You say you want to be a good singer? I applaud you. Striving for excellence in one’s chosen craft is a worthy goal. But what does “being a good singer” mean to you? What does it mean to a record company or producer? And most importantly, what sounds “good” to your current and future fan-base?

It’s been a hobby of mine to discover what turns a listener on. What IS good music, good singing, and a good song to the average listener. What I’ve found is that listeners, unburdened by professional training, have difficulty separating song elements, such as the lyrics from the melody, the arrangement from the overall feeling and vocal style from vocal skill. They either ‘like it’ or ‘don’t like it’.

Picking Favorites
Moving on in the quest to define what good singing is, let’s ask Mr/Ms Listener this question: “Who are your favorite singers and why?” Two categories of answers emerge: My favorite singers are either exceptionally skilled, or just unique. Skilled singers do things with their voices the listener cannot do, such as singing high or singing loudly, or for bonus points singing both high and loud. Other skills in the rucksack might be the ability to hold notes out a long time, using a variety of vocal colors to keep the mood ever-changing, even sounding like one really means it. Oh yeah, did I say singing high and loud? For the divas like Celine Dion, Christine Aguilera, Mariah Carey, we should add the word effortlessly to the high and loud requirements. Sounding strained and struggling on high notes may win points with the death metal crowd, but you never attain diva or divo status if you can’t make it all look easy.

The second category which qualifies as “good” to some, we could call “unique.” You know unique when you hear it: Rod Stewart’s rasp, Bruce Johnson’s distortion, Alanis Morissette’s yodels, Joe Cocker’s death rattle, Sinead O’Connor’s vibrato, the list is long. Being unique makes one easily identifiable. Any singer whose name can be guessed within 5 seconds of being heard on the radio can be considered good. I’ve found that the ability to call the identity of a singer in less than 5 seconds is a real esteem-booster to the average non-musician. These singers win points for being quirky, affected, even ugly. One listener’s “affected” can be another listener’s awesome!! Vocal flaws can be real moneymakers for this group.

So, What Shall It Be?
Do you aim for technical perfection or find a vocal gimmick that’s never been heard before and milk it dry? Both approaches demand experimentation though technical perfection requires talent and perseverance as well. If your goal is not to simply be excellent but to stand apart and above, my recommendation is go for both. Wow them with your technical mastery, intrigue them with idiosyncrasy. Specifically, work on your high notes, strive for power without effort, master your vocal colors so you’re not boring AND make sure that you don’t sound like anybody else from the past or present.

I wish I had a quarter for every time I’m asked “How do I find my own voice?” I tell them, “I hate to break it to you, but you don’t have one voice.” There are few limitations to our abilities—only limitations on our conception of our abilities. When I first heard the great Yma Sumac, I almost fell over. No way could I sing like that; that is, until I sang along. To my shock and delight, I could sing almost everything she sang. I simply had never heard those sounds coming out of one person’s mouth before.

In the past month, I’ve heard one male singer sing notes above the keyboard and another male singer sing every note to the bottom of the keyboard! Mind-blowing only because I’d never heard either in my life. Every time you hear something new, your brain stretches a bit to make room—it’s exhilarating and scary too. My conclusion is that we have NO IDEA what we can do unless we try. The Catch-22 is that we can’t try if we don’t know what’s possible.

Once you’ve mastered your vocal technique and vocal expressivity within the constraints of whatever style or combination of styles you’ve picked AND injected a bit of “quirk” to set yourself apart, you’ll pretty well need to stick to that formula for however long your singing career lasts. That’s the downside. You create a magic potion: a personal vocal formula, and then you’re stuck with it because your fans expect it. You should BE so lucky as to have this dilemma.

The point is, as a creative artist, you are also the creator of your vocal sounds and technical abilities. You make decisions all the time about what ‘good’ singing is to you. Who are your favorite singers and why? Be specific. It’s the first step in the process of vocal self-creation.

Originally posted 2009-09-05 05:56:43.