Examining and Refining Your Singing Goals

Reprinted with permission from BackStage West. 

For more information on examining your singing goals, finding your own singing and performing style, and improving your live singing performances, please check out my book Singing Live: The Performing Skills Guidebook for Contemporary Singers

Out with friends at a club one night, a singer has an epiphany: what she wants more than anything is to be the next Janis Joplin. Unfortunately, she just spent five years learning arias with a classical voice teacher, developing her richest, highest tones. Her sweet, clear soprano voice won't cut it as a blues singer, and she knows nothing about belting, improvising riffs or working on stage with a rock band. Some of what she's learned in her classical studies might cross over, but she wishes she'd thought about where she was headed as a singer before devoting all those years exclusively to opera. 

It's important to know what your singing goals are. I don't mean technical goals like increasing your range or improving your tone, though they are important, too. What I mean is, when you daydream about singing, what and where are you singing? There are so many directions a singer can go, and the sooner you know what your goals are, the better you can direct your energies towards achieving them. 

Try that daydream right now. Relax, close your eyes, and imagine that you are singing a song you love, having a wonderful time. Try to suspend all judgments like "I'm too old" or "I'll never be good enough to do that". If you can't conjure up a scene that feels right, then imagine yourself in several different situations, taking note of which one seems like the most fun. Imagine yourself, for example, belting out the lead in a Broadway musical, wailing with a rousing gospel choir, laying down tracks in a recording studio, fronting a rock band in an amphitheater, or accompanying yourself on guitar at a coffeehouse. 

After you've dreamed up a singing situation that feels right, ask yourself the following questions: 
    • What style of music were you singing? Is that the style you love the most? 
    • Were you singing alone or with others? 
    • How were you dressed? Blue jeans? Evening attire? Leather? 
    • Where were you? An amphitheater? A church? How about the audience, were they sitting attentively? Dancing, screaming and storming the stage? 
    • What kind of accompaniment did you have? 

All these questions are to help you define the style of music and the context in which you want to sing that style. Once you've pinned down a singing goal that feels right, it's time to ask yourself some harder questions: 

    • Is your voice right for this style? If not, could you make it right with vocal studies? A reputable voice teacher can give you a decent opinion as to what you might realistically attain with training. If you can afford it, get opinions from several professionals. A friend of mine who is currently headlining throughout Australia was told by a teacher that she had no singing talent at all, and a student that I didn't expect much from got herself a record deal within a year of her first lesson! If you do consult a teacher, ask them beforehand if they can teach you what you need to know. Don't study with an opera teacher to learn jazz phrasing; don't go to a blues teacher to prepare for musical theater auditions. 

If your voice truly isn't right for the style of music you love, you have several options. You can say to hell with the odds and go for your goal anyway. The world is filled with successful singers who have atypical voices--Neil Young and Macy Gray come to mind. Or, you can modify your goal slightly. For instance, if your voice isn't strong enough to lead a rock band, it might still be good enough to be a back-up singer. You could also make a slight style shift: maybe you don't have the volume and power to sing lead in a Broadway show, but your acting skills and smaller "character" voice could work great in cabaret. Blossom Dearie was a good example. 

    • Does your temperament fit the job description? Some singing positions require you to be outgoing, some require wild spontaneity, some require cool precision. While I have no qualms about walking into a recording studio and learning a song on the spot, the idea of doing 16 bars at a musical theater audition makes me queasy. You could make yourself miserable forcing yourself into a singing situation that goes against your nature. 

Research the reality behind your dream. Find someone who is doing what you want to do and take them out to lunch so you can pick their brain. Unless they are an overbooked superstar they might very well be flattered by the attention. Scour the internet for singers' chat groups and web sites. Read interviews with working singers in magazines. Get a good idea of the ups and downs of your singing goal and ask yourself honestly if it's right for you. 

    • Does your look fit the job description? I hate to have to ask that question, but sometimes appearance is an issue. Changing your wardrobe is easy enough , but ask yourself if you'll be comfortable singing jazz in cocktail wear, folk in blue jeans or heavy metal in leather. More importantly, ask yourself if you have the look for the style you want to sing. I'm all for busting stereotypes, but if you are fifty pounds heavier than every hard rock singer you admire, or if you want to be the first Asian rap superstar, do you have the guts and stamina to buck the status quo? Susan Boyle did just that, and made a career for herself. Make sure that you have her determination. 

