So You Want to Become a Singer?
One of the big differences between the vocalists of yesteryear and those of today is in their musical education.
In the past, most singers were ‘naturals’ and their musical education was, in most cases, very informal; maybe they came from a musical family, sung in a church choir, or listened over and over again to 78rpm records of their favourite recording artist. Very few actually studied music or voice formally, except perhaps, for private teachers who came to their house a few times a week and were paid for by parents.
These days, singers, in general, are much more musically educated; they can read music, play instruments, have learnt breath control so as not to damage their voice, and can explain exactly what they want, in musical terms, to their backing musicians.
I’m not saying that today’s vocalists are ‘better’ than those of the past, but that their education gives them advantages; whether they take them or not is another matter. For what that training might not do is give them a ‘feel’ for the lyrics of a song, or the ability to put a song over to an audience so they fully understand all the nuances involved.
Billie Holiday was a great singer, but her voice was average at best, and in her later years, not even that. However, she could get inside a song, particularly ballads, and transmit the emotions and pathos the songwriter intended to the listener.
Frank Sinatra apparently practised breath control by singing while swimming underwater; but he couldn’t read music. When he once decided he’d conduct the orchestra for Peggy Lee’s album ‘The Man I Love’, Nelson Riddle, the arranger protested. Later, Nelson recounted how Sinatra had taken the scores home from the studio one Friday night and returned the following Monday with them scrawled over with balloon notes; ‘violins here’, ‘trumpets intro’ etc. Nelson Riddle added; ‘And to my, and many people’s amazement, he did actually conduct the orchestra.’
The natural, or basic, singing ability of the young vocalists of the past was refined in another manner; in singing with the dance bands. Here, surrounded by professional musicians, they really learnt their craft; the discipline of singing on time and in tune, and how to phrase under the limits of strict dance tempo.
Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s, Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s and Doris Day with Les Brown and his Band of Renown etc. These, and the many other dance bands, gave the singers the practical training they needed to succeed.
The big bands are all pretty well gone now; too expensive to economically maintain, but the colleges and universities have attempted to take their place.
Unfortunately, sitting in a class on musical theory or voice training with a professional teacher is not the same as singing in front of a live audience night after night – the ‘feedback’ is very different.
Don’t misunderstand me, the colleges and universities do a great job and there are some very good younger (to use the term lightly) modern singers out there who have travelled this route.
A formal education is a help, especially if it is linked to raw talent and a burning enthusiasm to be a success. Then that talent and education has to be refined; singing to unappreciative audiences in hotel bars, clubs and pubs. Professionally singing, or playing, is not financially rewarding and few vocalists or musicians can actually live off their music, especially at first. So, at that same time as singing at night, there is the actual business of living; for the rent must be paid, and the electricity and phone bills, food has to be bought and money for travel etc. To survive, it’s working at a day job as a secretary, office-worker, barman, waiter, or just flipping burgers. And all the while singing or playing at night, and saving money to record demos for posting on YouTube, and maybe making enough for studio time to cut a CD for release on CD Baby, or Amazon etc.
The world has changed and, with that change, the form of getting music out to the listener has changed – it no longer needs a big record company behind a singer to become a success.
Some might not like it. I’m not sure I do, but I’m ancient, so my children tell me. I’m pretty sure the traditional record companies don’t like the new way of distributing music either – but it is, what it is.
In all this, one thing remains clear; to become a great singer of whatever genre; jazz, rock, pop, folk, country, reggae or even rap, takes a whole load of natural talent, a musical education, learnt skills in practical situations, a stubbornness that would make a mule jealous, and dedication to a goal you might never achieve.
And to actually make money at it takes a hell of a lot of luck, but then, it always did.
I wish all young vocalists and musicians, of whatever genre, all the best in their endeavours.
© Copyright June 2020