Vocal Signature by Dr Daniel K. Robinson

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These days I’m not much of a ‘doodler’. I don’t find myself doodling random patterns and sketches on pieces of paper while taking lecture notes or sitting through meetings; but this has not always been the case. I can remember that during my late primary and early high school years I passed many an hour in class (to my detriment) scribbling simple designs and decorations across countless pages.

One recurring doodle that occupied my time was the development of my written signature. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s signatures. Some people content themselves with a cursive version of their name in block text, but I love those signatures that seem to express the personality of their namesake. Whether it is through flowing lines or expansive pen stroke, signatures offer individual distinction to the point that we use them to identify ourselves on certificates, contracts and credit cards. Our vocal signature is no different to that of the written kind.

Vocal signatures identify us, allowing us to be singled out and heard as a distinct sound. It’s not hard to think of distinguished voices such as Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Sting and Adele because their voices hold a certain sound in our ear’s memory. For each of these well-known singers (and countless others) their voices have particular qualities, good and bad, that allow us to hear them on the radio and immediately know who the artist is. One of the many challenges facing young singers is the temptation to emulate their favourite artist.

It’s not uncommon for new students of voice to express a desire to establish their own sound; often commenting that they feel their sound is ‘ordinary’ and lacking a desired ‘uniqueness’. So how do we develop a vocal signature that is unique? Here are a few tips to help you develop a vocal signature which others can identify as your unique sound:

  1. No More ‘Sing-a-longs’: It’s all too easy (and fun) to sing-a-long to your favourite artist, but when it comes to practicing your vocals and learning new repertoire, it’s important to remove the ‘guide vocal’ (generally the covering artist) and work with either a backing track or live accompaniment. Why? When we practice along with the artist the temptation is too great to ‘copy’ the sounds of the lead vocal. You then run the risk of emulating their phrasing and vocal effects. Of course, in some cases this might be helpful (e.g. if you are performing in a tribute band), but if you are eager to develop your own vocal signature then approach the song as a clean canvas waiting for your individual brushstroke.
  2. Experiment with Phrasing: It has been said that that which separates amateur singers from the professional vocalist is phrasing. Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.37.24 pm
  3. Learning to ‘feel’ the time takes time (excuse the pun). Try singing through the song that you are working on and move the phrasing around; i.e. extend some phrases (by holding on to vowels) and cut other phrases short (by singing the consonant earlier than usual). The key here is ‘experimentation’. Try different things and allow the ‘feel’ of the song to direct you.
  4. Use Different Colours: The use of colour (resonance) and contrast when singing can completely change a song. One singer might choose to colour a song using bright tones while another might employ rich timbres. Again experimentation is vital. Some singers become known for their colouring. For example Michael Bublé is known for his rich baritone colours while Karen Carpenter was celebrated for her clean tones.
  5. Employ Vocal Effects: The use of vocal effects, such as breathy sound (aspiration), vocal distortion, or glottal strokes are helpful tools for distinguishing one artist from another. When used expertly vocal effects build nuance into your vocal performance and further enhance your unique phrasing.

Taking the time to develop a vocal signature is well worth the effort. Where possible I encourage you to establish a recognisable sound that is healthy and sustainable. All too often I work with singers whose vocal signature (the sound they have established their career on) is unhealthy and unsustainable. It’s very hard to completely change your vocal signature once your performance career has commenced. If your vocal signature is laced with detrimental habits that wear and tear at your vocal health then a troublesome pathway may await you.

This being said, regardless of where you are in the development of your vocal signature, the important thing is to keep doodling. My written signature is quite different today when compared with the scrawling’s of my grade-nine self. So too with my voice. Allow your vocal signature to morph as you mature vocally. Remember the aim is to establish a unique and memorable vocal signature.

A link to the original article (and many more that delve deeper into the world of vocal care) can be found here, courtesy of Dr.Dan: http://www.djarts.com.au/articles/vocal-signature/

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