How music producers can help singers elevate their performance
Exploring tension and release when singing music (and letting go of mindset blocks)
Picture this. You’re a singer in the recording studio tracking vocals for a song. You’re well prepared. You have the lyrics and notes off by heart and you’re following all the guidance you’re being given. Your voice is in good shape and you’re using all the tips and techniques taught by your vocal coach. But when you head back into the control room to listen… you are underwhelmed. It’s good, but it’s not what you thought, it somehow doesn’t ‘go there’.
This idea of ‘going there’ is what I want to explore in this article. Music producers can help singers by coaching them to ‘go there’. This is letting go and overcoming mindset blocks, which is possibly the most difficult step a performer must take in order to become the artist that they are.
This singer’s scenario is one I often encounter in my work as a music producer and director. In fact, it’s probably the most frequent thing I do: uncovering singers’ blocks and coaching them towards the performance they’re looking for.
However, I’m not a vocal coach, so the first thing to say is that the coaching I give is not about vocal technique… And here we run into the first mindset block for some singers: so let me explain where technique fits in and why it isn’t the answer to elevating a singers’ performance.
Vocal technique – why it matters and why it doesn’t
Don’t misunderstand me. Technique really matters! Technique is a measure of your ability to control your instrument – and it is an ongoing development that doesn’t end – your technique changes and develops through your entire career. The trouble is that you’re going to be performing music in between these phases of development.
You’ll always and only ever be able to use today’s technical ability.
When singers hit a ceiling in their performance, all too often they will look at the wrong problem and use the wrong fix. They worry about their pitching and tuning, how loud their ‘S’s are, about the breathing technique they’re using and all manner of other technical and physical detail.
While this is credible and commendable and demonstrates the importance of caring about vocal delivery, it is very one-sided because it is all about the singer and not about the song.
Technique does not make music. There’s a point where technical stops and creative begins.
Making music is not a 100% cerebral, mechanical activity lead purely by technique and logic. Have you ever thought why your voice is located between your heart and your head?…..
A word on reading music… Confusing musical literacy with musicality
One of the mindset blocks I come across, particularly in choirs, for example, is the confusion between what it means to be a reader or non-reader of musical notation. It somehow leaves the non-readers feeling inadequate and incompetent. But reading music is only half the job and can be an obstacle to elevating your performance.
The trouble with musical scores, is that they are just dots on a page, a ‘morse code’ for you to translate. They indicate musical ‘events’, e.g. a series of pitches in a row, which if thought of as code, can result in a very mechanical-sounding performance. Adding syllables from lyrics to that approach only accentuates the sound of a ‘cerebral’ performance.
As helpful as musical notation really is, it only provides half the story. A large way this manifests is that it does not account for nor explain the spaces in between the dots. The spaces in between the dots are where some of the most important and beautiful musical opportunities lie. This is all too often overlooked by readers who’ve never explored this idea and can be unconsciously stuck in a rut because of it. In other words, there’s a crucial difference between singing a sequence of pitches (the right notes at the right time) and singing a shaped musical line expressively. I’ve noticed over the years that singers who don’t read the dots are more instinctive and consequently more musically expressive.
We should note there are so many world-renowned composers, producers and vocalists out there who don’t read a dot of music, but are still considered the best in the business, and my hypothesis is that they understand this notion. They choose to trust their ear and emotional instinct, before having sound turned into formal notation. Think Paul McCartney, The Foo Fighters, Prince, Taylor Swift. Even the likes of film composers Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, who both read, don’t start their compositions on paper – that comes later. Some accomplished jazz musicians are not the best readers, although their understanding of music theory is often outstanding.
At the very least, you must remember that music came before notation and is classed as the very first form of human communication. When I discovered this fact it made me rethink the purpose of music, and see it from a new perspective, which has served me very well.
Nevertheless, I’m about to show you another concept to help you sound better at whatever stage you’re at technically, so let’s go there.
Music is asking you to be artistic – how do you respond?
