What is talent? I think it is an interest in something and finding out more about it and taking that knowledge and doing something with it. The more intense the interest or fascination or obsession, the more talent appears. What? Are we just born with it and we have it or we don’t have it? I think that we are born with a body that has a brain in it and that the brain is trainable. What you’re exposed to definitely will affect where your attention will go.
What is input via your senses will affect what comes from you. The old computer acronym GIGO – garbage in=garbage out. If you were raised in an artless home, you may have become an artless person. You can change that, though. You can get yourself culture-fied. It probably won’t even kill you. You’re not an old dog and you can learn new tricks and sayings are never absolute truths. Many are garbage stuck in your head. You can take out the trash and you can change your mind, if you want.
Before I was known as a singer, I was a musician. 60 years of playing with a piano. 58 years of playing a trombone. 62 years of singing for fun. 2 piano lessons at age 8. 2 singing lessons at age 15, opera style. By age 15, I had performed in front of a crowd of about 600 and although scared out of my mind, the performance was acknowledged with a long and thunderous applause. It was a popular hit song and I had imitated it well enough. I started imitating the Kennedy voices in the 5th grade, so imitation was a practiced skill. Songs which followed, in other many other performances weren’t imitations; just me.
Early on, much of music is parroting things back. Summer music camps at the age of 15 and 16 helped to advance my musicianship. My high school band director taught me much about orchestration and arranging. I soaked it up like a sponge. In a short conversation with him, I left knowing how to transpose for every instrument. This paid off, as I wrote an arrangement of a song that we performed several times in our high school big band.
I think I learned more about music in the music camps than by being a student at the same university in which the camps were held. The most important things actually used as a professional, I learned there. HOW to listen, for instance. I did play first chair in two bands there, as a university student. My favorite was stage band.
At the age of 20 I was coerced into joining a band and in it I sang a little but played trombone, mostly. Playing an instrument definitely enhances musicianship and, therefore, makes one a better singer, potentially. At age 21, I formed my first professional band and we played in West Virginia, mostly. At 22 I formed a band which went on tour and another at age 24. We toured 14 states in the Midwest and Southeast. I mostly played trombone, but also sang. I wanted to do more and went to Las Vegas where I spent 18 years playing trombone and singing.
My musicianship had carried me through. I had good enough vocal technique to sing in a production show in Las Vegas in the 2nd biggest showroom in town at that time. I had a break in my voice which nobody heard, because I sang below where that break was. Only in country music could someone get away with a break in their voice and it’s even used for effect at times in that genre. What I sang in the show was easy for me. What I loved singing, however, was nearly impossible for me. I loved singing songs that Al Jarreau sang. I had the level of musicianship to sing jazz, too. But the crack was a killer. Musicianship is what got me hired, though. Musicianship isn’t all-important but it is vital.
Musicianship is vital for accurate intervals, for being in tune, for making musical sense when you ad lib or improvise, for having a recognition and sense of style. Improving musicianship definitely improves singing. Singers lacking in musicianship are quickly betrayed by what comes out of their mouths. Some singers are terrified or repulsed by the mere word musicianship. My advice to that is to learn more about what it is that you think you are doing. You don’t have to know all the terminology, but you do have to master all the things having to do with musicianship or you won’t be a great singer. If you aspire to less than greatness, you will get what you tolerate as your reward.
What is musicality? It’s the style, the flair, the self-expression, the aesthetic qualities of music itself. Music is a hearing art. Listen. Explore many styles, as if you are in a music appreciation class or in music history. Dive into the width, breadth, and depth of music. Listen to voices and instruments. If you’re so inclined, you might try making up a melody, discovering all there is to know about chords and also exploring several genres. You can focus on one or on a favorite later on. Give yourself some time to see what is in the world with music. It might be a fun trip.
So, back to Vegas. I was singing in a show and even though I did a perfect enough performance every single night, six nights a week, I wanted to do more and was introduced to a real vocal coach. I paid her (in the 1990s) $175 per hour. I have never regretted a cent of that. Why? Working on what she told me to do, I permanently eliminated the break in my voice and my endurance and range grew beyond what I ever had thought was possible. After our show closed, I sang in lounges and nightclubs. One was 6 hours per night, six nights a week. I passed that test with flying colors and had no vocal fatigue, no hoarseness, and I was a testament to what she had taught me that I practiced, to achieve that state.
Knowing my professional background as a trombonist and in architecture, (Architecture? Yes.) my vocal coach felt that I had something to offer as a potential teacher and coach of what she taught. She proceeded to train me in that way and had me to apprentice under her guidance and quality control. My students were professional singers in Las Vegas. I had some spectacular results to which she said to me. “I’ve never seen anyone achieve the results so quickly as what you have.” This eventually lead to a new career when our family moved to Orlando, Florida, where I had 80 students per week and a large waiting list.
I do draw from all my knowledge and experience and I do teach the singer in front of me, not some imagined or desired voice. People sing in their own voices, to sound their best, not imitations of other singers. Each singer is unique and has unique experience, knowledge, and talent. Each singer has a unique vocal apparatus and unique resonating spaces in the head. Identical twins will be nearly identical, but not entirely. Some teachers teach what they think sounds good or is the only right way or right sound but with disastrous results. Some people sound very trained, but not very musical. Some people sound like a caricature or a parody of someone or something. Some sound fine and some don’t sound fine at all. One size does not fit all. Voices are not socks. One size does not fit all.
The lies and myths I have heard from other singers are both useless and dangerous, potentially. Sometimes education includes getting the garbage out. Take out the trash. It might look like it is something useful until you examine it and you discover it is rotten or broken ore useless. If you don’t know what you are looking at and have the knowledge to discern it, you will not know why you don’t sound great. The truth can set you free as long as you learn it and use it.
Chuck Stewart, Vocal Coach
Chuck Stewart, Vocal Coach