Thoughts on vocal technique

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Kpopalypse did a post recently where he brought up one of his big pet peeves: People putting an enormous emphasis on vocal technique. He’s written about this many times–basically his attitude is that vocal technique developed back before projection technology existed, and now (unless your voice is going to shit) it’s unnecessary.

And he said something in his recent post that really struck a chord with me:

[Park] Bom’s weakness is also her greatest strength – she sounds unique and interesting even on ballad material precisely because she’s just not capable of doing it right.

I really object to the idea that good vocal technique = good singing, in part because I’ve seen what an obsession with vocal technique does to people’s musical judgement.

When my parents got older, they got very, very into performing classical choral music. On the whole, this was a good thing: They would do these tours (which they paid for–they weren’t that good) where they’d perform in Asia and Europe–I even saw them at Carneigie Hall.

Since they were performing European choral music, my father especially got hugely into vocal technique. This was helpful to him as a singer of this particular genre of music–he was able to expand his range and all that good stuff.

But it really contributed to a closing of his mind to vocals that were not very strictly in the tradition of European classical music. So this:

was not a classic of American country music, it was Willie Nelson singing through his nose. Which meant it sucked–along with all American country, blues, pretty much all traditional music from all parts of Asia, etc., etc., etc.

The focus on vocal technique also blinded my father to what singers did well–Exhibit A being Frank Sinatra. Now, according to my father (and I’ve certainly heard this from other people), Sinatra at one point had a “good” voice.

And it’s true–for about five minutes in the 1940s, Sinatra had a very sweet voice, and he was positioned as a cute and innocent K-Pop–I mean, teen idol. (Mafia connections? What Mafia connections?)

He did very well for those five minutes. And then the teenagers moved on to the next thing, and Sinatra’s career went straight into the toilet.

His reaction to this was the same as his reaction to everything else: intense rage. He did manage to channel some of this rage into a productive channel, though–Sinatra figured out how to resurrect his career.

And he did this in spite of the fact that his voice had “gone bad.” He had lost his sweet voice, but instead of focusing on good vocal technique (relax the throat!) in an attempt to get it back, he deliberately roughed his voice up more, worked on his phrasing, and created the signature Sinatra sound we all know today.

None of that mattered to my father. The popularity of Sinatra after his voice “went bad” was a complete mystery to him. As far as he was concerned, the general public just needed to be better educated so that they wouldn’t enjoy it any more.

Vocal technique obviously affects vocal sound, which is why people can listen to your voice and criticize your technique. But–and this is what these people don’t want to tell you–it also means that if you practice “good” technique, you may end up with a voice that doesn’t fit a particular song or even an entire genre or tradition of music!

Try a thought experiment: Imagine the “good” Sinatra voice from “You’ll Never Know” on “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town),” and decide whether or not that would improve the song. Or you go see one of the more-famous opera singers out there (who all have top-notch vocal technique) do a solo show. After doing a fantastic job on a bunch of very difficult opera songs, they often wind down their concert by doing some “easy” show tunes or soul songs.

This is an excellent time to leave early and avoid the rush. I have seen some very famous opera singers completely fuck up some very good non-opera songs with all their “marvelous” vocal technique.

Or let’s take a K-Pop example: Taeil. Taeil gets dinged all the time for straining his voice–screaming, shrieking, whatever. And he has had issues with his voice going out, so sure, this could be a problem for him somewhere down the line.

But:

What about the song? Would a more “relaxed, opened, supported and even resonant sound” work with this particular song? Or would it be like the “good” Sinatra voice on “Chicago (That Toddlin Town)”?

Look at the Luna and Taeil versions of “It Was Love.” Luna of course was very good, but her version of the song wasn’t something I was particularly crazy about, precisely because she was so, you know, “good.”

Are we supposed to buy that she’s upset over anything? Or passionate? Or that her heart is running wild? Or that she’s going crazy?

Of course Luna used excellent vocal technique–that’s the problem! When people are actually emotional, they don’t sing very well.

Which was why I liked Taeil’s version so much better–yes! for the very reasons other people hated it! He stresses and strains! His vocal technique is poor! It’s like he can’t do himself justice!

It’s like he’s actually upset. This is a guy who can get tears streaming down his face during rehearsals.

But emotive quality does not equal vocal technique, so yeah–I guess it must suck, and this isn’t some arbitrary and narrow definition of “good” that people pounce on to justify their personal preferences. Good to know….

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8 responses »

  1. I love Park Bom’s voice. I cannot understand why other people have such bad taste. That is all.

    Oh, actually, that Luna clip doesn’t give her singing.

    Now, that is all! Teehee.

    • Whoops! I linked to the preview by mistake–thanks for pointing that out, it’s fixed now!

      I feel like fretting about Park Bom’s inability to take direction or lack of control is basically borrowing trouble: You’re not going to have to direct her, so don’t worry about it! It’s like Lil Boi’s stage fright–yes, I can see how that could adversely affect his career; no, I don’t see how that adversely affects the songs he’s done that I’ve enjoyed. And when you get into issues of nasality or a constricted throat, I’m like, JFC, get a life….

  2. You hit the nail on the head! Being a very good dancer, singer doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to make it big. Unfortunately there’s no olympics in the entertainment business where if you have perfect pitch or is the best dancer, you get a medal and everyone says you’re the best and your albums sell XD. It all comes down to the it factor I feel and luck. What distinguishes you from the rest. Like your Sinatra example, once I hear his voice, doesn’t matter that I don’t know the song, I know it’s him. What matters is I genuinely get enjoyment out of the way he sings. I’m so glad it wasn’t only me that felt that way about the Luna version. She is impressive on voice technically but so controlled in the way she sang, that I did feel there wasn’t enough emotion there. Do you remember a 90s song by Toni Braxton “unbreak my heart”? i heard it again the other day and altho I’m not a big fan of her voice the pure emotion from her grabs your heart each time.

    • I loved that song! In general, the soft songs I like are ones where the vocals are rough–“I’ll Stand by You” by the Pretenders is a good example. I think soft music + soft vocals is just too much softness…but that’s me!

  3. I totally agree with all said, the tone and the way the person sing make me more impressed than skills. I have tons of songs I love that the singer is not a great vocalist but he sells that song so well even with all his imperfections that win you over. I went to the site and even posted in the comments about Taeil a while ago, for me what is so attractive about his voice is he has a really soft and smooth tone and that with all the emotions he deliver make it really irresistible.
    I remember a vocalist from a metal group that had me totally hooked for years cause his voice was soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo sexy that I couldn’t avoid melting, not sure u know, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, man he wasnt the best but still was impressive. I honestly think vocal training is necessary to help taking care of the voice as a instrument and learning how to use it better to do what u intend, but there are ton of raw people that have amazing skills that overcome this. In korea I would say Taeil and Lee hongki have my favorite tones, both really know how to delivery an emotional song.

    • I think vocal technique can certainly be very helpful with preserving the voice and expanding range (although I knew people who sang musicals who never even warmed up! And it’s not an antidote for aging–I saw Placido Domingo in LA last year, and his voice is certainly not what it used to be in spite of his technique), but…it’s a tool. For singers. And there are other tools in the box that might be more useful.

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