Hey… love ya, mean it, baby, be here all week, and-a one-a, and-a two-a… Agh! And then you wake up in a cold sweat, shaking from the dream that puts your lead singer home with the flu, and you having to cover the gig sounding like Larry the Lounge Lizard. Where does this idea that voice lessons are going to turn you into a Larry come from? I haven’t the foggiest, but I do think that the perception of what a voice lesson is has a lot to do with it.
I think that many people still visualize (or perhaps have experienced) a classically trained singer, sitting at a piano, barely containing his/her disdain for the fact that you love Dick Wagner and have never heard of Richard Wagner (pronounced vahg-ner). The image goes even further into these big vowel A-E-I-O-U exercises that to your ear, make you sound like a chump. Total Larry-ville.
OK, big vowels aren’t very rock ‘n’ roll. So how do you take lessons based in a classical tradition, and still sound like you? First off, you get a good instructor who doesn’t have any obvious opinion about your musical taste. Second, you rock a little Wagner… the classical dude, not the rocker. OK, not literally, but bear with me as I tease out my silly little joke.
Most vocal instruction that we are familiar with comes from the classical Italian ‘bel canto’ approach. And you are saying to yourself, ‘what does that mean to me?’ Fair enough. What this means is this: if you think about the Italian language, it is full of vowels, and everything is sort of soft and round, right? So to sing in that language, you have to have those vowels happening. To learn this, the exercises focus a great deal on vowels and vowel placement. The ma-meh-mi-mow-moo kind of thing.
Now, let’s look at what happens when we overlay this approach on the English language. English is heavily Germanic. Lots of hard consonants and hard consonant blends, and our vowels are smaller and tighter. Then throw in the rock ‘n’ roll attitude that scoffs at the very notion of sounding polished, and we have a real problem applying ‘big vowel’ training to say, Dylan. Or the Stones. Forget about AC/DC…
So do you have to choose? Lessons and go to Larry-ville, no lessons and sound, well, like you sound? No.
Fortunately for us, there is a Germanic classical tradition that gives us a copious selection of exercises that work the consonants. And work them you must! Why? Because along with our heavily Germanic language, we tend to place all our sound in our throats and the back of our mouths. Generally, if you pay attention to speakers of other languages, they keep their speech up front around their front teeth and in their cheekbones. (This location is called the ‘mask’ – a term you will become more familiar with as you sing.) But Americans, in particular, kind of swallow their consonant-heavy speech.
If you don’t learn to re-position your consonants, placing them in your mask, you can end up with intonation problems – just like a guitar that is generally in tune with itself, except for that one place on the neck. You may be able to get the vowels up front where they belong, and your vocal cords may start out on pitch, but as you sing through a line, you may swallow a consonant here or there, and you will sound pitchy.
For example, let’s look at the simple Dylan line “the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.” Most of the first half of the line wants to be ‘up front’ naturally. The ‘th’, the ‘s[w]er’, the ‘m’, and the ‘fr/nd’ sounds want to be at the tip of your tongue because that is where those blend sounds are made, right? Try making an ‘s’ sound without putting it right at your front teeth. Not happening. OK, cool… right?
Maybe, maybe not. There are a few places where pitch/intonation can go awry in this simple lyric line. The ‘a’ in answer, depending a lot on regional accents, can go back in the throat or up in the nose. Same with the ‘y’ in my. But the two biggest trouble makers here are the ‘bl/w’ in blowin’ and the ‘w’ in wind. So in this one line, we have four spots where your intonation could get derailed. And this is just one line!
I didn’t discover this whole vowel/consonant thing for quite a few years, and I struggled with intonation problems. Since I didn’t know what the problem was, it was frustrating and downright demoralizing. Some songs sounded good, some didn’t. Some days were better than others, and the end result was that I doubted myself, which just made me a nervous wreck as a singer. If a singer doesn’t trust her voice – it’s a big damn deal. Stuff like this can really hang you up as a performer.
Finally, I discovered a resource with the motherlode of consonant exercises, and I immediately recognized that it was the missing link in what I was doing. It all fell together. The vowel exercises, for us non-classical singers, are only half the story. The consonant exercises are the other half – and the critical half that prevents us from becoming Lounge Larrys. It is incredible how much more ‘you’ comes back into your voice and expression once you get the consonants happening.
When I put my DVD GuitarPlayer Wanted: Vocals a Plus together, I synthesized techniques and information from many sources and schools of thought, because I believe that there is no one method that is going to work for everyone. However, dealing with consonants effectively is a must, regardless of whether you are singing Wagner or “Vahg-ner.” See? Now you get my little joke.