This is not your father’s music industry anymore. The landscape has changed tremendously and is morphing continually. Singers are having to adapt a lot to survive in the world of contemporary commercial music (CCM). It is no longer enough to have vocal chops. Vocalists have to think more holistically as musicians and creators to navigate the waters of the biz.
Where I have had periods with few of my students thinking of serious careers as singers, the past couple of years have seen the turning of the tide again. I am now having lots of discussions with those who are looking to attend college programs with CCM emphasis or who are looking to get their music out to the public and hit the stage soon. They possess a lot of talent, great discipline, and passion for the craft. Here are some of the things that have come up in our conversations about what the modern vocalist needs in terms of skills, knowledge, and temperament.
- Treasure your vocal technique.
Singing is, of course, about communication and connection. That should be our aim. BUT in order to be freed from hindrances and to keep the vocal instrument healthy, it is imperative that singers honor their voices by developing really good technique and keeping it sharp. I remind them that they should look at this as a career-long endeavor. Some voice lessons every so often over the years even when active as a performer will be really helpful. I always say “the work never ends…..”.
- Remember that you are a vocal musician.
I used to talk with my middle school choir students about not being ‘the dumb musician’ as a singer. I admonished them to learn as much about the language of music as their friends in band and orchestra. I have that talk all the time now with my current private students who are pursuing singing careers seriously. I stress the need to learn theory and harmony. Learn to sightread. Learn the language of music in terms of dynamics, tempo, and expression. They will garner much more respect from their instrumentalist peers.
- Learn to play piano or guitar.
I think this a huge deal. For one, it makes understanding music theory and harmony so much easier. It also practically allows the singer to be more independent, not having to rely on other musicians so much. It facilitates the development of songwriting skills. And it’s just plain cool to be able to accompany one’s own singing.
- Write your own music!!!
I think it’s very important for artists to have as much stake in their own music in this modern music industry model. For artistic and financial reasons, I challenge my singers to explore the art of songwriting.
- Embrace music technology.
Again, it is vital for a modern singer to not only sing well but to also have at least working knowledge of the tools that are such huge part of the creative process. They should become knowledgeable about the digital audio workstations (DAWs) that are commonly used in recording music today. It is good to have functional familiarity with at least a couple of the most popular ones such as ProTools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Studio One, and Performer.
- DON’T BE A JERK!!
Good people skills can never be over-emphasized. Great chops and musicianship may get them the first gig or two, but they won’t get called for the next big tour by a huge artist if people can’t stand to be around them for 4 weeks of rehearsal and 3 months on the road. They need to know that they can be replaced quickly and easily.
- Know who you are.
I admonish my singers to be comfortable in their skin. Learn to love their quirks and uniqueness. I want them to accept what are their natural vocal/musical strengths and know how to feature them while continuing to challenge themselves by working on their weaknesses.
- Be flexible.
I challenge my students to try a lot of different styles of music and learn from them. It will be important for them professionally, especially if they are sidemen and sidewomen.
- Background singers are the ultimate vocal athletes.
My students know that I adore backing vocalists for their versatilty and range. I remind them that it is not just a way to get one’s foot in the door, but can be a very lucrative career path in and of itself.
- Remember to thank me on your liner notes and when you win your Grammy.
I kid, I kid………..