By Lis Lewis
You are an acoustic instrument – your instrument is your body. The sound travels around inside your ribcage and head, bouncing off of your bones and muscle, and it comes out of your mouth sounding like you! In this way you are similar to an acoustic, hollow body guitar or a piano and different from an electric guitar or synthesizer. These last two instruments don’t have a body for the sound to roll around in; instead the sound is carried electrically.
Acoustic instruments tend to get better as they age because the wood warms the tone as it mellows. A well-maintained guitar from the 1950’s will usually sound better than a brand new one of equivalent quality. Even the human voice gets warmer with age. Women tend to reach their vocal peak in their mid forties, men in their late thirties.
This should help explain why external factors matter so much to a singer: sleep, weather, diet, mood and allergies. There is an actual physical effect on the instrument caused by these conditions. This isn’t an excuse for you not to perform when you are sniffling but a way for you to understand that the sniffles affect you.
Since you are an acoustic instrument it’s hard to balance your vocal with the electric instruments in your band. You amplify your voice with a microphone that allows you to be heard beyond the limited distance your voice would normally carry. Even so, it’s difficult to compete with musicians who have turned their amps up as far as they’ll go or with a drummer who is pounding away behind you. On top of this, all of that noise onstage goes into your microphone and is amplified along with your voice. As a result it’s hard to turn the mic up loud enough without getting feedback. Most other acoustic instruments will have similar problems except the drums because they’re so loud to begin with. An acoustic guitar, a flute or any other instrument that uses a mic to amplify their sound would have the same problems.
If you can’t hear yourself in the rehearsal room or in a show, your instinct will be to shout. It’s a very normal response. Even the guitarists would want to turn up their amp if they couldn’t hear themselves. In the case of the guitarist, however, turning it up won’t damage the instrument. Shouting will damage your voice in the long run, and even in the short term it isn’t helpful. If you shout at tonight’s rehearsal, you will have a weaker voice, or no voice at all, for tomorrow night’s rehearsal. Even worse, when you listen back to your rehearsal tapes, you will hear that you sound awful. Don’t shout.
What To Do?
First, make sure your voice is healthy and strong. Too many singers blame their band members for things they should take care of themselves. Warm up before you go to your rehearsal or performance. Build your strength and endurance with good vocal technique. Pay attention to your health, your diet and your workout. Your whole body has to be in good shape for your voice to work properly.
Second, rehearse dynamics. Every time you play a song, note the settings on the amps so they don’t get turned up in the next rehearsal. Talk about where the builds are in each song and then keep the volume down before the build. There is a certain amount of energy generated by volume but if the volume is at ten from the very beginning, there?s nowhere to go.
Third, create a space for the vocals. If the drummer is riding the crash cymbal all the way through the verse, no one will hear a thing you’re singing. When the time comes that you get a good producer interested in working with you, he or she will come into rehearsals and rework the instrumental parts and arrangements to leave a sonic space for the vocal. If the keyboard parts or the guitar parts are playing in the same frequency range as the vocals, the producer will change those parts. Think of the vocal as a diamond in a ring – it has to be placed in the perfect setting. Any solo should be treated this way – as a jewel that needs the right accompaniment. While the singer is singing, he or she is the soloist.
Last, consider investing in in-ear monitors. They help block out other sound so that you only hear what is being sent to them. Most likely you would put your vocal, some background vocals, a chordal instrument like keys or guitar into the in-ears. When you can hear your voice you won’t be tempted to shout. They work amazingly well although they do take a little getting used to.
When you understand the strengths and limitations of your instrument, you can perform like a professional. Your voice can be strengthened, your range increased and the muscles made more flexible but it will still have its limits like any other instrument. Treat your voice like an honored guest: house it, feed it and respect it and it will serve you for a lifetime.