Singing is such a mind intensive endeavor that it is easy to ignore the richness of information around us.
The music we are singing over is full of clues and instructions to help us deliver fantastically musical performances – but we need to listen.
In this episode, John discusses the cues embedded in the music and how to listen to bring your vocal performance to a higher level.
Episode 131 – Listen to the Music
Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Okay today my course is now out Boldly Belting is available if you go to boldlybelting.com. I will make this very quick if you are listening to this podcast very close to the day it was released November 1st of 2019. You can get there and get some very special pricing. It is not officially released to the general public yet. I’ve only released it to my mail list and now to listeners of the podcast so you can jump in there and get this special pricing and I’ve created a course where you learn to belt through specially constructed songs, not through exercises. I do have exercises in there cause they are helpful to get you ready.
But a lot of times singers are frustrated. They feel that there’s a gap between working exercises and then trying to sing a song because exercises are these disconnected sounds and then they try and get to melody and language and it all falls apart. So I have specially composed songs that will get you into the right vocal balance. So I am super excited about this course. So go to boldlybelting.com and you can learn more about it there.
Alright, enough of a commercial today I want to talk about listening to the music as a singer. There is so much that the music is informing us about how to approach a song? How to sing a song? How to phrase? How to work rhythms? How to work vocal intensity and texture? When we first learned to do something and especially singing. Singing takes so much bandwidth that it’s very hard to get out of our own heads.
And I remember back when I was a drummer and I used to play with the LA jazz workshop, which was just amazing. They had all these band members who would come off tour with major artists, all these session musicians and they’d get together and rehearse big band music and I at the time as a drummer, I had worked my way up to the B band. They had the A, B, C, D and I would occasionally sub in the A band. But there’s a brilliant, brilliant drummer in the A band and I’m blanking on his name. Oh my gosh, this guy played with like so much joy and a sense of humor and technical proficiency. But I remember he said to me you know, when I really got good as a drummer is when. I said, hey, there are other musicians here.
And he started to listen and respond to the music around him and not be focused just on himself and that is even harder for singers because we have to think so much, just not only text and language, but our instrument is so tricky to control. You know drums I can see my hands in front of me. I have direct conscious control over those muscles. It’s very visual. The voice disappears. I don’t see it. I get Phantom sensations. I don’t have direct control over it. It acts up on days where he is on drums. I may feel a little more sharp one day versus another day, but oh my gosh, the wild swings we have as singers. But if you can get beyond that and if you can get out of your head and really listen to the music and let it be a communication and let it inform you as to how best to approach it and sing it you will make great strides as a musician.
You know it’s not enough to be a great singer, but if you can be a great singing musician that’s where you get fantastic vocal performances. Now when I’m listening to a song, the first thing I want to listen to or listen for is what is the groove or what they will call the clavey, what is not just the field but the underlying pulse and to get that the first place you listened to is the drums. Drums or percussion if they are present and as well as the base, if they’re playing really simply or your not getting much of the groove from there, the next place is usually the guitar, the rhythm guitar. Guitar is a very rhythmic instrument, hence the name rhythm guitar and it will often help us establish the groove or the clavey. Very, very famous one is called the old bold deadly B the ba, ba, ba ba, du, du, eh, du, du, du, dudu, du. It’s the old shape hair cut to bits you know, and you’ve got that boom, boom, boom, boom boom and your vocal performance over groove like that is going to reflect that. You’re going to play around that clavey, you’re going to accent when you’re hitting those strong beats and those syncopation within that perfect example is a wanna dance with somebody. So the groove or the clavey on that is one, two, and three, four, boom, boom, boom, boom and Whitney sings Oh, I wanna dance with somebody. She pops the body and this is actually very, very good song writing right on the one, two and on that and on that syncopation and if you think about the word distresses on somebody. Somebody and so that bo really pops and Whitney gives an extra push. She doesn’t say somebody, she says somebody to pop that. She’s listening to the groove and she’s allowing the groove to help inform her vocal performance.
Another one that I just love is the old Doobie brothers song. It keeps you running and if you go back to Michael McDonald’s just absolutely brilliant, soulful singer and if you listen to the beginning, the groove or the clavey is just very one and two and three and four and it’s pretty simple. The drums haven’t really kicked in and so his vocal is just kind of flowing. Go where you’re gonna go, he’s just go where you’re gonna hide. He’s not popping anything. He’s not pushing until he gets to the I can hear your heartbeat. That’s all of a sudden you get these upbeats in the drums one and two and three and four and he starts to really accentuate and pop those syncopated upbeats and he implies more intensity as the music gets more rhythmically interesting, he gets more rhythmically interesting and he also gets more intense and he starts to light extra emphasis on the syncopation, on the weak beats.
If music didn’t have syncopation it quickly starts to become very dull. The music is just this rather than having little pops and a movement. So he accentuates, he leads and is led by the musicians and the arrangement. I think he does absolutely a fantastic job of that. Another one which is a vocal performance that so mind blowingly good. I don’t even think we mortals deserve to listen to it. Nevermind. I think it’s four or five key changes on the end at the end that just take her into the stratosphere. But Beyonce’s love on top is so brilliant. If you listen to it at the beginning, the guitar is providing a lot of the groove. The guitar is providing the syncopation in the clavey and the drums are quite simple. But in the verse at the simplicity of the rhythmic drive that writes the songs not really moving yet, Beyonce pulls way back on the pulse.
