Diminished Chords
August 10, 2017 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Why do stars like Adele keep losing their voice? More and more singers are cancelling big shows and turning to surgery to fix their damaged vocal cords. But is the problem actually down to the way they sing?
posted by fearfulsymmetry (62 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought it was generally known that Adele never learned proper technique, that's why she keeps hurting herself?
posted by leotrotsky at 4:06 AM on August 10 [19 favorites]


It absolutely is. As a trained singer and former voice instructor, I could never listen to Adele because I knew she was destroying her voice. It almost causes me physical pain.
posted by phenylphenol at 4:10 AM on August 10 [22 favorites]


the problem in a rock and pop context is the singer feels they have to belt it out just to be heard over the band, even though now it's not now necessary for the band to play loud in live performance

musicians haven't 100% learned to use their equipment rationally yet
posted by pyramid termite at 4:41 AM on August 10 [11 favorites]


I have also heard this about Adele specifically. But I would really be interested in somebody who could explain why Adele is "doing it wrong" and about how to do it right. And is there really such a strong agreement on what this "right" is? The article mentions technique but does not seem to go into the specifics.
posted by rongorongo at 4:43 AM on August 10 [6 favorites]


On a (kind of) related note, I've noticed over the past few years how many actors under 40 are now routinely miked-up for plays in even quite small venues. I'm thinking of 200-300 seater theatres, where the previous generation of actors would have needed no such assistance.

I assume this must be because something is lacking in the younger actors' training and experience - perhaps it's the disappearance of the old rep theatres that is to blame. Are young actors no longer taught to project their voices?
posted by Paul Slade at 4:46 AM on August 10 [10 favorites]


Seconding what Paul Slade said about voice training and projection. On a related subject: as an armchair expert on ice skating (i.e., got no game) I noticed that once school figures were no longer required as part of the score, skating routines (and ultimately the skaters) suffered. They lacked the ability to command precision from their bodies. The could hit jumps, do spins, all of it, but they had missed the essential stage of training that helps them avoid getting hurt (/modestderail).

Lady Gaga knows not only how to sing but also how to use her voice (noted about 00:22). As phenylphenol has experienced, it's tough to listen to someone who's doing themselves a mischief.
posted by datawrangler at 5:01 AM on August 10 [16 favorites]


musicians haven't 100% learned to use their equipment rationally yet

turning up the amp and playing lighter eliminates a whole lot of overuse injuries, for sure
posted by thelonius at 5:02 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


The almost universal amplification of performers disrupts the natural feedback mechanism, the body looses a sense of what is actually loud and the performer tries to push beyond but beyond is unnatural (electronic). Add in styling and the need to ramp up the intensity to even be noticed.
posted by sammyo at 5:06 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


nice post title
posted by criticalbill at 5:09 AM on August 10 [21 favorites]


I'm not an expert but I used to sing in the school choir and was taught the minimum of technique so I could sing from the diaphragm not the throat.

The singers of old, the crooners and the first pop stars would have come up through school choirs / church choirs and learned the same. In the UK at least there's less and less music being taught in schools now and kids don't learn the basics properly.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:11 AM on August 10 [7 favorites]


I assume this must be because something is lacking in the younger actors' training and experience - perhaps it's the disappearance of the old rep theatres that is to blame. Are young actors no longer taught to project their voices?

It's not only that, but the lack of vocal training can even show up in moments onscreen where the actor pushes their voice to try and reach a desired effect, say intensified anger as an example, but can't quite control the effect as seemingly intended. It's a considerable difference from older performance methods. I guess it mostly passes without much notice due to how common it is, but comparing older and newer works along this measure seems telling to me.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:12 AM on August 10 [7 favorites]


James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica, had an interesting sound as a young heavy metal vocalist in 1980. But he didn't receive vocal training until after he blew out his cords recording the B-side of And Justice. Although he lost some of the range and character in his voice after training, I think he actually sounded much better *overall* than he did before. He no longer sounded out of breath and weak, and what he lost in vocal character he gained in little "tricks" to reintroduce the sound of spontaneity to his singing.

