This Is A Voice

Authenticity in singing - what is it & can you teach it? With Louise Gibbs

June 19, 2023 Jeremy Fisher and Dr Gillyanne Kayes Season 7 Episode 11
This Is A Voice
Authenticity in singing - what is it & can you teach it? With Louise Gibbs
Show Notes Transcript

Our special guest for this week's This Is A Voice #podcast is jazz singer, recording artist, composer, educator and past president of the British Voice Association Louise Gibbs. 
It's a meeting of three practical minds in a deep & fascinating conversation about authenticity (for the singer and for the music), training authentic singers, exploring style envelopes and when to push their boundaries.

00:00 Being yourself to stand out
02:10 Why Gillyanne didn't like "I don't know how to love him"
03:12 Personal authenticity versus style authenticity
06:00 Jeremy on authentic self v authentic context
07:20 Playing devil's advocate - home studios
08:54 Why you're co-creating even when working alone
11:17 Is music ever misappropriated?
15:00 Jeremy on what music is and isn't
18:24 How do we train singers to be authentic?
23:04 Authenticity in the recording studio + the engineer
27:40 Energy flow, study, practice, rehearsal, performance

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[00:00:00] You can get 10 people sing the same song and they'll always deliver it even if they're attempting, even if they're attempting to mimic it as closely as possible, but they'll always come up with 10 different versions. And that's, I think, what we have to, that's what I was honoring in my talk, and I felt like this is a way of resolving personal authenticity with tra, with the authenticity to style or tradition is that in fact, it's upon you,

[00:00:32] it's really incumbent upon you to add to that tradition. And and that's what you do.

[00:00:38] I love that Louise.

[00:00:39] You bring something. It doesn't matter how small it is. It doesn't have to be have to be original. You don't have to strive for that. You just actually have to be yourself. 

[00:00:50] Hello and welcome to This Is A Voice season 7 episode 11, the podcast where we get Vocal about voice. I'm Jeremy Fisher. And I'm Dr. Gillyanne Kayes. And we have a guest with us. So looking forward to this conversation. This is composer, jazz person, educator, past president of the British Voice Association, all round nice person Louise Gibbs. And can I add thought Provoker? Yes. Hello, Louise. Hello, Louise. 

[00:01:42] Hello Gillyanne, Hello Jeremy. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:01:46] We all met again because we've known you for a long time. But we met again at the Global Connections Conference, which was the British Voice Association, the Association of Teachers of Singing, the National Association of Teachers of Singing from America, and the European Voice Teachers Association, which all of which is a mouthful.

[00:02:03] But you gave the keynote speech on beginning of day two and I was so thrilled with your topics. So we're going to pick your brains on authenticity, performance, and style and stuff like that. Can I just throw something into the mix right away? Because it reminds me of, a series of posts on a forum that I was on, somebody posted a singer singing I don't know how to love him.

[00:02:31] And lots of the C C M teachers really liked it. I disliked it because I said it wasn't authentic to the reason why the music was written. I couldn't get any story from it. I just had a vague kind of fuzzy emotion. And it was really interesting to see how people from different genre backgrounds responded to that performance and said, oh no, but I think she's being really authentic to herself.

[00:03:00] And I said, but she's not honoring the authenticity of the original composition. That just seems like a really tangible way to start us off on that chat. Okay. Louise, thoughts?

[00:03:12] What was behind my talk, and I think I mentioned the philosopher Peter Kibby. And he actually talked about authenticity because many years ago when I was at Goldsmiths, I taught a philosophy of music course. I co-taught that with a person called Tony Pryor. And we had a whole number of topics, but authenticity was one of them.

[00:03:34] And Peter Kibby makes this distinction between, let's say personal authenticity and authenticity to one's tradition and style. And so what you have

[00:03:48] Love that!

[00:03:49] There's a, I think there's an inbuilt conflict there potentially. Because when you have a tradition, you want to keep renewing that tradition and that tradition can only be renewed by your creative input or by the creative input of an individual. And I suppose this is the difference between, a tradition, which is a body of knowledge, of practices, of everything that we know about a music, about a style, about a way of doing something and about a way of presenting it. And. The, that's a kind of big body of knowledge, and that's why education's so important because we get involved in that body of knowledge through education, and we learn all those things, whether kind of formally or informally taught.

