Though my tastes are broad (from Hip Hop to Country music!) as a singer and singing coach I have to say that, for me, few reach the vocal heights of Shirley Bassey.
Her longevity, power, technique – and her incredible charisma – are all aspects that I cite regularly in my teaching.
At the foundation of her performances is excellent breath control – no ‘heaving in or gasping,’ but controlled and discreet intake that serves her interval shifts with total calm.
This control co-exists with a delivery that is passionate and intense.
If you watch this video of Shirley in her heyday you will see many aspects of her work that are inspirational and aspirational for all singers.
One aspect that thrills me is her ability to make it all look so much a part of what she is feeling without showing the work!
The high demand placed on Shirley’s breath in the above performance is a classic example of how breath should be managed: with ease and a level of confidence in the amount of breath required.
Remember: it’s not the amount of breath we take in – it’s the quality and placing of the breath that counts.
Shirley’s ability to utilise head resonance yet sound so completely natural is awesome!
Her mouth shape and tongue position are give-aways for the keen eye. A slightly forward placed tongue means an open throat and a lifted set of muscles at the eye sockets means her soft palate (vellum) is high.
This means her voice is “free”.
She uses her phonetic shape to resonate at various parts of her skull. So fluid and practiced is her technique that it looks and probably is (at this stage of her career) totally natural.
This ease with technique can only be achieved with regular practice so that the body assimilates the work into its muscle memory.
In her stunning rendition of ‘I Who Have Nothing’ (see the above video) Shirley embraces herself and also clasps her hands to suggest her loneliness in the sense of the song.
At the same time she is bracing or “anchoring” the important support muscles around the back of the neck and head for those power notes.
Weaving Magic with the Body
The ability to endow technique with character or sense is a heightened skill – we should never see an artiste “working”. Rather, we should be totally engaged in the magic that they weave.
She looks great and wears her very glamorous dress with serenity – yet she is sassy in a secretive way.
Check out the video above at 0.30 for a few seconds and again at 0.46: you can observe her flickering eye and lip movements – these are all subtle but hugely effective body-language messages.
Playfulness and imaginative communication are key to an artiste’s individuality – being oneself inside any piece of material is key to having a “stamp” or a “signature” in performance.
These factors have ensured Shirley’s longevity and if you now observe her many decades later I’m sure you’ll agree: she is still just as fantastic a performer in every respect.
This next video shows her at the tender age of 80, with her range, her breath control and her poise intact.
She is in full control and though her timbral quality is slightly lighter, she is still commanding a massive level of power.
Also, there isn’t a single sign of strain! She’s pretty incredible don’t you think?
Our Steps Forward
So, yes, Shirley is incredible – but the ability to weave more control and resonance into a powerful performance is within any singer’s reach.
One exercise I introduce to singers is to run through scales at various speeds, shifting around the key a little (a semitone or a tone up or down at the root).
At the same time, allow your tongue tip to sit at the edge of your lower lip. Follow the stretch or open feeling that gives you gently backwards to your soft palate.
You’ll feel freedom, an open throat and a sense of “height” in your tone!
Rachel Bennett is a London-based vocal coach and singer songwriter. She is the lead singer of her band RAIE and they have played at venues including London’s Hammersmith Apollo, The Roundhouse, The Albany Theatre, The Forge and Map Café. She has been a Musical Director for various theatre companies and has worked as both a singer and coach for record companies in studios across London. She currently teaches singing at Goldsmiths College on the Popular Music Degree and at Rose Bruford International Drama School. You can learn more about Rachel on www.raiemusic.com