But I sometimes wonder how much more awesome he would have been if he received training before he blew out his voice. Chris Cornell had a beautiful rock god voice and he owed all that control to his vocal coach. I think most of my favorite "screamer" metal/rock vocalists had coaches--Layne Staley, Ann Wilson, Geoff Tate.
posted by xyzzy at 5:13 AM on August 10 [20 favorites]


I also suspect peoples hearing has generally been compromised. I remember before a concert asking friends who were rock fans about a buzzing and none noticed anything. Another, I was just at a meetup in an office, say eight rows of chairs and the speak had to have the mike turned up, people don't quiet down and are possibly physically unable to hear as well as in the past.
posted by sammyo at 5:13 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


turning up the amp and playing lighter eliminates a whole lot of overuse injuries, for sure

no, proper picking technique eliminates overuse injuries - in fact, one should be able to play light (at a conversational level or below) and rather hard and loud (at 11) without drastically changing one's hand position or touching the volume knobs - also one should learn to get a good tone without resorting to literal tons of marshall stacks

if you get injuries from playing guitar, you're doing it wrong, period - but this is a derail ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:27 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Another example of vocal chord damage (due to :::cough:::: medication), and a voice that was saved by coaching, is Stevie Nicks. Her sound went from nanny goat to melodious (although the range was more limited to, say, her natural abilities as opposed to vocal strain).

Yeah, miss the nanny goat but not the obvious damage it caused.
posted by datawrangler at 5:30 AM on August 10


I'm no trained singer, but reading this article I could really understand and relate to the explanations of a natural voice versus a strained one. I do sing karaoke sometimes, and I always force out the high notes when I *know* in a quieter room I could sing them more softly and hit them without effort. But somehow when you're on stage and trying to project it feels like you should really shout them out. Similarly, I've come home from nights out with friends in loud bars feeling like my whole head is throbbing from trying to force my voice out loud enough to be heard over the din. (I'm a small woman so that probably is part of it - harder to make sounds that feel like they carry over background noise without feeling like I'm shrieking.) Makes me think I should be taking voice lessons...
posted by misskaz at 5:36 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


Their research pointed Brilla and Paglin to a surprising conclusion: that responsibility for the modern decline of the voice lay at the feet of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. These three composers were the pop music sensations of their day. Music scholars credit them with being the first to challenge their singers to push their voices to new limits, in order to capture the emotional ups and downs their characters were feeling.

But Brilla and Paglin heard something different – that the emotionally charged, full-throated, operatic singing style Verdi and Wagner made popular in the late 19th century – and that Puccini amped up even further in the early 20th century – had subsequently infiltrated all singing genres and public performances. With each passing decade, the style grew more extreme. To illustrate the point, when I visited the duo earlier this summer, Paglin pulled from their sprawling research library a file containing a series of images. The first was a photograph, taken in 1920, of the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso mid-aria. Caruso seems to be enjoying himself, even as the camera flashes; it’s as if he’s talking to a friend, not baying at the audience. “This is natural singing,” Paglin said.


I'm curious as to what specific issues other vocal teachers have with Brilla and Paglin's technique, and I wish I had more information on what exactly that technique is. The voice teacher I spent the most time with used Horatio Connell's material and talked a lot about the larynx.
posted by bunderful at 5:43 AM on August 10 [7 favorites]


the problem in a rock and pop context is the singer feels they have to belt it out just to be heard over the band,

That's part of it, but I suspect the larger part is that the style that's valued is an untrained one. That could be due to the ideology of authenticity that permeates rock/pop or just the sound we've become accustomed to.
posted by jpe at 5:51 AM on August 10 [20 favorites]


Clearly her manager left her in for too many songs and she's been curving notes. But what are you going to do with no real bullpen? I'm sure she'll just have Tommy Tune surgery in the offseason and come back as good or better.
posted by aureliobuendia at 5:54 AM on August 10 [51 favorites]


Frank Sinatra famously began as a smooth-singing boy crooner, lost his voice, and then re-ignited his career with a decade of amazing work through re-developing his entire singing style with vocal coaching, and continued to perform for many more years. Seth MacFarlane has transformed himself into a Sinatra -esque singer by working with some of the same people. Adele has a lot of natural ability, and generally isn't trying to sing over an insanely loud rock band, so it seems more than likely that she could find a way to keep performing with the right coaching. It would be a loss if she gave it up at such an early age due to ruining her voice.
posted by briank at 6:09 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


I also suspect peoples hearing has generally been compromised. I remember before a concert asking friends who were rock fans about a buzzing and none noticed anything.

