Thefollowing is an evaluation and critical investigation of my Specialistdiscipline practice (SDP), where I will consider the trials and accomplishmentsI came across throughout the process. The Voice and its identity is my focuswith a particular interest on how techniques can alter a vocal timbre andtherefore project a different identity on sound alone. This became my subjectof interest after analysing what challenges I faced as a performer within theMusical Theatre industry and my casting bracket. My voice, before the project,wasn’t necessarily weak but just confined to particular vocal styles which inturn limited my castability and this became the issue I wanted to solve. Thisfurther developed and I later wanted to challenge the identity of a classicalsinger which I had been associated with based on my vocal timbre and encouragean audience to think about what they might assume about a person based on whatthey hear. Considering this the critical questions I will discuss are: why dovoices have different vocal timbres? , can you remove perceived identity from avoice using enhanced vocal techniques? And does this expand castability? Toanswer these questions within my practice I adapted my vocals using varyingtechniques, applied them to four songs from varying castings that weren’ttypically appropriate for me, and attempted to meet the required stylisticvocal quality to see if it was possible to warp the identity of my voice. Eachsong was purposefully far removed from what I had previously used in myrepertoire, with some of them even being deemed by others as inappropriate tomy casting. However this was exactly my challenge.
Each song was from a variedcasting bracket; a male song, a song typically performed by an older female, asong typically performed by a woman of ethnic background, and a song of ethnicheritage. All of these I had been previously excluded from being cast intobecause not only did I not look the part but I ‘couldn’t’ sing it correctly. Ialso used a variety of sources to help answer the critical questions I exploredsuch as Dumbstruck: a cultural history ofventriloquism (Connors, 2000), TheMicropolitics of listening to vocal timbre (Eidsheim, 2014), and The Class and Colour of tone: An Essay on the social history of vocaltimbre (Olwage, 2004) Recreatingdifferent vocal timbres and even creating new ones comes with its challengesand limitations many of which I encountered. Within a vocal context, race inparticular was something I’d never really thought was important until Igradually uncovered more and more studies about the assumptions made on someone’srace based on their vocalic sound. Nina Eidsheim writes prominently about theperformativity of race within the voice. Her findings from a series of interviewsclearly indicate how many people identify someone based on what they hear,specifically when it comes to ethnic background with 11 out of 13 claimed to beable do this. (Eidsheim, 2014) Culturalfactors and physical differences had huge influence on the sounds producedparticularly when I investigated what creates a ‘black sounding vocal timbre’.The first notable factor which is entirely unalterable is the characteristicsof the larynx shape and layout of an ethnic background singer.
The makeup ofwhat constitutes a black larynx, although not heavily researched, is suggestedto typically, but not exclusively, be wider with thicker vocal folds.speakers from different racesmay have morphological differences in their vocal tract dimensions, and thesemorphological differences (especially volumetric differences) could bepartially responsible for the formant frequency differences in a vowel soundvoid of specific language/dialectal impacts. (Xue, Hao and Mayo, 2006)Thiswould naturally create a variation in vocal timbre which cannot be reproducedin a voice of white descent with a different laryngeal setup which meant thatfor me I could only obtain a timbre so close to the original.
However there maybe exceptions to this in others voices where particular laryngeal setups arecloser and therefore more replicable. Recreatingan African American timbre also became dependant on understanding the culturalbackground of particular genres of music. I ran into problems when choosingmaterial, caused by differences in what should be defined as black music. Ioriginally wanted something that was gospel and had only historically been sungby a black woman but then I uncovered more and more songs from musicals thatalthough had always been sung by black women weren’t within that gospel genreor on the opposing side were gospel in style but hadn’t always been sung bysomeone of that particular ethnicity but ultimately had strong links to blackheritage.
This led me to using two songs to explore an ethnic vocal timbre. Thefirst, Here’s where I Stand (Taylor,2003),hadn’t always been sung by an ethnic background singer but was very prominentlywritten in the gospel style and required the characteristic of that genre tosing it correctly. Your Daddy’s Son (Mcdonald,1990), the second of the two, is from Ragtime, a musical written aboutblack culture and heritage and always sung by a black character in the contextof the show, but stylistically more classical. This song suited me vocallyhowever I had never considered it as a piece of repertoire because of thehistorical context behind it whereas the Former required much more work tosing. Uncovering these significant differences was quite thought provoking andreally made me consider what does constitute a black voice.
It’s notnecessarily the vocal timbre and even when researching how to sing gospel Ifound no set technique, in fact a lot of discussions focused on the historicalcontext of how gospel came to be. Many said that gospel singing is learnt fromattending gospel churches and from mimicking what is heard. Gospel derived fromAfrican American spirituals which were learnt without specific techniques andwere culturally sung by slaves in the mid-late 19th century (Vocalsingingtips.
com,n.d.) andto this day many soul singers will state their influences and style comes fromthem attending church and listening to or mimicking other gospel singers.
Partof the argument seemed to be that white people simply can’t sing gospel thesame because they don’t understand and connect with the heritage. ‘I refuse to identify them as soulsingers or R&B singers because they don’t have the cultural connectionblack people do to said genres of music. Most of them didn’t grow up ina black church.’ (Collazo, 2016). Iunderstood within my project that I couldn’t claim to be connected with therich historical background of the genre, however that wasn’t the basis for myresearch and therefore I continued researching what constituted an AfricanAmerican sounding voice. As I explored further I found similar notions aboutunderstanding the music but these didn’t require the historical context butmore accessibly ideas of simply feeling and expressing what you sing to achievethe required sound. ‘It’s not enough to justsing the words as a story must be told to really capture the listener’simagination.
