Originally published on March 13, 2011 on www.voicecouncil.com
Whether you are a Twanger, Belter or Distortionist, Dane Chalfin asks: are you making your signature sounds without damaging your voice?
Are You An Extreme Singer?
There are many singers who live comfortably within the normal parameters of folk, jazz and commercial pop; these vocalists use speech-based sound mixed in with some lighter qualities. In this series, however, I want to address any singing that is over and above your normal speaking range, volume and stamina requirements.
We start moving into ‘extreme’ territory when vocal effects come into play, such as twang, belting, distortion or other effects that add a powerful and often “signature” quality to the voice. Just think of the bright, edgy sounds you hear in country gospel, musical theatre or hard rock genres; or, think of artists such as Patti LaBelle, Axl Rose and Stevie Wonder.
Why is extreme singing so effective?
In scientific terms, twang, for example, produces an increased acoustic energy between 2.5 and 4 kilohertz; the human hear is very sensitive to this range and it increases the perceived sound from 6 to 20 decibels. Still, this effectiveness is of no real value if you blow your voice out reaching for these important sounds!
Are You a Twanger?
To produce “Twang” all you have to do is make any one of these sounds: – A quacking duck – An annoying playground taunt – A screaming baby – A hungry cat – A happy witch – Bugs Bunny
Here is what you must remember: there should be no sense of additional effort on the voice as the muscles doing it are above the vocal folds. Twang is produced not in the vocal folds but in the aryepiglottic sphincter (AES or “twanger”) and pharynx.
Twang becomes harsher and more scream-like the higher you take it in the range – this is why it is a favored sound of gospel singers and hard rock bands like hair-metal. High piercing screams are a twang quality or twang set up. The danger singers get into with twang is that, for the larynx, it closely resembles swallowing and sometimes the larynx can be tricked into constricting, the way it does during a swallow. When vocalists come to me with damaged voices, due in part to badly produced twang, I stress that they need to produce this sound without extra effort; I teach them to over-ride this with de-constricting exercises such as holding the feeling of a stifled laugh when singing.
The larynx must be high to produce a good pop/rock twang, so traditional yawn/sigh? exercises for de-constricting are not appropriate here.
Whether it’s twanging, belting or distortion, your voice needs to work smarter, not harder -says Dane Chalfin
One of the principles that I hope emerges throughout this series has to do with redefining the term “work” in the phrase “vocal work”.It seems that many vocalists think that if they have pain when they sing, that they are working hard. It is so important to realize that although there can be much muscular work in your body involved in your signature sounds, each of these sounds must be produced in ways that have no adverse effects on your vocal folds – this includes belting.
Are You a Belter?
Singers who favor belting include Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Bono and even Pavarotti.
Belting is a term that gets thrown around liberally and means different things to different people. According to various research, including my own, we can see that belting is very similar to, if not the same as yelling or calling out.
Simply put, Belting is yelling set to music.
The easiest ways to produce the belting sound are to:
* Call across the road to a friend you haven’t seen in ages: “Hey!” or “Oi!” * Give a loud cheer for your home team: “YAY!”
Belting with your Back
These sounds require a considerable amount of physical effort, particularly in your back muscles and the muscles of core stability.
But please take note that the research is clear where breathing and belting are concerned: belting takes very little air flow. Most singers find that the closer it feels to holding one’s breath, the better the belt that is produced. The trouble with belting is that we aren’t conditioned to make that sound for extended periods of time; when we yell in real life, it tends to be in short, sharp bursts. Belting is physically tiring but should not feel tiring or traumatic to the voice when produced correctly. The major problem with singers who habitually belt has to do with neglecting to maintain the physical effort needed to keep this sound safe.
Here’s How to Make Belting Safe:
Call out ‘eh!’ on a bright happy sound
Notice how much effort is required from your postural stabilizers and back muscles; belting requires a lot of this. The body should feel a greatly increased sense of ‘readiness’ and energy. Try to keep the effort in the larynx as low as possible!
Hold that level of body effort right to the end of the belt— and then for a second longer. If you relax simultaneously with the end of the sound it will probably crack or strain.
Another way to approach your postural stabilizers is to stand as tall as you can and then imagine you have a couple of oranges in your arm pit; pull your shoulders down and your arms in as if you are going to juice them! Notice the sense of effort across your back.
