by Cari Cole
People, and most often –other musicians, sometimes poke fun at singers for being protective (or fussy) about their voices. Okay, then — go on. You get up and sing without making a fool of yourself. Ha.
Singing is demanding. It’s not an instrument you can press down on a key or a fret, and the same note comes out every time. Or maybe you can for awhile and then all of a sudden, it goes rogue. What used to be easy, is now unpredictable and inconsistent. And it freaks you out. Yep, there’s that.
Then there’s the reality that for the most part, it’s pretty individual. What some people peg as great voices, others think are passé. A quirky voice can be endearing to some, a raspy voice is sexy, a clear voice ~ enchanting… Some like polish, some like rawness. And for singers, it’s tempting to get sidetracked by sounding like what’s “most popular”, but risk losing your unique sound. It’s tricky.
Then there’s what I see (and experience daily) as a vocal coach, vocal producer and arranger. Which is, that no matter how good a singer is in their genre, most are only using half of their ability. And when I coax it out of them with vocal production techniques, they instantly become better singers moving towards their true potential. And I love this kind of work, because it’s really rewarding to help a singer sit more in their own saddle and command that vocal respect ;).
How do you gauge your vocal potential? And are you reaching it? Are you close? Far? Did you even realize you had one?
The good news is that wherever you are, there is further to go, and it may be just around the corner.
When developing a singer’s full potential, I look at 3 feats that all influence this kind of an achievement.
The 3 Pillars of Vocal Potential
Pillar 1: Technical
This pillar is all skill. Whether you know it or not, you have a technique to the way you sing. And it either makes it harder or easier for your voice. The goal, naturally, is to make it easier. That’s where your technical skill comes into play. On the technical end, the crazy thing about your voice, is that it is an instrument that lives inside your body — and there’s no messing with that. So besides the fact that you are playing an instrument you can’t see, you’re also subject to a whole host of things that can mess you up. And often times that happens while you sleep, from what you eat, your level of stress & tension, the air you breathe or some unknown that takes you by surprise even when you are doing everything right (like allergies or reflux.)
It requires tremendous skill, consistency and know how to pull off singing night after night without screwing up. And screwing up on stage (which happens to all singers at some point) is not just a bummer, it’s delapilatingly embarrassing, and can lead to stage fright after just one episode. Multiple mess ups in the public eye lead to a paralyzing fear of the stage that many professional performers have suffered from, Pavarotti, the great tenor included. The expectation, personally and from the audience, is so high, you’re bound to fail at some point or another. No wonder stars struggle with it. That’s when your technique will either do you in (for lack of it) or save you (because you have great technique.)
Audiences are super tough on vocalists, expecting only greatness, under excusing sickness or being “under the weather.” Mostly from lack of knowledge or exposure to singers in their lives. People think singers are “born with it” and don’t realize the level of skill required (and continual attention necessary to stay in peak condition.) Whitney Houston after a long battle with drugs, was headed back to vocal training shortly before she passed away. Singers who have trained know the value, but sometimes get tired of maintaining the demands of professional singing.
If you are weak in Pillar 1, find a pro vocal coach and train your voice (please do not mess around with inexperienced coaches, it will cost you in the long run.) The right training is like lifting weights for your voice. You just get stronger, so you can do YOU, better.
Pillar 2: Musicianship
Singers must have good ears, and that doesn’t mean pretty ones. It means sharp ones. Ones that know the major, minor and pentatonic scales. That can hear pitch like dog’s can hear high whistles. One’s ear and music knowledge/experience come into play here.
When I was going to jazz school studying sight-singing and theory, my ear got really defined. I’d been a singer and musician for awhile at that point, but I had huge gaps in my musical knowledge. As I learned all the scales, and had to sight read on the spot, I started to hear the intervals ~ the space between the notes. That’s when it all changed. I also learned improvisation which freed me up as a singer and helped with writing melodies and live performance. Whether you study jazz or classical or contemporary, be sure to know your scales and improvise. Your audience may not know you did all that, but they can hear the difference in a singer whose musicianship is solid.
If you are weak in Pillar 2, study major, minor & pentatonic scales and through in chromatic scales for good measure. Take it up a few notches and study jazz, jazz composition and/or jazz piano or guitar.
Pillar 3: Emotion
You won’t reach your full potential without the first 2 pillars, because they pave the way to express emotion. Lots of people I’ve met along the way over the past 3 decades (producers mainly) are always trying to get more emotion out of a singer. But they make the mistake of telling the vocalist things like “just let go”, “relax”, “pretend you are at home” when recording a vocal. That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, if Pillar 1 and 2 are not established, no amount of “letting go” will open them up. The voice first has to be strong and flexible, secondly it has to have a good ear, and third, the experience and phrasing to deliver emotion, plus the ability to show feelings and vulnerability (what endears us to voices.) The end goal in your recordings and performances is conviction. That your vocal is “believable”, that we feel you, that you are “convincing” — and deliver the song on a silver platter.
If you are weak in Pillar 3, develop Pillar 1 & 2, and also practice phrasing. Phrasing is the key to delivering more emotion.
So the next time you worry about having more confidence, or someone tells you to “let go” or to “push your voice out more” (common from inexperienced vocal coaches), refer to these 3 Pillars to get yourself on the road to your true potential.
And don’t be so hard on yourself, just be a good student ~ learn and grow. It’s not something you can figure out on your own (nor should you.) There are experts who can help you get there much faster and without messing with your style ;).
The right training is like lifting weights for your voice. You just get stronger, so you can do YOU, better.
The right vocal coach is your best friend. Someone who’s got the tools and experience, and wants you to win.