[00:04:33] that's what on the job learning is, it's that informal body of knowledge, but it is still a tradition. It's still a body of knowledge. 

[00:04:42] what the individual brings is because any tradition, any body of knowledge is furthered or enlarged or enhanced the input of an individual and the input of the individuality of that person.

[00:04:59] Because we know you can get 10 people sing the same song and they'll always deliver it even if they're attempting, even if they're attempting to mimic it as closely as possible, but they'll always come up with 10 different versions. And that's, I think, what we have to, that's what I was honoring in my talk, and I felt like this is a way of resolving personal authenticity with tra, with the authenticity to style or tradition is that in fact, it's upon you,

[00:05:33] it's really incumbent upon you to add to that tradition. And and that's what you do.

[00:05:39] I love that Louise.

[00:05:40] You bring something. It doesn't matter how small it is. It doesn't have to be have to be original. You don't have to strive for that. You just actually have to be yourself. 

[00:05:51] Oh, I've got, that's so many things. We're both exploding over here. You start though. This is so good. Yeah. Okay. First of all, the separation between authentic self and authentic context I think is fantastic. Because it also, it really validates my job, which is when I'm a collaborative pianist by nature and also by training.

[00:06:12] And I know I've said this and I think in the last podcast I said this, which is, as a collaborative pianist, I cannot play the same piece the same way for different people because that's not collaboration. That's here is my template and you must fit it. And that's not my job. What's so fascinating about this is that we have two separate things, which are related and when they link, even when they link badly, You end up with something quite unique.

[00:06:37] And I LOVE that because I love this about the uniqueness of every performer. You bring your entire history with you the moment you open your mouth to sing. So you get your own personal authenticity, which a lot of artists will strive for. Mm-hmm. And there was a bit in your speeches where that I didn't understand and now that you've said that I do understand it and I just wanna share it cuz you were talking about authenticity being within, working within the canon of knowledge that people already have about that style.

[00:07:10] So you need to know the style and you need to know the rules behind the style. And I thought that was the bit that I went, well hang on a minute, cuz I remember coming up to you afterwards and saying, I want to play devil's advocate on this. And it was the idea that because we have so many people now who are creating music at home in their own studio mm-hmm. online, on the computer, and. Weirdly, they don't even need an audience to do it. And I think this is a massive shift from the type of music making that we were doing 20, 30, 40 years ago. Where you were on tour and you had massive audiences and that was how you made your money. The audience was in the room.

[00:07:47] The audience was in the room. Nowadays, not only is the audience not in the room, but sometimes you don't even need an audience. And that made me wonder, do you need to know the rules of the music that you are creating or can you literally create anything? And the answer is yes and no. Because if you're going with personal artistry, that's personal artistry, that's personal authenticity.

[00:08:09] But if you're going with authenticity of the thing that you are creating, that's a separate entity. And I love that distinction. It makes so much sense to me. So what you're saying is there's a difference between someone. Writing a song and uploading that and someone working an existing song, an existing composition.

[00:08:29] Is that where you're coming from? Or even an existing style? Yeah. And, but what Louise is saying is that the artist who's doing the performance, whatever type of performances, is still always a co-creator. Yes. It's not just, there's this thing on the written page and this set of expectations that we must adhere to you are co-creating.

[00:08:50] Is have we got that right? Is that 

[00:08:52] Yes, you are co-creating.

[00:08:53] what you're saying? 

[00:08:54] Yes but the interesting thing is that even, you know, like if you think of the person working alone, they're not working alone because they're working inside the forms of what they've been listening to. 

[00:09:07] Yeah.

[00:09:08] formal tuition to take on board what you're hearing and to be able to reproduce it or to be able to modify it.

[00:09:18] I think that's what's interesting is that even when people think that they're working alone, You can't be part of the conversation unless, if you, you don't have the language and you have the language just by working. It's just, you start off imitating it, you know, like you think of somebody working on their own.

