Vocalizing Versus Singing

Beautiful vocalizing is often mistaken for beautiful singing. Both sonic phenomena require the production of a ringing tone that exploits the peculiar vibration of the ligaments and muscles — the cords — at the back of the human mouth. Both require an acute sensitivity to intonation (being “in tune”). And both demand a steady flow of compressed air to support elongated sounds that stretch far beyond the limits of plain speaking.

But they’re essentially different exercises. Vocalizing is chiefly about making a sound. Singing is about communicating through sound. Vocalizing is a craft. Singing is an art.

Much of what one hears on popular radio and on television programs like “American Idol” is vocalizing. Some of it is so pleasant, so sonically lovely that it fills the ear with invisible nectar. It sounds good. It’s a nice noise.

Singing, on the other hand, involves the expression of an idea, an emotion, a story.

Most vocalists are adept at representing an idea or an emotion; they can tell a story second-hand, as though it was a tale told to them by someone else. An accomplished vocalist doesn’t allow her private feelings to complicate the performance; too much genuine feeling gets in the way of producing a steady and concentrated sound. A singer, conversely, shares her personal involvement with a lyric; the song isn’t somebody else’s story, it’s hers, and she’s living it now, in the moment.

Great actors move us because we feel as though we’ve eavesdropped on their most private moments. We watch them experiencing, not pretending to experience. Great singers do likewise, except their “script” is a simple poem set to harmonically appropriate accompaniment. This is why vocalizers of limited range and limitless expressiveness– Bob Dylan, Dave Frishberg, Johnny Cash; people who would be sneered off the stage at any televised talent contest– speak to their listeners so profoundly.

The singer communicates the song. When done well and truly, the effect is searing, uplifting, unforgettable. When done poorly, it’s just vocalizing.

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