“Nine”, “Crazy Heart”, “Mama Mia”, “Sweeny Todd”—all these movies have singing roles and star actors who aren’t known for their singing voices. Dubbing an actor’s singing voice is not seen as necessary these days, when formerly almost no stars in musicals used their own singing voices (Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn). (BTW, I just attended a great class taught by Marni Nixon, who DID sing in those movies! She’s still fabulous!) Many actors now seem game to try their hand at singing—although Brad Pitt swears he never will.
The connection between singing and acting is that they are similar skills. “Really good actors have really good ears”, says Eric Vetro, Penelope Cruz’s vocal coach on “Nine”. “They have a good ear to mimic dialects and imitate characters.”
That said, it still takes quite a bit of practice to be able to skillfully sing a solo or belt out a higher note. You know (as a singer yourself) that the technique involved in keeping the ribs expanded and controlling the exhale to a tiny stream of air is a difficult athletic maneuver, not unlike a relaxed but controlled golf swing. Another skill that actually helps technique (it occurs in the right brain, which is a much better singer than the left brain) is that actors are expert storytellers. Expert characterization and emotional connection plus charisma can cause a great actor to give a great musical performance.
However, sometimes even that can’t carry the day, and I assert that it’s because Pierce Brosnan was using his left brain to sing that he sounded so memorably awful in “Mama Mia”. If the singer is in left brain, he is critical of himself and listening to himself. This causes tension and poor tone quality—which Pierce Brosnan and Clint Eastwood both demonstrated while singing in musicals. Clint Eastwood said “I vowed I’d never do that again”. He did though—in the song he wrote for “Gran Torino.” (Beautiful song, problematic voice). Clint and Pierce could both improve if they changed the brain they sing with!
Michael Dean, the chair of vocal studies at UCLA department of music, says that only 5% of people cannot improve their voices, and another 5% of the population have outstanding voices. “Everybody else in the middle can sing, but they feel that they’re terrible at it and that feeling makes them so vulnerable and so frightened to sing that when they sing, of course, they sound terrible.”
Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University and the author of “This is Your Brain on Music”, says that among early humans, singing was done as a group, in primitive rituals. “It’s only in the last 500 years in the West, since the building of concert halls, that we’ve seen a difference between a class of performers and the rest of us,” he says.
The idea that “you’re either born with a great voice or you’re not” is actually not true. That is just a notion that has been passed down in this country. In Africa, where I was lucky enough to see this phenomenon for myself, everyone thinks they can sing. And not just sing—they all know how to sing harmony parts! Hearing how to harmonize is seen as a natural ability that everyone has.
Since the brain is so involved in singing—more than with any other instrument—it makes sense that what you think about your voice, will be true for your voice. If you think your voice sounds awful, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So even if you’re a movie star, you can feel vulnerable and frightened about your singing. Committing to the emotion of the song (the story being told by the song) can radically improve your voice. Singing Karaoke can also improve your stage presence and your focus, as well as your characterization. Singing in front of a group actually helps you sing better, because the energy from the audience can lift you to new performance peaks. In Karaoke clubs or on movie sets, like stone-age caves, singing brings people together. Jeff Bridges says he sings on every movie set and encourages everyone on the set to join in. “That’s basically what you’re doing when you’re acting,” he says. “You’re harmonizing. Singing and acting are basically the same thing.”
When you are in right brain, and concerned with the story you are telling the audience through song, then most of the time the correct breathing, pitch, and energy are present. If you are listening to yourself and comparing yourself to other singers, you’re in left brain and you might end up sounding like Clint Eastwood. And unless you’re after that kind of singing voice, you’d better think again—this time, in right brain!