Have you ever heard that singers are often the worst musicians? I’d hate to say that generalization is true, but I have experienced what it’s like to realize my musicianship needed to level up.
When I was a junior in college, I gave a concert in my hometown as part of an ongoing Christmas concert series at a beautiful and esteemed venue downtown. It was a one night event put on by me; I chose the program, and asked a few friends to duet with me on two numbers.
I was rushed in my preparation- final exams and performances at school kept me occupied until what was probably just a week or two before this concert I was going to give. But at the time, I thought, “No big deal! I’m a music major, I can pull this off. Most of the songs I’m singing I know already.” That was in fact the case, or so I thought. You know when you’ve heard a song so many times, you just assume you ‘know’ it?
I asked a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a tremendous singer and voice teacher himself, to duet with me on “The Prayer,” an epic ballad with a passage in Italian I was pretty sure I could just breeze through.
He’d sung it many times and in our one rehearsal before the actual performance, he coached me on the pronunciation and rhythm of the section. On top of that, the melody was tricky and I was unsure of what was correct versus what I thought I had heard Celine sing on the recording. I started to feel a little nervous at this point.
“But! I’m a musical theatre major! And I’ve been studying singing all my life! I’ll wow them with charisma and personality, there’s no doubt I can just wing it,” I continued to tell myself.
The concert came. There were a few great moments, there were many decent moments, and then “The Prayer” came and it all went to hell.
I’m sure my mother has video footage of this that I could share here, but I won’t because honestly it would be so embarrassing.
The point is, there is no substitute for preparation. There is no substitute for time spent rehearsing something so many times, there’s no other option but to do it right. You may be a great singer, but a great voice won’t disguise wrong notes, off-kilter rhythm, and Italian pronunciation that totally sucks.
The fact is, I’m still working on becoming an excellent musician. As I’ve studied, listened, and learned more, I realize my very favorite singers are equally talented musicians- dedicated to their songwriting, or arrangements, or musical storytelling.
The very best aren’t lazy in their preparation, nor do they rely on their natural talent or pretty voice to get them through a song. They know they are one piece of a larger musical ensemble- whether they have an orchestra of 50 or a single piano accompanying them.
I’ve learned through personal failures and triumphs of preparation that the only vocalist worth being is one who is a musician as well.