Changing How We Listen

A while back, I was working with a new student who was convinced that she could not sing low notes and that somehow using her chest voice meant that she was "shouting." Furthermore, she said that no one cares about how low you can sing, but rather, people only want to hear high notes! It was a little shocking to hear that. It made me look at how much we've lost due to overprocessing of mainstream music. Take a look at the most popular artists out there. Not one of them is an alto or bass. They all sing higher or more pinched or pressed in order to meet the public demand for more high notes because somewhere along the way, some record execs decided that it was more marketable to shriek than it was to create a pleasant sound. At some point in the mid-1990's, it was decided that high = exciting. But no one factored in that high harmonics are only one part of the equation.

I know this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I ask you, my reader, to really think about this. When was the last time you heard a sound like Barry White? Or Karen Carpenter? I use them as extreme examples, but even more recent groups and singers like TLC and P!nk are very balanced voice-wise. Remember when boy-bands were popular? Not like One Direction, but more like Boyz 2 Men, The Backstreet Boys and such? There was a depth of sound being created that a whole generation doesn't even know! There are kids out there who don't understand the idea of low harmonics! It's amazing to me.

What's even more amazing is that the concept of low harmonics CAN be easily taught! One has to get used to the idea that the low harmonic exists and can act as a stabilizer. I explained to the aforementioned student that the low harmonic must be looked at as the foundation for the creation of the sound. Using the low harmonic promotes a nice, lowered larynx position that when maintained can actually HELP with high notes. This is an incredibly non-linear way of thinking about the voice, but it's the truth. You need that grounding to be able to have room to stretch the muscles that allow you to sing high. Plus, that low harmonic, especially the resonater that vibrates in the chest, provides the element of sound that tugs at people's heartstrings. It is what puts the "soul" into the sound. It's why the bassline of a track can get a whole audience on their feet dancing! It's what can "drive" the momentum of a song. While it hasn't been totally forgotten, it's been pushed aside in favor of aiming for the high harmonic only, and an unbalanced, thinner-sounding voice.

So, how do we change all of this? I tell my students that they always need to establish a connection to the great singers of the past, in order to preserve the good sounds for the future. A lot of the fault lies with studio engineers who are told to "clean up" the tracks and eliminate all overtones digitally. This has caused an entire generation of people to lose the ability to hear overtones or undertones in the music. Ever hear a hipster complain about how analog recordings are superior to digital? Well, they're correct! Analog recordings, while less "clean-sounding" allowed for the overtones in the music to come through. This means that all the low and high harmonics could resonate freely and give more depth and color to the music. This is why music made before 1990 can sound vastly different than more modern sounds. If you've been wondering why music (especially pop music) these days sounds kind of horrible, this is why. All the extra overtones that give the music it's extra oomph and flavor have been wiped away.

Getting back to my student who was scared of chest voice, she eventually figured out that she needed to use it. Chest voice is a connection to that primal base that makes singing such a unique experience to begin with. She learned that by embracing the low harmonic, she could use it to enhance the color of her voice and it gave her the depth she was looking for. The presence it can give might sound like shouting to those who don't understand the low harmonic, so it helps to be patient and ease into it. But it gave her a sense of power once she mastered it! It also helped her understand the other components needed to get her high notes together too. I'll discuss high notes another time. Also, by taking the time to listen to the artists of the past, she was able to re-train her ears how to listen to music in general! She now can pick out the overtones and knows when they're not there.

So, remember, singing should be a balanced activity. You need both high and low harmonics to create a pleasant sound, and when recording, you should NEVER clean it up too much. What makes a voice interesting is all the different colors it can make. Dare to be different and use your resonators to paint a complete picture of sound. Also, if anyone would like specific examples of singers who use ALL the different colors and harmonics, please feel free to message me. There are a lot of wonderful videos on YouTube that illustrate my point and I'm always happy to share.

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