How are your favorite singers using their voices? What register are they singing in? Are they singing safely, or straining? Let’s look at a few singers together. In this blog we’ll check out some videos of live performances, and discuss how these singers are using their voices. We’ll listen for different registers, as well as whether the vocal production seems healthy or forced. The song links within the blog take you to the youtube examples.
Beyoncé is both an outstanding performer and vocalist. She uses the depths of her alto and the power of her belt—all while dancing and moving like a true diva. Here’s one example, If I Were a Boy. (Yes this is the same song I was inspired to sing a capella in six parts, released a few days ago.) This is a performance on the Grammy’s in 2010; her singing begins at 0:24. In this live version, Beyoncé sings with more belting and power, drama, and riffing then on the record. She’s in her chest voice to start, then at 1:32 she goes back to the low, intimate way she recorded the song before she reintroduces the belting. And no one can deny what a magnetic performer she is. She owns the stage, using all levels--kneeling, prancing. She is working hard. (And listen closely to the primarily-women band, these players are killer.)
At 3:30 Beyoncé segues into an Alana Morisette song, You Outta Know, then returns to If I Were A Boy. The total performance of about three minutes covers a wide range of movements, dancing, hair swinging...this is not subtle. Her voice belts, and moans, and swoons, and riffs.
Here’s another compelling performance from the superstar Lady Gaga, Million Reasons, recorded at a Royal Variety Performance, 2016. This is a favorite song of my students to sing. In this recording, except for her opening and closing head voice “oohs,” she’s singing in chest voice. Yet she’s only belting some of the time, showing that you can use your chest register at a moderate volume as well as loudly. This is a graceful performance, very different from earlier songs like Poker Face as in this example performed on the Ellen Show. Poker Face starts with a range of vocal qualities as she self accompanies dramatically on piano; then, the prerecorded backing track begins and she’s joined by two dancers. Gaga begins in chest voice, then at 1:06 singing “can’t read my” she shifts into mix voice. Her Poker Face placement is a pressed sound in the lower notes, and a mix tone in the higher chorus melody.
The incomparable Ella--arguably the most skilled and groundbreaking jazz vocalist in history, and who invented Scat singing along with Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong--used her voice in a wide range of ways. From singing beautiful old school jazz ballads with ample vibrato, to grunting and growling then sweeping up into a beautiful soprano riff, to making up words when she forgot the lyrics (check out her brilliant Berlin performance of Mac the Knife in this iconic I-forgot-the-words-and-scatted-a-solo-instead moment), to fry voice, and crystal clear tones….Ella loved to sing, and it showed. She was a song interpreter, and a vocal instrumentalist. Jazz singers the world over (including yours truly) have learned so much of their phrasing and style by listening to Ella Fitzgerald. In this bop tune, It Don’t Mean a Thing with Duke Ellington from 1965, Ella sings in her mix with a little scratch, and occasionally hops up into her head tone. At 2:33 when she’s singing higher, it’s a scratchy, forward mix tone. She rarely uses her chest voice, only when singing low in her range. Also listen to her timing, and pitch accuracy. Her scat begins at 1:24. Here you can hear all the qualities of her voice, and super fast scatting. There is so much packed into this 2:33 minute-long song!
Sting’s voice is also immediately identifiable. He has a tenor (high) voice with a husky, scratchy quality. He sings very expressively, and blends a “neutral" chest tone into a mix. Over the years he’s also strained quite a bit, and if you listen to recent performances you can hear how his voice has become more rough, and it’s harder for him to sing the high notes. Here is a recording of the Police performing Roxanne, showing Sting’s outstanding musicianship, and coordination singing while playing bass. He’s using chest-dominant mix when he belts, and also uses his full chest voice on lower parts of his songs. In this recording from 2017 of Message in a Bottle, he seems to be doing just fine vocally...I love this performance. Here’s a recent outdoor concert of Every Breath You Take, and you can hear how while he’s struggling some with his voice, he still delivers an awesome performance.
We'll circle back to this theme in future posts, looking at different singers and how they're using their voices. And remember, you can always write in and make a request of a topic or blog you'd like me to cover.