Imitation is Necessary
I’m going to make a slightly contentious suggestion: That encouraging PM singers to ‘break down’ the sonic components of other singers’ voices – even to try and imitate them – should be a core and necessary part of their training.
This is a potentially controversial statement because the music industry thrives on the recognisability and timbral individuality of their artists. Indeed, the singular sound of each artist’s voice is their USP. Popular Music voice programs at university/conservatoire level have a high level of focus on encouraging this individuality and artistry, as they should.
But how will singers arrive at this individual sound without experimentation with a wide range of vocal qualities? And what happens to employability if singers don’t understand the differing needs of industry career pathways?
Scenarios That Use Imitation Skills
Let me explain what I mean by this via a few scenarios.
The Studio Gig
Firstly, this one: You are a singer/songwriter that has just graduated from an institution where a large part of your vocal training has been focused solely on expressing your individuality through your music and your voice. Between your own gigs, you sign up for some studio session work to pay your bills, where the producer/engineer decides they want a particular sound or quality from your voice that isn’t in your core artistic sound. What if you really need that gig? Will you be able to adapt your sound to accommodate it?
Cover Bands and Tribute Singers
Or how about this one: You aspire to make it as an artist, but meanwhile you need to get work as a tribute or covers band singer. Is your individual sound going to get you that gig? Or do you need to flex something in your vocal set-up? If so, are you able to do that?
Adapting to Live Performing
I’ve also noted in recent years that artists whose core sound involves very intimate, close-to-the-mic sometimes quite ‘breathy’ singing in the studio have become hugely successful commercially, but those same artists can struggle to translate that core sound in the context of, say, a live music festival. Since live music is where many new artists are making most of their money, this is a problem that even the best sound team in the world cannot always solve, especially if the gig is outside. Did anyone ever tell that artist that this might be an issue?
Training for Artistry and Training for Gigs
I recently completed a study that examined the prospect of creating a curricular outline for training PM singing teachers (Sear, 2023). Naturally, this subject came up, with some interesting discussions emerging. While encouraging individual artistry was universally acknowledged to be vital, one of my participants – a highly experienced and eminent PM pedagogue – also had this to say:
‘ … we need to make a difference between ‘I’m going to train you as an artist’ and ‘I’m going to train you for this gig’. Not everyone’s style is going to allow them to all of a sudden turn around and sync into a Jennifer Hudson song … I’m more about saying what the limitations are and what the advantages are.’
This observation recalls Kat Reinhert’s idea that there are five broad categories of PM singer: Chameleon, singer-songwriter, songwriter, functional and instrumentalist (Reinhert, 2019). She describes ‘chameleon’ singers as having
‘… large, flexible vocal ranges with myriad timbre possibilities. These artists possess extraordinary musicianship and artistry, as well as advanced technical vocal ability. Their technical skill and ability enables them to be the lead singer or artist… However, they may choose to be a session or backup singer … as well as an excellent club date (otherwise known as casual or wedding) singer.’
Reinhert explains that the broad categories she describes are ‘not bounded or immovable’ and PM singers can and often do move smoothly between those categories.
Should All Singers Be Chameleons for Employability?
What I’m wondering, in the current economic climate especially, is this: Should we be teaching all our PM singers to be vocal ‘chameleons’?
This is a tricky subject area, but I believe it does need to be addressed for simple reasons of practicality and economy. Things are very tough out there for musicians, even more so since COVID. With performance venues disappearing, and opportunities thinner on the ground, a realistic approach to preparing our young singers for the world outside college – and the necessary detail of earning a living – might well be to look at imitations and limitations as well as artistry. In other words: Honing your own vocal artistry could be explored in the context of others’. After all, maybe we all need to imitate at some point to originate? (See this video. Also related SPM posts by Jess Baldwin and Kelly Hoppenjans.)
Conversations about different vocal qualities, vocal tract shaping, registration, tongue position etc. and what makes up the timbre of other artists, alongside some exploratory imitation, would not only inform artists’ own choice of timbral qualities but also their grasp of how their voice may be made adaptable if circumstances dictate. The data I obtained during my study also suggested that PM voice students should (with sensitivity) be appraised of what their vocal advantages and/or limitations are within different performance contexts.
The 3D Musician
A concept that is taking off in the UK with PM institutions is that of the ‘3D musician’ – an artist who can perform, compose and produce. Employability and career longevity are the reasons given for this approach and, in the context of the modern music industry, this seems sensible. I would argue that, in that same context, the ‘3D singer’, or vocal ‘chameleon’, is a concept we should also explore.
Reinhert, K. ( 2019;), ‘ Singers in higher education: Teaching popular music vocalists. ’, in Z. Moir, B. Powell, and G. D Smith. (eds), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices, London: Bloomsbury Press, pp. 127–40. [Google Scholar]
Sear, Joanna. ( 2023), ‘ Modern vocal pedagogy: Investigating a potential curricular framework for training popular music singing teachers. ’, Journal of Popular Music Education, online first, https://doi.org/10.1386/jpme_00105_1 [Google Scholar]
Learn more about Jo Sear and her work at www.popupvocaltraining.co.uk