Rock, Soul and PopIdol with Daniel Zangger Borch

Daniel Zangger Borch, Rock singer, teacher, researcher and author of the Ultimate Vocal Voyage, interview by Gillyanne Kayes for Vocal ProcessGillyanne Kayes interviews Rock singer and researcher Daniel Zangger Borch on performing, voice research and his television work.


Gillyanne: I wanted to ask you to talk first about you and the different strands of your worklife. Because you’re a rock musician, you’re a vocal teacher, you’re also a researcher and you are a tv star in Sweden. So tell me about that, how did all of that come about?

Daniel: Well I started out as a singer. I did my CD debut (or LP debut at that time) when I was 18 so I come from a singing background, but not from an academic background like a teaching background. I was living on my music from 18-24. Then I got so many questions about my singing on tour and on records that I just had to find answers. I applied to the Royal College, the University of Music in Stockholm and they didn’t have any answers when I was attending their courses. So I thought no-one has any answers to my questions so I have to look them up myself. And that was how I came in contact with Johan Sundberg for the first time. I wanted to check out if we rock, pop and soul singers could benefit from the singer’s formant when we were singing live. That was my first question. And from that day I’ve been doing a lot of teaching and research, and singing less and less, but still doing it anyway.

Gillyanne: I wanted to ask you about this myth that rock and pop singers don’t need technique. Because you know when you read the magazines and the cultural stuff then in a way almost, to train you voice is the opposite to pop, and yet clearly you’re running your own voice centre. You must have a take on that.

Daniel: Yes, well I think that everyone can benefit from a good technique, but not all need the good the technique to accomplish what they want to do. That depends on what we mean by technique. Is it the ability to have a good stamina, or to sing an hour three days a week. Or is technique something that could strengthen your interpretation ability. In the interpretation ability, that kind of technique is always beneficial because you can never be too good at getting your phrasing or your text to the audience. You can never be too good to get your audience to feel something. Do you know what I mean?

Gillyanne: Absolutely.

Daniel: So that is a never-ending job. But if it’s technique that we’re talking about in the sense of being able to sing and not damage your voice, then some people don’t need it. Some people just sing, sing, sing.

Working on PopIdol

Daniel: I have some people right now, they don’t know anything about anything about voice. They’ve just sung. When I say they’re not in pitch, they ask me what’s pitch? And they’re in the top ten in this programme! So they can sing, but they cannot sing correctly from a technical point of view, but that doesn’t matter, because, so far, they are able to sing what they want to do in the amount they want to. So we’ll see about it in the long run. You never know. In the long run everyone sooner or later comes to the conclusion “I need something. I need to be more knowledgeable about my voice and my technique.”

Gillyanne: So you’re talking now about the tv show. Is it sort of like XFactor, Pop Idol, that sort of thing?

Daniel: It is Pop Idol in Sweden. I think with XFactor the only place to do it is the UK isn’t it?

Gillyanne: And what’s your experience been? Obviously you’ve talked about this particular group. What’s it like having to do that every week.

Daniel: Every week, three days a week. It’s fun because you can see all the results at once. I meet them Wednesday and we go through the song for 40 minutes, then I see them Thursday on stage with cameras and everything, you know, 20 minutes, and then I have choreography and camera – where the cameras are and stuff like that. And then we vocalise, we warm up and cool down, and on Friday it’s the same thing, and then we have a rehearsal, and then it’s live. In Sweden this is one of the top 5 of the biggest programmes, 1.3million I think.

Gillyanne: Wow, congratulations!

Daniel: That’s a lot in Sweden, we’re a small country. So the thing is then you can see the results from Wednesday in a live performance on tv on Friday and you’re like, how much could they take in of what I told them? And that’s not a lot!

Gillyanne: No, because they’re under enormous pressure aren’t they, in this kind of show.

Daniel: Enormous. So maybe 20% of what I’ve said. And I say the same thing on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for 10 times, maybe. And then when the programme starts, 20% is still as we talked about. And 80% is gone! So my goal with this is (and I told them), in the end when you’ve done like 15 tv shows, then maybe we can have 80% that you can remember of what I’ve told you, and 20% that you forget.

