This one is a classic.
I get asked this all the time.
“I’ve got little natural talent- can I ever sing well?”
“I’m not a natural singer, can voice lessons build my voice up?”
It really boils down to a more fundamental question – the old chestnut: Nature vs Nurture.
Nature vs Nurture
There is a huge amount of research on this issue. Anders Ericson, Malcolm Gladwell (who quotes Ericson’s research), and Matthew Syed (to name but a few in this field) argue that the power of Nurture can override a huge amount of disadvantages that were handed to us by Nature. There is a huge amount written on this, suffice to say that in our world of singing, someone who starts off sounding terrible could go on to achieve a fantastic sound.
On the other side of the coin, there are those who strongly favor natural advantages; Nature determines success. ( check out http://www.nature.com/news/how-to-raise-a-genius-lessons-from-a-45-year-study-of-super-smart-children-1.20537). This would imply that if you don’t show promise as a natural singer, there isn’t much point in investing in vocal development training.
Based on my experience in both learning and teaching voice, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.
There are three elements to a great voice:
Let’s analyze them one by one.
If a person sounds like a dysfunctional lawnmover, (no offence!) then even with all the training in the world, this person will struggle to move, entertain and engage as a singer. Audiences will struggle to engage with this person’s signature tone or timbre. How can you look at a painting that is aesthetically unappealing? How can you eat a chef’s dish that tastes disgusting?
At it’s core, Tone is your unique sound, made up of the unique combination of vocal harmonics that you were born with. Pavarotti was said to have had an objectively pleasing tone. This was measured and proven in the following study: http://www.voiceinsideview.com/docs/Miller%20chapter%201.pdf
So, Tone is not something you can change. These are your vocal chords.
So if you think you sound bad, then it’s Game Over, right?
Poor technique can mask your real tone.
So, if you sing without support, poor breathing, lack of proper vowels, you may not even know your tone.
Vocal development training can help you unravel your true vocal tone and color. We’ll cover this in more depth in a further post.
Nature defines your tone, but you can’t know your tone definitively if you’ve never produced your Natural sound.
“I can’t get that note, it’s beyond my range!”
“Wow! That was so low, I could never hit that!”
“Did you hear him nail that C#? That was off the charts!”
These are typical comments singers make when observing other singers who have large ranges.
A common misconception: Range is fixed. If I can’t reach that note now, I never will.
This is simply not true!
Typical, untrained voices generally have ranges of around 1.5 to 1.75 octaves. Trained singers often everntually realize 2.5 -4 octaves depending on voice type and gender.
The point is simple – Training increases your usable vocal range.
When I started singing I struggled to hit an F4. I’m a tenor. (A Tenor is high male voice type) This note is one of the most basic middle-of-the-range notes a tenor needs! In other words, that’s not even considered high!
Now, I can easily sing a whole octave above – F5!
Vocal training happened.
I unleashed my underlying vocal range ability through the right technique. Specifically, correct support, breathing, and placement.
Awesome, so training can enable you to expand your range upwards.
What about downwards?
Can I hit some super low Bass notes?
Err, not really.
Why not?! I thought training can help you expand your range?!
The answer is Yes and No.
Within your voice type, I can expand my range. I expanded it up, and I expanded it down. But I cannot sing below around E2/F2. Why? I’ve reached the end of the Tenor range. This is now Baritone(a ‘middle’ male voice type) or Bass territory. So, outside of my voice type, I cannot expand my range.
There are always exceptions. Baritones who can reach certain high notes that only Tenors can reach. Tenors, who can reach certain low notes that Baritones/Bass singers can reach, etc. But in general, vocal technique can give you what is rightfully yours within your vocal type.
When a singer goes out of tune or off key, it hurts our ears.
The incredible thing is that, (bar the most musically insensitive portion of the population), almost everyone feels the discord of an out-of-tune note. It literally hurts.
Conversely, when a singer is bang it tune, it is aesthetically pleasing and delights us.
Another element is Rhythm. Good rhythm in an upbeat song gets us moving, and in a downbeat song is the vehicle that allows us to be swept along with the story of the song. When rhythm is out of time, it jars and irritates even relatively unmusical folks.
[There are other elements of musicality in a general sense, but for an individual vocalist, the above two are the key elements that contribute to what is considered a quality singer or vocalist.]
Can you learn Musicality or are you stuck with what you are born with?
I believe that over and above Tone and Range, Musicality has the most scope for nurture and training. Yes it’s true that some have phenomenal musical sensitivity from the first time they open their mouth to sing, but if you weren’t born with it, it can certainly be learned through ear training, listening to a wide variety of quality music and specific rhythm training, to name but a few approaches.
Conclusion: Not a natural singer? it doesn’t matter – work and reveal your potential!
We’ve looked at the three elements that go into a great voice. Since Voice is an adventure of discovery, it takes time to find out what your real voice is. A high quality Vocal Coach (Related: What to look for in a voice teacher) can guide you to discover it, but you can’t discount your potential before you have even begun that journey.
What about your experiences? Were you blessed with a lot of natural vocal talent or was it hard graft from the get go? Perhaps you find certain aspects of singing much easier than others? Leave a comment!
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