Red Singers and Blue Singers: Using Sound Affinities to Correct Issues and Expand a Singer's Palette
Vocal sounds can be thought of as a combination of sound spectrums with certain qualities on either end:
Loud / Soft
High / Low
Descending / Ascending
Slow Pitch Changes / Fast Pitch Changes
Small Interval Changes / Large Interval Changes
Buzzy-Edgy / Breathy
Glottal onsets / Breathy onsets
Bright-forward-tinny-spread / Dark-back-woofy-covered
Because some of the muscles of the larynx have multiple jobs in making vocal sounds, and because the vocal folds and vocal tract affect each other in certain ways, there are combinations of sounds on each spectrum that are easier to put together because they’re taking advantage of those related functions. I call these combinations sound affinities. For instance, the muscles that make the vocal folds thicker help make lower sounds AND louder sounds AND they let less air through, which tends to cause the vocal tract to want to be shorter and/or more narrow.
I find that most singers primarily utilize one of two groups of sound affinities.
NOTE: I’m using color names because I imagine the sounds that way. The color labels seem to be a little easier to digest because they have no qualitative or functional strings attached to them. They also work well when talking about mix in a visual way. I’m not trying to create some revolution in labeling. This is just my way of seeing things. It’s not scientific at all. Anyway, colors are fun. Just go with it for now, k? ;)
Singers who tend toward keeping the vocal folds thicker on average (sometimes referred to as chest-dominant)
They sing mostly loud
They're more comfortable on lower pitches
They're more comfortable with descending lines
They're more comfortable with slow pitch changes
They're more comfortable with smaller interval changes
They sing mostly edgy/buzzy with less airflow/hiss in the sound
They start most vowels by stopping airflow (glottal)
Their vocal tract likes to be shorter and more narrow, which makes more bright/forward/tinny/spread sounds
Their tongue tends to be closer to the roof of their mouth
The corners of their mouths tend to be pulled up and back into more of a smile
Their larynx tends to sit higher
They’re more comfortable with bright, open vowels (see chart below)
They tend to open their mouths more / keep teeth further apart
Singers who make most of these sounds naturally are usually put in alto and bass sections in choirs.
These singers tend to more naturally express self-assuredness, extroversion, groundedness, intensity, self-protection.
Singers who tend toward keeping the vocal folds thinner on average (sometimes referred to as head-dominant)
They sing mostly soft
They're more comfortable on higher pitches
They're more comfortable with ascending lines
They're more comfortable with fast pitch changes
They're more comfortable with larger interval changes
They sing with more airflow and more hiss in the sound (breathy)
They start most vowels with a bit of airflow/hiss/[h]
Their vocal tract likes to be longer and wider, which makes more dark/back/woofy/round/warm sounds.
Their tongue tends to be further from the roof of their mouth
The corners of their mouths tend to be pulled forward into more of a fish face
Their larynx tends to sit lower
They’re more comfortable with dark, closed vowels (see chart below)
They tend to close their mouths more / keep teeth closer together
Singers who make most of these sounds naturally are usually put in the soprano and tenor sections in choirs.
These singers tend to more naturally express sweetness, lightness, intimacy, vulnerability, introspection, innocence, receptiveness.
Singers almost always use some things from the opposite group (otherwise they’d be stuck in a pretty one-dimensional sound), but, overall, based on my teaching experience, they seem to naturally use most of the things in one group. They’re usually not WAY over on one end of the extremes in one group (although I’ve had a few).
Again, singers can always have issues from the other group, but they tend to have mostly issues from one or the other.
They tend to sing too loud.
They tend to have a hard time getting softer.
They tend to get louder when going higher.
They tend to be flat.
They tend to be flatter when going higher.
They tend to start all notes like they're lower pitches, sometimes starting with a slide from a lower pitch.
They tend to have a hard time with ascending lines.
They tend to have a hard time moving across larger intervals.
Their pitch changes tend to happen slower than they should.
They tend to have a hard time singing with a breathier sound, or even just a clear sound with less edge/buzz in it.
They tend to have a hard time starting vowels with more airflow or [h].
