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Voice Affectation: When is it too much?

Have you ever heard, or yourself been, a singer that you know is trying too hard? As singers, we can easily fall into the trap of overdoing a certain style choice that we deem desirable, or that is widely popular at the time. For instance, a singer having a consistently breathy tone, always doing runs, “knurdling” for a classical effect, or overusing vocal fry.

These style choices, when used in moderation, can be tasteful, intuitive, and show supreme musicianship, however when they are overused they may become predictable, uninteresting and in some cases displeasing to the listener. Personally, I never understood the old adage, “You can never have too much of a good thing.”

That is simply untrue! One can have too much ice cream, too much sunlight, too many hours watching television, or too much traveling. Likewise, a singer can have an excessive amount of style within the course of a song. Sometimes the listener desires a reprieve, where they can hear the human voice, simply unaffected.

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However, there are always the exceptions! Some of the most successful iconic singers consistently over-affect their voice, and it has become a part of their unmistakable sound. Some famous examples include singers such as Celine Dion, who has made a career with her unique voice, which often includes a slight knurdle, or over-squeezing of her vocal cords and Britney Spears, who employs vocal fry in most every song that she sings.

You may also be the exception, where you have found that a certain consistent style choice actually improves your overall delivery and enhances your listener’s experience. Yet, if that is not the case, I will briefly discuss some practical ways that you can incorporate style, while not overloading your listeners.

First, focus inward in and identify your particular style tendencies so you that gain awareness of your own voice. Start to ask yourself some hard questions… Do I consistently sing with a breathy tone? Am I tirelessly using the same inflections in my singing patterns? Am I overusing vibrato? Is my sound always loud and powerful, or am I able to be soft and vulnerable?

Once you begin to explore and be honest about your own voice you will be more able to confront any excessive style choices and return to a more organic sound. Next, try recording yourself. When you sing a song and listen to the playback do your style choices seem natural, or forced and contrived?

Once you have identified and analyzed your specific style tendencies, then remain mindful of how you are incorporating them into your songs.

Lastly, in order to return to a more believable sound, try speaking the lyrics to your song. Talk through your song, and then slowly add pitches in order to closely mirror your speaking voice to that of your singing. Essentially, singing is speaking on pitch.

Thus, the singing of your song should always exist to tell a story or relay an emotion, and your style choices should simply be an extension of that function. However, often times, we can let pride sneak in and we will try to use vocal acrobats to show off our voices, rather than singing for the song itself.

Remember, the song is the message, and you are the messenger. While your unique style and delivery is essential to an honest performance, your ability to be yourself and not over-stylize can serve to set you apart.

What is Voice Affectation?

Have you ever heard (or been) that singer who is trying too hard? As singers, we can easily fall into the trap of overdoing a certain artistic choice that we deem desirable or that is widely popular at the time. For instance, a singer has a consistently breathy tone, fake accents and dialects, quirky pronunciation, always doing runs, “knurdling” for a classical effect, or ‘arguably’ the most common which is overusing vocal fry.

Let’s get precise with Merriam-Webster’s definition of :

AFFECTATION

af·​fec·​ta·​tion ˌa-ˌfek-ˈtā-shən: 

speech or conduct not natural to oneself : an unnatural form of behavior meant especially to impress others for example:

“His French accent is just an affectation.”

Also, realize that affectation often defines your voice, your personality and is part of American life, or any other country with as much diversity as the ol’ USA.

If you’re pursuing a career in commercial (pop, rock, R&B, etc.) music, you have to find a tasteful, competent, educated approach to making interesting sounds. Each example I share below will help you identify voices that appeal to your sense of style.

The following is a list of the most common affectations.

Vocal Fry

Presenting Kim Kardashian: queen of vocal fry. She single-handedly young women to idolize her vocal fry. Even motivational female speakers have somehow gotten roped into this.

Impressional young women and young men

I mentioned women first because societal pressure to use vocal fry to imitate societal icons, whether in music or speech, is predominantly in young women. Perhaps this is also due do to fry’s potentially seductive, cute or winsome sound. Women use less in their older years, which I’ll explain later.

Young men might use vocal fry musically or when speaking in a lower register to sound harsh. Older men often talk in complete vocal fry as they speak in a lower pitch to command more attention and sound more authoritative. But typically, old people tend towards speaking plainly, which is a breath of fresh air, because of the honesty.

To be sure, many young women I’ve coached have subconsciously taken Kim’s vocal fry as the foundation for all their speech patterns. And…. they notice immediately as they receive more attention from ‘the boys in school. 🙄 🤦

How vocal fry is created

Vocal fry, or a “creaky voice,” is part of many people’s everyday speech patterns and part of almost any conversation. It’s primarily associated with young people, particularly young women, and speech pathologists have many theories about how this raspy voice became so popular.

