As a rock vocalist myself, I am very familiar with the trials and tribulations. Most voice teachers don’t want to touch the songs you want to sing with a twenty foot pole. As someone who wanted to scream out Melissa Etheridge and Janis Joplin, using my Julie Andrews voice was not the highest on the priority scale for me.
Now that I’m a voice coach myself, I understand the process of learning to walk before you run. So let me touch on a few keys mistakes I made and that most of my rock vocalists make when taking voice lessons.
Believing that studying good vocal technique will make you sound wimpy
When we start with lessons, we want to go 100MPH right out of the gate. We want to able to hit high notes with power and use vocal grit ‘till our heart’s content. Unfortunately, most rock vocalists try to do this without a proper foundation, which can be pretty damaging to the voice.
Learning about vocal control, breath control and vocal resonance solves most of the problems my rock singers encounter. Focused exercises like a 5-tone scale on ‘HMMM’, ‘huNNN’ and ‘huNG’ can help you develop great resonance and help keep that ‘forward’ feeling for increased power. If you have trouble finding that forward feeling, using the ‘twang’ vocal quality can help a lot early on in your training.
Ultimately, great vocal technique will give you better control over your voice, more power, and add longevity to your career. In order to do this, I have to teach my rock vocalists how to back off their voices first before I can teach them how to ‘lean in’ to it for maximum power. This seems counterintuitive to the long term goal, but it is necessary.
Many great rock stars, including the late, great Chris Cornell worked with vocal coaches to keep themselves at their best. Here’s a great quote from Heart lead vocalist, Ann Wilson, on keeping her iconic voice in shape:
“It’s just a part of your body like any other one. You have to be careful about it and exercise it right and warm it up and not do things that are harmful, like smoking, drinking and doing drugs. Things like that are really bad for singers.” (http://www.theaquarian.com/2017/04/05/an-interview-with-ann-wilson-of-heart-a-change-of-pace/)
Pushing at the high notes will help you sound louder
Yelling is what happens when rock vocalists try to get aggressive without a good foundation in vocal technique. It sounds bad and amateur. Trust me. Without fail, almost 100% of the rock vocalists I have worked with over the years try to produce their belts and screams by pushing at their throats.
Pushing creates massive amounts of tension, will cause you to go flat on higher pitches and can easily decrease the volume of your notes. NOT increase it. It’s important to welcome this idea into your world if you want to succeed in belting.
Once the vocal folds and airflow are working well together, it is the correct placement of the voice in the vocal tract that gets you louder and stronger sound, not pushing. Not only that, it makes singing so much easier and relaxed.
For students that have a tough time with pushing, I will usually start them on the high note of a scale using a windy ‘HEY’ to allow air to pass through the vocal folds and prevent constriction. In TVS vocal methodology we call this a ‘wind and release’ onset. Here’s a little video segment to help you with that: https://youtu.be/9Iep8ySElZ0?t=10m9s
Vocal grit and distortion is created by screaming your head off
I honestly used to think this was how it was done. Push as hard as possible and scream out the words. Then I would wonder why after a 30-minute set I would be exhausted and hoarse. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a voice coach near me that would even attempt to teach a rock vocalist so I had to begin experimenting myself to figure out what works.
Back when I was training, I would ask my old vocal coach how I could scream like Melissa Ethridge. I really wanted to be able to belt out “I’m The Only One”! However, instead of sounding like the rocker I wanted to be, I ended up sounding like some Pop/R&B knock off! It wasn’t the sound I was going for at all, and that helped me realise that she wasn’t the person to help me.
That’s why I ended up finding a specialist rock coach that finally understood how to guide me to a healthy rock sound. I was so impressed by my results that I began training more to help others learn how to do the same!
I learned that grinding muscle in the throat has nothing to do with it. Instead, my type of vocal distortion works well by delivering high levels of airflow. Think of previously mentioned examples, Chris Cornell and Ann Wilson, or take a listen to this chorus from Alice In Chains:
Proper vocal grit and distortion can only be taught after a student has demonstrated amazing vocal control and relaxation throughout their range. That takes time and is another big reason why it’s difficult to dive straight into distortion without risking vocal injury.
Krzysztof Izdebski of the Pacific Voice & Speech Foundation reinforces the idea that airflow, and the resulting turbulence, is what helps create distortion through the vocal tract in metal singers. Click here (https://www.insidescience.org/video/heavy-metal-singers-are-big-babies) for the full article, in case you’re interested.
Research shows us once again that crunching the throat muscles or tensing the vocal folds does not work when trying to create vocal distortion. If done this way it can seriously damage your voice. The muscular effort comes from careful work with the breathing muscles (in my teaching, the use of the abdominal muscles, specifically) to generate the high level of airflow needed for awesome grit.
The bottom line to being a rock vocalist is that it takes time. There are probably some things you will be able to figure out on your own, but nothing is a substitute for good vocal technique from someone who specializes in rock singing. Learning how to finely control pitch, range, volume and tension will help you sing higher, louder and more relaxed.
It took me years to get the rock voice that I wanted and it didn’t helped me when I tried to rush through the steps to get there. If you’re into rock, then you’re in for the long haul!