Six Things I’ve Learned As A Singer

I’ve been singing all of my life (I sang so much in my high school years, I was taken to court by my deranged neighbor because I sang incessantly, I won by the way), I produce singers, I go out to see a lot of them in LA where I live -singers make great friends- my phone book is full of them. I have CDs and Lps full of some of the greatest- Carmen McRae and Mark Murphy and Claire Martin and Joe Williams- among too many others to name—and my Mom was a big band singer. So yes I love singers—and as one, I think I’ve learned a few things.

These are my opinions. We’re not curing cancer here—If you disagree, so be it. Here goes

1. It’s the Basics Stupid- before we go any further—I don’t care if you are the most wonderful interpreter in the world of lyrics or you have a 4-octave range, if you’re pitch is bad- fuhgeddaboudit!!

Unfortunately, there’s still too many people who sing flat or sharp. Go to a singing teacher, do not stop at FACEBOOK where 7 of your friends will like anything you do, no matter how shoddy.

Also, Breath is the magic elixir in my view. Amateurs usually stop breathing when they hit the stage. I’m always looking at singer’s stomach’s (no I’m not a pervert) The good one’s stomach’s go in and out– Breath helps you sing higher, lower and it is what controls your tone and pitch. A voice supported- can reveal all it’s beautiful colors- while a voice robbed of breath can sound pinched and ugly. When we have no breath, we tend to push through—and nothing’s worse than somebody belting too hard! Lady Gaga are you listening?

2. Sing in your range. Knowing the best key for you to sing in makes a big difference—Generally I see “Mature” singers singing in their “young” higher singing keys way too often. Whenever I revisit an old chart of mine from 15 years ago, I most always have to bring it down. Bite the bullet, you’ll be glad you did. I love going to “Arthur Prysock” land

3. Every song is a rhythm song, especially ballads- this applies to Jazz singers in particular, but to every singer too. Rhythm and a wonderful familiarity with it, makes all of us sound “Hip” and interesting. Nothing is more boring than hearing someone singing a ballad and hitting everything on the beat—Vary it people! Naturally, honor the composer’s intentions, but small rhythmic pleasures can really set you apart. It’s amazing how many people don’t know where “one” is at—Are you on it? are you behind it, are in front of it? None of this matters if you don’t know where “one” is. —and while I’m at it, there’s far too many singers who back phrase till they’re so far behind in the song, the momentum is lost. Back phrasing will only work, if we as singers establish the original melody (generally on the beat) so we can play off of it—I know enough about music to see the chart as a grid where I place the rhythm patterns of the song along the bars—varying them much as a horn would do— And “less is more” don’t sing too much, syncopate too much or sing too loud. Try singing “softly” it’s amazing what varying volume can do-

4. The Ending of phrases tell me a lot about who you are as a singer. A lot of the identity of a singer is forged by the end of their phrases. Are they vibrato laden?, are they generally short?, are they always held to the bar? Generally, less vibrato on the ends of phrases works—by not filling up the line—that way you make space (which is always cool) and the space gives you more time to play with the rhythm. I know We all love to hold our notes and the higher the better—but really that puts you in a cabaret/Broadway world—I guess I’m more of a jazz pop guy. At least vary your endings- short, long, controlled vibrato and flat.

5. Don’t be Marty and Bobbi Culp-Remember Will Farell and Ana Gasteyer on SNL doing the hopelessly square Marti and Bobbi Culp tackling Nicki Minaj or Justin Beiber material. Well what made them so square is that they had no connection to the material they would do. But in their quest to be “current” they sang totally inappropriate stuff. Once you get the basics down—it’s up to you to pick material that reflects who you are- that “tells your story”- and lets the audience in to the personal perspective only you can give them. if you’re a 55-year-old white mother- don’t be singing TLC’S “Waterfalls”. And pick songs that melodically highlight your vocal strengths. Material is key. Most of my friends have a whole lifetime of experiences to draw from- and stories to tell—tell them. And know what you’re singing about- don’t be smiling if you’re singing a song where your man just left you—That drives me nuts. As a listener I want to believe what you’re singing so much that it touches my heart—Cheryl Bentyne is brilliant at always capturing the story of the song—You “always” know who she is, who’s she singing too and what she’s trying to accomplish- paired with her vocal and musical strengths – she’s a gem—and it’s one of the reasons I love singing with her. She’s like a “laser beam” to the emotions in a song. Also, sing songs that aren’t the same “12 jazz songs everybody sings” and that are sometimes out of your demographic- surprise people- if it tells your story- sing it. I just did a Prince song on my last CD. Now I didn’t do “1999” or “Head” I did a jazzy tune with a romantic and clever lyric that fit me.

6. I love Bob Dylan’s Voice- Yes, I do, and I love Joe Cocker’s Voice and Mabel Mercer’s Voice and Tom Wait’s Voice-I don’t need perfect voices- who can sing 5 octaves and sound like they’re infallible (I actually find them boring) I love people who are totally who they are—embrace the “uniqueness of their gifts” And once you sing in pitch in a musical way—exploit your differences. Cryill Aimee has a lovely, breathy, yet rhythmic style that is totally intoxicating. She’s not trying to be Shirley Horn or Betty Carter—but herself. My favorite singers- Mark Murphy, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman—all can sound “ugly beautiful”—I love that!!!

To wrap it up, I am a student of the voice- I have had wonderful singing teachers in Lee and Sally Sweetland and Mike Campbell- and I’m always learning new things about how to sing. I’m a student- I look forward to taking more singing lessons and navigating my more “maturing” voice in the coming years- some wonderful “mature” singers like Barbara Cook, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand have shown me, you can sing as long as you live, as long as you have something to say- and don’t smoke too many cigarettes and gargle with bourbon for breakfast—and last but not least, have good “technique” (full circle) It’s always the basics.
Mark

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