More on Singing – Part 1

This is going to be a two-part blog (I’ve just decided), as if I include all of the information I thought of originally, there are going to be far too many words at once.  This “episode” is going to be some more technical information about how singers do it (as I’ve had quite a few questions on Twitter and Facebook about this lately), and then Part 2 (in a few days’ time) will be about some other cover versions which Adam has performed.

Pic credit: americanidol.com

Pic credit: americanidol.com

If you look back to Singing 101 – a Quick Overview, (should be a link on the right hand side somewhere) this describes how a voice works in terms of the basic type and colour of it – whether you’re a soprano or a tenor, for example, and whether you’re able to produce “dark” or “bright” sounds.

And in Why This Voice – a bit more technical insight, I’ve also gone into the importance of words to a singer, and why thinking about what you’re singing makes such a big difference to the overall performance.

As I’ve said before, singing is not a dark art and as long as you haven’t got a major disease or disability affecting your lungs or vocal cords, you will be able to sing, even if only a bit.  Anatomy determines how good your basic “instrument” is – some people are born with a Bentley in their throat, whereas others get the basic pedal car, but you have what you have.

I sort of got one of these –  makes plenty of noise when you rev it up, but is a bit rough around the edges and needs a lot of maintenance….

Pic credit: classicandsportscar.ltd

Pic credit: classicandsportscar.ltd

But joking aside – how do you make the sound? How does the sound get out and go somewhere, and why is there such a bit difference between a trained voice (like Adam’s) and an untrained one?

The quick answer to this is air! We all need air, all the time; you know the stuff – it’s made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and bits and pieces of other gases. Quite simply, when you sing, you are passing a column of air from your lungs across your vocal cords. These are two little bits of tissue in your throat that vibrate together to make a sound. Consonants are formed by our lips, teeth, tongue and hard palate (the roof of your mouth) to produce words.

When you learn to sing, just about the first thing you do is learn the basics of controlling the air to produce your voice properly, which is the difference between singing and just “shouting” the notes out.

This is where all that stuff about breathing and “support” come in.  There are lots of different ways of explaining it and this can be where people think that singing is difficult.  Actually the most complex thing about the physical part of singing is co-ordination.  It’s a bit like keeping the plates spinning….

Pic credit: cartoonmotivators.com

Pic credit: cartoonmotivators.com

But putting it simply:

* You need to put yourself in a good posture, which means that your torso (the bit between your neck and your waist) is upright and not collapsed in on itself.  You will produce a better sound if you stand, but people with mobility issues can still sing perfectly well.

* You relax and breathe in – you don’t have to gasp, force air into your lungs or overfill them; they’re programmed to fill on their own – breathing is one of the body’s autonomic reactions (if these don’t happen, you’re dead!). What you do have to do is be aware that you’re letting the air go deep into your body to fill your lungs properly.  One of the commonest faults of untrained singers is “clavicular” breathing – your shoulders heave and you only fill the upper portion of your lungs. The correct breathing technique is something that your body learns by “muscle memory” – in the same way that athletes learn to use their bodies. Eventually, even when you’re not singing, you will automatically fill your lungs properly and be aware that when you breathe, the muscles around your waist are moving, rather than just your shoulderblades.

* You control the breath as it comes out – this is where people get tied up about it and they start doing peculiar things with their bodies to try and either force the air to stay in your lungs, or constrict the air flow as it comes out. Note: doing strange things doesn’t work! You control the airflow with your mind, and then your body will do as it’s told. This is where the words come in –  if you are concentrating on the words (and the sentences) that you’re singing, then the airflow will continue as a natural consequence. You have to think of the words as being alive – as soon as you can do that, you will produce a supported sound that isn’t just produced in your throat – like this:

(Video from theBestArts YouTube uploads)

There are no fancy bells and whistles, no special effects, but this is what a well-produced, well-supported voice sounds like. This recording shows off Adam’s trained voice the way it was as a result of his music theatre training, without the “belting” technique that is used for pop and rock.

One of the consequences of breathing properly is that your voice doesn’t get stuck in your throat, so you don’t shout. Most people with untrained voices will produce this “singer’s shout” as soon as they try to put any pressure on their voice. If you’re singing quietly, it’s OK as you will just use the natural resonances in your body (more about this in Part 2!)

