A Crackin’ Good Time!

A little unintentional yodeling around the holidays, anyone?

A few days back, my student load was mostly beginners. Throughout the day, this particular crop were shuddering any time their voices wiggled or cracked. Encouraging them to be bold in spite of this, I began to think about the degree of anxiety they demonstrated over cracking.

There is, in fact, a certain consistency to undisciplined vocalism. The pop singer who shows strain in ascending phrases, is nevertheless showing graduated strain. The next pitch in the phrase makes sense to the ear given the pitch before. To the ear of the average listener, this increase of strain is heard as a natural increase in the difficulty of the song, and is not heard as discomfort, but as a dsiplay of strength.

The very well-trained singer demonstrates consistency in an evenness of tone, and similarly graduated effort (not strain, one hopes!) as they reach the extremes of their range. Though the production is better and over a wider range, to the ear of the untrained listener, it is heard as roughly the same thing: consistency. And it was then that it occurred to me that this is the great criterion of the “good singer” for the average listener. And correspondingly, the “crack” is the greatest sin.

Counterintuitive to this common impression is the fact that, for the most part, the voice crack is actually not a bad thing. It is an earsore, to be sure. But though this mighty interruption in the vocal line is heard as something vocally disastrous by most listeners, it is actually not harmful. With the exception of something I refer to as “pressure cracks” (an occurrence for another discussion), the vast majority of voice cracks are an awkward release from built-up imbalance, a release of pressure, and feel like little or nothing. Perhaps experienced singers will recognize a growing, uncomfortable tension that resulted in a crack. But overall, the experience of the crack is not painful or harmful.

But because it is among the more jarring of vocal occurrences, it is not surprising that many people misread it as more than it is. But what does this matter? A crack is a crack is a crack…. But students are also among this population of misinformed listeners, and can be terrified of cracking. This is especially so with those young folk who fear that a voice crack might negate the “talent” they have be told they have. And so they will get cautious, and unduly careful. Because such caution can be a genuine impediment to progress, I have found it helpful to take pains to point out to students that a) boldness is requisite to improvement, but just as important to keep in mind is b) a huge part of learning to sing is a consistent undermining of bad habits and false strengths and supports. The natural outcome of this breaking of poor habit is a period of awkwardness that will be passed through.

The gradual will always win out for the average listener. As a result poor singers and great singers will both always fare better than the intermediate singer who, as a pendulum, swings between the way they used to sing and the way they are learning to sing.

Singing is a balancing act. And sometimes balance is lost. Though I generally don’t like to revel in other people’s misfortune, perhaps it a pedagogical blessing that those perle nere clips can be found on YouTube; maybe they can show students that even the best have a rough day, and that risk is built into the equation.

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