Below is a copy of the handout I provided at my NATS breakout session entitled "Musicianship for the Commercial Vocalist," given on July 10, 2016 in Chicago, IL. I hope this handout offers commercial voice teachers helpful ideas on how musicianship training can be incorporated into lesson activities and assignments.
Just as a few bad apples spoil the bunch, a few stupid singers can ruin the reputation of all vocal musicians. Most instrumentalists bring significant singer-related baggage to any encounter with a vocalist. (And I don't blame them!) As a result, when I walk into a rehearsal or recording session, my decades of musical training and teaching experience are no match for the well-established stereotype of the clueless singer.
Contrary to these negative stereotypes, most of the singers I know and work with are high-level musicians with incredible skill and discipline. These vocal musicians are multi-instrumentalist composers and arrangers who improvise, read music, produce, teach and function on a musical level that exceeds or is on par with any instrumentalist.
Unfortunately, tonight (and every night) in Nashville (and in every city across the world) more than one overwhelmingly ignorant singer will take the stage and make every member of his/her band miserable. This matters because it makes all of us look bad. As both an educator and a vocal musician, I believe it is every professional singers' responsibility to represent our craft with intelligence and skill. With that in mind, here are the top 5 things stupid singers do that ruin it for the rest of us:
1. No charts
The biggest mistake most singers make is not having proper charts for the band. Stupid singers book a gig, hire a band and then email out a set-list, expecting the instrumentalists to show up to the rehearsal or performance with the music learned. When stupid singers do provide charts the format or content of these charts is often so poor they actually impede and confuse the band's performance. By contrast, professional vocal musicians provide charts that are legible, accurate, include clear intros and endings and are in the right key. Most of these charts are 2-4 pages and they are copied and taped to eliminate page turns. Additionally, vocal musicians frequently have well-organized "books" or folders of their charts for each member of the band.
2. "I mean, like, just feel it or whatever..."
When in a rehearsal, stupid singers communicate with a cringe-worthy lack of intelligent musical vocabulary. They expect instrumentalists to read their minds and respond to vague or contradictory directions that mostly serve to confuse and waste time. At the very worst, stupid singers show up to rehearsal late with no charts and no gear, don't know their music and then direct their frustration to the band. By contrast, a vocal musician runs rehearsals efficiently and collaboratively. He/she comes to the rehearsal prepared to focus on specific musical challenges and communicates clearly about key, form, tempo, subdivision, groove, arrangement, texture, cues, etc. Vocal musicians understand how the instruments in their band work and know how to ask for various textures and techniques when appropriate. At their best, vocal musicians are the first to arrive at rehearsal and the last to leave, they help their band mates move gear, they bring extra pencils, they know their music exceptionally well and they thank everyone for their time and energy.
3. Not listening
When you're a stupid singer, the voice is all that matters to you. On the gig, you zone out during musical breaks, miss cues and don't really notice what the band is doing or if their playing is effective. Stupid singers will listen to recordings over and over again without ever paying attention to the texture or arrangement supporting the vocals. Alternatively, vocal musicians actively listen to and react to the band whenever possible. They understand how the instrumentalists' parts interact with and support the emotional and musical performance and they creatively capitalize on this. Vocal musicians frequently make eye contact with band members and feel comfortable giving and receiving visual and aural cues on the bandstand.
4. No gear, no muscle and no clue
Stupid singers don't own any of their own gear. If they do own gear, they frequently aren't strong enough to lift it or knowledgeable enough to work it. When stupid singers are lucky enough to have a PA and an audio engineer provided at a gig, they have no vocabulary for communicating what they want or need. Stupid singers don't understand the basics of EQ or microphone technique, are rude to crew members and quick to blame any performance errors on their monitor mix. Alternatively, vocal musicians understand the components of a PA system and how to use different types of microphone technology to their full advantage. They understand how to EQ their own voice and generally view audio engineers as equal partners in the creative process. Vocal musicians understand how crucial a good monitor mix is to their success but they are also able to make adjustments in their singing when circumstances aren't ideal. In a soundcheck setting, vocal musicians work to ensure their band mates are comfortable both aurally and physically and they do this efficiently so schedules are respected and no one's time is wasted. Heels or no heels, if gear needs to be hauled, a vocal musician always pitches in.
5. Not Taking Care of Business
If you are the bandleader on a gig, you are responsible for logistics, communication and payment. When stupid singers are bandleaders, they forget to tell their band members where to park and what to wear. They ask the band to play longer than scheduled, forget to schedule breaks, are vague about payment and slow to dole out tips at the end of the night. They forget to tell the venue that the band needs access to electricity and they never have an extra power strip or music stand to loan out. When stupid singers are bandleaders, they are poor communicators that lack empathy for their band mates. By contrast, vocal musicians are organized, clear communicators that take the business of music seriously. They fairly compensate instrumentalists for their time and frequently they advocate with the venue on behalf of the band to secure perks like food, drink or a comfortable green room. Vocal musicians take initiative at the end of the gig in order to ensure the band is paid in a timely manner and properly acknowledged for their musical contribution and skill.
The bottom line is that musicianship and professionalism matters. Of course, these qualities are important for everyone making a living as a musician. If you're a singer, however, these things matter even more. Fair or not, your skills and behavior reflect on all of us. My hope is that this fact will inspire us all to strive to be the best vocal musicians possible.