Intensity Vs. Volume: A Common Misconception
about Pop/Rock Singing

There are two fundamental categories of singing that involve different considerations regarding vocal technique:  Non-microphone singing (opera and musical theater) and microphone singing (everything else).  The fundamental differences between the two being that with non-microphone singing the singer must be able to project in a theater over an orchestra without the aid of a microphone.  Consequently volume or 'carrying power' is a necessary element in these genres.  But with microphone singing the singer will always sing into a microphone, thereby eliminating the necessity for volume.  

When a singer has volume or 'projection' as a continuous component of their vocal production, the vocal cords will always be working much harder overall than they would otherwise.  This is an important consideration for pop/rock singers, since volume reduces stamina and there is no reason for it to be an ingredient of a singer's technique if it is unnecessary.  

There are a lot of terms which are loosely thrown around in singing which can be very vague and misleading and cause confusion and problems to aspiring singers.  One of the most common of these being 'powerful voice'.  Someone will be impressed by a rock singer and, for lack of a more descriptive term, say: "Yeah, man, I heard this singer last night, boy, did he have a powerful voice!" "I like him, his voice is, like, really powerful!" Consequently, many rock singers feel obliged to make 'power' a part of their singing practice.  But a term like 'powerful' can have many different meanings.  It can mean that a singer has stamina or the ability to sing for long periods of time on consecutive nights without getting vocally fatigued, it can mean the ability to sustain long high notes or even refer to a singer's ability to impact an audience emotionally.  But the most common interpretation of 'powerful' is 'loud'.  Now this would be an accurate description of an opera singer, since one is usually hearing that singer's voice as is, unamplified.  But to use that term when describing a rock singer can be very inaccurate and misleading, since in this case you are hearing the voice amplified by god-knows-how-many watts of electrical power.  Under those circumstances, volume is not a necessary component, since it should be the electrical amplification which is taking care of that job.  But many rock singers feel that they are not fulfilling their duty if their voices aren't loud, consequently they 'blow their voices out' all the time.  This is one of the most common causes of vocal fatigue, chronic hoarseness and eventual vocal damage.  (As a general rule, if you're blowing your voice out after just one gig, you can pretty much bet you're really doing something wrong).  

Also, in many cases the feedback monitors are not set up correctly, sometimes causing even experienced singers to feel that they have to push to be heard, not realizing that the audience can hear them perfectly fine.  No singer can compete with electrically amplified instruments, it's insane to even try.  If you aren't being heard, don't push, turn down the instruments and turn up the damn microphone!  

The fact is, most fans of rock music would be shocked to hear what their favorite singer sounds like standing next to them in the same room singing without a microphone.  They would probably be expecting much more volume than they were getting, which brings us to the importance of 'intensity'.  If one had the opportunity to hear a rock legend singing without amplification, there would still be the stylistic intensity there, but without the volume.  It is appropriate to have intensity in most types of rock singing as a necessary stylistic component, but it needn't be accompanied by volume, this being one of the most important technical skills of rock singers and the only way that rock singers' voices can survive the rigors of touring and recording without ruining their voices once their bands take off.  But unfortunately intensity is often confused with volume because of what the microphone adds.  How does one achieve intensity without volume?  Unless you are fortunate enough to have been born with a great 'natural' voice, this is primarily a question of gaining experience just by doing it with guidance from voice teachers who have experience teaching rock singers or seasoned professionals who have been there and can guide aspiring singers to find the right 'balance'.    

-Originally published in The Compendium, Philadelphia's Music News, Vol. 2, Issue 8