[00:09:37] They just, they start from imitation. That's how we all acquire language.

[00:09:42] but you are, you know, you are, taking on board harmonic language, melodic forms,

[00:09:48] You can't be said to make music if you're not familiar with musical materials. 

[00:09:53] Absolutely. Yeah. And as soon as you enter that world, then you consciously or unconsciously, you are part of that culture. And what goes with that, as, because people resonate with certain types of musics, don't they? There's a, a social and emotional response to music.

[00:10:13] It actually connects us with other people. It's why it's so super powerful. And so they're engaging with that, just as you said, even if they feel or someone's told them that they're on their own they're not. It's just a different medium.

[00:10:28] It's just, a different medium. But the activity is, it is just that your community then has becomes extremely wide and probably unknown to you unless you follow particular artists. And that's what's interesting about young people and their listening habits. I was talking about my own history and I was saying, cause of the isolation of where I was brought up you, you. you listened to things few and far between and, but you listened to them very deeply if you had a recording, because there wasn't very much around. these days. people are just kind of bombard Well, we all are bombarded by music from everywhere. And I have to say that what happens is that sometimes end up, people end up with features and I think that's probably why some people, some communities get either annoyed.

[00:11:17] I think the, the probably the right reaction is to, you know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Um, I, I would always take it positively. But some, some communities, musical communities feel like their music's been appropriated or misappropriated and and they may not, you know, think that's legitimate.

[00:11:37] But, but I mean, there is such a to take board, I mean, just, just in terms of listening and the influences that are around. It, that's mind blowing I think how,

[00:11:47] That's very interesting. And I realize this is a sensitive area, what you've just said about some communities get offended if their music is reworked or appropriated. And I'd just like to tread delicately there because I have to say, I agree with you. You wonder if at some point, if the song is out there, is the song a song and it needs a singer to sing it, and once it's out there, is that not a good thing. I just put that thought out there because seems to me once that's been created, even if it's just a recording and someone's heard it, then it's a gift to the wider community.

[00:12:32] Yeah.

[00:12:33] That's okay. Let me go, lemme go into that because you actually, or

[00:12:37] interesting

[00:12:37] you said something very interesting.

[00:12:39] Yeah.

[00:12:40] my take on that would be is it's a bit like the comment that I was saying people sing songs associated with jazz, but that doesn't make you a jazz singer. And I think that you have to, you have to say, okay, I'm singing a song associated with this repertoire, but until you know that repertoire, I mean call it a snobbishness a amongst musicians if you like, it would be like, Singing or the performance of certain liturgical works from let's say the 16th century.

[00:13:17] You know, People might want them misappropriated to be used in an advertisement or, you know, put, somewhere. I, I don't know how it might be used or I mean there are certain living musical communities. I'm thinking of the jazz community and sometimes people think, okay, this person sings the song very well, but there's a limit to what they do with it musically.

[00:13:40] because I'm just, I think the jazz community is a very specific community. Cause it's about composition and it's about improvisation. you expect that performances are not the same. And the thing is that you can take, you can misappropriate um, a 32 bar song from uh, the Great American Songbook turn it completely and utterly and you know, sort of unrecognizably, outta shape.

[00:14:09] And that's perfectly legitimate for jazz. But I think that's the difference when, there are certain things that go beyond the features of a song. And I think that's really what we are trying to get at. Sometimes it's not a matter of you just take the features, the outside features and reproduce them. and it's only when you know, when the features are reproduced that it sounds inauthentic. Sometimes. Like when I hear, this is why I don't sing in a language that I don't understand. All I'd be doing would be mimicking somebody's ideas what that language sounds like. That, and I am, but I dunno what it means.

[00:14:52] And I, that's where I think it lacks authenticity for me and.

[00:14:57] That's so in. Because you can't interpret it as you, that is so interesting. Okay. There is so much I want to unpick in this, and I'm gonna start with music is essentially music only exists when it's performed in some way or other. Because music can be written down and that's music, that's sheet music if you like.

