As singers we have many reasons and personal purposes for singing. But essentially our ‘mission’ is to deliver a message to our listeners based on the composer’s lyrics. We want to impart this message with feeling, dynamics, and emotion. We also want to articulate the words well, so that people will understand what we are saying and feel that we have touched their hearts and minds. Clarity, enunciation, and articulation are important.
Most singers are accompanied by instrumentalists – whether they are piano, guitar, organ, violins, brass, a complete orchestra, or other types of instruments. Together we must work as a team, blend, and share the same aims in producing a seamless and beautiful sound.
But what if one is louder than the other? We never, ever, want to have any singers blasting out their song from start to finish if the song we are singing does not call for that. Not if you want to permanently damage your voice. Neither do we want any instrument to overwhelm the singers so much that they cannot be heard and the words are completely drowned out. Unfortunately however, the latter happens many times.
Instruments are made of different types of materials, depending on what they are, and often these days, the volume can easily be turned up with the press of a key, button, knob twist, or flick. But singers use tiny and fragile vocal cords to produce sound. They are not made of metal, wood, or other durable substance. They are delicate, so if they suffer a serious injury they cannot be repaired or replaced and we ideally need to use them (yes, the very same ones) for a lifetime.
I have sung with brass, organ, guitar, and other types of instruments over the years and they do get loud! Often, during rehearsals, I did not ask for the microphone to be turned up for the singers because I did not want to be perceived as some sort of difficult diva or drama queen, or that I was competing against the instrumentalists but, let me tell you, that was a mistake! Pushing, straining, trying to outdo or compete with a blaring instrument doesn’t do your poor little vocal cords any good. Singers MUST ask for their microphones to be turned up if the instrumentalists are too loud. Alternatively, the instrumentalists must turn themselves down. Balance is the key.
As the singer, you must be heard and understood accurately and clearly. Your health and safety are also the priority. Otherwise, what is the point of singing at all if you are swamped, and no one can understand what you are saying?
In the normal flow of music the dynamics are what dictates when a song gets soft and loud. It helps the musicians to tell the story of the song. You’ll see markings on the sheet music like p (piano – softly), pp (pianissimo – very softly), mp (mezzopiano – moderately soft), mf (mezzoforte – moderately loud), f (forte – loudly), and ff (fortissimo – very loudly) and so on, as well as long hairpin markings < or > which means that singers/instruments gradually get louder (crescendo) or gradually get softer (decrescendo or diminuendo). Please, please observe these markings in your sheet music! If something is played or belted out loudly from start to finish, not only will you kill your voice, and instrumentalists will blast their singers out of the universe, but the listeners will not appreciate it.
It is like having a conversation with someone. If you are talking with a person, you would not consistently yell at the top of your lungs at them throughout your phrases and sentences. If you did that, the other person would be likely to get up and leave. Instead, you would use dynamics to speak softly and then louder, depending on the topic. You would take time to rest, pause, and be silent. You would give the other person a chance to respond. It is the same with music and singing. It is like a dance, or the waves of the ocean – a natural and balanced ebb and flow.
Don’t drown people in noise. If you are a church singer or instrumentalist especially, there is no need to force, belt, or push out the hymns – take it easy! You are potentially communicating to congregations of people who are seeking comfort, peace, consolation in grief, or a beautiful connection with God. They don’t want to be blown to the stratosphere!
So if you are a singer, take care of your voice and speak up if you feel that you are being overtaken by the instruments around you! Ask for your microphone to be turned up if the instruments are getting loud. If the singing and music does not need to be loud, then don’t do it! It must match the dynamics on the sheet music.
Instrumentalists – please be sensitive to the capabilities of the singers and their instrument – their vocal cords and body! If they cannot sing louder to match you it does not mean that they are weak. Get their microphones turned up or you must tone down! Again, observe the dynamic markings on the sheet music.
I know that this is a sensitive area to talk about with your band, choir, or other ensemble – I have felt that it is like walking on eggshells because you don’t want anyone to take it personally. But if you explain that it is because you don’t want to strain your voice, and phrase your request positively eg. “how about we try that a little more softly?” or “I feel that I need more microphone volume to match these beautiful instruments – let’s try it”, then that is what rehearsal is for.
The inspiration for my post this week was not just my personal experiences and observations as a singer and a listener, but also a great podcast episode by Freya Casey, professional singer and vocal coach. Check out her episode # 15 – Take the Strain Off Your Vocal Cords!
Whether you are a singer or an instrumentalist, constant loudness does not equal beauty and should definitely not be used to impress anyone. In fact, it is in the softness and rests of a song that we as singers, players, and listeners often find the true magic within our musical souls. If you are touched by what you hear, you can bet that your listeners will fall in love with the music too.
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