Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
In the classical world, teachers usually do not have a hard time identifying what they think the student’s ultimate tonal goal should be. These decisions are informed by the teacher’s knowledge of performance practice, recorded documentation of thousands of singers, use of language, and vocal technique. However, in commercial music, there are no standards, and the standards in MT are changing rapidly. That can be a hard thing to get used to when you enter the dark side (the CCM world). It is particularly tricky because you have to keep an eye on vocal health and efficiency while also considering the student’s “vocal identity.”
Merriam-Webster defines identity as:
Vocal identity is created in part by those distinguishing characteristics that make a certain voice sound different than others. For instance, Neil Diamond, Rufus Wainwright, Bernadette Peters, Arianna Grande, etc. When you hear those voices, you know within seconds the name of the performer. Vocal identity is not only a timbre but also an approach to style, informed by the performer’s cultural and musical identity. It is also frequently influenced by the performer’s emotional and/or psychological state.
In the 20th century when the music industry was tightly controlled by a handful of powerful corporations, record executives had the power to control the range of vocal qualities we heard on recordings. For example, think about the “Hair Band” explosion of the 1980s and the “Boy Bad” explosion of the late 90s and early 2000s. A very specific sound comes to mind when you think of those type of groups, and in order to enter that marketplace, singers needed to adjust their vocal quality to fit the industry demands. However, the internet has changed things drastically. Record labels have less power and now anyone can become a professional performer thanks to platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. That has led to a world where there are very few vocal standards in CCM styles. This means that “vocal identity” is more important than ever before and we have to consider it when students come to work with us.
While society is rapidly embracing individual identity, I am not sure the voice training community is quite there yet. We still have a tendency to think of type, classification, “faults,” and other fixed criteria when evaluating a singer’s voice. But when we approach lessons with a fixed definition of vocal beauty, we risk changing what is important to the singer standing in front of us. If you perceive nasality as a major problem and the student values it as an important element of their vocal identity, you will run into problems. You may notice overall resistance, lack of practice, a sudden change in physical energy when you mention nasality, or other similar changes that are contrary to what you are expecting. In those situations, it is helpful to explore whether or not that “fault” is actually a valued part of the student’s vocal identity. If it is, we, of course, want to make sure they are not harming themselves. But if they are not at risk of harm and they strongly identify with a quality that would traditionally be considered a fault, it is ok to think outside of the box.
One of the best ways to explore how the student perceives their vocal identity is to ask questions and listen to recordings of the student’s favorite singers. During the intake process, I ask:
I then ask them to put together a YouTube playlist of their favorite singers. I ask them to share videos (via a YouTube playlist) of singers that they believe have similar voices to them, singers that have traits they like, and singers they love who are nothing like themselves. Sometimes you will see vocal commonalities – i.e. all use vocal fry throughout. Other times you will notice they gravitate towards specific traits, such as a tendency toward songs that are emotionally driven. You may have to dig, but you will always find useful information. You may discover that they love all vocal sounds and want to be as versatile as they can be.
You never know what you will find, which is the fun part. When you combine the answers to their questions with the videos they share, you will gain insight to their vocal identity. That background can then inform where you start, what you address, and what you leave alone for the time being. As you gain the student’s trust by addressing what they want to work on first, you will lay the groundwork to address other elements of the student’s approach that they may not be considering. This is especially helpful when working with musical theatre performers who do need to be versatile to succeed in the early parts of their careers.
How do you address/handle vocal identity in the voice studio? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. If you are not already following the blog, please enter your name and email in the form below to receive a message each time there is a new post. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media to help spread the word about evidence-based vocal training. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com