Adrian Deevoy goes larynx-in-hand to seek advice from Britain's most swinging singing teacher, Tona de Brett
Singing's easy — you just open your mouth and do it. Or do you? Adrian Deevoy found out that there's a lot more to it than that when he interviewed Tona De Brett, singing teacher to the stars.
"Singing," decrees Tona de Brett with a theatrical wave of her hand, "is easily the most personal of musical forms."
She's right of course and she has a plethora of anecdotes (in which the star invariably dies of embarrassment) to prove it. She's had McLaren clamming up. Green going scarlet, Morrissey squirming, Annie Lennox croaking and Paul Young severely reprimanded. Not that Tona de Brett is a harsh woman but she does know about singing. Ask any of her celebrated successes whether her methods are effective and not only will they agree, they'll positively sing her praises.
So what has this loquacious 53 year old, silver haired woman in the heart of suburbia got to offer Pop? Well she couldn't teach Johnny Rotten to sing. Whatever would have happened if she had?
"Well he never wanted to sing anyway. He was sent by Malcolm and it was obvious from the start that learning to sing and developing a good voice was the last thing on his mind. He sat down by the piano all folded up with his head down while I talked about breathing and pitching and nothing came back at all. So I said, 'I can't talk to a nothing, you've come here to learn to sing, the least you can do is talk!' So eventually we got chatting and it transpired that he didn't want to sing, he simply wanted to be notorious. But I asked him which groups he liked and he said that he liked the group The Doors, so I suggested we tried to work on one of their songs but he genuinely couldn't pitch. Singing was just so far down on his list of priorities he wasn't prepared to even try."
Isn't that proof that tone deafness is alive and well?
"I don't think it is. It's just a case of not listening. I'm sure if Johnny and I had worked harder over a longer period then he would have got it right. You see the ear is the only thing that will pitch you correctly. Some people have to listen harder than others to pitch but nobody is incapable of getting it right.
So how do you approach a first time student?
"Well if you came to see me I'd assume you were in a band and the first thing I'd ask you would be what is the problem? Because more often than not people come with a voice problem. This mainly stems from not looking after your voice or wanting to know how to look after your voice. A problem in the Pop field is that a lot of singers never even think about how to treat their voice before they get on stage. I suppose this is mainly because people are chosen to sing because of their attitude or their marvellous haircut rather than their voice, although that has died off with the end of Punk."
With voice preservation and power in mind what is the best way to sing?
"You have to think 'open throat' and sing from the stomach and not the throat. The vocal chords are very delicate and need space in which to vibrate, so if you think of the throat as an organ pipe — wide and open — then the vocal chords will have enough room to do their own thing. The ear will adjust the pitch and the power comes from your breath and your middle, from muscles of the diaphragm and the lower abdominal muscles. So if I sustain a note I can increase its volume by pushing up from my stomach. Whereas if you push from the throat you do very little but sharpen the note and strain the sound. I used to have this spinster tutor when I was 14 who would say, 'Come on gels give it a good push, it's just like having a baby!' and this chap who used to say to his pupils,'push lads, it's just like having sex!' Now I don't know about that from a fellow's point of view but I can imagine it is a similar action — a big muscular push."
How important is the mouth?
"The mouth's very important. The voice has to be let out. So you mustn't sing in our English ventriloquial style, you have to think Italian; bold and expressive. You have to open your mouth and think of it like the bell of a clarinet and always over-emphasise the mouth and face movements. Poor Edwyn Collins came in and sat where you're sitting now (the centre of a large acoustically bright room containing two grand pianos and dark, polished furniture) and played a tune on his guitar and then sang two or three lines of the song and I couldn't understand a single word he'd sung. So I picked up on a phrase and said we could work from that and he said, 'What! Those aren't the words at all!' and he laughed, bless him."
How do you deal with people who aren't completely tuneless but sing slightly sharp or slightly flat?
"People generally pitch high because they are nervous and the note gets strangled by the tension in the throat and chest muscles, and flat notes are normally due to laziness. That's why I have to relax people and give them confidence so that they won't be nervous, and encourage them so they won't be lazy."
Once pitching is roughly right, what then?
"Then we start on some punchy exercises with basic scales so that they can make sure that the sounds are coming out properly. I normally use 'ooh' and 'aa' and 'ee' sounds. Then we go onto slightly longer scales which are harder to remember and more intricate in melody. Then we might go on to a chromatic scale or a diminished scale. There are tongue twisters for diction which you do on a downward scale in one breath."
Does the theory get technically intricate?
"No, not tremendously. But I think it's a good idea to learn to sing a chromatic scale even if you know you'll never use one. But these aren't so much sight-singing lessons as practically orientated affairs."
Is it important to understand the biology involved?
"It's important to have a rudimentary knowledge but you needn't know exactly how a larynx works, though it is important to know about lifting your diaphragm and being able to relax the muscles in your throat and neck and you must know what you're capable of so you don't overdo it."
Was that Paul Young's problem?
"He is a silly, silly boy! It wasn't in the least surprising that he damaged himself. He has a good voice but he sings from the throat. You can see the veins standing out on his neck when he sings. He'll destroy his voice."
Is exercise important?
"It's necessary to keep fit. I'd advise deep breathing exercises similar to those we have on the tape and simple physical training like sit-ups are good. Swimming is very good for breathing and it keeps the muscles alive and flexible. You need to look after yourself like an athlete would. Obviously smoking is out."
How about drink and drugs? Okay. Any chance of a cup of tea instead?