‘ (Vocalsingingtips.com, n.d.) thisis where I made the decision to perform my songs fully even though I wasfocusing on my voice because I wanted to be able to fully apply expression intoall of them and I found this really did help enhance the vocals.
Incontrast, Your Daddy’s Son (Mcdonald,1990) reallyproved that you don’t necessarily have to be of one particular background to beable to technically sing a song. My voice was well suited to this song andalthough I would never be cast as the role because of my appearance, in termsof vocal timbre this does not apply. Similarly it suggests the reverse of this;you don’t have to be of a specific appearance to sing classically because thissong is classical in style but written for a black character, despite the whiteEuropean history behind classical more legit singing. In fact historically ithas been found that black sounds were previously frowned upon and in theVictorian era many African singers were ‘reformed to sound more ‘bourgeois’ asOlwage finds: ‘so, as it is attempted to refashion identity at the mostfundamental level, that of the body, voice culture provided not just anargument for, but powerfully performed the erasure of difference’ (Olwage,2004).The clearly shows, not only the historical identification of race throughvoice, but that vocal techniques were previously used to achieve the reverseresult of what I attempted- to make ethnic voices sound more white. Themost crucial difference I came across that could separate vocal timbres by racewas differences in the pronunciation and placement of sounds. This was the onethat I could perhaps use influence from the most to change the timbre of myvoice.
I uncovered a whole range ofdiffering dialects and vowel placements which changed the way I sung such asrounded vowels with a forward and down placement (Simms, 2013) and these took much moreeffect in creating a new vocal timbre. It would be incorrect to say that Isounded African American because of physical differences mentioned previouslyhowever a parallel sounding timbre was created that was new and different toany I’d been able to perform before. Furthermore it can be used to expand myversatility and casting in the future because I now understand that gospelstyle singing isn’t exclusively African American, but I should appreciate theculture behind it. Genderwithin voices experiences much of the same issues as race but within acompletely different context. Physically the female voice is higher because thevocal tract is overall smaller than that of a male (Zerffi, n.
d.),but there are many more ways in which this can be altered unlike that of racialdifferences. There are also still exclusions to this rule however. Even Inpopular music there are clear examples of singers who are often mistaken forthe opposite sex based on how they sound, such as Tracy Chapman who is knownfor her lower pitched voice which is commonly mistaken to be male. Thereasoning I found behind why there is more ambiguity between male and femalesounded voices is because of the pitches and vocal registers found withinvoices. There have always been overlap’s between difference registers such assoprano and alto and vocal techniques such as lowering the larynx make changesto the vocal timbre which creates more similarities. This particular vocaltimbre created the most changes in my voice which added versatility because Iuncovered entirely new ranges in my voice and reached notes I never knew I couldhit.
The song I chose was purposefully rocky and therefore I performed in yetanother new style and instead of simply altering the key to sit comfortably inmy voice I kept it as low as possible to keep with the lower registers of amale voice. The result was that the song only moved up the most minimal amountof 1 semitone, and was still in considered to be fully in a male register. Ifound a new laryngeal setup with a varied tongue placement that allowed me toaccess my belt range much more easily and seamlessly connect it with othersetups within my voice. The main issue I encountered with this part of theproject was the social implications behind it.
It became hard to explain why Iwanted to sing a male song and sound like a man, because people didn’t think itwas possible. People thought that because I was female I could never sing amale song, and whilst in part they are correct – I would never be cast in amale role- this does not mean that I can’t and shouldn’t sound like a male. Ithighlights the exact issues I was trying to address that perhaps become clearerwhen you consider Queer Theory. Queertheory addresses the need not to be categorised, most commonly within gender (Jagose,1996) It embodies the notion that gender is performed, and following this whyshould someone’s biological identity dictate their vocal identity? Ethically speaking,I should be able to perform whichever songs I wish, however the transactionbetween what I sing and what people expect to hear seemed to restrict this. Readerresponse theories investigate the exchange between text and the reader and in asense this also applies to what we hear. My voice comes and goes. For you, it comesfrom me. For me, it goes out from me.
Between this coming from and going towardslie all the problems and astonishments of the dissociated voice. (Connors,2000)Listenersexpect and almost want to hear particular vocal timbres performing certaingenres of music, perhaps because within society that is the norm- what we aretrained to hear? When people don’t hear what they expect to hear from aperformer it, from my experience, made them uncomfortable to think that I didn’tsound how they expected, and that my perceived identity was in fact beingwarped through the use of my voice. Maybe the way to think about this is thatthe voice although, as Connors writes, it comes from us, it is not part of ourbody. It is separate once the sound comes away from us and into a space andtherefore can assume an identity of its own. The counterproductive side of itis that the way I look will still always restrict how I am cast even if myvoice is capable of more, however the results of project do continue to raisequestions both ethically and culturally about if this should be the case andperhaps shows such as Hamilton (Miranda, 2015) with its colour blind castingand purposeful ethnic reversals, and Miscast (MCC Theater,2016), the gender bending cabaret show could helpchange this within the musical theatre industry.In conclusion, is it very clear thatvoices do have different timbre and that these are recognised by society moreoften than we realise.
It raises many more ethical and cultural questionsbecause of the issues I faced in trying to change the identity of my voice, andalthough I did warp the identity of my voice it wasn’t entirely changeablebecause of physiological restrictions. Techniques can change the timbre butthey can only add so much versatility however these techniques can be appliedto help expand castability within reason. I may never be cast in an ethnic rolebut knowing that stylistically that type of vocals can be applied to othersongs will definitely help me be more versatile within the musical theatreindustry. I feel my project was quite successful in proving that I’m not just aclassical singer and that vocal timbre shouldn’t be so restricting for casting.Bibliography Collazo, R. (2016). Why Non-BlackPeople Can’t Be “Soul Singers” – Affinity Magazine.
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