[00:15:23] But even when you are as a musician, if you are reading sheet music, even if you're not making any sounds and you are reading it in your head, you are still creating something in your head that isn't actually on the page. The page is just a map, it's a guideline. And even if something is complete oral tradition where the music is only recorded, it's never been written down, and you learn it by oral repetition if you like, you are still doing something that is bringing you into that song.

[00:15:53] So if you like, just the very existence of music is a collaborative thing, either between paper and you or somebody else and you or somebody else's structure and you, so that's the first thing, which is music is designed to be performed in some way or other. It's, you have to lift it in some way.

[00:16:13] It's a communicative art. The next thing is what you're talking about is envelopes, style envelopes. Style envelopes really fascinate me because you can take a piece of music and its first iteration, if you like the first time it's performed, it's in a style envelope, and you can recognize the features of that style envelope that tells you it's this style or it's a mix of these styles.

[00:16:36] What, and that envelope can be stretched, but there's a point past which it can't be stretched and stay within that style. Where it gets really fascinating. I am als all ways and it doesn't mean you can't do go out of styles as matter of fact. That's the point. Learning to do that consciously is a fantastic exercise.

[00:16:55] Absolutely. And I think where the fun starts is where you do, somebody takes a song that is already, has an existing style or history or whatever and then pushes it so far out into a completely different style and creates something very new. And the people who know me know that one of my absolute favorite recordings, and people may not have heard of this, is Filippa Giordano Singing Casta Diva, which is a Bellini aria from 19th Century at Pitch with a pop style.

[00:17:24] I absolutely love it. Yep. Singing some of it in Chest voice kind of breathy, nasal, it is absolutely not what will be sung in the opera. It's wouldn't not be sung like that in context. It wasn't how it was written, it wasn't how it was designed to be sung, but she still made something extraordinary. And I think that's where, and this is where what's so fascinating is she is against the artistry or the authenticity of the song itself, but she is completely authentic in what she's doing.

[00:17:55] And I love that juxtaposition. I love it.

[00:17:58] It sounds to me like real creativity,

[00:18:01] Yeah.

[00:18:02] Which comes from, borrowing, putting something in a situation. It's quite a, I think it's very brave thing to do and it's interesting cuz sometimes it will come off extremely well and other times it will just fall flat.

[00:18:17] But I would imagine that it works because that person is just a really good pop singer.

[00:18:24] Yeah. Yeah. The next question really is training. Yes. Because how do you train people to be authentic in either or both of those areas? To, to the music and to themselves. I was thinking in particular, you were talking Louise about how much music there is to listen to.

[00:18:43] It's, one could simply be overwhelmed by what's out there. And you are working in a couple of training institutions at the moment. Is that right?

[00:18:54] I'm, working. I've got about four universities that I'm associated with.

[00:18:58] How are you helping these young performers navigate the contemporary world and finding themselves and yet giving them enough, enough language, if you like, to be able to create something that is authentic for them? 

[00:19:17] The first thing always begins with them. I think the thing is with when we know dealing with words. For me it always begins with words If you want to reach people directly, because, if you are just dealing with, let's say, teaching the piano, that's a more abstract connection with emotion. But, but if you're dealing with words, One of the things is that, you know, people have to get to know each, get to know themselves. And, I had a very funny experience recently with a student and I was saying was singing this song about, oh God, I've forgotten what the song is. It's from, I think it's from a musical.

[00:19:57] But anyway, it's about destroying somebody's car that you are that you are broken up with. And I said, you just, you have to feel rage. I said, so no. At one point you really love this person. And then they ran off with somebody else and, and now you know the way you're so full of rage that you're getting back at them.

[00:20:17] And she said, after a kind of like a silence, she says, I've never been in love with anybody. And I went, Oh God you know what the whole premise of the whole understanding is like, you've gone out the window. And I said, so I said, okay, do you have a dog?

[00:20:40] Yep.

[00:20:41] So do you see what I'm saying is you are having to get, and you're having to do that. What is it, a bit of archeology, go back. But it always starts there. And I'm also trying to get people to say well, you know, they're sad. And I said okay, there's different kinds of sadnesses and there's different things that you can be sad about.

