There are so many great threads here about specific instruments and instrument families. How about a thread about singing? (Idea partly prompted by some fascinating comments in the Sacred Cyborg Harmony thread.)
Singing is my first instrument – I grew up in a family that went to church every week, in a church that has a fair amount of congregational hymn singing. Singing was by far the best part of church. I also loved the little bits of compulsory choral singing in a couple of school music classes. In college I learned guitar and did the faux-Dylan thing. Many years later, I tried out some singing with electronic music. (I had a version of one of the John Henry songs that I did live at a Princeton monomeet, creating a harmonic accompaniment by recording a harmonica scale into mlr, then singing over the patters and pushing mlr off the rails.) A few years ago I discovered Sacred Harp singing, a tradition of a cappella hymn singing using a book of weird old hymns written in shape notes. I love that it’s a group activity, always, so there’s that amazing push-pull of trying to make music with others in the moment, with no emphasis on sounding pretty (and in fact, belting is appropriate), and the harmonies are amazing. I find that singing with other people, regularly, is a peculiar way to get to know them in a very non-verbal, hard-to-explain way. (Honestly, it’s similar in that respect to having sex with someone: you learn all kinds of things that aren’t stated and cannot be concealed, and they’re learning similar things about you.)
Singing feels like the most intimate kind of musical expression to me. There’s a reason we use the term “your voice” as a metaphor for your expression of your innermost self. When I sing solo in from of other people, it feels very revealing, sometimes uncomfortably so. I can also become very aware of the weaknesses/flaws of my voice – I can carry a tune, but like most of us I don’t have a voice that sounds all that great on its own. Still, as a mediocre musician at best on several other instruments, I have greater powers of expression with my voice than with any other way of making sound.
What are people’s relationships to singing? Do you incorporate your voice, or others’ voices, into the other music you make?
(And since I’m posting this on Christmas Eve, a link to the Christmas carol service at King’s College, Cambridge, which features really incredible English choral singing. I have an annual tradition of streaming it on the BBC and reading composer Nico Muhly’s live-tweeted commentary as it goes. [He’s a huge Anglican choral music nerd.])
More thoughts on this, but for now will just mention a close friend of mine with a background in choral singing got heavily into Shape Note. He organizes a meet near Floyd, VA and travels to other ones a lot.
Through that, he’s become friends w the folks who assembled the two main books everyone uses (Sacred Harp and Shenendoah Harmony). I got to meet one at a sing, which was nice. He gave a short speech about how seriously the people who wrote and sang these songs took a sense of existence beyond the material, and suggested we consider such sensitivities as we feel the songs course through us.
Amazing community, something very raw about the lyrical content, volume, and physical layout, singing into each others’ faces as loud as possible, straight tone, no vibrato or coloratura for these folks. I’ve attended a few sings and it really is a bone rattling, full body experience. Truly connecting, interpersonally and on the level of sheer vibration.
For anyone who wants to learn more, if you can find it, my friend recommends the documentary “Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp.” Trailer here: "Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp" Movie Trailer - YouTube
A few days ago I performed briefly for the first time in a lines-related context.
@tyleretters hosted a zoom open mic on the Solstice, so I did some vocal improvisation over a norns sines tuned to the Arabic Bayati maqam.
I’m not a trained singer, much less in non-western scales, but the combination of the friendly and inviting group setting and the slightly disorienting musical setting felt like I could try something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It was really nice, so I’m inspired to continue exploring in this vein.
The other thing I’ll mention is that I have been doing vocal synthesis for many years. What I mean is making synthesis inspired sounds solely with my voice. I have yet to make any recordings of this stuff, but it is great fun!
Looking forward to seeing where this thread goes
Definitely here for this! I think I’m in pretty common company here on lines in that I:
- Am uncomfortable with singing and the sound of my voice
- Don’t practice or train my voice because of the first bullet, but
- Nevertheless love vocals in the music I listen to, especially unprocessed vocals, which puts me into a cyclic “maybe? nope” loop with incorporating my voice into my music.
