Monday, November 05, 2018

Why do I sound much lower (or higher) than the person next to me when singing the same part?

In choral singing, you often hear the term blend. Much attention is given to the shape of vowel sounds to help achieve blend.


However, the timbre of voice is perhaps even more important than vowel sounds. Why do two singers sound so different when singing the same thing?

choral blend

Choirs work hard to achieve vocal blend. That is, the when no individual voice stands out, but all the voices blend together seamlessly.

There are many elements to achieving the perfect blend (see The 7 elements of vocal blend and how to control them).

Much attention is given in the choral world to vowel sounds, or enunciation. Uniform vowel sounds can definitely help to improve blend. However, an often overlooked element is vocal tone or timbre.

what is vocal tone?

I’ve just finished leading a singing weekend for experienced singers. We mostly worked with just one voice to each harmony part. That meant lots of harmony singing in quartets and quintets.

Volunteers randomly stepped forward to sing in a small group. Some groups blended wonderfully, but in others, the difference in vocal quality (or tone or timbre) was very noticeable.

Two singers could be standing next to each other singing exactly the same notes, yet one was perceived to be singing much higher (or lower) then the other.

Most of this effect is due to the natural quality of our singing voice. It is partly cultural (the type of singing we’ve grown up with), but mainly physiological – to do with the individual make-up of your body.

how can you blend different vocal timbres?

The difference in vocal timbre between voices is much more noticeable in a small ensemble, especially when singing with one voice to a part.

1. mix and match your singers
An obvious solution is to match different vocal qualities in the group. If you have the luxury to choose which singers will be singing together in a quartet, for example, then choose those whose natural vocal timbres blend well.

You may want a smooth overall blend, or you may want one voice (possibly the melody line) to stand out. In the latter case you can choose an individual with a slightly different tonal quality to the other singers.

2. use vocal training to balance out differences
In vocal training, it is possible to minimise differences in vocal timbre by ensuring that all your singers are using the same kind of tone.

We are all able to sing in different styles which involve a different tonal quality. A modern pop voice is different from that singing a madrigal. Full-on gospel is different from a lullaby. Bulgarian singing has a very different quality from New Zealand Maori singing. And so on.

Once you’ve decided which vocal tone suits your small ensemble’s particular genre, then you can do a lot to balance timbres through vocal training.

If your ensemble sings a range of different styles, you can make sure your singers know how to adapt their tone accordingly.

3. become more aware of your natural tendencies
Self-awareness is the key to better singing (see The secret to great singing that teachers don’t tell you).

Once you have become aware that your natural singing voice has a tendency to a fuzzy, warm timbre or a sweet, intense tone, then you have the scope to adapt.

Through self-awareness (and playing with silly voices in the shower!) as well as vocal training, you will develop the ability to adapt your timbre to suit the other singers you’re working with.

For example, when two singers standing together have very different tones, you can point this out to them and they can then adjust their own tone to meet that of the other singer.

This awareness and ability means that you will be able to sing in any small ensemble and blend well.

4. there is a limit to physiology
All singers have an innate, unique voice. We remember singers like Louis Armstrong, Amy Whitehouse, Tiny Tim, Leonard Cohen for their particular vocal qualities. That’s what we love about them – their voices are so specific and memorable.

But when singing harmony with others, we need to adapt slightly so the voices blend.

There is a limit to how much we can adapt which is determined by our physical make-up. Leonard Cohen is never going to blend well, with Amy Winehouse, but they might get a little closer!

So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t achieve a good blend with a particular singer. There are limits to what you can do.

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Chris Rowbury



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