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.

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