Throughout my formative musical years I embraced all things singing and turned away from many attempts to learn an instrument or theory via classical tuition methods. As a result I’ve often felt a sense of inadequacy when trying to communicate ideas to musicians I’m working with or have become quite frustrated when writing songs without an instrument to help the process. I grew up idolising iconic male and female vocalists from throughout the decades and understand that those who appreciate songs and singers find value in a singer’s ability to get to the heart of a song or their unique vocal quality. However, I’ve often felt my lack of instrumental skill or musical theory detracts from my other musical skills. I find myself correcting those who would label me a ‘musician’ with ‘Oh no, I’m just a singer’, which I think is wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, while in the midst of pondering over what to write about, I was chatting away to a friend about having recently been plagued with bugs and missing some gigs. As part of this, a few sweeping, negative generalisations about singers were delivered in jest – just to wind me up. I refused to take the bait at the time, but it did get me thinking about my aforementioned feelings of inadequacy – so, here are my personal ponderings on whether any truth lies at the heart of their generalisation that “singers are more often than not apathetic, always ill and musically illiterate”… (Disclaimer – the person who said this was of course joking, but it did get me thinking.) Are you musically illiterate if unable to chart out a full song chart or orchestrate string parts, or can you be musical in other ways that are equally as valid and valuable? After all, the traditional music genre was formed and built upon the skill of learning by ear. I can’t speak for all singers – but here are some of my own reflections from the perspective of a folk singer.
This was definitely in the name of winding me right up. If anything, I could do with feeling my emotions much less. I’m a bit of an overthinker, worrier and find myself taking on others’ burdens which can be rather time consuming and exhausting. If anything, this heightened awareness of my own and others’ feelings is one of the most useful tools I use when I sing. I choose material based on how well I can connect with a song, its story, the heart of it and my main aim is to convey those emotions to an audience and encourage them to really ‘feel’ the song. One of my favourite songs to perform from my current set is Andy M Stewart’s ‘Where Are You Tonight I Wonder?’- a song about heartbreak, loss and longing that I feel requires the singer to understand how that feels to give the best interpretation of it. You can then look at singer-songwriters and how emotional engagement and an astute awareness of happenings both around them and in the wider world often provides them with inspiration and ideas to draw upon for their writing.
2. Always ill
Okay, I’ll give them this one… Picking up colds and other nasty bugs at inconvenient times seems to be a hobby many of my fellow folk singers and I share, and it can become rather weakening. Vocalzones, vocal steamers, echinacea, cold and flu tabs, hand sanitizer and much more can be found lurking in many singer’s bags, I’m sure, and the stereotype of the professional singer wrapped up sipping on hot honey and lemon is very much alive and well, fuelled by our need to look after our bodies/our instrument. I don’t necessarily think singers are ill more often, however. It’s likely just more apparent as the majority of instrumentalists can still give a brilliant performance with a sore throat and sniffly nose. Unfortunately for us singers, it can quite often mean having to cancel performances and work.
3. Musically illiterate
Which skills must someone lack to be considered musically illiterate? Inability to read Western notated sheet music or transcribe music? This can’t be the case as you’d be required to disregard many cultures’ music traditions that don’t use the Western system. No sense of harmony? Extreme example – but before he became established, Elvis was apparently turned away from an amateur gospel choir after he was unable to harmonise in his audition, before going on to become one of the most famous vocalists of all time. Unable to play an instrument or identify chords? These are the skills I currently lack that frustrate me the most, but I don’t think lacking these skills makes you less musical.
Skill in song interpretation, intonation, vocal harmony, having a musical ear, recognising the sounds you like and dislike and selecting appropriate repertoire to suit your voice or message are all skills important when working as a singer, and if you’re unable to chart out songs for musicians, finding a way to effectively communicate your ideas with them is key – (knowing the key you sing things in is also a good starting point!…) Every song I’ve ever worked on for recording or performance, I’ve collaborated on, and each arrangement has been better, richer and more enjoyable to sing as a result of pulling together my own ideas with those who specialise in other areas. I was chatting to a melody instrument player recently who very correctly stated you can’t be a specialist of everything; just as they are a master of their instrument, I channel my energies into the technique and repertoire involved in folk singing. Although I could have a go at writing out basic charts and parts to pass on, I know that among the musicians I work with there are accompanists who have built their skills up over years of practice to become specialists, and their skills are going to benefit the end product greatly – because it’s their job.
The classical tuition method of teaching clarinet, piano, violin and recorder (paired with teenage laziness/a slightly gothic phase) didn’t inspire me to practice or find the enjoyment in playing and learning, but singing was always appealing and fun. I was in choirs from the age of 8 where I developed some skills such as kodaly method of reading music and always enjoyed it. I studied music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and, although without it I wouldn’t be where I am now, I didn’t pick up the theory skills I now wish I had a better grasp of. It wasn’t until my final year, when I received piano lessons with the fantastic James Ross, I began to understand that it perhaps hadn’t been the instruments I had shunned, but the method of teaching/learning just hadn’t suited me. I can’t speak for other singers, but not being a fully competent instrumentalist does make parts of the job a little harder sometimes and stops me from feeling I can fully immerse myself in certain projects. I think it would certainly help with songwriting, and that’s why in the last year I’ve been learning the tenor guitar by ear/playing around with it – and I love it. Other than singing, I’ve never felt the compulsion to repeatedly pick up an instrument and practice until now. It’s lovely to play really simple bits and bobs to back myself singing and because it complements my main interest, I notice I’m enjoying it and getting better as a result… very slowly.
In Glasgow, or the wider folk scene, I am surrounded by exceptionally talented, world class musicians and accompanists. I respect and admire the work, time and talent they’ve poured into their crafts and I will likely never match their level of musicianship or instrumental ability, but I hope by rejecting those feelings of inadequacy mentioned earlier I can continue to learn new skills at my own pace that will benefit my singing and working life as a singer.