Their consonants tend to be too strong and explosive because they hold air back a lot when they start sounds.
They have a hard time making darker and more closed vowels.
They have a hard time with making dark/back/woofy/round sounds.
They have a hard time letting the tongue sit lower in the mouth.
They have a hard time bringing the corners of the mouth in.
They have a hard time letting the larynx go lower.
They have a hard time letting their mouth be more closed.
They tend to sing too soft.
They tend to have a hard time getting louder.
They tend to get softer when going lower.
They tend to be sharp.
They tend to be sharper when going lower.
They tend to start all notes like they're higher pitches, sometimes starting with a slide from a higher pitch.
They tend to have a hard time with descending lines.
They tend to have a hard time moving across smaller intervals accurately.
Their pitch changes tend to happen faster than they should.
They tend to have a hard time singing with an edgy/buzzy sound, or even just a clear sound with less hiss in it.
They tend to have a hard time starting vowels with a glottal stroke.
Their consonants tend to be too weak and fuzzy because they let a lot of air through when they start sounds.
They have a hard time making brighter and more open vowels.
They have a hard time with making bright/forward/tinny/spread sounds.
They have a hard time letting the tongue sit higher in the mouth.
They have a hard time pulling the corners of the mouth up and out.
They have a hard time letting the larynx rise.
They have a hard time letting their mouth be more open.
Also, singers tend to use the sounds in their natural group to “fix” everything that’s wrong. Since what’s usually wrong is something that’s easier for the other group, that means they tend to do a Blue thing to achieve a Red thing (or vice versa).
Example: a Red singer will sing louder in order to help themselves sing higher.
Example: a Blue singer will lower their larynx to help themselves sing lower.
If a Blue student is having a hard time with, let’s say, singing too softly, then creating an exercise that uses Red elements gives their vocal folds the best chance to get thicker and pull closer together. The harder it is for the student to sing loudly, the more of the Red sound affinities they probably need to help them sing louder.
For example, if you used all Red elements, your exercise would be this combo:
Loud (and STAY loud)
If changing pitch, get louder as note descends, or at least don’t get softer
Very small interval (or better yet, hold a single note!)
Slow pitch change (if changing at all)
Optional: Strong, forceful stop-plosive consonant (can help if student is really struggling with a glottal start, or can be used as an alternative to the glottal start)
Bright and/or Open Vowel ([ae] is both)
Open mouth (teeth apart)…and STAY open
Corners of mouth pulled up and out
Let larynx rise. Tends to rise naturally with bright vowels. (Think VERY bright…like a bratty little kid or Adelaide from Guys and Dolls). (I’m not a proponent of trying to force the larynx up or down, but the student can at least feel whether it’s going up or down by palpating their adam’s apple.)
If you were working with a Red student who is singing too loudly and you created an exercise using all Blue elements, your exercise would be this combo:
Soft (and STAY soft)
If changing pitch, get softer as note ascends, or at least don’t get louder
High (but not crazy high)
Faster pitch change
Breathy sound…exhale gently while singing, like fogging up a mirror
Optional: Fricative consonant (can help if student is really struggling with [h], but [h] tends to allow the most air through)
Dark and/or Closed Vowel ([u] is both)
Closed mouth (teeth closer together)…and STAY more closed
Corners of mouth pulled in
Let larynx drop. Tends to drop naturally with sounds like an opera singer, Santa Claus, or with trying to yawn throughout the sound. (I’m not a proponent of trying to force the larynx up or down, but the student can at least feel whether it’s going up or down by palpating their adam’s apple.)
Use whatever affinities work for the student to achieve the goal. If a sound takes them further from the goal, use something else. My experience is that, most of the time, the affinities help each other, but there are always exceptions. This is just a relatively reliable starting place.
Once you find the combo that helps your student achieve the goal, it’s important to monitor the elements and keep as many of them constant as possible. The singer will naturally drift to the end of the spectrum they’re more comfortable with as the note pattern continues, e.g. a Blue singer will get softer when they’re supposed to be staying loud. They probably will not realize they’re doing this at first and will need regular input from you to help them notice, correct, and stick with their goal.
