Fine Tuning the Sacred Machine Part 5 : Developing Style

  • 11/3/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
“I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over acute capacity for sadness as well as elation...” Frank Sinatra

As we have progressed through this series we have discussed numerous facets of vocal evolution that are integral to the developmental process of training. These facets include finding balance between cut-off nasality and hyper-nasality, defining and developing the falsetto register, working to acquire vibrato, and developing a keen sense of pitch and an accurate manner of identifying notes. Each of these categories is central to planting the seeds necessary to grow and flourish a powerful and potentially professional singing voice. But what about the character of your voice? What about developing a certain style, a certain panache, or a particular flair towards one genre or another? How does one move in a particular stylistic direction that expresses who you are as both a singer, a performer and an individual as well. Yes, it's one thing to acquire the basic skills that make you a proficient singer (and no easy task certainly), but how can one take the process to the next level and begin to create a vocal style that's both unique and personal? A basic understanding of some notions set forth by our Greek predecessors can provide some valuable insight into this potentially challenging process.

The Doctrine of the Affections
Also known as the Doctrine of Affects, this idea was set down at the end of the Renaissance period by a group of Florentine composers and teachers known as the “Florentine Camarata” who were dedicated to summarizing certain thoughts initially documented by early Greek philosophers. The Doctrine simply states that any given musical phrase or composition contains an emotional element or “a tangible embodiment of Affekt: an emotional state of being.” ( Different emotions could be conveyed by deliberately employing different passages, phrases, keys, intervals and instruments depending upon what emotion the composer wished to express at any given time. The “lamento” or lamenting bass, for example, is a bass line descending in half steps and was often used in composition to convey sadness, while a rapidly ascending sequence of thirds was used to impart a feeling of happiness and euphoria.

Composers of classical music to this day still designate certain instruments to communicate specific emotions adhering to the Doctrine of the Affections. The cello is often incorporated into a particular piece of music to convey a melancholy mood while the piccolo often lends a more upbeat, happy feel. Vocal parts can be used in the same fashion but since the human voice has a higher degree of flexibility in terms of timbre, range, vibrato and emotion than most other instruments (in other words, one can change one's timbre, expand one's range, increase or decrease vibrato at will and often on the spot, etc.) the voice can be changed and altered to accommodate almost any style of music,or any emotion for that matter. This is an important point when considering what style you wish to manifest in your singing since you have so many options at your disposal. One of these options is most certainly whether you wish to embody emotion or “affekt” into your singing and if so, how much and when, where.

Think about how each instrument is incorporated into a classical piece of music, how composers have been selecting particular instruments to express that “affekt” and how one singer can, in effect, introduce any emotional element into a given piece of music simply by changing the manner, the style if you will, of their singing. We'll discuss this idea further as we delve deeper and deeper into our discussion.

The Doctrine of Ethos
A concept handed down from the Greeks known as the Doctrine of Ethos postulated the notion that music affects the human soul, and the type of music one listened to (or sung for that matter) dictated what type of person one would become over time. Aristotle himself addressed this notion in his treatise entitled Politics (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII) and discussed how certain kinds of music emulate certain emotions, and in turn create those same emotions in those listening.

This idea plays off of the Doctrine of Affections in terms of an essential emotional element in any passage, but takes the idea one step further to say that music affects us, changes us at a deeper level and in fact alters us morally. This portion of the Doctrine of Ethos perhaps remains to be seen, although there are many modern-day believers of this idea who posit that music with violent content (i.e. expletive lyrics) is a catalyst for violent, aggressive behavior. Others adhere to the notion that fast music with intense melodies and highly expressive lyrics can be cleansing and cathartic, helping the individual listener to vent certain deleterious emotions. Regardless of your particular stance on area of the Doctrine, it's important to recognize one of the basic premises which is that music affects us deeply, and the variety and subsequent level of emotion that you choose to embody in your singing will also have direct consequences on your audience and yourself as well. Again, we'll revisit the importance of the emotional element in style as we continue.

There are many different vocal styles, some of which have evolved over hundreds of years and are practiced to this day. Others are simply composites of other styles come together to form a new, synthesized style. Still others are specific to our modern day and have evolved out of new progressive forms of music that demand novel approaches to singing.

There are a number of styles that fall under this category some of which date back to the ninth century A.D. But because of the nebulous nature surrounding the true origins of Classical music, and the many different sub-categories contained therein, we'll limit our discussion specifically to Opera, Lied (pronounced “leed”) and Oratorio.

During the Renaissance period (1300 to 1600 A.D.) musical works called Intermedi were performed concurrently with dance or stage performances, the most famous of which was performed for the Medici wedding in 1589. These Intermedi set the stage (so to speak) and became the precursors for the first Opera that was performed 10 years later. The second half of the 16th century, singers and entertainers alike were hired to perform at banquets and galas which also contributed to the popularity of Opera's singing dialogue or what's know as “dramatic dialogue.”

