TLC for your R&B
Posted Wednesday, March 5th 2014 by David McCall
The best part of my job as an instructor at New York Vocal Coaching is helping varied singers gain control over their voices. In this article, I want to share a few thoughts on the R&B style and one of my...
The best part of my job as an instructor at New York Vocal Coaching is helping varied singers gain control over their voices. In this article, I want to share a few thoughts on the R&B style and one of my artists who is working to master her R&B sound.
She is a young woman who’s been singing her entire life, and she performs in New York City exclusively as an R&B artist. We began working together about two years ago when she was in the midst of recording her first album. She was having a horrific time getting her vocals recorded and maintaining consistency in her tone; her tuning was unpredictable; her riffs weren’t clean; furthermore, she would be out of breath after each line.
Naturally, she brought quite a bit of baggage into the NYVC studios when she came for her first lesson. I could see she was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. We chatted about the stress she was feeling, established a safe, judge-free environment, then slowly started vocalizing. Immediately I could hear the root cause of all of her stress.
This particular student wasn’t confused about the styles. She knew they required their own distinctive techniques. Her problems were a result of the small ingrained habits that had been established in her earlier training. Her previous instructor had emphasized large, filling inhales and a wide open mouth–two pieces of instruction that I would hesitate to give any singer without extensive instructions on how and when to use them. I can imagine her previous instructor might have been trying to help her find more vocal weight with extreme means, but by now she’d outgrown the instruction.
Vocal Weight: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?
Don’t get me wrong–vocal weight is a very beautiful and necessary tool in every singer’s tool box. It’s all about how you create it. There are two different ways: we can drag the weight of a lower register upwards into the next register, or we can apply more compression to the vocal folds at the appropriate register on a desired pitch.
You can use your hands to demonstrate the difference. Create a V with the pointer and middle fingers of one hand. Bring them together using the pointer and thumb of the other hand. This is the abduction and adduction, or opening and closing of your vocal folds. You can illustrate the “register drag” version of vocal weight by using your thumb and pointer fingers to weigh down the two fingers. Within your hand and fingers, more muscles are flexing to brace against the weight of your other hand than were before. A similar situation can happen within the larynx if a register shift is ignored. Neck, throat, jaw, and tongue muscles will flex to withstand the extra pressure.
Now, use your thumb and pointer finger to press your fingers together without the weight of the hand pulling downward. Press as firmly as you can comfortably, and you’re demonstrating compression in an appropriate register. There are definitely more muscles engaging than were in the original version, but fewer than were in the register drag. This is the optimal version of vocal weight.
This student had outgrown her previous instruction and was ready, no desperate, for an alternative. I gave her one of my favorite exercises for feeling compression without excess weight: the laughing exercise, so named for its repeated “HA.”
The Laughing Exercise or Staccato is Funny
Starting in the middle voice (A3 men, A4 women) repeat the “HA” in a brisk steady rhythm. Do not inhale between “HA”s and be strict about the rhythm.
Now add the dynamics, keeping the same pitch, crescendo from the first “HA” all the way to the very last “HA.” Adhere to the constant rhythm no matter what. No inhaling. Try the opposite, a slow steady decrescendo.
Now combine the crescendo and decrescendo into the same phrase. Try to reach about eighty percent of your volume at the peak of the crescendo.
You’ll notice that in order to maintain the cleanliness of each “HA,” you won’t be able to add as much vocal weight as you would ordinarily in a legato phrase.
The Great R&Beyond
She failed so hard at this exercise the first few times we tried it. She couldn’t keep the rhythm. She’d run out of breath after about five “HA”s, or she’d sing flat. After a couple short weeks, however, she was amazing at it. We tried every vowel at every pitch in her middle voice and increasing tempos. We continue to apply it to difficult sections of her songs. If she’s dragging from below to make her high notes stronger, we chop it into a staccato, repetitive exercise. Her riffs are faster and cleaner, and she no longer tires out as fast. Most importantly, her confidence has sky rocketed. She looks forward to performing more than ever, practices more, and writes more.
Now when we get together for a session, the “HA” exercise is a staple of our routine.
Chances are, had this student continued singing without dropping the weight from her voice, she would have ended up with vocal damage from abuse, limiting her range and, quite possibly, the length of her career. I suggest everyone incorporate elements of staccato into their daily practice regardless of style. Just try it for a session or two at least. You’ll find yourself laughing your way into a healthier R&B technique.
Senior Voice Teacher, Head of Vocal Development
David has become one of the leading instructors of Contemporary Voice in New York City, with clients ranging from Broadway singers (Billy Elliot, Matilda), Classical and sacred music singers, cantors in New York City Synagogues, to Professional Rock and Pop artists, some of which have toured and been signed to record contracts, appeared on shows like The Voice and American Idol, and performed at venues such as SXSW. Additionally, David has taught as a Master Teacher of Contemporary Voice for the NYSTA Comparative Vocal Pedagogy series.
In the moment that I’m writing this article, I’m late. I should have had this piece finished weeks ago. The miniature Davids in the back of my mind have been tapping their toes and watches, but I have managed to ignore them. “Let me procrastinate in peace,” I’ve begged. Until now.
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