At times, the student will probably use one or more things in their natural group to achieve the goal, even though they most likely need the opposite thing to actually achieve it. For instance, a Blue singer will often blow more air (exhale harder) in order to get louder, but they generally need the opposite to achieve loudness, especially down low. They need to hold the air back with better vocal fold closure and vocal fold thickening, which is aided by things like glottal starts, stop-plosive consonants, or even the feeling of ever-so-slightly grunting while singing. The Red singer will hold their air in in order to get softer when they instead need to keep exhaling more while also staying soft (they almost always get louder when they try exhaling more).
Change It Up
Once the student gets the hang of it and successfully meets the goal for several repetitions, you can switch an element from the other group, challenging the vocal folds to do that job without as much help from all the sound affinities…the helpers. For instance, maybe you switch out a larger interval for the smaller interval. Or maybe you switch out a darker vowel for the brighter one. Whatever you choose, leave everything else the same so you can see how the student’s instrument reacts to that change. The student needs to be able to maintain the goal with the changed element. If they can’t, they apparently still need the “training wheels” of that helper sound to achieve the primary goal. Try changing a different one to see if they can maintain it.
If they can maintain with that one changed element, you can change an additional one, following the same process. You’ll start learning which helpers they really need right now. The better the muscles get at making the goal sound, the less they’ll need the helpers.
Red Problems + Blue Problems
It’s very likely you’ll have students who are having trouble with, say, soft AND loud, or maybe they sing too soft (Blue problem), but they’re also not great with higher notes (Red problem). In either case, they need exercises in both groups. Focus on getting higher notes with Blue sounds, and then focus on getting louder with Red sounds. After making some sounds in both groups, use the method above where you change one element at a time, seeing which helpers they really need to accomplish each goal.
Then try singing high (Blue) AND loud (Red). Mix and match elements from both columns to see what gets the best result for that student. You should have some clues from the exercises where you switched out an element or two. Maybe they need a more open mouth (Red), but they also need more airflow (Blue). Or maybe they need a stop-plosive consonant (Red), but they also need fast pitch changes (Blue).
Shades of Violet
The reality is that students will need sounds from both groups if they want access to full expressive possibilities in their music. We sing mostly in the shades of violet, occasionally singing really blue or really red depending on what we’re trying to say in that moment.
In order to help a student access more colors in one song, design exercises where they go from one color to the other on one spectrum in one exercise. Messa di voce is a great example…going from soft to loud and back to soft, keeping all other elements the same. It’s helpful to create exercises that focus on the spectrums where the student is more stuck. Maybe that’s pitch. Or volume. Or vowel. Once you pick one element that you want them to be able to change through the phrase, use helpers as needed to reach the goal. Example: if the goal is going from low (red) to high (blue), they may need volume helpers of going from loud (red) to soft (blue), and/or vowel helpers of going from an open vowel (red) to a closed vowel (blue). Use the same concept of sound affinities to achieve the goal.
It’s important to have some exercises where they go from as red as they can to as blue as they can, and vice versa. They’ll likely lean toward their natural color when combining colors, e.g. a Blue singer will tend to sing softer over all when going from loud to soft. They’ll need regular reminders to really sing loud on the loud parts. The opposite is true for a Red singer. Once they’re really utilizing both colors (both ends of the spectrum), ask them to start finding the volumes between, like a medium loud and a medium soft on the way from loud to soft. This is when better mixes and smoother register transitions start to show up.
The Balancing Act
Singing the full spectrum of each sound element helps singers stay vocally healthy, flexible, coordinated, and strong. It prevents repetitive injuries, adds dimension to their sound, and helps them better respond to natural expressive intent.
As you’re expanding their color palette, make sure they lean toward the sounds they use most in the genres they sing most. You don’t want a strong natural belter to start becoming a more Blue singer, but if you never do Blue exercises with them, they’ll have more and more issues with flatting and other Red issues. Keep a constant ear on where their voice is headed, compare it to where they want to be, and adjust course when needed.
If you’re interested in online sessions where you’re teaching your own student while trying out these concepts with in-the-moment feedback from me, sign up here.