I was on a motorcycle taxi the other day, practicing some calming breathing exercises as we navigated the busy streets of Bangkok, when my driver decided to be his own radio. He sang luk thung – Thai “country” music – all the way to my apartment. For as far as I was concerned, he could’ve been a “luk thung” star. I thought to myself that if I, with all my opportunities and training, devoted my life to singing “luk thung”, I probably still wouldn’t sound anywhere as good as him.
I’ve noticed this over and over again as I travel the world, and also at home in America. People sing the way that they hear songs sung. Even people who claim to be tone-deaf pick up all sorts of stylistic nuances from the music they grow up with. There is an important lesson in this, and it is:
NEVER underestimate a tone model.
What is a tone model, you may ask?
A tone model is what we create, either consciously or unconsciously, when we listen to music. It’s our idea of what a singer should sound like; the language equivalent of singing. And just like language, it’s difficult to pick up a whole new style of singing when you’re an adult, but through practice and listening immersion it can be done.
Tone models are created naturally when we’re young, especially in our formative teenage years. Unless you’ve grown up in a music-free world (unlikely), you probably already have a pretty clear tone model in your head. To help figure out what it is, reflect for a moment on the following questions:
- What genres of music did you grow up listening to?
- What genres of music are you now exposed to in your daily life?
- Think of particular artists in those genres. Do you aspire to sing like them?
- Is there a dichotomy between the kind of music you’re most exposed to, and the music you aspire to sing?
Going back to our language analogy, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to learn to speak German authentically if you’re hardly ever exposed to it. We have to physically hear what we want to sing, from another singer, and be able to hear it in our mind with our inner ear, before we can sing that way.
If you’ve never done it before, creating a tone model could be one of the most important things you ever do for your singing. In the following exercise (which I actually find to be a lot of fun), we’ll consider creating a tone model for sound AND feeling.
Think of adjectives that, for you, are descriptive of a good voice, or, if you want to get really imaginative, ask yourself, if your perfect voice were a color (or element, or dessert, or book, or font…) what color would it be? Create two lists, 1) for how you want singing to sound and 2) for how you want singing to feel.
You can read my own personal list here, although I encourage you to make your own before doing so.
Here’s a very simple but effective exercise: once you’ve created and described your tone model, choose a single trait from your list that you’d like to work on. Speak the word in your mind before you sing. Don’t try to physically manufacture or conjure up that particular trait; just feed it into your awareness as you sing.
Are there right and wrong tone models? Many teachers have the idea that the voice, in its truest, most natural ideal, will sound a particular way (i.e. once you sing “correctly” you will have vibrato and sound like an opera singer). Whether this is true or not, make sure your tone model checks these three boxes:
- The tone is healthy for the voice and sustainable over a lifetime of singing.
- The tone is style-appropriate, especially if you want a career in singing*
- The tone brings you (and hopefully others) joy when you sing that way
*Of course nowadays there are endless niches and possibilities for new styles of singing, but it’s still true that, if you want to sing opera at the Met, it’s best not to build your tone model listening to Britney Spears.
Stay tuned for next month’s series, which is PRACTICING. Everything from essential warmup exercises to memorizing, and plenty of practical tips to keep you on your toes ;)