Today I want to write about the epidemic of oversinging that has overwhelmed the music industry in current times, and indeed, is also frequently displayed by amateur singers and beginners.
When we talk about ‘over-singing’, we can look at two different types:
1 – The tendency to over-embellish the melody, sometimes to the point at which it is no longer recognisable;
2 – The tendency to unhealthily force the voice through belting and sing at one volume – LOUD
Singers who only sing at full volume sacrifice so much of a performance. Beginners can mistake volume power as an adequate substitution for emotional power. It can sound less like singing and more like shouting in key. Just this week I read of two more young singers having nodule surgery – Jess Glynne and Meghan Trainor. Other recent casualties include Sam Smith and Adele.
There is no reason for this other than bad singing!
A singer with good technique, who knows when to rest, when to warm up, which keys are best, without being manipulated into using his or her voice in an unhealthy way has a long career ahead. A singer who gets pushed into using the voice in an unhealthy way, or chooses to forego vocal coaching has only him or herself to blame when said career is cut short.
However, even singers with good technique can suffer vocal damage from overuse; touring too much and for too extended a period, singing for too many hours at a time, not getting adequate rest between concerts. This is where you SHOULD be a diva. Don’t agree to any kind of schedule you think will be too taxing on your voice, and make sure to use equipment good enough to make your job a lot easier.
Vocal surgery can change the tone of the voice afterwards, sometimes resulting in the instrument being permanently damaged. There is no sense in risking your instrument when you can minimise risk by singing properly and getting a professional teacher to correct your bad habits as soon as they form. You cannot self-assess; none of us can. We need an impartial, knowledgeable third party ear to put us back on track.
Just as I suggest actors will benefit from taking singing lessons, singers can benefit from joining an acting group, or working with an acting coach in spoken word in order to improve their song delivery. Young singers growing up in the X Factor generation have little frame of reference to build their performance style on as so many of today’s known pop stars neglect the important tenets of being a well-rounded performer.
Watch some audition videos on YouTube from the current crop of popular ‘reality’ talent shows on TV. You will see a plethora of veiny-necked, screwed-up eyed hopefuls, belting out their chosen song with lashings of contrived emotion; as if the louder and more over the top the performance, the more realistic it is.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
One thing singers who wish to be great MUST learn that actors are taught as a matter of course is:
You are not the focus, the SONG is.
The best acting performances are understated, with subtleties of emotion. As such, when the performance calls for a dramatic change in delivery, such as increased or decreased emotion, or drawing attention to a particular line or interaction, the actor has room to manoeuvre. If he is already delivering the part to the nth degree of emotion – where is left for him to go, other than shrieking into the rafters or bawling like a cartoon character?
A bad acting performance is easy to spot; a bad singing performance seems more accepted, due to the fact many famous singers permanently dwell in this place.
Here are two performances of a song by Etta James, ‘At Last’. First up is Christina Aguilera (singing starts at 2min42 if you want to skip the talking). Let’s focus on the song this time round. Close your eyes and listen.
Okay. How do you feel? What emotion did she convey to you with this performance? What is the song saying? (if you can even make out the lyrics).
Christina Aguilera has an excellent instrument but she often overblows, like a trumpet player playing a fortissimo fanfare. I know this song, but I found it hard to follow the melody and I couldn’t make out the lyrics.
Without these two things, how do I know what to feel?
There were no peaks and troughs, nowhere for me to catch my breath and FEEL what the singer was telling me. Afterwards, I just felt like I’d heard a powerful singer doing her exercises and vocal runs. Well done to Christina for fitting twenty million notes in one song, but as to selling it to me – FAIL.
Remember what I said earlier – THE SONG IS PARAMOUNT.
You are a painter, an actor, a sculptor. What lives on in these three artisans? They don’t. Their art does. The song is the art, you deliver the goods. If your ego can’t handle that, then carry on as you are. If you want to be the best, hone your talent, step back and allow the song to take centre stage.
Now listen to this version by Beyonce. I’ll write my thoughts below. Again, close your eyes and listen to what the song is telling you via the singer. Make note of how you feel, how the singer feels when she’s telling the story, what type of character she is, etc. (singing starts at 1min28)
I have a love-hate relationship with Beyonce. On the one hand, she has a great instrument and a good deal of control over it, but chooses too often to sail down the stream of melisma (the gospel style licks added to the melody) as often as possible.
Note decoration should be done in moderation, like adding seasoning to a pot of chicken. Nowadays, there is too much seasoning and not enough meat. She says “At last, my love has come along.” I hear technique, and I’d like to hear more SOUL. Still, I find Beyonce’s version easier on the ear.
Remember, words matter.
Conveying the emotion of the song to the audience and making them feel the emotion – not your emotion, their own experience of what the song is saying – that is what will make you a great singer.
It doesn’t matter whether you are singing in a tiny wine bar or at the Super Bowl, your instrument should be used to the best of your ability, both physically and emotionally.
In terms of vocal delivery, being a great performer, LESS IS MORE.
If your eyes are darting all over the place, your brows about to vault off your face, your veins about to explode in your neck, or the audience can count your dental fillings and see whether you had your tonsils out as a child, you’re oversinging (and probably underselling).
Are you really singing, or just throwing a ball around your vocal range? When you’re all fanfare, you lose out on nuances such as intimacy and meaning. Be honest with yourself and improve all the time.
If you are a powerful singer, it doesn’t mean you should sing at full volume and intensity all the time; always leave room for more. Even waves crashing to the shore pull back before the next tidal surge. Does this mean the sea is weak in its retreat? No! It enhances the power of the next wave. When singing a modest song such as ‘At Last’, save your chops for the peak of the performance, which you want to reach near the end. Everyone oversings the first line. A little slide up is fine. A great big pirate ship of a slide is not.
Many singers want to be perceived as sexy when onstage, so bring the sex appeal. Less is more. Show a bit of vocal cleavage, don’t get your breasts out. Get someone to video you when you are singing, especially at live performances in front of an audience, and honestly critique yourself.
I’ll make a brief mention of the technical problems that arise from oversinging. Firstly, your vocal folds will get irritated and swell, which will lead to intonation problems, hoarseness, flipping into falsetto etc. It doesn’t take much to affect them and by the time you notice it, it’s usually too late to fix it (for that performance, anyway).
When you oversing (in terms of volume) your vocal folds swell because you’re forcing the air through instead of letting it come through in a controlled manner. Using too much air at too high a pressure results in loss of your upper mid range. You will find yourself having to sing notes above your passagio in falsetto instead of mixing your head voice qualities. Once you default to falsetto from lack of control makes it difficult to come back to singing with a connected voice. We always want falsetto to be a choice, not a safety net.
Ways to reduce this is to use glottal onset and not sing at a constantly high volume, use proper support and cut back on extending notes. Singing is not an Olympic sport. Our job as singers is to take the listener on an emotional journey; not only ours, but their own. The more they identify with the song, the better a singer you are becoming.
Last words from the original. Close your eyes and listen to the story she tells.
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