Great singers have a uniqueness that makes them rare and special.
But they also have traits in common that help fuel their greatness.
In this episode, John discusses these traits so many leading singers have cultivated and developed in their musical lives to lift themselves above the pack.
These traits are:
- Kinesthetic Awareness
- Attention to Detail
- A Story to Tell
Developing and nurturing these traits will help catapult your singing and performance to a higher level.
You are listening to The Intelligent Vocalist podcast episode 71.
Welcome to The Intelligent Vocalist with John Henny. This is the podcast dedicated to help you be a smarter, better, more informed singer. And now, your host for The Intelligent Vocalist, John Henny.
Hey there! This is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. Okay. Today, I want to go over the 7 traits of great singers. Now the reason I picked 7 is because Stephen Covey has a very popular book entitled The 7 … Wait a minute, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People I believe it is. I can’t even remember the name. I’ll tell you what, it’s been on my list to read for a very long time. The book is now 30 years old, and I know it launched like a multimillion-dollar empire. So I’m going to borrow his 7 because this podcast is not going to be long enough to do 10, and I also think these 7 kind of encapsulate what I feel great singers have in common. And these traits are all ones you can develop and get better at. So I just want to give you an awareness of them, what they are, and just do a little time thinking about them, or ones that you find yourself doing, or the ones that you can get better on. And if you can get better on, then start getting better. That’s all I can say.
So jumping in, the first one is consistency, and consistency is habit. Great singers have habits. And the power of a habit is that once it’s ingrained you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to struggle to keep doing it. If your floss is sitting out by your toothbrush, you will likely floss every time you brush. If you find yourself struggling to remember to floss, then you have not yet developed the habit.
My newly-acquired habit or my newest habit would probably be meditating every day. And at first, took me while. I would forget, and I mean like days would go by and I’d think, “Ugh, I need to meditate.” So what I did is every day I just did a very short session and built it up to now it’s when I wake up it’s pretty much automatic. My brain will tell me to meditate.
Singers, great singers have this. They don’t need to be reminded to work on their voice, to warm up, to be concerned about vocal health, to watch what they eat, when they eat, what they’re drinking, to avoid smoking. All of these things that are essential to keep your voice healthy. They developed habits of listening and studying, of writing, of whatever it is that you want to do it. If you’re going to be a musical theater actor, studying you’re acting, your dance. Knowing the skill sets that you need and creating daily habits to acquire them, it’s that consistency that is a trait of great singing.
Self-awareness is a huge one. You need to know your strengths. And I talked about this in my previous podcast on the Singer’s Serenity Prayer. It’s that idea of give me the strength to change what I can, accept what I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. You need to know what your strengths are, and you don’t chase things that just aren’t your gift. Understanding your voice, understanding your musical gift, and where you fit in is key.
If you look at a singer like Freddie Mercury, I just saw Bohemian Rhapsody, and it’s a very good movie. If you’re a Queen fan hardcore, you may be annoyed because certain things are out of chronological order, they’ve condensed things, but that’s what they need to do for movies. But the character of Freddie Mercury, you saw that the band Queen was a perfect vehicle for his strengths, for his gifts.
Chris Martin of Coldplay, the way that his voice flips and that he doesn’t have this really high up a register, they built the sound around that. Not that he couldn’t develop that, but you get the sense of what I’m speaking about. He just knew what his strengths and weaknesses were, and he built his music towards his strengths. He focused on his strengths.
You need to know this about yourself. You need this self-awareness, and this acceptance of your gifts so that you can put your time and energy into growing your strengths. Would love to be able to sing all styles equally well, that’s just not going to happen. So you need to find your place in the world with self-awareness. Not what you wanted to be musically, but what it truly is, where really are your strengths.
The next trait is kinesthetic awareness. That’s this mind-body awareness that is so crucial for good singing. The voice is an instrument that is sensation-driven. We don’t get to see it. The muscles that control pitch aren’t in our conscious awareness. So much of what we experience of the voice is sensations. It’s the sensation of energy being absorbed by the body, the vibrations, and acoustic energy. And the way that that changes from note to note or even valve to valve will create different energies that are absorbed differently by the body, and it creates these sensations that have the popular names of chest voice, and head voice, and mix, and all of these different things.
Now, obviously your voice is never coming out of your chest. It’s never coming out of your head. You’re not putting your chest and head into a mixing bowl and creating this new thing called mix, but these sensations are very, very real for the singer. And great singers are able to catalog what these sensations are so that when you go for a high note, you have an anticipation, an expectation of what that experience is going to be. You don’t have the microsecond before you sing it, a question mark over your head, you actually have a full picture of the experience of what that note is going to be. And having mind-body awareness, really paying attention to what these sensations feel like, helps singers get better more quickly. And I find that singers that naturally have that, get better faster, but you can develop it. It’s just a matter of awareness, of paying attention, of not mindlessly practicing, or mindlessly singing, but just having this openness to the sensation, and then cataloging what those sensations are. So that your body understands good singing as much as your mind does.
Another one, and this kind of falls in step. The mind-body awareness is your internal, but the next trait is attention to detail, and this is now the external. Paying attention to what is happening in the music, what are the musicians playing? What is the context that you’re singing in? Is the track really thick? Is the track really sparse? What is the emotional context? All of these details come together to create profound performances. And being able to communicate through these details will just grab the listener. They won’t know why. They’re so transfixed by your singing, but I promise you, it’s your attention to detail. It’s your attention to the detail of phrasing where the beat is, what the groove is, all of these things, what the guitarist is playing. are there holes where you can fill with a vocal improv, or do you need to leave space because of the arrangement?
