Experiment: Try to pick your two favorite singers.
Now close your eyes and try to hear their voices in your head.
What is it that you latch onto and love so much? Is it their stellar pronunciation? Nah. Dynamic range? Maybe. Timbre? Sure, why not? Maybe a bit of all of those things?
I’ll bet $100 that you can hardly describe it, that it’s some type of intangible-je-ne-sais-quoi situation.
I’ll even go out on a limb and say that much of what you love is the way they imbue the song with elation, poignancy and all the other emotions in between.
It’s the way they tell the story.
And that, my fellow vocalists, is the key to the kingdom of emotionally beautiful and honest singing: how well can you tell the story?
Ok. Fine. Yes, you need to know the lyrics and the melodies and sound good and be in pitch and all that. Let’s start there:
1. Know the lyrics inside and out, backwards and forwards
Nothing short of a nuclear attack shall distract you from delivering them perfectly every time. Learn them like you learned the national anthem of your country.
Take acting classes. Acting classes are fabulous for singers because they get you out of your head and into your body, which is still attached to your head but is far less cerebral and therefore tends not to overthink.
Use acting techniques for memorizing lines: say your song lyrics to yourself while walking around, shopping, planting hydrangeas, chopping veggies. Don’t just learn them ‘in rehearsal’, or from behind your piano/guitar/bass/harp/dulcimer, etc.
If you learn them while only doing one task, one boo-boo during said task and you can get thrown off. If you learn them all over the place, you’ll remember them all over the place. Oh, and write them out by hand old school a couple of times. You’re welcome.
2. Learn the melody really, really, really, really well
Slowly get through all the nooks and crannies and complicated parts. Pick apart any riffs/ runs that are tricky. Practice them sloooowly and work your way up to speed. Learn the melody in sections; once you’ve mastered one piece, go on to the next.
Pick the notes out on piano. Yes, I know not all of you have a piano nor do you all play.
Take heart: there are lots of apps for that. And they’re free. Find free piano apps for your iPads and phones…download some and just go on and start finding your melodies; it’ll do wonders for your ears, believe me…and playing them by hand and seeing the notes in front of you is helpful in the same way as writing down your lyrics.
Or, invest in some piano instruction/tutorials. You’re so very welcome.
3. Practice speaking/singing your lyrics/melodies
Do this to a metronome, or by keeping time with your hands: clapping, slapping your leg, etc.
Having excellent rhythmic chops is serious gold for vocalists. Knowing where and how to place your phrases makes it easier for you to feel in control of your songs’ pacing and emotional landscape; also, if you decide to change your mind and sing something differently, you won’t get rattled and lose your confidence…because you know beyond a shadow of a doubt where the ‘one’ is.
Listen to Joni Mitchell in this classic live performance. Whether you like her vibe or not, check out any point from :30 on and tell me how it feels to listen to someone with such fluidity yet such a rooted relationship to the ‘one’.
Again, my pleasure, or as you kids say, “no problem”:
So now that you have some concrete tasks you can accomplish to insure your fans/listeners have all the feels when you sing, how do we discuss the intangible-je-ne-sais-quoi situations?
It isn’t easy, but when I work with my clients, I try to make them understand that it may not be easy, but it’s simple.
Firstly, think about how you speak when you’re telling a story.
You use inflection, punch certain words up, minimize others for effect and drive your point home with focus and intention. Singing is the same, only you have to do that and pay attention to lyrics, melody, pitch, rhythm, etc.
But if you can start to sing with all that focus and intention…you’re on your way. And this holds true whether you’re an R&B queen, pop star, or Broadway baby.
Look at These Live Performances for Inspiration
Here, listen to TheR&B queen, my #1 fave (listen from 1:55):
The pop star:
The Broadway star (singing a Sara Bareilles song):
A Tony winner:
I selected live performances so you could feel the emotion from moment to actual moment, not from some recording studio AutoTuned /comped/Frankenstein monster/magical-fairy-dust surgery.
These people are all indeed fabulous vocalists with stellar technique and probably a bunch of training, but…they started somewhere. Maybe where you are right now, right?
I also impart to my clients one of the most useful pointers Tom Todoroff, a monstrously talented acting teacher I studied with drilled home to his students:
Be a text detective
The text, aka song lyrics, will tell you a lot…if you’re listening. (Great lyrics will tell you more than crappy ones, too, FYI.)
So listen to where the song is going. Are you trying to create an intensely personal moment? Then why would you start at a loud volume? Are you happy? Then maybe you might wanna smile as you sing, yes? Are you singing the word ‘falling’? Do you want that word to rise in pitch, or drop?
Think about painting an aural picture. And remember: there are no right answers, only what feels right to you. And that can change at any time.
Finally, if you find all this difficult to wrap your mind and soul around, remember this, if nothing else: concentrate on what you’re giving rather than what you’re getting.
Create a shared, universal, honest experience without thought to the outcome. Stay in the present moment. Trust me, you can tell when you don’t because you’ll start thinking about your allergies or why your voice sounds like crap today or that you hate your haircut.
None of that matters. Connection to others does.
And that’s something that can’t be taught. Do that much and I’ll be happy to teach you the rest!