All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: June 2022

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Vocal Benefits of Practicing Character Voices

Sounding crazy as this guy looks in vocal exercises? GOOD!

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There are some very strange vocal exercises that work wonders for the voice. In fact, if someone hears you doing these, they might wonder if you've gone a little nuts! Not to worry... that's a sign you're probably doing them right. 

Some of the funniest and very effective exercises I teach involve doing character voices. I find cartoon voices especially beneficial! Before we get into them, let's explore the how and the why.

How do we sound like someone else?

First of all, you have to know that we learn to make vocal sounds by listening to other voices. The vocal apparatus actually tries to configure itself to match the sounds of the voice it's listening to, for the purpose of being able to communicate well with the other person. That's how we learn language and songs in the first place, and why people in the same family tend to sound more alike. From the article titled "Are You A Good Mimic" in Frontiers in Psychology, 

Vocal imitation provides a basis for acquisition of both languages and musical systems.
The article also shares research that suggests there is some phonological filtering called 'interference' that makes it difficult to change the vocal choices and habits from our 'mother tongue' or dialect. However, we can ALL change our voices by making conscious choices to change the way we normally move parts of our vocal apparatus and configure our throat channels.  

Secondly, it's important to understand the difference between mimicking and imitating another voice. Award-winning voiceover artist Victoria DeAnda has an article where she explains that mimicking is just repeating what someone else says or sings, while imitating is repeating it the WAY the other voice talks or sings.

For the purposes of the vocal exercises I'm teaching you here, we want to IMITATE another voice, not just mimic it.

Why should you do exercises in character voices?

If you need to sound like someone else to do a sound-alike voiceover, to play a role in a production, or to authentically learn another language, you really have to dig into exactly how the voice you want to imitate is doing it. There is a great video on some specific movements to investigate called 'voice breakdown' from New York Vocal Coaching's speech coach (the good stuff starts at 2:06).

But for my purposes, I train voices to speak and sing from the fully optimized, warmed up and flexible vocal apparatus. So I use character voices to help expand the voice and give it options before that voice's authentic performance. I use at least 3 specific characters to open and tighten parts of the throat channel to limber everything up, expand & contract spaces, and smooth transitions... it's kind of like kneading bread dough.

OK, let's do some!

Let's choose our text. Speakers, just decide on a few lines of speech. You might even use a poem or lyric. Singers, choose a portion of a song. Notice that changing the way you move your eyes (raising or lowering an eyebrow), jaw (dropping, tightening, making a chewing motion), hands, and arms can help alter your sound. We literally call this facial and body language!

I'll start with a very short demonstration for speakers using this weird phrase: 
'In a distant galaxy, somewhere over the rainbow, way up high and far, far away.'
1. First just say it in your normal voice, noting how your voice feels and sounds.

2. Secondly, while sounding hooty, low, and dark, in a voice like Smoky the Bear, Cookie Monster or Bullwinkle. 

3. Third, say that phrase sounding like a munchkin, chipmunk, or like you've been breathing helium (NOT recommended, btw).  

4. Now go back and try to speak in the middle of those opposite tones, which will be more like your normal voice. Doesn't your voice feel good and sound a little more agile and interesting than the first time you said it?

Singers, do the same thing but pair the words with a melody.

For example, let's use
'you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey'.
1. First, sing it normally.

2. Second, sing it with a hooty tone like Smoky the Bear, Cookie Monster, or Bullwinkle

3. Third, sing it as if the treble is all the way up, like a munchkin or chipmunk.

4. And fourth, sing it with a tone that's in the middle of those voices, which should be close to your normal voice.

When you sing it that last time, does your voice feel easier and stretchier and sound more open, resonant, and interesting?

Now get creative!

Use any voice you can think of; try sounding like a chicken, a robot, a character from a movie like Ice Age or the Secret Life of Pets, or an alien in Star Wars or Men in Black. Try sounding like a kid or elder very different in age than you, try over-using a different accent or dialect than your normal one.

You can do this with any text or song. The results should not only warm your voice up nicely but also give you more vocal control and resonance. If you try this, do let me know how it works for you! Leave a comment here, or join the All Things Vocal Facebook group and comment there.

Also (if you haven't already) - signup for my 5-page report on vocal health, to protect your instrument so you CAN work on it with vocal exercises like this! You'll also get updates on new All Things Vocal posts, with free vocal training that can make all the difference.

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Monday, June 6, 2022

How I Lost My Voice (So You Don't Have To!)

Me, Jennifer O'Brien and Gary Pigg on the third day of our 40 song bgv marathon: 
Notice the jacket I'm wearing:)

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If you follow me or have taken a vocal lesson from me, you know that I specialize in preventing and getting rid of vocal strain or fatigue from overuse in singers and speakers. I believe (and still do) that we can use our voices as long as we want and not have vocal strain - IF and ONLY IF - we prepare ourselves and our voices for the performance we're about to do. OK now about that 'if'...

Recently I had a serious reality (humility) check when I sang 40 background vocals in 4 days without practicing what I preach - and temporarily lost my voice! 