Opera singing is certainly passionate and even if you don't enjoy Opera, it can be educational to listen to someone who is operatically trained to gain some insight into that style of singing. Operatic style relies on breathing low from the pelvic diaphragm and refraining from shallow chest breathing. The soft palate should be raised while maintaining a lower jaw. This is common in many forms of singing (in popular styles of singing or “pop”, the soft palate should be kept in a lower position) but especially important in Opera since no amplification devices are used to fill the auditorium with sound. Opera singing requires dedication to concise practices of breath control, form, as well as an intimate knowledge of various languages. Many well-known singers have spent time studying the fine art of Opera singing including the late, great Ronnie James Dio, and Pat Benatar both of whom incorporated an operatic style into Rock and Roll music on some level.

The Lied has its origins in Europe and is thought to have been a product of the 13th century A.D. Lieders (plural) are atypically performed as a duet with a singer and a piano although many singers eventually expand their horizons to include other performers. The songs are often about love or other bucolic topics and have been compared to folk songs.

Lieder singing is a very specific art form that relies on expressive, emotional story telling by the singer. Unlike Opera, the Lieder is not a play hence it requires strong and insightful interpretation and expression from the singer. Emotion and the singer's interpretation of it play a dominant role in this type of song especially since there are usually only two active members performing the lieder.

Using the Lieder as a jumping-off point, in terms of developing one's own singing style, this type of vocal performance can give some insight into a more expressive, gesticulative manner of singing.

Consider this: Think about emotive expression on stage as a continuum where on one end is the singer who doesn't move, doesn't use his arms to develop and give life to the deep thoughts and emotions he is singing about. In general, his performance as a singer is flat and lifeless regardless of the fact that his singing may be quite proficient. Now, on the other end of the spectrum is the singer who moves around the stage, explores the space, uses her hands to motion, explain and gesture about the ideas being presented in her piece. She sings to the crowd, invites, invokes, incites them to a fever pitch by welcoming them, daring them to gaze into the abject darkness contained therein. Who is the more interesting to watch? Who is the better performer? Which singer has developed a more defined sense of style?

And the truth of the matter is, the first singer, the stoic who sits quietly and expresses himself without jumping around like an unruly child does have style. He simply has a different style than the second vocalist, not better, not any worse certainly, just different. As we discussed earlier, how you choose to express emotion, whether it be in a more subdued and pensive manner or a more demonstrative fashion, will ultimately determine the way you affect your listeners and will become part of your overall style as a vocalist.

Literally “hall for prayer” the Oratorio is similar to opera in some fashions but simpler and usually of a more religious nature. There is singing, of course, and a tangible storyline but with less staging and costuming than opera. Oratorio is basically a stripped down opera based on sacred religious texts which relies heavily on the use of a chorus (group of background singers) and the recitative (speak-singing usually utilized to provide information important to the story). Also, there is often little or no interaction between the performers on stage.

The primary reason I'm including the Oratorio as a potentially important defining form in terms of style development is to make mention of the importance of religion, spirituality and sacred topics of discussion as a catalyst for stylistic expression.

Many professionals singers have made the jump from childhood dedication to Chorale singing and other varieties of musical activities facilitated through their churches, to modern day popular music bringing the power of their faith into their performances. Having a solid background in Classical training as well, many of these same performers including Jennifer Lopez and Jeff Buckley, have been able to successfully synthesize training seated in religion with more secular forms of music.

Gospel singing is another example of those who have taken their faiths and embodied them into musical form, utilizing the power of their belief systems to provide emotion as well as style to their musicianship. Praise and acknowledgment of a higher power are often common themes of Gospel music giving it a very positive and uplifting sensation, the likes of which can readily be transmuted into one's vocal style. Pop icons like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis are two good examples of performers who had strong religious backgrounds (both from Pentecostal affiliations) as well and spent time assimilating their experiences into their styles as rock musicians.

Blues music is said to have originated in the 1800's emanating from African Americans' trials and tribulations relative to slavery and other hardships imposed by our oppressive culture. Many believe the blues to have been wrought from songs sung in the fields in the Southern states of the U.S. in the form of work songs. The actual origins are likely well before this period though since Africans, like any other race on this great big blue ball we like to call earth, have been struggling with oppressive forces since the dawn of man and were likely creating music and song to raise themselves above their malevolent oppressors long before they were ensnared by rapacious slave traders.

The term “blues” itself was foreshortened from the expression “blue devils” meaning down in the dumps, melancholy and sad. Many associate a bluesy style with this melancholy, and the expression of the sadness that plagues each of us at some time or another in our short lifetimes. So what does it mean to sing the blues?

Blues style can range from a sultry, smoky, sexy kind of tone to a wailing, bemoaning even yelling, exhorting, pleading tone. Blues is usually sung in the lower registers and is often a slow to mid-paced shuffle although it can have a faster more progressive feel as well. But truly, there are almost infinite ways to sing the blues and assimilate that particular style into one's singing although blues usually takes on more of a rough form, rather than a polished one. In fact, blues singing relies less on proper form (as opposed to Classical style, for example) and more on feeling and emotion. As stated earlier, the Doctrine of Ethos highlights the notion that certain varieties of music imitate certain specific emotions, and those emotions can be recreated in our listeners. The blues is a perfect example of this notion as the best blues singers pour all of their heart and pain into their songs and are quite adept at recreating those feelings in their listeners.