Singing on your throat is tiring and will eventually cause strain and damage to the vocal cords; many pop and rock singers have ended up with the dreaded “vocal nodules” which need rest and in the worst cases, surgery to fix them.

But when you support your voice properly, you can sing longer phrases that have an equal intensity at both ends of the phrase – you’re less likely to gasp for breath in the wrong places, as you are controlling the air flow by keeping it energised.

A properly produced voice will also automatically travel (or “project” as classical singers term it).  The amount that the sound will travel unamplified depends on the structure of your throat and how big a column of air you are able to put underneath the sound – and of course, the acoustic of where you’re singing.  This is where there is a big difference with opera/classical singers as most of the time you have no mic and have to depend on your own body to produce the sound. When you’re singing amplified, the sheer volume of the sound is less important as this is adjusted by the engineers to balance the voice and whatever instruments are accompanying it.

Now, back to the difference between singing with a trained voice and singing on your throat.  OK, I love Muse – I love their “raw” Brit rock sound, the complex music they write and their use of bits of classical music from time to time.  They’re a fantastic arena band and they pull in massive audiences. But I would so love to get hold of Matt Bellamy and teach him how to breathe properly!

(Video from Muse official YouTube uploads)

Unusually, Matt is separated from his guitar for this performance, which does actually improve his singing as he’s not having to think about playing at the same time.  His voice in this track is fairly well-controlled – I’ve heard lots of recordings (studio and live) where he breathes in odd places, but the most noticeable thing in this recording from Rome is that you can hear him gasping for breath with almost every phrase.  As a singer, this makes me feel uncomfortable as it makes me feel as though singing is hard work for him and this is absolutely not the name of the game.

We can do a straight comparison on this song as Adam performed Starlight on the Idol Tour in 2009; this recording is from the show in Portland.

(Video from megbro’s YouTube uploads)

He’s had the song transposed higher to show off the top of his voice, but the first thing to notice is that you only hear the occasional breath. Also, the lines he sings are longer; they flow easily, in what us musos call a legato line. Now, the quality of Adam’s voice is very different to Matt Bellamy’s; Adam’s tone is headier, brighter – because he has been taught to use the resonances and how to access the different part of his voice (these are “registers” – more about these in Part 2!).  Matt’s voice is his “raw” sound.  I have to say I love both versions – they’re very different.

Now, cover versions are a really vexed issue amongst fans, and this is where the controversy will rage about whether or not one version is “better” than the other. If you read the comments from Muse fans on Adam’s version of the song, a lot of them were very unhappy at someone else doing “his” song – and this always seems to happen with covers. Any of you who have been following the QAL experience will know that this has been the source of many an argument with the hardcore Queen fans.

Pic credit: thestar.com

Pic credit: thestar.com

This is a phenomenon that is pretty much unknown if you’re a classical musician as you nearly always sing other peoples’ music and it’s immaterial.  However, music fans get really exercised about this; some of it is about memory (the original version of a song will usually stick in your brain somewhere) and some of it is about loyalty. One of these days when I feel like doing a PhD thesis, I might write something long and involved about fandom, as it’s a fascinating subject!

Part 2 soon….

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18 thoughts on “More on Singing – Part 1

  1. Interesting Kym! Always wished I could sing well, its seems like such a stress reliever, and an outlet for pent up feelings! Much to my kids dismay, I will belt out some songs with my iPod on. Haha! A bit on fandom would be amazing! Thanks so much for taking your time and energy to write!!! Your amazing🙋

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kathy – I’ve been thinking about the fandom thing for a while now, as it’s only very recently I’ve ever come into close contact with it. In fact, when I was younger I studiously avoided fandom as being dreadfully uncool – prog rockers just didn’t do that sort of thing! 😉

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      • I LOVE it!! “Studiously avoided fandom as being dreadfully uncool”!!! Have always felt the same way, denying ANY sort of fangirling (as I never even knew it was called until this era!). But, dang, it feels like a total sellout now! Gotta have this!! xoxo

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  2. love this, and so timely for me. I was on a long weekend with friends, 10 hours round trip drive alone to get there. So, #1 concern? why the playlist of course, came up with a driving playlist consisting mainly of songs about driving or moving on etc, the #1 song always to any road trip, Born To Be Wild (the original version lol no offense to Adams) as soon as I hit the highway, Highway to Hell, thunder road etc well I was full on singing and thought early on, HOW to rock singers do this for hours night after night LOLOL I was exhausted and my throat hurting early in. So now I know, I was doing singers shout I guess it DOES wear your voice out.

