One day this past summer, I was sitting in a recording studio, there to consult on vocal technique for my student Jacob as he laid down tracks for his new EP. I was honored to be included in these sessions by his producer Cory, who brings some serious musical chops and pedigree to the table, so I was keeping my head down until I was needed – and eventually I was. Jacob was working on the verse of one his originals, and was singing a phrase that hovered in a pretty low range for a powerfully vibrant belt tenor. The tone was sounding off-pitch and dull, and after a few unsuccessful attempts to elicit a good take, Cory discreetly switched off the booth mic and turned towards me, quietly minding my own business in the corner.
“How do we fix that?”
I signaled to turn the booth mic back on. “Jacob,” I said, “Stop making a face like a blow-up doll.” I can safely say things like this to Jacob. He’s over 18, has been my student for over five years, and his parents refer to me as his “3rd mom,” after his mother and stepmother. 3rd moms can tell their sons not to make a face like a blow-up doll. Jacob gave me the thumbs up.
The next take was perfect.
Cory, a man of wonderfully dynamic expression, rewarded me with the most gratifying reaction possible; he swung around in his chair to stare at me incredulously, eyes wide and mouth open. I smiled graciously, sat back in my chair, and shrugged. “This is what I do,” I murmured, as humbly as I could manage. It was a nice moment for me. We get so few opportunities in life to bask. I thoroughly enjoyed mine.
“What just happened?” Cory demanded.
“Well,” I explained, “he was singing Flarp.”
Cory was not convinced, so I could see that more explanation was in order. “You know, flat-sharp. The tone sounded heavy because of all the artificial weight he was adding to try to get more volume out of his low register. Then he starts pushing with extra air pressure to get it back in tune, which made the tone sound overly bright. So the pitch comes off as flat and sharp at the same time. Flat-sharp. Flarp.”
At this point, the engineer Brandon jumped in. “I hear that so much during recording sessions, and I never know how to fix it!” Cory was nodding and writing. “How do you spell that?”
I encouraged him for his own sake and dignity not to write that down. It’s a term that I’ve made up – not exactly industry standard. But it probably should be, because if you have ever sung or produced a singing track for a vocalist, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Flarp takes many shapes and forms, and can pop up in a variety of voice types and registers. It’s hard to see it coming, but you know it when you hear it. The problem is, when Flarp happens, it can be nearly impossible for even the best ear to distinguish whether the pitch is too high or too low. It’s kind of both.
I recently was discussing the Flarp phenomenon with Performance High’s brilliant recording/technology/stage performance coach Justin, and once he had acknowledged and embraced my odd terminology, he shared an interesting fact. He said that while reviewing visual feedback, a Flarp note doesn’t appear to be wrong. Technically, it registers as on-pitch on the screen, he said, it just SOUNDS awful.
Based on this perspective, I’m inclined to believe that Flarp shouldn’t be treated as a pitch issue at all, but rather as a mechanical glitch – or usually a combination of glitches that need to be individually identified and addressed. You will rarely hear me tell a voice student that they are singing flat or sharp. “You’re pushing,” I might say. Or, “You’re too lateral.” Or maybe, “You’re too open.” Possibly, “You’re damping inside your mouth.” My students on any given day may offer up any of a veritable cornucopia of ways with which they could be screwing with me – I presume, to keep me sharp and honest. It’s in my best interest as a teacher to learn to discern the individual technical components causing the issue.
Here’s my easy rule of thumb, most of the time, when I hear “pitch” issues:
When I hear “flat,” I ask myself, “What’s heavy?”
When I hear “sharp,” I ask myself, “What’s tight?”
So to diagnose your own particular brand of Flarp, we need to look for what is heavy, AND what is tight.
Jacob’s Flarpness was the result, I believe, of three individual issues working together. In his attempt to add power in the less pronounced low vocal register, he was over rounding his mouth and depressing his chin, creating a dropped soft palate (heavy) and constriction in his throat and tongue root (tight). Then to compensate for the resulting swallowed and dull tone quality, he was also adding what I would describe as slowly-forced air (heavy) and some additional air pressure by over-engaging his abdominals (tight) – all in an area of his voice that really wants the air to flow, not to be pushed.
This is, of course, my best educated guess. I’m not in there!
The other day, I had my own unique Flarp moment. I was singing back-ups at rehearsal for the next Performance High showcase with studio owner Adrienne, and she mentioned that it was hard to tune with me. “Dang it,” I replied. “I’m Flarp.” I was singing in head voice over an awkward break, and was allowing it to fall too far back, and adding too much air pressure to try to make a richer and less birdlike quality. The result was still birdlike, but a very stocky bird, like the robin who used to nest in my back yard every spring, and I always assumed was taking advantage of his girth to extort worms from his less hefty neighbors. My quick fix? “Let’s switch harmonies!” Easy enough, but not productive for the point of this article. If I wanted to actually address the problem, I probably should have aimed for a more middle placement, and then figured out what ratio of air flow/air pressure best supported the power I was going for.
How to Self-Diagnose
- Pay attention to your soft palate. Is it stuck and tense? Or saggy and disengaged? Engage it!
- Look at the shape of your mouth. Is it over-rounded or over-puckered? Are you depressing your chin or larynx? Reshape it!
- Consider your throat. Does it feel constricted or pulling in on itself? Is your jaw or the root of your tongue tight? Relax it!
- Visualize how your air is moving. Is it forced or pushed? Free it up!
Flarp happens. But you don’t have to suffer anymore. When you hear it happening to you, simply look at the function or dysfunction of your resonance tract and air output. Do your best to identify what is creating excessive weight and tension, adjust accordingly, and you will be on your way to a better, Flarp-free existence. Your studio engineer will thank you. Actually, we ALL will thank you.
For more information on Jacob’s NON-Flarpy EP Release, visit: https://www.jacoblarsonlive.com/shows