Gaining Vocal Control

Growing up, I had a pretty good idea that I could sing. I joined the church choir with my father when before I hit double digits in age, and when I was old enough to join a school choir, I sang every year. While I belted my favorite Whitney Houston and Cyndi Lauper songs in the shower, I learned harmony and blending in the classroom. But I vividly remember the first time I learned that I could really sing. Two compliments in the same year gave me an epiphany that shaped my singing career for the rest of my life. I was about age 15 and in high school, where I was in the choir and the drama group.

I lived in Germany at the time, and I took the public train every day. Most of the commuters were German professionals headed to work, but I had a small handful of friends that joined my train along the forty-five minute ride to downtown Frankfurt, where we would all switch to the subway and ultimately get ourselves to the American school we attended. For the first leg of the journey, we usually took over a six-seater cabin somewhere along the length of that train.

One afternoon, I was headed home and listening to my Walkman (remember Walkmans?). Madonna was singing “Justify My Love,” which consists mostly of non-melodic speaking. However, the chorus is sung, and I sang along softly: “…for you to justify my love, my love, oh my love…” My friend Tom looked at me in surprise and said, “Wow. You’re really good.” Since Tom didn’t say much of anything ever, I took it as a high compliment. And it was an odd compliment, because he had certainly heard my voice before. I sang all the time.

Later that same year, I was sitting on the stage in the auditorium with the drama group, where we were all polishing our acts for the talent show. Another singer was working on “The Movie in My Mind” from the musical Miss Saigon. During a part normally sung by a choir, I jumped up and sang softly into the spare microphone, filling in the choir part on my own: “…and in a strong GI’s embrace…” The teacher – who had been my choral teacher for a year or two – echoed Tom’s compliment, almost in surprise: “Wow. You’re really good.” My choral teacher had most definitely heard me sing before, and should have been an expert in the sound of my voice. After all, I was one of the loudest singers in the choir (and at the time, I was actually proud of the fact.) I found her compliment odder than Tom’s. Something about this particular performance had struck a chord with her. And then it clicked – both compliments had been in response to soft singing. I was certainly never shy, but I wondered if anyone outside of my family had ever heard me sing softly before.

I was a belter.

Belting, when done well, can be entertaining, but it’s very difficult for an untrained fifteen-year-old to master. Untrained belters typically lack pitch accuracy, tone, dynamics, and general vocal control. They tend to glide over the complicated intervals, landing squarely on that last pitch, but losing a touch of professionalism in the vocal runs along the way. When a belter stops and sings a song softly – and slowly – she is able to hone in on each pitch and polish those complicated intervals and vocal runs.  When I learned to tone it down, I learned a few surprising things about myself as a singer.

First, I was shocked to find that I am a soprano. After years of being shoved into alto sections because I can read music, I discovered that choir teachers had been lying to me all my life by calling me an alto.

Second, while I have  a “pretty” voice, it’s not that strong in the popular mid-range. I get my best pop sound – the one that makes an audience sit up and take notice – when I let a microphone do the work. Belting is not my best talent.

And third, I can sing the complicated runs that Randy complains about on American Idol. Growing up, I wondered how it was even possible to change notes that fast. But like my fingers gained dexterity on a piano and guitar with practice, so did my vocal cords and diaphragm. Your voice is a collection of muscles, and as with any muscle in your body, you can train your voice to be heavy or light, to be powerful or dextrous. You can train for a singing career like you can train for a marathon. It takes targeted warm-ups and daily practice to acquire and maintain vocal control.

Today, I can hold my own as a belter. But more often, I use my “pretty” head voice, because it earns the most fans.  And regardless of whether I’m belting, singing softly, or annoying the neighbors with my high soprano, most of the time, I sound polished and professional. That is because I still practice singing every single day.

2 thoughts on “Gaining Vocal Control”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I have tried this method it’s really awesome. I’m currently working on the f# minor nocturne! they’re beautiful pieces.Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.
    Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

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