Greg A'd me something
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Can I please kiss you on the face.
The truth is that I have struggled with my voice. Endlessly. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t have a whole lot of technique or talent, so I leaned on gumption and will. I growled. I howled. I bellowed.
Have a look at this clip of us performing on a workshop stage at Calgary Folk Fest back in 2012.
In this clip, I’m singing entirely from my belly, through the back of my mouth, to the detriment of pitch, tone and my throat’s wear & tear. Probably because I overheard someone talk about using your diaphragm at one point and I figured that’s probably somewhere down near your belly. I’m also hunched over, which isn’t great.
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For years, I struggled especially with pitch. At the root, I was singing too loudly. I always felt like I couldn’t hear the pitch because my fallback monitor “wasn’t loud enough”, and thus, I’d sing louder and louder to try and hear myself. But, of course, several elements were at play in this fool’s feedback loop:
A microphone can only capture so much information. When you jam too much information through the device, it has to naturally condense it into a simpler signal to carry it through. More becomes less. As I increased my vocal output, the volume may have increased, but the tonal quality of my voice coming back at me would get increasingly thinner.
As I endeavoured to push infinite volume out of my cake hole, my ears couldn’t hear properly because my entire face and jaw were too tense. How could I receive quality tonal input to my ears when my whole apparatus was exhausting itself trying to output?
A few things helped me break this cycle:
I started working with producer Drew Brown on More or Less. He kept telling me that he enjoyed my voice most when it was just louder than a whisper. Every time I’d start to bellow in the studio, he’d calm me down and ask me to try again, but softer. Then I’d go into the control room and listen back and think, “Wow. I’ve never heard my voice sound so rich and full of tone. And on pitch.”
I was diagnosed with silent reflux as well as TMJ. I’m also just getting older and I can’t rely on abusing my voice without consequence anymore. All of this resulted in a lot of changes to my diet and eating/exercise habits, as well as many appointments with practitioners like ENTs, speech pathologists, physiotherapists, nutritionists, naturopaths, and singing coaches.
I tend to engage a different “resonator” when I sing now - using my soft palate, or “light voice” at the top of my mouth. I only sort of understand what any of these terms mean so I’m probably mixing them up. I ensure that my knees are bent, and that my shoulders are loose. My breathing is considered and properly engages my diaphragm. Even though I still have moments in a show where I really “go for it”, I have generally found power and respite in softness.
One time, Don Kerr said to me something along the lines of, “When you get on stage, the song itself is doing 90% of the heavy lifting. All you have to do is carry it over the finish line. Trust the song.” - this was absolutely huge. If I can trust that a song is great, then I don’t have to kill myself trying to give the audience the hard sell. And with that came the hard realization that selling the song is exactly what I’d been doing all those years.
I essentially had to re-learn to sing. Posture. Breath. Approach. It’s all so crucial. It’s a process, and I am not quite where I’d like to be, but I do feel that I’ve come a long way.
For most of my life, I felt like my voice was a hurdle to surpass. I knew how to write songs and perform, but I didn’t really know how to sing. It was a problematic part of my life. I felt like some people had a god-given vocal talent that I lacked, but that I could make up the difference with effort. I figured that I could make it work in spite of myself.
In time, I’ve learned to be thankful for my voice. It’s given me a life in music. It literally pays for my family’s groceries. And, of course - when it’s working well, it does bring me a great deal of joy. Though it hasn’t been an easy journey, I’ve learned to appreciate it for the crackly fragile thing that it is. I try to approach singing now with gratitude rather than spite.
And now to answer your question, Greg: no, sorry, I don’t have perfect pitch. That would be nice :)