An Effective Way to Learn from Great Singers
Studying other singers gives you “vocal” roots that will ultimately give you other cool places to go vocally.
The following process was used by the late Jazz great Clark Terry (trumpeter) to master Jazz Improvisation. I realize it also works marvelously for developing one’s vocals, regardless of genre:
(These steps are initially linear, then start to happen simultaneously over time)
- Imitate – Listen and start imitating a singer’s tone and various vocal nuances.
- Assimilate – Understand and ingrain the singer’s stylistic nuances through further exploration and repetition.
- Innovate – Integrating the essence of it so well that you can change it up, making it your own as you uniquely express yourself in singing.
By studying/imitating great singers, you will absorb, assimilate, and integrate wonderful nuances into your own singing. It will give you more tools in your vocal tool kit. Initially you will start to sound like them. As you continue to explore your own voice, experimenting with the sounds and styles of your favorite singers, you will discover and solidify more of your own abilities and become innovator of your own personal style. Every great singer had a period of studying and being influenced by other singers.
Here are some suggested action steps and structure for practice. Take these ideas and customize as needed to make them work for you.
Action Step 1: Make a list of 10 singers you LOVE. Consider this an active list, where you periodically rotate your favorite singers on and off the list; great singers who inspire you, whose sound and style you love, regardless of genre. By having a rotating list of 10, you won’t get boxed in on just studying the same few singers over and over. Also, do some research to learn who influenced your favorite singers, then listen to those singers, and add the ones to your list that appeal to you. There’s great benefit to having a wide variety of influence.
Ex. One of my favorite singers is jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, who was influenced by Sarah Vaughn. Sarah’s singing style was, interestingly, greatly influenced by Jazz instrumentalists Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Action Step 2: IMITATE. Select a singer from your list, listen and imitate their vocals for 1 week (or a few days). Immerse yourself into their music. Find audios and videos. Videos provide the added benefit of seeing them in action, including their facial expressions, body language, etc.
Each day select a different song or section of a song. Focusing on a small section at a time allows for closer study.
Use 2 recording devices:
- One to listen to a recording of your selected singer
- The other to record your voice (I like using Audio Memos on my SmartPhone, so I can easily rewind to hear myself)
Set a timer for 10 minutes and do the following daily:
-Play a phrase.
-Pause the recording.
-Using the 2nd device, sing what you hear 5 times in a row.
(Repeat this process for the short selected segment you’re working on).
Listen to great singers and imitate how they deliver their phrases. It will be similar to playing the ‘telephone” game; you might vary the phrase a little with each try. It doesn’t have to be perfect imitation, but strive to get “in the ballpark”, so to speak.
Focus on imitating the following details in the vocal: tone, phrasing, pauses, timing, rhythm, articulation, breathing, emotions, dynamics, nuances such as fading in and out of notes, vibrato, embellishments, melodic choices, how certain lyrics are emphasized, and more. It helps you “see” with your ears and experience for yourself how they’re likely shaping their vocal tract and the details of how they’re producing their sound.
All of this is perfectly safe to do as long as you’re not straining your voice. So stay aware! Also make sure you warm up your voice beforehand, stay well hydrated, and do your vocal gym exercises daily, as this will give your vocal instrument better capability to explore and produce different vocal sounds.
Through the process of imitation, you’ll find that you’ll start to organically assimilate.
Which is the next step….
Action Step 3: ASSIMILATE. Now it’s time to move away from listening to the other singer, so you can work on digesting more fully what you heard and imitated.
Tip: Jot down brief notes in a mini vocal journal notebook on what you learn from each singer per song. Then start experimenting and integrating some of the things you learn from these singers into your own singing in general, even on different songs beyond the ones you studied.
Action Step 4: INNOVATE. Innovation is the direct result of quality time invested in imitation and assimilation. Once per week, record yourself singing a selected song in its entirety. Then listen back. Acknowledge what you like. Notice what comes out in your singing (influences and anything new). In your vocal journal, make a note of what you like, and what needs more work. This will clarify your focus for your next practice session.
If you dedicate yourself to this process, (along with training daily in the Vocal Gym) you’ll ongoingly notice improvements in the quality of your singing.
Enjoy the journey!