How to sound uncomfortable, comfortably
We’ve described how important it is to sing in your vocal comfort zone. But there is a place in performance for uncomfortable sounds.
Think of the sounds you make in an extreme emotion: yelling, screaming or breathlessness. Now think of the patterns people make with those sounds – the yell hits peak volume then drops the scream rises and falls, the breathlessness comes and goes.
These on/off patterns are easy to put into your singing, without changing your signature sound. You’re adding the effects of high-intensity emotion without actually having it. This allows the audience to feel the ‘pain’ without your voice feeling it.
Here are the top three uncomfortable patterns you can add to your singing:
1. The Gasp
Choose a line from your favourite song and add an H before the word you want to feature
This is a burst of air that we hear before or after the note. You can use a fast or slow airspeed for different effects. Choose a line from your favourite song and add an H before the word you want to feature. This is easier if the word starts with a vowel, but it’s possible to add an H to almost any word. So “I” becomes “(h)I”, “love” becomes “(h)love”, “you” becomes “(h)you” and so on.
You can also add the gasp afterwards – “I(h)”, “love(h)”, “you(h)”. You can keep the same vowel you just sang in the breath gasp, or change it to “uh”, so you could sing I as I(ih) I(ah) or I(uh) – different vowels give different emotions.
Adding the gasp before or after makes the word stand out, and makes the singer sound more emotional, more desperate, more exhausted.
2. The Pitch Bend
The pitch bend creates the tension-release effect by making you sing “out of tune”. This deliberate detuning means that the note does not fit with the surrounding notes and sets up a clash, creating tension for the listener, which you then resolve by moving to the correct note.
Find a comfortable note and hold it on your favourite vowel (with or without vibrato).
Now without losing the volume, drop the pitch very slightly to sing flat. At first, this might cause you to lose the “tone” of your voice, but stick with it. Your aim is to stay sounding like you but flatter!
Hold the note slightly flat, then go back onto the correct pitch. This gives the effect of “warming it up” – by resolving the perceived problem you are releasing the tension for the listener.
You might want to start with large pitch bends (of at least a semitone), gradually reducing the move until you are just slightly flat from your target note.
Rock singers and belters often use this slight flatting to give their high notes more urgency, starting them flat and resolving them into tune. It makes them sound as if they are “weight-lifting” their voice, without actually pushing the sound.
3. The Volume Change
Sudden volume changes can make you sound highly emotional. A suddenly loud single note or a half-phrase has shock value, and a suddenly quiet note has a feel of the emotion overpowering your voice.
Sing a phrase from your favourite song and choose a word to work on. First, sing the phrase at the same volume throughout. You’ll need this to compare the other versions.
Now sing the phrase and make the chosen word louder. You may want to drop the volume of the rest of the phrase slightly to make the loud word stand out.
Your aim is to make the volume “landscape” more jagged
Sing the phrase again, this time making the chosen word softer. You may want to raise the volume of the rest of the phrase to make the soft word more surprising.
Sing the next couple of lines of the song, adding suddenly loud or quiet words. Your aim is to make the volume “landscape” more jagged. Experiment with different volume landscapes – can you make each version work for you?
All successful performances are a balance of tension and release. These three patterns show you how to increase the “tension” in your sound without losing control.
Want to find out more and discover the techniques to more successful performances? Find an available 1-1 session with Gillyanne or Jeremy (they’re rare) either in person or online using our coaching calendar here.
Gillyanne Kayes and Jeremy Fisher are eminent educators who run ‘Vocal Process’, a multi-genre and multi-media practice.
Gillyanne has a doctorate in female voice research and authored the bestselling book ‘Singing and the Actor’. Jeremy’s work has been commissioned by London’s Science Museum and, after winning a national piano competition, he represented Yamaha as a guest artist.
Voice experts, authors, team-teachers for 20 years, Gillyanne & Jeremy train performers and their teachers to find the most appropriate techniques to sing their best, whatever the style of the song.
This article first appeared in the Voice Council Magazine