After goals, the next important thing is the voice.
The human voice is both a wind and a string instrument. For wind instruments (flutes, oboes, trumpets, saxophones), the amount of breath blown in the correct way is what makes the instrument work. In orchestras, wind (flute, sax) is separated from brass (trumpet) for the purpose of classification, but both are operated and activated using breath (which is the wind). For string instruments (piano, guitar, violin), the instrument is activated using the vibration of the strings. For piano, the key strikes the string and makes it vibrate. For violin, it is the bow made of horse’s hair. For guitar, it is the fingers that strike the strings. The thickness, tightness and length of the strings then affects the pitch that it rings out at. It was Pythagoras who determined, for example, that a string that is half the length of another string of the same thickness will vibrate at twice the speed and frequency, which then creates the octave.
But now the voice is both wind and string. The length and thickness of the vocal cords determines the pitch at which the voice sings. Up to a point, this is determined by the effects of testosterone – men have thicker and longer cords than women, which is why they speak lower. But the voice is the one amazing instrument where the length of the cords can be changed by muscles that control it. So the wind (breath) comes up from the lungs and vibrates the cords at a certain number of cycles per second. In the case of the note A, which is classified as the vibration of 440 megahertz, the cords are vibrating 440 times per second to create the sound. When the vibration is spend up to 462 MHz, the sound created is a C. We do this instinctively even when we talk, and talking uses exactly the same principles to create sound.
Read on in part 3 for more.
Okay, so now that we have established that singing is actually something that anyone can do, let’s see why I say that is the case. There are three elements that I want to discuss, which always relate to the way I assess voices when people start taking lessons with me. These three elements are goals, the voice, and the ear.
Let’s start with goals. As I understand it, it was Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who survived the concentration camps, who said that if the ‘why’ is big enough, we can endure almost any ‘how’ – so if the inspiration for wanting to sing is great enough, then the motivation to do so will be in place, and then the goal to become a better singer is there.
This has a lot to do with the 10,000 hour rule – the general rule of thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something. In the case of the voice, this relates mostly to getting the muscles to work in the right way so that enough breath is generated, because the simple truth of the matter is that it is unimpeded breath that is one of the key secrets to creating a great voice.
This in turn also has a lot to do with epigenetics and neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain and the nerves myelinate themselves in a certain way to strengthen the muscles and neurons, to enable you to become a great singer. This is what is so amazing about the human body. If you want to be a great singer, then the body actually facilitates that and strengthens the right muscles and the right parts of the brain, to ensure that your body is best equipped to get you to your goal. That is also one of the reasons why the human mind is such a powerful weapon, and can cause you to live a great life, or a life that can be hideously self-destructive.
I have been singing for over 40 years. I have studied music and singing for over 30 years, 10 of them with a brilliant teacher who turned me into a singer. I have taught singing for 10 years. So you might say I have some experience in this area. My amazing teacher of 10 years, Norma Biagi, knew how serious I was about learning how to become a great singer, so she told me, “If you want to master the technique, teach it.” It reminds me of another great mentor in my life, John Demartini, who says, “When you teach, you learn,” so to this day I still teach students, and they remind me what I have to do to maintain the voice.
Singing is like running – anybody can do it. The difference between a pro and an amateur is the amount of work that they do. I believe it was one of the Greek philosophers (Aristotle or Plato) who said that it is by our actions that we are recognised. So, painters paint, accountants account, managers manage, and singers sing.
And believe it or not, you are not simply born with the talent – singing is more science than art. If you use the muscles and the body in the proper way, then your voice will automatically improve. The only thing that you cannot actually change is the timbre of the voice, which is the only part where pure ability (i.e. talent) plays a role.
So yes, you can actually sing. The question is, do you really want to? If the answer is no, then you won’t be a great singer. It’s like being a doctor – I really believe that anybody has the ability to become a doctor – but not everybody wants to. That’s when we have fields of specialization, and that’s why everyone has their place in the world.
Ah, this is one of music’s truly tragic stories. Related to gospel singer Cissy Houston (her mother) and Dion Warwick, who had a slew of hits in the 60s, Whitney Houston was privileged enough to grow up in a very musical family, and that no doubt influenced her career. I wonder sometimes if she was formally trained, but when you hang out in churches and grow up singing, the voice finds its own way, and stumbles upon the right technique in a manner of speaking.
The fairytale goes that she was discovered by Clive Davis, the record mogul who put his people to work in creating a bunch of radio-friendly crowd pleaser hits that would then be sung by a great vocalist, who had a great bod and a pretty face. I often say it didn’t take much acting ability to play the spoilt diva in The Bodyguard, which of course spawned the über hit I Will Always Love You, penned by Dolly Parton and produced by David Foster (with so many album sales, the soundtrack is still one of the best-selling of all time, and has helped make Dolly a very rich woman).
Her song Didn’t We Almost Have It All is most appropriate, as in Whitney’s case, she did. But then she went and lost it. Her relationship with Bobby Brown was rocky and drug-filled, and she took a beautiful voice and amazing career and went and tossed it. I remember her interview on Oprah – how the mighty had fallen. But she was humble, more real, more open, more of a human. Of course by then the voice was gone. She still had a minor hit, but she was a shadow of her former self.
