Voice as an instrument?

Written by on in Vocalising

Namaste, Dear Music Lover,

I want to share with aspiring singers a tip about working in Bollywood playback (movie soundtrack) singing: there is usually some (intended, maybe) literal link between song lyrics and a movie’s visual action/story or hope that songs convey emotional moments or feelings to highlight or support the cinematic narrative, and they may offer poetic/lyrical viewpoints on the story, perhaps parallel (or maybe in contradiction to it), for cinematic effect.

In theory, any song could be offered on its own as a piece of aural art or simply a pop or danceable hit included in the film, per the director‘s brief. Such things can be known in advance, or may be borne out in practice via audience response (or simply via song/film market/chart “success“).

As a side note, finding the ‘secrets to big hits‘ seems to me to be a rather inexact science. Of course this is the province of art, a rather intuitive, subjective process regardless of how serious the movie’s plot may be. Singers trying to lock onto the most relatable way to present a lyrical line also have chances to place emphasis how and maybe when they believe it best befits what the words say and mean in context—or in the case of “non-original” (for a given film) songs, their performance may or may not overlap the themes of the movie for dramatic or comedic effect.

In other words, songs can exist as vehicles for plot movement, or (especially dance numbers) may be added “to rev up” the film‘s dance or dramatic scenes.

This is why my last post noted acting as a key part of the process. According to playwright William Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage (and in that sense, we’re all actors). This fact exists apart from any thespian aspects of the present story.

For the Bollywood film milieu, songs are usually such important components, that they can almost “make or break” a film—however, most music directors don’t place undue burdens on the performing artists, much like action and dialogue directors (or so I’m told) don’t heap undue pressures or burdens on the actors who portray the songs as well as the rest of the movie.

This blog-site is if nothing else my take on the art of playback singing; I hope you like it/find it helpfulposture or carriage is one thing all vocal teachers stress from day one. Some teachers go into much discussion of the position of one’s instrument’s parts (tongue/resonant parts) within the body, and how to form and project various tones and vocal nuances.

I may touch on this a bit in my future tip[s] offered in more posts; I approach this site in more of a fun way rather than some compulsory pursuit, so the frequency of adding posts can be anywhere from successive days to months apart; yes, my schedule is that complex—and I’m not complaining!).

However, I framed that earlier post around a more mundane aspect of posture: stage presence/audience involvement as part of a live/studio situation. In the studio, the producer/writer is the de facto audience (or in effect, its agent).

Actually in practice, a music director (MD) may ask for another take (if Take 1‘s emotional intensity isn’t bang-on). Some MDs ‘can’ be unpredictable, but other media industry bosses (especially executives whose main thing is budgeting) may tend toward being wildly unpredictable, or [please forgive me for pointing this out] word has it yes, in fact, they certainly are!

So if you find yourself in a song recording session and it’s possible your vocal track may be replaced, please be advised that it’s only partly up to the singer how to interpret the notes as sent or given to you. (In other words, you’ll probably need to have at least an on-the-playing-field close-enough (to the director’s) sense of how to carry off the song as part of the foreground or background storytelling process. So I’m back to my original advice to singers: prepare well, and that in itself can ensure your confidence and ongoing career).

Dialing in a lead vocal can be a one-take affair, or it may need a few attempts to achieve one’s ideal performance, but all my teachers shared one point of view about this “honing in” process: they all insist that lead vocalists need to be ready to “knock it over the fence” each time.

Along with trusting your intuition, it’s important to trust the directors and producers (plus key staff like musicians, arrangers, audio engineers and mixers); after all, directors & producers must answer for the final products presented to audiences.

Always remember the sage advice of a scion of the song (record) production process: Quincy Jones is noted for a saying that he often related to musicians and singers alike when the pressures of excelling in music recordings mounted hours into a challenging session.

Given the preceding scenario as tempers may have flared, and personalities even of top pros differed and maybe clashed under pressure—so that the “blame game” or finger-pointing began to enter studios. Mr Jones often said/says: “Check your egos at the door.”

