Singing is one of the oldest forms of communication. When I give Pop Singing Lessons to new singers without any singing experience at all, there is usually one thing that strikes me the most. Everyone of them has a need to communicate through vocal expression. No matter if they "have the X Factor" or not. No matter if they sing in tune or not. Even the singers with no ear at all feel the need to sing.
Before I start the first singing lesson with any new student, I always tell them that we need to consider what is fundamental to singing in any style. One of the great distinctions between teaching "classical" singing and popular singing is that popular song has evolved out of years of free experimentation with sound and style. This means that the range of choices for popular song production is greater than the range for those you may hear in local choir societies. For Classical artists, the training is incredibly demanding, and the vocal skills necessary is daunting to most of us. For popular singing, as we know neither of these is necessary. It takes a generous heart to think of Johnny Cash as a skilled singer, and no one imagines for a moment that Bob Dylan had much training. But popular music is an awesome category and most people know that a voice like Whitney Houston's is both very skilled and has probably had the benefit of some training. Although the relatively forgiving nature of popular music when it comes to technical skill, there are still some bottom line skills that are really helpful in enhancing a singer's ability. And since the importance of these skills, the bad news is that there is relatively little known about how they work – and even less known about how to help the singer who does not possess them!
The first of these is the need for any singer, popular or Classical, to pitch notes with accuracy. The tone can be like a gravel-mixer (Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen), or as piercing as that of a screaming cat (Kate Bush or Bjork); improvisational ability may be negligible and the delivery rather artless (Carole King or Suzanne Vega); and even the overall audibility / comprehensibility can be completely obscured (Rickie Lee Jones or Chet Baker) but when or not the voice is technically exact, a singer needs a pretty reliable ear.
There are some exceptions to this, and almost every studio engineer I've ever known has endless tales of how they managed to save some recording from the woeful pitching of some artist or other. But if a reliable ear is an important quality, sadly there is not much remedy available to help poor pitch, and I've never found any quick cures. Any number of people have suggested possible solutions to pitch problems, and many singing teachers will insist that there is no "tone deafness" – just a lack of confidence and familiarity or problems of one sort or another in vocal production. While any or all of this may be true, there is still very little of a practical nature that has ever been produced to truly help someone "build" reliability into their pitching. While there are some good theories, there is still little evidence to suggest that anyone understands exactly how we improve pitch in all cases. And certainly, the more I read, the more contradictory is the advice I'm given. Many people warn of the difficulty of learning pitch from hearing notes on a piano, yet I know of one singer who, after years of being told that he had a lovely tone but flawed pitch, decided to take some action. He spent more than a year practicing daily with a piano and a tape recorder, matching the sound on the keyboard with his own and listening to the playback. He found that for the first time he could hear the pitch problem (but only when playing sounds back on the tape recorder) – which was an important first step towards correcting it. He kept at it with amazing perseverance, and found that by the end of the year he was being asked to do much more lead vocal in his band. He did not stop there, but carried on recording and listening for another year. He was 21 when he sat down with the piano and the cassette recorder – he has now been singing solo professionally for more than a decade.
This story is the living example that recording and analyzing are a cruel part of any singing lesson, no matter if classic or popular.
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