The Impostor Syndrome

The voice is both the most important and misunderstood instrument in popular music. On the local scene the vocals are often an afterthought, barely touched on in rehearsals, under-mixed live and hurried in the studio. On the national scene the singer IS the band. On top of this pressure, many performers are insecure. The prevailing, idiotic, mentality that a REAL singer should be able to make anything work causes people to dwell on their weaknesses rather than their strengths. I call this the impostor syndrome. True, singers are strange animals, but a little less so if you consider there are two distinctly different breeds: The egos and the alter-egos. Expecting one to sing like the other will cause problems every time.

Obviously, a loud-mouth makes a great vocalist. An extroverted, uninhibited person is as natural for the singer slot as a seven-footer is for a basketball team. Performers like Celene Dione pop out of the womb singing. They are encouraged as kids and win talent contests as teenagers. These gifted, 100-watt egos gladly stand up in crowded restaurants and belt out tunes or bust into free style raps at parties. But what about the rest? What if the desire to sing and perform is in spite of the personality? Is there a height requirement for the NBA? No. Just don’t expect much encouragement on your way there.

It’s difficult for some people to understand, but not everyone sings because they love the sound of their voice or think they have talent. Many become singers by default. They sing because their songs require them to, or it fills a void in their heart. Often, they begin their journey as guitarists, drummers or keyboard players and gradually step into the vocal limelight. Most often, they are shy, unassuming people who require the “safety” of the stage before metamorphosing into their alter-ego. That’s the way Clark Brown explains it, a soft-spoken student of mine who becomes a ferocious predator when he sings. He describes his transformation as a cathartic experience — a great high. From the audience, Clark appears to be living the dream; he’s completed an album with Geezer, on TVT, and is now touring across the States and Europe. Yet, he will be the first to tell you he doesn’t consider himself to be a great singer. Like many alter-egos, he struggles with an impostor complex, night after night, just to get his fix.

In the studio, alter-ego singers need more time and space. If you have yet to capture a compelling vocal on tape, but know you have one in you, don’t despair. You simply need to create the proper vibe. Don’t be embarrassed or expect a studio to do this for you. Choking in the studio is nothing more than stage freight, which I will discuss next month. There are steps you can take. First, make sure the song is right for you. Then, find an engineer or producer you trust and clear the room of strangers. It’s useless to pretend that people watching while you’re making love to a song doesn’t bother you — it will show in the tracks. Jimi Hendrix was terribly insecure about his voice. To come out of his shell, he would turn the lights off and hide from view of his producer. What a tragedy it would have been if he had surrendered his delicate poetry over to a loud-mouth vocalist. On the other hand, Steven Tyler, a 110-watt personality, throws everybody out of the studio when he sings, including the producer. The difference is he doesn’t feel like less of a singer for doing so.

If you are a loud-mouth personality, you don’t need my encouragement to sing. I’d tell you to warm up before hand but I know you won’t listen — not until you lose you voice. If you are an alter-ego type, my advice is to explore many different music styles, vocal ranges and backing instrument combinations until you find your niche. Everybody has one. It will boost your confidence and make you feel more like a singer. Incidentally, if you listen to Aerosmith’s first album, you’ll hear a different vocal sound. Steven told me that, back in those days, he was insecure about his voice and placed it in the back of his throat to sound cool. Millions of albums later, he now knows exactly what works for him. So, keep the faith and don’t let it get you down if your first few projects don’t connect. Experimentation is what the local scene is all about.