The Zen of Screaming

The Zen of Screaming

This is an interview first published in spring, 2010.

 

Melissa Cross is a New York based vocal coach by way of being an actress and musician herself.  Although she teaches all kinds and styles of vocal training she is best known for teaching people how to scream correctly.  She has worked with Maroon 5, The Bravery, Ben Lee, Shinedown, Thursday, Coheed and Cambria, Slipknot, Stone Sour and Andrew W.K. to name a few.

 

 

I knew this was going to be an insightful and fun interview when while describing how she became a vocal coach she said, “The music business is such a bad boyfriend kind of relationship. It’s like the ultimate bad relationship, so toxic. I really stepped over it and found a very wholesome place for my soul to be and my work to be where I could be a performer and be helpful and be a star in my own mind.”

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Melissa- thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with me. You’ve worked with several platinum artists and while you teach all kinds of different singers you have become known as someone that teaches people how to scream correctly?

 

MC:

 

In the music business there has always an underground movement that bubbles to the surface. Rap used to be underground. I happen to have had my finger on the pulse of the bubbling underground but I didn’t do it on purpose. I was there at the right time for some reason.  Metal has always been there. It’s such a tired and true commodity because of the loyalty of the fans. And metal is a lifestyle choice, just as rap is a lifestyle choice. That’s why it survives even in the worst climate in the industry, because of the fans. I was privy to that movement in the early 90s. There was a producer that was trying to get a singer through a recording session without coughing up blood. I went to school with him years back, and he said, “You’re a voice teacher. You can figure this out.” And he brought this kid in and some other kids in, and some of those kids turned out to be well known. One of them was Jesse Leach, who turned out to be the lead singer for Kill Switch Engag.  People started talking and said, “Did you know there’s this girl that actually figured it out?” And then this onslaught of artists just came one by one. There was Andrew W.K. and this whole genre of people that used their voices in ways that most voice teachers would say, “Oh, you can’t do that. Stop doing that.”

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You also teach people to sing conventionally and not just guttural or Cookie Monster too, right?

 

MC:

 

As with everything, there’s more underneath the surface. Cookie Monster is just one kind of scream. Metal has now compartmentalized itself into all different kinds of metal. We have hardcore, we have metalcore, we have metal, death metal, black metal. And each one of these mini genres are defined by different positions in the larynx. It’s absolutely bizarre. Some sociological paper could probably be written about how this developed, and these little tribes and their sounds. Some of them need to sing now. I’ve always taught singing. I was a voice teacher and taught people on Broadway and people in the movies. But I was a singing teacher that was willing to embrace a subculture that most people would say was just blasphemy. These kids don’t have the option to stop. They’re making a living doing this and have to do it sometimes 30 days in a row with just a couple days off. It’s impossible to do it in the way that it started out where they were doing shows on the weekend and would have the whole week to recover. If you don’t do this properly, you will fry yourself. And it’s happened many times.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And that’s true for any type of singing, right? If you do it too much, you can burn out your vocal chords.

 

MC:

 

Absolutely. Often times these things happen at inconvenient times, where there’s a buzz on the record and a tour coming up. I don’t know if you remember – I’m sure you do – but Chris Cornell in Soundgarden actually in the middle of the tour for SuperUnknown – had to drop everything because he blew his voice out. He’s okay now, but I was often getting people that were on the brink of having to quit. The thing is, vocal damage is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, there are some damaged vocal chords that make millions of dollars, even in the non-metal world i.e. Rod Stewart or Bruce Springsteen. These are people who have nodules and bumps on their vocal chords, and this is what makes them money. The unfortunate thing is they have to navigate that condition. It makes their performance inconsistent. For instance, the top metal band – there are two of them that invariably go gold and sometimes platinum – and one of those, his sound is absolutely predicated on the damage of overuse and cigarettes and drinking and lifestyle and screaming in titty bars. His sound is that. The way he operates, his voice is magnificent, because he gets this overtone on the scream that has a high end and slices right through bass and drums, and he has the darkness of the bottom part because he’s a baritone, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, but it’s damaged. It’s not an option for someone like that to go to the doctor and have an operation to scrape that stuff away, because then he wouldn’t be able to sound like that anymore.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I did want to speak generally about vocals. What generally is a first session with you like? What are you telling people? Are there things that people can do on their own that would help them protect their vocal chords?

