Sunday, December 13, 2009

Does your singing voice reveal the real you?

We’ve all seen it: a timid, unkempt, nervous person approaches the microphone. We expect disaster. They open their mouth and the most amazing, beautiful sound comes out. They transform before our very eyes into a confident, charismatic singer.

open mouthed singers

Which of these is the ‘real’ person? The singer or the nervous wreck? Is the singer revealing anything about their true self which lies behind all the nerves and lack of confidence?

what you see is NOT always what you get ...

With the rash of talent shows on TV at the moment, transformations like this are seen almost every week. Someone walks on stage and chats with the judges who quickly form an expectation of what their singing will be like.

Crudely, if they seem a little bit dumb (or have a working class accent!) or don’t look traditionally attractive (or young!), then the judges (and us?) assume they will have a bad singing voice.

But what you see is not always what you get. It’s a joy to see the judges’ mouths drop open when their preconceptions are shattered.

Susan Boyle is now an international phenomenon. The look on the judges’ faces when she first sang on Britain’s Got Talent is a joy to behold.

Another example here in the UK is of Stacey Solomon. Again, just watch the judges’ expressions at her first audition on The X Factor.

... and what you get is NOT always what you saw

The opposite also holds true.

A young, attractive singer bounces onto stage oozing confidence and we have great hopes of hearing a fine singing voice. Until they open their mouths: Kyle, Onkar, Krisztina, The Dreamgirls, James.

A fantastically wealthy, supremely confident, handsome CEO picks up the karaoke microphone and belts out a song in the worst singing voice ever.

A beautiful, well-dressed, smiling, relaxed woman takes to the stage with ease and confidence. She announces the song in a husky, sexy voice, then proceeds to sing like she’s a little girl on helium.

which is the real you?

This raises the question: which is the real you? The person who is singing, or the person who is chatting beforehand? The person whose voice is soaring and who is clearly transported by the music? Or the person who’s scared of the audience, not bothered about how they look, worried that they’ll get the notes wrong?

Singing in tune is a skill that can be learnt quite easily. So if someone sings badly, we know that they can just go away and work on their singing voice. We don’t assume that because they have a ‘bad’ singing voice, then they are somehow ‘bad’ too. Next time they come back, we hope they will sing better.

But what about those people who can sing well, yet appear awkward, inarticulate and under-confident beforehand. What is their ‘true’ nature? Are they revealing the authentic person through their singing voice? How can they appear so confident whilst singing, but not whilst speaking?

Perhaps singing such a different mode of communication from speaking that two types of person can co-exist within the same individual: the confident singer and the shy speaker. Yet for most of us, public speaking is just as scary and difficult as singing in public. And for many, many people, singing is the scarier thing to do!

our singing voice makes us vulnerable

When we make music with our voices, we are using ourselves as an instrument. If a violinist plays badly, we can blame the poor quality of the violin itself, or argue that the player isn’t up to the job: she’s a bad violinist. But if we think someone doesn’t sing well, we tend not to say she’s a bad vocalist, but she has a bad voice.

We are our instrument, so any criticism of our singing voice is felt as a criticism of our self.  Because of this, we are often frightened to open our mouths, to sing out, to improvise and experiment with our voices. We stand at the back of the choir and sing very quietly until we are absolutely sure we have the tune right.

Our voices are very personal to us, more so than our bodies.

I used to teach at drama school and university and every time I would ask the students to improvise some crazy dance they would have no problem throwing their bodies around in the strangest of ways.

When asked to deliver a speech from a play, they would speak loudly and confidently.

But ask them to improvise with their voices and they would all clam up! Somehow people seem to feel that their voices are more revealing of their innermost being than anything else.

This is not just about singing though. Over the years I have been able to free myself of many vocal inhibitions so I can just let rip with my voice in weird and wonderful ways. But when I'm supposed to be singing a recognisable tune, then doubts can creep in as to whether I'm 'getting it right' or not.

musical vs. primal voice

There are many ways to use our voices in a free and natural way. Some people are able to let rip and improvise the strangest sounds. Some actors can howl and wail and speak their lines so they can be heard at the back of the upper circle.

There is something known as voice therapy which attempts to unlock the voice and set our voices, emotions and spirits free. Many alternative therapies involve screaming, shouting and chanting.

But I’m concerned with the singing voice, the voice that makes music. I believe that there is something deeper and more connected with our essential being when we’re singing, than when we’re simply freely exploring our vocal capabilities in a non-musical way.

feedback loop

As we become more confident with our singing, does that spill over into our everyday lives? Or do these two personas live in different worlds?

It doesn’t necessarily work the other way round. We’ve seen that people can be over-confident in other areas of life and over-estimate their singing abilities. So maybe singing confidence doesn’t carry over to other areas.

Why the mismatch? How is singing so different from real life and vice versa?

I realise I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered here! I’d be really interested in your feedback. Do you think your singing voice reveals the ‘real’ you? How do you account for the mismatch between your everyday persona and your singing persona? Can learning to sing confidently spill over into other areas of your life?

next week

In next week’s post I will look at how singing helps to define the self and how our sense of identity is intimately tied up with our voices: You are what you sing.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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