Welcome to the fourth Episode of the Between the Vocal Folds podcast. Every episode features a new guest from the music industry to discuss any and all topics related to singing and the voice. This week’s guest is David Wu, who is the CEO and founder of Riff Shop, which has a YouTube following of over 159,000 subscribers who want to take their metal screaming to the next level. Riff Shop has also been featured in Metal Injection, Esquire and Revolver publications. David took on a 30-day learning how-to-scream challenge, which he then took what he learned from his journey and is now offering a free screaming crash course to his students.
On Pursuing Your Passion
I want to start off by asking you about your musical journey before your screaming experiment. What were you doing musically before you started screaming?
About four years ago, I was working corporate. I had this job working at a startup. It almost felt like I was living a double life, where during the weekdays I’d be looking at the clock every single hour of every single day thinking, “Oh man, I wish I could just be playing music or doing something that I was passionate about.” But on the weekends and on the breaks, I was on tour as a touring musician. All I was thinking about was how, “Man, there’s no financial future in this. How do I reconcile these two different paths where I’m not exactly happy with it?” What ended up happening was that the startup ended up not doing so well and I got laid off. So I thought to myself, “Okay, well, what should I do? Should I take the safe route and dust off my resume and apply for more jobs? Or, should I take the route of passion and do music full-time?”
Then I had a moment that clicked. I was like, “I just tried the safe route, but I got laid off.” That clearly wasn’t working. With that being said, I thrust myself into a do-or-die situation, where I was like, “All right, well I don’t know exactly how I’m going to make it, but I’m going to do music full-time or I’m going to die.” It started in the form of a YouTube channel, Riff Shop. The first year, I call it the year of paying my dues, where I was super creative and I wasn’t able to really make an income off of it, but I was really happy to be creatively expressive. We put out a couple of music videos, some of which went viral. Namely, there’s two of them that pop out in a lot of people’s consciousness where I taught people how to drive stick shift, taught using death metal. And then there’s another video where I taught people how to code using HTML, taught using death metal. Those were super fun. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.
Then around the second year, I started to make enough money in order to pay rent. Somehow, we were able to get to the top 15 crowdfunded musicians on Patreon, the crowdfunding platform. That was really cool. I was very creatively fulfilled just being a musical artist. But it hit a turning point when I realized that, okay, well, although I’ve done it and I’ve got that chip off my shoulder, I realized that I wasn’t really fulfilled. I wasn’t any longer fulfilled by just being creative. I wanted to do something that was a little more purpose driven. What I ended up doing was I ended up surveying my audience and asking them, “Okay, well, if I were to teach you guys something, what would you guys want to learn?” By far, the most common thing that they said is that they wanted to learn how to scream. So I was like, “Okay, well I’ve always wanted to learn how to scream.”
I knew that there’s people that were way better than me. But there was an interesting thing that I found within the screaming community and the screaming educational resources, was that there was two things: there was this thing called the curse of knowledge and there’s this other phenomenon called survivorship bias. What happens for a lot of people who learn how to scream is that they have survivorship bias. Say for example, if they tried this one exercise and then they got their intended vocal result at the end of it, the problem is although that worked for them, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that one approach would work for everybody else. That’s why there’s a lot of YouTube tutorials online that are preaching about how, if you just do this one exercise, then you’ll unlock your scream. But that’s survivorship bias at its core, is people who are preaching something that worked for them, but it doesn’t necessarily work for other people.
In the other camp, we have people that they did struggle and they did become almost like academics of their field of study. In this case, it’s obviously, screaming vocals. What ended up happening was that they got so into the weeds of things that they had what’s called the curse of knowledge. They could no longer distill that information into a way that beginners can understand. There was a couple of almost different psychological phenomenon that were happening that made it, essentially, impossible for a beginner like me in order to understand how to do that. With that being said, I was like, “Okay, well, I have this problem. If I document my progress of learning how to do this, then I could showcase my method, the actual progression, realistically, what it would take to learn how to scream.”
Then from that point, I made sure also to learn, of course, study the anatomy. I interviewed a bunch of experts, touring musicians, vocal coaches. Then I made sure to be able to teach people with different vocal types and different vocal habits. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have this survivorship bias, that I could teach people with other vocal habits. And I was successful at doing that. Then it was at that point when I was like, “Okay, I would love to help other people just because I know for me personally, it didn’t come naturally. So hopefully I can relate to other people who are also struggling with their screaming, their songwriting and help them.” So that brings us to the story of where we are so far.
