Classical Crossover

Classical vs contemporary has always been one of the biggest issues facing the modern singer.  By no means a new discussion, often the choice is made for us by the music department of the university/college/conservatoire that we choose to attend, or in some cases, the choice can be made for us by the singing teacher that we choose to study with privately.  However, the issue is becoming more and more relevant for those singers who want to enter the professional market place.  

Over the last few months, I have had the privilege to work with an extremely talented, classically trained performer and vocalist called Joanne Dennis (www.joannedennis.com).  Joanne trained in one of the UKs leading classical conservatoires, The Royal Welsh College of Music, and is an operatic mezzo-soprano.  To say her voice is impressive is an understatement.  She could stop traffic!  She literally has one of the most powerful, resonant and expressive voices that I have ever heard.  And yet, Joanne has reported to me that over the years, the call for purely classical performances is drying up.  People want to see a show that has a mixture of repertoire from Classical/Operatic to Musical Theatre to Cabaret and Pop.  I recently visited Cork in Ireland for a week in order to run an intensive BAST Singing Teacher Training course for the Voiceworks Studio (www.voiceworksstudio.ie), ran by Gemma Sugrue.  The teachers I was working with all reported similar issues as Joanne.  They were all classical trained in various Irish Conservatoires, with the bulk of their work being in the contemporary music arena BUT many of them had successfully managed to "cross over", albeit with some initial difficult and trepidation.  

"Crossing Over" as a concept can be a problem for those singers who have purely been "classically trained".  Not just because of the different breathing coordinations or different vowel and formant frequencies that classical/operatic singing requires, but because often the culture around classical training is very conservative and can create a culture of fear amongst its participants that espouses that engaging with any other form of singing activity will be detrimental to their voices.  

Luckily, and in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.  Once you understand the scientific principles behind vowels and formants and the physiology and anatomy of the voice, there is no reason as to why a classical trained performer can't successfully "cross over" and sing more contemporary forms and styles.  Yes, it takes work and sometimes a considerable amount of time, but the rewards of exploring the voice this way in terms of diversity of repertoire and performance opportunities alone make the effort more than worth it.  

A good vocal coach/singing teacher should be able to help a classical trained performer to navigate the different factors that make up the contemporary voice in order to successfully "cross over".  In essence, a teacher that tells you that this isn't possible and shouldn't be undertaken is probably not a good fit for you if you sincerely wish to sing in a variety of genres.  

I've been working with Joanne on exploring her contemporary chest voice, belt and mixed registers and we've been having huge success - so much so that she is now working on a very successful set of material that will cross genres and she would be the first to tell you that she was convinced that she wouldn't be able to use her voice in a contemporary fashion.  It can work.  So much so that Joanne is now convinced that the techniques that we've been working with have actually augmented her classical operatic singing as well.  

If you are a classical singer and you would like to learn how to "cross over" or just want to explore the contemporary voice, get in touch!

Are You Over-Doing It?

I have to be very careful writing this blog because I am aware that as performers and singers we always want to do our absolute best.  I don’t want to encourage anybody not to give his or her best, however does your “best” have to mean busting a gut?  I routinely work with singers who have damaged their voices.  This damage is likely to occur due to a variety of factors including lifestyle choices, dehydration, sleep deprivation and vocal abuse aka over-doing it.  Firstly, let’s look at a few reasons why people over-do it with their voices.   

Performing is a peculiar thing when you think about it.  I know people who literally feel physical sick just before they get on stage, and yet still put themselves through the rigor of performance because they love it.  I know people whose body’s go into some kind of spasm during singing and I guess we’ve all had the dreaded “dry mouth” syndrome from time to time.  When all of that adrenaline kicks in, it can make us do or feel some pretty funny things, and one of them can be over-doing it with our voices.  

Now don’t get me wrong, this is incredibly easy to do, especially if you are a relatively inexperienced singer.  You want to prove yourself, you’ve probably worked hard rehearsing for your performance, and the odds are that once you’re onstage you probably can’t hear yourself anyway near as well as you could in your sound-check (presuming that you had one; you probably didn’t) and so when that adrenaline kicks in, you “go for it” and off we go.  

When I first started performing in Gospel Choirs and had to sing a solo, my right leg would go into involuntary spasm (luckily hidden by the robes that we wore in the choir), which was really annoying.  It wasn’t until a year later that I suddenly realised that the spasm had stopped, and it only stopped as I became used to performing, so experience played a huge part in my ability to shape my performance, however, I would still over-do it on stage.  

