Sunday, October 24, 2010

The pleasures of the untrained voice

I was watching the Culture Show on BBC2 last week. Ben Lewis introduced a piece about Turner Prize nominee Susan Philipsz and referred to her “untrained singing voice”.

fat lady sings

The fat lady sings by Lamerie

This got me thinking. Why had he bothered to say it was untrained (it sounded good to me)? What do we mean by ‘untrained’? And why do we need to make the distinction between ‘trained’ and ‘untrained’ singing voices?

Susan Philipsz has made a sound installation called ‘Surround me’, a song cycle for the City of London, 2010. Ben Lewis said that “visitors will chance upon recordings of her untrained voice singing 16th and 17th C madrigals.”

Why did he need to say that her voice was ‘untrained’ and what exactly did he mean by that?

Here are some reasons that I can think of why someone would want to refer to a voice as ‘untrained’:

  • grudging praise — “her voice is really quite good even though she’s never had any singing lessons”
  • politeness — “his singing voice is pretty awful, but it would be rude if I said that directly”
  • being a snob — “of course, she’s not a proper singer as she hasn’t been trained”
  • real vs. artificial — “his voice sounds authentic, not like those trained opera singers”

But what does it mean when we say that someone has an ‘untrained’ voice? Is it possible to tell by just listening?

Many people think they can’t ‘sing’ unless they’ve had singing lessons. The idea that someone can just open their mouth and sing is beyond them. Even though the vast majority of the world’s ‘singers’ are from traditions and cultures where the idea of training the voice just doesn’t exist. People sing from an early age and just get on with it.

Yes, it’s possible to get into some bad habits (especially if you try to copy somebody else’s singing voice), but generally speaking, there’s not much point in having singing lessons (in my opinion). See Do you need singing lessons in order to sing?

The inherent danger in having any kind of voice training is that you end up sounding like everyone else who has had similar training. Not only that, but a voice can become somewhat ‘artificial’ if a person lets the technique get in the way of their expression.

Personally, give me an ‘untrained’ voice any time! There’s something about those old villagers sitting around late one evening bursting into spontaneous song that sends shivers up my spine (in a good way!) whereas a highly-trained singer can leave me stone cold.

I will be writing more on what a person’s ‘natural voice’ might be in a later post. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, what do you think of untrained voices? Does the one-size-fits-all, shiny, auto-tuned, could-be-anyone voice move you in any way? Do you consider your voice to be ‘untrained’? Drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you – as always.


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Chris Rowbury


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