And of course, sadly, she never managed to truly kick the drug habit that had haunted her for so many years. She died at age 48, and joins other fallen stars Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson in a weird musical tradition (in some cases) – you have to die in order to truly live, and become immortal.
I just had to throw in an Afrikaans title for a change. Love her or hate her, Stefani Germanotta has done wonders with her music career over the past few years. A native New Yorker, she was privileged to grow up in an environment where her parents encouraged hard work and discipline, and she was surrounded by like-minded talents when she attended Tisch School of the Arts, and other artsy institutions that would have helped her hone her craft.
A few years before her breakthrough success (yes, even Gaga had to pay her dues, and she has a past), she played in Miami at a music festival. She was sporting mousybrown short hair, and was standing behind the keyboard like a bit of a wallflower.
So it took some major theatrics to bring her to the front of the stage. Some people say that this is all hype and no substance, that unlike other truly gifted artists she has to rely on flash and weird to make her mark in the world. Be that as it may, the world has responded in kind, and has taken notice of the woman. The wigs, the theatrical make-up, the costumes, the props on set – these have all created a strong music brand – or at least one that people cannot ignore.
And it’s brought out the nasty in others – Christina Aguilera once asked if ‘it’ was a man or a woman – and it seems as if that is just a case of sour grapes, because Gaga’s career has been a much more illustrious one of late. Admittedly, her last album seemed to be a bit of a disappointment to the world at large, and maybe some of her fans, but it’s hard work churning out song after song, hoping and praying that they will become hits.
Let’s see what she does 50 years from now, because the true test of an artist is their longevity.
I love Adele. What a voice, what a songwriter! When I first heard Chasing Pavements, I instantly fell in love with her. She is young, and yet drinks so deeply of the well of life, sharing her poetry and her mellifluous sounds with the world.
As a fellow porker myself, I also like the fact that the woman keeps it real with her buxom bod. Rumour has it (ha ha, pardon the pun) that when she bumped into Jennfier Hudson, she was none too impressed when the latter started extolling the virtues of weight loss programmes to her. I can just imagine how, in that typically nonchalant British way, she told her to buzz off.
Adele gives me hope for the music industry. Yes, I guess I could go on an eating programme and lose 30 kilograms, but unlike modelling, being ‘large’ in music is less of an issue. Look at the inimitable Cee-Lo Green. It’s all about the song, and the message that it conveys. I mean, I don’t think Rod Stewart has an award-winning voice (ditto Willie Nelson), but these are people who have been very successful in the music industry, with careers spanning decades, and that is hugely admirable. The way the singer communicates subconsciously with an audience is important, and Adele seems to do that really well.
Her success over the past few years has been astounding. In a downturned music industry with rife downloading and dropping sales, Adele has sold millions from her two albums, 19 and 21. And I am amazed how someone so young has managed to capture the world with her songwriting and her voice, much of which she attributes to a ‘rubbish’ relationship she had with a previous boyfriend.
Yeah, the Brits still seem to churn out great music that finds a home on either side of the Atlantic – and elsewhere in the world. Question is, when can we expect the new Adele album? I am sure she is furiously working on it as I write…
He’s given the world Bieberlicious and Beliebers, and, like Hanson (them of the Mmm-Bop song), he did all this before his voice broke. He was big on YouTube before Psy and Die Antwoord, and he blazed his Internet trail after OK Go did their cutesy treadmill video that broke through all the clutter and got them noticed on the cyber box, with its highly appropriate ‘broadcast yourself’ pay-off line/slogan. Read more
So the man gave me his chips after tipping me, and I ate them. The way I figure it, it meant I didn’t have to pay for my own lunch.
As I wrote previously, buskers are viewed as musical beggars. But the people that I perform with are amazing. Some of them look a little long in the tooth, and possibly a little disheveled – but they are human beings nonetheless, and they, like me, choose to eke out a living from music. I have huge respect for them. Perhaps in New York and London, where buskers perform at subway and underground stations (as in Moscow), buskers are probably seen as dodgy too. But I will say this: if a singing student of mine told me that they were terrified of performing, I would take them with me to The Zone and get them to sing in front of people. That will soon cure their stage fright. I will write about this in another blog post in the future. Read more
Katie Melua is partly of Russian descent. As I recall, she once saw a 6-year-old boy busking in a Moscow metro station, and she was mortified. “Busking is a rite of passage,” she said, “but I think 6 is too young.”
Busking is a rite of passage.I agree. So, in my musical travails, I have made busking part of my journey to move my music career forward. Every Saturday (as I still have a day job), I drag myself out of bed and trek down to The Zone in Rosebank, where I join a whole bunch of fellow musicians, and I stand at the pay stations, where I sing. If people either feel sorry for me, or if they like my voice and the songs I sing, they will give me a tip from the change they get form the pay stations when they pay for their parking. Read more