Sooner or later, every singer makes a recording. Whether it’s in a world-class studio or singing into your laptop, when that red recording light turns on you want to be at your best. For most of us, though, recording drains our voices of vitality. It’s frustrating when your beer-soaked, sweaty stage vibe or sudsy shower serenade never sound as good when replicated for posterity. We like to blame the gear but the real issue lies within. As soon as the red light comes on we try too hard and become self-conscious. It is possible to overcome “red light fever,” but you’ve got to address it way before you step up to a large-diaphragm microphone.
Recording is different than singing on stage or in the shower, just like movie acting is different than theater acting. No one knows or cares if a vocal was recorded in one pass, yet lots of singers feel embarrassed when they require multiple takes. All that matters is the end result. Like scenes in movies, the singing on your favorite recordings is really a hi-light reel edited together as a single performance. It’s not cheating; it takes stamina and a mental focus to maintain vocal continuity for several hours. In other words, chops.
When recording, a producer plays the role of movie director. Unfortunately, many singers choose to save money by producing themselves and it often backfires. There is a physical connection when you perform on stage and it’s hard to separate the effort from the outcome. Without the visual aspect, your singing may not have as much impact as you think. If you can’t afford a producer, spread your recording session out over many weeks. Let some time pass before listening to rough mixes in order to gain a fresh perspective on what you’ve sung.
By far, the best way to champion “red light fever” (and the cheapest) is to never turn it off. Simply get into the habit of turning on the voice memo app on your phone every time you sing – even when warming up or vocalizing. Set aside a little time each night to listen to bits of what you recorded. Keep the good sections and delete the embarrassing stuff. In time, you will lose the concern that you’re recording. The best singing occurs when you don’t care who’s listening . . . and that starts with you!
Hello there. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m your larynx and, although I’ve been with you all your life, chances are you don’t know me very well. I work all day automatically protecting your lungs and helping you lift heavy things by clamping off air to make your body stiff. While these things are very important, my biggest claim to fame is that I can make sounds. Mostly I get used for speech, but with a little coordination you can turn my sounds into something musical.
Although I can be as loud as a trumpet, I’m not made of metal. So it’s not a good idea to blow as hard as you can in me; I have some delicate parts. Just because I can move around a pitch like a slide trombone doesn’t mean I’m one of those either. As you know, I come in different sizes with names like Soprano, Alto and Tenor but that doesn’t mean I’m played like a saxophone. Although there are no strings inside me, my vibrators can be stretched just like the strings on a guitar. In spite of these similarities, I don’t belong to any of the three categories of musical instruments: wind, string or percussion. This is why there’s a completely separate category for what I do; it’s called singing.
It’s simple. You don’t blow on guitar strings to play a song or strum a drum to keep a beat. Every instrument has a particular set of physical requirements. Yet when it comes to the voice people tend to play it with principles that apply to other instruments. Ironically, the list of problems caused by approaching me the wrong way is everything you don’t like about your voice. That’s good news. It means that your sound is based on misguided beliefs and dysfunctional behaviors that can change. Learning what an instrument requires is what lessons are all about. How you apply that information is what defines you as an artist. There’s nothing wrong with pounding on a guitar like it’s a drum, but the instrument certainly has more to offer when played traditionally. In the same way, I can be blown like a horn, stretched like a guitar and smacked like a bongo. But you’ll get the most out of me if you play me like a larynx.
Back in the days of the gold rush, California was a magnet for those looking to strike it rich. While the few who hit pay dirt became celebrities, the real financial winners were selling picks and shovels. Each year, the music business touts the success of a handful of artists that makes the rest of us feel left out. Take heart. Just as opportunistic entertainers gladly sang for their supper in the saloons along Tin Pan Alley, there are many options available today for making a living with your voice.
Success in any niche of this business becomes much less of a burden if you’re personality type matches the gig. To sustain yourself as a street musician, for instance, would require you perform well without a stage. If the street seems too hostile, yet you want to avoid the politics of the clubs, retirement homes, hospitals or corporate parties are always open to new ideas for shows. No band – no problem. Singing to tracks has become widely accepted by audiences — as long as the idea is okay with you.