Making music asks you to be artistic, it calls you to be creative, it invites you to be imaginative and prompts questions of you. It demands for you to exercise creative thinking and be open and sensitive to its message. Music asks for empathy and for an expression of emotion.
And yet, there are no spreadsheets, or formulas, algorithms or flowcharts to follow that will walk you through this. You have to make the choices and explore this yourself and with others. You have to put your neck on the line, take a risk, show your hand, and commit.
What can help you develop your artistry?
- Acknowledge and accept that this is something you have to do to reach deeper into music and attain new levels of expressive performance.
- Switch your focus towards artistic intention. Ask questions like, “What am I trying to say here?” and “What does that sound like?” Put aside your technical focus and move from your head to your heart.
- Almost all aspects of music are creating tension and release. The creation of tension and release in music is what moves us. It is completely integral to how we communicate expressively through music performance, and yet most often singers don’t look for it.
- So where do you find it? Well, ‘tension and release’ happens at all levels:
And they intertwine in varying combinations continuously. (This is a subject that merits a deeper dive on another day, but this should get you thinking.)
- Recognise these tensions and releases inside the music you’re working with. As a basic starting point, give the tensions more, whether that be through loudness, tone or other emphases.
- The act of doing this will reveal new interpretations of the music – a kaleidoscope of interpretations that can be add together to shape your performance in full consciousness of what you’re trying to achieve.
But this sounds very technical? I thought we were supposed to let that go!
It’s true that this sounds technical, and you do need to spend time examining your song with this new lens on. But let’s be clear, this is an artistic rather than a scientific exercise, because it is looking at how you interact with the music, as if it were a person. As you try singing the song with different emphases, it will feel like the music is engaging with you differently and you will start to find clarity in your intention. Try it and see what you come up with! There’s no right or wrong, but you’ll find things that work better than others.
Why playing with tension and release works for singers
Playing with the tensions in the music, giving them different treatment in your vocals, will uproot habits and grooves that we (in the Western world) are mostly familiar with, and which tend to trap us into bland, symmetrical performances that fall short of connecting.
So, the process of finding the tensions and releases will invite you to re-examine your song and the music will play with you in a new way. It will help release emotions and connections that are otherwise dampened or ignored by the presumed default of how a musical score is communicating its instructions to you. In fact, the process of exploration is likely to lead you to an unexpected outcome.
Exploring your artistic space – ‘going there’ – simple but not easy
Taking this step into experimenting and exploring artistic approaches is very challenging for some. The reasons for this may not be academic or skills based. The blocks can be more psychological because it means taking emotional risks and making effort in new directions.
I’m sure we’ve all been there: when you’ve let someone in and been betrayed. Each time it happens, we learn to reduce and avoid risk, suppress emotions and hide vulnerability. Most will relate that to matters of the heart. Some will even associate vulnerability with weakness. In this case we’re thinking about opening up creatively, stepping out, telling the truth, and perhaps not conforming. In such situations we risk, at best, feeling silly, and at worst, experiencing criticism, jibes, laughter, or even humiliation.
Therefore, the challenge is not generally in the understanding and application of the concept, it’s in accepting and agreeing to ‘go there’ and take these risks. So it’s important to preserve a safe space for singers to ‘go there’, acknowledging and respecting that this asking a singer to be vulnerable, and being very careful never to dismantle them with criticism.
The music producer as a bridge between artist and song
As a music producer and director, I thrive on helping people reach into their artistic space. I’ve learned how to open up a person safely through the music they’re performing. A vocalist is undergoing quite a personal experience and there must be a level of trust with their producer. It’s not prying or being a therapist: we are working together to reach the goal of performing this music in a way that reaches their expectation. But I do ask questions, get into discussion and discreetly draw upon the tension and release concept to help artists connect with the music and resolve any blocks they may be experiencing.
Therefore, I act like a translator between what I hear the music asking for and what the artist is trying to say. A music producer’s job is to curate the singer’s interpretation based on the purpose of the song.