In music, it’s become a famous vocal ‘trick.’ Vocal fry or creaky voice is produced from the lowest register of the human voice, below the “normal voice” that people speak with, and the distinctive sound is a result of insufficient air passing through the vocal cords

It’s important to note that vocal fry is applied to the singing voice, as well as the speaking voice, for these three purposes:

  • Developmental– reduces tension on the cords to allow range extension, as well as stronger connection from chest to mixed voice and into head voice.

  • Therapeutic– reducing tension will also reduce inflammation on a lousy voice day.

  • Stylistic– the creaky voice of fry gives you an array of emotions on every note.

The Looney Toons or Bugs Bunny character “Elmer Fudd” was the most vocal fry dominant vocal quality in any entertainment character. Check out his short clip below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZeqL0CUvjY

stylistic uses and abuses of vocal fry

Part of using vocal fry in phrasing is understanding that we already use it. Little toddlers often use their creaky voices when they wake up in the middle of the night, asking for a drink of water. Every note is vocal fry. Later we’ll discuss the intuitive wisdom of vocal fry in the morning vocal quality.

When we use vocal fry at the bottom note of a phrase, it’s like laying a foundation for the rest of the voice.

Ending a musical phrase with vocal fry is far more uncommon but can make you sound far more commercial or pop in your approach.

This sound also emphasizes certain words to reflect multiple possible emotions, including vulnerability, seduction, tiredness or sleepy, cool or relaxed voice, anger, love or romance and humor (subtle vocal fry laugh in song or conversation can be winsome).

Some of the artists who’ve used vocal fry masterfully are:

  • Shania Twain- “The Woman in Me”

  • Tim McGraw- “It’s Your Love”

  • Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) -“Pink”

  • Bono (U2)- “Running to Stand Still”

  • Brooke Fraser- “The Thief” (also listed in breathy singing)

  • Tess Manning- “Enough For You”

  • Gary Allan- “The Best I Ever Had.” This might be construed as an overuse of vocal fry since its used in nearly every sentence. Sometimes on every word of the entire sentence. But when you hear the rest of Gary’s music, it’s apparent that he uses vocal fry all the time. Or we might say vocal fry uses him. Not trying to be cute here, but think how a dominant vocal fry, breathy voice quality, nasal quality, de-nasal quality or any other approach can tend to force a singer’s hand. They deal with the tones they’ve been dealt.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4Hk6qDgQjA [please embed]

Breathy Singing

Breathy singing occurs when the tone quality is more dominated by air flow and weak cord closure. As we’ll mention later, this can be injurious to singers. This airy or breathy tone is opposite to a squeezed, compressed or edgy sound. All these are balanced with a normal, clear and relaxed tone.

Breathy singing produces a very commercial voice. This is due to something I teach my singers called 10k Frequency. Be sure to catch my Instagram and YouTube Shorts explaining this more throughly.

Noticeable breathy voices include: Sarah McLachlan, Ellie Goulding, Brook Fraser (“The Thief” is a masterclass), Mariah Cary, Smoky Robinson, Brian McKnight (“Still in Love”).

Tasteful breathy singing

Breathy tones should rarely be done on every note. And, if it sounds like you’re running out of air or you sound fake, you’ll be guilty of tasteless affectation. Women can usually get away with more breathy singing, because women often talk breathy. Think Marilyn Monroe.

When breathy singing punishes the Vocal folds

The further you get away from a clear tone and the closer you get to a whisper, the more torque you’ll be dishing out to the surface of your vocal folds. Research by ENT’s (throat doctors) have seen scar tissue from the overuse of breathy singing. Meaning that you may need medical treatment to fix self-inflicted vocal problems.

Eventually, it will be hard to get cord closure and your tone will be one dimensional.

An educated and competent vocal coach can gage the balance between healthy and gutsy singing.

Edgy Singing

Many coaches and choir directors have feared this coordination. Understandably so. Over compressed cords can lead to serious vocal fatigue. But singing directly on the inner edges of the vocal folds isn’t much different from talking like a valley girl. You just need to be sure to find a healthy balance between breathy and edgy singing.

Edgy singing can be extremely exciting and produce overtones that are ear grabbing. Whenever there’s a language change or adaptation, you pick up—in most every language—speakers have a different manner of how much or how little air they use on certain words.

Speakers who have long, run on sentences must employ an edge so they can keep from a pause in their delivery, in order to get their idea across, without being interrupted. Like I just did now. 😉

Noticeable ‘edgy’ singers include: Bono (U2), Jimmy Gnecco (ours), Deborah Cox, Mariah Carey (her tonal diversity is one thing she has over most singers), Brett Manning (‘September’…oh wait, that’s me) 😎

Nasal Voice Quality

The nasal tone is produced when the soft palate drops, causing the tone to come through your nostrils. It can be heard in Broadway and musical theater performances to add personality to a character’s singing, however it can easily be overused and people tend to find it abrasive.

Nasal coordinations, in the pharyngeal voice, can help restore broken voices. Also the pharyngeal, though bright, doesn’t necessarily have to be excessively nasal.

