Having worked with singers for 15 years as a musician, music producer, teacher and choir director, I am well versed in the importance of numerous singing techniques, and imagine that you may be expecting me now to extol the virtues of one of them.
There’s no question that good vocal coaching and a disciplined approach to practise will make an enormous difference to a singer’s ability.
But there’s a BUT – and it’s a big one…
One single factor makes or breaks a singer’s performance. When it isn’t there, a performance can feel empty and somehow disconnected. The right notes at the right time in the right order just isn’t enough.
When it happens, it inevitably stills the room. People listen.
It’s not about breathing, vowel shape, image, 100 percent pitch accuracy that would put a computer to shame, or how you use your body.
It’s all about purpose.
An immediate and clear example is Dame Judi Dench singing “Send In The Clowns” (Go to 1:30 for the performance).
It’s a performance that no one who sees it could ever forget. Because, although she is acting a part, she is totally committed to and focussed on communicating the emotion of the piece in the moment. She manages to bring significance to the performance which goes beyond any technical vocal prowess. We find ourselves engaging with her regardless of her singing ability. She’s reaching out for someone she loves, from a heart that’s broken, with a message and a purpose that transcends everything else. She takes the song from being what is a pretty ballad on paper to a heart-wrenchingly personal and raw masterpiece.
Some might put this down to simple interpretation or song choice, but I would argue that there’s more to it than that. A purely technical interpretation where we understand what we are singing about is nothing without an emotional motivation or context. There needs to be a transferral from using your head to using your heart. Moving from a technical phase to an emotional one.
Purpose is all about heart.
I work with multiple choirs of all different shapes, sizes and abilities. I work with good singers, and incredible singers. But one of my choirs always has a bigger impact on their audience than any of the others. It made is up of people who have experienced a loved one going missing.
They are all amateur singers, few can read music, are technically excellent or have regular vocal coaching. But they never get nervous, or caught up in the “scenario” of performance. Their message is so strong – they are singing and reaching out to their missing loved ones – and because of that purpose their performance of the carefully chosen repertoire is sweeter and more powerful. This highlights the importance of approaching singing from the inside out and not being governed by our understanding of external expectations and the risk of failure in front of others. Singing that solo in front of friends and family becomes less daunting when you have a strong reason to sing it. Try it!
I use this emphasis on purpose to help focus everyone I work with, the music I produce, professional and amateur singers, and of course myself. It is my driving philosophy behind why I do music.
I have purpose and it is only now – halfway through my career – that I am realising that nothing else matters as much. The last time I felt entirely in this ‘zone’ was when I was asked to play piano at the funeral of a young girl who died of cancer. I didn’t know her or her family and was only linked to her via a mutual friend. However I felt a responsibility of the importance of how I played which took away any fear of judgement or insecurities. It was the most intense but free performance I had given for as long as I could remember. I knew I had used music in its most honest and purposeful way. Although it was entirely improvised, at no point had I felt inhibited by risk or worried about hitting wrong notes or running out of ideas. I just played. I came away with a feeling much more rewarding than rousing applause, big cheques or critical acclaim.
Music is both a mystery and a gift, and when we connect with our purpose it brings clarity and focus that reveals our true voice.