18.5.22 – Technique – the last thing you need!
Michael Dahl Rasmussen
The following is a synthesis of many lessons. How much do you recognise from yourself?
S(student): Sings the song
M(me): How was that?
S: Hmm, kinda meh. Didn’t feel easy, struggled with a few bits, and wasn’t really connected.
M: Okay. Let’s run it again, but this time, remember what the song is about: what’s the context? What emotion are you trying to communicate? What is the intention? Remember those things, and focus all your attention on that, don’t worry about the singing.
S: Alright! Sings the song again
M: How was that?
S: So much better! It was so much easier, didn’t struggle with those high bits at all, they just came out, and I was really in it!
M: Amazing! Now tell me.. this is not the first time you’ve worked on emotional journeys and connecting with what a song is about.. Why didn’t you just do that did the first time??
S: Well, I was thinking that I wanted to focus more on technique today..
M: Okay, fair enough. But haven’t you noticed that every time you are really emotionally connected with the song, the technique is so much easier?
S: Oh yes, a hundred percent!
M: Well.. If you really want to focus on your technique, then…
M: Why on earth don’t you focus your attention on the context, the emotions, and the journey the first time around?? 🙂
S: Ohhh…. :O
The Technical Singer — Part 1
First of all, I want to say that I am a technique nerd.
I love technique.
Every time I hear people talk about singing technique I am all ears, and I can blabber on about it for days!
During my time at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, my course leader actually once told me: “Michael, you’re a technical singer”, and by that he meant that I wasn’t very emotionally connected.
I told him: “Yes, I agree, but I think that is a technical problem. The reason I’m not emotionally invested is because I don’t have the technical ability to be spontaneous”.
He looked at me with a kind and patient sigh as if to say: “Boy, I sure hope you don’t stay a fool all your life…”
It would take a few more years before I realised what he meant by that sigh..
Vocal Technique vs. Other Kinds of Technique
Right, so is this some kind of war on technique? Should we banish technique from all training?
Of course not.
You wouldn’t get a Lang Lang, or a Yo-Yo Ma, or a Pavarotti, or a Beyoncé without exceptional technique.
But it’s important to know that technique works differently in singing than in other art forms.
When learning to play the piano or the violin, the movements required to play even simple melodies and pieces is so far removed from everyday life that we have to practice a lot to get our fingers to do as we want.
Technique is paramount if you want to communicate virtually anything understandable with that instrument.
But with the voice, it works differently.
When we want to communicate with our voices, what comes first is an impulse, an emotion, or an intention. We don’t mechanically move our vocal folds into position as we consciously move our fingers across the fret of a guitar.
That impulse is translated spontaneously into a distressed cry, an excited yell, a soothing hum, or a warning shout.
Musicians can of course still communicate emotions through their instrument, but the emotions are far more metaphorical and up for interpretation than that of, say, a crying baby. (It is not at all clear that music in major is always happier than music in minor, for example.)
Speaking of babies, they have this emotional connection with their instrument instinctively, and don’t need technical training to be able to “belt” for days when they are crying for attention, food, or playtime. (Trust me, I have one at home, and those things have pipes..)
Now, the singing voice works fundamentally the same way as the shouting or crying voice: Impulse comes first, then communication.
It is crucial to understand this in order to understand how our brains and bodies are wired for using our voices. The voice needs to know what on earth it is communicating!
But… What About When I’m Singing High Notes?
The brain does not understand what “Belt a C#” means!!
Or, maybe we can intellectually say that we know what it means to “Belt a C#” in terms of pitch and vocal fold thickness, but what does it mean? What is belting a C# communicating? What’s at stake?
If you are in the middle of a song, and the big bit is coming up, and all you are thinking is “holy cow, I hope I can hit that high note”, you are bound to struggle. Not only because you are probably nervous, but because you have forgotten what on earth you are trying to say!