    Also during weekend mentioned Pat Benatar and my unending ire at her being snubbed by rock n roll hall of fame and how she STILL performs and sounds pretty good, I mean most rockers voices are shot & shes still going. My friend said, oh she had operatic training. me: A-HA!! explains a lot. seems all the best singers to do some degree.

    The opposite side of this is Daughtry, whose voice I really like but I went to see him live and it was honestly painful to watch, he was like bent over the whole time, straining like the veins in his neck were gonna pop out, man NO technique at all, looked like he was gonna hurt himself. Lead singer of one republic is another one that live just constantly sounds out of breath. Its surprising no one clues them in to the proper technique.

    anyways interesting as always, next road trip I will sing with better techique 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa – very interesting comments – at least you’ve now got first hand experience of how it feels to sing with your throat! I didn’t know that Pat Benetar had some classical training; this would entirely explain why her voice is still holding up.

      You’re sadly right about Roger Daltrey – he sings with tremendous tension in his throat. Another one who is a prize culprit for this is Robert Plant. Lordy, he was one of my rock heroes when I was a teenager – must have been something to do with all that blond hair! When I watch him sing now, I can see the technical issues and he is another rock singer whose voice has deteriorated as he has got older.

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      • and now I read that Sam Smith has canceled quite a few shows cuz of throat problems, vocal cord hemmorage??? wow thats too bad. The industry is so different years ago you would wait years sometimes for a group / artist to tour now its CONSTANT now that singers dont make money on album sales its all about touring. AND pop singers start so young, I really dont understand why managers or someone doesnt make sure these kids get some lessons on technique to protect their voices.

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      • Vocal problems are a big issue and can hit untrained voices particularly hard. Sam Smith us going to need rest and some high quality vocal coaching to help him back to performing.

        I agree record companies need to think harder about how they protect their investment, but do they care enough?

        Liked by 1 person

      • But is Lisa talking about Daughtry (from AI) or Roger Daltrey from Who? I see the latter’s had some cancellations to “rest his voice,” hahaa. But just wondering, since Daughtry is his own guy, too…

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  3. If you ever do that thesis on fandom I would love to read it as I’m fascinated with that phenomenon too. My feelings on the subject of covers has changed and evolved over the years as I’ve become more aware of the history of popular music and developments in methods of recording and consuming it.
    It’s so easy for fans to forget that we have only been able to record a human voice for the last 100 years, and it’s only for the last 60 years or so that those recordings have been good quality and easily accessible to the general public. So any time before that once a singer or musician died or became unable to perform then their voice was lost forever.
    What remained was the songs themselves or for the more educated the written music, and that was only if the songs were popular enough to be sung or played by many different people. Even then in many cases the writer of the song has been forgotten and now the songs are just listed as ‘Traditional’ A good example being The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_House_of_the_Rising_Sun
    We’ll never know who wrote or sang it originally or even if they were a particularly good singer, All we have is the song which can be kept alive by people performing it.
    There is a section of music fandom which is obsessed with ‘Authenticity’ and these tend to be the ones who are offended by covers, but scratch the surface and you find that many of these people only see ‘Authenticity’ in the context of image and don’t dig any deeper to find that the concept is far more complex than that, and many artists who play on the image side of ‘Authentic’ are anything but.

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    • Hi Mags – that’s a very good point about recordings and cover versions, as it’s a very recent thing in terms of the history of music. There is a “thing” about authenticity in classical music as well, but this is about trying to make some music sound as it’s thought to have sounded hundreds of years ago, such as with baroque music like Handel. Needless to say without recordings to refer to, this is more than a little tricky and needs huge amounts of research. Over the last few hundreds of years, voices have got louder, we now sing with far more vibrato and we don’t castrate young boys to preserve their voices – so there is some authenticity we definitely don’t want!

