I call them fringe techniques even though you hear them all the time. The raspiness in a sentimental pop ballad; the breathiness of a Norah Jones standard; straight tones; falsettos; scream-singing; note sliding; throw a stone at a top 40 chart, and you’ll be certain to land on a song that uses one of these tools for emphasis. But I call them fringe techniques because most voice teachers don’t consider them relevant techniques at all.
Since I began teaching, I’ve gotten questions like, “how do I get that break in my voice, like Dido in ‘Thank You?'” or “how do I make my voice sound tired and raspy without harming my voice, the way Pink does?” or “how do I sing falsetto like Coldplay?” At first, those questions would make me fidgety, and I’d cop-out to them the way my voice teachers used to cop-out to me: “You have to learn the rules before breaking them, and airiness and gruffness are against the rules.”
Let me qualify a few things before continuing: I agree with the above statement to an extent, but my singing rules are somewhat looser than those of other teachers (or mine when I began teaching). For instance, being able to match pitch is an example of one of my rules. There’s no way around it. If you’re really into the Bob Dylan sound, you’re going to have to prove to me that you can directly hit some notes before swooning willy-nilly into them. Singing with constant vibrato, however, is not a rule in my book, just one technique possibility among many other technique possibilities.
Perhaps the most frustrating cop-out I’ve heard, which I used to use on students all the time was, “Just learn the technique, put emotion into it, and all that stuff will come naturally.” It’s an enticing idea, but if you stop to think about it for half a second, it’s crazy. Emotion is enough to put a rasp into your voice? To give you airiness? Sure, emotion might get you a little closer, and you certainly don’t want those sounds to seem over-rehearsed or outright copied, but come on! Opera singers sing with emotion, and they don’t “naturally” rasp. They aren’t airy. If emotion were all it took, you’d go to the Met and hear Pink’s raspy sound mixed into Aida’s dying duet. No, that rasp is an actual technique that you can learn and incorporate into your music to color your tones at will.
I think this shying away from fringe techniques is mostly done out of fear and uncertainty. Some (but not all) of these techniques should be used with caution and moderation. Eating a double-double three times a day will eventually get you sick. Eating a double-double once a week will likely do nothing to your health. Vocal pedagogy is notorious for its superstitions, and errs on the side of complete eradication of techniques which, in huge quantities, may or may not cause harm to your voice. I say ‘may or may not,’ because there are so few well-constructed studies on the subject.
In the coming months, I’ll go over some of these fringe techniques, who uses them, and how to make them work for you.