The higher you belt, the more effort is required to stabilize the sound everywhere except the larynx.
A final warning for you belters: belting will sound sharp and strident, piercing and yell-like; there is no way to sweeten or darken it. If you try to sweeten your belt, this will take the larynx out of its optimal position and increase the risk of vocal injury.
It is possible to be so seduced by a “cool” vocal sound that you forget to maintain your vocal health.
Performing extreme singing in a healthy way isn’t all about learning technical principles.
I hope that so far in this series you’ve seen that these sounds are often produced in healthy ways when we are at play or by imagining certain movements. This is just as true with distortion; often the way ahead lies through vocal-play.
Are You a Distortionist?
Distortion is defined as using laryngeal or pharyngeal structures to disrupt the sound stream – or to add a noise to the sound stream.
There are different types of distortion for a typical scream; you can have an Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, or Stevie Wonder scream, a Louis Armstrong growl or the heavier grunting-distortion featured in Death Metal.
Distortions are effects that are added to a core sound; however, very often singers will get seduced by the noise of the distortion and forget what they are doing underneath.
If the sound you are trying to produce underneath is not being maintained below the distortion, then there is a very high risk of doing trauma to the vocal folds.
It’s a “Mastery Level” Vocal Effect
If you are producing a distortion safely, then you should be able to sing a clean note, move into distortion and then back into the clean note without any disruption. You must remember that distortion is a mastery level vocal effect; it is easy to err with distortion in ways that will be traumatic to your vocal folds. Distortionists should never experience a painful, scratching sensation in the larynx; nor should their voice feel husky or hoarse after producing these sounds.
Have Fun: Vocal Play
In my opinion, the best way for learning healthy distortion is through vocal play: mimic the sound of diving airplanes—very often the sound comes out spontaneously without you even thinking about it. Or, pretend to be a roaring lion/growl like you are playing at “monsters”– these play voices can help you to find distortion in an unpressured, non-technical way.
If the process for learning distortion feels too technical, singers feel self-conscious and don’t learn as freely. That’s why I actually have much more success in teaching distortion through play rather than technique. The reason vocal-play works so much better than imparting muscular or structural theory is that you are accessing pathways in your brain that already exist. At one level, your body already knows how to do this and this approach is more efficient than trying to teach your body something new.
This is true with all sound; in fact, increasing traditional exercises is not the only way forward with your voice. After all, which is likely to help you more: a logical but complicated guide to distortion or practicing the sound of a diving airplane? According to the available research, distortion produced correctly should produce no or little negative results to the vocal folds – this is exactly as I find it “on the ground” working with vocalists all over the world.
I teach six days a week, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and these sounds will make it every day into what I teach as my clientele tend to favor extreme voice use. Even after eight hours of singing, I do not experience voice loss or hoarseness – though that was not always the case. I also know dozens of rocks singers who use these sounds regularly and their voices are fine. There is only one caveat to this conviction: we do not have any long-term data. We don’t yet know the effects of fifteen or twenty years of distortion, for example, on the larynxes of these singers. There is naturally some concern over the wear and tear of certain joints in the larynx but we won’t know anything for certain for another decade or so.
Although we can’t be one hundred percent sure that extreme singing done healthily is completely risk free, we can say that there are plenty of healthy larynxes out there belonging to singers who practice these sounds according to the ways described in this series.
If you are in any doubt about the health of your voice from producing these sounds, then get “scoped”. Get your doctor to refer you to a laryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor who specializes in the larynx); do your own research and make sure that the specialist you see has experience in working with professional singers!
And remember, because all of these sounds, produced incorrectly, can cause trauma, they are best learned under the supervision of an expert coach who knows and understands the latest research.
Extreme Singing with Extreme Success
What I’d like all singers to take away from this series on extreme singing is that while these effects require physical effort, there should be no adverse affect on the voice. Scratching, hoarseness or voice loss are NOT signs that you are doing good, hard work with your voice but rather, that you are working foolishly. Remember that you are doing vocal work for the long-haul; you are worth taking the time and care over to get these voices right. Besides, as you work for greater vocal health, your audiences will be able to enjoy your voice just as much in your last set of the night as they did in your first.