It wasn’t until years later and having worked in a number of different environments from temp work, to telesales, to IT sales, to performing and then teaching that I realised that as performers we could probably take a leaf out of the corporate world when it comes to performing.  What it boils down to is that no matter how much you enjoy singing and performing, it’s still your job.  

Which means that you’re expected to complete your job in order to get paid because by getting paid you can live and facilitate the continuation of your passion without having to take another job and therefore continue to sing and perform.  

So, how do people in the corporate world approach their jobs?  Well I’ve got it down to three modes of operation, which I think as singers we can also apply to our performance.  

  1. Working from home.
  2. Working in the office
  3. The boardroom presentation.  

So number 1, “Working From Home”.  

If you work in the corporate world, you may from time to time find it necessary to work from home.  This may involve you sitting around in your sweat pants for half a day, watching “Jeremy Kyle” and updating your Facebook status every fifteen minutes or so.  You will eventually get around to doing some work, but overall I wouldn’t imagine that your efficiency output would peak at more than 60%.  

Number 2, “Working in the Office”.

Working in the office is probably where you are at your most consistent level of efficiency.  You make an effort to make sure that you look and dress appropriately.  You turn up on time and make sure that you do the work that’s required of you throughout the day.  You may skive a bit here and there (odd sneaky tweet from time to time) but by and large you do a good day’s work.  You’re probably worked at about 75% efficiency.  You go home fairly tired but not exhausted by any means.  

Number 3, “The Boardroom Presentation”.

So here’s where you pull out all of the stops.  You’ve put on your best suit, your makeup is impeccable.  You’ve spent hours on your PowerPoint presentation (Keynote if you’re a mac-whore like myself) and you’ve arrived early to make sure that you’re especially prepared.  This presentation today is key to your career so it’s an important day.  You’re probably pumped and working at about 90-95% efficiency.  You go home exhausted but can’t sleep because you keep replaying the presentation over and over and over in your mind.  

Where am I going with this?  Well, if you treat every gig like “The Boardroom Presentation” and lay awake at night replaying every moment in your head, then you’re probably over doing it.  

Why not try to separate out your gigs/performances by the above criteria.  Do you have any gigs that would qualify as your “Working From Home” gigs?  Like restaurant work, where you’re essentially ignored whilst people dine?  What about that covers residency that you play at for that popular bar in town?  Would that qualify as your daily bread – your “Working In The Office” gig?  What about that EP launch, or showcase for some A&R people?  “The Boardroom Presentation” by any chance?  

Try to figure out which gigs you can hold back on.  You don’t have to give 100% of your voice all the time!  You can easily use your body language and facial expressions to create the illusion that you’re killing yourself on stage if that’s what your genre requires.

Now there is a compelling argument that says that in reality, your body should be fit enough to meet the demands of performance and your voice should be in peak condition in order to maintain your very best – and that’s all good, and I agree with a lot of that, however, I still think there is a strong case for not over-doing it all of the time.  

Think about it.

Be Sure to "Practice" and Not Just "Play"

Let’s face it, some of us singers can be an ill-disciplined bunch.  Especially when you find that you have quite a naturally good singing voice.  The idea of practicing can go right out of the window and at best we’ll commit time to singing through a couple of songs and call it “practice”.  This will probably happen in the shower.  Not good enough.  

Studies show that the most efficient and effective practice has to be specific and targeted.  

Sometimes it can be helpful to think of things on two separate scales, one is talent (assuming that talent is innate and not cultivated – whole other blog right there!) and the other is functionality. 

You can grade yourself 1-10 on both of these scales. 

Let’s assume for a second that talent is set and therefore doesn’t change, you can be a 10 in talent but only a 2 in functionality, which probably doesn’t make for a very consistent singer.  A “2” in functionality could mean that the singer is prone to losing their voice quite consistently, and therefore has to cancel gigs because of this.  This person could also run a high risk of acquiring a vocal injury.  This could also makes recording the voice a long process due to fatigue and general inconsistency.  Practice becomes an irrelevancy because they can do what they do very naturally.  At best they may warm up the voice and cool down.  

On the other hand, the singer who has a 5 in talent and a 10 in functionality is soon going to overtake our first example because of their commitment to improving their abilities, making sure that their vocal health is excellent and consistently challenging their voice.  These singers will rarely have to cancel gigs and will never be afraid of trying new things and will always keep pushing the boundaries of what they can do.  

