Teaching Bob Dylan
What’s wrong with Bob Dylan’s voice? His songs are legendary but his voice is controverisial. It got me thinking. What would I do if Bob Dylan was my student?
The worst thing I could do in a lesson with Bob Dylan, or any other student, would be to insist that would only improve if he followed a prescribed formula of some specific vocal exercises designed for classical singers. That kind of voice teaching used to be the norm. But the times, they are a'changin'.
Let’s imagine Bob came to his first lesson at Eden Casteel Music Studio, bringing a song he liked to sing. "How about this one?", he'd say, and he'd launch into Hark The Herald Angels Sing, which he recorded a few years ago, on a charity album. (It's my fantasy, I choose the song.)
"Or this one?" And he'd sing Long And Wasted Years, a track from a recent album.
After hearing him sing, I’d ask him what I ask every student: "Do you have any questions for me?" The answer always lets me know where the student’s concerns are. Dylan himself wondered earlier this year why he had so many vocal haters. “Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. . . that I have no voice, that I croak.”
So let's go with that. "Bob, I’m happy to tell you that the critics are wrong. You can carry a tune. You like to bend the pitch up or down for stylistic effect, but I just heard you match pitch over and over again in that song. I think your critics are mostly talking about your vocal quality and tone."
Bob would look at me with those sad eyes and ask, "Should I do anything about it?”
"It depends on your goals," I'd say. I'm talking to a 73-year old lifelong musician who works in non-classical styles, and has spent most of his life on tour. "Your history explains your current vocal sound," I'd say. "And we won't change history. But if you want to work on making clearer sounds and trying out different ways of approaching notes, we can do that."
I'd ask about his current vocal regimen. I can imagine Bob telling me that, like many non-classical singers, he never warmed up in his early career and rarely does now (“No one warmed up except for Judy Collins!”).
"Everything takes longer to warm up when you are AARP-eligible, including the muscles and ligaments that produce and affect your voice," I'd say. "But it's worth the effort. I’ll demonstrate some exercises for you and you’ll sing them back to me. Then, I’ll send it to you as a recording so you can do them any time."
Playing guitar and singing into a microphone can cause physical tension that affects vocal sound so we'd start with stretching. Singing in a non-classical style can cause its own kind of tension, and to an extent it's actually stylistically authentic and permissible. But I suspect Bob's vocal tension is excessive, so I'm going to see if I we can reduce it a little.
Bob has already revealed that he feels a little defensive about his singing, so we're just going to make sounds, including:
- lip trills, buzzes and light short whoops
- sighs and yawns
- blahs and bleeps
- mee-mays and shee-shoos.
I can learn a lot from these vocal explorations, and so can Bob. I keep a checklist running:
- How is his his airflow, tone, and flexibility?
- How is his posture? How does it change when he starts to sing?
- Does Bob breathe efficiently when he sings? Does he run out of air before the end of a phrase?
- How bright can Bob make an "ee"?
- How round can Bob make an “oo”?
- Do the vowels sound strained or rich? Nasal or hooty?
- Vibrato or no vibrato?
- Can his vocal folds come together cleanly in all parts of his vocal range, or only around certain pitches?
- Can he sing a note right in the middle of the pitch or does he tend to sing flat or sharp?
- What is his tongue doing? Is it bunching up in the back or tensing excessively?
- Does he have to do extra manipulations to make certain sounds or pitches? (Probably does for his style of music, but we must measure the effort.)
- Are there places in his voice where no sound comes out, at all?
Immediately it would be clear (as it is to his critics) that Bob’s voice is very nasal. For his style of music it's usually considered a feature, but if it interferes with what he's trying to accomplish musically, it needs to be investigated. The goal of these exercises is not to turn Bob Dylan into Luciano Pavarotti; it's to help Bob find new, healthier ways of making sound to improve on what he's already doing. He still needs to sound like himself. I would never tell Bob or any other student to renounce a major part of their vocal identity.
Bob has found a few places where nasality is reduced and singing feels slightly easier there. I'll ask him to find those places again in musical warmups and explorations, that might inculde:
- Interval jumps that start small and get bigger
- Singing with a straw tucked between his lips to cause a different kind of shaping in the lips and mouth
- Gradually changing the way his lips round for an "oo" or the way he opens or closes his mouth for an "ee."
- Singing a song on a drone note (similar to chanting), to keep vocal tension to a minimum while focusing on how the lyrics affect the voice.
- Singing while looking into a mirror to see if he can spot even small differences in how he shapes his mouth for certain vowels and pitches.
"Did you notice that singing felt easier at any point in those exercises?", I'll ask him. If it feels easier, he might just keep doing it. "What were you doing when the singing felt easier?" And Bob would try to find that vocal ease again and again. We've made progress!
"But, Eden," Bob would say. "I have this growly sound in my voice and I don't know why it's there or what to do about it."
"Well, Bob," I'd continue. "I've noticed it too. It doesn’t appear on every single note, but it shows up frequently enough to warrant further investigation. Injury or damage to the vocal folds keeps them from closing completely, and can cause the voice to sound rough. You should have your vocal folds thoroughly examined. I recommend that you visit an otolaryngologist who works with singers, such as Dr. Steven Zeitels at Mass General. He's treated Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, among others."
"I'll go to him anyway, Eden."
"That hour went fast," I'd say to Bob. "I'll send your sound file today so you can play it back. Look and listen for small changes as you make modest adjustments in the way you breathe, move your mouth, and shape your words. I hope you'll take the time to listen to yourself. It can be very difficult for students to listen to themselves. We are our own worst critics."
"Not this time, Eden. Thanks for the recording and the lesson. Same time next week, and let's try that Skype thing."