"In itself it wouldn't appear to damage your voice but it does give you an over-inflated sense of your own abilities and you push yourself too far. Funnily, if you have a sore throat you should avoid milk products as they clog everything up."
How do you deal with singers who want to growl and croak and sing in a style that is technically wrong?
"Well Lemmy's son from Motorwhatsit came along. A beautiful child with long blonde hair and the moment he started to sing he craned his neck up to this imaginary microphone stand just like his dad.
But he said that he didn't want to sing like his dad because he had such a terrible voice. I can't understand how Lemmy does it really. The only theory I can come up with is that he has nodes on his vocal chords and it doesn't bother him. I wish I knew...
"The vocal chords are very delicate and need space in which to vibrate"
"Ari Up from The Slits came in and growled, 'Alio, I'm Ari', and I said, 'Oh my dear you have the most dreadful cold,' but it turned out that she talked like that because she had spent two years screaming and shouting rather than trying to sing."
Do producers understand singers?
"I feel that a lot of them don't and they'll too readily blame the singer and say he's singing flat when he might just be unable to concentrate properly due to the pressure that's being put on him to get it right. You don't make people sing any better by standing over them and shouting. You should simply leave it for a minute and try again when you feel you are ready."
Has Sting got a good voice?
"Not a bad voice at all. It is a little mismanaged at times but he has got a gift. His pitching is often too high but that would appear to be fashion. Like it is fashionable for women to sing at the bottom of their ranges like Alison and Siouxsie and Annie do. If only Pop writers would realise that extremes in pitching can be used to great effect then maybe they wouldn't write whole songs with one end of a range in mind."
Who would you say is a naturally gifted singer?
"It may be due to her training but I would say Annie Lennox is the most naturally gifted singer in the Pop sphere. But as I said she places a lot of her music very low hence she has awful trouble with her throat. I had her along once but her throat was so bad she couldn't sing so we talked about it. I think Curt Smith from Tears For Fears has a very good voice. He sounds very comfortable when he sings. Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins is marvellous. She's a joy to work with because she produces such a beautiful sound. Rose McDonald from Strawberry Switchblade has an excellent voice as well — very mellow and rich."
Do you remember what you did to Green?
"Blonde boy who blushed a lot? He had a very nice voice but he was so awfully embarrassed by it all. Because I do manhandle my customers sometimes, particularly if they're not breathing properly. I touch them around the middle like this..."
"...and I ask them to touch me around the middle and feel how I push my diaphragm out. Well poor Green got terribly embarrassed by all this and in the end he decided that he would prefer to sing without moving his diaphragm. And that poor thing from The Smiths, Morrissey, came and sat there fidgeting and licking his lips and I could hardly get a squeak out of him. I know he's got a very nice voice but he just wouldn't sing.
"Martin Fry came in but he wouldn't sing. He just came in for consultation but wouldn't sing. It must be a bit odd having the reason why you're a star questioned. It must be strange coming from hordes of adoring fans to a middle aged woman with grey hair looking very ordinary and telling you how you should be doing it."
Do you ever get asked to transform people into famous voices?
"Yes and of course this is ridiculous because the first thing you should want to sound like is yourself. I don't turn people out with a Tona de Brett sound or an anybody-else-sound — that would defeat the object and be brainwashing, not teaching. But I got a woman from a record company with this young man saying that she wanted him to sound like a cross between Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush! I told her to go and buy the records. I can't teach people to mimic."
Why do English singers adopt mid-Atlantic accents?
"I wish I knew. Here we are in England with all these lovely regional accents and everyone affects these horrid accents. I suppose it's just conditioning. Look at poor Sheena Easton with her lovely soft Scots accent and she felt that she had to sing with this horrible twang."
After hearing the nation's stars naked in the studio during the 'Feed the World' project what do you think about studio effects. Are they distortions of the truth?
"It's an awful old chiz isn't it? You get these very weak voices coming out with these huge textured sounds. It's a big con really.
"I think you can always tell if your singing is good and there aren't any gadgets that can give you that feeling deep down. You get a buzzing on your chest with the low notes and a ringing in your head with the high ones and if it feels good, it very often sounds good. Studios can take a lot of spontaneity out of singing. The idea of dropping in appalls me. How can you put the same emotion into one line or take one line completely out of context?"
Will we ever see the dedication of the Vatican's Castrati Choir again?
"I think you'd have to be incredibly dedicated to do that sort of thing. I don't think I'd ever ask any body to do that. It's quite a decision ha ha ha."
Do poor, suffering singers who come to you get mothered into the bargain?
"The singer is an emotional creature anyway so when they come and look pathetic and very sensitive you can't help but mother them. Especially the skinny ones who are suffering for their art."
Is singing a dying art?
"I hope not. No, of course it isn't. I don't think we need great singers any more but we have many very good singers. People look after their voices more these days, anyway. We've been through that careless period where everybody took drugs and drank and smoked all the time. I used to have to tell people to knock off the drugs because they can do irreparable damage, but I just don't seem to do that anymore. They seem keener to learn, keener to sing. It has become a musical priority again."
Unlike John Lydon?
"But he didn't do too badly, did he?"
Do you realise we've talked about sex, drugs and Punk Rock? This is a turnabout what with Malcolm McLaren getting into opera.
"Yes, Malcolm was largely responsible for a lot of this. Do you remember my appearance in the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle? Shall we sing?"
"Open your mouth wider and push. Just like you're having sex!"
Feature by Adrian Deevoy
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