[00:21:01] It's, it's not just happy or sad and I'm trying to get that, I'm trying to get people to explore the nuances of a particular emotion. Like even feel rage. If you feel rage. There's different kinds of ways to feel rage. And this is very interesting cause a lot of young people are they're horrified that I might be encouraging them to think about rage.

[00:21:22] You know, it's like, they, They edit themselves to such a high degree sometimes, I'm sure you find this, once we get to know each other, I've, it's wonderful what many people have inside them and the stories that they can tell and the things that come out, the things that they can draw upon.

[00:21:39] And that helps them really to get, to give that detail of personal expression. And it's, basically to get them to think about what they really feel and to find words to be able to articulate it and to realize that it's a perfectly egitimate, if not desirable thing to do in relation to being an artist. Because one of the conditions that I, you may remember, I put up the conditions or the identifiers of an artist is that they know themselves. That doesn't mean that they know always about themselves. Cause sometimes they can be so badly behaved, you wish they'd know themselves better, but they know about what they're doing. Most artists that I know, I think every artist that I know is quite an acute observer of human behavior and human morals and, all these I think, important things that are we, they're un they're then the current and we have to draw upon them if we want to be good artists.

[00:22:42] You know, If we want to be artists at all, we have to take things seriously. There's always a, there's always a moral and, uh, complex under everything that we're singing. That for me is a place to start. I know I even haven't mentioned very much technique, but it's a get things started in that department.

[00:23:02] Cause we have to develop that, 

[00:23:04] Do you know what's so interesting about the idea of technique here, which is, if you like, technique is the ability to repeat mm-hmm or reproduce something that is basically artistic. And that's why I'm really pleased that you start with we, in this conversation, we've started with the artistry point, which is your feelings, your emotions, your opinions, your self-expression your ideas, and they're all yours.

[00:23:33] And that's why this is in a way people can do this. They can do it without knowing themselves at all. The question then is, can they repeat it? And this is where really the singing teacher comes in or the Vocal coach comes in because it's like, and, and having just worked in the recording studio and I know I was telling this last Friday, we were in the studio helping somebody record their album.

[00:23:55] And we were taking six or seven different takes that they'd done and basically stitching the whole thing. It's knitting, I love it. Stitching the whole thing together. And I said, what we ended up with was a version that she'd never sung. actually sung all the notes and all the phrases in the, in that version, but she'd never sung that version.

[00:24:16] And part of the trick, if you like, is to then listen to that version and learn how to sing it. Absolutely.

[00:24:22] That's what's so fascinating. The thing is that the whole thing about artistry is that, and this is where it removes from the personal authenticity, because you have to start with personal authenticity you're doing is you're working, however you describe it within a musical form or a musical practice. And it has not only the kind of external hallmarks of what it sounds like, but it actually has a way of doing things. So what we are doing as, as teachers, as educators, is we're giving people the the tools to be an artist, which means to, as you say it's repetition it's reliability.

[00:25:06] Because if it's all very well having ideas about what you want to say or what you want to express. if you don't have the tools do it, and if don't have a form within which it's done, there are two things. You have neither the technique to deliver it, and also what you, this is what was an important aspect, and I think it's very few people really talk about this, is that you have the way of evaluating whether what you are doing is viable or not. And that's the only way that you can say, okay, this is, this is a good version of that. Or it's not a of that. Or and I think that's what's interesting because to be able to construct, make a decision about which parts you save which parts and that, that are going to make that perfect performance, as it were, you have to have critical faculty.

[00:26:04] And that ability to evaluate comes from being inside the artistic practice. 

[00:26:12] That's really interesting. Yes, I think it's yes. And I love that you referred to what we did in that session, and I can tell you in fact that the the singer has shared with me today that the two most recent performances she did. After doing the recording sessions went incredibly well. That's so good.

[00:26:33] As a result of that process. Can I, before we go on, can I just say that one the very thing that we were listening to when we were piecing all of the performances together was energy flow. It's like there's the energy, here's the, here's the arc of that energy that fits beautifully in there.

