CMA Closeup: Sing it Safe: Tips from Vocal Coaches

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sing it Safe: Tips from Vocal Coaches
By Ted Drozdowski
© 2009 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

When Country Music singers bust a "pipe," they don't call the plumber - they contact a vocal coach.

"Emergency repairs are often what bring singers to me," explained Renee Grant-Williams, long established as one of Nashville's top vocal instructors. "But the goal is to keep accidents, like a raspy throat or a damaged vocal cord, from happening."

To deal with problems that need immediate attention as well as those that have yet to happen, these experts have to function as part pragmatist and part Zen master. Through their own study and performance, they've learned secrets of the mind and body that allow artists not just to maximize all their range and power but also to phrase onstage and in the studio.

"Singers need to know when to be refined and when to be reckless - and how to be both at the same time," said Brett Manning, a Nashville vocal coach and judge on CMT's popular vocal competition show, "Can You Duet."

Manning, whose clients have included Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Hayley Williams of the Nashville-based pop group Paramore, believes that a balanced approach is crucial.

"Purely showing off your voice is a downward spiral," he asserted. "The more you show off, the more you end up feeling like you have to show off, so you end up panicking and singing harder and louder until there's so much pressure in your throat you feel like you're going to blow up."

Like the Dixie Chicks, Miley Cyrus and his own singing idol Tim McGraw, Bo Bice has consulted with Grant-Williams to avoid the pitfalls of heavy touring.

"A lot of people think that because you have the ability to get up and sing, you don't have to work at it," said Bice. "But it's like being a professional athlete. You have to learn how to build up your immune system and your vocal muscles. So you turn to a vocal coach. I'm a very competent singer, but when you meet someone like Renee, who's so accomplished and knowledgeable, they challenge you to be better."

Specifically, Bice credited Grant-Williams for introducing him to the basics of breathing and standing. "If you watch Tim McGraw sing," he pointed out, "he's a perfect example of the way Renee teaches breathing. He stands with his legs locked in almost a wishbone formation, with a wide base, his knees a little bent. That helps keep your chest open so you can get the most out of your diaphragm, using all of your muscles, which is crucial to breathing properly. And he always sounds powerful and fantastic."

Grant-Williams and Manning both stress that power and volume are very different qualities, the first being a desirable aspect of control and the second being a reason why they're often called for "emergency repairs."

"Singing too loud and too hard is an epidemic," Grant-Williams insisted. "Out of 1,000 singers, I find a handful that aren't over-singing. That not only damages the voice, it ruins songs. Most people who come to me for their first lesson try to blow me away with how hard they can sing. I ask them, 'Why are you yelling at me?' A song has to be a conversation."

These are lessons that vocal instructors everywhere can embrace - but the notion in Country Music of serving the lyric even more than the voice sets Nashville's top coaches apart from those who prepare singers for opera or musical theater.

"In classical singing, you're taught to serve up your vowels as if they're on a silver platter, to let your voice transport them as beautifully as you can," Grant-Williams explained. "But that's not the way people speak. A problem with many trained and untrained singers is that they don't enunciate consonants. Consonants provide the meaning of words. The great artists, the finest storytellers, really sing their consonants. Listen to Garth Brooks: He does it by communicating through well-shaped consonants, not by blaring his voice."

Manning observed that formal vocal training can lead Country singers toward another bad habit. "Most people who've studied voice a lot have been taught to use vibrato too much," he said. "I hear wobbly vibratos and their singing makes me think 'Broadway,' which isn't right for Country. In Country, what's so charming is that performers are almost talking - talking on pitch."

"Country singing should never be overbearing," agreed Grant-Williams. "And it should be rhythmic. People tend to speak in rhythms. Singers have to be very conscious of that."

Manning uses the distinctive start-and-stop patter and modulations of actor Christopher Walken's speech to expand on this idea. "If singers analyze somebody whose style of talking is that distinctive, it helps them find the patterns of their own speech," he said. "It helps you key into what you should listen for in yourself."

Silence and its manipulation is another aspect of good vocal rhythm, according to Grant-Williams. "Think of Tammy Wynette singing 'Stand By Your Man,'" she suggested. "There are little stops throughout that phrase. The best singers also understand syncopation. Brief interruptions in a vocal melody create big moments."

There's more to be learned as well by pulling back from this focus and drawing more general lessons, which is why Manning advises his students to assemble a list of their 20 to 30 primary vocal influences. But, he cautioned, "I tell them not to emulate any single one but to let something of all of these stars breathe through. That depth of influence creates deeper and more complex artists and suggests different paths students can take to find their own voices.

"In listening to other artists, whether they're singers like Keith Urban or actors like William Shatner, what you're really looking for is a way into discovering your own style," Manning said. "Finding out who you are and trying to put that into your voice is harder than it may sound."

To that end, Nashville's vocal coaches to the stars may focus less on theory than their counterparts in other major music cities. "When people come to me, I focus on application first," said Manning. "Theory and technique are important, but what's crucial is discovering what it takes to make a singer's vocal performances work."

And what makes a performance convincing? "I've developed a system of questions I ask myself before I sing a song," said Grant-Williams. "First, who is singing? Is it me at this stage of my life or do I have to relate to the song by thinking of a situation that happened to me when I was a teenager or happened to a friend?

"Second, what does the singer - the narrator - hope to accomplish? The answer is never 'to get a record deal.' It's to affect some sort of change in a relationship. Once you have your mindset, then remember to always perform as if you're singing intimately into the ear of one person and you want them to believe you.

"It all comes down to one thing," Grant-Williams summarized. "When you're ready to open your mouth, tell all the little voices in your head to shut up and just tell a story."

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Photo Credits:
1. Brett Manning with Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams. photo: Jesse Nemetz
2. Renee Grant-Williams and Tim McGraw. photo: Elaine Collins
3. Renee Grant-Williams with Miley Cyrus. photo: Vernell Hackett
4. Brett Manning and Country artist Taylor Pey. photo: Jesse Nemetz