The Sound Of Style – Basses Need Not Apply….

Following on the train of thought from my last posting (The Cricothyroid Rosary), I have been reflecting on the issue of style-appropriate sound. This is a common theme in pedagogical circles these days, and even in the voice sciences where observers seek to ascertain what physical changes occur when switching from style to style.

This is an interesting field of inquiry, producing many valuable observations that can clarify matters for teachers and students. But again, valid observations do not equal correct conclusions. It may be perfectly true that the observed action resulted in a particular sound, but it doesn’t always address the health, advisability, or even the sensibility of the thing done. More on this in a moment.

First let me say – it is true that not all types of singing have an authentic, individual sound as among their top priorities. Certain Eastern types of song that use a sort of growl, any impression or mimicry-based vocalism, and some single-voiced polyphonic singing come to mind. Nevertheless, the vast majority of singing in (at least Western) society makes a point of highlighting the value of the individual’s sound – at least in word if not in deed.

In fact it doesn’t always turn out that way at all. While one hand feeds praise for uniqueness, the other hand heaps criticism for lack of a correct sound. This needs to be pulled apart a little bit. It is true that A) certain aspects ought to be subject to critique; ie. accuracy of the musical content, etc. and B) society will always have a say in critiquing what they hear as they are, after all, the patrons. But at what point do we begin to draw the line between the singer’s unique sound, and the “sound” we have come to expect in a certain “style” of music? More importantly, just how much vocal contortion should a singer be expected to endure in order to be suitably “style-appropriate”?

We hear things like this all the time – “If they were singing a classical song, it would be done more this way….if in a Musical Theater style, it would be more this way…..”, You are singing it too operatically/not operatically enough”, or “Your voice is really better suited to […..]”

But are we asking the right questions?

Firstly, are we delineating very clearly where we draw the stylistic lines? Is the style of the music determined primarily by musical factors or by the vocalists’ sound? Are we assessing style based on things like range/tessitura, rhythmic patterns, more or less portamento/rubato/etc., use of dynamics, accent and articulation of the sung text, etc. or are we assessing primarily by timbre and other strictly vocal considerations (vocal qualities that are thinner, fuller, deeper, higher, lighter, brassy, resonant, etc.)? Where are we putting our emphases in the question of style? And if the latter is given as much emphasis as the former, how are these things to be achieved from voice to voice?

One example of this issue is found in how, in article after article on the subject of CCM, it has been remarked that much popular music and modern musical theater is observed to use a “high-larynx” technique. This sounds very specific and appears to draw a distinction between an ostensibly “classical” approach and does something to explain, in part, the acoustic difference between the two styles. However, maybe not every factor has been considered here.

Addressing only male voices for the moment- are we asking if this high larynx is a starting ingredient, or a result? This “technical” observation seems to ignore that popular music, with the exception of Country-Western and some R&B, has been dominated by tenors since the late 60s. Obviously, not all men are tenors. But for any voice not natively a tenor, to attempt to achieve the “right sound” (ie. the tenor sound they are used to hearing), you can be certain that their larynxes will raise considerably, shortening the vocal tract, resulting in a higher, narrower sound. But is that okay? Is that just the correct technique for this music?

Let’s be clear – Though they may not have a great degree of laryngeal discipline, most pop tenors don’t need a high larynx or sing with a purposely high-larynx technique when performing their music, as they are already tenors. Certainly a tenor’s larynx need not be half so raised as a baritone or bass would require to achieve an appropriately tenorial sound when singing the same music. If, God forbid, the baritone in question were to achieve some laryngeal relaxation, the sound would deepen, warm, and he would be immediately decried as being “too operatic” or “not stylistically appropriate”.

Even if I thought (which I don’t) that people who sing this music actually regularly give any considerable thought to laryngeal position, I don’t think it advisable that a person actively seek to sing with a larynx that is purposely raised. In a 2007 NATS Journal article, voice scientist and researcher Ingo Titze stated, “All of this acoustic advantage of a raised larynx needs to be balanced, however, against some biomechanical disadvantages. A raised larynx crowds the hyoid bone, the tongue, and the jaw.” And this doesn’t even address difficulties with higher pitches from lessened ability to lengthen the vocal folds in this crowded position and additional tensions resulting from trying to maintain steady phonation in spite of these factors.

So, when we say things like “a high-larynx technique” (in reference to males), are we not really saying that rather than acknowledge that most recent popular music is actually written for tenors, we will just teach non-tenors to become a sort of false tenor and label it “style”? And in promoting the observed mechanical results of this, are we not trying to legitimate the adoption of a “style-specific” technique of questionable efficacy and health? That’s like if I unwisely equate hard work with sweating profusely, and rather than considering the work output itself, I should adopt a “wear a parka to work technique”. It’s neither advisable, nor native to my person.

Different but related issues are present for women who look to sing CCM music, dominated by low female voices. Any high soprano who has wished she had the low Fs to sing “Let It Go” knows what I am talking about. It is an easy thing to simply suggest that the person sing it in a different key, which would seem the obvious and advisable thing to do. But at every half-step change, up or down, we run greater risk of no longer sounding “like the right style” – and we again begin to run the risk of catering our vocal concept to the aural demands of “style”.

As a teacher, I have a health-first policy in my approach to vocalism. Stylistic considerations come later. I generally think that, in a broad sense, style-specific vocal instruction is inadvisable, at least at the outset. And I recommend that a student of voice be extremely discerning when it comes to any advice resulting in dramatic alteration of their vocalism to suit supposed stylistic requirements. And when the voice scientist shows a video or gives demonstrations, remember, observing that a thing happened doesn’t immediately answer the question of whether it should happen.

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