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The Myth of Louder Is Better

The Myth of Louder Is Better

Alicia Keys at Pavilhão Atlântico, Lisbon, Portugal, by José Goulão under CC BY-SA 2.0

The following was written by voice teacher and professional opera singer, Anne, who debunks the myth that louder is better.

A lot of us have been there. At least, I know that I have. Given the ungainly combination of short stature with a strong larynx, my biggest compliment on my voice when I was younger was “Such a big voice for such a small girl!” No one ever commented on the pitch, the tone, the quality. All I ever heard was “Such a big voice for such a small girl.”

Sometimes, we are impressed by things not because of their quality but because they take us by surprise. Even as an adult, I will still get the same comment. I have a resonant voice, like my grandmother who used to work the New York City switchboards in the 1920’s. It’s genetics. Resonant voice, by the way, was my grandmother’s way of saying that I was too loud. Back in elementary school I remember having an argument with a classmate. I told him that opera singers had to be good singers–he was adamant that all they had to be was loud. That’s it. Sing loudly and saunter on stage at the Metropolitan.

Of course, nothing is so simplistic. We understand, as adults, that in order to get onto the stage at the Metropolitan you need to be more than just loud. And frankly, you need to be more than just good. Believe me, I’ve walked out of enough auditions empty handed to know. But still, there is a slight persistence in that myth. Loud is powerful, loud is the big refrain after we have modulated so that everyone knows how serious we are. Loud is “Defying Gravity.” Loud is “Girl on Fire.” Loud is the last verse of “Stairway to Heaven.” But loud isn’t always good.

A sure-fire way to get a loud sound is to blow a bunch of air through your vocal folds. That doesn’t make much sense, so let’s go with an image. Imagine the state flag of California, with the bear just gently blowing in the breeze. Now imagine that the Santa Ana’s pick up, and that flag is being whipped about by the winds. It isn’t gently blowing. It is taunt and tight and struggling. And that is what blowing too much air through your vocal folds is like. It is like the Santa Ana’s trying to knock that poor bear off of his flag.

We all want to sound like Indina Menzel or Alicia Keys. We all want loud, powerful voices. And sometimes, in order to get those, we need to step back. We need to drop those Santa Ana force winds down to the light, steady breeze that keeps the bear up on the flag happy. When we do that, when we use less air and control what we do use better, our tone quality and our pitch almost always improve. But it is at a cost. Because until you relearn some technique, the volume of your voice will drop. And sometimes we shy away from that. After all, loud is good, right?

Louder isn’t always better. Sometimes we need to step back and allow ourselves to take that volume hit and bring our voices back to a more natural state. From there, we can build resonance, lift, and space, all things that will allow us to be louder in time. Singing takes time. Ask anyone who is on the stage of the Metropolitan. And sometimes you need to spend some time being softer.

Student Spotlight: Lily W.

Student Spotlight: Lily W.

This month we had the pleasure of interviewing a wonderful student I’ve had for many years, Lily, for our Student Spotlight. In fact, she’s been coming to lessons for so long that the last time we wrote about her was when she got cast as the lead in her junior high musical, Once on this Island, and now we’re writing about her again in her senior year of high school. Anyone who’s heard Lily at one of our recitals knows what a fantastic voice she has, but what most people don’t know is how intelligent, mature, and thoughtful she is. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that I’m working with a teenager, and I’ll talk to her as if she’s one of my adult friends. Full disclosure: her voice has gotten so good that I’ll occasionally sit back and accompany her during lessons with a lollipop in my mouth knowing full well that she’ll make it through the song without needing any corrections. For anyone who hasn’t gotten to hear her yet, here’s a clip of her singing “Rise Up,” by Andra Day at our last recital.

MM: How did you get started with music, and how long have you been singing and playing piano?

LW: I don’t even remember how I really got started with music, it was just something my mom threw me into when I was little. My first “production” (I guess you could call it that) was Beauty and the Beast when I was 4, and there were about 10 Belles because we all of course wanted to be the princess. After that I spent a few years in camps and productions at a local theater doing children’s musicals, until finally I came to Molly in sixth grade! All together, I think I’ve been singing and playing piano since I was 3 or 4!!

MM: Which do you like better, and why?

