Fear and Singing: Yes, you look silly.
November 19, 2013
If your reading habits are like mine and tend toward skimming, let me give you the goods to this post right off the top so that I’m certain you’ll walk away with some useful info: In singing, the shape of your mouth influences the quality of your sound.
Basic, right? Look, I never said my teaching was earth shattering, but I might be so bold as to say that if you really take this idea to heart, it can be transformative in your singing, no matter where you are in the game.
Let’s explore it right now. I’d like for you to sing on any pitch a very simple “ee” vowel. Go ahead and give it a try.
Oh, what, you don’t want to because you feel silly? Take inventory of that feeling because we’re going to talk about it more in a minute.
Now, while you’re sustaining this sound slowly change the shape of your lips to an “oo” vowel as though you are sucking on a straw, still keeping your teeth and tongue in the shape they were when you began singing “ee.”
What do you notice? Did you hear a shift from a brighter sound to a darker sound? Was nasality introduced? There is no right or wrong answer to this, I just want you to think through what you heard.
I’m not with you right now, but I’m going to assume that you heard some change in the sound you were making. I might also suggest that if you spent some time doing this exercise, examining the quality of the “ee,” you might arrive at a sound that you liked the best. You can file this under things only singers think about. “What is my best “ee”?”
Quick side note: Vowels are the meat to our sandwich – or tofu if you’re a vegetarian. Good singing is often associated with extended vowel sounds as we navigate our way from word to word. Vowels are where we truly #SING where consonants are where we shift and transition. Does that make sense?
With that in mind, what implication might this little experiment have for your singing as a whole? I’m being serious. If you dig in, could there be a best mouth shape for “ah?” “oh?” etc.? Umm, yea. In fact, I would bet many of the singers you like the best know their best “ah,” “oh,” and “oo” and you know what else? They ain’t afraid to put their mouth in the shape required to make it… but many of us are.
Remember earlier when I called you out on feeling silly? Can we dig into that for just a second? If you’re like many of the singers I’ve worked with, you’re probably most concerned in that moment about how you look. I can’t tell you the number of times in voice lessons, I suggest a singer consider a mouth shape that may improve their sound only to have them move in that direction minimally, at best - followed shortly thereafter by a self-conscious giggle. I then demonstrate and encourage. Sometimes I implore! Often uncovering similar results.
Smells like fear, right? And you know what, I get it. None of us want to look foolish, but I have some news that is going to be both disappointing and freeing.
You do, in fact look silly. Yes, you look silly.
Gah! I knoowwwww. Time to quit voice lessons. *drops microphone*
Not so fast. You’re not the only one! If opening your mouth and going for it looks silly, we all look silly. In fact, it’s not just you and me, but our favorite singers (the ones who know their best “oo” and “ah”) look silly, too.
I put a call out on Facebook for people to share their favorite vocalists. Below are some of the singers they named and some visual examples I grabbed from YouTube. I’d like for you to take a look at the image and imagine what the sound is like. Then, if you’ve got the time, click the image to go to the video and watch. See what you hear.
Tim said: Jeff Buckley
Katie B. said: Erykah Badu
Mario said: Carlos Gardel
Katie W. said: Mika
Carol said: Linda Rondstadt
Lisa said: Emma Kirkby
Do you need more? Here’s yours truly at his wonkiest.
Extreme, right? Big mouth shapes. Some silly, silly expressions. But what do you think of the sound? I mean overall, these people are your favorites (Ok, ok, me excluded.) and they sound pretty good!
So, the question remains: In those moments, where those singers were going for it the most, do you think they were afraid of looking silly? Let, me answer that for you. NO!
Dude. It’s risky. Singing is risky. But, with great risk comes… you know the rest. In this case, the specific risk might be opening your mouth without the fear of how it looks and noticing the results. Having trouble doing so? Channel your inner Jeff Buckley. Channel Ms. Badu! Close your eyes, and imagine yourself as Mika! What do you hear?
The reward? Maybe, just maybe, and only after a few tries, you’ll find a better sound than the one you started with. That’s what we all want, right?