually just DO anymore." I heartily approve; folk music, Irish more than some, is a very personal music.  Do it YOUR way, lady!  You're from Kansas, I'm from Ohio; of COURSE we don't sound Irish!

     Opinion 2: That said, I have to admit that at my age (64) I no longer have any dreams of getting paid for my music.  I do it strictly for fun - my own, and anyone who is listening.  But someone who hopes to turn pro must pay attention to the market.  Who do people pay good money to hear?  An aspiring professional needs to be aware of this.  "Mimicry" has an unfortunately negative connotation, but it shouldn't.  Granted, it's a very tricky balance - be yourself, but be aware of what (commercially) successful musicians do. 

     Opinion 3:  I told my two sons (the older likes theater, the younger likes music) in show biz, it's not enough to be good.  You've got to be good, and then you gotta be lucky.  So even if you still have a day job in 20 years, be happy that you gave it your best shot. 

     Observation 1: I noticed that of the four songs, three are Scottish.  I wondered if you are familiar with the Tannahill Weavers, who do "The De'il's Awa" on their "The Old Woman's Dance" album?  You'll love them, I guarantee, and may get some ideas on instrumentation.  Also Andy M. Stewart, in Silly Wizard.  Listen to "The Rambling Rover", which backs up Opinion 3. 

Hey, Jim. Thanks for weighing in. 

As for your age...we had a guy in my band Claddagh Ring who started with us at around 54 or 55 (the age I am now), and stayed with us until the group broke up (he would have been about 67 then...and quit due to health/hospital issues).  He stuck with us because he gave up the opportunity to join the New Christy Minstrels "back in the day", and regretted his decision.  We were his chance to get out and perform.  The group formed at just the right time...there was a resurgence of folk and Celtic music, and we were able to ride the wave. So, yes, luck is definitely part of it.

Mimicry, really, is how everyone initially learns a lot of things....  I have some "practice grandbabies" that I'm watching mimic sounds and actions all the time to learn speech and other things.  We learn our own accent by mimicing the sounds in the speech around us.  So to mimic someone singing in a style of music we want to learn is a natural part of learning.  Some people just go for learning the words and tune; others (like me) work to understand and learn more of the style, as well.

Yes, more of the songs are Scottish.  My current band focused on Scottish music first because of a Scottish festival we were going to perform at.  We then sort of started a tradition of picking a nationality each year and focusing on mostly that for the year to expand our repertoire.  Though my bandmate has gone back to school and we have slowed down, so we've been on Irish music for the past 2 years.  We did get a few more Irish songs in by St. Patrick's Day this year.

Yes, I know the Tannahill Weavers. I even got to see them live once - and asked the whistle player about a technique he was using.  Though I haven't heard a lot of their albums, and haven't heard their version of "The Dei'il's Awa."   I remember listening to their "Gypsy Laddie-o", trying to figure out the words.  It was on cassette tape back then, and we almost wore out the tape trying to get the words.  "Mak haste and soon be ready-o" really threw us for a loop.  We kept hearing "My caston soon be ready-o" and couldn't figure out what a caston was. 

I have plenty of instrumentation ideas (my bandmate and I often go to concerts by other local groups and "arrange" as we listen (that would be an awesome place for a whistle; this needs a bodhran, etc.).  Unfortunately, we have no instrumentalists to put them into action.  My blind bandmate is learning a bit (though mostly focusing on bodhran at the moment), so I end up with just playing my guitar (if I play anything). I miss the varied instrumentation of Claddagh Ring, where most of us played several instruments and switched things up a lot. 

And I did mention Andy M. Stewart (who I've now seen twice live) as one of my influences.  I'd known Ramblin' Rover even before I knew about Andy and Silly Wizard.  Claddagh Ring used to joke that if it hadn't been for Andy M. Stewart, we'd not have any repertoire...because it seemed like we were always saying that "we got this song from Andy M. Stewart".... 

Oops...gotta get ready for work.


Keep singing!

Hey Jim,

Glad you joined in. Hope all's well by you.

I'm hoping to make sure that I'm clear of what I mean by mimicry. When dealing with styles of a genre of music the presentation should be recognizable and fit with that style,.....meaning, a Sea Chanty should have a bit of swagger to it; Sean Nos should be presented in one style (per song), not a mixture of, say, Donegal (Ulster or something close like Scot Gaeilge) & Connemara (Connacht),....two completely different expressions yet both Sean Nos; Pub Songs (like the Sea Chanty) should have a swagger and be a little boisterous (get the punters to raise their glasses and join in). It's not to sound exactly like a particular singer (e.g.>Martin Carthy/Hog Eye Man; Bob Marley/Three Little Birds (Don't Worry 'Bout a Thing); Bob Dylan/Lay, Lady, Lay; Frank Sinatra/When I was Seventeen.),........but to be able to express an emotional commitment in one's own unique way that FITS with how you, the singer/musician, does a particular song!!! There are too many "Elvis" impersonators out there. ***News Flash - Elvis is Dead!!! Let him R.I.P.***

With Sean Nos and Traditional Irish singing there is a definite way of delivery to the listener that helps to define the song. The style should be expressed comfortabley,....not forced. Since, traditionally, the styles were taught in a "handing down" way (mouth to ear, so to speak; not formally trained), keeping with that tradition is very important. Regional variations are distinct. When we, as singers "not born to the area" (as well as those with local upbringing), attempt to express a song we need to rely on mimicing what we hear as best as we can,...whether we're listening/copying from a CD or lucky enough to sit with a singer of a particular style. This is particularly true when it comes to ornamentation. As Devery comments, it takes alot of listening to be able to relax and do the right thing,....and even then, it ain't easy.

Personally, I never want to hear, "Oh, he's trying to sing it/sound  like so & so!!!" (Tom Waite; Dr. John, the Night Tripper; Leon Redbone; Bob Dylan (of course),......you know, people with distinctive recognizable voices). But if their emotional expression is an important part of the song, I want to be able to deliver it with my own style. The mimicing would be more spiritual than physical, and the final outcome would be mine. I hope that's clear and simple. Cheers,


Tried to edit something from the previous comment but it didn't save. I'll add it here:

Mimicry: "But if their emotional expression is an important part of the song, I want to be able to deliver it with my own style (unless I'm changing the mood of the song: Johnny Cash/You Are My Sunshine = Sad, Dark, Haunting & Moody).

There ya go!!!


Yes. Well put.

I'm uploading a recording, from my Sony MP3 recorder, of me singing the comic song "Temperance".  It's not all that good, and I have recently realized something about myself.  I don't practice singing very much; I'd probably be a lot better if I did.  But I really don't like singing in an empty room with my voice just bouncing off the plaster.  The only time I really cut loose when I'm alone is when I am singing along, usually in the car, to an old favorite tune.  (Okay, old-timers, name that tune:  "Somebody give me a cheeseburger!" or "I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spotted some land.")   For me, singing is inherently social.  Somehow it's different than learning an instrument;  I don't want to inflict my attempts at an F chord, for example, while I'm learning bouzouki, on anyone I consider a friend.  But singing in an empty room is a chore.  Am I strange? 


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