Innovating Vocal Style
From singing in coffee houses to singing R&B. and from studying a PhD at Oxford University, to helping start up LIPA, my good friend Donna Soto Morettini has a great wealth of knowledge and experience to pass on.
I caught up with Donna via Skype to talk about her awesome book “Popular singing and style” (2nd edition). If you haven’t read it, I can tell you myself you are missing out!
Joshua Alamu: Donna, I really love one of the questions you posed in your book. It refers to failure/mistakes being the key to the innovation of vocal style.
How important is making mistakes or failure in the process of singers discovering their vocal style?
Donna Soto Morettini: Because most singers begin with wanting to sound like their favourite singers, most of us learn through a series of imitations and by adopting things we really like in other peoples’ sound. In that imitation, we tend to get really concerned in matching what we hear in an ‘external’ way. The more we do this, the less we can imagine making sounds that emanate from ourselves. I think the only way we CAN break this pattern is to spend time initiating sound that feels/seems to come from an ‘internal’ impulse . Sometimes these will be erratic/flat/sharp/out of tune/time and that is all part of the process. Deliberately making mistakes can lead to a kind of freedom in creating style.
I think singers always have some ideal in their heads when they begin: I want to sound like Beyonce, or I want to sound like Adam Levine. That ideal often becomes an unspoken set of aesthetic ‘rules’ against which we judge ourselves. And it can only be those ‘rules’ that make us think that we might be failing or making mistakes. But trying to match up to someone else’s ‘ideal’ sound is self-defeating. We AREN’T Beyonce or Adam Levine, and even if we could create the perfect imitation of their sound, what would be the point in that?
JA: Are there any rules where singing is concerned?
DSM: This depends entirely on the style, I think. There are a lot of rules in classical singing, and because it’s so demanding and requires a technique that can sustain much use the rules are important. In both classical and popular music I think there is only one shared rule: DO NO HARM. Voices are mysterious and it’s impossible to say why one can sustain a lot of variation in sound and others can’t. Singers need to take care in terms of their own vocal health/longevity, and they need to monitor the way that changes in effort levels and/or varying the elements of style may affect their voices.
Singers need to take care in terms of their own vocal health/longevity, and they need to monitor the way that changes in effort levels and/or varying the elements of style may affect their voices.
JA: Does being open to every genre or even era of music help in the development of vocal style, what are your top tips for exploring different eras and genres of music, their associated vocal style, and the application of this discovery?
DSM: This is a big question and I think it goes hand in hand with your last question. Every singing style that began in the 20th century had its very unique elements. Of course pop music has blurred those distinctions in some places now but not entirely. When we begin singing, we often listen to a particular style. As you know from our experiences on the road with The Voice auditions, right now there is a recognisable trend in favour of a lot of twiddles, vocal ‘decoration’ or melisma. There is also a lot of glottal stop used as an element of style both of these things seem to feel like the ‘lingua franca’ of pop singing at the moment, which unites even the most disparate voices. But so often, adhering to specific elements of style can be a trap for singers.
JA: Is talent born or is it grown?
DSM: As with most human development, it is a combination. All vocal instruments aren’t the same, and talent is a wide category. Some people think Stevie Nicks is a talented vocalist. Some people think Joe Cocker is. Some think Son House is. While we can never have a formula that explains taste in sound, we can always talk about what moves us. But what unites all talented vocalists, I think, is passion. It’s that passion that makes you get to rehearsal, work the extra time, keep digging, keep listening, work to find out why a ‘talented’ singer isn’t always a beautiful one.
JA: When it comes to vocal style, what is good and bad? What does being original mean in that context?
DSM: Bad is any style that isn’t sustainable for you. Apart from that there really isn’t any other applicable aesthetic boundary in pop music. What’s good is always aligned with passion and exploration; it’s aligned with fearlessness, and it’s the result of living. I know that sounds a bit vacuous, but I don’t mean just breathing. I mean that until we’ve lived long enough to know what grief or desire or jealousy or winning or losing really feels like, we’re not ready to open our hearts to the extent that we need to in order to move our audience. Until we have a well of experience, we have nothing to draw on, except our ability to imitate others who do.
So for me, good singing always sounds ‘lived in’; it resonates or it surprises, it reminds me that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way, or perhaps it surprises me that a deeper, more perceptive soul than mine can find the sardonic humour in loss, or the strange sadness that comes with loving. . .
JA: Can you list your No.1 advice for exploring improvisation?
DSM: I have three, so I’ll give you all 3 but I’ll be brief!
One: Achieve boredom with a song. Until you’ve done a song 6 nights a week for a year or two, you probably aren’t aching to hear it differently, and you probably don’t know its harmonic structure well enough to feel safe when freely changing things around;
Two: Practice a lot of songs, by forcing yourself to sing ANYTHING but the melody. This is a tough exercise at first (and most singers find 2 or 3 ‘safe’ notes and stick with them) but if you do it often enough you’ll find your ear getting more and more sophisticated;
Three: Keep in mind that while not everyone can master melodic improvisation, EVERYONE can master rhythmic improvisation. And rhythmic improv is just as impressive as melodic in the hands of a master…
JA: What would you say is the key to connecting emotional expression and how it is delivered using the vocal instrument?
DSM: The most common advice is to really think about the text you’re delivering in a song and what it actually means. Once you know what you’re singing about you can start to think about how you want your audience to feel about what you’re saying. It’s always best to think in terms of other peoples’ feelings rather than your own because it’s so much more focused. Sinatra always said that he learned how to act by singing for so many years and really thinking about his lyrics.
But the advice not given enough, I think, is to LISTEN TO THE MUSIC. Often when I’m working with a singer I realise that they’ve never stopped to listen to what the players are doing in the accompaniment. There’s so much inspiration to be found in listening to a great keyboard/guitar/horn player, or in the way a sudden change into minor key can affect your experience with a piece, or in the way that rhythmic structure really affects your ‘feel’ in a performance.
JA: Any advice you can give for singers taking the time out to really carve their own unique sonic identity?
DSM: Listen, listen, listen! Not only to a wide variety of vocal styles/genres, but also make sure you’re listening to recordings that span the whole of the last century that will help to adjust the ‘clean’ sound of modern technology in recording that might be messing with your ability to respond to imperfection and the unusual. Don’t listen just to vocal music, listen to instrumental music as well. Ella Fitzgerald led a jazz orchestra for many years and there’s no doubt that experience deeply influenced the way that she could use her voice so like a jazz instrument. Chet Baker surely became the vocal version of the horn he played for so many years… And remember to give up imitation after a couple of years it always helps to get you started but if carried on too long it starts to trap you. Be fearless. Listen to great people with small/less-than-beautiful/limited voices and be inspired by them (there are a lot of suggestions in the book!). Finally stop comparing yourself to anyone.