Tinnitus often manifests as a buzzing noise, not only as the classic "ringing".
posted by tobascodagama at 6:13 AM on August 10 [10 favorites]


That's true, but a mic that's left on picks up background noise and you can hear a faint buzz and hiss from speakers if you've got good hearing. A lot of people may not hear it if they've ruined their hearing.
posted by explosion at 6:23 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Very interesting.
The article suggests opera audiences & critics have responded well to singers following Brilla and Paglin's guidance.
I wonder how other audiences would respond to singers using these techniques.

I'm a huge Queen fan, so this article got me thinking of Freddie Mercury.
He developed vocal nodules around 1974 - fairly early in his career, and before most of the available live recordings. (Queen was founded in 1971; Freddie was about 28 at the time)

Freddie was known for doing amazing things with his voice - but compare studio recordings with live performance. They adjusted the songs to make them easier on his voice. They're still powerful, but sound much more sustainable night after night.
posted by cheshyre at 6:48 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I thought Adele when to a specialized performing arts school as a teen (along with a couple of others who also became famous.) Did she receive bad instruction there? Or has she deviated from what she was taught?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:13 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I also suspect peoples hearing has generally been compromised.

There is a particular boxy over-the-ear studio recording headphone, forget the name, I have a pair around here somewhere, that you see in a lot in videos, including "We Are The World".

They are popular for two reasons, one, they come in white and apparently some female vocalists prefer that look, but two, and most importantly, they can get EXTREMELY loud. Way beyond the threshold of pain for most people. They are designed to accommodate people who have lost some or most of their hearing.

In his memoir about studio recording, MIXERMAN, by Mixerman, he writes about one guy who couldn't hear the playback, so they gaffers-taped the phone coils directly to his ears. Which worked for a while, until the smoke started, and the second-degree burns to the guy's ears.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:15 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Probably the most dramatic example of vocal chord damage is Bonnie Tyler, who developed nodules in the mid-seventies. Here's her before the damage, and two years later.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:24 AM on August 10 [11 favorites]


ThatCanadianGirl: I thought Adele when to a specialized performing arts school as a teen (along with a couple of others who also became famous.) Did she receive bad instruction there? Or has she deviated from what she was taught?


Yes, she graduated from the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology. The article isn't really about the dangers of untrained singing, it's about the possibility that the way professional singers - including highly trained opera singers - are being taught is causing vocal damage.

According to this blog post most of the vocal surgeries performed by Zeitels (quoted in the FPP, did Adele's surgery) are on opera singers.
posted by bunderful at 7:27 AM on August 10 [9 favorites]




On a (kind of) related note, I've noticed over the past few years how many actors under 40 are now routinely miked-up for plays in even quite small venues. I'm thinking of 200-300 seater theatres, where the previous generation of actors would have needed no such assistance.

When it comes to stage acting, I think the change in what's considered good acting has played a big part in that. Years ago a much more declamatory style was considered normal acting. I think audiences just kind of accepted that quiet, realistic voices weren't possible in big live theaters so it was just the known aesthetic of what acting sounded like. As plays and then movies shifted more and more into realistic expression, the gap between what a real person sounds like and what an actor onstage sounds like began to sound more false and artificial to people. So over time I think that's led to the shift toward miking actors so their voices can be quieter and yet still heard.
posted by dnash at 7:57 AM on August 10 [46 favorites]




I've been taking voice lessons for 2 years just for fun and from what I understand, there are two basic ways to sing. You can try and sing from your throat and push the air hard out through your vocal chords and make sound that way. Or you can relax your throat, hold your ribcage open like you've just drawn a deep breath, get your mouth open and most of your tongue low and flat in your mouth, and then use a little bit of air to make a sound that will resonate as much as possible--like you're a bell that has been rung.

The first way will make your throat hurt in the short-term and will damage your vocal chords in the long-term. The second way is what my voice teacher is trying to teach me and is, I think, what people mean when they talk about singing from the diaphragm.

The first way of singing sounds very breathy, which is so common among pop singers now that it's easy to overlook it. The second way ends up with a much clearer tone. Adele sings the first way; Pete Seeger sang the second way.
posted by colfax at 8:52 AM on August 10 [19 favorites]


Professional opera singer here.

