There are many challenges involved in helping someone to build their voice. Different levels of ability, facility, ages, voice types, musical experience vs lack thereof, etc. All of these play a part in how rapidly we can develop a voice. On top of that, some people are more effective in how they practice at home, which means we can progress faster.
The people who find it hardest
One thing I’ve noticed those who find it the hardest are often the people with MORE musical and singing experience, rather than less. Often they’ve been singing that way for years, so not only are there underlying habits to address, but often such singers already feel they know what they’re doing and just need a little help.
NOTE: As a life-long musician, this was 100% me when I started. I was in tune, I didn’t sound that bad, yet it was such a slog at the start. Why did it feel so hard? Truthfully, I had a lot of bad habits, and a lot of things that were – quite simply – foundational elements to building a voice that I wholly lacked. As such, I can fully empathise with those who end up thinking “Oh my word, I feel like I’m rubbish at this! Why is it so complicated?!”
In this article, I wanted to talk about bad habits that certain types of genre tend to cultivate in singers. Sometimes these habits are horrendous, sometimes they are oh-so-subtle, but in most cases they have become near enough invisible to the singer, so they don’t even realise they are doing it.
“Their habit has become background noise, interfering with their ability to control their instrument, yet they cannot hear it.”
The automatic nature of in-built habits mean one simply can’t hear it when they are manipulating the sound, or when they switch approaches in the middle of a phrase. Furthermore, it is then very hard to manually override that behaviour, even when one “knows” what they should be doing differently. It can often feel like beating your head off a brick wall.
Different genres beget different habits/tendencies. Here are some examples of common habit groupings that different genre singers tend to acquire over the years. This not an exhaustive list of habits, but rather trying to link habits I’ve noticed with the genres they generally come with:
In this article I talk about the reasons for why so many singers either yell or flip in order to achieve higher notes. Neither strategy is optimal or healthy long-term for singers (nor sounds particularly good, in my opinion), but certain genres will “self-select” which approach is musically most appropriate for certain singers.
In the main, genres that require more intense sounds will find less vocally facile singers choosing to yell higher notes. This involves opening the vocal tract extremely wide like a megaphone, to attempt to not lose perceived power on the top. For example, rock singers are well known for yelling top notes. Certain indie-pop bands and their singers do similar things, though often to a lesser extent than rock.
Some attempting gospel music or more intense soul will often cause less facile singers to resort to this strategy.
Musical theatre is another one that is problematic for just yelling top notes. The perception of what constitutes a good belt has shifted a lot over the decades, to the point that more modern musical theatre performances sound exceedingly yelled on the top end. However this is often far more disguised than in rock/indie-pop, simply because the bulk of musical theatre songs are so much more lyrical and spoken, that such singers still have to craft their “yelling” a little more than alternative genres.
If you have sung a lot in these genres, it may feel hard to control your instrument at the top end. The automatic desire that has been built-in as invisible habit will mean you have a propensity to widen enormously as you reach higher notes. Instead, we’ve got to slowly show your instrument that it doesn’t need to resort to that emergency strategy, that there’s a better way… but it does take time to chip away at that habit/muscle memory to make the new approach the automatic reflex.
As per example 1, the inherent difficulty in singing means people will often revert to yelling or flipping to make higher notes.
RnB, hip-hop, lighter pop, all involve stylistic lighter, almost falsetto sounding high notes on the top end. E.g. Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, D’Angelo.
These kinds of singers often go the opposite way, and when things get more intense at the upper end of the voice, they resort to singing very lightly to avoid discomfort or difficulty. This is certainly a less damaging strategy in the long run, but for men especially, it is a fairly emasculating way to sing everything.
These singers tend to realise they are being light, but this colours their view of what “heavier” singing is. As such, they often struggle to increase the intensity in their voice in a controlled way, as their body’s automatic reaction is to lighten up.
NOTE: Some singers have a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on, and do both yelling and flipping at different points. Just because a singer can yell OR flip in the upper part of their range doesn’t mean they don’t have these issues – it means they have BOTH. The challenge is to exert control over one’s instrument so that intense sounds and lighter sounds are connected through a similar approach, NOT two isolated sounds that share nothing in common. Singers who have both of these habits often find it very hard to not flip-flop between them, and that middle ground of controlled intensity can feel very elusive.
There have always been singers that sound a bit odd or that are less intelligible, e.g. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, etc. But since singers like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, plus male singers like Passenger, or the lead singer of Kings of Leon, mangled vocal sounds have (in my opinion) never been more in-vogue.
In the pursuit of being recognised as having a “unique sound”, singers are increasingly choosing to mangle the proverbial **** out of words. For some, it’s almost a spasmodic approach to singing lyrics, just to make it sound ‘different’.
Acoustic singer-songwriters are notorious for this, especially as they are trying to make ‘one voice and a guitar’ sound distinctive and different from others. Certain modern RnB, soul and indie singers do similarly.
Such singers drift so far from what their voice ACTUALLY sounds like, it becomes the vocal equivalent of body dysmorphia. They cannot recognise that they don’t sound like themselves, and that is hard to unpick.
We need to reintroduce themselves to their own voice, but also to teach them how to develop consistency and control over their voice. We are not just starting from scratch, but trying to unpick the randomised and erratic approach they typically adopt.
Conclusion: It’s not just you
Don’t worry! It’s not just you, and while it can be difficult or frustrating, it is far from hopeless!
99% of people start in one of these groupings, to one degree or another. There’s a rare 1% doing a lot right, with whom we can just crack on, but that isn’t the case for the majority. We all have things to learn and things to unpick. Half the battle is knowing that we have an issue, and keeping a keen eye out for it as we develop our voices.