Sing like Chaka Khan: the funky head voice

My student, Erikah, is a talented singer. She has been studying with me for roughly two years. I have been witnessing her transformation recently, from a shy hummingbird to a confident soul singer. Her interest ranges from Coco Taylor to Betty Davis to Lana Del Rey. I think Erikah knows her own voice very well, since the songs she picks need a dark, rich tone in the lower register, and her voice is just that: a true alto voice. What a gem! I get chills whenever she sings “Wang Dang Doodle.” Erikah can go on stage and mesmerize the audience right this minute, but she is concerned that she hasn’t acquired the technique to open up her upper range. No matter what your voice type may be, it would be nice to be able to shout soulfully using a strengthened head voice. A good example, if you would allow me to trip back to the 80s, is Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.”
During the song, Chaka’s voice mostly stays in the lower register (that is to say, between G below middle C and up to A or B above middle C). If you are a natural alto/mezzo soprano, singing this song will be a breeze except in the chorus: We stare into each other's eyes And what we see is no surprise Got a feeling most with treasure And a love so deep we cannot measure On the last word, Chaka takes off and shows off her gritty high voice. That’s the moment the audience’d say, “Yeah!” But that’s where Erikah felt so defeated. She said, “I can’t do this. When I tried, I sounded like a chicken who hasn’t eaten for 3 days! ” (Actually she didn’t say she was an emaciated chicken. I added it because it might make my point across better.) I knew exactly what kind of vocal tone she was after. Erikah wants flexibility and ease, AND the tone so common among soul singers. Not the classical vocal tone, which is airy, clear, and pristine, especially in the high register. What she wanted was the edgy, assertive, and a bit dirty --- you know, funky voice. When Chaka Khan sang the line, she seemed to SUDDENLY jump up to the high notes, but when Erikah and I listened to the part over and over again, I learned that that was not so. As I will propagate forever as long as I do this blog, breath management is the heart ’n’ soul of great singing. You breathe in deeply, feel the rib cage open up, pull in your stomach (right below the lungs, not the lower abdomen) gently and sing with a relaxed jaw. It’s easier said than done, I know. But learning how to do this is the foundation of good singing technique. On top of that, you have to learn how to switch between chest and head voice. On that day, I had Erikah do a vocal work out. Later I made a replication of the funky exercise. Try to do this exercise WITHOUT feeling the tension in your neck. Repeat the exercise until you don’t hear too much change in vocal tone when going between low and high parts. Before jumping to the high notes, pull in your stomach. Look up to the sky and sing with a smile. I told Erikah that she was just an inch away from greatness. If only she lets go of what is holding her back. I will copy the beginning verse of “Ain’t Nobody” because it so applies to the love we feel about singing. Captured effortlessly That's the way it was Happened so naturally I did not know it was love The next thing I felt was You holding me close What was I gonna do? I let myself go (The student’s name was changed in order to protect her privacy.)

Leave a comment