Performing cover songs seems to be the most under appreciated musical occupation. Don’t make the mistake thinking it’s easy. You will be in competition with bands who honestly love the songs they play and are relentless with promotion. These bands will get the gigs and you will be frustrated that your back-up plan requires so much effort. Also remember: weddings and functions require you to act as MC. If you can’t imagine yourself smiling while leading, “The Bride Cuts the Cake,” then don’t even ponder the potential of a fat wad of cash for a few hours’ work. It’s not for you.
If any of these paths smell of artistic compromise then do yourself a favor and cross them off your list immediately. Emotional reservations show in the voice. Not only will you be financially unsuccessful — you will doubt your talent. It’s a lose/lose situation. Finding the right fit between personality and career takes time. An honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses is a good place to start. A healthy respect for those who are parting with their money to hear you sing is a good place to finish. It’s not like we have a choice. We’ve all got to sing, and we’ve all got to eat!
There are scads of performers gyrating on stages around the globe each night and an equal number of people having sex. Some will be adventurous and make the moment a peak experience while others will go through the motions, waiting for magic that never comes. A great performance, like an orgasm, only occurs when people are willing to let go. Arena performers have a tremendous advantage with respect to foreplay. The audience is already in love. They are primed by radio play and videos to expect an amazing show. As the star steps on stage, the crowd roars with approval. If this seems unfair, just remember: Fan loyalty is built from years of great performances — starting in the clubs or on YouTube.
The purpose of playing clubs and posting videos is to expose yourself to strangers (I’ll try and keep the puns to a minimum.) Even as a headliner, there will be fans of the opening act to convert. By virtue of standing behind a microphone or posting a video, you represent your music to potential fans. The courtship begins with the first song; think of it as a first date. Be aggressive, coy, sexy or witty, just be something. It’s worth risking ridicule to break the ice. Those who identify with you will come together in support. Should you win a majority vote; the momentum will sway the undecided. It’s called collective consciousness and it’s definitely a peak experience. This will never happen, though, if you expect audiences to bond automatically.
People file into clubs or surf on-line as individuals. The smaller the crowd or view-count, the more isolated people feel. Except for the lone drunk who’s dancing before the music starts, most people in a club need a little stroking before they bond together as a group. Stand confident as those in the audience form opinions. Don’t rush to judgment if viewers stare blank-faced. Some people even if they’re into you, won’t let it show. This is usually where the inexperienced get into trouble and feel compelled to do something drastic. I’ve seen performers insult an unresponsive crowd. Besides being lousy foreplay, I’ve never seen it work. Lots of singers resort to pushing their voices. The most common reaction to the increased effort, unfortunately, is a blown voice. Singing with more force does not equal more emotion. If your music requires you to sing hard, then do so. If you don’t think you can be heard, then kick your guitar player.
There are also selfish singers who use YouTube to purge their energy with no regard to connecting with the song. This amounts to nothing more than asking people to watch you masturbate; good for getting attention but leaves viewers unfulfilled. Leaving the audience drained of energy is a better gage of performance. When preparing a video to post ask yourself what the song means to you. It’s okay if you think you sing it really well – but it’s better if the song moves you really well. People will feel the difference and respond with “likes.”
Relationships are built by addressing people as humans first. Show respect and acknowledge the mood in a club — whatever that mood may be. Be present and feel the vibe. It may mean changing a set list slightly or talking a little more, or less, between songs. On YouTube that means giving viewers a little insight about what the song means to you. Open yourself up to people, and they will open to you. Stand before an audience with your shield up, and they will do the same.
Only after you connect with a crowd will they bond and be ready to go wherever you want. Once you have their trust and attention, you’re free to tease and taunt and challenge them to keep up. Take them somewhere they’ve never been, and they will never forget you. Your draw will soon require an arena and your performances will always finish with the big “O” (an ovation of course)!