By Lis Lewis
A singer is an artist. Whether you sing your own material or interpret other people’s, you’re bringing insight about life and your worldly perspective to your songs. You probably grew up singing to records, memorizing your favorite songs and the way your favorite singers sang them. But at some point you had to put away their versions and sing your own. What is your own version? How do you discover what makes you special? How do you make your voice a distinctive one?
Some people sound so much like the singers they admire, that they bring very little of their own interpretation to their singing. When you hear a truly distinctive voice, like Gwen Stefani, Macy Gray or Alanis Morissette, you know you are going to hear something personal and specific, not generic. Their voices are unique and interesting, full of personality. The moment you hear them, you recognize them. But no matter how much you appreciate them, you shouldn’t sound like them.
Don’t be afraid to copy other artists. The great painter, Vincent Van Gogh, greatly admired Japanese art, so he copied Japanese calendars to learn the technique. But when he painted his own paintings they looked nothing like the calendars he copied. All those years of listening to and emulating singers have been your research; you’ve learned from what has come before you. Now you can combine all that information along with your own sound into a new creation – you.
It’s frightening to fly out of the safety of what’s already been successful and into the wide open space where no one has gone before. What if you try and you fail? What if you make mistakes? What if you have no ideas? Yes, these things are all possible, even probable. You will make mistakes; in fact you must make mistakes. Since you are making your own path, there are no right or wrong answers. You are the creator of your own way. Some of the things you create you will love; some will be discarded. If you don’t take the risk of making mistakes, you won’t be able to have the success. Make up a new melody over an old one. Throw your arms in the air when you feel like it, even if you knock the microphone off it’s stand. Wear purple and green together. Try an arrangement that’s just your voice and the bass. Experiment in every way you can. Throw caution to the winds.
On A More Practical Note
This doesn’t mean throwing yourself off the edge of a cliff. Experimenting is like improvising a jazz vocal. You understand the structure you’re singing over and elaborate on it. You aren’t singing a melody in the middle of nowhere. You’re singing over the same chords as the original melody. When you decide to jump onto the top of the speakers, you should know if they are going to hold your weight.
It also means being open to spontaneity, responding to your surroundings. If you hear the little riff the guitarist just played, you can sing it back to him with a variation. Something in the drum part might trigger an idea for a double time feel. One of my favorite parts of being in a band is rehearsing. That’s when you can try anything, experiment, be loose. The collaboration process makes creativity so much easier. One of you has an idea that another might build on. If one of you is blocked another might have something to unblock you.
The ability to be spontaneous is one that needs to be practiced. We don’t get enough opportunity in our daily lives to respond impulsively to situations because we are taught to be careful and polite. We are socialized and that’s good for society. But in your artistic life, you must practice creativity. Allow yourself to have impulses and follow them even if they don’t work. For instance, when you have the idea to grab the mic off of the stand, just do it without worrying if you’ll knock it over. If you feel like spinning in circles or sitting down, do it! Try it. Allow your feelings to show. Don’t judge your actions before you try them.
Here’s an exercise. Go to the art supply store and buy some colors and a big pad of blank paper. There are many different kinds available: oil paints in crayon form, colored ink in squeeze brushes, watercolors and more. Choose colors that are easy to work with and that appeal to you. Set aside twenty minutes in which to paint and don’t answer the phone or allow interruptions. Spread the colors out in front of you and paint five fast abstract pictures. No literal images. Just paint on paper. Pick up a color you like and make a shape or a splash or a line on the page. Don’t labor over this. It should fun and fast. Allow your impulses to lead you to action. The end result is unimportant; it’s the process of being spontaneous that counts.
When you sing, you have very high expectations. You want to sound good, you don’t want to miss a note or forget a word. But that can be inhibiting. You might be paying too much attention to the technical skills and not enough to the emotive ones. When you do the painting exercise, you have no expectations (unless you’re a painter, in which case this exercise won’t work.) You are free to be playful. Try things. Put one color over another. Put water on the page. Crinkle the paper. Experiment.
Grab every opportunity you get to practice your creativity. Take a dance class. Join an improv group. Learn to juggle. Expand the possibilities.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. Lis is the author of the books The Singers First Aid Kit and The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit both published by Hal Leonard. In addition to private coaching, she has worked in collaboration with managers, record labels, producers, bands and songwriters in the recording and rehearsal studio to get the best performances from their artists.