Changing Your Voice part 4 – Creating A Character

Changing Your Voice part 4: Creating a Character

Though this might look like a topic for actors and musical theatre types only (dahlings), any time you sing for an audience or in a particular context you will be creating a character to suit, even if this character is simply a stylised version of yourself with particular aspects emphasised. If this sounds fake or dumbing down, think of it in the same way a professional photographer sharpens up or modifies an image in order to make it more eye catching or to better convey the intended message.

Developing a character voice, whether as a main performance persona or for a particular role or project, involves a constant cycle of experimentation, critical evaluation, research and practice to get the sound closest as possible to the one you want. You will need to be willing to take direction when working with producers, directors and other musicians (nobody likes a prima donna) but learn to find the right balance between developing your own voice unique to you and being prepared to work on and change anything necessary for the task at hand.

This is a big, big topic that demands further research if you’re serious about performing. I’ll recommend some reading at the end of this article for those who like learning the old fashioned way, but for now, here’s a few points to get you started.

When developing a voice for a specific character, you will need to start with three things; what you want the audience to feel about them, how they will most commonly express themselves and why their voice is the way it is. Then you can use all technical understanding you’ve developed (these articles are a starting point) to actually realise that voice and get into character. Some of the main things to consider;

Pitch And Timbre

Pitch in this context has to do with the register the character most comfortable speaking in (this will also be the foundation of their singing style). Choose a range of about an octave to act as a main focus – you can still sing with your full range either side if the song calls for it, but having a ‘home’ point is important to help define the character.

Operatic roles would classically cast vocal ranges according to the character being portrayed – the villain would sing bass and the hero tenor, for example. We have come a long way since then in terms of fleshing out characters, but the rough idea of lower voices being more sinister and threatening and higher voices more innocent remains (the exception being roles such as Mozart’s Queen Of The Night, which uses high soprano notes to add force to a vengeful and ruthless female character). In rock and pop terms, lower voices are commonly used to convey dominant, powerful characteristics (this is particularly true with female voices) while higher voices suggest more free, innocent and feminine characteristics.

As I stated in a previous article, timbre in this context is subtly different from pitch in that it is about bringing out high and low pitched frequencies regardless of where the note is pitched on the scale, mostly using a combination of the nasal port, mouth position and belting muscles. A low voice can be given high frequencies, same as a high voice can be rounded out with lower frequencies.

One of my favourite studies here is to compare Magenta and Columbia from the Rocky Horror Show (their solo parts in ‘The Timewarp’ is are great to practice with). Magenta is a frightening vampish alien and the more dominant of the two, so her voice works well deep and rounded with open throat and the nasal port closed so there are hardly any nasal frequencies (in some of my favourite portrayals she is played completely operatically). Columbia (the ‘groupie’) is a brash, excitable and naive American bubblegum girl, so the focus is much more on high, nasal frequencies. It helps to imagine chewing gum as you sing, so the nasal port has to be completely open.

Here are the two characters in action (along with Riff Raff and the Transylvanians), as performed by the 2014 Australian cast of the show – from what I’ve learned by googling around, this cast featured Jayde Westaby as Magenta, Angelique Cassimatis as Columbia and Kristian Lavercombe as Riff Raff.

Clean or dirty?

I wrote a bit in the last article in this series on bringing in throat distortion and will be exploring this in detail next time when we get on to extreme metal styles, but how clean (technically sound singing with little or no throat distortion) or harsh (distorted, growled or screamed) forms a huge part of developing character in a voice. This is most obvious in twisted, scary characters or ones who have come from polluted, smoke filled backgrounds – a growling Fagin for instance, or the rock and roll edge of Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff, as seen in the clip above. Introducing deliberate mistuned notes or other imperfections falls under the same category.