It would be hard for me to tell without meeting Brilla and Paglin, and probably taking a few lessons with them, what the issue most voice teachers take with their approach is. I do know that it's generally accepted in the opera world that the quality of voice teaching has deteriorated, as has the skill level of singers, since the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1900s - 1960s or so. (Though this too is subject to argument.) Pick up a rock and you can find a teacher who purports to have discovered the Real True Method of the great Italian singers of old. Even in mainstream circles it can lean towards magical thinking, precisely because voice teaching is so mysterious. After all, you can't see the muscles you're teaching someone to manipulate, and they can't see them either, much less hear themselves accurately. Being in a voice lesson as an opera singer is an interesting experience: essentially you're placing all of your trust, not to mention your livelihood, in the hands of someone whom you basically have to take on faith is telling you to do the right thing. There can be mitigating factors - these days we record our lessons, for example, and can play them back to look for improvement - but it's always been an odd dynamic between teachers and pro singers.

So, are Brilla and Paglin onto The Secret for total vocal health and longevity? Maybe. It feels to me a little as if the author of the article picked a non-traditional studio they'd heard of and then went for it. More importantly, would their approach work for a pop singer? Again, I have no idea. On their website and Facebook page, the style they're touting is, quite understandably, that of the great opera singers of the early 20th century. But I sure don't see Adele starting to sing that way - hell, even starting to sing in head voice - and keeping her audience, appeal, and career. The sound would just be completely different.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 8:54 AM on August 10 [55 favorites]


When it comes to stage acting, I think the change in what's considered good acting has played a big part in that.

That's an excellent point regarding changes in convention, but I might push back a bit on the use of the idea of "realistic expression" being entirely accurate. To me at least, the current convention is more of blunted affect, where emotional states are played down compared to real life, so even the most stressful situations are often conveyed in tones approaching something like acquaintances talking in a coffeeshop. Listening to people on the street talk seems to show a much wider variance in expression and a wider range of volume and emotional shifting than most movie and tv shows accommodate.

In a way, I think of it being something like the earlier mention of changes in singing and musical styles but going in the opposite direction. The current convention in filmed productions drops the baseline of emotional expression to such a minimal level that it requires far less effort to note changes in emotional states, which suits many modern actors who don't have the technique to be as expressive on a higher register on the emotional scale. Actors who do start off at a higher more varied pitch of expression are then seen as "unrealistic" for defying convention, but aren't necessarily any less realistic for that as the convention isn't set at the scale of realism.

(I mean for good reason perhaps, as what is the proper emotional state for a world of serial killers, super heroes, and constant threat of destruction?)
posted by gusottertrout at 8:57 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


When it comes to stage acting, I think the change in what's considered good acting has played a big part in that.

I'm not so sure. The change I'm talking about is one that's arisen only in the past ten years or so - long after the declamatory style you mention had already disappeared.

There are plenty of older actors (and better-trained young ones) here in London who still prove every night that they can deliver their lines in a perfectly naturalistic way and make themselves heard without resorting to a microphone strapped to their face. For anyone who wants to properly learn the craft of stage acting, I'd say that remains a core skill.
posted by Paul Slade at 9:10 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


There are plenty of older actors (and better-trained young ones) here in London who still prove every night that they can deliver their lines in a perfectly naturalistic way and make themselves heard without resorting to a microphone strapped to their face. For anyone who wants to properly learn the craft of stage acting, I'd say that remains a core skill.

I see the argument for opera. I'm not 100% sure it truly matters in stage acting.
posted by praemunire at 9:18 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


For anyone who wants to properly learn the craft of stage acting, I'd say that remains a core skill.

I wonder if venue size and acoustics have any bearing. I know that some modern theaters - built with microphones in mind - present a challenge to well-trained singers projecting to the back row without amplification. It seems possible to me that an actor with excellent projection might use a microphone in a larger, less acoustically-friendly venue - or if all their fellow performers are using them. Actually it's probably not the actors' decision at all.
posted by bunderful at 9:25 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


Aside from performer training, audiences are not trained to listen to the stage - they expect sound to come from speakers placed strategically around a venue. Even a place with good acoustics doesn't compensate for an audience that doesn't know how to listen; they don't know where to focus their attention or which small audience sounds will disrupt the performance for themselves and others.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:23 AM on August 10 [9 favorites]


I've lost my voice twice, once while on tour and once while doing a funk gig that required me to belt out Prince and Stevie Wonder. Both times the root cause was bad monitoring that caused me to push way, way too hard. There's no real way to stop yourself from pushing in that scenario.

