As you progress in your singing, you will likely start to interact with better musicians.

Higher-level musicians will listen to and interact with you differently than novice players. At the same time, you will need to respond to these musicians on a deeper level.

In this episode, John discusses how to listen and respond to great players and suggests two classic recordings to help develop your listening skills.

Episode Transcript

Episode 194 – Working With Great Musicians

Hey there, this is John Henny, welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this precious listening time with me. 

Alright, today, I want to talk about the journey that you will experience if you take singing seriously, of moving from amateur musicians to better musicians to great musicians and what that experience is likely going to be like. Obviously, as I record this, we most of the world, although there are some places where you it’s safe to get together, but certainly not here in the United States to get together and work with musicians, it’s a bit risky. And certainly singing is an incredibly risky activity. But when we’re ready to work with musicians again, I want you to pay attention to how musicians interact with you and how you interact with musicians. 

Now in the beginning, just as you are going to be inside your own head with your voice, musicians are going to be inside their own head, they’re going to be really focused on what they’re doing, they’re going to be focused on the mechanics of their instrument. As they get a little better, they may be focused on showing off. But first certain the time, a certain part of the development period. It’s very self focused and this is a beginning stage of the musicians journey. It’s an immature stage, I certainly went through it. As I played the drums. I would play by myself, I figured out the instrument I would play along with records, but it was always focused on me. And then when I would play with musicians, we were just constantly trying to show each other our chops, how loud we could play how fast we could play. And when I first started working with singers, they would inevitably start to complain that they couldn’t hear themselves because it was fun to play really, really loud. 

And I would dismiss that thinking “oh, you should learn to hear yourself, turn up your monitor, get a better monitor, or I really don’t care. I’m over here playing the drums.” And that was just an incredibly immature point of view. Because if you can’t hear yourself when you are singing, and if the musicians you are with don’t care if you can hear yourself, then you are currently working with immature musicians. And if you’re a musician out there, and you’re bristling at this a little bit, I am sorry to tell you that in most circumstances, if you’re working with a singer, your job is to support the singer. It’s not that the singer is the star. It’s that when someone listens to music, the average person, they are not listening to your amazing baseline or your incredible guitar tones that you’ve crafted through your complicated pedal setup into your hand wired tube amplifier that needs to be cranked to a certain level so that you get that nice tasty overdrive. They don’t care. 

They’re listening to the singer or they’re trying to listen to the singer. We listen to melody and human voice first. It’s what we are wired to respond to unless you’ve trained your ear differently. And the average person listening to you is not a musician. Way back in my drumming days. I actually studied for a period of time with a drummer named Terry Bozzio. And Terry was quite famous for having played with Frank Zappa. He played with a band called UK which was big with people who were into progressive music and then in the 80’s he had a band with his wife at the time called Missing Persons and they had a few big hits including Walking in LA and was one of their big ones. And when they were getting missing persons off the ground, Terry was getting teaching drum lessons and I saw the ad to be able to study with him and I was a huge fan. So I jumped at the chance. And I’m just, I am just a complete fanboy taking lessons from Terry. And Terry would tell me, “Hey, we’re missing people playing at the time.” And I think it was either the Star Wars or the Roxy, one of those la clubs and I went to go see him. And, you know, the club was packed, and there’s all these people digging the music, but then around Terry, because he set up his drums at the front of the stage, and he’s quite a showman. There was just this packed group of about 50 of us, who were drummers, and we just watched everything Terry did. And so the way I listened to music was drums first, but that is not how the average person listens. They’re listening to the voice and the singer has to be heard. 