On the 30 Day Screaming Challenge
My next question then is actually, just to elaborate a little bit more on this 30-day screaming experiment that you did and what you learned from that?
Sure. One thing that I’ve found is that it’s really, especially when it comes to screaming, a mental game. It’s really about persisting, even though deep in your gut, you don’t think that it’ll work out. There’s this concept that this author, Seth Godin, talks about. He calls it “the Dip,” where on the road to mastery, when you first try to do something, at first, you’ll see a lot of success. You’ll be like, “Oh, this is going great. I’m on my way.” But as you continue to work, then the marginal improvements, the marginal return that you get in exchange for the time that you spend, starts to dip. You start to not get as much results by the more hours that you put in, the more time that you practice. Eventually, you hit a point where you’re like, “Okay, wow, I’ve practiced all this time and I haven’t seen any results.”
The thing is, most people give up at this dip when their return starts diminishing and they can no longer see benefits. But the thing is, on the road to mastery of anything, there is this dip. But the secret is, if you keep persisting throughout this dip, then your results will eventually increase. Then you will eventually hit that transformation, but you have to get through that dip. I had heard about this theory, “the Dip” by Seth Godin before, but I think that this experience was definitely almost a manifestation of it. I was like, “Okay, this is like a real thing.” For anybody that’s listening to this who’s struggling with mastery of anything, really the Dip is real. At first, you’re going to think, “Wow, this is really easy.” Then you’re going to hit a point where you’re like, “Wow, I suck. Maybe I should give up.” But you have to just keep on pushing through that and eventually you’ll get through that Dip.
Is Screaming Bad for Your Voice?
At Singdaptive we are all about vocal health. One of our main principles is that any pain is not okay. Sometimes singers think that pain is good. Some pain is good. It shows that they’re working hard. But this is actually not a correct interpretation. Singing any sound should be without pain. So my next question then is, what are some common pitfalls and dangers that singers fall into when screaming?
Sure. I think probably the most common thing is that they end up using their voice instead of being what’s called voiceless. Let me elaborate on that. This is going to be a huge oversimplification of what it means to not use your voice and what it means to use your voice. But if you hear a pitch in your scream, then you’re at risk of using your voice. If your scream is mostly you hearing a musical pitch within your scream, then you’re at risk for just yelling and damaging your vocal cords that way. A very quick win or a quick nugget is to try and remove the pitch from your scream and that will be a safeguard against vocal damage, or a lot of it, at least.
So let’s talk more generally about singers and playing with their sounds. Do you think all singers should scream? Can screaming be a part of a singer trying to find their unique sound, even if they don’t move into heavy metal?
I think the question behind this question is, will screaming destroy my voice? Will I have to choose between screaming and singing? That’s something that I’d thought before. I used to think, “Oh man, I have to choose one, because it’s going to destroy my voice and I won’t be able to sing.” That’s actually a common misconception. That’s also a bit of misinformation that’s further also pushed by touring vocalists who can scream. There are a lot of professional touring vocalists who think that, their viewpoint is screaming will, without a doubt, hurt your voice. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of how long can I hold off from the vocal damage? That’s not true. The reason why that’s the case is because… So there’s two different types of screams. We’re going to get a little technical here. Feel free to pull me out from the weeds if I’m getting too technical.
But essentially, there’s two different types of screams. There’s fry screams and false cord screams. When singing, it’s usually vocal folds are waving together. If they’re yelling, then they’re really smashing against each other. That’s what you want to avoid. But in fry screams, what’s happening is that you’re keeping your vocal cords pressed together so that they’re not smashing together. They’re being held together and compressed air is being shot through them. The alternative, false cord screaming, is when your vocal folds are held open and then the folds above it, the vestibular folds, aka, the false folds, are flapping. So in neither of those two different scenarios, are you getting this vocal cord smashing. It’s either held together, shooting compressed air, or just where they’re not touching at all.
To bring it full circle back to your original question, this shouldn’t compromise your singing voice. Although, I will say as a caveat, I would definitely say it’s probably a little easier to do fry screaming, because when you do false cord screams, it makes your vocal cords dry. We can get into that. But bottom line is yes, you can do both.
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