February/March 2013

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Totally Wired! Energy and Voice

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Totally Wired! Energy and Voice

Let’s hit the ground running and discuss the ‘energy’ required when singing – which kind and how much. There are so many different flavours, colours and amounts of energy that each song, setting and context requires. Energy is one of those things to get ‘just right’ when singing – be it in performance, practice, or just doing the dishes.

It takes energy to build the vocal instrument before its played. ‘Too little energy’ creates damage and there won’t be enough space for the sound to resonate in. Physically and acoustically, energy is required to open-up maximum space inside the body to amplify and ‘house the sound’: opening the mouth, aligning posture, making buoyant the chest, turning on the 5,000 facial muscles, lifting the soft palate, anchoring the body by activating back muscles, directing the sound out the forehead… Man, I need a cup of tea and a lie down just listing ‘em! And yet, that’s just taking the guitar out of its case. We then need energy to tune it (warm-ups) and deliver the song.

Too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of energy: forcing, tension and pushing, also leads to disaster. What to do? Essentially, we can conceptualise energy into three categories: ‘too little’, ‘too much’ and ‘just the right amount and kind’. Patsy Rodenburg describes these ‘circles of energy’ as: 1st Circle (too little), 2nd Circle (being present with the right amount) and 3rd Circle (too much). 

Have a look at this:

1st Circle energy is: self conscious, focused in the past, dwells on mistakes and faults, insecure, too concerned with how something sounds or looks rather than what it means, is exhausted, fatigued, ‘under-energised’, inward looking, oblivious to anything but self, weak, breathy, dull, lifeless, colourless, passive, doesn’t project and goes flat. A 1st Circle mindset is too analytical, doubtful and judgmental to ‘be present’. I see this kind of energy when singers try to sound ‘correct’, ‘right’ or ‘perfect’. If we’re fearful of high notes, making a mistake or forgetting the words, we cant be present, or sing properly, because the body and its sympathetic nervous system aren’t engaged.

As audience members, we feel like leaving the 1st Circle performer to their own private moment in all its suffering and struggle. The singer, so lost in their own space, isn’t providing a shared experience – an audience isn’t acknowledged or ‘invited in’. 1st Circle performers blame their lack of connection on something that happened prior to a gig destabilising them, so they’re ‘too upset to sing’. NB: Under-energised (overly soft and breathy) singing is often confused with intimacy. Don’t be fooled! Intimacy is entirely a 2nd Circle thang.

In contrast with our self-doubting, don’t-really-want-to-be-there 1st Circlers, there is the aggressive 3rd Circle energy. This is: over-acted, too loud, forced, pushed, aggressive, sharp, tries to impress, shows off, competitive, feels superior, tries too hard, inappropriately pins the listener to the wall with sheer ‘power’, is over-confident, faked and superimposes vocal qualities on the song without regard for the songs unique personality and idiosyncrasies. It’s the ego saying, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing’ as opposed to the 1st Circle ‘negative ego-based’, ‘I’m not good enough’.

I’ve heard 3rd Circlers deliberately roughen their voice by tightening the throat rather than allowing the genuine emotional connection to a song to naturally roughen it up. I’ve also heard a Bruce Springsteen song sung like a cast member of Glee – very 3rd Circle!

As any actor knows, you don’t have to ‘act’ per se, you just ‘get into’ character, or that ‘side of yourself’. In 2nd Circle, there is an in the now exchange of energy between performer and audience, the focus is on lyrics – you’re connected to them and they’re connected to you. 2nd Circle is: ‘Absolute intimacy’, presence, assertiveness, vitality, ‘equality’, realness, responsiveness, heightened awareness and perception, ease, authenticity, spontaneity and respect for self, song and audience. It buzzes with electricity. It is exciting!

When practising fundamental vocal tools like ‘placement’ and ‘opening the throat’, we similarly contrast and compare using Three Energies to find the ‘right one’. We practice onsets by contrasting: breathy (too weak- throat-based), glottal (too hard- throat-based), ng/good – (smooth, self-sustaining- masque of the face-based). For open throat practice, we compare: a fatigued throat (vocal fry/breathy), a tight throat (constricted, sore) and an open throat facilitated by using a silent giggle. The open throat energy is ‘the sound that sings itself’.

Doing things well, that we love, gives us energy. Note how energised you feel after doing yoga, vocal warm-ups or gigs? If were fatigued just thinking about singing, were not using enough ‘technique’ to make it easy and effortless. Acknowledging that energy is required before and when singing, sets you free, especially as a front person, or solo performer.

Jazz gigs tend to be 3-4 hours long. Finding the right energy-enhancing stimulant for me has involved kissing many frogs to find the prince: walking, vocal warm ups, juices, caffeine (green tea, coffee, V), meditation, prayer, affirmations, imagining you’ve just won Lotto… all help. We want to be present: not swamped by nerves and anxiety or conversely disinterested or exhausted. We can develop a need for, and dependence on, synthetic stimulants or sedatives. This is a mistake! Drugs, including alcohol, take us out of the moment. They tend to make us too wired (3rd Circle) or disconnected and introspective (1st Circle). NB: speeding up or slowing down tempos, insensitively damaging vocal cords and pissing off band members may also manifest.

Make yourself responsible for your own energy = presence. Don’t rely on an audience or your band’s energy to fuel you. Adrenaline kicks in, but we need to be energised in the studio and when practising too. Try tapping into the unlimited source by being an open-channel. Whatever you call it: chi, the pine, each songs personality, the tao, the force…. 2nd Circle energy ensures that you lead and keep the listener in the perfect space – right inside the song.

Caitlin Smith