Teaching Rock, Pop and Soul

Gillyanne: Interesting. Tell me a little bit about your work as a teacher. I’ve had a little bit of experience of some of your workshops. What’s your approach, is it different from a classical teacher, for example, or are there similarities?

Daniel: I think what we do as pop teachers is more like short-term. You can almost compare to a logopedie – what do you call it, speech and language pathologist. Because people come to me and they expect me to solve their problem or develop their abilities in maybe 3-10 sessions. And then it’s over. And then they come back next time they have a problem or something they want to fix. So I think that the rock/pop/soul teacher is more like a short-term problem solver or coach or what do you want to call it. And the classical music teacher has maybe more of a long-term voice building possibility. Sometimes they follow the students from 12 to 22, being a part of the family. And it’s every week. But in our world, it’s more like “can you fix me?”

Gillyanne: That’s very interesting. That’s been my experience with people from that world too.

Daniel: They still have a lot of ambition. That is the strange thing, They have a lot of ambition, they want to be really great and want to have success, and they want to work on it, but not in that way, and not only that. They can promote themselves or have makeup on for four hours, but they won’t sing for more than 20 minutes. Sing scales and that sort of thing.

Gillyanne: Yes. I understand.


Gillyanne: Now, I’d like to pin you down and ask you to talk about register. Because when I did your workshop, I felt that you gave a very clear and simple explanation. It’s such a confused world, the register world, isn’t it? Do you think it’s important for rock and pop musicians to have an understanding of register?

Daniel: Yes, I think so, because it’s so obvious that we use two different registers – in my opinion it’s very obvious. The difference between those two are so great that we have to know that everyone feels that there are two, in a way. And in between those two we don’t know if it’s separate registers, just a mix of registers, and how is it mixed, is it 20/80 or is it 60/40, 40/60. And if you want to give all those new ones a term, it would be impossible to sing a song. So for me I use only the two – chest register and falsetto register. Although I wanted to call chest register “vocalis register”. And maybe I’m going to try doing that. Because new research that Johan talked about showed what I thought a couple of years ago. That vocalis is not contracting in falsetto and thereby you can call the chest register the vocalis register instead because you can use it above the area where your chest bones are vibrating.

Gillyanne: It’s more physiologic to say…

Daniel: Yes it is, But it’s more pedagogical to say chest because everyone knows what it is. It’s easier, and you have to weigh those aspects against each other. I think that I had my pre-dissertation a couple of weeks ago. And there we talked about maybe we should try and say chest register with vocal closure, and without vocal fold collision (maybe you could say), or just vocal fold closure, because you can have a breathy chest, and the same for falsetto. You can have a closed falsetto and an open falsetto. So maybe that’s a way of not getting into to many new terms and still talk about the sound we have in between the outer chest and the outer falsetto.

Gillyanne: Yes, that’s very interesting, And female voice as well. You would use the word falsetto with your female singers also?

Daniel: Yes, I don’t do any difference between those, But they are still talking about head voice, some of them. I still use it. They use the voice in the same way, it’s just easier for them… maybe harder for them to feel the exact points of separation between the registers because their vocal folds are smaller and thinner.

Gillyanne: Yes

Daniel: So maybe that’s… but I still use the same, because they sing in the same way as we do. There’s no difference except for the pitch height. There’s no difference in how you sing a song in these genres – you sing in the same way. It’s easier of course for the male vocalist to feel the differences between the falsetto and chest, but I still use it. And then I use it with more or less core, more or less body to the tone, or volume sometimes. Of course you can sing in a loud falsetto too. But then you know that it’s falsetto. I’m still interested in the Estill terms too, but I haven’t found yet the best way to use it. They are so popular that you almost have to have some kind of translation into what we’re doing too.

Gillyanne: Yes, I think speaking personally that work needs to be done to relate what those descriptors of voice quality might mean in relation to register and if for instance some voice qualities can be produced on more than one register which has been my pedagogical experience. So yes, there’s work to be done. That’s why we do our research, isn’t it?

