Choosing Dysfunction

Occasionally I run into a person who chooses to sing in a way that forces the voice into a compromised place. This kind of choice is only possible if the compromised place is not one which impacts vocal health or musical expression.

I have worked with someone who sings jazz in a low, deliberately “smokey”, breathy place and who speaks in that same place. She also has a rather loud “opera-like” classical sounding top to her voice, but the middle never holds together. She is capable of making a clear undistorted sound in mid-range but when she does, she resists this sound, saying it “isn’t her voice” and that she “doesn’t want to sing there.” OK. She is an adult. She can make that choice.

The problem is, unfortunately, that she is teaching. If she has a student who has mid-range issues, she is going to have trouble making a decent illustration. Healthy vocal function that maximizes vocal choice presupposes a few things. One of them is that the basic sound is clear and that there is a unified quality to the entire range from low to high. Another is that the vowel sounds are acoustically efficient and not dependent upon amplification but use it  as a choice, a boost, and an enhancement. Breathiness makes acoustic efficiency nearly impossible.

If you are going to teach and you want to represent the best that singing can be in terms of how your voice works, you have to be willing to make healthy clear sounds that are unified and under your control, but sung freely, across your entire range, if you want to be a good role model. Not to do that means that you must explain to your student that you have chosen to sing in a way that prevents you from having an optimally developed vocal instrument for artistic reasons. Then, you must tell the student, do not do what I do, do what I say. That’s hard, but it is the only ethical choice.

If you are willing to accept a limited image of your voice, by falling in love with only certain parts of it, no one will stop you. It’s a trap most of the time, but as I have said before, there are no “voice police” and if you can sing and have a career that way, good for you. If, however, you are teaching, you must remember to work very hard to guide your student away from what you do to something else. That this is difficult should be obvious, as a great deal of singing training comes from what we hear and how we model that. If we cannot copy our teacher’s vocal production, we have to work much harder to find the sound that is optimal for our own voices.

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