You need to have what musicians will call big ears. You need to listen intensely. And the detail also then transfers over to what you are singing, how your coloring the voice, how intense the sound waves are, are you going to let it be a little breathy? How intense your attacks are, are you going to crescendo or decrescendo in the phrase? How long are you going to hold out a note? All of this minutiae is so vitally important.
There’s a famous plaque or I don’t know if it’s a plaque or he hand-wrote it, but [Wagner 00:09:21] at this opera house in Germany wrote … I’m paraphrasing, but it was, “Pay attention to the little notes, the big notes take care of themselves.” Pay attention to detail. This is what makes you a real artist and musician.
The next thing, and this is really unique to singers in a way, but you need to have a story to tell. We’re the only instrument with language, and you need to communicate a story to the listener. You need to bring an emotional context to what it is that you’re singing, and you need to use this language and the story that this language is telling to communicate to the listener. You need to have a story. You need to bring your life experience. You need to bring your pains as well as your triumphs. You need to bring your worldview. You need to bring everything that’s you to the song, and then to communicate it. And is in this communication that we find the highest level of singing.
The highest level of singing is not all this vocal technique that I prattle on and on about. Vocal technique is great, all right? I make my living teaching vocal technique, but nobody cares beyond this room or perhaps you and your fellow musicians, mainly because you need to be able to repeat this take after take or night after night. I don’t want you blowing your voice out. But beyond that, it really is telling a story and you need to have a story to tell and to not be afraid to tell that story.
The next trait is humility. And I’m not talking about being humble in that you’re shy about your aspirations, or your voice, or telling yourself you’re not good enough. It’s not that at all. You need it, a ton of confidence in order to be a great singer, but within that confidence, there is a humility. And that as soon as you tell yourself, you’re as good as you’re going to get, and you’re amazing, and there’s no one better than you, you are now at the beginning of the decline. I don’t care how good you are, the decline has begun because you’ve allowed ego to get in the way of your musical vocal and artistic growth. And a sense of humility, in knowing that there’s always something more to learn, that there’s something to learn from just about every other singer, and style of music, and approach is so critical to you having a long career with singing.
Knowing that you need to study, that you need to practice, that you need to keep learning, that you need to keep getting better, that the songs you’ve written, no matter how good they are, can be even better. You can just keep pushing and pushing. That’s where the fun is. I mean what is success? What have you ever truly arrived? It’s a goal, it’s this far off idea and yeah, you could say my goal is to sell X number of records and make X number of money, but beyond that, within yourself, as an artist, you’ve never hit the finish line. That’s the whole point. I mean that’s a big part of the fun of this is you’ll never reach the finish line. And if you have a spirit and a drive that is really rooted in honest humility, and being honest with yourself as to what it is you need to work on and how much better you can get, then you’re going to be a singer that people are going to pay attention to.
And then finally, and this is the superpower, not just in music and singing, but I also think in life. And that is fearlessness, and it’s fearlessness of others opinions. Not caring what other people think of you. And yeah, no one wants negative criticism. I’m actually getting ready to just in a few days I’ve got to send the manuscript for my first book to the editor. And it’s a book on contemporary voice teaching and as I’m frantically going through my final drafts here to touch everything up, yeah, the little voices will start creeping in, and you know … I explained this concept kind of simply and am I going to get flak from other voice teachers for that or … And I’m letting the critics before they’ve even started typing on their keyboards or talking, I’m letting them inside my head, and I have to stop myself and go, “No!”
All this fear is going to do is just throttle me and make me want to pause and not get this done. So you have to push through. And great singers are not afraid. They know that criticism is not fun, they don’t go out looking for it, but they accept it, and when it comes, they just push right through it. And the other part is not accepting the criticism from yourself. Great artists embrace their ugliness, they embrace their weirdness, they embrace what maybe they got teased about as kids. What you may feel as ugly, makes you special. It makes you an artist.
Freddie Mercury, if you see the movie, he struggled with this in the beginning. This guy was Persian, which was not the prototypical rockstar. He was a homosexual back in those days, but you know what? Freddie just took what he was criticized for, and had abuse thrown at him for, and he made it his strength. He took his what other people might think were his bizarreness and his weirdness and he made it so strong and so captivating that he’s a true legend. And you, as a musician, you have to embrace that part of yourself. You have to fully embrace yourself. Don’t change yourself, amplify yourself. Truly be who you are. Let the world know who you are, and then without fear, accept what they say, or don’t accept it, but stop. And those are the 7 traits of great singers.
Hey, I thank you so much for listening. If you want more information on me, you can go to johnhenny.com, and be sure to sign up for my email list. I promise I do write emails two-three times a week, and they come with some good tips, and if you’re a fan of the podcast, I think you’ll really like my email list. You can sign up right there on my homepage. You’ll also find my blog, other episodes of the podcast. I’ve got some courses there. And it was the very last days of January, my January voice challenge was all filled up, but a couple of spaces have opened. So if you want to work one-on-one with me on your voice, you can email [email protected], and my front desk person, Tracy will give you the info if you want to study with me one-on-one at a reduced rate in exchange for committing to being consistent. And if you can do that, I will give you a healthy reduction in my fees because I want to encourage people who are serious about improving their voice and want to create that habit.
So again, thank you so much for spending this time with me, and until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Buh-bye.