A perfect example of this type of singer in my opinion would be Madonna.  Very few people would say that Madonna has an “amazing” voice, but again I don’t believe that many people would accuse her of not working extremely hard at what she does.  She constantly reinvents herself and always performs to an exceptionally high standard.  

A really great example of a singer who has a 10/10 in talent and functionality would be Beyoncé.  That woman is a machine.  Nuff said.  

Now, because I don’t particularly want to name names, I reckon we can all have a think and come up with a few examples of very talented people who have a low functionality that has caused them problems professionally and medically.  

DISCLAIMER, these examples are just my humble opinion and I’m not intending to put down anybody, especially a singer who has sold millions etc.  

There’s an awesome book and it's called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which deals with the idea of innate talent and explores “talent hubs” around the world that have produced awesome tennis players (Russia), amazing soccer players (Brazil) and fantastic singers (USA).  

In his book, Coyle talks about the “Myelin Sheath” which is an essential part of how our brain works.  A “Myelin Sheath” is a bond that wraps itself around the electrical impulse that fires between two neurons in the brain.  In the most simplistic sense, every time you perform an action that fires between two neurons, a “Myelin Sheath” wraps itself around the created pathway and reinforces it.  The more that action is repeated, then the more Myelin secures and reinforces the pathway, which is why we can learn to do different and new things, like learning an instrument for example.  At first even the most basic scales on a piano can be really difficult to get your fingers and head around, but over time, the more Myelin that wraps around those neural pathways, the easier things become.  

Interestingly enough, some animals are born with certain amounts of pathways already secured via Myelin, which is why some animals can walk from birth.  

What does this mean for the singer?

Well, rather than singing a song through from start to finish, you need to target specific phrases and sections of the song that require practice.  It could be that you need to spend a significant amount of time, say 20 minutes, on one particular phrase, making sure that you’re in pitch, that your diction is good, that you can reach all of the notes etc.  One particular skill we can develop through targeted practice is that of riffs and runs.  Remember every time you perform an action, the pathway in the brain is reinforced and the more you practice that action, the most secure that connection becomes.  

20 minutes is the optimum time for practicising one particular phrase.  After 20 minutes you will start thinking about your grocery shopping or what you're having for dinner that evening. Now, if you manage to nail that phrase after 13 minutes of practice, stop what you're doing and walk away.  It's better to leave on a high than try and do the same thing again and end up practicising the wrong way again.  Does that make sense?  You want to leave you brain and your muscle memory with the memory of you performing the phrase correctly!  

So remember, 20 minutes of targeted and specific practice and don't just sing through a song!  Analyse your Talent vs Functionality scale and see if you can get yourself up to the 10 in functionality!  Happy practicing!  

The Importance of Cooling Down the Voice

If you’re not warming up, you’re probably not cooling down

You’ve just finished your gig and you feel awesome.  Your voice has lasted (for the most part) and now you want to nonchalantly pretend to pack your gear down whilst looking out into the crowd in hope that somebody wants to come up and congratulate you on, or at the very least talk to you about your performance.  If they don’t come to you, you’ll probably mosey on over to the bar, (slowly, to give people a chance to congratulate you) and get yourself a pint and talk to your mates (or anybody who has actually come over to congratulate you).  

Funnily enough, this is where you’re going to do the most damage to your voice.  

By now the sound engineer has turned the loud music back on and you find yourself talking, loudly, drinking, laughing, flirting…..etc. for a couple of hours.  You have a couple more pints, go out for a kebab or a pizza and manage to crawl into your bed at 2-3am and wonder why when you wake up the next morning (afternoon) you have no voice.  

Not good. 

You probably have some vocal fold oedema (posh swelling) and maybe some acid-reflux irritation and really dry cords because you’re dehydrated.  And then if you’re on tour (God forbid because that means you’ve had no sleep on a bus with the air-con on all night) then you’ve got to do the whole thing again that evening.  

So how to break the cycle – or at least disrupt if for a while?

The answer is quite simply to cool down.

You can do exactly the same exercises that you do to warm up.  Again, my favourite is the straw by far.  Cooling down is really going to help you to preserve your voice.  Instead of rushing off the stage to meet your adoring public, take time to pack down your gear, all the while humming through your range  (nobody will hear you do this) and using the creaky hum and the “ng” sound as well.  If there is a back stage (if not, go outside) and use the straw to get through your range a couple of times.  

