A wee rant (and a glowing endorsement).

It’s no secret that I come from a classical voice background.  Growing up, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline and Carmen McRae were my first singers, but I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska (cue the obligatory Sarah Palin questions.  For the record, I didn’t/don’t know her and don’t care to).  To say there wasn’t exactly a flourishing jazz community in Wasilla is akin to saying it got a little chilly come December.

So classical study it was.  I logged countless hours in children’s choir, private voice lessons and competitions, and was even a soloist with the Anchorage Opera.  I went to college to study classical voice and was completely miserable.  One day my voice teacher said to me, “You can make it to any jazz show that comes to town; why won’t you get yourself to the opera once in a while?!”  The light came on, and I moved away from classical and toward jazz for the better part of ten years.

The road not taken...

The road not taken...

I resumed serious classical study when I moved to New York City, mostly because I had suffered a vocal injury and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I also resumed classical singing because I wanted to finish my college degree, which had been hanging over my head for a long time.  I did finish the voice degree and had the chance to sing the lead in a Monteverdi opera and the soprano solo in a Vaughan Williams piece (backed by 80-voice choir and full orchestra).  

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

By the time I muscled my way through my senior recital, it was abundantly clear to me that a career in opera just wasn’t for me.  

My reasons for not pursuing a classical voice career are myriad and will probably show up in a future posting, so the question arises: if I knew at 18 years old that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, why did I keep circling back again and again to study classical voice?  

Simple: I’m a technique junkie.  I love the mechanics of how the voice works.  I love the way that a simple adjustment to the breath or vowel can transform a phrase.  I am endlessly fascinated by all the vocal colors and textures available to a singer when she really knows her instrument and how to use it.  It drives me crazy that, outside of classical music, talking about vocal technique on its own terms almost never happens.

Disclaimer: this is where my wee rant begins.  Contemporary singers these days tend to fall into one of two categories: melismatic, chest-voice-pulled-up-over-the-rafters belting, or a wispy, precious, overly aerated sound that is often characterized as “ethereal” but can more accurately be described as “unsupported.”  I’ll leave the melismatic belters alone for now because, frankly, I don’t really care about the American Idol contenders.

But I’m really sick of listening to this never-ending succession of female singers who sound like little girls, whispering breathy intimations into the mic with absolutely no core, nothing to anchor their sound.  It’s lazy, it’s disingenuous, and–forgive me–it’s really fucking boring. Feather-light, head voice-dominated cooing is a fabulous color to have on your vocal palette, but if it’s the foundation of your sound, there’s nowhere to go!  

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that everyone needs to go study opera (shudder).  But how about singing with some backbone, ladies? (Caveat: there are singers who actually have ethereal, airy voices, and they inhabit their voices beautifully, with presence and resonance. Those aren’t the singers I’m referring to, here.)

Anyway, with all that in mind, here’s my glowing endorsement: Lizz Wright, you are doing some serious 360-degree singing.

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

 Your rich, velvety contralto is never forced or pushed, but your singing is full-bodied, supported and opulent.  In addition to your impeccable musicianship (time concept, songwriting, song selection) you clearly care about juicy, inhabited, connected singing.  So thank you.  A thousand times, thank you.

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10 thoughts on “A wee rant (and a glowing endorsement).

    • Thanks, Brooke…yeah, I believe very strongly that you have to be a little obsessed. I’m not sure of the equivalent scenarios for photographers, but I know that for singers, at least 90% of our time singing is spent alone in the practice room. You have to love the nitty-gritty of the process itself, because that’s where the bulk of singing happens. Performing is wonderful and I love it; I also am taking great joy in teaching, these days. But my favorite part of this singer’s life is rehearsing (alone or with my band), thinking about repertoire, choosing repertoire, etc. Process is where it’s at!

  1. hey, i just kind of stumbled upon your blog… your rant was very entertaining, and so so true, haha. the part about feathery, unsupported sound had me nodding in agreement and cracking up a little. and now i’m going to go give this lizz wright a listen for sure.

    • Nice to meet you, Kim! Thanks so much for stopping by and taking time to listen. Lizz Wright has been on the scene for several years now, but I am a little slow to catch up. She is fabulous and I hope you dig what you hear. Her rendition of “A Taste of Honey” is amazing!

  2. OK, Devil’s Advocate here…

    I of course think your rant is divine, and agree with you on most of this but…”outside of classical music, talking about vocal technique on its own terms almost never happens?” Gotta address that one Hils!

    Professional rock & pop singers and commercial singers can be endlessly interested in technique, and also obsessive about vocal hygiene. I have had many discussions on the subject with my colleagues and actually got some great coaching on how to broaden and color my sound and get more (harmless) power from a fellow backup singer on my first big rock gig (these were things my classical teachers never told me!). Also, you most likely won’t get pointers on mic technique from a classical teacher. Singers like Steven Tyler, Bono, and P!nk even take vocal coaches on the road with them to keep them from destroying their voices when they are on yearlong tours. There are alternative, “unpretty” vocal sounds and tones that are demanded by non-classical music, and a singer must learn how to basically scream night after night over an amplified band while preserving the ability to continue to do so.

    Also, the most amazing use of vocal technique that I have ever heard was not by a singer, but by a voiceover artist who did cartoon character voices. Imagine having to throw your voice around, growling or squeaking like an animal, and shifting from little-kid high pitches to monster lows on long recording sessions – while also in character! There are many things I have heard about in actors’ vocal training that I wish were a regular part of singing training.

    All that said, I’m loving your blog, SO glad you’re writing, and my only regret is that I can’t get to it every day! xoxo

    • Hey! Thanks for writing such a thoughtful, lengthy response. I’m glad it struck a chord, if you’ll forgive the hideous musical pun, which I didn’t notice until I finished typing it!

      I think it’s great that you’ve been able to cross paths with so many singing musicians who care about and discuss vocal health and technique. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that classical singers have cornered the market in terms of healthy technique! Far from it, in fact–I’ve known plenty of classical-based singers (and teachers!) who, at best, misunderstand technique, and over-analyze it. But I’ve also known and heard plenty of singers who simply don’t care about technique, and they dismiss it as being irrelevant to their artistic expression…which is equally misguided.
      Incidentally, now that you’ve mentioned it, how awesome would it be to travel with a vocal coach!?
      Thanks for reading, Cel!

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