Daniel: Yes it is.

Gillyanne: In terms of defining, I like chest and falsetto or vocalis and falsetto, because that’s something we are quite clear on as researchers and we also feel it in our voice.

Daniel: It’s pretty clear. And you don’t have to go through all the … what I think is, it should be easy to coach. In our environment when I talk about that 3-10 sessions, you don’t have 10 sessions to explain the methodology to create certain sounds. So you have to work with what you hear straight away. And then you have to have a language that the students can relate to. “There are two large differences in these registers, and now you are singing in falsetto, can you do that a little, little louder?” Then I don’t have to say anything else. So it’s pretty easy and so we don’t have to know each other and go into a whole methodology.

Gillyanne: Yes, that makes perfect sense to me.

Daniel: But that is from teacher to student. Of course, we teachers could talk to each other in another way. That’s another road.

The Ultimate Vocal Voyage

Gillyanne: So the language of teacher to student, what you’re saying, is sometimes different from the way you might discuss with other teachers, or even write about something if it was more of an academic presentation. As opposed to a practical book like Ultimate Vocal Voyage, which is about the practice of rock, pop and soul singing.

Daniel: Yes it is. And my ultimate goal was to create a handbook that everyone could use in a practical way and understand, and still try to be correct. And of course that is sometimes… if you want to be ultra-correct it takes too much text for the average singer to read. So I had to have some limitations on how correct I wanted to write.

Gillyanne: I really liked the book. I’ve jut opened up a page here where we’ve got a gospel exercise on whoa whoa whoa, and what I particularly liked is that the exercises relate to the genre, to the melodic patterns and the rhythmic patterns. Because a more classical technique, which is based on diatonic scales and smooth singing and line perhaps isn’t going to help the rock, pop and soul singer develop in the way they need.

Daniel: No, because I think that one thing that is very… I just took my first lesson yesterday from a classical teacher in 15 years… well, I went to you once

Gillyanne: You did.

Daniel: About 5 years ago. But except for that, it’s 15 years since I took a lesson without giving a lesson at the same time. You know, exchanging lessons. I went to a classical teacher here in Stockholm and it still surprised me. There is no way I could send my students to this because this is so far from what you want to sing when you want to sing rock, pop and soul. And there is such a large transition from this technique into the actual song – these oceans of time to get from those scales into using that technique in a rock pop or soul song. So I wanted a shorter transition from practice to performance in the book. That was why I did the exercises in that way, in a melodic and rhythmic way.

Gillyanne: That’s very interesting about the transition time.

Daniel: That’s an interesting research field of course. How long would it take for a technique to be something you could use in the real world? Because you could be really great at brrr [liptrill] but still not be able to sing a song.

Gillyanne: And in public brrr [liptrill] will not be what people want to hear, not really.

Larynx height?

Gillyanne: Now, one review I read of your book seemed to be saying that you advocated low larynx but when I was taking part in your workshop in Sweden I didn’t get that impression.

Daniel: OK, that means that I don’t like what?

Gillyanne: Advocate means that… you say you must sing with a low larynx.

Daniel: What? No, I never said that, someone didn’t understand what I wrote.

Gillyanne: That’s what I wondered.

Daniel: No, the larynx will… Oh, OK, in the warmup session I prefer to have a low larynx because when you sing rockpop songs the larynx tends to move up and stay fixated. So I wanted to promote a low larynx for warmup because when you do that it will take longer for the larynx to be fixed in the high position when you sing later on.

Gillyanne: So it’s about working the muscles in the opposite direction so that they are in a good neutral position, a good starting point.

Daniel: Yes

Gillyanne: That makes sense to me.

Daniel: From speech research, a Swedish researcher, Elliot, she’s called Elliot. She found out about hyper-functional speakers, that if they had pre-exercises for the low larynx, it would take longer for the larynx to get fixated in a high position when they read a piece. So I just translated that to the rockpop singer, who is close to speech sometimes.

Gillyanne: That’s very interesting. Because when I’m working with people who are doing are lot of West End belting and high larynx singing, I will often encourage them to do their warmup with a low larynx, and do their cooldown with a low larynx.