Avoid having vacuous conversations with people in the bar.  Avoid having to raise your voice over loud music.  I know that it’s beneficial to schmooze after a gig but sometimes you can really wreck your voice in that environment.  Remember this is your job and sometimes you can’t mix business with pleasure.  If people want to know more about you, then make sure that you have business cards etc. etc. that you can hand out, or arrange to meet or phone them.  This may not seem like a load of fun to be honest, but if you gig on a regular basis sometimes this will be necessary to avoid harming your voice.  If you can’t get out of the bar and you have to speak to people, please, please make sure that you cool down immediately after your gig to avoid any damage to your voice. 

The Importance of Warming Up the Voice

I know right, yawn.  And I do know what it’s like.  You get to the venue and all of your plans go out of the window because you’re so focussed on the running order, making sure you can hear yourself on stage (never happens) or just generally fretting about whether anybody will show up, or if they do show up, will they stay to listen to you; that warming up seems to be the last thing on your mind.  

It’s also not very rock and roll.  

However there’s also nothing very rock and roll about completely messing up your voice.  I guess that most athletes wouldn’t even consider competing without warming up.  There can be a common misconception that warming up the voice is unnecessary, but please let me assure you that regardless of the genre, be it popular or classical, professional singers will warm up their voices before they go on stage.  Especially touring artists.  So much money is tied up in touring these days, that if you ruin your voice and cancel a gig then that could cost ten of thousands – not to mention a load of grief from disappointed fans.  So what are the benefits to warming up our voices?

  • Warming up will help to relax the muscles of your larynx and eliminate tension
  • Warming up will gently stretch the muscles and ligaments of the vocal cords/folds ready for singing
  • Warming up will increase the blood flow to the vocal cords/folds enabling them to become more supple and flexible 
  • Warming up will help you to smooth through your vocal bridges
  • Warming up will help you to reach the extremes of your range
  • Warming up will help to prevent injury
  • Warming up will reinforce good technique
  • Warming up will help you to focus

There are a couple of common misconceptions when it comes to warming up the voice.  

  • Warming up the voice doesn’t necessarily have to be an overtly physical exercise!  In groups like choirs etc. it is not unusual to see people jumping up and down, which may be generally good for the body but I doubt the vocal cords/folds will benefit specifically.  
  • Warm-ups are not vocal exercises.  Vocal warm-ups should be gentle and slow and gradually become increasingly louder until reaching normal speaking pitch.  They should not be vocally taxing.  
  • Warm-ups are a waste of time.  Seriously.  Not warming up is a false economy, plus you could get a really good vocal warm-up together that you can do whilst you’re doing other things like driving to the venue for example, or setting up your gear.  You will get so much more out of a rehearsal or performance if you warm-up first.  

Here's how I would recommend warming up the voice. 

Gently, slowly and progressively.  

  • Start an hour before you know you have to sing simply by gently humming 5 tone major scales throughout your range.  Or hum anything, “Happy Birthday” for example (not the Stevie Wonder version).  
  • Next do the same thing but on a really creaky hum, almost like vocal fry
  • Next you can glide all the way through your range from the bottom to the very top on an “ng” sound (as in the word “siNG”).  Again doesn’t have to be loud or aggressive.  Nice and easy is the way to do it.  
  • Lip trills, or “bubbles” are a really great way to warm up the voice.  These are really useful on scales and arpeggios (if you know any) or just for gliding from the bottom to the top of your range.  
  • Another great one for the whole range is pitching a note high up in your head voice and yawning it all the down to a creaky vocal fry on a really low “non-note” at the voice bottom of your range.  Really relaxing and good for the vocal cords/folds.  
  • My all time favourite however is the straw.  For this you need a really thin straw, the kind you get to stir your drink with.  Vocalise through the straw much in the same way that you do with bubbles.  Using a straw has a really nice cushioning effect on the vocal folds/cords and it also helps to stretch and thin them out.  This is a particularly useful exercise if you feel a bit husky or tired.  

None of the above needs to be particularly loud.  BUT it is important that you exercise the WHOLE of your range, especially if you’re planning on singing above your bridge.  There’s no use just exercising your voice in your low range, you need to do it in the high range as well.  

So the moral of the story is to warm up.  Look after your voice.  You only get one and it’s not hard for any of the above to over time become an excellent habit.