And your job is to support the singer. And you will find as a singer, as you start working with better musicians, here’s what they are going to do, they are going to become more and more focused on you and the song as a whole. And I studied with this great teacher, years ago named Jamie Font who would play bass with Chick Corea. And I was doing work on how to play time and how to play groove. And he said something very interesting because he was a very high level musician. And he said, you know, it’s not about musicians following each other. It’s about musicians who are in agreement. There’s this thing in the center, that is the song, the energy that the vibrating sound waves. And the musicians are now including singers within this musician term. They’re all in agreement as to what this song is. And they’re all listening to each other, and they’re all responding to each other. So as you work with better musicians, they are going to respond to you as you come down and maybe bring the intensity down for the verse, they will follow you, as you begin to build vocally if you start to build intensity, they will begin to build intensity and it may be subtle, and it may be just enough to underscore what you’re doing, that the audience doesn’t necessarily hear them changing what they’re doing, they just hear more excitement. And they’re putting it all on you. And then the singer does get most of the credit. And that’s something musicians have to come to terms with. And great singers who are great musicians completely respect the band. 

And you know, they don’t pull the lead singer, tantrums. And the and the one tantrum though I do recommend singers pull is when you can’t hear yourself. If you’re playing with musicians who don’t care and are playing over you and drowning you out. You really do need to stand up for yourself. But great musicians, they’re there in this spirit of agreement, and they are responding to you. But you should also be responding to them. And this really hit me today. I popped in my air pods and went for a walk. Beautiful morning here in Southern California was a little cool and crisp, a bright sunny day. And as I’m walking, I pulled up Spotify and it created a playlist for me. I said fine, I played it. And on the playlist came Fleetwood Mac’s – Dreams, which now is all the rage because of the viral talk video that Nathan Apodaca writing his longboard and drinking some Ocean Spray juice and just chillin’ and mouth and the words and it really kind of struck everybody in this there’s stress that’s going on here in the US and just the chaos of of the virus spiking and the election chaos. And here’s this guy just chillin, not a care in the world. And so it’s actually really wonderful. 

But I really decided as I was walking, I’m really going to listen deeply to what Stevie Nicks is doing. And my gosh, her vocal performance is so incredibly amazing. First of all, Stevie, at that period of time, she really had this really crisp buzz with her vocal folds coming together and you can just hear this going all through her voice, and even when she flips light on some of the passages, she never she never goes breathy at buzzes always there, even when it sounds like she’s going into a lightful setup, that buzz stays, it’s really quite remarkable. But the other thing that really struck me that I never noticed before is the rhythm section, especially John McVie, on the bass. He’s letting the bass get this little boo, boo and and he does a shorter staccato note. And then with the note that he holds, he lets that just kind of bloom. So it has this feeling of like this little rolling hills, boom, boom. And then Lindsey Buckingham on the guitar is working the volume pedal, so everything playing behind her is doing this little start a little softer and swell, these little swells that are going through this song that kind of drive it forward, like waves in the ocean. And what Stevie does, Stevie mirrors them. And whether she started singing it that way and they picked it up, or her being very musical, she picked up what they were doing, or as a band that was working so intensely, they were just tuned into each other. But her vocal performance is constant little swells, she doesn’t hit any word very hard. What she does is she hits the beginning of the words the energy is slightly pulled back. And then she does a little swell through the middle of the word and then lets it kind of pull back. And it’s really subtle, and I encourage you to put headphones on and really isolate her. But she’s got the pulse that they’re creating in her voice and it’s just wonderful the voice that the song is so melancholy and the words are incredibly sad. I mean, it’s just a terrible breakup song. But as the tick tock video showed, there’s, there’s like a joy within this melancholy it’s really quite a remarkable song. But you can hear singers and musicians interacting in just a beautifully profound way, everything she’s doing is the color of her voice. She’s really just nailing what’s going on musically. 

And then another song that came up on the playlist as I was walking was the Soul Cages by Sting. And this is maybe a song that you don’t know if you’re not a big Sting fan. And this song is oh my gosh, this was probably early 90s. It’s from his album The Soul Cages, which is an incredible album. One of my favorite Sting albums, I love this album. And on this song, the title track the soul cages. It’s kind of this slow burning rocker song, but the groove is really pulled back. And when I say that when you have a tempo when you have a beat, you can decide to be on the front end of that beat, the middle of the beat, or the back end of that beat and the band is really kind of sitting towards the back end of the beat and the drummer, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to embarrass myself I’m pretty sure it’s Vinnie Colaiuta at the time.

