Tom Jackson's Academy of Live Music

Selecting the Right Songs for Your Voice

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Vocal Performance

This site is focused primarily on vocal performance, and I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t spend the majority of my time in this article discussing it.

Many singers are forgiven of their poor singing abilities because they possess other attractive qualities, such as physical beauty, sex appeal, dancing skills, and “coolness”. If they have a catchy song to sing and move well to the music, their listeners don’t always notice their pitch errors, lack of control or range, poor tonal quality or other weak technical abilities. Still, it is possible – and desirable - to have the looks, the impalpable appeal and the talent. After all, when youth and beauty fade, will there be enough talent remaining to allow a career to continue?

The following sections are dedicated to creating the ideal ground for stellar vocal performances.

Know Your Own Voice Intimately

It is crucial that, as a singer, you know your own voice well. Not only must you have an accurate assessment of your own abilities and limitations, but the subtleties of your individual voice must also be recognized.

For years, I idolized and attempted to emulate the powerful and resonant voices of the Gospel greats and the male hard rockers whom I admired, and I was under the delusion that a great singing voice was one that could be heard at the other end of the city.

There is a significant difference, however, between a “big” voice and a “strong” voice. On the verge of quitting when, after a couple of years of lessons, I still didn’t sound like a Gospel singer or a male rocker, I had a candid and emotional discussion with my vocal instructor. He told me that there is a place in the music world for singers like me who have sweet, passionate vocals with a pure, clear, warm tonal quality. He explained that I may never have the huge singing voice that I had imagined filling the rooms and the concert halls where I performed – the kind that is suitable for opera – and reminded me that my goal, in the first place, should never have been to sound like anyone else but me.

In that moment, years of failed emulation and frustration ceased, and I began to accept my voice for what it is. I began to focus on maximizing my potential, making the most of what God had given me. While continually working to improve upon my weaknesses and to eliminate my limitations – a goal toward which I will strive for the rest of my career – I discovered some practical ways for minimizing and hiding my weaknesses from audiences.

Flattery Does Become You

Many singers showcase their errors in judgment by allowing their passion for particular songs to dictate their song selections. There are countless songs out there that I would love to sing, but must choose not to because, no matter how much I practice them, they will never sound as good as other selections would. (From time to time, however, I have found myself placed in the uncomfortable position of having to sing songs that weren’t in my range and didn’t suit my voice because it was what was asked of me by a function organizer. It is never terribly flattering.) I know when I am out of my element, and that honest analysis of and doubt in my voice’s ability to carry a song leads to nervousness about my ability to give an impressive and confident performance.

Yet I had to first know my own voice intimately – inside out – in the context of the song selections that I make. For instance, I understand that very melodic songs that cover a broad portion of my range work best for me. I also know that the strongest part of my range – the middle to high range – is ideal for creating drama, especially punchy choruses, but also for sweet, pensive ballads when I control my volume. I know that the middle to lower section of my range – my natural voice – is great either for sullen ballads or for producing an edgy rock sound.

When writing songs, I take into consideration, before anything else, how a particular melody and range will affect the listener’s perception of my vocal talent. Essentially, I write for my own voice, dressing it in the most flattering, perfectly tailored gowns possible. Not everyone is a songwriter, though, and finding suitable songs that present one’s voice in its best possible light is a particular challenge for singers who rely exclusively on covers in their repertoire.

Out of Range

Probably the most straightforward piece of advice that I could offer a singer is that he or she pay special attention to the key in which a song is sung (not necessarily written).

Listeners are never impressed by vocal performances in which singers noticeably struggle to hit the high or low notes of a song. If you are unable to sing the full range required, even just temporarily due to illness, medications or hormonal changes, the song is likely in a bad key for you. Singing in bad keys, especially when you force yourself to sing those difficult notes without applying proper technique, can lead to vocal injury.

If a song is either too high or too low for your voice, of even if it sits mostly in your vocal passagio – the awkward, weaker spot in your range where the voice “shifts” gears between registers – change the key. If, for whatever reason, transposing a song is not an option, attempt to opt out of singing that particular song, unless you have several months to stretch your range or strengthen that section of your range in order to meet the demands of the song.

One other solution, useful if you really must sing a certain song, is to alter the melody of the song slightly, singing a third below the high notes or a third above the low notes in order, for example, to place the song within your range. Sometimes, for some songs, this method of switching between melody and harmony is effective. At other times, it can ruin the melody of the song, and it will always be obvious to an audience, (who may find the re-written melody irksome), that you are attempting to cover up your limited vocal range.

Other Technical Considerations

No intelligent, hearing, music-loving audience could ever be impressed by a fumbling attempt at a difficult song, so don’t be naïve enough to assume that an audience will be so impressed with your courage that it will completely ignore or forgive your poor singing. Instead, you would have much more success at impressing an audience with the flawless execution of a simple song than with the mistake-saturated attempt at a complex one. Never allow your weaknesses to be highlighted.

Can you sing the highest notes without either pinching or spreading the sound, and thus making it clear to an audience that you are struggling to hit those notes? If not, you need to further stretch your range and develop your upper end over time before attempting to sing that particular song in that particular key.

Does the tone of your voice fall apart, change dramatically, become breathy or sink back into the throat when you attempt to sing very low notes? If so, you need to work on the bottom end of your range, learning to achieve a pure tone and proper placement regardless of how low you must sing. If you are able to hit the note, even though it might not sound “pretty”, it is within your vocal range, and you should be able to learn to control how well you sing it (e.g. your tone) with some lessons and time.

