The casting bracket; a male song, a song typically

The
following is an evaluation and critical investigation of my Specialist
discipline practice (SDP), where I will consider the trials and accomplishments
I came across throughout the process. The Voice and its identity is my focus
with a particular interest on how techniques can alter a vocal timbre and
therefore project a different identity on sound alone. This became my subject
of interest after analysing what challenges I faced as a performer within the
Musical Theatre industry and my casting bracket. My voice, before the project,
wasn’t necessarily weak but just confined to particular vocal styles which in
turn limited my castability and this became the issue I wanted to solve. This
further developed and I later wanted to challenge the identity of a classical
singer which I had been associated with based on my vocal timbre and encourage
an audience to think about what they might assume about a person based on what
they hear. Considering this the critical questions I will discuss are: why do
voices have different vocal timbres? , can you remove perceived identity from a
voice using enhanced vocal techniques? And does this expand castability?

 

To
answer these questions within my practice I adapted my vocals using varying
techniques, applied them to four songs from varying castings that weren’t
typically appropriate for me, and attempted to meet the required stylistic
vocal quality to see if it was possible to warp the identity of my voice. Each
song was purposefully far removed from what I had previously used in my
repertoire, with some of them even being deemed by others as inappropriate to
my casting. However this was exactly my challenge. Each song was from a varied
casting bracket; a male song, a song typically performed by an older female, a
song typically performed by a woman of ethnic background, and a song of ethnic
heritage. All of these I had been previously excluded from being cast into
because not only did I not look the part but I ‘couldn’t’ sing it correctly. I
also used a variety of sources to help answer the critical questions I explored
such as Dumbstruck: a cultural history of
ventriloquism (Connors, 2000), The
Micropolitics of listening to vocal timbre (Eidsheim, 2014), and The Class and Colour of tone: An Essay on the social history of vocal
timbre (Olwage, 2004)

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Recreating
different vocal timbres and even creating new ones comes with its challenges
and limitations many of which I encountered. Within a vocal context, race in
particular was something I’d never really thought was important until I
gradually uncovered more and more studies about the assumptions made on someone’s
race based on their vocalic sound. Nina Eidsheim writes prominently about the
performativity of race within the voice. Her findings from a series of interviews
clearly indicate how many people identify someone based on what they hear,
specifically when it comes to ethnic background with 11 out of 13 claimed to be
able do this. (Eidsheim, 2014)

 

Cultural
factors and physical differences had huge influence on the sounds produced
particularly when I investigated what creates a ‘black sounding vocal timbre’.
The first notable factor which is entirely unalterable is the characteristics
of the larynx shape and layout of an ethnic background singer. The makeup of
what constitutes a black larynx, although not heavily researched, is suggested
to typically, but not exclusively, be wider with thicker vocal folds.

speakers from different races
may have morphological differences in their vocal tract dimensions, and these
morphological differences (especially volumetric differences) could be
partially responsible for the formant frequency differences in a vowel sound
void of specific language/dialectal impacts. (Xue, Hao and Mayo, 2006)

This
would naturally create a variation in vocal timbre which cannot be reproduced
in a voice of white descent with a different laryngeal setup which meant that
for me I could only obtain a timbre so close to the original. However there may
be exceptions to this in others voices where particular laryngeal setups are
closer and therefore more replicable.

 