In other words, a convivial atmosphere of teamwork is required, and within this, every artist may have one’s own valid point of view on the tempo, how loud or soft a given part “should” be, or who’s the biggest box-office/concert “star” in the process/room, so it can be challenging to predict or assess in advance or even from-moment-to-moment who is most-correct or most in-control. However only through teamwork and professionalism can the ultimate success of the enterprise be realised.

Like many modern work situations, musicians (including vocalists—there are shelves of books about “how to shape a career in the lively arts”) are basically self-employed. This brings the challenging process of sorting out not only the preceding few aspects, but also how the mix might “change everything” depending upon who-knows-in-advance such choices as those of the main movie or music director. One needn’t fear being edited “below the mix” if one’s takes are solid!

Nevertheless, if we may, let’s briefly revisit the topic of performing a song/track/film cue for a specific film soundtrack (remember, oftentimes it will have group dance-move implications, and presumably the MD has briefed us—we hope that the time for making excuses for a lacking song track has well passed any featured singer!).

For me, the audience’s approval is the “gold standard“ for as some industry greats shared with me: the audience drives this industry!

I’ll try a little detour: let’s say for a dramatic scene we’re asked for a delivery that has our heroine in the throes of some crisis (of conscience or emotion).

What I will share here is one of several tips I’ve gotten over my years in Bollywood: intensity per se is not functionally equivalent to simple notions of volume or loudness.

More specifically, it’s often better to more or less speak a word or phrase, or to make musical tones like what we call in yoga the ujjayi (“oo-jai”) breath: an airy, edgy tone.

That sort of ‘edgy breath‘ can convey a certain je ne sais quoi (key ingredient) befitting the song’s visual context. I’ve used this trick in a few spots (un-challenged by directorial fiat), some say to good effect.

Furthermore, and I’ll call this the main corollary of my Bollywood playback singing tip for January, 2020 (perhaps one in a long series… we’ll see when the next one arises; I haven’t planned this year’s blog-site post through-line yet, lol):

Toward finding other ways to convey intensity: in case it hadn’t occurred to you, in some frames, a whisper can seem ‘louder‘ than a scream—a fairly common aphorism. So while there isn’t a lot of technical expertise involved in this sort of singing, it does require a substantial degree of sensitivity and judicious application of one’s artistic sensibility.

A common way it’s phrased is to dial the intensity up or down—of course the actual notes given in pre-recording rehearsal may run from ‘as per the dialogue or screen moment xyz to “just wing it.”

If we need a couple of goes, no worries. That’s about par for the course, when the preparation/written part is not especially explicit about vocal style or technique (or say in cases of multiple endings).

Have I stressed doing one’s rehearsal prior to the gig before? Well now I think it’s not only clear but most obvious; there’s no way around being ready to bring the vocals as wanted/needed by the people who wrote and arranged the song!

If it’s your job, that’s what you (prepare to/) do. If you want to get established doing this, my sincere advice is take every note, pro tip and trick you can get, then beyond merely practising and rehearsing with the band/orchestra (and taking cues/advice from the conductor), you can draw from a bigger ‘palette‘ of artistic/literary (poetic-lyrical) sensibilities, alongside whatever physical ability you have.

While contemplating a panoply of vocal styles, etc. can be fun and interesting and also importantly, if it ever departs from true musicality, its outcome is obviously suspect, hindered and/or flawed. Still, singers are expected to be far more than musical instruments… in the end, we’re storytellers.

I may or may decide not to add some illustrations later as my schedule allows, or when my web team can. This is a busy time! I hope you’re enjoying your involvement with Indian movies and/or music and that if a lot of travel is involved, all goes well and you can find time for yourself, too.

Touring is fun and I love it; I also enjoy home-based pursuits, like decorative/cultural painting and researching literature (words and music, especially in Bengali) beyond my film music and concert work. “It’s all good,” isn’t it? Some say an artist lives to create their best art. Philosophy may arise again on this site, or I may try to rein it in better in the future. We shall encounter or abandon such matters again, in the future, if it seems apt.

All the best in your vocal-making/movie-viewing pursuits this exciting new year—and for the entire new decade! I’ll see you in Mumbai—or wherever we meet!

Namaste, AM


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