As the listener, you get to decide between interesting and overused or affected singers.

Noticeable singers who artistically color their voices with nasality include: Celine Dion (often charming and even used in pharyngeal voice to find mix), Willie Nelson

De-nasal Voice Quality

This quality is like Rocky’s “yo Adrian” or when you hear a valley girl speak all the time like her nose is plugged. There’s a charm to this, until…. you do it on every note. Also, research warns of an overweighted voice, because the lack of nasality causes the voice to work too hard.

Young people have adopted this tone partly out of the loss of ear development to hear other resonance structure. This is almost a rebellion against the excesses of nasality. Society norms (throughout the world and in most every language) shift every decade or so.

Noticeable singers (mostly women) with de-nasal sounding voices are: Britney Spears, Tate McRae, Lennon Stella, Elvis Presley, and Jimmy Gnecco (particularly the chorus in “These are My Hands”).

Fake Accents and Dialects

We see through country singers trying to convince listeners that they’re from the Deep South. Your voice has to slowly adapt to the culture you surround yourself with.

Equally ridiculous is when so many singers attempt to sing the same way as Adele, not realizing her pronunciation is distinctly ‘new’ British.

The goal is to be convincing. Trying too hard to be distinct brings on severe affectation and ironically you’ll be a copy cat.

The Light and Dark Side of Quirky Singing

When 2000-2010 featured rock singers placing arrrrrr in every word, like a pirate, when coffee shop singers turn their ‘R’s’ into W’s, and when singers become a caricature of the singer they admire, it’s too much. Some call this bizarre approach “singing in cursive.”

The light side is that, with enough influences, throughout several decades, who won’t be accused of being a caricature of some other sing.

Does Affectation Damage Your Vocal Cords?

Yes and no — vocal fry isn’t damaging to your voice, but research shows that breathy singing could potentially lead to damage over time. Also too much habitual fry can diminish overall vocal ability.
Make sure you work with a vocal coach to ensure that you’re using the proper techniques and not potentially harming your voice long-term.

How to Know When Too Much is Too Much

These style choices, when used in moderation, can be tasteful, intuitive, and show supreme musicianship, however when they are overused they may become predictable, uninteresting and in some cases displeasing to the listener. Personally, I never understood the old adage, “You can never have too much of a good thing.”

That is simply untrue!

One can have too much ice cream, too much sunlight, too many hours watching television, or too much traveling. Likewise, a singer can have an excessive amount of stylistic tricks within the course of a song. Sometimes the listener desires a reprieve, where they can hear the human voice, simply unaffected.

However, there are always the exceptions! Some of the most successful, iconic singers consistently over-affect their voice, and it has become a part of their unmistakable tone. Some famous examples include singers such as Celine Dion, who has made a career with her unique voice, which often includes a slight knurdle, or over-squeezing of her vocal cords, and Britney Spears, who employs vocal fry in almost every song that she sings.

You may also be the exception, where you have found that a certain consistent interpretation choice actually improves your overall delivery and enhances your listener’s experience. Yet, if that is not the case, I will briefly discuss some practical ways that you can incorporate stylistic tricks, while not overloading your listeners.

Self-Awareness

First, focus inward in and identify your particular vocal style tendencies so you that gain awareness of your own voice. Start to ask yourself some hard questions…

  • Do I consistently sing with a creaky voice or a breathy tone?

  • Am I tirelessly using the same inflections in my singing patterns?

  • Am I overusing vibrato?

  • Is my voice always loud and powerful, or am I able to be soft and vulnerable?

Also, if you’re a job candidate for a music gig. An overtly breathy, quirky or creaky voice will reduce job prospects because you won’t be believable.

Listen In, Listen Back

Once you begin to explore and be honest about your voice, you’ll be more capable of confronting excessive stylistic choices and return to more organic singing. Next, try recording yourself. When you sing a song and listen to the playback, does your interpretation seem natural or forced and contrived?

Once you have identified and analyzed your specific stylistic tendencies, remain mindful of how you incorporate them into your songs.

Speak Before You Sing

Lastly, to return to believable singing, try speaking the lyrics to your song. Talk through your song, and then slowly add pitches to mirror your speaking voice to that of your singing closely. Essentially, singing is speaking on the pitch.

Thus, the singing of your song should always exist to tell a story or relay an emotion, and your style choices should be an extension of that function. However, oftentimes, we can let pride sneak in, and we will try to use vocal acrobats to show off our voices rather than singing for the song itself.

Remember–the song is the message, and you are the messenger. While your unique musicality and delivery are essential to an honest performance, your ability to be yourself and not over-stylize can serve to set you apart.

Schedule a one-on-one session with a Singing Success Vocal Coach; call or email us at:

615-866-1099

support@singingsuccess.com

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The 7 Deadly Sins Guaranteed to Destroy Your Voice

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