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Tips for Singers:
Sing the Song That Fits
by Mark Baxter - source Singer Magazine

Singer MagazineAs a vocal therapist, my client list mirrors the music business pyramid; a few stars, a dozen or more on their way up, and hundreds of hopefuls.

It has become clear to me that these plateaus do not necessarily reflect vocal ability (the unknown talent I work with would blow your mind), but more of a combination of elements. At some point, those who feel passed-over by this random selection of fate ask the question: What makes some people great singers? Assuming everyone is giving their best effort, why do some vocalists stand out from the pack? The answer is so simple, and it’s so often overlooked.

What great singers do is sing songs that they sing great. I know this seems like doublespeak but it’s the truth. No one can sing every song well. Can you imagine Celine Dion trying to sound like Melissa Etheridge? Of course not, so she doesn't try. Every singer needs to create a wardrobe full of songs which fits their voice as naturally as a favorite pair of jeans would their waist. Forcing and squeezing yourself into the current vocal trend is the surest way to highlight weaknesses. Not surprisingly, with every new singing style, vocal therapists like me see an emergence of new complaints. Often, the problem is not the singers, but the songs.

What Range Is Home?
Two important aspects need to fall into place before singer and song become one. The first and most obvious is range. When singing cover songs, it requires finding the best key. It’s best to prepare a song in a couple of keys, just to insure your comfort. To find the best key, sing the song a cappella. Without a musical reference, you'll naturally adjust. Before settling on a key, however, factor in performance adrenaline. If you're too comfortable, you'll miss the physical connection on stage. Isolate the highest and lowest notes of the song. The general range between the two is called the tessitura. Sing the phrase with the highest pitches several times in a row. If you're fatiguing after two or three repetitions, drop down a half step and try again. Don't forget about the lowest pitches. Are they difficult to project? If you can't seem to find a good key for the song, the problem may be psychological. Popular songs are often so stuck in our heads that it’s hard to imagine them sung differently. The best way to override this barrier is to sing the song using gibberish instead of the lyrics. Once you get past the silliness of it, you'll find notes slipping out which are usually strained. If a compromise can’t be found, drop the song. Remember, singing covers is like wearing someone else’s clothes. They won’t all fit perfectly.

Once you find a comfortable pocket for your song you'll need to be able to tell the KJ what key you want. Using a keyboard or guitar, find the pitch of the first word in the original recording (the hunt and peck method works fine). You don’t need to know the name of the pitch, just remember where it is on the instrument. Then find the pitch of the first word in your version. Count the number of keys or frets between the two. This is the number of half steps you would like the song to be lowered or raised. Experimentation and experience will make you a pro at this.

The Right Words
The second most important factor in custom fitting a song is the lyrics. All too often, singers fail to relate to the lyrics they’re singing. Instead they concentrate on pitch. I’m not talking about changing the world with a chorus line, but inspiring yourself. Pitch and projection are muscle related aspects of singing and emotion is the all too important third dimension. The physical challenge of singing a song is not enough to captivate an audience. The lyrics have got to stir something inside you. Screaming is no substitute for emotion. The combination, however, of a heartfelt sentiment sung at the threshold of physical ability is too powerful to ignore.

Do not confuse great with popular. All great singers do not automatically become popular, but I do consider all popular singers great . . . great at being themselves. To connect Whitney Houston with P.J. Harvey, or Beck with Michael Bolton (all have either won or been nominated for a best vocal Grammy), look no further than their personalities. Their one common trait is that each found the courage to be themselves -- sometimes at the cost of relentless criticism or financial success. On the karaoke scene this means letting the real you shine. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much better your reception will be when you sing a song you truly love rather than one you think the crowd will love. Singing a popular song only works if it highlights your strengths. So, if there are songs in your repertoire which are either inconsistent or require you to oversell them -- take them back to the laboratory. If vocal limitations are preventing you from letting go, then you owe it to yourself to improve your skills. To access the full potential of your vocal instrument, though, your songs have got to be like your favorite pair of jeans. Because all it takes to be a great singer, is to get lost in a song.

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002.
Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Singer Magazine)

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