One thing I wonder about it whether the singers experiencing vocal cord damage and surgery are affecting a style that isn't idiomatic to their physiology. I wonder this because last night I saw Roger Waters and he was 100% still in top vocal form at age 76. Geddy Lee can't hit the notes he used to hit due to age (and a tumor removed from his larynx at one point) but he never needed vocal cord surgery. They both have singing voices that are fairly similar to their speaking voice.

There's also the way singers approach high notes that can impact the amount of vocal strain. Utilizing overtones ("head voice" or "falsetto") allows extension of the range without overclocking the cords. That's what Prince did, what Mariah does, etc. Adele quite clearly doesn't do that, so when she hits her high notes she is pushing her cords in a way that is orders of magnitude more difficult than using overtones.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:39 AM on August 10 [9 favorites]


Dedicated early music/oratorio singer with a day job here. The article is a great discussion about teaching methods in general, vs medical intervention.

Without having actually studied with Brilla and Paglin I obviously can't say whether their method (the article doesn't get into exactly what it entails) works but I completely agree that in general vocal instruction is a well-meaning scam. Teaching is a reliable way to earn money in an otherwise low-paying profession, so many voice teachers are semi-successful performers themselves who teach because they need to pay rent. They teach the method that works for them - they know how to solve their own problems, but if a student has different problems, it's a crapshoot whether the instruction will be helpful or harmful.

It is my opinion that the canon of singers from the Golden Age of opera are a result of selection bias. These singers that entered posterity did so because they knew, or figured out, how to use their voices. The singers who didn't faded into obscurity. There's no reason to think the general state of vocal instruction of today is worse than it was in the past - it's probably always been bad. The difference is that today, singers with poor technique are able to enter the upper realms of stardom due to ubiquitous recording technology (you don't need to nail it every night, just once), sound engineering, and the addition of marketability (mainly physical appearance) as a driver of success. In the past these singers wouldn't have made it.

Without these factors we wouldn't be talking about Adele's vocal problems because she would have stopped singing in 2011. But since by then she had already risen to prominence on the back of poor technique, she gets surgery to continue to allow her body to do what it is quite obviously not designed to do. By this process the listening public's perception of singing is progressively warped, and we become accustomed to unnatural, unhealthy vocal production from our biggest stars, whose technique is emulated by the younger generation, and the destructive feedback loop continues unbroken.

I think Zeitels is doing good work on the individual level but his opinion that surgical reconstruction is the inevitable progression of correct singing is ridiculous. Singing isn't a contact sport - it's using your own body with itself. In football you can get injured if someone runs into you - not your fault. If a singer is injured, it's because they are doing something wrong. Kudos to Brilla and Paglin for taking vocal instruction seriously, which means learning HOW to listen to singers, WHAT to listen for, and for diagnosing and fixing the STUDENT'S vocal problems, instead of their own.
posted by smokysunday at 11:04 AM on August 10 [33 favorites]


Obviously the solution is for pop singers to go back to the days of late 80s/early 90s alternative music, when everybody just sang in a monotone growl without expression or inflection. That sort of desultory vocalization avoids the need for either surgery or vocal training.
posted by happyroach at 11:21 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


I lose my voice almost every time I go out on a weekend evening. I have no clue how bar and restaurant staff are not all deaf because the music is too loud which makes the people too loud which makes the music louder which makes the people louder ad fucking infinitum.

I've worn ear plugs to go out for late dinners.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if some of the damage to singers' vocal chords was happening when they were not singing but instead out socializing in absurdly too loud clubs, bars and restaurants.
posted by srboisvert at 12:29 PM on August 10 [8 favorites]


Smokysunday, if I could I would give you 10 favorites for your second paragraph.