      I think in pop music the thing about covers is actually very complex! There is the issue of authenticity – the most well-known version of a song will be the one that people compare everything else to. Sometimes this isn’t the original version – Dolly Parton first recorded I Will Always Love You, but it’s the Whitney Houston version that most people think of. But then we move into the altogether much more delicate issue of how fandom affects the attitude to cover versions. We’ve seen this at first hand with the attitude of some Queen fans to Adam singing Freddie’s songs. This is about a couple of rather complicated psychological themes – tribalism and totemism. I might get round to writing about these when I feel brave!

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  5. Kym! Okay, here is what I wrote on my printed-out copy of this that I mentioned — it is completely irrelevant to everything that is not in the “existential” realm, so sorry in advance, but here is the thought: “It’s amazing how much can be learned about the essential nature of things by training the voice (or any aspect of the body). This is a great post!!”

    Now onto a “real” comment! You know I come from a family of musicians, including my eldest sister, who was a singer and professional classical pianist. I learned to sing also, have had a bit of training, on and mostly off, for my entire lifetime. The reason I always stopped was “what am I going to ‘do’ with this?” type of thinking, knowing how much work it takes; and so I never went past a point…but of course we love to sing, love it. So I pick it up now and again. Most of the time, I get a very painful throat feeling (like Lisa said) and definitely always an inability to hold a legato line without doing those “strange things”; also my upper chest Always begins to hurt because that’s where I’m breathing from. I get so annoyed that I stop. That itself has become UNreal annoying, Especially since reading your material.

    Ah, the bottom line! — your written explanations and descriptions are very, very clear and exciting as I work on my singing by listening to others, watching the “singer’s shout” phase come from singing to Hozier and Jevetta Steele’s “I Am Calling You” and then barely attempting to get out a note of Adam’s music when I REALLY feel like pretending… so with this lovely tutelage of yours, I am teaching myself to sing instead of paying a professional again just at this moment, for financial reasons.

    Final Bottom Line: THANK YOU!!! lynelle

    p.s. The “natural resonances of the body” subject sounds outrageously interesting — please do write all about that!!!

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  6. Another beautiful part. You reminded me my own childhood´s choir and lessons of breathing and so on. Thank for the lesson of technology, there is hard to find on internet good material helpfull to understand English names and definitions. I know just our Czech terms (and not all) and it makes me some problems to traslate some things properly. Even the names of the tones are different her – what is your C4 is our “one linen C” – writen as C1. It was hard for me when I started to look for some information. I had to learn it.

    About cover version is it (according to me) this way: Someone likes the original although it has some imperfection and someone just likes the new perfect version that almost seems so perfect that is it almost sterile. That´s why some things are made with the imperfections deliberately. That´s just me and the two version od Muse. In this case I like the original. But if there is a lot of imperfection in the first version, you will probably prefer any other better. 8^)

    Here is common to play some instrument or to learn to sing (if you can) in so called “artistic school” – that is not real full time school but the place you go afternoon after school, so most of our singers have trained voice. There is just different amount of training. The bests usually have full time school (high school or university) or privat teacher so there is not so much untrained singers here.

    It´s funny to read about your idea of writting about fandom. I have started to make typology of different fans inside the fandom – it is always the same no mather what fandom you study. Also the line of succses of the reality show alumni is the same – at first it is big succses, second CD is much wors because it has no support of the media wave past the competition and after that it goes slightly up and up – in the good way. I´ve seen it again and again. I am watching some reality shows for years and I am in Reece Mastin fandom (good but almost untrained voice – although he had some music school and teachers). You reminded me to finish the typology and consult it with our Czech AL fanclub admin and friend before I post it on my Czech blog.

    Best regards

    @DrakulkaCZ

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find the whole idea of fandom *so* interesting, as I’ve never been closely involved with it. I can watch it from the outside and look at how it works. It raises a lot of issues about how we view the people that we decide are “special”.

      Glad you are enjoying the information about singing!

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