Over the past couple of weeks, I have been studying the singing of the great RnB artists, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Both these singers take a different approach to contemporary singing. Instead of forcing their voices and yelling, their signature sound is light! This got me to thinking about light singing… what insights have I gained about this as a singer and teacher of singing. Also, what do I think about light singing? Is it as soulful as the great power singers? In this blog post, I will describe five of my discoveries and then conclude by considering whether lighter or heavier singing is more soulful.
Light Singing is not high singing
Light singing is independent of pitch! That means skilful singers can choose to sing light regardless of where they are in their vocal range. They can also sing light on different vowel sounds. From a technical perspective, the light tone is created by how strongly the vocal folds are closed (adduction) and how long they are closed (closed quotient). Thus, in lighter singing, the vocal folds are not closed as strongly meaning there is less mass or vertical depth of vibration of the folds. Also, the shorter closed phase creates less resistance to the air, meaning the tone is breathier.
Light singing is Difficult
Beginning singers and listeners may think that light singing is easier, since the singer doesn’t seem to be exerting as much effort. However, this is a fallacy. Light singing is an advanced technique that requires a great deal of vocal control. Since light singing uses a lot more air, the singer needs to be especially good at regulating the air flow. On top of this, unless the vocal technique is strong, the the singer will not be able to sing light for any length of time without the throat muscles constricting.
Light singing is Desirable
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the ancient Italian school described the ideal vocal tone for classical singers as “chiaroscuro” (meaning light-dark). Every sung note was supposed to have a light edge (brilliance or ring) as well as a dark/rounded quality (richness). Although times have changed and vocal styles have evolved, the concept of vocal balance between both heavy and light mechanisms is still relevant. Some contemporary singers have a tendency to sing too heavy on their voice, thinking that heavy or effortful singing is what is needed to create a strong performance. However, excessively heavy singing presents vocal health risks. It also creates a tone that is pinched, brittle and lacking depth or sophistication. Training the voice with lighter singing styles can help singers achieve balance.
Training the voice for light singing
Insights I have gained about training lighter singing qualities into the voice are: to use closed vowels (for example, “ee” and “oo”) rather than more open vowels (for example, ‘ah” and “eh”). Also, faster moving scales and arpeggios rather than slower patterns seem to encourage a lighter quality in the voice. In the ancient Italian school, one exercise known as the “Messa di Voce” was considered the supreme test of any singer’s vocal ability. This exercise involves quietly singing a single pitch and then creating a swell by gradually increasing the dynamic and then decreasing again. To achieve evenness with this exercise requires a great deal of control.
Light Singing has Limitations
While light singing is desirable, it is not complete in itself and has some limitations. Light singing does not project easily, and contemporary singers who rely on light singing alone must use a microphone to ensure subtle nuances are heard. Also, since light singing requires a lot more air and muscular effort, a lot of light singing can lead to vocal fatigue and present vocal health problems.
Are light singers as soulful as power singers? This depends on how the listener defines soulful. In the hands of a strong performer, light singing can be emotionally strong. For example, in the world of music theatre and cabaret performing, I have seem some incredibly moving performances that use light singing. In RnB singing, lighter singing allows the voice to be more agile, meaning the singer can perform stylistic riffs, runs, melismas that communicate soulfulness. However, both light and heavy singing have their inherent strengths and weaknesses and to rely on one mode of vocal production alone will mean that a singer’s performance will also be limited. More impressive are singers such as Aretha Franklin, Smokie Norful, Pattie LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles,Beyonce and Freddie Mercury. All these are able to combine both light and heavier singing techniques to create a rich colour palette of vocal tone. Vocal balance is the key to truly soulful performances.