Who Am I As a Singer?

Athena Murphy
BURSTOUT Contributor

Athena is a singing teacher and coach, she also teaches Piano, Guitar, Bass, Mandolin, Ukelele, and Songwriting/Composition.

I've been waiting for this one for years.... one of my students finally came to me with the PERFECT problem. Reyna, a soprano with a big, gorgeous voice and a ton of singing talent, came into her lesson in distress. Since childhood, she has sung along with the radio and learned songs from all her favorite singers. I gave her the assignment to "strip" the famous singer out of her own voice. This meant Reyna had to sing the same words and notes as the song recording, but all the sounds, meaning her vowels, the phrasing and her vocal tone, had to be ALL her own and not a copy of what she heard. At the start of her next lesson, she sat down and began talking, not singing.

"I'm ready to give up singing! I'm so frustrated! I don't know what to sing! What do I sing? Everything I hear myself do is copying them. What am I supposed to sing? How do I DO this?" She was obviously stressed and truly upset at how her singing week had gone and how little progress she felt she had made.

I was jubilant. How I have longed for a student to finally arrive at the point in their vocal study where they could confront this one.

This "problem" is GREAT news because what it means is that she is not stuck on a technical issue, like bad technique or trouble with notes or straining. It's not a musical problem. It's an ARTISTIC problem. Why I call it the "perfect" problem is that she is standing on the edge of her "known" world, ready to peak over that edge and have a look at who she REALLY is as a singer. Remember, the assignment was that she absolutely could not copy the singer she heard on the recording.

This is my favorite issue to help people unknot for themselves in their musical study. We become musicians because of music we've already heard and loved. Something moved and touched us deeply, and we want to do THAT thing because it makes us feel so good. The problem for most of us it that copying leaves us never quite feeling fully artistically satisfied. The double-dread problem for singers is that copying is dangerous for our instrument. Anytime we copy another singer, we are working against our anatomy. To copy the sound of another singer requires making alterations to our own natural sound, and that's bad news. Reyna had never heard herself sing in her own voice because in her head, she heard the other singer she was copying. As soon as I took that other singer away and she could not copy, in her experience, there was no one there!

She is finally free to CREATE, rather than imitate. For the first time, she is beginning to listen to her own voice within. She is no longer singing on autopilot. Rather than imitate, she can communicate and really tap into singing what she feels, not copy the feeling of another singer. She has to go within and create her voice from herself, from where she is touched and moved deeply by something. Now after years of practice and study, she is free to do what she originally started out wanting to do all those years ago.

Why You Should ALWAYS Sing in Your "Real" Voice

Begin with a question: would you walk around all day with a big pebble in your shoe? No. Why not? It's painful, irritating and can injure your foot and the rest of your leg because it will make you walk funny and favor your other foot.

Well..... guess what!? Doing anything to artificially alter the sound of your singing voice is like walking around with a pebble in your shoe. The regular, natural sound of your speaking voice is exactly the one we want to work with.

"But I can't possibly sing with my regular voice. I HATE how my regular voice sounds! That's why I take voice lessons. Everyone makes fun of my regular voice."

Yes, that's the response that I get from every beginning voice student who is absolutely clear that the voice they speak with can't possibly be the same voice they should sing with. But it is! That's why I call it your real voice. What I mean by that is the sound of your speaking voice, if you do absolutely nothing to change it, is exactly the same voice you should be singing with. The stuff in your body that makes you talk is the exact same stuff that makes you sing. Anything you do to artificially alter the sound of your singing voice will injure it, just like the pebble in your shoe.

Why You Should NEVER Copy Other Singers

To really get into this, let's consider why we sing. What possible reason could anyone have for singing? Why do it? Why do it if we're going to complain about it and have to work hard at it? Now I don't know exactly what your answer is, but I do know mine. Singing for me is about how it feels, not how it sounds. Or said better, how I feel when I'm singing. There is no magic on earth anywhere that can match what it feels like to let loose and fling myself into a song.

I imagine your answer has something to do with that, too, which leads us to the question of why we should never copy another singer. There's two reasons we're going to examine here. Number one for me is: if singing is all about how it feels, I can't copy how someone else feels. I can only feel how I feel.

But that's not the technical and scientific answer. Number two is the nasty one that can really hurt you physically as a singer, and actually causes a lot of vocal damage. Drum roll please… You can't hear reality when you are singing. You don't hear your real voice while you are singing.