 

MC:

 

The first thing that happens in a lesson with me is that I would give you the manual to your car or your voice. I would give you a brief overview and something that couldn’t be over-thought. If you think about things, you hold your breath, and you need your breath for the sound. The information has to filter through you in a spontaneous way, which means it has to filter through your imagination, which is why all these voice teachers seem so wacky with all their imagery. That’s the only way a teacher can bring forth the behavior is through imagery. Getting back to the point, a person needs to understand that proper vocals depend on the balance between the closure of the vocal chords and the amount of breath pressure in the lungs. Basically, there’s this zone or balance that needs to be second nature or completely intuitive that’s always there. It’s about learning the breathing. But breathing in singing is not “in, out, in, out.” It’s the way to maintain a level of air pressure in the lungs without holding the breath and without locking it down and without letting it go. There is some muscle memory stuff that needs to be addressed breathing wise. It sounds very difficult, but it’s not. The breathing is a very important part of it. And then the imagery about the way the vocal chords work needs to ultimately be something about where you are like an artist painting with sound. Rather than approaching it from a technical way, just like any instrumentalist, like a guitar player – he doesn’t look at his fingers and then calculate which note comes next. It becomes a feeling thing. It combines all the senses. You paint with vowels. I like to think about launching vowels to the back of the venue. Once you start that imagery stuff, it’s funny how everything starts to work all by itself. There is a good way for you to learn all this stuff, and I don’t want to be too self-promoting, but I have a DVD “The Zen Of Screaming” that covers everything.  It explains everything technically and visually, the breathing, and everything else. The second DVD is all about the mechanics of the distortion of actually screaming. The first is basics and the second DVD is extreme phonation. You can’t go to #2 without getting #1. Again, that breath pressure thing is so key to making things work, so you have to start from the beginning. It doesn’t take that long, but you have to make a commitment to be very precise and do it right. Don’t skip or cut corners.

 

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What are the common things you see people doing as vocalists that are glaringly wrong?

 

MC:

 

The first thing I would say is that they imitate. Instead of being the sound or being inside themselves and making sound, they listen to what they think they are supposed to sound like and try to copy it. What that does is robs the material of all the soul and actually makes you use your throat to imitate. Imitating is the biggest one. Comparing yourself to the sound of a CD – this is particular with pop singers and rock singers and not metal singers – they listen to a CD and think their voice is supposed to sound like that, when actually that is layered and compressed and EQ’ed. No one sounds like a CD in the air live. They say, “I want to sound like so and so” and then so and so has tons of reverb and it’s compressed. It’s ridiculous. You can’t compare yourself to anyone or anything you hear on a CD, so you might as well just be yourself. That is what you need to do first – be yourself.

 

The other one is, people think you need more air for high notes and more air for long notes and more, more, more. Everything needs to be contained within a consistent place. The strength does not come from the idea of louder or better or sweeter or more beautiful, all those labels that come into the mind when one’s performing vocals. Those labels actually go against proper vocal production, because it operates the wrong part of the body. It goes straight to the throat. If you think or imitate or become judgmental or even make appraisals of what you’re sounding like, your breathing is off, because it’s going through the wrong part of the brain. It’s like driving from the passenger seat. Taking big gulps of breath is the big one.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What are some of the common misconceptions about voice?

