by Ann Johns Ruckert
Being a studio singer is a wondrous thing but it seems to be as hard a field to get into as being an artist with a label deal. So decide which you want to do and begin your preparation.
Learning Your Craft Skills
Number one is the voice. Aside from the standard vocalese training and bel canto, developing muscle memory is essential. Muscle memory is the ability of your voice, on command, to produce the sound in tune and on time that it sees and/or hears (as in sightsinging). More precisely, muscle memory is your voice doing what you tell it to do – without fail. Much the same as a piano player uses the Hanon Book of Exercises, the singer should be developing the voice with studies of intervals. Sightsinging is also essential. Sightsinging means that when you pick up a written piece of music, you can sing it the first time through – perfectly, even though you haven’t ever heard it. A very good singing teacher is a wonderful asset as a mentor and teacher. He/she will also help you with health tips that singers need.
Another skill that is important is being able to play the piano. I have been on numerous sessions where someone says, “Ann, take the singers to the piano and ‘woodshed’ while we set up.”..No one has ever asked me if I play piano. It is assumed that if you are working at this level, and you are not someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend, your skills must be as sharp as a tack.
Now that all of your craft skills are perfect, how do you let the vocal contractors know that you are ready?
You can make a demo reel. A demo reel is a demonstration of your singing abilities which shows you can sing in different styles: effectively in a group, that you can blend, that you phrase properly for different genres of music (jazz to opera to country), etc. In one week, here in New York City a few years ago, I sang on an Aretha Franklin session, a guide tape for Sarah Vaughn, and I sang in “The Soldiers Chorus” for the New York City Opera recording of Faust. So you see that being flexible is very important.
Joining the unions, AFTRA/SAG and Local 47, is required. Attending the meetings is a good way to meet other singers doing studio work. I only do union work, so I cannot hire nonunion singers. Other singers are not the enemy. We recommend each other for work and most singers are our friends. When I write a vocal chart, and if I hire Emily Bindiger, it does not mean that I do not adore the way Carmen Twilly sings. It is not about the person. It’s the music that matters. A cardinal rule is: Never Confront Someone, or ask, “Why didn’t you hire me for that gig?” This makes people uncomfortable. Someone once asked me this question, but I had been instructed by the orchestrater to not hire that singer. I would have lost the job as contractor in the future if I told that singer in question the reason. This is a very sensitive issue.
I have a rule that works for me. When I get called to work, I go and when I don’t get called, I don’t go….and I don’t think about it, that’s counterproductive. My personal philosophy is, “If you don’t love me, you are wrong. (I know that I am lovable and would never hurt anyone. Not on purpose ) and I refuse to be offended,” That also is a pure waste of time. No one ever means to be mean, so let it go. Attitude is important in working in studios.
After you have your head on straight and you have all your skills sharp and you have joined the unions and gone to the meetings, now what?
Start sending tapes out and make a list of the busy session singers in your town. It could be as simple as turning your compact discs over, or reading the liner notes, and seeing who the vocal contractor was. You will see that the same names come up again and again. There is a radio registry/artists service in New York City and in Los Angeles there is a directory called L.A. Singers United. [See listing at end of article-ed.] By the way, if you can’t find a singers service, start one yourself. If there is no written singer’s directory you can find, start that one too. (That’s a good excuse to call every singer known to mankind in LA and find out who is doing studio work, what their vocal range is, and what level their skills are at. You can just ask them. If you want to meet singers, that’s a good way to do it.)
Start a vocal group, just to keep your chops up, get some Morgan Ames charts, “woodshed”, and hire out for parties, etc. All great writers like Morgan Ames, Take 6 and Manhattan Transfer publish their charts.
Call Songwriters Guild of America. They run many workshops filled with songwriters, all whom are looking for singers for their demos (one hundred dollars a song or an hour whichever is higher). Doing a couple of these a week, is better than a kick in the head. And, its the beginning of what is called studio work. As you improve, better songwriters call you and recommend you.
Do not forget church gigs. Many big churches have paid choirs. It is a chance to keep your reading chops up. I could do three to four services a day as a swing girl.
Singing in commercials: Look in a Billboard reference book (Billboard, one of many music publications, publishes many reference books for performers, musicians and agencies. Contact Billboard, or www.Billboard.com, for a full list of their publications and prices) Send your short, snappy, properly packaged tape or CD to each. A properly packaged tape or CD is one that is packaged with bright colors, your name in a very large font on inserts in all packages. Your name, address and phone number should be on every part of the tape or CD. A demo tape should be no longer than five minutes… and remember, a jingle lasts no longer than sixty seconds. Follow up with a call, “Did you receive it.” Never say, “Did you listen?” Be nice to the person who answers the phone. Good manners will move your tape to the top of the list faster.
Film Work: Get to know the folks who compose or orchestrate for films. I have made many of those contacts in college or through NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences – the Grammy people; NARAS is the professional organization for people who make records) and while attending ASCAP, BMI and SESAC seminars. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are performance rights organizations which represent publishers as well as songwriters – all of whom are looking for singers on an everyday basis.
Off stage singing for shows or T.V. shows: Rely on your knowing the music director. I met most music directors through friends and my teachers. Keep expanding your circle of business acquaintances and friends. People like to be recognized. Failing to do so can jeopardize potential jobs and offend people. One tool I use is self-made flash cards with peoples faces on one side, and their professional data on the other side. I’m not above taking a meeting with Clive Davis and wearing a Harvard blazer. (First of all, I know who Clive Davis is, and second, I know he went to Harvard. You need to do your homework.)
Although I do have a business manager, Managers & Agents are not relevant in session work. No manager or agent can take a percentile of scale because it violates union law.
Attorney: I have a fabulous attorney, but he is important only when a contract is needed. Studio work is a verbal agreement based on union scale.
Essential Career Tools: Answering service or machine, pager and cell phone; appointment book or palm pilot; fax machine; some sound equipment: CD burner, CD player, cassette player system; audition tapes and demos tapes.
Work Habits: Always be on time. There are no excuses. If you are late and the session goes over time you are legally responsible for the over time expenses.
Attitude: Be pleasant and agreeable. Until you have been on the scene for a while, be quiet and observe.
First I do a vocal warm-up and a stretch. Then I play and sing scales;, major, minor, modes repeating minor seconds, then Nadia Boulanger sequential exercises. I finish with some sightsinging. I sing the numbers on car license plates while I drive, and recite triads while waiting on line at the bank, etc. Focus and discipline are good habits to develop for any career in or out of music.
If someone asks you if you can sightsing never say, “No but I have great ears.” It sounds like an amateur. All the pro’s just roll their eyes. What if you said I do not read or write English, I do it all by ear. You would not have a great job in the civilian world and it is this way also in music.The more skills you have the more you work.
In conclusion, I would like to say, I have never been unemployed as a studio musician much to the amazement of a lot of my friends who are technically better singers, more beautiful, and certainly younger. My working is not dependent on my university degrees, but on my kindergarten report card that said, “Works Well With Others.”
Ann Johns Ruckert is an award winning studio musician and singer, with over 3,000 commercially released jingles and recordings.
BMI (310) 659-9109
ASCAP (323) 883-1000
SESAC (310) 393-9671
Songwriter’s Guild (323) 462-1108
NARAS, L.A. Chapter (310) 392-3777
SAG (323) 954-1600
AFTRA (323) 634-8100
L.A. Singers United listing of singers (818) 712-9369
Seminars on how to make a demo tape for jingle, demo, studio work sightreading, ear training studio singing terminology (818) 760-4954
Ready to take your singing to the next level? Take private voice lessons in Los Angeles or online with Lis Lewis!
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.