Being a singer is tough. You’re out there, literally public-facing, making eye contact and sharing your sound and your soul.
Working with singers to get them to performance pitch is a fascinating job. Gillyanne and I tend to divide our time between two different types of input – stuff that feeds the singer’s inner cataloguer, and stuff that feeds the singer’s inner artist.
Your inner artist
Everyone has one. The inner artist is happiest when let free to play with whatever it can get its hands on. Paint, clay, shapes, forms (literal or metaphorical), your artist will use anything within reach to express emotion, story, shape, image or experience. Your artist doesn’t store anything but will create anew every time.
Performance technique falls into this category. Your artist LOVES performance and creative play, and is able to show you things about yourself you didn’t even realise. If the force of your artist is strong within you, phrases like “make that more purple”, “sing as if dressed in rags” and any context-based suggestions are heaven-sent. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a successful singer.
Your inner cataloguer
Everyone has one. The inner cataloguer is happiest when given something to file. Ideas, techniques, concepts, facts, anything that might be useful is squirrelled away for future use. We are bombarded with facts, thoughts and advertising (over 130 adverts in a single London bus journey according to one study). Your cataloguer will be analysing, sorting and filing anything it thinks useful.
Vocal technique exercises fall into this category. Your cataloguer LOVES technique exercises. Give them a list of instructions of the variety “move this muscle” or “you need to feel this” or “put your lips into this shape” and they’re happy. If the force of your cataloguer is strong within you, you’ll be able to knock out those sounds at the drop of a hat, and you’ll understand what people mean when they say “can you add more tracheal pull to that sound?”. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a successful singer.
You need both
Without the artist, your singing will be “correct” and lifeless. You’ll be saying to yourself “I need to belt here”, “I must find my tilt for this phrase” or “where is my mix?”. You won’t have a context, a story, a meaning to what you’re singing. Your artist has been left out.
Without the cataloguer your singing will be hit-and-miss, unstructured and ultimately unrepeatable. And you’ll be an unpredictable mess to the people onstage with you. Your cataloguer has been left out.
Gillyanne and I have always worked with both sides of a singer, and we each have a speciality.
Gillyanne is a vocal technician. She is superb at helping singers catalogue their current techniques. She can spot knowledge gaps at 50 paces, and can give focused, structured advice, techniques and tools to fill them on the spot. She’s a walking encyclopedia of current voice science and vocal technique around the world.
I am a performance coach. I excel at recognising the creative artist in someone, noting their skill sets and giving them playtime, holding a space for experimentation and fine-tuning their intentions for that song in that context. I’m a collaborative musician and coach by nature and training, and I have wide experience of making performances work in different settings with different people.
In our individual coaching sessions we focus on the skills of our singers and work to their and our own strengths. But because we’ve worked together for so long, Gillyanne can work in performance coaching and I can teach technique.
But neither of us EVER teach a sound for the sake of making a sound. The answer from both of us for the phrase “I need to belt here” is “Why?”
Learning to make a sound out of context and without a practical use is, in our opinions, a complete waste of a singer’s time and energy. It might satisfy your inner cataloguer but unless you know why, when and how you might use it, that sound might as well stay on the shelf.
And expressing your artistry without technique won’t work in the long run, no matter how extraordinary your performing is. We believe that appropriate technique, put into action, gives your inner artist so much more choice – a much bigger grabbag of toys to play with.
So who are you feeding today?