Singing Americana: Words Have Meaning

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 7

Americana music is a broad genre that is historical as well as contemporary, growing and changing. According to AmericanaMusic.org, influences in Americana range from “country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

While many people enjoy Americana for the use of folk instruments, melodies, and the emotions they feel while listening, it would be a mistake to ignore that the diverse history of the people of the United States is told in Americana music, and this storytelling is matched with melody to make it more poignant.

While there is a healthy debate among musicians as to what is more important: the music or the lyrics, and for some, it’s a preference – I have to put a stake in the sand. When it comes to Americana, as vocalists, my number one piece of advice is to focus on lyrics above all else. I firmly believe that if you are a singer, your job is to communicate something over and above what mere melody or poetry can communicate: you are matching music and words to bring an elevated experience to an audience. Therefore, the lyrics deserve your attention.

This begins with proper diction, of course! How can we achieve appropriate diction while singing? The first thing is to realize that the bulk of the sound in vocal music is produced while singing vowels, and while this may seem obvious, it has important implications in the vocal technique needed to communicate text properly.

For example, if you are singing the word “word” on a long-held note, some singers have a tendency to elongate the “w” or close down to the “r” sound prematurely, which will shorten or otherwise obscure the vowel, distort the word, and, hence, the meaning for the audience. From a vocal technique point of view, a singer’s job is to sing the full vowel sound for the full duration of the note and then just quickly add remaining consonant sounds.

One image a voice teacher of mine made was that vowels are a river of sound constantly flowing, and we simply drop little pebbles of consonants as we sing. Consonants must be crisp and clear, just like a pebble drop, but not prolonged or obscure the vowel sounds.

You might argue, but musicians like Bob Dylan sing in a highly distorted way, sometimes barely intelligible. While you may evolve to this kind of style naturally, I believe it is important if you are just starting out as a singer and learning vocal technique, you always need to learn to follow the best vocal rules before you break them.

 

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