Having had several voice teachers over the years, the key is finding one who has solved the same problems you have. I took lessons in the 80s with an older doctoral student named John Dougherty who completely changed my sound (I received amazed comments from two auditions that were a semester apart). But, he heard me sing, could hear exactly what I was doing wrong, and knew exactly what to tell me to do to fix it.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:33 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]




has repaired the cords of more than 700 performing artists, including Sam Smith, Lionel Richie, Bono and Cher. Michael Bublé, Keith Urban, Meghan Trainor and Celine Dion have also had to quit touring to get their cords surgically repaired

No mention of Chad Kroeger from Nickelback? Talk about miracles from modern medicine!
posted by Metro Gnome at 1:42 PM on August 10


I wish this article included videos explaining the good way and the wrong way, according to these instructors.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:43 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


But I would really be interested in somebody who could explain why Adele is "doing it wrong" and about how to do it right. And is there really such a strong agreement on what this "right" is?

Think about the difference between "lifting with your legs" versus "lifting with your back". Say there is a heavy box on the ground. A very naturally strong person could lift it by just curling over and picking it up. A much weaker person might have to utilize good lifting technique to get it up.

What is good lifting technique? It boils down to using your muscle groups they way they were supposed to be used. Your lower back muscles are meant to be stabilizers, working in concert with your abdomen. So you minimize trunk flexion and brace your core. Meanwhile, your legs are the ones designed to do the moving, so those are the ones you flex. You engage your leg muscles, bending through your hips and knees, and load your posterior chain.

Without training, the very strong person can pick up the same weight as a weaker person. But over time, that naturally strong person is going to end up with back pain and injury. If the weaker person is employing good technique, they're not only less likely to be injured, but with proper training has the potential to lift more weight than the untrained, poor-technique strong person ever could.

Similarly, a person with bad vocal technique is not employing some muscles that they should, and employing others in ways that aren't optimal.

To translate this to the voice: at a normal volume say "hey" first as low as you can, then in your normal voice, and then as high as you can. Pay attention to how the muscles in your throat feel when you do it. Do they feel tight and strained? Or do they feel open and relaxed? Repeat, but now shouting instead of at a normal volume. You'll probably notice that (1) your muscles feel more tense when trying to speak in a high or low voice and (2) your muscles feel more tense when trying to speak louder. Learning good vocal technique is fundamentally about learning to control use of these muscles and those within your torso (think muscles involved in posture and breathing) to better effect and to use them in the way they were designed to be used. colfax's comment above is describing the vocal version of "lifting with your back" versus "lifting with your legs".

Obviously this is a simplified explanation and the lifting metaphor sort of breaks down when you start getting detailed about asking what's "right" because it's also going to depend on what sounds "good" to the listener. Vocal coaching remains tightly tied to classical European styles because it is extremely difficult (impossible?) to be a recognized classical singer without very good vocal control. Beyond the technical challenges of the music itself, the vocal qualities defined as "good" within the genre are often themselves a reflection of good technique. Take vibrato. It's a stereotype of "good"* operatic singing and it's the natural product of providing proper breath support and not placing excessive stress on your instrument.

Conversely, in many modern genres it is very possible for someone to produce singing that sounds "good" to the audience without the use of proper vocal techniques. Sometimes bad or voice-stressing technique actually enhances the desired aesthetic. Allowing vibrato to occur is better for your voice in the long run--but very few pop/rock singers get far if they don't heavily limit it. And belting is basically a mainstay of pop/rock, but it generally takes training to learn to belt without fucking up your voice in the long run, and it's totally possible to sound good without it. Hence a lot of modern genre singers won't think to pursue vocal coaching if their audience already likes their voice. Adele is like the naturally strong person who's lifting with their back: they do very well on the basis of natural talent until sub-optimal techniques finally get the best of them.

If you're a vocal coach who finds ways to apply the voice maintaining-and-enhancing techniques used in classical singing while still preserving the sound of a popular artist, you will make a lot of money.



*yes yes yes, this oversimplifies the debate around vibrato vs. wobble, vibrato's use within different sub-genres, and ignores the whole forced vibrato thing
posted by schroedinger at 1:46 PM on August 10 [37 favorites]


uh also I am just somebody who took some voice lessons and has read about how to sing and am definitely not a professional, so it's possible everything I said is wrong
posted by schroedinger at 1:53 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


how many actors under 40 are now routinely miked-up for plays in even quite small venues. I'm thinking of 200-300 seater theatres, where the previous generation of actors would have needed no such assistance.

