In this mecca of budding – and full-bloomed – Broadway and opera stars, the trills and scales of vocal polishing are a familiar sound.
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.
Cross describes the other type of scream, fire, as “white noise” or a scream without a defined pitch, which has come about with the evolution of heavy metal music. “It doesn’t sound like singing at all. It sounds like mayhem and noise and violence,” she says, noting screamers who use fire in heavy-metal bands like Slipknot, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, and Arch Enemy.
That Cross – a product of traditional ballet, piano, and choir in her Texas childhood – would find herself an icon in the heavy-metal commmunity is somewhat counterintuitive. But by the time she’d graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England, she was determined to become a rock star. She moved to California and, later in the 1980s, to New York to work for record companies and music-business lawyers by day and play in punk bands by night. Punk bands didn’t generate much income, but her classical voice training allowed her to pay the bills by working as a voice coach. When a fellow rocker started recording underground bands in his basement, he called on Cross for her vocal coaching expertise after he realized that the bands couldn’t get through a recording session without losing their voices.
“Since he knew I was a voice teacher, he thought I could figure something out. I had really no idea what I was dealing with,” Cross says, laughing about the first time she encountered the screamers. Even with all her punk experience, she was still astounded at the raw energy she had to channel through the throats of budding screamers. “These kids came in and they were screaming, and I had to figure out how to help them and how to make it so they could scream without injuring [their voices].”
Apparently, Cross says, what she did kept them on stage screaming loud enough to become “kind of sort of famous.” And soon, the tattooed and spiked started signing up for lessons with Cross. Heavy-metal notables, such as Slipknot and Lamb of God, are under her tutelage.
“There was this kind of mentality when this kind of metal became more popular that if you took singing lessons you were a sissy,” Cross recalls of metal’s bang-up aesthetic. A busted-up throat, she says, is often seen as “a rite of passage especially with metal because its such an aggressive hazing experience.”
It’s Cross’s appreciation for that aesthetic – the undeniable passion of the scream – that gives her rapport with her students.
“Melissa gets what we’re trying to do within our realm of metal and hard-core, she’s the premiere vocal coach,” says D. Randall Blythe, lead singer of the popular heavy metal band, Lamb of God. “Screaming in front of 70,000 people can be a pretty powerful experience,” adds Mr. Blythe, who has been paying $200 an hour with Cross for five years to preserve that experience.
“I couldn’t find anyone who was growling. I think that’s why [Cross] is special – she embraces it and openly teaches it,” says Angela Gossow, the lead singer for the Swedish metal band Arch Enemy, who started screaming as a teen when she wanted to “sound as dangerous as these bands.”
Though Cross sees all kinds in her apartment office – the aspiring singer/songwriters, the bouncy Broadway wannabes, the bad-boy metal bands – she says that screaming is her comfort zone and her speciality.
She’s even pushed for it to be a part of modern performance canon: She taught a recent master’s class at Columbia University, where she urged vocal coaches “to teach everything” from classical voice lessons to rock ’n’ roll screaming. “There’s a lot of people who want to learn how to [scream] and do this right... They should be taught how to use their machine to do what they want to do.”
And while she’s drawn to heavy-metal music because of its “passion,” this mother of an 8-year-old son does draw the line: “I feel very much at home in the metal community.... even though you wouldn’t catch me dead in a mosh pit or with a tattoo.”