Coordinated, Uncomplicated Onsets

Uncategorized Dec 03, 2023
The Liberated Voice
Coordinated, Uncomplicated Onsets
Welcome, and thank you for listening.
This afternoon, I will lead a singing class on coordinated onsets. "Onset" is just the word that voice teachers use for how we initiate sound at the beginning of a phrase. So this morning, I am thinking about beginnings, about the way that we start things.
"Coordinated onset" sounds like a very complicated term for something that is essentially very simple and intuitive. Initiating a sung phrase is ideally not terribly different from initiating a spoken phrase in conversation. The more spontaneous and genuinely motivated a sung phrase is, the more expressive it will be. The more you feel like you are communicating that phrase as though it were the first time it ever occurred to anyone to express such a thing, the more present and genuine you will feel when you sing it.
So what makes a sung onset different, and can make it a lot more complicated, than the way you would initiate a spoken phrase in conversation? Well, it's simply the fact that when you sing a phrase, it isn't the first time it ever occurred to anyone to express such a thing. Unless you are freely improvising, and even then, there will be structural considerations that make it more complicated than everyday speech.
For most styles of singing, when you perform a phrase, it will not be the first time you have expressed the words and melody of the phrase. And unless you are a singer/songwriter, you did not compose the text or the melody, but are performing what someone else composed. Perhaps someone very different from you, perhaps even in a language you yourself do not use to communicate in everyday speech. When we consider all of this, it seems like initiating a sung phrase is vastly more complicated, than starting to speak when you're having a conversation!
This is why, where singing is concerned, it is necessary to talk about "coordinated onsets." It requires some skill, and some contemplation, to be able to bring the same spontaneity and emotional commitment you express in speech, to your singing.
Vipassana meditation, insight meditation, helps us learn to make clear distinctions between the components of our experiences, so that we can better observe and appreciate them. I'll offer some observations about the distinctions between how we initiate sound in speech, and how we initiate sound in singing. For the sake of conserving syllables, I will use the word "onset" for both.
In conversation, our onsets will vary in quality, depending on who we are talking to, the quality of our connection with them, the nature of the conversation, and how high the stakes seem in the moment. In a calm, thoughtful conversation, you will listen carefully to what the other person is saying, formulate your response, and your thoughts and words will flow out of you in a gathered fashion. By contrast, if you are having a charged confrontation with someone you disagree with, you may find yourself in a mode where you are talking over each other, and your onsets may be accompanied with a more intense quality of pressure, resulting in louder volume.
You can see how the nature of the interaction, the level of trust and comfort you have with the other person, and your emotional state, will all impact the quality of your onsets, as well as the timbre and volume of your speaking voice. And all of this happens spontaneously, without your having to think about any of it. (If you're second-guessing what you're communicating, that will also impact your onsets and your voice, but that is a topic for another day.)
Now let's consider what is different when you onset for a sung phrase. I can think of three major differences:
  • One is timing. The phrase needs to begin at a specified moment, so that it lines up with the other musical lines underway. Whether you're performing with other instrumentalists or singers, accompanying yourself with a guitar or piano, or singing to a backing track, each phrase has to begin at a predetermined time. In conversation, you just start speaking at the moment that feels right to you, but there are temporal, rhythmic considerations when you sing.
  • Second, when you sing, you are communicating through a predetermined text and melodic structure, rather than using your own words and allowing your voice to rise and fall in pitch to naturally emphasize what you are saying. The emotional impetus, the expressive motivation to begin each phrase, still needs to come from you, but it will then be channeled through this predetermined text and melodic structure.
  • Finally, the length of time it takes to communicate the phrase, and even each syllable within that phrase, is also determined by the composer, even if the composer is you, an earlier version of yourself. The way you prepare for an onset for each phrase must take into consideration the predetermined length of time it is going to take to express it.
Those are the differences, and so those are the challenges of developing skill at coordinated onsets. These are the ways in which sung onsets are more complicated than spoken onsets. Here are some thoughts on how to minimize the sense of complication, and even take advantage of the fact that so much of what you are expressing has been predetermined for you.
The key is to focus on the one, very important thing, that has not been predetermined, which is, you. Your feelings. Your desire to express yourself. Your imagination, as it unfolds in real time.
Knowing when it's time for the phrase to start provides the opportunity to gather your thoughts and check in with your feelings. This potentially makes your experience of singing more like a calm, thoughtful conversation, even when what you are singing about may be intense, passionate emotions.
Having the text and melodic structure predetermined absolves you of having to find the right words, or figuring out what to emphasize. You can prepare your texts, your diction, and the coordination of the melodic line ahead of time, and then channel whatever you are feeling through them, at the moment of performance.
Knowing how long the phrase is, and how long to sustain each syllable in that phrase, means you won't have to worry about anyone talking over you. You get to have your say, supported and affirmed by all of the other musical lines that are unfolding along with each phrase.
Being able to take advantage of all of this predetermined stuff so that you can feel supported by them, depends on your preparation, and that is a function of your singing practice.
Something else your singing practice can help you to do, is to make distinctions between different qualities of motivation that can arise. There can be a desire to express yourself in the moment. There can be a concern about getting your interpretation "right," in the view of others who practice your style of singing. There can be concerns about performing the text and the music accurately, in accordance with the musical style.
A well-coordinated onset is one that allows you to express yourself in the moment, so that what comes through in the phrase is your feelings, your desire to express them, and your imagination, as all of these experiences unfold in real time.
If you would like support for the technique and mechanics of coordinated onsets, this is a topic that is covered in depth in my Vocal Fundamentals online course, which is why I will be teaching a class on it this afternoon. I have included information about the course in the episode description. I will also offer a guided singing practice on onsets tomorrow, Monday, December 4th, at 10:00am Eastern, on my YouTube channel. Please join me for the practice, or listen to it afterwards when I post it to the podcast.

The simplicity with which we initiate vocal sound in conversation can inform the way we initiate each phrase we sing. Sung onsets require somewhat more complex coordination than spoken onsets, but the structure that singing provides can actually make sung onsets simpler than spoken ones.
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