Daniel: Yes, of course, because you want to come back to number one. So that’s what you want to do.

Gillyanne: I read one of your articles yesterday as part of my own research, and I saw that you had found that the pop vocalists did use a kind of boosted spectrum didn’t they – 3.5khz, something like that?

Daniel: Yes, we found something – speech-like, you know, like the speakers’ formant was very common in the pop singer. But we were only five or six persons doing this in this group. All the research on voice is quite limited if you compare it to medicine, where they have 40,000 doing pancreas cancer.

Gillyanne: Yes! Was it just the male voice you were looking at, or did you look at the female voice as well in that study? I can’t remember.

Daniel: Only male voices. All the research has been on only male voices so far.

GK So tell me a little bit more about the research.

Daniel: I did this first study that was about the spectrum for the rock/pop singer. And then I did the distortion paper, and this was also… I wondered what was happening down there when we were doing this rock sound, significant in the rock styles. And then we looked at it when I did it, and that was the Supraglottal mucosa that was vibrating aperiodically. So it just knocked the waveforms on the head from the vocal folds, thereby creating this raspy sound. And then I concluded that we don’t know if this is just my way of doing this, and with my morphology, or if it’s possible for everyone to do it like this, or would everyone do their own kind of distortion, depending on their morphology or physiology.

Gillyanne: It’s always the big question in voice research, is it the individual and their habits and muscles, or is it as you say, something the mechanism can do. I don’t know if you think like that?

Daniel: Yes I do. And sometimes now when I’m coaching, I sometimes I’m stunned that a lot of the singers in this programme just now are singing with all the kinds of mistakes you can do, and still there’s no problem with their voices. There’s nothing wrong with them and they don’t get tired. So sometimes you think “do we need technique, or do we all need technique, and what kind of technique? And it that safe for all, or when you do it safe, does it still sound like you want it to?”
Because I heard when I was in London last time, I heard one singer that sang on stage demonstrating twang or safe belt, safe belt I think it was. My perception said that this is not the sound you want when you’re singing in a rock pop kind of environment. So sometimes when you are searching for the right way of doing things, safe and right and then it ends up sounding wrong, for some. And some people don’t have any problems, they sound right from the start, and doing nothing safe, but it’s still safe for them. Do you see what I mean?

Gillyanne: I do, I understand.

The rhythm of the future

Gillyanne: So what’s coming up next for you. You’re obviously a pretty busy guy, I’m feeling very fortunate to have you here this morning.

Daniel: I am fortunate to be part of this. And you have a great website and a great mailout or mail service. That’s really cool.

Gillyanne: Thank you

Daniel: So what’s up now. Finishing I take eight weeks more, the same week, two days after finishing that I have my dissertation, with a concert – dissertation concert in the evening then the actual dissertation the morning after,. So it’s pretty hard, Harder than a normal dissertation where you only have your opponent or discussion. We have to have a concert too. A one-hour concert and a two-hour barbecue! A vocalist’s barbecue.

Gillyanne: Now if it all goes well then we’ll be able to call you Doctor Borch won’t we?

Daniel: Yes, and I won’t listen to anything else.

Gillyanne: Quite right too. So Daniel, do you have a top tip for your rock pop and soul musicians.

Daniel: Yeah, to warm up and to cool down. That is one I think. Another one is to use your pauses to rest your voice.

Gillyanne: Yes, I read that in the book.

Daniel: In recording sessions and live. Don’t sit around with all the guys all the time talking. Just go into the toilet or read or take a walk, if you have one hour for lunch or something. So that you rest your voice in between. And then I would say focus on rhythmic stuff too.

Gillyanne: You’re very strong on rhythm, I remember.

Daniel: That’s because no-one does that I think. Not singers and not teachers, they don’t talk about the rhythmic part. And all the really great singers of this world are good at that. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, they know exactly where the rhythm is. And that gives you also … you and your audience, that this person is a very musical person. It feels like there’s a total musical talent, not just a tone or a voice.

