Thoughts on singing

Trevor Locke reflects on what he (as a member of the audience) learnt about singing when he attended the obsUnplugged programme of Acoustic shows in Leicester in 2013.

Performing covers

There are three kinds of covers

(a) Karaoke

(b) Just singing the song as it is in the original version – what pub singers do

(c) Taking a song and putting the artist’s own, original stamp on it, giving it a unique interpretation that has not been heard before.

When I listen to a well known cover (performed as part of a singing competition or vocal showcase), I would be looking for interpretation – what the performance of that song tells me about the artist in front of me and whether their unique take on that song shows me something about the singer. The better known the original song or artist, the more important this is. For example, Wonderwall by Oasis is a very well known song and I would prefer to not hear it sung karaoke-style, or as  just a faithful rendition of the original recording.  I would rather want  to hear what the artist in front me can do with it, to bring out aspects of the song that might never had heard before. I have listened to some very remarkable interpretations of well known popular songs, where the singer has taken the song and made it their own, producing a version that is markedly different to the original and given me a whole new insight into that song, using exactly the same lyrics and most if not all of the original melody.

Putting together a set list

If an artist is  given an allotted period of time in which to perform, he or she  can probably do about five or six songs.  In a showcase event, the  goal for,  a  performer, is to illustrate the range of their repertoire, demonstrate  vocal and instrumental skills and entertain the  audience.  A good performance is not one in which the artist sticks to safe, comfortable songs, any more than going for the really hard, challenging stuff,  throughout the set. The singer should open with a song which they know they can perform well, which is likely to capture the attention of the room, engage the audience and prevent people from going for a smoking break, the toilet or to
the bar from a drink.

Keeping them and holding their attention is the tasks of the opening song. The last song should be a vibrant, robust number that rounds off the set with something that will cap the set’s achievement and illicit sustained applause.  In between, the singer  has to show those in the room  what the artist is  capable of.  Things to avoid: too many songs which sound the same in tempo, style and content – most listeners appreciate variety – and too many covers that every one else is doing (yet another Ed Sheering song, oh no not Lady
Gaga’s Dirty Ice Cream again!)

Performing the songs

What engages audiences is feeling – the singer’s ability to get inside a song, believe in what the lyrics are saying, understanding what the song is about and then living the song,  while  on stage.  Inexperienced artists learn the words, the melody and the instrumentals and think that is job done.  It’s not.  Excellent artists spend some time trying to get into the role – just as actors have to get into the role of a character and live the part, so too singers should be thinking long and hard about the lyrics, the meaning of the song, what they are singing about and how best to portray the whole piece on stage. That might even mean deciding when and where to make gestures and facial expressions, the requirements of piano, forte and pianissimo passages and the internal dynamics of the piece. Whether
it’s their  own original song or their own original interpretation of a well-known cover, it’s about singers putting yourself  into the songs and acting it out on the stage.  An excellent singer will get this just right; one who is less good will over act.

Telling people who you are

It is unlikely that the audience will be sitting there with a programme.  They might or might not have read the running order (if there is one) on the way in.  Most of them will have no idea who the singer is. The job is make them aware of you – your name and where you come from.  Either announce yourself to the room before you start singing or after you have finished the first song. It’s no good telling them your Facebook address – they will not remember it – but if you have cards or flyers with it on, leave them around the room.

Between songs,  you can tell them the title of song and something (briefly) about what’s in it and(if it is your song)  when you wrote it or, if it is a cover, why you like it and who originally performed it. Don’t just say “I am now going to do a cover by Ed Sheeran” and leave it at that.  Interesting though that might be, it still tells people nothing about why you are singing a song by Ed Sheeran and what’s significant about it.

People do not want to hear long speeches, anecdotes or stories between songs (in a six song set) but a little bit of personal chat helps people to relate to you as a person. You are not a singing robot. You are a person trying to make a room full of people like you and remember who you are (and, hopefully, will then want to  see you again at your next appearance.)

Solo singers with guitars

Should you sit down or stand up? This is a vexed issue and there are strong opinions for both options.  Singing coaches say stand up because that is the best position for breath control.  Others say sit down,  if that is how you feel most comfortable and relaxed.  Singing at your best is not a comfortable experience,  even for professionals.  When I see an artist sitting down to sing, I tend to think they are newly starting out amateurs (that might not be true but there is always a tendency to assume this if you have not seen this artist before.)

If you are  going to play guitar to accompany your singing, tune the instrument BEFORE you go on stage.  If you put in a new set of strings, do that several days before the performance and allow time for the strings to settle in.  We have seen artists break strings on stage and then ruin a good act while they restring  or waste time borrowing an instrument from someone else.

Make sure the audience knows you have finished

Some songs can have abrupt endings and if so, it is better to say “thank you” into the mic,  so that people know that the song has  finished.  At the end of your set, there is nothing wrong in thanking the artists that have been on before you and how much you enjoyed their songs.  It is a courtesy that is noted by judges and by members of the audience.

An X Factor for Bands?

Originally published as a post in the Artsin Blog 13th December 2009

Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It’s called the “X Factor” because the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. The TV show is a singing competition. It does not feature acts that play music instruments, as well as singing.  There are however tens of thousands of unsigned, original bands in the UK and a TV show featuring these bands would attract a large audience.

If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc.) you will know it when you see it. So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges (from the TV show) have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a
top star:

  • must be able to project his or her personality into the songs and must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver an acceptable standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technically competent they may be.
  • Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable (i.e. as us – the public); it’s all very subjective but it seems to be a factor.  We can point to successful and famous singers who are not (or were not) particularly good looking but who made it to the top because of their personality and artistic ability.
  • Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let’s examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant with the people who are backing you. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. They are a product that is being groomed for what the experts understand as the expectations of the mass market audience. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started. Compare Susan Boyle as she appears now with what she looked like when she first appeared on the television.
  • Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.
  • Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.

Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.

For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.

So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else’s songs.

Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.

National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4 for a short while but has not been repeated). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups that sing and dance, such as JLS. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.

In my dreams I would like to see a prime-time national competition for original, unsigned bands, screened nationally. This would provide a quick track into a successful musical career.  I have seen many bands that, in my opinion, deserve to be at the top, simply because they are good at making music and performing it.  I have discovered bands simply by going to gigs in Leicester. If I could wave a magic wand and transform them into chart topping bands, I would.

Equally, when I see some of the bands that have been placed at “the top of the tree” by record labels, I think, well I have seen better talent at my local live music venue. Why are they there? They are not that wonderful. Success in the UK’s music industry seems a rather randomised process where rock bands are concerned.