In the past, it's probable that one wasn't _able_ to act professionally if one's voice didn't have "loudness". Amplification allows directors to select for different abilities.
posted by amtho at 1:56 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


To illustrate the point, when I visited the duo earlier this summer, Paglin pulled from their sprawling research library a file containing a series of images. The first was a photograph, taken in 1920, of the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso mid-aria. Caruso seems to be enjoying himself, even as the camera flashes; it’s as if he’s talking to a friend, not baying at the audience. “This is natural singing,” Paglin said.

As she flipped from image to image, we travelled towards the present, a decade at a time. The photographs of the more contemporary singers – including the tenor Rolando Villazón, who has suffered multiple vocal injuries – looked like horror-movie stills: their mouths were wide open, eyes bulging, neck veins popping, as if they were screaming. There was none of Caruso’s easy calm.

Caruso and Gigli produced legendarily big sounds, but with an effort that today’s performers might deride as somewhat wimpy. Compare Caruso’s 1916 recording of O Sole Mio with Villazón’s 2010 rendition. Caruso’s is powerful, but not so powerful that the lyrics crash into one another and become indecipherable; and even at the height of the aria, he doesn’t drown out the strings. That Brilla and Paglin had identified this contrast wasn’t enough. They wanted to reverse-engineer exactly how Caruso and his contemporaries sang.


Hahahah, I clicked on all the links in-article, expecting the video of Villazon to show an overly-serious, exaggerated emotive style, but he just seems... normal? Like, as a person in 2017 who sometimes watches live music, it seems like it would make the music less fun to watch to see someone whose singing style was the "natural singing" described.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:53 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


John Bell has, IMNSHO, the best voice in Rock-and-Roll.
posted by mikelieman at 3:03 PM on August 10


briank, did you just favorably compare Seth MacFarlane's singing with Frank Sinatra's?

ONE MILLION YEARS DUNGEON
posted by tzikeh at 4:28 PM on August 10 [8 favorites]


So basically singers, teachers, audiences, venues, and even ears have all gotten worse since the Golden Age of when my parents were young. Truly, we live in a fallen and degraded world.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:34 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


look on the bright side, our politicians are great now - just ask them
posted by pyramid termite at 5:13 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


> I'm not so sure. The change I'm talking about is one that's arisen only in the past ten years or so - long after the declamatory style you mention had already disappeared. There are plenty of older actors (and better-trained young ones) here in London who still prove every night that they can deliver their lines in a perfectly naturalistic way and make themselves heard without resorting to a microphone strapped to their face. For anyone who wants to properly learn the craft of stage acting, I'd say that remains a core skill.

I totally agree, and have also noticed this. And I've seen performances in old theaters both before and after the rise of mic'd actors, it's not simply a venue acoustic issue, either.
posted by desuetude at 10:29 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


who still prove every night that they can deliver their lines in a perfectly naturalistic way and make themselves heard without resorting to a microphone strapped to their face.

It seems to me like you don't necessarily like this advancement. Is there some downside to using mics? I like hearing softer, natural voices well.
posted by floam at 7:53 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


I think mics are a matter of taste. Obviously they have their uses! For me, I do find that it's jarring to hear the sound of someone speaking coming from somewhere else, not their mouth. Also I find the sound quality often suffers, so that the mic actually can make the actor harder to understand. That said, if you're performing in a giant arena, there's basically nothing for it, and I'd rather hear someone miced than not hear them.

(...miced? micked? miked? ...)
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 8:59 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


(...miced? micked? miked? ...)

Nobody knows! "Miced" would seem to be the most "correct", on some technical level of highly-proscriptive English, but "miked" is a lot more natural. And even professionals seem to waver between "mic" and "mike" for the noun itself anyway.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:24 AM on August 11


Mic'd is the most elegant solution to this particular word problem.
posted by smokysunday at 9:35 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


One very important, but quite subtle, thing is that the unamplified actor is in the same acoustic space as the audience.

It makes a very real difference - as it does in a tiny club, where a singer with an acoustic guitar could be heard easily, should the audience choose to listen, but where there is amplification anyway. In my experience, amplification has a distancing effect, and changes the relationship with the audience. It can be very powerful - I've played with groups that would perform unamplified encores in even quite large rooms, and the effect was electric (no pun intended). I also saw The Polyphonic Spree play at the Royal Festival Hall (very big room), where the PA failed, the acoustic instruments played on until the PA kicked back in again, and that was amazing. In both those cases, of course, the acoustic performance was in contrast to the amplified performance that made up most of the shows.