Yeah, hearing myself in a recording is especially hard. I’ve gotten used to the sound of my speaking voice in recordings through exposure – making training videos for work and having to listen to them – but singing is different. And my voice isn’t bad, it just sounds weird to me. So I’ve had no luck making recordings that incorporate my own singing. I have a much easier time singing live, because then I don’t have to listen to it. Many years ago I did a few live performances with me on electronics and a singer friend adding her voice – she is well trained and also has done a bunch of extended vocal technique and was pretty comfortable doing semi-improvised weird music. I wonder if the difference is that some people have “good”/recordable voices, or if it’s just a matter of comfort with hearing yourself, which maybe a lot of us could develop over time?
We share this experience! My mother was often the chorister for the children’s-activity portion of church (at the time, this was two of the three hours of the meeting, one of which involved singing). Later, in middle and high school, I participated in my school’s choir, and some of my favorite moments of studying music in college were when we would, in music theory class, sing each other’s four-part harmony compositions. My voice was and is a bit too low even for the alto part, but I really appreciated that my instructor let me struggle gamely with it anyway.
I used to hate listening to either my singing or speaking voice with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. I even remember in grade school participating in some intra-school television thing (like, the “daily news” but just for the school?) and cringing as I heard my own voice. There’s definitely something honest about the sound of your voice, even through any affectations you put on it, it knows you.
On my album Learning to Run, I was writing the third track and discovered that it wanted vocals in some undeniable way. I remember laughing at/with myself after recording an improvisation that settled on repeating the lines “it’s not him / it’s you and me” and expecting to be nearly unable to listen back to what I had recorded. But instead I was surprised to discover that I didn’t hate it anymore! I don’t really know what shifted, but it allowed me to record vocals in one form or another for 7 of the 10 tracks on the album! So if I have to come down on one side or the other of the dichotomy @weatherballoons suggests, I’ll say that it’s a matter of comfort (or at least bearing through the discomfort) of hearing yourself, and that this is absolutely something that you can practice, although I have to apologize for not knowing what caused the shift for me.
When I write the next album, one of the things I’d like to work on is developing my voice further, both in terms of range (especially the couple notes around what is it, G3? G4? the G above middle C, that I struggle to hit) but especially in terms of expressiveness. Choral singing is often about blending your voice with others, which is a worthy goal sometimes, but not necessarily when you’re fronting a pop song.
So much of hearing ourselves happens through bone conduction and internal bodily resonances! It makes sense hearing a recording feels jarring in its unfamiliarity. No one outside us is hearing quite what we do from the cozy little cockpit of our brain!
Two of my favorite singers, who are quite different despite having been extremely close collaborators, are David Bowie and Brian Eno.
One thing they had in common was frequently making “choirs” by multitracking their own voices. I think this can be an interesting way to undercut some of the discomfort of hearing one’s own voice on a recording—mask it through repetition.
And as one of my very favorite Oblique Strategies says ”Repetition is a form of change “!
@alanza From your brief description, I think we may have gone to the same church – was your mother’s title “Primary chorister”?
amazing, that was her title, and we did!!
I started singing when I was thirteen because all my favorite songs at the time were written by pianist singer-songwriters like Billy Joel. Years (and years) of piano bar work followed on the heels of that fresh-faced thirteen year old kid hitting pause on a little cassette player so he could transcribe the lyrics. Later I sang in the Glee Club at Notre Dame and fell in love with the Franz Biebl Ave Maria, fight songs, and wandering around campus drunk as a lark with three other guys on Valentine’s Day singing for tips.
My voice is one of the few things in my life that has improved with age.
I used to be very shy about singing - every time my parents heard me sing they would tell me to stop because my voice was “bad” - to them, it was “ugly”, “out of tune” and “boring”, so I became very self-conscious. I would go out of my way to not sing, even when I was alone.
Yet I always wanted to sing because it seemed so fun and embodied for others, so as an adult I decided to give it another try. I sat in front of a piano, hummed along to middle C and then worked my way up and down the C major scale.
I’m still not a great singer by any means, but I was delighted that I could, actually, sing in tune! All I really needed to learn was my vocal range. I ended up being the guitarist and vocalist of a metal band and we released an EP. In my current practice, I don’t often sing but sometimes I’ll vocalise alongside slowed bird calls.