Singing in a New Style
I often hear people say that they can only sing in one style. That they "can't sing pop" or "can't sing folk", or "can't sing rock". But what exactly do they mean and what can you do to become comfortable in other styles of music?
I don't believe that people can only sing one style or genre of music. I am aware that if you want to be the best in a particular genre that you should spend a lot of your focus on that genre, but even then, learning other singing techniques and styles can help to strengthen and balance your voice.
We tend to fear what we don't know. We get comfortable when we sing a certain type of song well, and then get very uncomfortable when we think we sound bad singing something else. When learning other instruments, such as a clarinet, you start by learning a piece that feels really difficult. You practice it, sometimes for months, and you get to point where you can perform it well. Then you start of the next piece, which is harder than the first, and you work on it until it sounds good. This was how graded exams worked and it was a process that you got used to. But with singing people seem to want to be able to sing a song well on the first try, as if all song are created equal and some don't need a lot more work than others.
We also have set ideas about what certain singers sound like and think we sound different than them. But of course we sound different than everyone else, that's one of the amazing things about our voices, and we underestimate just how many different ways there are to sing any genre. What exactly, for example, does a pop singer sound like? There are so many of them and sure there are some that sound stylistically very similar, but there are many who do not. Does Michael Jackson sound like Elton John? Does Sia sound like Adele?
That being said where do we begin if we want to sing a new song that's different from everything else we sing?
What Can You Hear?
We start by listening to artists that sing the song or the genre we are interested in singing. We need to take time to listen carefully and not just let the music play in the background while we hum along or work on other things.
Although we want to perform with our own sound when we are beginning to learn a new style it is useful to try mimicking the sounds that we are hearing. When doing this we want to break it down into small chunks and try to mimic one section. We do love singing whole songs but small pieces aid with learning.
We also want to let go of our judgement and our need to sound good or perfect. Make the sounds, sound silly, and have fun with it. And then do it again with awareness and feel what is different in your body than when you sing the phrase in the way that you would do in your usual singing style. Can you feel differences in the mouth shape? Are you placing the note in a different place? Are you using more or less constriction?
I'm going to analyze the start of Titanium, which was sung by Sia, as I would like to sound more authentic when I sing pop music. It can be helpful to slow a song down so that we can more clearly hear what the artist is doing. This can be done on Youtube, or by using software such as Anytune Pro+.
The first thing I notice is that Sia starts her first word "you" with a fry onset. This is a common way to start notes in this genre. (If you want to know more about using fry Justin Stoney has a good introduction to this on his YouTube channel.) When I first try to sing the line I don't naturally add fry to the word "you". I find that the "y" at the beginning of the word makes me want to start with a smooth onset, so I need to practice adding the fry. I would also recommend that you exaggerate the sound. Sia is being very subtle with her use of fry but it's easier to make it big and then try dialing it back to a barely heard sound rather than trying to begin with that level of control.
The next thing I notice is how she uses vibrato in her first line "You shout it out". She begins the line with a straight tone and then allows some vibrato in towards the end of the word "out". Straight tone, singing with minimal vibrato, is another feature of pop music, as is using vibrato stylistically at the end of some longer notes to help release the tension in the sound. It can be difficult to remove vibrato from our singing, as it can happen naturally in the voice, so we do need to be careful that we are not causing tension when we are doing this.
Pop singing doesn't have clean diction. The sound is relaxed and speech-like. I can hear that Sia is not clearly pronouncing the letter "t" at the end of either "shout" or "out". At the start of the third line she sings "mm talkin loud" and doesn't seem to pronounce the "I" from "I'm" at all. This gives the singing a chopping rhythmic sound.
On the second line I can hear that Sia is using a fry onset on the word "I" and that she appears to be releasing air during a fall-off on the word "say". This makes it sound almost as if there there is an extra syllable at the end of the line and we get something like "say-huh".
A Good Beginning
So far I've only looked a couple of lines and around 7 seconds of music yet I have still learnt a lot about the the stylistic elements Sia is using. I recommend that you take your time and discover as much as you can from each line of the song. Singing is a skill and breaking things down into manageable steps will really help you learn a new how to sing in a new style.