Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Singing Musician

Singer PracticingIt seems to me that too many young people who see themselves as on the road to becoming professional singers would be better served if they found a road that better suits them, or simply make a bargain with themselves to concern themselves with learning to sing for the sheer pleasure of singing and see what happens.

Youngsters and their support contingent tend to be ill-informed and confused or blinded by the notion that anybody, especially their anybody, has what it takes to make it big. They think that assembling a team of voice teachers and coaches (especially those whose charges have seen major success), recording a demo, auditioning for a TV talent contest and making the right connections are the keys to success. While I believe much of the so-called talent we hear and see is fabricated in this way from the outside instead of developed from the inside, and it may well be that the up-and-comers can make names for themselves by being packaged, produced and auto-tuned with little skill to show for it, the formula performers do not transcendent, unique singing musicians necessarily make. And the greater numbers of youngsters taking on the task of learning to sing and, more to the point for them, attaining fame, are destined to fail.

I remember sharing a lunch not too many years ago with a rather fine singer and instrumentalist who had toured internationally with a well-known group.  He was opening a voice studio in his area. He hadn’t officially taught voice before, though his background, lineage of teachers, and exceptional skill level and intuitive nature set him up to be a fine voice teacher. During our lunch, he rather innocently made a comment about some of the singers with whom he had begun to work. He expressed wonderment over their objectives, since they had none of the inherent attributes of a singer in the making or otherwise. It was a, “What do they think they can do with this?” moment. The gentleman and his area of the country shall remain nameless to protect both of us.

The bottom line is that people who are meant to be singing musicians in the most genuine sense, have certain things going for them. Forget about the pre-packaged pop divas and divos for a moment. What follows is my description of the singing musician, subject to further additions, upgrades and edits.

Singers who are musicians are compelled to make music. Singers who are musicians are driven by the desire to sing and play – even in the absence of an audience. Singers who are musicians make music all the time, everywhere and anywhere.  Singers who are musicians are curious about old styles, new styles, and are always looking for ways to infuse their music with something different, something more.

Singers who are musicians have music spilling from them. It spills over to writing music – which, done properly, requires learning about the structure of music. It translates to playing an instrument to support their singing and just because the temptation to make music by doing something other than and in addition to singing is strong in a singing musician.

Singers who are musicians are like kids in a candy store when it comes to all things related to singing – visiting a music store, viewing a chart, hearing a new song and imagining it in their own voice, actively seeking other singers to listen to and being inspired by their sounds.

Singers who are musicians never wonder, “What do I do next?” Singers who are musicians are always flooded with tunes, ideas, projects, and the desire to work at their singing and expand their horizons. Singers who are musicians generally need assistance in channeling the abundance of musical energy, to help guide them to their goals and keep them from derailing.

Man singing and playing the piano
Singers who are musicians are daring. Singers who are musicians are curious. They are inventive.

Singers who are musicians make sounds in less than ideal places, in less than ideal conditions, and under less than ideal circumstances. They can’t be kept down.

Singers who are musicians are driven to understand their instrument, the voice, and to care for the thing that conveys their inner being to the outside world. Singers who are musicians pay attention to and learn from sources of information, such as books, magazines, forums for singers and the like.

Singers who are musicians often don’t realize how competent they are. But there is a difference between turning from a duckling into a swan, unaware, and feigning modesty – which is indicative of an unbalanced ego.

What we too easily refer to as shyness is usually fear cloaked in embarrassment over something that has not yet happened, and that is unlikely to happen the way the fearful person envisions it. What is the worst that can happen? Does it even faintly resemble the end of the world? Does it mean the end of the beginning of a career? The answer is, of course, no. A singing musician meets the fear fearlessly.

Singers who are musicians don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of their level of competence. They are singing musicians, regardless.

Singers who are musicians train, and train, and train. Singers who are musicians find a way.

Like any artists, singers who are musicians are not necessarily motivated by or trapped by social and cultural norms or current modes and trends. There is a difference between behaving outrageously, however, and appearing to be outrageous to others because of a behavior or expression that emanates, organically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, or otherwise, from within.

Singers who are musicians, like other artists, might seem to move through the world at a slower or ‘other’ speed than their non-artist counterparts. Some singing musicians might seem to be detached, removed, distant, unfriendly or otherwise socially lacking. Frequently they are misunderstood. Because they are always working, and learning and growing, they may be labeled nerds, or misfits. They become cool, popular, in demand, when their artistry is sufficiently developed and becomes evident.

That Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour thing? (The book is titled, Outliers: The Story of Success.) No-brainer. But a singing musician doesn’t sigh over the thought of the long road ahead, or waste any time counting to 10,000. They are too excited about and busy making music.

Sure. Singers who are musicians are often frustrated. They might worry about the future. They might experience tiny standstills. But they are not allergic to hard work. They know that hard work is the path. They are challenged by mistakes, of which there are none, by the way. Though they may be temporarily sidelined by poorly-delivered criticisms, they soon meet such rejection with rekindled inspiration.  “Never say die!” is the unspoken motto of one who is determined to be a singing musician.

Singers who are musicians entertain regular crises of confidence. But they will kick themselves in the rear end and move forward – or they are not singing musicians.

The crises always stem from some important business that the singer is not taking care of. The crisis of confidence always comes from within, not from the outside, and overrides the higher thought, action, purpose. It is the singing musician’s responsibility, because no one else can or will solve this for the singer, to replace the crisis with better energy – or quit.

If that last sentence stung you, you might be a singing musician. For you, quitting is not an option.

Singing musicians don’t make excuses. They make progress. They make music.

Jazz vocalist and singing bass player
Singing musicians come in all shapes, sizes and personalities, like all other people. While it would be nice for a singing musician to be a wonderful example of a human being, that is not always the case. But, realizing that being a successful singing musician is highly dependent upon working fluidly within the greater community of musicians, and dependent upon building positive relationships with those who might help along the way, the singing musician is best served by endeavoring to become a wonderful example of a human being. However, the singing musician who wastes time worrying about the world’s perception of them and trying to conform is, well, wasting time, etc., etc.

Mel Tormé and Nat King Cole were two examples of fine contemporary singing musicians of their time. Those who are too young to have heard of Tormé may know The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…). Tormé composed the tune and co-wrote the lyrics. In this YouTube example of absolute singing musicianship, Tormé sings and accompanies himself at the piano. Later in the clip, Tormé plays the drums while Nat King Cole plays some marvelous piano with his trio and another singer, June Christy. 

Pre-teen and teen singers considering auditioning for the various performing arts schools, take note. Increasingly, schools are asking what other instrument you play.  If the thought of learning an instrument strikes you as tedious, might cut into your social or texting time or interfere with soccer, too many theatrical auditions or other activities, you might want to consider an alternate major.

You may now resume singing. Do your exercises. Make exercises of your songs before you add polish. Think time and study time are as important as is actual application time. I applaud you very loudly in absentia.