Inspiration is an important part of finding that part of you that has an innate sense of blues style. According to Lame Mango Washington (little known internet blues aficionado), good places to find the blues are: a. on the highway
b. in a jailhouse
c. in an empty bed
d. at the bottom of a whiskey glass Bad places to find the blues are:
a. in Ashrams
b. at gallery openings
c. at Ivy League institutions
d. at golf courses
( All kidding aside, recognizing that element of melancholy within you and learning to express it through song in whatever manner you have found to be comfortable and appropriate for you, is a great first step at adopting a bluesy style.

Jazz music was born out of the blues in the early 20th century and is said to have it's roots in West African culture. Early jazz music had little or no vocals at all although over time, vocalists like Sarah Martin, Lois Armstrong and Johnny Hartman showed the world that vocals could find a home within Jazz progressions and could in fact improve upon them. One of the most unique facets of singing to come from the Jazz era is known as scat singing.

Scat is an unusual way of singing whereby the singer vocalizes nonsensical syllables, or even simple sounds and often over the top of another instrument. Indeed, there are no rules governing the use of scat and some modern employers of this vocal technique have even experimented with the use of anomalous sounds like laughing, crying, yelling and even animal sounds in some cases.

One of the most effective and truly remarkable examples of scat is utilized by the Jazz guitarist George Benson on the song “On Broadway” where he scats over the top of a ripping guitar riff, seemingly note for note. Truly, there is no limit to what can be accomplished with the use of scat and the application of it in one's vocal repertoire will undoubtedly add originality and flare to your overall style statement.

Country and Western
Country music initially found its way into the hearts and souls of the American people in the 1920's, and is said to have been born out of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. Early players like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams blazed the trail for later country superstars like Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly, and onto today's big names like Taylor Swift and Vince Gill. The term “Western music” tends to be more indicative of songs telling tales of cowboys and their experiences wandering on the open range.

One of the most remarkable aspects of country music though is the yodel. The yodel was “borrowed” from our European cousins the Swiss and is used by numerous country artists (see Jimmy Rodgers and Slim Whitman) to add a unique stylistic element to their music. Yodeling requires the singer to oscillate between chest voice and vibrato register which when done correctly creates a unique vocal sound.

Rock and/or Roll
There are many different definitions of what rock and roll truly is and various interpretations of when and where it evolved. Most would agree though that it is an American contraption that was spawned from the union of Blues, Jazz, Country and Gospel musics, and has continually changed its face over the last 5-6 decades. What was originally deemed rock and roll is no longer, and what is now rock and roll will likely not be so in the future, right? So what the heck is rock and roll anyway? Well, regardless of how you might define it and which bands you might ascribe the moniker of rock and roll to, our ultimate goal here is to discuss the necessary steps to add that ever-so-evasive rock style to our persona.

Because there are so many different forms of rock, so many different variations and sub-variations we should simply talk about one specific facet of rock singing that usually makes a given piece of music more rocking. The use of yells, growls and screams have become fairly ingrained into the gritty culture of rock singing and the use of such techniques can almost guarantee to add some of that rock and roll style to your performance. Rock and roll singing tends to be harder, raunchier, and generally more aggressive than other types of singing especially that found in Classical or Jazz music. And although I would recommend a thorough vocal warm-up session before attempting anything as strenuous as a scream, intense vocal facets of that variety will undoubtedly help to earn you some rock and roll style points.

Dress to Impress
There is no doubt that the manner you choose to sing will undoubtedly dictate what style of singer you are on many levels. But what you wear can also be a big tip-off as well. This is obviously not a hard and fast rule but you're certainly less likely to wear holey jeans to perform a classical sonata as you are a suit. And most rock musicians wouldn't be caught dead without at least one trusty black tee-shirt. Clothes simply contribute to the overall message that you put across to your fans in terms of your style as a musician.

There is no doubt that many of the vocal styles that we've discussed can be, and currently are being twisted together and tossed in a sort of style salad. So many novel brands of music and singing have evolved over the last fifty years that it's truly difficult to know where one style begins and another ends, and perhaps it's not important. What is important is that you discover and define your own style and create a signature sound that is all your own, one that tells your audience and yourself as well that this is me, this is my style.

What is style? How does one acquire it and how do you know when you've got it, or if you even want it? These are certainly important questions and can only truly be answered by the individual singer searching to define his or herself. From my experience, style is a conglomerate of many experiences both on-stage and off as well, experiences which change, shape and mold us as human beings. Listening to others' music, watching performers' manners and mannerisms while singing and performing, as well as other experiences that you have which may not seem important at the time, will all come together to form and reform what you inevitably come to refer to as your style. Consequently, style is not static, no. It is a constantly changing beast, morphing and transmogrifying as we ourselves change from moment to moment, hour to hour and day to day. And what you might call your style yesterday will likely not be your style tomorrow, although many will change very little over the spans of their singing careers.