Vocal Lessons Article

#12: The "Sound" And The Voice

2013-04-09

As actor/singers prepare for auditions, there tends to be a great deal of concern about the “sound” that’s required to accurately portray (or at least, land) the role that is being cast.  Aside from the natural insecurities that one may have before an audition, this particular issue can sway singers to hear themselves not as they are at their best, but through the ears of perceived expectations that may or be accurate.

To properly explore this issue, we need to unpack what exactly comprises a given “sound.” There are two main components to what we think of as your “sound” –  voice and style.  What I’m calling voice is your own, natural, neutral speaking and singing voice, not belting, not mixing, not doing anything special, just you, using good vocal technique and sounding like you. Your voice is as unique to you as your fingerprints, and is rooted in your specific vocal anatomy. Good training can improve how you utilize that anatomy and make you sound like the best version of you possible, but it shouldn’t ever make you sound like someone else.

The second component is style, and it’s there that we start delving into our technique bag of tricks. Thus, we raise the larynx and increase compression for a “rock sound,” or use our mix or belt for a more “modern musical theatre” sound, or lower the larynx and add vibrato for a “legit” or classical sound. These are all stylistic choices that we make to suit a given piece of music, character, or show, but they are styles that you should attempt using your own natural voice. Your voice plus stylistic choices equal your sound, and that is a recipe for success.

The place where I often see singers encountering trouble is when they try and imitate the unique sound of another singer, rather than simply using their own voice in a style appropriate to the material (which will create the appropriate sound in turn). Interestingly, this is often a problem among more experienced and trained singers. In addition to music-directing a current Off-Broadway show, I’m also music-directing a collegiate production at a school in New England.  Of the students cast in the musical, the majority of them have minimal vocal training in comparison to someone with, say, one year of vocal coaching as a New York professional. However, I was shocked to discover that the students with the least vocal training had minimal concern for how they ‘sounded’ and far more concern for their natural voice doing justice to their character, the material, and the production, and were actually more successful for doing so.

When you take the focus off the “sound” you think the casting team wants and place it on doing justice to the material in a stylistically appropriate way, it frees up your ability to gauge your character, analyze your acting situations, present a more comfortable physical presence, and harness your best vocal technique.  Having been in auditions for multiple recent productions of both pop/rock and classic musical theatre, I can honestly say that the auditions that make the strongest impact upon everyone in the room are not the auditions in which the actors “sound” was perfect for the show but rather those with the winning combination of an actors true voice, well-implemented stylistic choices, and dedication to the material at hand.

I realize that the siren-song of imitating trendy sounds can be difficult to resist; certainly in this age of rock/pop/juke-box musicals, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to shoehorn one’s natural vocal qualities up into the popular tones of the times.  However, my experience with those college students demonstrated the benefits of focusing on the value of the material in conjunction with your natural voice rather than challenging your vocal quality against a pre-conceived “sound.”

I’m not discouraging versatility; by all means, ladies, develop a belt; gentlemen, develop a rock mix.  However, in doing so, beware the expectation to “sound” like prior performers. You will almost certainly not sound as good at being, say, Idina Menzel, as she is, so it’s really better not to attempt it. You will, however, do a better job sounding like you than she ever could.  So, the next time you’re preparing for an audition and you see a note in the breakdown that reads something like “pop sound” or “rock quality,” consider incorporating that style into your audition, but focusing on every other aspect of your audition preparation – presentation, acting, vocal technique – as a priority. It’s a funny thing about this concept of a “sound”: everyone has one, every one is different, and seldom does imitation of another’s evoke a positive impression.  A true “voice” is unique, undeniable, and far braver than a “sound.”

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Eli Zoller

Eli Zoller

Associate Music Director at New York Vocal Coaching