Partners: The Voice, The Song, The Personality

R & B or Rhythm and Blues, a form of rock music that has its roots in jazz, has very specific characteristics and you have to have a feeling for what they are. As with any style, in order to do it effectively, you have to have the sound “in your ears” which takes a lot of listening. If you do not grow up with this music, or grow up singing it, you don’t really just “do it” without help. This is true of Broadway stylistically as well. Many classically trained singers/teachers just don’t have the feeling for Broadway, even when they think they do, and even when they teach it. It’s hard to explain in words. Even the true jazz folks often don’t do well with Broadway, as it isn’t improvisational but you don’t always play what’s written exactly as it is on the page either. Some things adjust more than others. If you don’t have the difference in your ear, you can’t fake it. This has to do with how much listening you’ve done to any particular style (but under the guidance of someone who can teach you how to hear) but also how much you have sung in those styles.

The sad thing is that the people who “crossover” without working on style with someone who actually is expert in that style, often don’t know that they don’t know. I’ve seen this more times than I care to think. Young people sometimes think singing something in a different manner (a guy singing a girl’s song, making a serious song a parody, etc), in other words, taking a song and standing it on its head, is OK because is it. “Different for its own sake as an end in itself.” They think it shows how creative or talented they are but I always find this pointless. It takes a lot of skill to pull off a switch of this kind and many people try and fail. (Just ask Renee Fleming or Michael Bolton.) This is why I typically am against teachers in colleges having students sing material that the teachers do not do, because the teachers often don’t know what’s missing themselves and that just adds insult to injury.

Anyone who did our gospel workshop, taught by Dr. Ronald High, at our Institute at Shenandoah Conservatory in July will tell you that singing gospel isn’t just about learning the songs and singing them with “emotion”. Until I sang with professional gospel artists for five years, I had no idea of what was and was not part of that idiom, but I learned. I still don’t sing gospel tunes like the great gospel belters (wouldn’t think of it) but at least I can hear and appreciate what they are doing when they are secure and expressive.

There has to be a connection between the voice (or the vocal instrument), the body (posture and breathing), the personality of the singer, and the kind of music being sung. They work best when they match. Anyone who is going to sing metal had better be an athlete. If you are going to sing folk songs, maybe that’s not so necessary. If you like doing theater songs, you have to be able to act authentically but you need to know the difference between singing a song that was written in the 30s by Irving Berlin and one from the 80s by Stephen Sondheim. You don’t sing them the same way. The word “type” as it applies to theater is there for a reason.

If you are a shy 20 year old female and have a sweet light voice and no formal vocal training, and you want to sing like Christina Aguilera, you are going to encounter problems. If you are a a rock singer whose only experience with singing has been in a band, and get cast in a Broadway show, without any further training or adjustment, you will encounter problems doing 8 shows a week. It happens, and more often than you might think. If you are operatically trained and you have been hired to sing “Annie” in Annie Get Your Gun, unless you are really unusual, you will encounter problems, especially when you go back to singing opera.

If we need a specific example, let’s look at the song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls. This song, popular now for decades, is one that’s for a vocalist with a really hardy, powerful instrument with a strong body. It’s not for a lyric voice unless that voice is no longer singing lyric material and has worked for YEARS to go in a different direction. You really need both vocal and physical strength to do it well. In Somatic Voicework™ I teach that everyone can make all sounds but I also say that the instrument matters, as does training (both type and length) and life experience (studying and singing, listening and performing). In this, we establish boundaries of both personality and function, of musical style and appropriateness. I think those things set SVW off from other approaches (although I could be wrong because I am not expert in other people’s methods). We teach body/mind, spirit/music, science/humanity. If they are all not there, we feel that the delivery is, basically, “weird” or “wrong”.

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