Remember, when you try to copy another singer, you are changing your sound while you are singing to match their sound that you hear while you are listening. When you listen to another singer, you hear the reality of their voice. When you sing, you don't hear your own voice as the audience does. You, in fact, don't hear reality. What you hear as the singer is completely different than what the audience hears as listeners. And if you listen to a recording of a singer, you hear their voice processed through about $200,000 of electronic gear and microphones and stereo stuff. You don't have a chance of ever hearing your own voice in that same condition when you are singing.

Here's why you don't hear reality when you sing: you don't hear your sound as it comes out of your mouth. When you sing, you hear a combination of a little bit of sound from your mouth, a lot of sound vibrating around inside your head, and a little bit of sound vibrating from the bones in your chest. All this combined sound, the sound YOU hear, is completely different than the audience hears while they listen to you.

Here's the experiment for this:
1) Cover both ears completely, and then sing something. Notice how different it sounds completely different than you are used to hearing yourself. It probably sounds muffled and goofy!
2) Cover only one ear and sing something. Notice how it sounds different than having both ears covered, and still sounds different than you are used to hearing.
3) Practice singing an entire song with both ears covered and notice how it feels.
4) Practice singing an entire song with one ear covered. How was the experience different than singing with both ears covered?

Unconsciously Imitating Other Singers

So, why is it that we imitate the sound or style of another singer? If we want to be great singers ourselves, why do we always end up sounding like someone we've heard before? And WHY can't we control this imitation thing? It took me years to find the answer to this, but once I did, I had the biggest artistic breakthrough of my career! The answer is.............

We all start out as fans! That's right, we sing because we hear someone else do it first. If we like what they do, we want to do the same. But it's actually much worse than that.

Think about how you learned language as a baby. We learn to make vocal noise, and eventually speak and understand language, by being listeners and imitators first. We copy the sounds of others long before we ever have an original grunt to make for ourselves! For about the first two years that we hear language, we are on "input" only, and have no way to separate our particular way of making sound or thinking from the impulse to make sounds like the big people around us who make sounds.

For singers, it gets worse....

Consider the difference in complexity and skill level required to learn twelve notes and a few rhythms, vs. learning the complete alphabet, sounds and meanings of 800,000 words and how to use them correctly to make sure others understand the sounds we make, and we understand and decode the meanings of the sounds they make. That's a big difference in skill! We had much more practice at learning the language because it took so much more work, and required so many more brain parts to accomplish. We mastered vocal sound first by imitation.

That's why it's so unconscious and can be so difficult to undo in our own voices!

But there is a way to get out of the trap, and that is to bring what is unconscious to the front of our mind and make it conscious. If I am about to do something, and I am clear that I am about to do it, I have the choice to do it or not do it, and this is all totally under my control. If I am about to do something that I don't even notice, I have no ability to stop it or influence how it do it. It's almost like it does itself!

That's how singing gets for a lot of us who spend tons of time listening to other singers and learning their songs. We learn songs by hearing them, so the key to making our singing consciously ours is to be able to hear and separate our sound from another singer's sound. There are two ways to approach this: the pronunciation sounds and the notes. For example, three singers that sound completely different than me in pronunciation are Rhianna, Florence Welch and Britney Spears. They also sound completely different than each other, so they are great for this experiment. Imagine each of them singing a song by each other. Britney Spears, an American from the deep south, would pronounce the words completely different from Rhianna, from Barbados or Florence Welch from the UK. If I sing any song by them I will sing it sounding exactly like me because I will pronounce the words the way I actually say them in conversation. What initially happens for my students is that they sing the song unconsciously imitating the other singer. Then we go through the lyrics and speak them just like we would in a conversation. When the student hears me say back to them the exact pronunciation they used while they sang it, they crack up because it sounds so ridiculous.

So, here's how to tackle this one in your own voice, and have a good laugh at the same time. Pick a song by a singer that sounds completely different than you. For instance, if you are from the UK, pick a country or blue grass song by an artist from the deep American south. If you are from the south, pick a song by a world- beat artist from South Africa. You've got to get way outside your normal sound. Speak through the song imitating the accent of the singer as accurately as possible. You want to really mimic every sound they make, but only speak it. If you're really brave, tape record it and listen back to it a few times! Once you hear yourself, all the unconscious habits that hang around in your voice will start to become clear to you.

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