Recreating
an African American timbre also became dependant on understanding the cultural
background of particular genres of music. I ran into problems when choosing
material, caused by differences in what should be defined as black music. I
originally wanted something that was gospel and had only historically been sung
by a black woman but then I uncovered more and more songs from musicals that
although had always been sung by black women weren’t within that gospel genre
or on the opposing side were gospel in style but hadn’t always been sung by
someone of that particular ethnicity but ultimately had strong links to black
heritage. This led me to using two songs to explore an ethnic vocal timbre. The
first, Here’s where I Stand (Taylor,
2003),
hadn’t always been sung by an ethnic background singer but was very prominently
written in the gospel style and required the characteristic of that genre to
sing it correctly. Your Daddy’s Son (Mcdonald,
1990), the second of the two, is from Ragtime, a musical written about
black culture and heritage and always sung by a black character in the context
of the show, but stylistically more classical. This song suited me vocally
however I had never considered it as a piece of repertoire because of the
historical context behind it whereas the Former required much more work to
sing. Uncovering these significant differences was quite thought provoking and
really made me consider what does constitute a black voice. It’s not
necessarily the vocal timbre and even when researching how to sing gospel I
found no set technique, in fact a lot of discussions focused on the historical
context of how gospel came to be. Many said that gospel singing is learnt from
attending gospel churches and from mimicking what is heard. Gospel derived from
African American spirituals which were learnt without specific techniques and
were culturally sung by slaves in the mid-late 19th century (Vocalsingingtips.com,
n.d.) and
to this day many soul singers will state their influences and style comes from
them attending church and listening to or mimicking other gospel singers. Part
of the argument seemed to be that white people simply can’t sing gospel the
same because they don’t understand and connect with the heritage. ‘I refuse to identify them as soul
singers or R&B singers because they don’t have the cultural connection
black people do to said genres of music. Most of them didn’t grow up in
a black church.’ (Collazo, 2016). I
understood within my project that I couldn’t claim to be connected with the
rich historical background of the genre, however that wasn’t the basis for my
research and therefore I continued researching what constituted an African
American sounding voice. As I explored further I found similar notions about
understanding the music but these didn’t require the historical context but
more accessibly ideas of simply feeling and expressing what you sing to achieve
the required sound. ‘It’s not enough to just
sing the words as a story must be told to really capture the listener’s
imagination.’ (Vocalsingingtips.com, n.d.) this
is where I made the decision to perform my songs fully even though I was
focusing on my voice because I wanted to be able to fully apply expression into
all of them and I found this really did help enhance the vocals.

 

In
contrast, Your Daddy’s Son (Mcdonald,
1990) really
proved that you don’t necessarily have to be of one particular background to be
able to technically sing a song. My voice was well suited to this song and
although I would never be cast as the role because of my appearance, in terms
of vocal timbre this does not apply. Similarly it suggests the reverse of this;
you don’t have to be of a specific appearance to sing classically because this
song is classical in style but written for a black character, despite the white
European history behind classical more legit singing. In fact historically it
has been found that black sounds were previously frowned upon and in the
Victorian era many African singers were ‘reformed to sound more ‘bourgeois’ as
Olwage finds: ‘so, as it is attempted to refashion identity at the most
fundamental level, that of the body, voice culture provided not just an
argument for, but powerfully performed the erasure of difference’ (Olwage,2004).
The clearly shows, not only the historical identification of race through
voice, but that vocal techniques were previously used to achieve the reverse
result of what I attempted- to make ethnic voices sound more white.

 

The
most crucial difference I came across that could separate vocal timbres by race
was differences in the pronunciation and placement of sounds. This was the one
that I could perhaps use influence from the most to change the timbre of my
voice. I  uncovered a whole range of
differing dialects and vowel placements which changed the way I sung such as
rounded vowels with a forward and down placement (Simms, 2013) and these took much more
effect in creating a new vocal timbre. It would be incorrect to say that I
sounded African American because of physical differences mentioned previously
however a parallel sounding timbre was created that was new and different to
any I’d been able to perform before. Furthermore it can be used to expand my
versatility and casting in the future because I now understand that gospel
style singing isn’t exclusively African American, but I should appreciate the
culture behind it.

 

Gender
within voices experiences much of the same issues as race but within a
completely different context. Physically the female voice is higher because the
vocal tract is overall smaller than that of a male (Zerffi, n.d.),
but there are many more ways in which this can be altered unlike that of racial
differences. There are also still exclusions to this rule however. Even In
popular music there are clear examples of singers who are often mistaken for
the opposite sex based on how they sound, such as Tracy Chapman who is known
for her lower pitched voice which is commonly mistaken to be male. The
reasoning I found behind why there is more ambiguity between male and female
sounded voices is because of the pitches and vocal registers found within
voices. There have always been overlap’s between difference registers such as
soprano and alto and vocal techniques such as lowering the larynx make changes
to the vocal timbre which creates more similarities. This particular vocal
timbre created the most changes in my voice which added versatility because I
uncovered entirely new ranges in my voice and reached notes I never knew I could
hit. The song I chose was purposefully rocky and therefore I performed in yet
another new style and instead of simply altering the key to sit comfortably in
my voice I kept it as low as possible to keep with the lower registers of a
male voice. The result was that the song only moved up the most minimal amount
of 1 semitone, and was still in considered to be fully in a male register. I
found a new laryngeal setup with a varied tongue placement that allowed me to
access my belt range much more easily and seamlessly connect it with other
setups within my voice. The main issue I encountered with this part of the
project was the social implications behind it. It became hard to explain why I
wanted to sing a male song and sound like a man, because people didn’t think it
was possible. People thought that because I was female I could never sing a
male song, and whilst in part they are correct – I would never be cast in a
male role- this does not mean that I can’t and shouldn’t sound like a male. It
highlights the exact issues I was trying to address that perhaps become clearer
when you consider Queer Theory.  Queer
theory addresses the need not to be categorised, most commonly within gender (Jagose,
1996) It embodies the notion that gender is performed, and following this why
should someone’s biological identity dictate their vocal identity? Ethically speaking,
I should be able to perform whichever songs I wish, however the transaction
between what I sing and what people expect to hear seemed to restrict this.

