How to succeed in screaming without really being Axl Rose
Vocal coach Melissa Cross teaches heavy-metal rockers to find their inner beast without getting hurt.
In this mecca of budding – and full-bloomed – Broadway and opera stars, the trills and scales of vocal polishing are a familiar sound.Skip to next paragraph
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But the growls and groans coming from voice coach Melissa Cross’s 11th-floor Manhattan studio on a recent afternoon are just plain strange. The scene inside looks pretty odd, too: The petite, fiery haired Ms. Cross crouches on the ground, hands pulling at the air to coax Chris Clancy, a young rock singer with a ponytail, to whimper, bark, and growl like a dog.
When his timid whimper turns to a gravelly grumble – a scratchy, atonal “mmmm ah!” – Cross holds up her pointer and pinky finger, the rock ’n’ roll victory sign.
Her student has achieved, well ... a perfect scream.
New York is full of vocal coaches who help polish pipes, but Cross is one of a kind – she doesn’t teach singing; she teaches screaming. Her students – the heavy-metal faithful – generally don’t know from show tunes or arias. They come to her femininely soothing studio – filled with paper lanterns and Buddha figures – to wail with confidence.
As basic as it may seem, screaming is not just that primal complaint every baby learns in the crib.It’s as much an art as, say, hitting an A flat with no hitches. Guns and Roses’ Axl Rose and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler don’t just find their inner beasts without a vocal compass. Screaming takes skill.
Puppy whimpering aside, this is a serious business, says Cross. “It involves some finesse and technique.... It’s an art, it’s a craft, and it takes practice like any instrument.”
So what’s to learn?
How not to damage your vocal cords, basically. It involves developing screaming skills through vocal exercises, learning how to breathe, and building confidence on stage, and Cross says singers often try to replicate the screaming they hear on heavy metal albums, but this screaming can take a toll on vocal cords when “the emotion of the moment, of the lyrics, causes them to overuse the muscles or the vocal folds and they become swollen.”
Many students end up with Cross because they’ve lost their voices and had to cancel tours.
Clancy, for example, was classically trained in voice back home in England, but realized it was no preparation for screaming when his throat started bleeding post concert. That’s when his mother invested in his musical dream by purchasing Cross’s instructional DVD series “The Zen of Screaming,” a sort of Scream 101 for people who can’t drop by her studio for a lesson.
Clancy finally had the chance to meet Cross in person for lessons in New York, and he says she has helped him gain an octave in his vocal range and channel emotion without harming his voice.
The perfect scream, says Cross, is “about rectifying the balance between the breath pressure and vocal cords” and taking the aggression and tension on the vocal cords out.
It’s a rather complex endeavor to explain, but she says there are two categories of screams: heat and fire.
Heat involves screams that have pitch – as in soulster James Brown’s “Wowww!” in “I Got You (I Feel Good),” the wild wailing in Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” Warren Zevon’s “Oww woo!” in “Werewolves of London,” or Little Richard’s high-pitched “Ooo!” in “Tutti Frutti.” Cross also lists Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Aerosmith, Motley Crue, and Ozzy Osbourne as heat screamers.