Since this is my first blog, I suppose I will start at a beginning of sorts. When I was a little kid, I somehow got the notion that great singers were just born. All they had to do was open their mouths, and magically, this wondrous sound came from within to thrill us mere mortals who were born, alas, with no gift. I have no idea where this idea came from exactly, but I think you will agree that most singers do little to dispel the grand illusion that they possess a ‘gift.’
A gift. This is an interesting way of looking at a person’s ability to sing. On the one hand, it anoints that person with mythological power. Cue the Spinal Tap scene: “I am a Golden God!” on the balcony of the Riot Hyatt on Sunset. We all know where that attitude leads….
But on the other hand, it diminishes how hard that person worked to develop this so-called ‘gift.’ As a result, the emphasis is on the greatness itself. Forget about the hours of vocal work, the voice lessons, the trial and error, the terror of not being able to trust yourself to repeat what you do on your good nights. So the process of achieving that greatness becomes overshadowed by the greatness itself. This makes a compelling story arc for VH1’s Behind the Music, but in the end, it allows for too little credit to the artist’s involvement in the process. Oh yeah, and this is usually where the tragic fall of our lead singer occurs due to drugs, booze and scrapes with the law...
So how do you feel when you worked your ass off for something you wanted very badly, and no one notices your hard work? Worse yet, no one even believes you did the work. It is completely dismissed. That would really stink, no? Sure it would.
Furthermore, this ‘gift’ myth also suggests that no matter how hard any of the rest of us tries, we can never be in possession of such a wondrous and holy thing as a great voice. So the gifted ones don’t work, yet they are rewarded. The hard workers are doomed to be lesser, always, because it is not work, but some holy blessing of DNA that allows for a voice like [fill in the blank].
Are ya with me? OK. Let’s call BS on that line of thought and figure this out another way, shall we? When you learn to play an instrument, a sport, or anything physical, someone usually teaches you at least the basics, right? We call them the fundamentals. These develop muscle memory and an understanding of the larger picture. They teach you to be consistent, or repeatable, so you learn to trust your growing skills.
For example, a kid may be a really good natural pitcher, but his coaches will help him refine his pitching motion for accuracy, power and the all-important consistency.
Well, singing is the same kind of thing. At its core, you have muscle memory, fundamental skills, and repeatability. On top of that is your artistry. It’s not a gift. It’s not something that some people are born with and some are not. If you tell yourself the ‘gift’ story, then that becomes your truth, and you will prove it to yourself over and over again by failing. If you turn that story off, and understand that singing is in so many ways exactly like pitching, then you can give yourself that gift.
Here’s the deal. The reason this whole ‘gift’ notion has held water for so long, in my opinion is this: The voice is fretless and invisible. Seriously. If we stopped here, the whole idea of singing may become even more intimidating, but let’s go back to our pitcher. How does he develop consistency in throwing if he can’t see himself while he’s on the mound? Or an example closer to home for you, how do you move from just playing scales to being able to improvise a solo?
It’s all about the brain. Our pitcher develops muscle memory and a detailed knowledge of his delivery. He has to know what to do without thinking about it, and at the same time, he has to be able to evaluate his performance and correct or adjust as he goes along.
As a guitar player, you have developed a complex connection between your brain, your ears and your hands. Your brain is able to ‘hear’ pitch without having actual sound waves hitting your ear. If you don’t believe me, think back to the last time you had an annoying song run through your head all day. So your ear and your brain are connected, and together, they are connected to your voice. Learning to sing is simply learning to refine this connection, and adding in the fundamentals – breath control, soft palate position, larynx position, forward placement, etc.
The more you work this brain-ear-voice connection, develop your muscle memory, and master the fundamentals, the better your voice will sound, and the more consistent you will be. In other words, you will have fewer bad nights and more good nights at the mic.
Is this somewhat oversimplified? Perhaps. But doesn’t it make a lot more sense to you than the ‘gift’ myth? I certainly hope so.
Now you just have to stop telling yourself the story of the ‘gift’ myth; instead, find a new story in which the hero is rewarded for working hard to master a mysterious, fretless instrument that cannot be seen. That sounds even cooler to me…
Karan Andrea’s CD Desolation Hero received critical approval from Maverick Magazine in the UK, and she has been called "...arguably the smartest woman musician in all of upstate New York" by Elliott Randall, guitarist (Steely Dan, and many others), producer, and composer. Her current project -- the instructionalDVD Guitar Player Wanted: Vocals a Plus - grew out of a casual request to teach a couple of guitar players how to sing. Contact her at Karan@soulhousesound.com; www.soulhousesound.com.