“Hitting a high note” doesn’t mean anything, inherently, and therefore your entire body, brain, and vocal function is working hard (at least relatively) without having a clue why! That is stressful. And that might be why you are nervous, too.
Doing a written exam can be hard work and anxiety inducing. What if you forget everything? What if you get it wrong? What if you get a bad grade?
But if you know why you are doing this written exam — say, in order to get in to your dream course and do what you love — then it is much easier to accept the situation as necessary, and thus manage the stress and hard work.
If you don’t know what the point is, you are going to struggle, be bored, and most likely not do your best work. (How many times have you heard an unenthusiastic fellow student ask the teacher: “Sorry, but how is this relevant to me?” The students who can’t see what’s at stake usually don’t perform well.)
It’s exactly the same when we sing. We need to have a reason!
You: I need to belt this C#!
Your body: Why? It’s really hard!
You: Because.. If I don’t I won’t be a good singer..? Belting high notes is.. important?
Your body: Sigh…
This way of working will get you nowhere.
So next time you are struggling with a section, before you spend hours doing SOVTs, breathing exercises, vowel modifications, and onset training (all of which have their benefits), make sure you ask yourself this:
- Do I know what on earth I’m trying to communicate with this?
- What does this section mean?
- Why is that word so special that it’s written on a high/low/difficult note?
I promise you that that will solve many of your problems vocally, and because you now have a purpose with that section, you will feel much less anxious about it, too.
What Is Your Technique Informed By?
Most students I work with have got in the habit of working a song technically first, and then ‘adding’ the acting or performance on top afterward.
But there is a problem with that.
Precisely when is the song technically polished enough to start adding emotion to it?
Does the belt sound as clean as Idina Menzel? No? Well, not ready for emotions yet!
That’s obviously ridiculous. But you can so easily get stuck in working on various arbitrary technical aspects that you never get on with it.
So let me ask you this to get your out of that vicious cycle: What is your technique informed by?
What exactly decides that this particular technical element is what is appropriate for this particular moment in the song?
Is your expression serving your technique? Or is your technique serving your expression?
I often hear “I’m not sure whether to belt or head voice this bit,” as if such a technical aspect was to be decided arbitrarily.
I simply ask: “Well, what does the text say? What happened right before in the song? What is the music doing? Focus on that, and then see whether it’s a belt or a head voice that comes out!”
And more often than not, the student finds a whole other colour to their voice that they had not anticipated, and which they much prefer.
Focusing on technique first thus also limits your expressive pallet!
Make sure your technique is serving your expression, and not the other way around!
The Technical Singer — Part 2
I eventually learned that technique not only won’t solve all my problems, it actually also made it less fun to sing.
Over the years as I learned more, I started worshipping the altar of technique more than the altar of joy, and I lost sight of why the hell I started doing this in the first place.
When I let go of technical perfection as the foundation for my singing, I found soooo many other colours in my voice that I had completely abandoned before. I found joy, fun, playfulness, curiosity, and a whole new level of musicianship too. It became easier to improvise, and it mattered less whether I had a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ vocal day.
Indeed, where before I would spend ages worrying about some technical detail before I could be at ease with a song, I now find that connecting with the emotions, intentions and impulses usually solve those technical issues automatically!
Breathing becomes easier, because we know instantly exactly what the phrase needs.
Tuning becomes easier because the whole system is more relaxed.
Storytelling becomes super engaging, because I know what each lyric means for the character and the song.
The tone is richer, and full of much more colour and variety because we allow ourselves to tap into the unknown. (Cue Idina Menzel)
And then after singing the song in this fully connected way there might still be some technical issues that need addressing, but:
- I will be in a much better position to deal with them,
- I will be having a lot more fun in the process, and
- The song might actually be in great shape to take to the stage or an audition as is, even if there are still a few technical things that could be ironed out (hint: there always is!!), and if I had been stuck in the technical phase, I wouldn’t have discovered this!
And maybe you’ll agree that technique is truly the last thing you need 🙂
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