In the last 20 years or so in metal, an archetype has developed in which bands feature a screaming or growling vocalist (representing darkness and evil) contrasting with a clean, operatic female soprano (innocence and light), especially in gothic, folk and symphonic metal. Here’s a clip of Cradle Of Filth (Danii Filth on scream vocals, Lindsay Schoolcraft on clean vocals) showing this in action. Be warned, this performance begins with a very loud expletive, so don’t play if you’re somewhere bad language is likely to cause offense.

 

 

 

Laffs A Jolly Olliday Wiff Mary – The Joy Of Accents

Nothing takes the audience out of the moment like a bad, clearly fake accent. In theatrical roles it shows lack of rehearsal and respect for the culture or region being imitated, in general musical performance it hints at lack of integrity and personality on the part of the performer. That’s not to say though that you should never modify your accent – on the contrary, properly understanding and respecting how accents work is a vital part of how you communicate through song.

Learning a realistic accent for purposes of portraying a character is an in depth, complex process that begins with understanding the geographical, historical, linguistic and cultural background of the accent in question, then analysing and working with a range of factors including vowel sounds, mouth position, tempo, use of pitch, intonation and more. If that sounds like a lot of effort compared to deciding whether a character is upper or lower class and dropping h’s accordingly, go and listen to Dick Van Dyke’s classically sensitive and realistic portrayal of urban London accents in Mary Poppins (to any Americans reading, no that is not how we talk in England, or anywhere else on the face of this planet). Bear in mind that the stakes for getting it right are much higher now than they were for that performance as modern audiences will no longer tolerate cultural insensitivity, not even for cheap laughs.

When singing as yourself, the reason for exploring accents is to understand how linguistic features feed in to song styles. Sometimes this involves learning songs in foreign languages – if you wish to sing Salsa, for example, you really need to do so in Spanish. If you sing Opera, you at least learn the phonetics of Italian, and so on. Accents and dialects necessarily feed into styles that grew up around them – Jamacian Patwa and African American Vernacular (AAVE) are integral parts of reggae and hip-hop/R&B styles respectively and respectful understanding of how they work are necessary to treat those styles with any kind of authenticity. What you then need to do though is to find common ground between the features of the dialect in question and those of your own accent to develop a performance respectful to the source dialect but unique and integral to you as a performer. If the result you end up with is along the lines of “Gy-ant steps are whot yoo tek, warkin on de mune”, please keep it in the rehearsal room.

Here’s the first in a series of videos on the topic by dialect coach Amy Walker:

You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

When they choose which music to listen to, most people select artists and records which most closely reflect their emotional outlook at the time. Though of course as artists we want to portray as wide a range of emotions as possible, in practice the emotional range of a character is less a full spectrum and more a palette of related colours painted in extreme shades. The emotional colours you’d bring to a teen pop outfit are not the same as those you’d bring to a black metal band.

Sometimes this means you will need to either summon emotional responses to suit the music, take yourself deeper into emotional territory than you might have done otherwise or downplay conflicting emotions irrelevant to the task at hand. Also, you need to be able to get back safely – in extreme styles especially you may find yourself exploring extremely dark and emotional territory that can cause all kinds of stressful responses afterwards if you’re not careful – being able to turn it on and off, to go to ‘that place’ when you step on stage and return to normal afterwards is an important skill to learn and, incidentally, one of the reasons for creating a performance persona separate from your own.

Further Reading

Depending on how deep you want to go, pretty much all acting theory will help you out here. Stanislavski’s theories, which pretty much changed the game on what an actor is expected to do, will teach you a lot about merging your own character and voice with the the one you’re trying to portray (essential for developing an emotional vocal performance). Stanislavski’s books can be heavy reading, but at least google him to get an idea of what he was about.

Another book that has influenced me a lot is Gillyanne Kayes’ book ‘Singing And The Actor’ ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Singing-Actor-Gillyanne-Kayes-x/dp/0713668237 ) , an excellent book that goes into the technical aspects of theatrical singing from the basis of Jo Estill’s Voicecraft theory.

 

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