When I began teaching voice 22 years ago, I noticed that each student that came to me had their own individual package of strengths and weaknesses, some totally opposite others. After a few years, I noticed that breath issues, tight throat issues and communication issues are synergistic. Correcting flaws in one could correct the others. The health of the voice is determined by healthy physiological vocal technique, but the value of the voice is determined by the power of its communication skills. To develop these skills, I start with helping a student discover their voice’s ‘why’.
WHY WE CREATE VOCAL SOUNDS
In the highly competitive and judgmental state of our culture today, especially when it comes to performing arts such as singing, the main motivating goal of creating vocal sound is too often ‘to sound good’, aka ‘to not sound bad’. Making this the voice’s ‘why’ can give counterproductive results such as the following:
- Lacking a clear target to which to communicate, the voice sounds numb – without feeling.
- Lacking confidence in how it will be judged, the voice sounds inarticulate and weak.
- The emotions expressed are mismatched – or have nothing to do – with the lyric being articulated.
- Vocal health is at risk from overblowing vocal folds to impress listeners.
We need to rethink our ‘why’. I would argue that the voice exists for one reason:
…to deliver messages!
Following the logic here, why should the voice create sound?
… to deliver a specific message to someone.
OK let’s clarify ‘someone’… the voice’s delivery target. Here’s a question I ask most of my students:
TO WHOM SHOULD WE BE SINGING?
Most often the answer is “to the audience, of course”. “Really”? I say. Then I use an old Taylor Swift chorus which goes ‘Some day I’ll be living in a big ole city and all you’re ever gonna be is mean’. “Is that to the audience?” I ask. Then we laugh, and I offer this re-direction:
Sing to THE ONE HEART to whom the LYRIC is directed!
When we communicate to more than one heart, or to no one in particular, the vocal performance goes out diffused and unfocused, like a flashlight beam. This also happens when we’re still in rehearsal or ‘I’m thinking about communicating’ mode. We need to move from thinking to doing. When we fully commit and communicate to ‘The One Heart, the voice focuses like a laser beam on its target. This could be…
- One specific person – someone who you know, someone you make up, someone in the past, present or future.
- One specific thing or place (could be to a puppy, your new couch, Memphis, France, etc.)
- The one heart of the room, venue or universe.
- Yourself – but make sure you communicate EXTERNALLY to your mirror image, not internally, which can result in the inarticulate, weak vocal choices of what I call ‘singer-songwriter syndrome’.
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOUR MESSAGE GETS THROUGH?
So the voice should create sounds that deliver a message to the one heart targeted by the lyric. But how do you know your message is received? The answer is an important element of acting technique:
You get a Response, or Reaction!
It’s not enough to deliver your message. If it doesn’t get through, delivering a message is a useless action or at best, just a vocal exercise. If it does get through, the evidence is the reaction you get in the body and/or facial language of the heart you’re singing to. You’re not a mind reader; you really need to see it. If you can’t see them in the flesh, then you must use your imagination.
What response/reaction do you want? Most people initially say “applause”. But that, along with being offered a record deal or winning a contest, is just the ‘gravy’ that comes when you succeed in your primary goal: to get the reaction you want from the heart you’re singing to. So…
The reaction you want depends on the song you’re communicating!
USING “THE RESPONSE/REACTION” AS VOCAL PRIME DIRECTIVE
When your ultimate reason for making a vocal sound is to get a specific response or reaction from a specific heart, your voice gets very clear direction as to choices of tone color, articulation clarity, dynamic shifts, vocal embellishments and all kinds of vocal nuances. In other words, the prime directive of getting the reaction you want tells your voice what to do.
Here are some examples of how this prime directive works.
- You sing the Lennon/McCartney’s song “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away; now it looks as though they’re here to stay… why she had to go I don’t know, she didn’t say…”. Your message is… “I miss her and I wish I could go back in time”. Your ‘one heart’ is the heart of the room. You want a response that tells you that heart is sympathetic, which can look like stillness in the body language; perhaps a tear from someone who is missing their own someone. Operating on that prime directive, the voice will choose sounds that are wistful, clear, resonant and passionate – not inappropriate tone that is pushy hard, dynamically over-sappy, numb, tight or weak.
