Becoming the best version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.
Good afternoon all of you beautiful singers/teachers of singing, and a very happy New Year to you all. Hard to believe it’s 2019 but you know the world keeps spinning, and time keeps ticking, and that’s how the world goes round.
I was thinking of time and how quickly it passes, and this brought me to my first topic of 2019 for these posts: “Be the best version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else”. That quote by the way, is from the late, great Judy Garland, and one that I use in the opening of the vocal exercise portion of my instructional program LET YOUR VOICE SOAR which is available from my website www.voicesoaring.com.
Continuing on the topic of time, it was a year and half ago that I had the unique opportunity to co-teach a vocal masterclass with Grammy award winning tenor David Phelps, formerly of the Gaither Vocal Band. My production team, including audio engineer Ryan DeRosa and I created a video of the class which is also available from my website for purchase. This exciting and informative video has sold around the world in countries as far away as Russia, South Africa, Italy, Japan and United Arab Emirates.
As more and more people have discovered that I worked with Mr. Phelps, more and more people began writing me to ask me if I could help them achieve their dream of sounding like David Phelps. As I began to reply to the numerous emails regarding this subject, it hit me that many singers are so busy trying to sound like someone else, that they forget to cultivate their own unique, God given sound. After all, there is only one David Phelps and only one You!
Now don’t get me wrong, I do have my vocal “idols” such as Steve Perry, Luther Vandross and Luciano Pavarotti, and at various times in my life I’ve tried to imitate their sounds as closely as possible, but this was mostly before I began to embrace my own unique sound. I believe we can use our favorite singers as a guideline for sound production, but to try to imitate the sound as closely as possible will never bring out your native sound.
If you go to my YouTube channel you will see several covers I’ve done of songs by artists such as Steve Perry, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. You may notice that although I do a kind of tribute to the artists, I tried to make those songs my own by changing the arrangements, adding different instruments and more.
David Phelps voice is quite unique, and is almost “not of this world”, and definitely one to admire and study. But to try and be the next David Phelps is futile as there will never be another David Phelps, but there will be an amazing version of you with the right training and guidance from a qualified vocal coach.
LEARNING THROUGH IMITATION
Can we learn to sing by imitating someone like David Phelps or Whitney Houston or Luciano Pavarotti? Absolutely!
DEVELOPING A VIBRATO
When I was a kid growing up in Tennessee I wanted “that shaky thing in other singer’s voices”. Growing up in southern part of the country we didn’t have a lot of exposure to vocal coaching or proper vocal technique and terminology unless you wanted to be an opera singer. I just knew that other singers that I would see on TV had a thing in their voice that caused it to shake in a very controlled manor. I would later learn this is called “vibrato”, and I wanted it so badly!
Each day I would walk home from school singing all the popular hits of the day as loudly as I could. I would even jump up and down to create that controlled “shaky thing”. One day after many failed attempts and much frustration, the vibrato came. Not perfectly but it was there. I ran home from school as fast as I could to show my mom what I had discovered. She was as surprised as I was that my voice was shaking on pitch like the pros...well sort of!
As time progressed I began listening to other singers and would try to imitate their sounds, some more successfully than others. By high school I could do a pretty decent Don Henley (lead singer for the Eagles) sound as well as a Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and even a serviceable Steve Perry imitation. The only thing lacking was a solid vocal technique and an original sound of my own.
FINDING MY OWN SOUND
When I moved to New York in the late 90’s, I was introduced to two very important songwriters, Michael O’Hara and George Lyter who would change my approach to singing all together. These two talented gentlemen had written hits for many of the biggest recording artists of the day. Michael and George offered me an original song for me to record called “If I Knew”. The song was a beautiful R&B ballad, and I learned it and fell in love with it immediately.
During the recording session for “If I Knew”, I was singing it like it was a Luther Vandross song, and with each pass of the vocal both George and Michael kept asking me to put more of my own voice in to the song. Finally, after several failed attempts, I was able to let go of any desire to sound like someone else sing the song with my voice. At the end of the day, we were all very pleased with the results. I remember crying like a baby listening to the final mix of the song because for the first time in my life, I didn’t sound like a second rate version of anyone else, but rather a first rate version of me!
Soon after that recording session I met the late great Leona Mathews who would help me lay the beginning foundation of a solid vocal technique. In every lesson she encouraged me to sing with my voice, not someone else’s.
CREATING YOUR ORIGINAL, UNIQUE SOUND
Over the last 19 years I have seen hundreds of singers come through my studio door, many of them singer songwriters ready to work on their original songs and make an impact in the music business. The ones that succeed are almost always the ones who find their own true, God given voice. In lessons with these singers, we will often listen to other artists to see if there is something in a particular singer’s voice that they might barrow to enhance their own sound. This approach is using imitation as a source for growth rather than just making a carbon copy sound. It’s a bit like adding color to a painting.
During the masterclass with David Phelps, he talked about how he created his unique sound by spending hours and hours in a studio, recording himself over and over until the “Phelps sound” began to emerge. He spoke about how he was worried he was driving his wife crazy by constantly singing for hour upon hours, but that the work eventually paid off.
I would venture to say that almost every successful vocal artist has used some form of this approach to create a sound that is unlike any other. After all, this is why we gravitate to certain singers in the first place. They have that certain something in their voice that is immediately identifiable. A sound that you know from just a couple of notes, “Oh that’s Adele, or “that’s Bruno Mars”, or “I knew right away that Amy Winehouse”.
In this post I’ve mentioned “God given sound” several times. I truly believe that our own voices are a gift from God, and the Divine wants us to build what he gave us and make it something special. Definitely listen to other singers like David Phelps, and try to understand what it is about his voice, or another singer’s voice that makes it so special. Maybe it’s their powerful high notes, or their lush lower register. Maybe it’s a certain yearning in their sound that makes you want to cry when you listen to them. Judy Garland certainly had that quality in her voice. Maybe there’s an angst in their voice that makes you want to get up and do something crazy when one of their songs comes on. The most important thing is to learn what makes someone else’s voice interesting so that you can maximize your voice’s potential as well.
Keep working toward building your own unique sound and you will never be sorry you did so. Work with a vocal coach that encourages individuality and is not trying to make you sound exactly like them or anyone else. If you are searching for a vocal coach, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the many options we have here at Voice Soaring Studios for private voice lessons either in person or online.
Until then, keep singing and let your voice soar!
Check out this promotional video we created for the Phelps/Stanfill masterclass. Currently both FROM VOICE STUDIO TO STAGE and LET YOUR VOICE SOAR are available from our website for 20% off by adding “HAPPYHOLIDAYS” in the checkout code.