She’s behind the beat and you can really hear this. It’s not subtle. Her vocal is so rhythmically lazy on purpose in that beginning and that when she then pops to on the pre-chorus and the chorus, she locks into the B. It creates extra excitement. But what Beyonce does, she’s so rhythmically good that most singers, if they cover this song, they won’t catch this pullback in the verse. They won’t catch that. She’s kind of following the, not lazier, but more simplistic rhythmic arrangement in the verse that singers would probably just sing that on the beat and then there wouldn’t be a change when they go to the pre-course or the course, or they would likely start to get ahead of the beat and get this feeling of rushing and what Beyonce does is when she gets to the pre-chorus and chorus, she doesn’t rush at all.
She gets right there in the center of the beat and locks in with those musicians so beautifully. The groove on that song is, even though it feels like an uptempo song, when you listen to it, the groove is kinda laid back. When you’re looking at the pulse of a song, alright, and you have a metronome. Musicians can place themselves kind of within a spectrum. They can sit right on the beat, they can push the feel a little ahead of the beat or they can get slightly on the backend of that beat. You don’t want everything just falling in the exact same place on every song, on every feel, it’s not appropriate. It just sounds machine-like. But this one there is no pushing on this beat. It’s really kind laid back even though it does get kind of pretty rhythmic and the song has a lot of excitement and most musicians and singers because of this excitement would rush Beyonce never rushes.
If you really want a master class in rhythm and phrasing, just listen to the difference between the verse and then the pre and the chorus on that song. Listen to what she does. She is an absolute master. Now if we’re going to look at a song where the singer pushes a little bit to reflect the excitement that is in the musical arrangement listen to Stevie Wonder’s, Sir Duke this song is a celebration of Duke Ellington and it opens up with this wonderful horn line. That’s basically a celebration of big band music and the fact that this song, I remember as a kid, this is what was on top 40 radio. This is the type of music that was a hit. I mean this song is so sophisticated and so wonderful. But you listen to the way the horns are really popping and pushing that du, da, du, da, du, du, baba, doo, baba, doo, bap.
And then when Stevie comes in, he’s really rhythmically driving the vocal. He keeps the energy and he keeps the push. He doesn’t do what Beyonce does on the first of love on top because that wouldn’t work for this song. So Stevie is absolutely in tune with the arrangement with the way the musicians are playing. There’s no sequencing on this song. This was done back when everything was organic and the song just has an amazingly beautiful feel and Stevie just drives that song forward. He’s never behind the beat and he, it’s like he’s driving at like a big band. He’s emulating the feel of the horn players. Now juxtapose that to something like a Miss You by Coldplay and I will argue Chris Martin is a really underrated singer and I know he flips when he gets to the higher notes, but man, he flips so good and he’s really got in the band and they’ve constructed music that really works around his voice and he does what he does incredibly well.
And if you listen to fix you, at the beginning of the song, there’s just an organ and the organ is basically just holding chords. There’s very, very little movement at all and Chris comes in and he establishes the rhythm with his voice. It’s da, ra, da, ra, da, ra, da, ra, da, da da and he’s really rhythmically precise. But he also, he doesn’t drive this song. He kind of stays just on the back end of the beat and he also, he’s listening to the instrumentation. I did a real breakdown of this song on my YouTube channel called why I love this vocal. I only did a handful of them because that for some reason did not set the world on fire. Apparently people want to hear, see a voice teacher react. I may try a couple of those.
Just to see how it goes. I’m not sure about that. But so I did a further breakdown, but it’s wonderful. The texture of the organ. It’s not a true organ. It’s a synthesized organ that has like a breath texture in it and he adopts that breathy texture in his own voice and then as the guitar starts to come in, you can hear that now starts to carry the groove and then Chris, as it builds with intensity, he starts building intensity in his voice. He’s taking his cues from the music. When he comes back to the verse after the first chorus, he goes back and gets pulled back, but not to the same degree as in the first verse. He’s playing with the caller. He’s playing with intensity. He’s being extremely scent sensitive to the arrangement, to the thickness of the arrangement.
So here’s what I want you to do. Take three songs that you absolutely love the vocal, you love the song but you especially love the vocal and I want you to really start breaking down why and I want you to listen to the song and listen to the instrumentation. Listen to the clavey listened to the groove, the underlying groove. Listen to if the verse is rather spars or if it’s busy, what instrumentation changes from the verse to the chorus from this first to the second verse and same thing, first to second course, etc. Listen how the singer responds to the changes in music. Do they accent their vocal line to reflect the clavey? Do they make things a little more rhythmically exciting as the instruments get more rhythmically exciting? Do they change the texture of their voice as the instruments change?
And I’m not just talking about runs. That’s the obvious thing is if the singer starts to do runs to create more excitement or do some alternate melody notes, that’s pretty easy to hear. But listen to the deeper goings on and how just with this single instrument that can play chords, right? The human voice, listen to the different textures that the singer gets out of it and how the singer approaches the words and also are they pushing on the beat or are they pulling back on the beat? Does that change? And you’ll start to find that the great singers really, really listened to the music. They’re not stuck in their own heads. Now, there are great vocal performances that are technically great and that are even fun to listen to. Why do I think the singers kind of in their own world?
And there are songs that are constructed that way and it works well musically. But my favorite is when the singer really becomes a part of the band, they become part of the whole and they’re taking their cues in and being incredibly sensitive to how the music is constructed, played, the musicians, the nuances and I think you’ll find a deeper level of appreciation for your favorite singers and also a deeper level that you can go to in your own vocal performances.
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