As I observed master class after master class across the spectrum of vocal music that was represented this past weekend in American Voices, I learned that the format is more comfortable for practitioners in some styles (opera and musicals) than others (pop and country.) Sure, the American public gets to sit in front of their TVs and watch the various “idol” shows, but those aren’t classes, after all. Also, to me the media hype and what’s being manufactured artificially on TV distracts from the singers.
On Saturday, American Voices sponsored master classes and panel sessions for both country and pop. The format was new for 27 Grammy Awards singer-songwriter Alison Krauss, whose career spans country, rock, and pop. You could tell here she was out of her element, and maybe her time zone too. “Am I answering the question?” she kept asking. “What did I just say?”
Luckily, Thomas Cleveland, a doctor specializing in Otolaryngology and long time Nashville resident, who works with a lot of singers including Alison Krauss, helped support the Country Master Session. Nonetheless, it became more about generalized cheerleading (Alison) and setting forth vocal science (Dr. Tom) than opportunities for singers and audience to see and hear specific adjustments improve performance.
Three young singers had been selected to sing and get coached, while other singers were to learn from watching. When Rachel Tripp stepped out on stage, she presented the package of what most of us imagine a country singer should look like. She had the boots, the sexy legs revealed by her short dress, and the great blonde hair. She sang the Kelly Clarkson song “Don’t Rush.” She used country style’s vocal break and when she sang high she was in that whispery place, whether for effect or already strained vocal chords I wasn’t sure.
Alison didn’t bother with technique or vocal choices. “What do you listen to on the radio? Do you relate to the message?” She asked Rachel to speak the song. She suggested also that Rachel play around with finding one word to emphasize in each line, to vary that word, especially when there is the repetition in the chorus.
It made sense. Dr. Tom reminded us all that for country music, unlike opera, women sing close to the range where they speak. But he also pointed out if there is tension and the vocal chords come together too tightly, if people bear down then push too hard to get an effect, it can cause pitch problems and maybe worse. He used the image of trying to drive fast but pushing on the brakes while pressing on the accelerator. The more you brake the more you need to rev the engine and the less efficiently you’re going to move forward.
Then there’s the problem with trends in singing, trends promulgated by audiences growing up not knowing any better or the public getting used to a sound. This is particularly affecting women singers who are trying to drag their chest voices up. Women now don’t want to have a “flute” sound even if their instruments are designed to be flutes. They want to be “brass” instruments. And why? Because the trend says bigger is better, and the muscle inside the chord makes one think it’s more emotional, and this is disseminated as “authentic emotion.” In fact, it’s tension, and an inauthentic, if currently popular, sound.
Alison talked about authenticity. “People respond to authenticity more than voice in country.” That surely is true, but it became clear this weekend that more folk in country and pop could well borrow some of the new science and language that some of their colleagues in other styles are embracing. In fact, I learned that top singers across styles, and many of them were present this weekend, are already taking advantage of vocal specialists and doctors (many have to because of vocal crises,) but the word isn’t getting out to young singers that this is essential for vocal health and, I’d argue, even expression.
So, to tell a singer “Let it happen” or “Make it real” isn’t all that helpful. Does any young singer ever come out on stage telling him or herself, “I’m going to sing a song tonight and my choice is not going to be real?
Authenticity also came up in choices of material. Laney Jones sang an Ola Belle Reed song and demonstrated she was earnestly devoted to roots music, but the song was written by a fifty-year old woman singing “I’ve been poor…how long can one endure?” This fresh young girl couldn’t communicate its meaning because she didn’t have that experience in her body. Sarah Ames sang Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day,” but it wasn’t until she sang her own material “Bloody Mary,” that she got us sitting up and listening.
Dr. Tom laid it on the line, saying, “The world doesn’t pay you to sing like someone else.” Alison agreed, “In country singing, you tell stories, and the audience has to believe it’s your story.”
Similar themes came up in the Pop Master Session. Pop stars Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles shared the coaching of four young singers.
Ben encouraged singer Jake Ohlbaum to sing without the piano, to discover in his cover of the Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” another level of the song and make it his own.
Both Ben and Sara came back again and again to the notion of communicating spontaneity by approaching every performance with an air of innocence, and at the same time to take charge of the experience. Twice the accompanist drowned out the singers, and Sara asked that he take it down. The young singers had not yet learned how to communicate what they needed.
Like Sara, I wanted to hear more bare bones singing. I was impressed that both Ben and Sara urged singers to drop the microphone as a crutch. When Lara Johnston sang “I’d Rather Go Blind,” she was going for a big sound, maybe in the direction of Janis Joplin. Ben and Sara both coaxed her with words we’d heard a lot this weekend. “Speak it.” “Make it simpler.” “Take out half the notes.” (Another unfortunate trend in current popular music is unnecessary vocal pyrotechnics.) “Step away from the mic.” “Find your own voice.”
The only technical language covered in this session had to do with relaxation. Ben helped Nina Grollman, now enrolled in Juilliard, who wants to act as well as sing, think about relaxing everything in her body except those muscles absolutely needed. In her song, “Creep” by Radiohead, you could see this young woman already possesses an arresting way to build a character through a song. When Sara got her to sing a capella and give the piece more space, time to elongate the expression, something special began to emerge.
But I was surprised in this session, as in most of the weekend, breathing was not discussed. Dr. Tom did provide the factoid that studies have shown that, in popular singing styles, singers use as little as fifty-five per-cent capacity while opera singers use eighty percent or more. What are singers supposed to do with this information?
So, when nineteen year old Liisi LaFontaine came on stage, she was the first person the whole day who showed me she was thinking about what she was saying-singing before she breathed which, to my mind, communicated the emotion of the song.
Later in a break, I happened to speak to Anthony Freud from Chicago’s Lyric Opera, about the weekend. “It keeps coming back to language, doesn’t it?” he said. It’s something we in opera need to pay more attention to than we do now. I was also thinking about performance differences. In theatre you think, then breathe, while singers breathe then think.” I too had been thinking of the difference between singers and actors. In my own training, to support a classical Shakespearean line in particular, I was taught to think then let the breath enter, so that the breath is energized by the emotional impulse and the spoken line rides out on that breath, already colored by the thought-emotion.
I really wondered, with this emphasis on authenticity in popular singing styles, if somehow the language of thought-then-breath might be helpful in the equation.
Panelists on Country and Pop
There were two separate panels for these singing styles. Some of what was covered focused on the business and stories of working with the big-name talents.
I found the most interesting comments connected the different vocal styles. This was certainly a big goal for Renée Fleming who had devised the whole American Voices program.
The panelists agreed that the best approach to take with singers of whichever style is to see them as individual athletes, and for singers to understand that they must stay disciplined, train and recover as serious athletes also. Cooling down is as important as warming up. Critical also is hydration or, as Dr. Tom emphasized, “lubrication.”
“Don’t fool yourself,” said Peter Mensch, who has managed singers, bands and records as diverse as AC/DC and Metallica, Eric Church, Josh Groban and Renée Fleming for her crossover record Dark Hope. “They all have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle, especially to survive life on the road. ”
As for the different styles, Blue Note Record producer Don Was dismissed what he saw as false dichotomies. For him there is only generous music and selfish music. I thought of it as a good way for those of us who listen to vocal music to discern what Anthony sees as the critical imperative: the difference between excellence and success. Is that singer thinking ‘how many notes can I play’ or is it someone who is really reaching out to an audience and sharing every moment of the song?
And finally, back to the image of the singer as athlete. Thinking of being a singer? Approach the journey as a marathon not a sprint. Good advice.