SINGERS AS MUSICIANS
by Cathy Segal-Garcia
Let’s look at the reality of the situation. A group of people gets together with the purpose of creating music. Each musician knows how to play his or her instrument to a certain degree, has a degree of experience, and is versed in the language of music. Would you want to be a part of this group? Ask yourself: Do you want to keep growing and getting better, with the other musicians? Do you want a sense of integrity about what you’re doing? Do you want a feeling of joy that is present when everyone respects each other and is working together towards the same goal—both in the moment and long-term? If you answer in the affirmative, then roll up your sleeves, pull up your bootstraps, and dig in!
First, get an honest and qualified review of your talents, problems, and abilities, as well as a mapped-out road plan that will lead you to your musical goals. Although this course of action sounds simple, it is necessary, as your actions depend almost entirely on your point of view. How do you [honestly] view yourself, and how do you come to terms with what you have to work out? Can you accept a qualified person’s opinion about you and your abilities, especially if less-than-perfect criticism is present?
Okay. Let’s say you’ve traversed the barrier of being able to be honest with yourself. You have also located a respected teacher who has observed and reviewed you. Finally, you have accepted his or her opinion about your abilities and the suggested direction about your training. You are now ready to consider important issues with which all musicians deal. They include:
•Honest Point Of View
•Getting Work/An Agent/A Label
Although long hours could easily be devoted to each item, this article will only briefly touch on the essentials. We’ve covered “Commitment” and “Honest Point of View”. Let’s look at “Work/Dedicated Time.” You must dedicate time to develop your craft...this is not open to negotiation! In this day and age, it is [unfortunately] easy to get sidetracked, especially when dealing with day-to-day survival issues. However, the more time you dedicate to your craft, the faster you will get to where you want to go. I highly suggest scheduling your time for various actions, such as warm-ups, scales, etudes, etc.—just like you would schedule time for any other type of appointment.
“Vocal Technique” means getting your instrument in shape. Think of your voice as the most precious instrument you will ever own. Always keep it in top working order. Keep it protected. Develop your facility with it. Study how other knowledgeable people use it. Your voice is a mixture of air and muscle; it takes study to understand how it works, and it takes drilling to break out of bad habits so that good habits may develop. Get a teacher—a good teacher is a confidant, counselor, friend, and a mentor. A good teacher will know things that you do not, and be will be eager and interested to pass this information along to you. Don’t pass this off as “unnecessary”. This is one of the most necessary things you can do.
“Style/Phrasing/Scales” are some of the main subcategories that fall under “Vocal Technique.” Scales, especially for jazz singing, are like depositing cash into your savings account. Scale drills will guarantee a big payout when you start to perform night after night!
Although style refers to any specific genre (Jazz, Pop, Country, etc.), phrasing gives you a personality...it is how you sing the lyric. By practicing different songs, you will be working on style and phrasing. Experiment with different tempi, grooves, keys, and emotions. Record yourself. Decide what you like and what you don’t like about your performance.
Listen to others. If you’re a beginner, then copy the masters. All jazz instrumentalists teach students to perform “take downs” or transcriptions. Listen to a recording and copy down the song or solo, either onto paper, or directly into your memory. This process can be difficult, but no matter what your level, it is a very interesting and rewarding action, both while you are in the process of actually doing it, and for filling up your “bank” of knowledge for later study.
“Repertoire” is your body of songs you sing. If you have a long and busy career, you will eventually have quite a number of songs that you’re able to perform. Look through songbooks. Make lists of songs that you a) fully know, b) have begun to know, and c) want to know. I’m still doing this...it’s a never-ending exercise. Your repertoire will reflect where your career is focused: Top 40, show music, jazz, blues, funk...etc. Even if you are a dedicated jazz or blues artist, there are always more tunes to learn, and there will always be situations where you need to perform material that is outside of your preferred genre. Or, you may want to apply your style to other new material, for creative or commercial reasons.
Along with “Repertoire” comes the preparation of your charts and books. You should have two or three sets of books, each containing identical charts. Sometimes your piano book will have particular notations relevant to only the lead chord player, or particular notations may be present for the bass and drum books. But you need to keep up with any major changes to your charts, so that all books remain similar with everyone being “on the same page”, so to speak! The charts are in your key, each with clearly written and easy-to-see directions and form. Songs are numbered for easy access; you have the master list (including keys) in your book.
“Listening” is very high on the importance scale. But, don’t listen while you are washing the dishes or balancing your checkbook! Really take time to sit down and listen. Take note…write down what you like, what you don’t like, and your general impressions of a song or artist. And do not limit you listening to only vocalists. Listen to all instrumentalists, both on recordings and in live performances.
Get out of your house and work with somebody! You will gain valuable “Experience.” Even if you go to a friend’s house, you are working with someone else other than yourself, alone, in your living room. You will never realize your full potential if you don’t take this step. An expansion of your abilities (and your career) occurs only when you communicate your knowledge to others. Sitting-in and jamming with people is a step, but it has be moving towards another goal, like meeting musicians, auditioning, honing your chops, trying out a new charts, etc. Simply having fun isn’t bad...but don’t allow sitting-in to be the long-term goal. It is just a stepping-stone. And always try to perform with musicians whose skill level is higher than yours. This endeavor will raise your skill level through the challenge of keeping up! Experienced musicians also introduce a higher level of aesthetics into the music, and you can learn first hand about professional behavior and general career choices.
The process of “Getting Work/An Agent/A Label” depends on what you can confront, and what you can do well. It is great to have people working for you, and in some situations you really do need to have others represent you. But there are many situations where you are your best promoter, such as getting basic gigs at clubs, festivals, schools, or parties. I’m a big fan of approaching restaurants that don’t have an established music policy. Competitively, it’s exciting, as you are creating a new music scene for everyone! And how are contacts made in any area of business? By knocking on doors, looking in trade publications, and by talking with people you know who have an interest in “the scene.” Be prepared with some kind of promotional package. It doesn’t have to be the very best one in the world. Believe me, you can get a gig with a warm handshake and talk. But a package containing a brief CD, picture, and short resume is standard. And always follow-up and talk with your initial contacts.
“Respect/Love/Humility.” It is difficult to imagine a career without these terms. Life isn’t as good without them, and neither is your career. Always demonstrate respect toward your fellow musicians. If a particular person reflects an attitude that lowers your respect of him or her, so be it. But you should enter into any musical situation in a humble and respectful manner. Next, respect yourself. There’s nothing more obvious and more distasteful than seeing, hearing, or being involved with a person who doesn’t respect himself or herself. Love yourself, love what you’re doing, and love who you are doing it with and for. Bitterness and revenge serves no purpose at all, except serving as your own personal barrier to true success. If you need to handle a problem, handle it, and then move on. Keep in mind the joy of experiencing great music. Give it to as many people as you can. You will get back what you put out. Make your gift special!