[00:26:50] We know where we're going with that phrase. It fe the emotions are all working. And that was why we got such good results from piecing everything together because the energy arc of the song works. And we were very fortunate because we had a wonderful engineer, quite a young guy, so good, whose attitude straightaway was, I'm listening for a performance that works. Yeah. So I'm not listening necessarily for accuracy. Things can be moved around. Yeah. And so what we started to do was note the performances that had something, and those moments. I mean, I we do that in teaching. 

[00:27:28] We do. 

[00:27:28] Last week I was examining, it's always interesting because I'm the external assessor. This is an institution that I'm I just, I'm dropped in and I'm like third voice. 

[00:27:40] Mm-hmm. 

[00:27:40] And is fascinating I'm doing just that and let's unpick the arc because this is fascinating and the energy, energy flow.

[00:27:52] So on a technical point, isn't it? We know, and I mean I do it myself. I'm saying, okay, sing whole sentences or sing whole phrases that's what you want, isn't it? You're not worried about an instant. I make this distinction in my students and it's helped them a great deal between study, practice, rehearsal, performance

[00:28:18] Love it already! Very nice.

[00:28:20] you, and I'm going around that and I'm saying, okay, here, we're just studying it. We're studying to make that sentence, or how to make that phrase start here and then go there. So for instance, give it a start. I've got a, I've got a strategy for starting which, or what I call the onset preparation.

[00:28:38] And it's just something that puts people in mind of what they have to do so that they know how it's going to start the sound of the feel of the opening vowel. then we've already checked that they've got what I call abdominal puff. So we've got da, da, da, and that's.

[00:28:58] That's before anything, any sound. So that on a technical level, that's that. So we've got started. Okay, we've launched off and we've got, and then this idea of trajectory, it's so important, isn't it? Because it's about flow.

[00:29:12] As soon, and, you know, or talking about like rhythmic expression of that phrase, what's the rhythm, what's the rhythmic pattern of that phrase? Bda. It's got, it's not just B and it's not, whatever. It's bda. And then we will say, okay,

[00:29:37] and it's got it's got its hyper, it's got a, and it's just, dealing with things like that. These are all things that as teachers, we are dealing with all these tiny little pieces, but we know that there's a bigger plan or a bigger idea, and we're talking 

[00:29:51] Yes,

[00:29:52] the components that we have identified what's going to help somebody understand the notion of that flow or energy flow.

[00:30:01] Because,

[00:30:02] yes.

[00:30:02] I mean, I know I'm talking to you I'm. I'm talking to people who know. Because I, I see your work and I just go, I just look at it and Marvel and I think, oh, how wonderful is that, and I love the way you do it so discreetly so that it's almost like invisible stitching, it's 

[00:30:20] Thank you.

[00:30:21] was like you put all those parts together and nobody, and I mean nobody even knows. And I know some of it because I do it myself, and also, cause

[00:30:30] Lot of teaching and I go, oh, that's, so it's like seeing something made me think, oh my God, that's so elegantly said, or that's so elegantly put together, or that's so clever and or you're saying something over here, but it's referring to something over here, which will come up later.

[00:30:52] Thank you for that. Yes. That's a lovely compliment. Especially you see the structure be underneath it, especially coming from you. Yeah. Yeah. Because I, I think sometimes what happens, you know, when we go out and we do stuff and I think it's very easy for someone to watch and go, oh, but they didn't do much.

[00:31:08] They didn't do this, they didn't do that. They didn't do the other,

[00:31:12] That's what's smart about it, isn't it?

[00:31:15] yeah, we think so. Yes.

[00:31:18] It's like it's all your own work, and I mean in the end all their own work anyway. It's not anything you do, it's what our students 

[00:31:27] Mm. 

[00:31:28] do, isn't it? It's always their own

[00:31:30] They're the ones going through this process.

[00:31:34] We're just, dunno. Midwives?

[00:31:38] Yeah. Yeah. They're the ones standing up and doing. There's a thought. Yes. We're midwives. Quite like the idea of being a midwife, but it's my new title. I'm a Vocal midwife. 

[00:31:49] We need to do a temporary wrap. We have got so much in this episode and we're gonna have to stop and bring you back again next week.

[00:31:56] Yes, please. So we'll see you next week, Louise. Bye.

[00:32:00] Bye then.