Are there a lot of complex vocal runs, arpeggios, embellishments and improvisations expected in the song in order to preserve its original essence? Do you struggle to stay on pitch when putting your voice on these challenging roller coaster rides? If so, you may not yet be ready to sing them, and you should either delay performing them in front of an audience until you are ready or find a way to simplify them until your technique is improved and your vocal skills can meet the demands of the song.

Are you running out of breath or becoming lightheaded during a performance? You may need to return to the basics of proper breathing technique, strengthen the core muscles involved in effective breathing, develop more stamina and/or closely examine where and how often you are taking breaths during a particular song. Stronger muscles involved in breathing will ensure that you have more control and endurance, and will need to take fewer breaths during a song, thus reducing awkward vocal phrasing and lines being chopped up by quick breaths. (Sometimes, the problem lies more in when breaths are taken – whether they are being taken in good, seamless places - than in whether or not a singer is strong enough to sing a song. A vocal coach can help eliminate this minor problem.)

Get Feedback

It may sound like a waste of time or money, but when a singing career is counting on song choice and performance, it can’t hurt to get some honest, constructive, objective – to the extent that anyone can be objective about music - feedback. Whether a singer seeks the advice of friends or a vocal coach or takes the time to record, either in a professional studio or at one’s own computer, and listens back, any kind of analysis of how a song is executed and selected is helpful.

Personally, whenever I have gone into the studio, I have always requested a listen to what I have recorded immediately after the very first take. In doing so, I find that I save a lot of time and money, avoiding take after take, by being able to make adjustments to my approach to a song right away. In some cases, listening back has led me to completely reject a song, even if it was written by me, removing it entirely from my repertoire because it wasn’t a good, flattering choice for me.

Consider Your Audience

When selecting the songs in your set list, it is important to consider who will be listening and for what purpose the audience will be gathered. For example, the songs that you would perform for a twenty-something’s crowd at a popular bar will be very different than those that you would perform for a family event.

It stands to reason that if you are a rock singer who typically covers songs from bands like Disturbed and Godsmack, you are not going to be interested in being booked for a formal wedding reception or a children’s birthday party. Likewise, if you sing opera, your target audience is not going to be found at the bar around the corner. Still, most singers have repertoires that are a little more “middle of the road” in terms of style, and they have a versatility that affords them more options when it comes to gigging.

If you plan to sing for an all-ages or mixed crowd, beware of any potentially offensive content in your set list. A group of people will not always share the same opinions on what music and lyrics are appropriate, so err on the side of caution.

If you’re singing acoustic folk music at a coffee house, it’s okay to get moody or deeply philosophical, but a bride and groom might want something a little more fun and uplifting for the entire family at their reception. (Of course, the same principle as above applies here: You are likely not to seek after nor to be booked for a gig if your style doesn’t match the venue or what the hiring person is looking for.)

When it comes to gigging, it is really all about what the audience wants to hear, and not at all about what you want to sing.

Getting Too Personal

Although songs with sentimental associations and deep personal meaning may offer a singer an advantage in the “sing it with feeling” category, too many singers make the fatal mistake of performing songs solely on the basis of how they personally feel while singing the lyrics, without regard to whether or not the song is a good one for them to sing for others. True, having personal convictions about the words that we express in melodic form may inspire us to sing with a little more gusto, but if an audience can’t connect with the themes or the lyrics, (or if the melody is poor), they won’t get much out of your performance.

Cover Songs

It’s tough to please an audience with cover songs. Sometimes, the audience is expecting the song to sound exactly like the original recorded version, from the distinct and familiar guitar solos to the finest details of a vocal performance, including sounding similar to the original singer. Bars hire cover and tribute bands for their impressive mimicking of the original singers and musicians.

At other times, however, the audience is welcoming of a new twist on an old song, and they become bored and disappointed by a copycat performance. Because most everyone comes from either one or the other perspective, covering songs is a delicate, tricky business.

On American Idol, the contestants are either applauded for their unique interpretations of their song selections, or they are booed for trying to “fix what ain’t broke”. On one hand, the contestants are expected to bring new life and a splash of their own personality and style to their chosen songs. On the other hand, if the judges feel that too much of the song’s original essence has been lost in translation – a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water – the singers are told that their added flair has actually detracted from the overall strength of the song and their performance. (Of course, the judges’ opinions are highly subjective, and not everyone in the listening audience would necessarily agree with their comments about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a particular contestant’s interpretation of a song.)

Unless the purpose of your band and the ultimate goal of your career are to sing covers, I advise that you limit the amount of popular cover tunes that you perform in favour of playing original songs, pieces by obscure artists or songs that are no longer being played frequently on every radio station. In so doing, you will avoid being rigidly compared to the other singers who first made the songs popular.

Original songs, whether written by yourself or by someone who is writing specifically for your voice, allow you to be as creative as you like and to define the personality and sound of the song. They allow you the freedom to express yourself through your own lyrical poetry and vocal interpretations (i.e. nuances), and allow you to have more control over a song’s range and key.

Of course, not everyone with singing talent or inclinations to perform can be a gifted songwriter, and you may need to purchase the copyrights for new, original songs from songwriters who are talented at what they do.

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Last updated on Fri Apr 25 16:30:27 2008