Gillyanne: Yes, it was something again that I thought about after working with you in Sweden., It was the idea that in fact some of your rhythm exercises, like the ghosting which has a strong rhythmic impact, requires a lot of vocal dexterity.

Daniel: What’s that?

Gillyanne: Dexterity is a lot of expertise, skill, fine control.

Daniel: OK, yes.

Gillyanne: In a way that you might not expect to learn as a vocalist. It needed a lot of practice, actually

Daniel: I know, And for the classically trained singer it’s nothing that they’re used to either. I know when I practised just sightreading rhythm with a classical teacher a long time ago he was so stunned about the pop musician has a beat that is so technically correct, you know, we’re on time. But we’re used to drum machines in exact bmp style, so this is in us from the start. So if you’re trained more fluent, to have tempo more moving, with the classical music sometimes it’s more like the unit who decides together…

Gillyanne: Yes

Daniel: Ok, are we now doing an accelerando together? Oh, yes we are. Now we’ll move from 102 to 104 on the next beat. It’s that type of rhythmic world. But for us we’re used to keeping it all steady. So to be able to move in and out of that beat is what makes you even greater after you manage to keep the beat.

Gillyanne: Yes, I think that’s very interesting and an important aspect of pop, Because when you listen to popular music, so much of it is about rhythm, and yet showing people how to perform that rhythm… I know you’ve had a background as a drummer. Did you train originally as a drummer?

Daniel: Yes, I started when I was nine as a drummer, but not for that long. The thing was, then I started to play the guitar and then I started to sing my songs and writing songs, that’s my background. But I’ve always been interested in the rhythmic part of music, riffs and so on. And I played electric bass, and that’s only because I had the beat from the drums when I started, and I had the ability with my fingers from the guitar playing. So then bass is perfect. But of course, you have to be interested in this to be able to… that’s for everything we do. All the questions and everything we do, some day it comes from us, and the more we want to work on it, the more it is from us.

Gillyanne: This is true. Now, the warm-ups and cooldowns and the other advice you have for your rock and pop musicians, that’s all in the book isn’t it?

Daniel: Yes it is

Gillyanne: And it has a CD that goes with it.

Daniel: Yes

Gillyanne: I have it here in English, and I know it’s published in Swedish. What other languages is it published in? No others for now, but I know we have some questions from Spain and from Germany. And it’s released in the States and it’s released in Australia and the UK. It takes a long time for this to get a platform to work on. It’s doing pretty well I think, compared to others – I don’t know anything about what it sells, but I know that my publisher is satisfied, and that’s the best, because then I can do one more maybe!

Gillyanne: Exactly. So where’s the best place to get the book?

Daniel: I would say Amazon

[You can buy Daniel’s book The Ultimate Vocal Voyage from the Vocal Process MusicalStore powered by Amazon – it’s number one in the Recommended Reading section this month]

Gillyanne: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me? I’ve ticked everything.

Daniel: It’s been great talking to you. I’m glad that you have included me on this. Is this the eZINE?

Gillyanne: This will go in the eZINE, yes. As in magazine, but with an E in front.

Daniel: OK, now I understand. It takes a while for us to understand all those…

Gillyanne: Those strange English nuances
Now Daniel, what is the date of your dissertation and concert?

Daniel: December 15 and 16.

Gillyanne: I will be thinking of you.

Daniel: Yes, do so please, it will be a nervous period.

Gillyanne: Who’s your opponent, as a matter of personal interest?

Daniel: AnnaMaria Laukkenen

Gillyanne: Ah yes

Daniel: And she’s a great researcher, so maybe it will be a lot on the research. Because it’s both the research, my book and the CD .So it’s fun.

Gillyanne: And it’ll be even more fun when you’ve done it.

Daniel: Yes, a nice Christmas

Gillyanne: It’s been lovely talking to you Daniel, thank you so much for your time.

Daniel: Thank you, and we’ll keep in touch.

Click on this link to buy Daniel Zangger Borch’s book The Ultimate Vocal Voyage and check out the Recommended Reading section.

Sections of this transcript were first published in Vocal Process eZINE 33. Remember to register for the Vocal Process eZINE to stay up to date.