“The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms.” — Socrates
I saw this quote recently and I thought it was a great place to start in our exploration to define what singing is. I think it only makes sense that if we are interested in singing that we figure out what actually comprises the act. On first thought it seems too obvious to even bother with. But it is important that we are very clear on what singing is if we are going to investigate how to do it and what makes it good. So that’s what I want to try and find out here. I think why this is important is so we don’t get confused by the different aspects of singing when trying to work on or assess one aspect.
For example, this site and my efforts are focused mainly on the function of the voice. This is only one aspect of singing. There are others that make up the whole. But I feel it is the least understood and has great potential to improve the overall result. But if we are going to be able to objectively discuss this aspect of singing we have to understand what role it plays and that it is just one part.
This is why there is sometimes confusion over what I am saying when I talk about a singer having less than ideal function. There are sometimes strong reactions from people who admire him/her. This is the kind of thing I want to go into and explain. So in order to help us understand the importance of function we have to understand the role it plays in the overall act of singing.
The logical place to start is to simply ask the question “What is Singing?” If we were to brainstorm on this question I’m sure we would come up with many answers. I find myself starting from the statement that “singing is the act of vocal musical expression that makes an effect on a listener.” The key for me is the effect we make on the listener. This is what determines if we, as listeners, like or dislike a performance. If we take this farther we can identify several components to this situation and see why we may like a performance even if one of the components is not well done. (The main example we will illustrate in later posts are performances where we like the effect even with poor function)
An obvious component, since it’s what we’re discussing on this site, is function. Specifically the functioning of the vocal instrument. I have stated in other places that when I talk about the voice I usually am referring to the larynx, the voice box. But it is important to recognize that the vocal instrument consists of more than just the voice. It includes the larynx, probably the most important part, along with the respiratory system and the resonators of the airway, pharynx and head. There are also the additional parts of the mouth for distinguishing words. And all of these are linked to the brain through the nervous system. These are the things we are going into through our exploration on this site. So when I say function I’m talking about the functioning of these physical parts of the body that make up the vocal instrument.
Now what I want to establish are the other components that make up singing. We could probably give each of these different names, but I think of this next one as “expression”. This comprises the feeling the singer is trying to convey. And just like function it can be done well or poor. Expression contains the mood of the piece and the emotional context of the character that is communicated through the words and how we say them. This is the aspect that is unique among musical performers because no other instrument can include words. Many good acting singers make their living by being good at this aspect, which usually combines well with personality/presence below.
This could also be thought of as “musical expression”. It is hard to separate these things but I think of this as the musical aspect of what the singer is doing. If the previous section dealt with mood and textual expression this would be expression of the music in melody and rhythm. It can be thought of as the instrumental aspect of singing. The actual making of music like any other musical instrument.
Another component that makes up a performance is the singer’s “personality and stage presence”. What do they communicate just from their presence. This is a subtle, but often obvious, thing. This is communicated mainly though “body language”. It is obvious when we watch an inexperienced performer because it is lacking. And with a great performer this aspect can make up for deficiencies in the other components. Something we could look for is a sense of calm and confidence being communicated to the audience. The performer should appear comfortable so we can feel who they are as a person. If the performer lets their fear or nervousness overpower them the audience won’t be able to feel their personality. And that is a poor presence.
So the point I want to make is that what I am usually talking about, function, is only one part of the whole performing situation. A means to the end product. It can make the final performance much better. And many people can give wonderful overall performances without doing well in this one aspect.
This is how we can have someone with poor vocal function and still be a great singer. Because the measure of a singer is the overall effect they make on the audience. Some can make a very strong effect from the emotional expression they tap into in their performance. Others make a beautiful effect through their musical expression. Still others make a very successful career from the sheer power of their personality and presence. And many great artist become recognized because of their ability to combine these all at a high level.
So in a way function is the least obvious aspect of great performance. Great function alone will not make a great performance like great expression or great personality can. But function can open the door to better expression. It can allow the voice to act like a musical instrument to maximize beauty and musical expression. It can provide the peace of mind that will allow the performer to feel calm and confident to communicate their personality freely and have a powerful presence. It’s like good function super-charges all of the other components of performance.
But the most important benefit of good function may be something that we don’t notice for years. It is the ability to keep the instrument fresh and youthful for life. To have a voice that doesn’t deteriorate over the years allows us the time to improve in the other aspects of performance and still have an instrument worth hearing by the time we become great artists.
This reminds me of an old quote. I don’t remember who said it, but I know it was an old operatic tenor that had great function so his voice had retained its youthfulness. His son commented to him about another tenor being a great artist. The sage responded by saying, “people become artists when they can’t sing anymore”. This was his way of saying what I described above. With poor vocal function the voice deteriorates over time. When the voice stops being able to do the things the singer wants, they are forced to be “artistic”. Which in reality is not really artistic, it is faking their way through to cover the fact that the voice is not all there anymore.
This happens to opera singers and it certainly happens to non-classical singers as well. I remember when Mariah Carey came out with her fourth or fifth album the critics were praising her “deepening artistry”. Well, she was also singing lower in tessitura because her voice was wearing out from all of the high singing she did early in her career. The voice was already breaking down, but she changed her musical approach to cover that up.
Now that is not necessarily a sin. But I think if any of us were given the option to either have our voice break down and not be able to do the things vocally we could, but become a better artist; versus keeping our voice fresh and healthy so we can do everything vocally we want and more, while also improving as an artist, I think we would all choose the latter.
Unfortunately that is a choice we can only make at the beginning. We can’t destroy our voice and then decide we want to stay vocally young for life. We can still choose after but then it requires rehabilitation. And that is never as good as being healthy from the start.
There is more that can be discussed about this topic, but I’ll save that for as we go along. The main thing I wanted to illustrate is that there are several components, or aspects, that make up a performance. People can be fulfilling them at different levels, which when combined determines the effect they make on the audience. And it is this effect that makes the audience decide how much they like a singer.
Please add your responses and comments below. Thanks.