Melissa Cross is vocal coach who holds the monopoly on an odd niche. Singers from bands like Lamb of God, H2O, and Every Time I Die come to her with their voices in tatters, ready to learn the proper way to scream without damaging their valuable vocal equipment. Though with her rosy, apple-shaped cheeks and shock of curly red hair, she might sooner remind you of a favorite quirky aunt than a healer of the hardcore set, screaming coach to the stars.
I recently visited Cross in her studio to get a real-live taste of her tricks. I had already encountered Cross's teaching onscreen, on her newly released DVD, The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed, which brings her sanguine face into the home of any would-be screamer. Part prolonged voice lesson, part homage to Cross by her devoted students, the DVD is comprised of lessons interspersed with the earnest testimonials of dozens of grateful, long-haired rockers confessions of their past vocal sins and florid expressions of thanks to Cross for helping them change their lives. For her followers, Cross may be as much of a therapist and a life coach as she is a vocal coach. As it turns out, the now Zen-like Cross was a punk/hardcore singer herself beginning in London in the '70s right through the glittery New York '80s. Having been through the grist-mill of extreme performing, Cross is very familiar with the hardcore lifestyle and its unfortunate side-effects; she badly damaged her voice on the performing circuit, and developed her vocal technique as an attempt to heal her own injury.
During the course of my screaming lesson with Cross, I began to
understand why her work is so meaningful to her students. She stops at
nothing to communicate an idea, gesticulating and metaphor-making wildly
until the screamer finally gets it. Like most seasoned teachers, she has
a routine that is tried-and-true, stock phrases and images that
encapsulate the meeting point between an abstract concept and a concrete
series of actions.
"Over the pencil" is the most basic of these coinages, an image/technique designed to help the student project the voice from the cavernous, vibrating space in the top of her head. She asks the student to hold a pencil between her teeth and try to make the correct, vibrant sound. There is also (for girls) the "strapless bra" (meant to evoke the feeling of expanding one's middle to hold in air) and "the 'T'" (we'll leave the origins of this term to the imagination, but let's just say it involves the activation of certain crucial muscles in the nether regions). The alternate terms for boys are "rotunda" and "the dump" (actually a term, Cross tells me, borrowed from the master Luciano Pavaratti himself, and means exactly what you'd think).
Although much of Cross's teaching repertoire overlaps with the basics of conventional vocal training the development of a strong breathing technique based on exercises designed to strengthen the diaphragm there is something fundamentally intuitive, unscientific, and inexplicable about screaming. This is why, I suspect, Cross uses so many images in her lessons. A unity of image and action must take place; you think rainbow and you produce an arching, colorful sound.
And like anything that is intuitive, it takes a lot of practice to be a really good screamer. Cross may be friendly, but she is tough. Her students must repeat her exercises over and over again so that the difficult task of opening their throats, pushing out their diaphragms, and singing from somewhere deep inside becomes a second nature.
"I really believe in what these guys are trying to do, Cross says, explaining that today's hardcore scene reminds her of when she was growing up in the '60s when there was a lot of unity, a lot of common outrage. "This kind of music is passionate. These guys have a disdain for artifice. It's all about being raw, being real," she says. I wondered how her students respond to learning vocal technique that involves rigidity, repetitiveness, and form. Cross is conscious that many of her students approach her warily, afraid that she will change their sound. What she is trying to do is to help them scream with the most strength and the least amount of damage to the voice as possible. The hope is that in the end they'll sound more like themselves than less.
Healthy screaming happens at the intersection between cold, hard technique and heartfelt passion, inward control and outward release. Cross takes the weakened screams of rockers, and perfects them so that they are better able to communicate a deep sense of soul and outrage. Under her tutelege, hardcore music is elevated to a high, but very earthly, art.