How Did They Sing That?

By Lis Lewis

Every day someone brings a song into my studio and asks me ‘how did she sing that high?’ or ‘how does he scream like that?’ I’ll try to answer some of these questions by making a pretty good guess based on my experience with thousands of singers for 30+ years and also based on information I’ve gotten from managers, record labels and artists. I’m not telling you things that I’ve learned from first hand experience with the artists themselves; that is confidential.

But first some facts you need to know. Each instrument has it’s own range – a soprano sax has a different range than an alto sax. If you give a soprano sax player a part that is meant for an alto, they will look at you like you’re a fool. Unfortunately many singers think they should be able to sing anything. If you imagine Sarah McLaughlin trying to sing a Janis Joplin song, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Sarah McLaughlin is an amazing singer but she wouldn’t sing in Janis Joplin’s range. McLaughlin’s voice is higher and the tonal quality is different. Assess your own instrument and understand your range. It can be improved, extended and strengthened but it still has its limits and you need to know what they are. You can’t sing everything. Even within your range some musical styles will sound better than others. That may seem obvious but you wouldn?t believe the number of people who think they ‘should’ be able to sing anything.

Also you must realize that there is a big difference between what you hear on a recording and what a person can actually do in a live performance. In the studio there are all kinds of tricks that can be used to make a voice sound better, stronger, more in tune etc. The listener expects to hear a perfect performance on a record and nothing else is acceptable. But in a live show the audience doesn’t notice if a pitch is a little off or a note isn’t held as long, because there’s so much more going on besides the vocal: the energy, the visual, the crowd, and the band. So don’t expect yourself to sing perfectly like the record. It’s good to try, but realize that you don’t have the equipment that they have to help you.

What ‘s Going On

First example is Christina Aguilera. If you listen to her song ‘Beautiful’ (or almost any other song she sings) you will hear her hit some pretty high notes in what sounds like her chest voice – chest voice is the big, earthy voice most of us speak in, also referred to as ‘natural’ voice. In fact she’s not in chest but in blend. This is a mix of chest and head voices that allows you to take some of the chest tone higher than it would normally go. Listen to the bridge where she adlibs over the melody. She has built a big, bad blend – she’s a monster singer. But when you try to do it might sound forced or tight. Or it might just pop over to your upper voice and sound too thin. Blending the two voices is hard to do; you absolutely need a voice teacher to help you work on it without getting hoarse.

Another great example of a singer who is blending is Jeff Buckley. Listen to his song ‘Grace’. What a beautiful vocalist he was. A lot of guys feel like they have to shout to get emotional but he gives an incredibly emotional performance without screaming. As he goes higher he slowly adds his head voice into the sound (like a crossfade between the two voices) so it sounds strong and smooth. When he goes to his head voice, it’s seamless – you can’t tell.

What Not To Do

If you’ve read my other articles you know I’m not a fan of ‘American Idol’ and here’s one reason why. If you saw the first season, you’ll remember that Kelly Clarkson, the winner, had blown out her voice so badly by the last show that she couldn’t sing her final number. The other finalists had to come out and sing it for her. She was scheduled to be on several late night talk shows in the following few nights and she could hardly speak. Her doctor told her she had to stop using her voice entirely, so they cancelled her remaining appearances. In interviews she’s talked about that time and said that her vocal problem came from being tired and singing too much and I’m sure that’s true. But I also heard her sing during the show each week pushing her chest voice up as far as she could. This is one of the most damaging things you can do to your voice. Each week she had to shout a little bit more to get those high notes that the ‘American Idol’ producers and fans love so much.

I don’t know Kelly Clarkson and I don’t know what actually happened, but when I listen to her now, her singing is entirely different. In a song like ‘Breakaway’ it seems obvious to me that she’s learned how to blend. No more shouting those high notes; now they have finesse. I imagine that she had to learn how to preserve her voice so she could sing night after night and not lose it. She is every bit as exciting a singer as she ever was (more, in my opinion) but she’s learned to control her instrument.

By the way, just because a singer knows how to blend, doesn’t mean they always use it. Sometimes in the heat of a live performance they will push too much air pressure and stay in chest too high up. It is public knowledge that Whitney Huston, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera have all done this and paid a price for it later: tours cancelled, the dreaded ‘nodes’ on the vocal cords. Chester Bennington of Linkin Park had to cancel dates as a result of laryngitis. He’s another great example of a singer who screamed his way into trouble and then had to change the way he sang. Listen to ‘One Step Closer’ from their debut 2000 album ‘Hybrid Theory’ and compare it to how he sings ‘Numb’ or ‘Somewhere I Belong’ on the 2003 ‘Meteora’ album. (I’ve never worked with Chester, though I’d love to, so I’m speculating about this. I have worked with most of the other members of Linkin Park.)

You can’t afford to rehearse, perform and record while continually abusing your voice. It will only last so long before you wear it out. If your throat feels tight at the end of your set, if you can’t get the high notes at the end of the set as well as you could at the beginning, if you have to work a little harder to talk the morning after, you’re heading for trouble. If you want to have a career, you’ll have take the time now to learn to treat your voice right. Don’t wait until you lose it.

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