There are also classical music concerts, where being in the same acoustic space as a string quartet, say, or an orchestra is a totally different experience from hearing a recording of the same pieces - in particular, the orchestra, where for a composer like Mahler - I'm thinking of one performance I saw of his ninth last year - the different voices come from quite distinct places. In that case, I realised how the way the singers need to work to be heard over the orchestra is a part of the piece (any sound engineer would boost the singer to make them more audible).

It's definitely something I've noticed in the theatre - when the performers are amplified I feel more inclined to passively absorb the performance rather than engage my attention. A show where the actors are trained to be able to play to the whole room is a much more elevated experience - it's not television. It will be stylised and unrealistic, but we will ignore all sorts of unnaturalness as long as the show works.

I don't know if it's been mentioned, but one important aspect of Adele's voice is that when she sings, she's doing an impersonation of an African American woman - is it possible that the contortions she's doing affect the health of her voice in some way?

That's not meant to be judgemental - trans-Atlantic impersonation is a mainstay of British pop singing. But given that vocalising effectively is the art of moving air as efficiently as possible through the body and resonating with it, would the affectation harm the body - like trying to run a marathon while holding an un-natural posture?
posted by Grangousier at 11:35 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


Mic'd is the most elegant solution to this particular word problem.

I agree, as it's essentially a truncated version of "microphoned", with the apostrophe placeholder standing in for the dropped letters.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:00 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Grangousier, I think that good musicians recognize the value and beauty of fine acoustic spaces.

I have had two remarkable experiences with this. The first was Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall in 1989. He asked the sound tech to turn everything off, then played How High the Moon solo. Getting to hear his pure tone in a room designed to enhance that tone was amazing.

My second experience like this was hearing Tony Bennett at the Seattle Opera House sometime in the 90s. He also asked the sound tech to turn it all off, then he and his pianist performed Fly Me to the Moon unamplified. I still remember how powerful it was.

Then there was the wedding I sang at on the bluff above the Columbia River one time in the 90s when the neighbors got tired of hearing the reception so they unplugged the band's extension cord during the last song. A couple of hundred people singing Wooly Bully for 20 minutes while the drummer kept the whole thing going was a night for the ages.
posted by dubwisened at 12:28 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]


It was, of course, Das Lied von der Erde, rather than the 9th Symphony. My bad.

I come back to it because a recording of Mahler's Ruckert-Lieder is on the radio, and I was reminded and it seems I have a bee, or some kind of insect, in my bonnet about it. The Mahler sounds gorgeous, of course, beautifully recorded and you can hear every lilt and detail in the singer's (Alice Coote) voice. I'm going to have to track it down. But it's an artificial picture created by sound engineers. In the concert hall, the feeling is a lot more like being dropped into the ocean and swimming for it. The picture the sound engineer attempts to create is an idealised version of the music, and there's nothing wrong with that - a recording serves a different purpose from a performance. But surely having that ideal has affected the way people sing, which might be another reason behind the phenomenon noted in the OP.

(I'm reminded of a story I heard: there were certain virtuoso pieces that it was accepted were so hard even the greatest performer couldn't get through them without a mistake. But when tape recording came in and it was possible to splice together different, unblemished, takes, suddenly there was a perfect recording. And young musicians arose who, hearing those recordings, didn't know they were impossible, and were able to play the pieces without mistakes. Although, the old timers claimed, with less personality than their forebears.)

The best advice I've heard on singing (and, indeed, a lot of other things) is that one should get out of the way as much as possible. Caruso's advantage was that not only did he not have recordings of the previous generation of singers, he didn't even have recordings of Caruso. One can conjecture that there was an un-selfconsciousness about his singing that is less and less available to younger singers, who have a burgeoning plethora of models to sound like. It becomes an apparently natural part of their practise to get in their own way, and that's where the friction comes in and with the friction comes the damage.

(This is only a caffeine-fueled Saturday morning conjecture, of course. A sort of thinking out loud. I know there are a number of classical singers on Metafilter who are about to shoot me down in flames.)
posted by Grangousier at 4:37 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


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