 

MC:

 

A big misconception is that teas and lozenges help. The vocal folds are in the windpipe, so no tea or lozenge will ever, ever reach your vocal folds, because you’d choke to death. It’s in the airway. If you get anything into your airway, you’re calling 911. Hydrating and drinking water is something you need to do over long term, not just drink a gallon of water before you go on. It makes no difference at all. Everything you do to your vocal folds has to be done systemically. The placebo affect is a different thing. Placebos work. Anything that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, go for it. If you think that stuff works, do it, because it’s really all about a mind thing. The lozenges and the teas and all that stuff, what that does is makes a coating of the area above the airway, so there are nerve endings there that receive warm and fuzzy messages. If you have vocal damage and you get hoarse, those lozenges are not going to fix it. The only thing that fixes swollen vocal chords is vocal rest. It’s like a sprained ankle. You have to stay off it and use it a little bit and let it restore itself. Swelling is swelling. It’s inflammation. You shouldn’t take Aspirin, you shouldn’t take Motrin or Ibuprofen – only Tylenol when you’re on the road. Blood thinners are really bad for trying to heal broken chords. You need blood to be blood. Watch out for blood thinning painkillers.

 

Smoking is bad for you, in case you didn’t get the memo, but especially at a younger age, you can’t blame a bad show on smoking. There is one instance in which that is not the case, and that’s when someone is truly allergic to cigarette smoke. That’s different, because if there’s anything that causes mucous, you don’t want that. But young people that have been smoking are going to get their ass kicked down the road. When you’ve been smoking for 25 years or 30 years, you’re going to start to see the damage. Up until that point, it’s absolute rubbish that smoking is the cause of vocal problems. It’s technique, technique, technique. I have people on the road that smoke and drink and do drugs. The ones that stay up all night are the ones that get into trouble, because lack of sleep and getting sick are two components that invariably lead to vocal damage without proper technique. You’re on the road, you’re not sleeping, you’re innately fatigued and have a cold, and the mechanisms you need to operate the voice are compromised, so you will get damage especially without training. Smoking is bad for you but not necessarily the culprit in vocal problems, especially at an early age.

 

Drinking is a loss of control, so it works really great for people that are on the anxious side. Drinking is okay, but you can’t go out of control, because you’re going to lose that consistency and control you need.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

So drinking affects breath control then?

 

MC:

 

Well, it does if you’re drunk. It affects everything. It’s also dehydrating, so if you need to drink, then you need to drink a lot of water. The reason water is important and good and even imperative for screamers and people that are on tour for any kind of music, is because water creates padding for when the vocal folds come together, as they do in phonation of any kind. If you don’t have that padding of liquid, you’re much more likely to get damaged because there’s not enough fluid in the tissue, so it hits harder. The vocal folds come together to vibrate at pitches, and even when I’m speaking, if I’m making a sound, it’s because the pair of my vocal folds are coming together, stopping air and creating sound. When they come together, they need a padding and a protective fluid base so they don’t bang so hard. It’s like having something underneath the carpet to give it that protection.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Having been doing this as long as you have, do you have any general music advice or advice beyond just protecting your voice?

 

MC:

 

I would say that you need to keep in mind why you’re doing this. It doesn’t have to be a verbal reason, but it’s a love. Don’t get caught up in music business bullshit. You’re doing it for love, and just keep doing it and don’t worry. The music business is in a state of flux, and truly the direction with a major label is that they’re looking for the next big thing. The next big thing is something that nobody has seen before. If you do anything derivative at all, and you want to be involved on a larger level with a major, forget it. If it sounds anything like anybody else, it’s not going to fly, because there’s not enough money anymore to promote artists that sound like anybody else. And also, if you want to go the major way, you have to have brilliant, bullet proof songs. If the writing is not bullet proof, forget it; don’t go with major labels. If you have a cool vibe and maybe the songs aren’t great, but the whole trip is very good and you love what you’re doing, you can promote that very easily yourself to a point where someone would take on the distribution of that product. You’ll make a living, but don’t think of it as the Britney Spears path. Just be grateful that you’re not going into debt and can feed yourself and pay your expenses and live off the t-shirt money. You do it for love, not for money, because there’s no money. Forget the money.

 

If you are interested in Vocal Coaching learn more about Melissa Cross.