Reader
response theories investigate the exchange between text and the reader and in a
sense this also applies to what we hear.  

My voice comes and goes. For you, it comes
from me. For me, it goes out from me. Between this coming from and going towards
lie all the problems and astonishments of the dissociated voice. (Connors,
2000)

Listeners
expect and almost want to hear particular vocal timbres performing certain
genres of music, perhaps because within society that is the norm- what we are
trained to hear? When people don’t hear what they expect to hear from a
performer it, from my experience, made them uncomfortable to think that I didn’t
sound how they expected, and that my perceived identity was in fact being
warped through the use of my voice. Maybe the way to think about this is that
the voice although, as Connors writes, it comes from us, it is not part of our
body. It is separate once the sound comes away from us and into a space and
therefore can assume an identity of its own. The counterproductive side of it
is that the way I look will still always restrict how I am cast even if my
voice is capable of more, however the results of project do continue to raise
questions both ethically and culturally about if this should be the case and
perhaps shows such as Hamilton (Miranda, 2015) with its colour blind casting
and purposeful ethnic reversals, and Miscast (MCC Theater,
2016), the gender bending cabaret show could help
change this within the musical theatre industry.

In conclusion, is it very clear that
voices do have different timbre and that these are recognised by society more
often than we realise. It raises many more ethical and cultural questions
because of the issues I faced in trying to change the identity of my voice, and
although I did warp the identity of my voice it wasn’t entirely changeable
because of physiological restrictions. Techniques can change the timbre but
they can only add so much versatility however these techniques can be applied
to help expand castability within reason. I may never be cast in an ethnic role
but knowing that stylistically that type of vocals can be applied to other
songs will definitely help me be more versatile within the musical theatre
industry. I feel my project was quite successful in proving that I’m not just a
classical singer and that vocal timbre shouldn’t be so restricting for casting.

Bibliography

 

Collazo, R. (2016). Why Non-Black
People Can’t Be “Soul Singers” – Affinity Magazine. online
Affinitymagazine.us. Available at:

Why Non-Black People Can’t Be “Soul Singers”


Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Connor, S. (2000). Dumbstruck.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Eidsheim, N. (2014). The
Micropolitics of Listening to Vocal Timbre. Postmodern Culture, online
24(3). Available at:

The Micropolitics of Listening to Vocal Timbre


Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory:
An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

 

MCC Theater (2016). Aaron Tveit
sings ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ from Oliver!. video Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2chwD0K4_M Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Mcdonald, A. (1990). Your Daddy’s
Son. Online BMG Entertainment. Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeAXnQg11q4 Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Miranda, L. (2015). Hamilton.
WEA International Inc. Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y81bSgCz1wk Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Olwage, G. (2004). The class and
colour of tone: An essay on the social history of vocal timbre. Ethnomusicology
Forum, 13(2).

 

Simms, K. (2013). How to sing
(more) like a black person – Quora. online Quora.com. Available at:
https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-sing-more-like-a-black-person Accessed 26 Jan.
2018.

 

Taylor, T. (2003). Here’s Where I
Stand. Online Universal Classics Group. Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXfPCLxtK4Y Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Vocalsingingtips.com. (n.d.). Discover
the Secrets of How to Sing Gospel. online Available at:
http://www.vocalsingingtips.com/how-to-sing-gospel/ Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

 

Xue, S., Hao, G. and Mayo, R. (2006).
Volumetric measurements of vocal tracts for male speakers from different races.
Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 20(9), pp.691-702.

 

Zerffi, W. (n.d.). Male and Female
Voices. online The JAMA Network. Available at:
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaotolaryngology/article-abstract/597992?redirect=true=true=true
Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.