Some styles of music are more ageist than others. There are lots of folk, cabaret, and jazz singers who are well over forty and doing fine. Pop, hip-hop and dance music, however, are mostly inhabited by younger artists. Happily, there are always examples of singers who go against stereotype and succeed: Lucinda Williams had Rolling Stone's record of the year and broke out of her cult status at age 45, Charley Pride was a success as an African-American in the all-white 70's country scene, and Lyle Lovett's kind of homely face never stopped him. 

    • Is making money with your singing a priority? Some styles, like folk and choir singing, rarely bring in much money. Exceptions exist: several friends of mine make their living touring the world as folk singers, and opera choir singers can make a decent wage. 

Some singing positions have the potential to make money, but can take a lot of time, money and energy spent before you see a penny. Vocalists going for a record contract are a good example of this, as are budding Broadway singers. 

Singing jobs that might support you include: jingles and session work, casuals (singing jazz and pop standards at hotels, weddings, etc.), live back-up singing for established artists, cruise ship and theme park work, and musical theater touring companies. Educational jobs like running children's music classes also pay, but you may end up conducting and coaching more than singing. Many of the classical singers I know have weekly "church gigs", and during the Christmas holidays also have plenty of paid caroling and choir work. You can also make some money doing club work in various styles, but it's debatable whether you can make a living at it in industry towns like LA, New York or Nashville, where everyone is showcasing for free. 

Skills Required for Some Different Singing Situations: 

    • Jingles Singing & Recording Session Work: Sight-singing, ability to learn music quickly, on-the-spot harmonizing, improvising, pleasing vocal tone, ability to work well with others and take direction. Certain session singers are cast for the sound of their lead voice: these singers don't need reading or blending skills (though it can't hurt), just a good solo voice that sounds like whoever is hot right now. 
    • Choirs, Caroling, Church Jobs: Sight-singing, pleasing classical tone (except for gospel or pop choirs), blending ability, ability to stay on part when harmonizing, ability to work well with others and take direction. 
    • Casuals (wedding and lounge gigs): Pleasing lead voice, comfortable in jazz and pop styles, willingness to occasionally be background music. Though intact bands play casuals, bands are often put together for the event. In the latter situation, the singer usually shows up with several copies of his/her book of song charts, then calls, counts off and performs the songs with no rehearsal, just quick arrangement chats in-between songs. Therefore, you need to know 3-4 sets worth of songs, and have all the charts (aka sheet music) in your keys. 
    • Cruise Ships & Theme Parks: These are different from casuals in that you'll know the song list and rehearse with the band beforehand. Sight-singing isn't necessary. You should have a good pop/show voice (like the singers in Disney movies), though good jazz, R&B and country singers can also find work. Dancing is sometimes required. You need to be comfortable with "working" an audience. 
    • Live Back-up Singing: Harmonizing and blending skills, vocal sound and stage moves that fit the specific style. Wit and camaraderie skills help: if you're going to tour with the band they want someone they'd like to hang out with in the bus. Your looks can be as important as your sound for this job. 
    • Club Work (All Contemporary Styles): Obviously the appropriate vocal sound will vary wildly depending on the style. Some styles, like folk and alternative, have a wide acceptable tonal range. For others, like country, you really need a specific sound. Intimate styles like cabaret and folk require good "patter" skills. Jazz singers should be able to improvise. Rock singers should have a fair amount of on-stage charisma and dynamic stage moves. Whether your on-stage movement is flamboyant or minimal, you need performance skills and good mic technique. 
    • Musical Theater: Acting, dancing, movement and auditioning skills, volume, precision. Reading skills very helpful, but not essential. Lead singers need the appropriate tone, which can vary from legit to rock, depending on the show. Chorus singers need to blend and stay on one's part when harmonizing. 

In addition to the situations listed above, there are many left-of-center, satisfying singing jobs. I know someone who was hired full time by the city of Palo Alto to sing to patients in hospitals and hospices. After college I delivered singing telegrams for a year. A waitress I met in LA had a day job at various schools in Santa Monica, singing songs with the kids. A friend of mine travels the country performing exclusively in synagogues. He sells thousands of his CDs at these concerts. 

After learning about the requirements of your chosen singing style, perhaps you will alter your goal. In that case, go back to the original daydreaming exercise and try out your new plan to see if it feels like a worthy substitute. 

Finally, review your goals periodically. This is to ensure that you are still on track, and also to see if your chosen goal still feels right as you grow and change. Singing is one of the joys of life. If you choose well, the process of achieving your singing goals can also be a joyous experience.

© Susan Anders

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