It’s either Vinnie or Manu Cochet who was brought to prominence by Peter Gabriel. He was a French studio musician that Peter Gabriel discovered and put on his solo album. So when you the drums on in your eyes, that’s my new cut chain. I knew my new worked with Sting for a while and then Vinnie Colaiuta came in, who was incredible played with Frank Zappa. And, but the drummer is sitting just behind that beat and it’s just got this really slow cooking, like a low boil going and staying sits right on the back end of that he never rushes, he never pushes. He’s so locked into the groove. And what he’s doing is he’s mirroring what the musicians are doing because Sting is a great bass player who’s played with great drummers including Stewart Copeland. So musicians at the highest level, rhythmic feel at the highest level and that comes out in his voice and Sting just if you listen to the song, and it’s said that the lyrics are really quite remarkable and the lyrics get a little dark and staying changes the timbre and color of his voice so subtly to reflect what’s going on emotionally in the lyric. 

But man, just the groove the way he sits that in, and I’ve said it before on this podcast. But if I could give you one thing that separates singers from great singers. It’s not technique, it’s not range. Because in this song Sting doesn’t really sing with a lot of range. Stevie Nicks is not singing with an incredible amount of range and dream. She’s certainly not belting anything. Yeah. But it is, it feels like it’s time, it’s rhythm. And great musicians have impeccable sense of time and rhythm, and the music they can eat without speeding up, they can begin to push the music by getting on the front end of that beat. And then they can pull towards the back end of that beat. And they can move around that it’s this incredibly organic living thing, the tempo, the time, you know, which is an amazing abstract, I mean, we’re just, we’re taking a concept of time, and we’re chopping it up into equal units. And humans are able to track that and keep that and play with it. And the great singers are locked into that. And they respond to it and they move around. And when they want more intensity, they get on the front end of things. And then the back end of things. 

Now as a singer, you have more leeway. And singers often get into trouble with that leeway, because you can play with the time more than any other instrument in popular music. And in jazz, you’ll get it where everybody’s taken turns really playing with the music and stretching the time and doing all kinds of wild things. But essentially, in most popular commercial forms of music, the band’s got to hold everything down. And then the singer can play a little more on top and be a little more free. But what singers do is they read that as they don’t have to have a sense of rhythm and they don’t have to have a sense of time. And man that’s one thing that will keep you from being a great singer. 

So what I’d encourage you to do, go ahead and take these songs, I can’t play them on my podcast because that would be an instant copyright violation. But listen to dreams and listen to the soul cages by staying and just listen to the time, listen to the tambor, listen to how the voice is reflecting what’s going on in the music and what’s going on in the lyrics you know. And Stevie she gets this this Tambor, and this approach that really gives the melancholy and the sadness of the song, but also is reflecting back what’s going on with the musicians and the feel and the sounds mean when I realized that she’s doing this little subtle pumping of the voice much like what Lindsay is doing behind her. I was just walking up and down the street with my mind blown.

And you know, people seeing me walk probably think I’m a madman, because I’m just you know, making all kinds of head nods and fist pumps and you know, I’m quite animated when I listen to music. If you’ve seen my youtube channel when I do those reaction videos, that’s how I listen to music. I’m very physical when I listen to music, so people must think I’m crazy. But I want you to start digging in and hearing how they respond to musicians. Because great musicians will make you better. But you got to get better before you’re going to play with great musicians. And it’s all going to be part of your art and listen, it may be the musicians that you’ve been playing with for years and you all get better together. But that really is the higher level that you want to seek. It’s this agreement. It’s this communication. It’s not check out my chops, listen to my solo, listen, how fast I’m going. It is what are you contributing to the entity to the energy that is this music to this vibration that’s going in and tickling our ears. It’s a rather incredible, wonderful thing. So let me know what you think of that. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website Be sure to subscribe to my email list. I am going to probably be creating some content that only my email list is going to get considering that so and also my email list is the first one to know when I have new product or there’s also special pricing and things that I only give to my email list, you can also email me directly [email protected]. Let me know what you think of the podcast, and until next time to better singing. 

Thank you so much. Bye-bye