Why some singers don’t sound good even after mastering the technique and how to solve it?

Not seeing the forest for the trees

Today I’d like to rant a little bit about a very common issue I encounter among singers, and sometimes even very experienced singers, who have spent some time studying singing technique. To facilitate technical discussions about singing, we come up with various terms to explain what we mean. Navigating the ocean of terminological chaos associated with singing is rather difficult on its own, but that’s a different discussion. However, I feel that the complexity of understanding these terms sometimes tricks us to unconsciously drift from our goals. Suddenly the aim shifts into “singing in Overdrive” or “finding mixed voice” or “singing from the diaphragm” where the initial goal was to capture a certain vibe and musicality of a song or a phrase. We start focusing on one tree and while that tree is possibly an important feature of the forest, it’s not the whole forest. After painting that tree really nicely, it is necessary to zoom back out to the forest and see what other trees need work for the whole forest to be nicely painted.

The biggest tree

To make my point a little clearer, let me explain with a specific example. For the sake of familiarity let’s pick rock legend Steven Tyler from Aerosmith and the first verse of their 1989 hit song Love In An Elevator starting at 0:32.

As a CVT teacher, I’d describe Tyler’s main approach to that verse as reduced density Edge with the added rough vocal effect called distortion. If you’d like to learn more about these terms and the associated technique, I suggest buying the Complete Vocal Technique app or book or booking a lesson with me, but that understanding is not required for following the rest of this article. So, to approach that kind of sound, I’d start training high notes in reduced density Edge and then once the singer has a good grasp of that technique, introduce training the distortion effect.

The issue is that many singers feel like they’ve now reached the goal because the overarching technical approach they’re taking is the same as Steven Tyler’s. However, getting good at reduced density Edge with distortion still doesn’t mean nailing all the subtleties of this piece of music! It’s merely the technical foundation required to be able to pull the song off, but there are many more aspects of Tyler’s performance that make it so electrifying and charismatic (which is of course taste dependent, but if Steven Tyler is not your cup of tea, feel free to imagine your favorite singer as the example of this text instead)! At this point you could start nitpicking and trying to copy every little subtle nuance of Tyler’s performance, but unless your aim is to end up a faithful Steven Tyler impersonator singing in an Aerosmith tribute band, I’d suggest a slightly different approach!

The wrong tree

Before moving on to other solutions, I’d like to derail and ask you to make sure that your biggest tree actually belongs to the forest you’re trying to paint! What I mean is that maybe the sound you’ve worked on while developing your technique is great on its own, but doesn’t fit the context you’re trying to fit it into. With the Aerosmith example, you’ll obviously need a fairly powerful sound as your baseline and if you have spent a lot of time practicing a different technique for hitting those notes, maybe the overall approach needs addressing before continuing on to finer points! My suggestion is to always assess if the overall sound character is appropriate. If it sounds too soft or too strong, too dark or too bright, work on those points first because no amount of attention to detail will make a James Blunt type of sound appropriate for a Steven Tyler style song and vice versa!

Image by freepik

The lab and the musical performance

During my studies at CVI in Copenhagen, we’ve been taught this very important concept of separating the lab phase and the musical performance phase of practice. The lab phase is where you perfect different techniques and nurture your newly acquired sounds until they’re ripe enough for the performance training phase. In the first phase, you don’t need to worry about musicality, but rather about stability, reproducibility and sustainability of the technique. Following that, in the performance training phase, you should focus on making things sound good. What sounds good is a very subjective matter and I encourage you to use your own taste more than relying on anyone else. Other people, including friends, musicians, and vocal coaches, can provide valuable ideas on how to improve your performance, but use your own taste as the main guideline! One of our teachers from CVI used to say “I might suggest ice cream flavors for you to try, but if you don’t like my favorite ice cream flavor, you shouldn’t be stuck ordering that one for the rest of your life just because I like it.” So make sure things sound good to YOU! Record yourself a lot and often! Notice the things you don’t like about your performance and rather than just flagellating yourself for not sounding good, try to decode what it is exactly that needs to change for you to like it better! Would you prefer a darker sound color on the ending of the phrase? Would you like a more even vibrato? Would some notes benefit from light pitch bends? These are all ideas you can then take back into the lab and work on the technical points that are required to put it back into context to elevate that musical performance to the next level.

Image by rorozoa on Freepik

Importance of emotional communication

Once you have ironed out the technical points, don’t forget that art is all about emotional expression. In most cases, no amount of technical work can make up for a lack of emotional communication. As a part of your performance training phase, I would suggest putting some thought into what the song is about, who you are as the character delivering the message, who the message is addressed to and what you aim to accomplish with delivering that message. You’ll find your technical choices will start to follow those objectives to underline the intended message. Most often an emotionally impactful performance with some technical flaws will be received a lot better than a technically perfect performance that doesn’t resonate with the listener emotionally!

I hope this short article helps you not confuse the forest for the trees and helps you structure your practice better in a more efficient manner. If you need any help conquering the technical aspects of a piece (the lab phase) or connecting it all into the bigger picture (the performance training phase) don’t hesitate to contact me and book a lesson!