Each of us who is ambitious enough, attempts to create a unique yet recognizable sound, a “voice,” as some say. A memorable voice fills an audiences’ ears with inspiration; it sounds new and fresh and sometimes still rings with a kind of warm familiarity. In trying to create my own voice, I study decades past and those who have defined the genre I love to sing. I also study the voices of those who are revitalizing and reshaping the genre today.
While trying to find my voice, I found it useless to try and mimic other voices. This is a mistake that many amateur singers make, perhaps because they believe they will take on the color and depth of a great voice by copying it. This is not how the voice works though. What brings color to the voice is emotion, what brings depth to it is honesty, what brings good pitch and rhythm is a fit ear, and – most importantly- what brings meaning to a voice is life experience. If you only sing songs you understand the meaning of and furthermore, resonate with, you will be able to emote. You must have also experienced what the songwriter is writing about, so you can connect with the music honestly. Then, you can draw the emotions of your experience from your gut (which will be easier when you breathe deeply) and allow them to pour out through your voice. It is no secret that this is how our bodies work; haven’t you heard the advice “Go with your gut”? It is because that is where our deepest, most honest emotions are.
Billie Holiday says:
“I always wanted Bessie [Smith’s] big sound and Pop’s [Louis Armstrong’s] feeling. Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it’s got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work.”
Rather than mimicking, a smart singer knows to engage in transcription. Transcription is the practice of singing and perhaps writing down the notes and rhythms of sounds you like. That could be a new song, a melody or rhythm you admire, or a sound you hear in life. It might be sung, played by an instrumentalist, or even created in your everyday life. Transcription develops the ear and the creative musical mind. Without it, a singer cannot grow much and is more likely to hit a wrong note in the heat of performance.
For too long a time, I tried to control my voice to make it sound “right” or “nice” or “good.” I can tell you that this was a colossal waste of time, and the sooner you give up on singing simply to please others, the sooner you will develop a unique sound. If you are trying to control your voice, you cannot sing with complete, free-flowing honesty. We need this sort of unbridled honesty to create art – a unique expression that connects with the audience, moves them, perhaps even changes them- rather than entertainment- a distraction from life’s responsibilities in order to engage in some temporary worldly pleasure.
Another quote of Billie’s I love is:
“Everyone’s got to be different. You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music… You can’t even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else. I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”
Each person has a unique dialect and a unique life experience, and that should ring free through one’s performance of a song. The music we sing and play well is naturally the music that rings true to our own lives and musical understanding, and when a bunch of individuals come together doing this simultaneously, that creates an original piece of music. The songs you should sing and play and the people you should make music with will find you at the right time. Have the courage to take them on as your own, to play with the elements of your medium and thus innovate something new and fresh, and – through doing all this – inspire those around you.
- Julie Hill
New York Public Radio (WQXR) calls Julie Hill “truly magical.” She is a singer, composer, and teacher who graduated from the Manhattan School of Music (B.M. Classical Composition) in 2014 having studied under Dr. Nils Vigeland and Professor Susan Botti.
Favorite projects include: teaching on the faculty of Global Music Institute (New Delhi, India), an indie pop/ rock album with producer Dan Saa, performances of her original compositions with the Philadelphia Ballet and at Yale University, performances with the Dessoff Choirs at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, and a national tour as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” (American Family Theatre).
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