Saturday, November 23, 2013


There will always be a singer who, when listening to them, gives you an emotional jolt or goose bumps. Everyone seems to have their favorite vocal artist they can find in this category.

For an artist trying to carve their own path, it can be very tricky to be an original. Sadly, the radio is full of sound-alikes. The business side of the music industry requires a certain quota of cookie-cutter music that consumers just seem to ravage and, well, consume. Because of that, it can be very easy for an artist to emulate what's already on the radio and pin a badge of pride on themselves since they can pull off sounding like Whitney Houston or Justin Bieber. It's a very, very tough balance.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Hearing an emerging artist do a cover of another song often reveals that the artist aspires to have the vocal abilities of the original artist. That's a compliment to the original artist. It's like watching a player study the moves of their sports hero and try to execute them during a game.

Finding your voice and sound is as difficult as predicting the future. This is especially true with the young voice. No amount of practice, skill, or intention can prepare you for what the voice will eventually become. There are simply too many physical characteristics evolving that nature itself must deal with before knowing what a voice can become. For that matter, it is a high financial risk to invest in a young artist but also has a high return if you're in it for the long-haul.

Just watching Spencer from an up-close and personal perspective, it's easy to realize how much a male voice changes over a few short months. Notes and range vary as do the ability to pull off skilled maneuvers with notes and range. Girl singers face the same challenge. The oftentimes airy head voice they use to sing at a young age becomes awkward sounding as they grow older if they don't find their chest voice.

That being said, dealing with the balance of technique and method versus performance quality is tough. Hitting the high note or finding the low note in the midst of also enunciating lyrics is something that can be truly difficult to pull off. That is where practice and experience can create the authentic voice.

Another issue is that what is popular on the radio and among peers can heavily influence what a young voice tries to emulate. If R&B is a genre that seems to be hitting a lot of youth at the time, singers will switch their vocal performance to sound like that. If it's country, then "Open up them doors and let the light shine in".

Working with Diane Sheets in Nashville (vocal coach to some of country and Christian music's most known artists), we have learned a lot about understanding Spencer's voice.  She was very passionate about making sure we did NOT get him formal training. She said the biggest turn off is to hear a vocalist who sounds trained. They just are too rigid and too mechanical about their singing. You can just hear it. They don't flow. She said that Spencer has a natural singing method that she wants to preserve and not mess with. The challenge, however, is that he had some bad habits that could damage his vocal chords in the long run. To that, she was very particular about fixing. She didn't want to address his ability to sing runs or hit glass-breaking notes. She wanted more to ensure that his voice was conditioned to handle doing 5 concerts in a week without going hoarse.

So the first few meetings we had with her, it was very enlightening to understand things from her perspective. She is a professional vocal coach who deals with professional singers who are earning their living using their voice. She looks at it from a non-creative standpoint (to some extent) and more from a "This is your tool that will earn your living, and you need to know how it works and how to make sure you don't break it." standpoint. She was not concerned about whether he sounded like so-and-so or could hit notes in the rafters. She was more concerned that he learn how to use the tool for a lifetime of use.

I have to take an aside here, because I grew up with the belief that unless I sounded like the best singers I knew, I wasn't a good singer. So I spent years doing my best to sound like certain singers and never really thought much about what it may be doing to my vocal chords. So I had a bias of being concerned that Spencer learn the technique to pull off sounding like so-and-so.

Diane quickly picked up on this perspective and asked Spencer to name the artists he admired most in music. One artist he mentioned was Adam Levine, of Maroon 5. Diane was quick to point out that Adam's voice was unique because he didn't have to do the vocal acrobatics that Christina Agiulera does to perform a song or Mariah Carey does to scrape the ceiling of high notes and runs. Adam is a "straight" singer which hits each note and just performs (interprets them) with rhythmic excellence. He doesn't have to do all the gymnastics and contorted maneuvers to sound good.

When she explained it that way, it removed a huge weight that society placed on Spencer to have mad skills as a singer.

Further to this, when we had intimate conversations about Spencer's career with the Grammy and Dove nominated and winning producer that has been the executive producer of Spencer's music so far, he explained another reality about the world of music.

He told me that if you lined up 100 of the top selling artists in the world of music, about 5 of them may be insanely talented with vocal abilities. The other 95 having figured out how to write amazing lyrics and melodies, or are just amazing performers. This reality made sense to me. Look at Bob Dylan, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen. All of them are highly successful artists, but none have the vocal prowess that creates a standard to achieve. All of them have used other skills to engage an audience and the fans they have. Bob wrote amazing music, Madonna reinvents herself every 7 years to remain intriguing and Bruce puts on 4 hour concerts that blow your mind because of his energy.

So, when considering a young person's VOCAL PERFORMANCE, there needs to be some reality injected. Don't get too carried away with excellence or sounding like so-and-so. It's more about making sure the bases are covered (tone, pitch, dynamics, etc.) and that their confidence when singing is authentic. They sing in the range they are technically able to sing within without damaging or hurting themselves in the process of eeking out the note. Then, let nature do it's part of the physical development of the tool. Puberty is cruel, especially when it comes to the male voice.

I'd rather listen to a singer who is comfortable and confident performing a song in their natural voice, than to hear them try to pull off sounding like someone they are not.

No comments:

Post a Comment