5 Essential Musical Skills For Singers
You’ve probably heard the old joke:
Q: How you do know there’s a singer at the door?
A: They can’t find the key and don’t know when to come in.
Playing on stereotypes, like all the variations on the same joke. But there’s at least a kernel of truth in most stereotypes, and this one’s no exception. A vocalist that doesn’t play an instrument is just as much a musician as any instrumentalist, and that means a good singer ought to develop a musician’s skill set.
I’m not talking about technique, it should go without saying that if you want to be a singer you ought to be a good one. At the very least, you should work to maximize the gifts you’ve been given as a vocalist. Developing good singing technique enhances tone, range, and expressive ability, and will allow you to maintain a healthy voice. A good voice coach will give you the tools to make the most of your instrument, but technique alone doesn’t make you a musician. Developing your musicianship as well will enhance your artistry and strengthen your chances for a successful career. So what exactly does “musicianship” mean? Here are a few important areas to think about.
- Know your range and be able to find the notes on a keyboard. You’ll be able to get a good sense of whether a key is right for you if you know what the range of a song is and how it fits your voice. Don’t assume that certain keys will always work: remember, you can play notes in all 12 keys without leaving the same region of the keyboard. A song works vocally when the melody sits in the right register of the key to fall within your vocal range. You can’t automatically predict the highest and lowest notes of a melody just from the key.
- Be able to hear and feel form. This is more than just counting, but actually feeling the regular cycles that create most song structures. Don’t depend on particular musical parts for your cues…if there’s an 8-bar solo, you should know what 8 bars will feel like. Count if you need to, but pay attention to how the count organizes the sections of the song into even or uneven groupings of beats. This is what musicians call meter.
- Know the difference between tempo, feel, and phrasing. Most songs don’t speed up or slow down, but the placement of lyrics relative to the beat may change. A section that crams in more words isn’t going faster, just fitting more syllables into the same number of counts. When the music relaxes, it’s probably not slowing down but changing the emphasis: say, every four beats instead of every other, or what we call “half-time”. Try counting “ONE two three four” and “ONE two THREE four” against the same pulse, you’ll feel the difference
- Know how to lead the band. They should be following you, not the other way around. A good lead singer can direct the band, giving cues for things like beginnings, stops, and endings, instrumental breaks, and dynamics. A cue can be a physical or vocal gesture, or as simple as stepping up to the mic or taking a step back. You should know the music as well as or better than your players, and be aware enough of their parts that you can ask for changes if things don’t feel right. You might look to a music director to perform this role, but they will still need to follow your lead.
- Develop a musical vocabulary. What is a vamp, a turnaround, or a shuffle? When you can talk to the band with the language they use, communication is easier in both directions. If you’re arranging original material, a musical vocabulary will help you describe the sound and feel you imagine for a song. Good players will work off the implications in what you give them, but even the best musicians can’t read your mind.
All of these musical skills can be developed by anyone with the desire to learn. You don’t need a formal education in music, or a particular talent any more than a willingness to listen to what’s going on around you. With time and experience, you’ll become as secure in these abilities as any musician you might hire. And the more skilled you are, the more empowered you become, making you a stronger, more confident, and more effective performer and artist.
Dave Isaacs is an exception teacher of guitar and keyboards. We love referring clients to Dave because they love working with him AND they learn tons more. Check out Dave at http://www.daveisaacs.com