Archive for August, 2012

Competition is everywhere. That´s the world – winning and losing in the big game of life. We have just finished watching the Olympics and unavoidably they bring to mind competition in music as well.

This summer I have attended 3 different singing competitions, not as a participant but as eager supporter and observer. Obviously many people always argue you cannot compete in music because it cannot be measured. Quite true. But some singers just do very well in competitions and others often fail. If you don´t reach your best in a competition how can you do well in other performance situations? That´s just the issue – there are many great singers who under-perform in competitions and auditions which resemble each other and are often the worst situations a singer must face. Must you win? Yes, if you want that prize or that part. Must you compete? No, but then your talent may remain unnoticed. Must you audition? Yes, unless you want to sing at home only.

Shall I take part in a competition? What are my chances? How do I control my nerves? What is the best repertoire? Do I convey the image a successfull performer, a winning attitude? Have I found my vocal fach, my best assets?

So a singer must find a solution to these questions.

Winning can also be seen in the context of winning oneself, not only others. A tip: My friend Cristina Andersson has winning solutions in her book The Winning Helix.

What do we look for in a winning singer? Here is my list:

  • great voice with personal timbre
  • solid vocal technique
  • musicality: sense of rhythm, clean intonation, good legato and phrasing
  • total performer package with the look, physique and voice suitable for the part  if you sing opera
  • posture, poise and control of body movements
  • ability to sing with nervousness and in spite of it (that´s a big separate issue!)
  • temperament and intelligence to interpret the text
  • deep understanding of the character and/or poem
  • soulfulness (this is seen in the eyes and face)
  • sense of humor, wit and ability to react
  • ability to tell a story and engage the audience

Those are the requirements – and even more!  And they apply to all performances of course. But if you wonder why you have not been successful so far; check the list honestly and do what you can to be even better!

Picture above: Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, soprano Valentina Nafornita from Moldova.

Picture on the right: Tuuli Petäjä, Winner of the 2012 Olympic Silver Medal in Windsurfing, from Finland.


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For a figure so prominent in the field of pop music, not very much has been said about Madonna´s voice. It´s as if it were taken for granted or overlooked. And yet, it´s an integral  part of her performing. That being said, most of the attention in her performances always goes to the show elements, her figure and shocking outfits, her dancing and choreoraphy.

Madonna has a good voice but not an exceptional one. Some writers have described it as mezzo soprano but in CCM singing the vocal fach is not of importance as a classification,  as in operatic singing. A real mezzo soprano has depth and substance. Madonna´s voice is such a basic material that it can go towards many different colours, depending on the meaning of the song. That is also a great skill. It´s like a good photo model whose face would not attract particular attention without makeup but who can look stunning in different pictures with a skillful makeover. Likewise, Madonna likes to change her voice according to the songs.

Her range in most songs is actually quite limited, ranging between F3-C5 which is about 1,5 octaves. Usually this is sufficient for a lot of CCM repertoire. She uses a basically healthy vocal technique, very seldom going for extreme pitches, screaming, sighing or crying. The emotional colour is actually missing; it seems she always wants to be in control. Of course, dancing like crazy in a show, you must keep your core support and rather not lose vocal control if you want to survive. From a vocal pedagogue´s point of view, she uses thin vocal folds and avoids forcing.

Madonna was criticized in the early stages of her career of a childish, naive, little- girl voice. This can be heard in her hit Like a Virgin. She sounds very girlie, a little breathy and nasal. This was the so called ”Minnie the Mouse on Helium”. But what better describe the song´s provocative feeling? So one suspects it was done on purpose.

During the filming of Evita, Madonna had to take vocal lessons, which increased her range. So her voice grew much deeper and fuller. Of this experience she has been quoted saying that she studied with a vocal coach for Evita and realized there was a whole piece of her voice she wasn’t using. Before, she just believed she had a really limited range and was going to make the most of it.  Isn´t that what so many singers notice after taking lessons!  Usually her singing is still very close to speech: every word is carefully articulated, the words are clearly understandable, and the pitches resemble the speech melody of the sentences. It is called speech quality singing. There is not much resonance of the back or higher cavities of the vocal tract but rather the sound is resonated in the mouth. The vocal folds can be thin or thick or something inbetween. It can also be called mixed voice which is basically a healthy production.

For any artist, straining her voice all the time is dangerous to the vocal cords. In Madonna´s later songs there is less nasality, sometimes thicker cords, not very much vibrato but nevertheless control which can unfortunately let her down in live performances doing all the other stuff. That is when we may hear her singing off key.

Career women often start lowering  their voices, reinforcing the stereotype that power and a low voice go together. A similar stereotype can also be found in rock music. Women with low, raw, raucous voices are perceived as strong, sexy, wild and intense. Their voices seem to witness an intense, wild life with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. This is not always healthy for the voice either! But Madonna again goes against these masculine traits. Perhaps Madonna’s girlie voice can be considered as a statement against this stereotype ?

In her latest hit Gang Bang Madonna again breaks all rules; both in the context of the text and suddenly singing with a much heavier vocal style. The chest register is somewhat strained, like it were too low for her but well conveying the appalling content of that song.

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