LW: I definitely like singing better, but I am so grateful for my knowledge with the piano because I can play and sing along with any song on my own whenever I need to. I enjoy singing more because I feel like it gives me more options and opportunity for my own expression through voice. It is so amazing to me that I could sing a popular song just as it was originally written, and I sound completely different from the artist. Vocal music gives me so much more range and room for improvement and interpretation, and building my own sound is something that I’ve striven for in my years of singing.

MM: Who are a few bands/artists who have inspired you, and why?  Desert island album?

LW: An artist that has inspired me since a young age is most definitely Kelly Clarkson. My mom and I would blast her album and belt our hearts out, and that’s where my passion for belting came from. In fact, the first song Molly and I ever did was “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, and I think we’ve done every single other Kelly Clarkson song since. Singing her songs, and failing at the high belts, gave me a goal and a real idea of what I wanted to sound like, and I now can proudly say that Molly has finally gotten me to a point where I can actually hit the belt notes! That was a proud moment for me after going to about 10 Kelly Clarkson concerts and never being able to make it through the whole song!!!

MM: So I know you maintain a busy profile on SoundCloud. How long have you been recording for that, and what made you decide to start? How often do you try to post a new song, and any new ones people could look forward to, if you’d share the link?

LW: I started posting on SoundCloud about 2 years ago now because it’s a place where I can share my music and the best versions of it, because I can record as many times as I need to get the song perfect. In the beginning, I posted almost weekly, and now I don’t record or post as often as I would like to, but I’m trying to get back to the microphone in the next few weeks. I try to cover songs that everyone knows and would really want to listen to, and usually I find those by getting suggestions from my friends or even trying softer piano covers of electro pop songs. My next songs I’m planning to try and record are “Rise Up” by Andra Day, “America’s Sweetheart” by Elle King, and “Lost Boy” by Ruth B. The link is https://soundcloud.com/lilyawoodall!

MM: How else do you like to share your music? We’ve seen you at plenty of our recitals – any favorite performances there or outside of us? What song was it, and why was it special? Do you still get nerves, and if so how have you learned to handle them? Any juicy stories about forgotten lyrics or sweaty hands?

LW: I would say my favorite performance to date is my first teen adult recital last year where I sang “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys and “Hometown Glory” by Adele. It was such a great venue and a really nice crowd, and I don’t think I have ever felt so comfortable in a performance before or since then. Still now, “Hometown Glory” is one of Molly and I’s favorite songs for my voice. This performance in particular was pretty special because I had just gotten my wisdom teeth out a week before, and I couldn’t even open my mouth all the way yet!! Nerves have never been a major problem for me, but I totally still get a little shake in my leg and shortness of breath right before I go on stage, but I feel like I always find my comfort in the first few lines of a song.

MM: Can you share about a technique, skill, or song you struggled with, and how you are overcoming or have overcome it?

LW: I get so so frustrated whenever I struggle with a high belt note or a run I can’t quite master, and Molly knows best the absolute determination that takes over for me to get it. I would say that I overcome these struggles just by pushing through and not letting myself get discouraged, because just because I can’t get a note on a certain day doesn’t mean it will never happen. Whenever I can’t get a belt that I know I’ve done before, I complain that “my belt has left me” but I know that it always comes back. I think the greatest we’ve ever struggled with a song was a few years back when I was trying to master “Girl On Fire” by Alicia Keys for a recital, but I kept getting tired and distorted after a few belt notes. I look back on that and see how frustrated and angry I was at myself and it’s funny because now I can sing that song effortlessly.

MM: What would you like to be doing with your music in the next five to ten years?

LW: I’m not planning on studying music in college, but it’s not something I would ever abandon. I’m really set on keeping my interest in music alive and continuing to sing whenever I can. A major thing I looked for in my college process was an all-access rule for non music major students to be able to use the music facilities at any time. I don’t know if I’ll still be doing music but it’s a passion that I never want to lose.

MM: I know college applications are coming up for you. Any thoughts on schools that interest you, or majors you’d like to study?

LW: I’m planning on studying political science and international affairs, and most of the schools that I have applied/am applying to are in the south. College is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, but I am 100% ready to get the stressful process over with and hear back from all my schools!

MM: What advice would you give to other students just starting out?

LW: Stick with it. I know the feeling when it seems like you just don’t have any time for that hour singing lesson, but I found singing to be a break and a sense of calmness for myself over the years of stress and schoolwork in high school. There’s always time for the things you care about, and singing lessons was something I chose to make time for and it’s been such a source of joy for me even now!!