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What Singers Can Learn from Joni Mitchell

As a teen I was drawn to the American ‘hippy’ music scene. Its many artists inspired me to think about life differently – none more than Joni Mitchell.

I frequently cite Joni in my teaching – particularly at the University of Goldsmiths where I coach singer songwriters.

It’s because Joni has that prize quality that is invaluable to any artist today: total uniqueness.

In fact, I see her unique approach as instructive to singers today:

1. Be yourself

As soon as Joni arrived on the scene it was clear to everyone that she was her own woman. Her style, her lyrics and her song structures were as ‘out on left field’ as they were captivating; she wasn’t copying anyone!

Joni was unhappy in school and even as a teenager was clearly creative and uninterested in conventionality. This quirky personality has been her trade mark for decades.

In today’s saturated industry, uniqueness coupled with a strong sense of self is a must for original work. A young singer songwriter today should be tenacious about what makes their work different.

2. Break the vocal rules

Joni took that difference into her delivery and my second point is about her breaking the rules of ‘what is beautiful’.

Her stark approach to register shift is her trade mark, flipping between her chest voice and her head voice (as well as falsetto at times) to manoeuvre her way through a song.

Here she is doing just that in performance of one of her great hits:

Technically, she is moving from speech quality or ‘full voice’ to a tilt shape ‘cry’ where the timbre is sweetened by the tilt of the thyroid cartilage.

She is also able to flip into falsetto – a much lighter touch where the vocal folds are barely touching as they make the note and the resultant quality is very breathy.

3. You aren’t your teacher – you’re you!

Teachers of the voice today might advise that Joni’s unique habit of flipping in and out of shapes could be exhausting for the voice. I guess you have to make up your own mind.

So, my third point concerns this specific vocal quality for a different reason. Vocal teachers now will be likely to train your voice so that you can ease through your registers with what is called a mix.

Basically, this technique involves altering the space in the larynx and the position of the vocal tract to allow for a smooth transition through one’s range. Different singers will make this shift at lower or higher ends of their range to effect varied vocal qualities according to stylistic preference.

I think it is important to ask your teacher to help you find the safest way for you to retain the style and approach you want to use for your specific individual sound, rather than become cloned to sound like your teacher.

In short, if you want to yell – yell! And if you want to roar – roar! If you want to flip – flip. It can all be done safely and many of the greats are still out there to prove that this is the reality!