Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lessons from Chuck Brown

This past week we have lost several gifted vocal musicians, ranging from the Prince of Lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , the Queen of Disco, Donna Summers, and the God-father of Go- Go, Chuck Brown. To spoil it for the superstitious who believe in the Rule Of Threes, let me also point out that Robin Gibb lost his battle with cancer this week.

Vocalists are special musicians: the are their own instruments. The upside is you don't have to pay for extra space in the baggage compartment when you travel, but the down-side is that you can't ever put it down. And that means you have to be aware of everything you are doing, because it all affects your voice. When I first heard a radio clip of Chuck Brown's biggest hit "Bustin' Loose"  I thought "what is he doing with his voice? He won't have it much longer if he keeps making that sound!" When I heard him live this past September he still sounded great - at age 74!

Singers know that everything shows up in the voice: their general health, physical and mental; their focus; how deeply they deep connect with the lyrics; and their need to share that connection with the audience. But the rest of us get lazy; we use our glorious instruments as quotidian tools. When we speak, there is no need to work as meticulously as singers do to produce a good sound. The technical demands are not as precise. You can be feeling "a little low" and still breathe deeply and be relaxed and focused and achieve a ''good enough" spoken vocal tone. We simply are not required to sing our "ah" in the center of the A. It could be a G flat and no one would really notice. 

And we are lucky that way, we speakers. But I think we should take a page from the singer's notebook. We should remember to work on our phrasing, our coloration, our line. We need to make sure we convey our message with all the nuance we can, given the relative limitation of the instrument used in spoken mode. And it is possible; listen to Jim Dale (who so fabulously narrates the "Harry Potter''  books) discuss the artistry of book narration in a 2005 NPR interview. 

I know, there is only one Jim Dale, but his work, and that of many other audiobook narrators (Stockard Channing as Ramona, anyone?) remind that even as speakers, we can play our instruments to astonishing effect! 

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