Should Songwriters Study Singing?
I live in Nashville, Tennessee, a town where every surgeon, dry-cleaner, and real estate agent you meet also happens to be a songwriter. We are a songwriter-rich town, and we are very busy here—besides paying our bills, raising families, walking our dogs, and otherwise living our lives, we also must find time to write, demo and pitch our songs. So why should a songwriter consider the added time and expense of taking singing lessons? I think yes. Of course, I'm biased: I'm a singing teacher. But I'm also a songwriter, and over the years I've seen the many benefits of vocal study. Even if you are convinced that you sound like a frog with strep throat and you will never sing in public, there are still many good reasons to take a few classes. They include:
• Vocal Health—Why leave a writing session hoarse when a few warm up exercises done while driving to the session could prevent you from straining your voice?
• Ability to Think Like a Singer—This is invaluable if you are trying to get your songs cut. I once wrote with a guitarist who came up with a line that sounded great on guitar but was very awkward and uncomfortable to sing. When I said that the line "didn't sing well" he looked at me as if I were nuts. But I would bet my car that the difficulty of singing that melody made the song less pitchable—I certainly didn't want to sing it! Some lyrics also look great on paper but feel awkward to sing—once you learn about singer's diction in voice class you'll understand why. As you learn about your voice in singing lessons you develop an instinctive feel for which melodies and lyrics flow vocally, and which don't. The more singable the song, the more pitchable it is.
• Better Work Tapes and Better Communication With Co-Writers—Even the aforementioned frog-voiced writer has to sing for co-writers and make work tapes for demo producers, demo singers, etc. Developing your range and pitch accuracy will make it much easier for you to communicate to the world what you hear in your head. One writer I know was only writing lyrics though she had definite melodic ideas in her head—after she took some lessons she gained the confidence to also contribute musically.
• Singing is Fun—And singing well is even more fun. When you sing correctly it feels good, and endorphins kick in. Singers often experience a "singer's high" akin to a runner's high. I have on occasion been in a funk, forced myself to do some vocal practicing, and sung myself into a good mood. And when I'm having fun I have a better creative flow, so I write more and better songs.
The above points pertain to all songwriters. The following points are for songwriters who perform at writer's nights, song circles, and other gigs:
• The Better You Sing, the More People Listen—Rivers Rutherford, Gretchen Peters, Leslie Satcher and Jeffrey Steele are all hit songwriters as well as wonderful singers. At live shows their singing ability draws you in, then they deliver the songwriting goods. Developing your voice helps promote your songs. A while back I heard a successful writer squeak out his recent George Strait hit at the Bluebird Cafe—it was barely recognizable from the version I'd heard on the radio. We in Nashville pride ourselves on being able to distinguish a great song regardless of the singer, but had I heard the writer's version first I honestly don't think I would have recognized just how good the song was. I'm not saying that a writer needs to study singing for years and try to develop a star quality voice. I'm saying that some voice study can and should improve tone, range, pitch accuracy, sustenance, and overall delivery of a song, which will get the song across better.
• The Nerves Thing—Playing out is part of the job. It's how we try our new songs out on people and how we network. The more you learn your voice and what it can do, the easier it is to perform. I've had episodes of world class stage fright but I knew my voice would stay solid, which ultimately eased my nerves. Because I'm fairly comfortable with my voice, stage fright never prevents me from getting my songs out to the world.
If you decide to try some voice classes, make sure to let your teacher know that you are a writer. Better yet, spell out your goals during your first conversation: do you want to sing your own demos, knock everyone out at live performances, get rid of the sore throats you get during writing sessions, simply get more comfortable with your voice, or what? Being clear about your goals will help your teacher develop a sensible study plan for you.
© Susan Anders