Here's my cautionary story:

I was hired to be group leader/contractor, arranger, and singer on 40 background vocals in 4 consecutive days. I called Jennifer O'Brien and Gary Pigg who are veteran studio session singing friends of mine that sing with me like a well-oiled machine. I was extremely busy in the days before these sessions with producing the artist's lead vocals on those 40 songs, preparing the AFTRA contracts, printing out multiple copies of all lyrics, canceling all my vocal lessons for a couple of weeks and joining my session buddies doing Covid tests the night before our sessions started. First day went well, but long story short, at the end of the second day I started feeling a dreaded hot, scratchy feeling in my throat and the even more dreaded signs of vocal issues. I was losing my voice! It looked like I might be unable to sing the last 2 days! 

Factors that led up to my vocal problems:

  • The allergy levels in Nashville were up. Focusing on the arrangements and on singing with pitch accuracy, I began having to deal with an unusual level of phlegm in my voice. Without thinking I started clearing my throat too hard between recording takes. I got by with it the first day, but not the second.
  • The studio was cold and I didn't bring a jacket! I know to ALWAYS bring layers so I can wear what I need to based on the conditions in the vocal booth!
  • I didn't bring pineapple juice!! I only had water - which is important but not nearly as soothing to the throat as that juice. 
  • Unbelievably, (I am so embarrassed to admit this) I didn't warm my voice up! I was too busy with everything else and I guess my lizard brain's hubris was telling me I do exercises all the time, I would have no problems skipping them!
  • I went from zero to 90. I hadn't sung full voice for 6 hours straight in a long time! Now I had to do that 4 days in a row. WARNING: No matter how many vocal exercises you do, the voice is not able to suddenly perform full voice much longer and harder than it has been without experiencing negative consequences. 

This may surprise you (click to tweet):

You need both kinds of voice work - the exercises and the full voice performance. You should sing full voice at least 4 days before doing something important that you haven't been doing with your voice. This advice is in contrast to those who think vocal exercises should push the voice to fatigue or strain in order to strengthen the voice and be effective. But from my experience and that of my students: If your voice doesn't feel BETTER after doing vocal exercises, they are useless - and can even be harmful.

OK back to my story: I deserved the vocal strain. I absolutely did. I know better!

Here's how I was able to get my voice back and finish this vocal marathon:

  • First of all, towards the latter part of the session when I did notice my throat irritation and my voice going south, I started doing two things: 
    1. talking as little and as lightly as possible and 
    2. 'lifting my voice above the lava' as I sang. I used my pulling technique, very consciously dropping my jaw, using my eyes, and lifting my soft palate to avoid pushing my voice through phlegm. Doing these two things and drinking enough water, I was able to finish out the backgrounds for that second day. 
  • Next, as soon as I got home I used the kitchen sink approach - I did everything I could to fight any possible infection trying to take opportunistic hold in my swollen throat tissues. Please note that everyone's different. It's important to experiment (with a doctor's ok) with different immune strengthening, pathogen-fighting strategies to see what works best for you. Also, please check your pulse... you're human; sometimes nothing works, and you and I will have to get sick and heal. But my strategy included the following:
    • gargling with hydrogen peroxide, plus gargling with salt water 
    • taking a hot epsom salts bath to alkalize, detoxify and raise my temperature to an artificial fever. I bundled up and sweated it out as I drifted off to sleep, first saying a prayer that I didn't have covid or a blown vocal cord!
Do NOT soak in a hot bath if you have circulatory system issues or could be pregnant. In fact, run any prevention protocol you consider using by your doctor to make sure it's safe for you. 
If you suspect covid, get a test - and if positive, get to a doctor!
  • The next morning before leaving for the session, I drank my lemon juice and protein smoothie, took another warm bath, deeply breathing in the steam. Then I took some time to seriously warm my voice up with some careful, targeted vocal exercises, including a new one based on a scale my fellow coach Mark Thress had shared with me. At first, I had some glitches in my range, and using this new exercise with morphy slo-mo vowel modification I was able to stretch and smooth those areas out. I'm now using it with students who need more flexibility and help with vocal glitches, and it's really working! Here's a video demonstration I did for you.
  • So even this scary situation came with a silver lining. Oh, the research I do for you guys! I also worked my head voice up slowly and did staccato scales throughout my vocal range to pump interstitial fluid out of my puffy morning vocal folds.
  • I brought my jacket and had 2 six-packs of pineapple juice at the studio waiting for me and the other singers. All day long I limited my speaking, kept drinking the diluted pineapple juice, and used excellent vocal technique, lifting up and pulling notes into place as if from the sky. 

Bottom line - IT WORKED! 

  • Thankfully, my voice not only worked, it got better as that third day went on! My tone blended well and I had no vocal issues. The fourth day my voice felt pretty much like normal - and I found fresh faith in vocal techniques and strategies that work for serious performance. More importantly, our producer Paul Thomas and engineer Joe Carroll were thrilled with the results of our background vocals! I resolved to swallow my pride and share this as a cautionary tale with you:)


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