- You sing John Prine’s song “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery… to believe in this living is just a hard way to go”. Your message is… “I am fed up and need a break from this hard life I’m living”. It is introspective but NOT internal! You are talking to the one heart of the room, the universe, to yourself, or to God. The response you want might include some affirmative head shaking and wistful smile like that target heart is joining you in empathetic lamentation. Operating on our prime directive, your vocal tone will be rich and dynamic, perhaps with some bluesy scooped pitches and unconstructed nuances that resemble talking more than singing – not inappropriate ultra precise, over-articulated, smiley or numb.
- You sing Aretha Franklin’s song ‘… “all I’m asking is a little RESPECT when you come home… hey baby…” Your message is… “I am sick of your taking me for granted and deserve to be treated with respect.” Your ‘one heart’ is your spouse or significant other. You want a response that looks a bit slumped; the body and facial language that indicated the person is sorry and uncharacteristically submissive, and possibly smiling slightly because you haven’t left him yet! Operating on this prime directive your voice will choose crisp, bright, strong, happy tone tinged with sarcasm – not inappropriate dark tone, slurred articulation or dynamics that change too much.
TEACHING ‘THE RESPONSE/REACTION’ AS PRIME DIRECTIVE FOR THE VOICE
Signs that a vocal student may need lessons in this prime directive include issues like the following:
- They don’t (or have been told they don’t) sing with enough feeling. They sing with numb dynamics, weak and/or tight tone and muddy articulation.
- They sing with too much feeling (they sound inauthentic or pushy, with sound that is inappropriate for the message).
- They feel disconnected from the song and/or their audiences when they sing.
- They are passionate and have a lot of technique but they way they sing a song has no relationship to the lyric of that song. In other words, they are singing to the wrong target and therefore make vocal choices that don’t deliver the right message.
Tips for teaching communication skills for stronger vocal performance:
- Make sure the songs they choose have messages they feel good about delivering. If not, maybe just use that piece as vocal exercise but help them choose another song for performance!
- Work with them using acting technique. Help them discover the messages of each line of lyric, as well as the overall message of the song. Help them to choose ‘The One Heart’ to whom their lyric is directed. Ask them what response they want and what that response would look like. Then ask them to imagine an appropriate movie scene for their song. Finally, have them sing with the prime directive of getting the reaction they want to the message they are delivering.
- If their articulation is too muddy or tone too tight and thin, ask them to imagine that the heart they are singing to is partially or selectively deaf. The person needs to be able to read the singer’s lips and facial/body language to be able to understand the message.
- Be aware of the body language and posture of the singer. Show them how crunched or slumped posture and poker-faced frozen eyes and jaw communicates weak messages.
- Another side benefit of singing to ‘The One Heart’ is that stage anxiety changes to performance confidence. My friend performance coach Diane Kimbrough says “nobody cares what you (the singer) feel”. The only thing that matters is what you make your target heart feel! This takes the pressure off the singer, while giving the voice clear direction.
HOW THIS PRIME DIRECTIVE AFFECTS BREATH & THROAT
Using response/reaction as vocal prime directive puts the mind/body/voice connection on autopilot. The body and throat will configure themselves to a degree in order to produce the vocal sounds required to get that response. There is an awesome synergy in improving breath, throat and communication skills, and so it’s important to be able to discern issues and teach better techniques in all three areas. But many times, I start with communication skill because it demands more breath control and a freer throat channel.
And in the end, which makes the voice more valuable… perfect breath and throat technique, or the strength of the response to the voice’s performance? We can all think of less than perfect voices with huge fanbases, touring schedules and recording deals.
The performing voice, at its best, needs to make someone feel something. And get a reaction as proof!