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December/January 2015

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Importance of Honesty

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Importance of Honesty

“Honesty is such a lonely word, ‘cause everyone is so untrue.”” Amen Billy. Singing requires physical honesty – songwriting requires emotional honesty. Performance requires us to have a very clear, honest intent of why we’re singing. It is my contention that we can vocalise pretty much any sound, well and without hurting ourselves, so long as we do so honestly. Conversely, any hint of dishonesty (fear or doubt) will bring the whole system down. Think of how sore your throat gets when you’re in an argument and can’t express yourself, or if you feel discounted or ignored.

Many, if not most, vocal problems stem from a fear of not being heard, or from not wanting people to hear qualities that we feel are too revealing (or sentiments in the songs that make us feel too vulnerable). Radical honesty is something we’ll have to work at, but the freedom, control, transformation, revelation and openness that result, are well worth our attention.

To be honest as a vocalist is to communicate in a very direct, accessible way, even if what you’re singing is very complicated and challenging.  Vocal honesty doesn’t just mean singing with your own accent, it means not: putting on a voice; deliberately roughening; trying to tame or lessen volume with breathiness; shying away from notes; copying stylistic traits or the same vibrato as our idols; playing it safe to avoid making mistakes; oversinging; squeezing; adding too much; imposing emotion; trying to sound cooler and/or pushing and straining because we falsely believe this is what is required.

We only do this because we don’t think we’re good, strong or interesting enough as we are. Truth is we’re only interesting if we’re true to ourselves – no affectation, people pleasing, overwhelming, withholding, denying, disguising or trying to be someone else. When having an intimate/heartfelt conversation (perhaps telling your partner it’s over and you don’t love them anymore), do you put on an Eric Cartman voice or try to make it ‘more entertaining’? Do you concentrate on what it sounds like? Or do you concentrate on fully and authentically expressing yourself?

I believe honesty is THE most powerful tool we have. The truth will always set you free (as opposed to the false belief that ‘the truth hurts’). If, for example someone’s voice breaks while they’re speaking at a funeral, it’s understandable and utterly appropriate. If our voice breaks because we’re pushing and strangling ourselves to hit a high note, that’s dishonest. Good guidance and constructive feedback shouldn’t be perceived as an attack, so we needn’t build defenses around our voice-usage.

Difficulties with our voice stem from dishonesty. It’s easy to deliver songs you believe in. However, if we buy into the lie that singing high is difficult, we focus on the pitch of the note rather than the word it falls on. We don’t have to cover up, become self-conscious, avoid certain pitches or be perfect. Being overly aware of the pitches and keys of songs pulls our focus from what really matters – meaning.

To be ‘physically honest’ means registering exactly where we hold tension in the body and why. We must become aware of how we’re using our voices. How does the sound feel? What does it sound like – tone, frequency spectrum of bass and treble, volume, naturalness? Are we using destructive practices like forcing the sound or flipping the voice into falsetto prematurely when singing high? What happens to the voice when we use tools and qualities like twang and openness? What happens to the sound and feel when we tighten and constrict our throats? Do we sub-consciously put a vocal fry at the beginnings of words? Do we tail off the ends of phrases so that the last, often most important words, are lost? Are we shaping the vowels enough with our mouths? Do we look like we’re in pain? Are we in pain?

Looking at yourself (video, photos, mirror), recording yourself and working with a vocal coach will reveal heaps. We don’t need to feel ashamed of where we’re at – all we need is technique.

Often, we call upon different voices appropriate to the genre, so much that we don’t know what our ‘real’ voice is. Peel back the layers and discover what your relationship is with the song (someone else’s relationship with a song is their business).

Disorders, injuries and damage like RSI, tinnitus and nodules, frequently occur as a result of not feeling emotionally connected and committed to our music. In this respect, love what you’re doing and fear (tension and pain) will dissolve.

Developing objective awareness is a real skill. If we’re unsure, we needn’t blast ahead with blissful ignorance, denying we have a problem. This might seem like a solution – “It’s all about confidence… my faults are part of who I am,” – but they’re not. The truth is that you have a beautiful voice, I’ve yet to hear someone who doesn’t. But, we disguise and strangle that beauty with bad technique and un-checked habits. The ego tells you it’s ‘what you are’ rather than ‘what you’re doing’ (e.g. a voice is either good or bad, rather than whether or not you’ve developed or practised vocal technique or song-craft). The ego makes us defensive, self-sabotaging, over-confident or insecure. If we’ve suffered injury or damage, we gate, withhold or try controlling the sound with the throat rather than placement and twang. Some people even stop singing completely. Is that honest?

Do audiences compliment you on your voice’s beauty, how your rendition of a song changed their lives or how your song encapsulated exactly how they were feeling? If not, why not?

It is dishonest to have a weak and out of tune voice; use auto-tune; to be emotionless; try to be ‘perfect’; to say you ‘can’t’ sing something you could nail with practice and technique; to claim you know a song but still require prompting with lyrics in front of you; ignoring pain, hoping it’ll get better the next day; not putting songs in the right key for you; transposing down because you don’t use enough technique to comfortably sing high.

Resistance can prevent us from hearing the truth. Some guys only accept vocal advice from a male vocal coach; some blame the messenger rather than hearing the message. Can you recall the times you’ve communicated honestly? How did it feel? What was the context (e.g. a real listening audience who are there for you)? Try imagining yourself in that setting each time you sing. You are heard. Allow technique to bring your true voice out and learn to discern between sounding ‘true’ and ‘false’. Remember, the world will love you, just the way you are.

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Caitlin@caitlinsmith.com