April 11th, 2010 | by Joey Elkins

The Singer Who Dares to Listen


Greater vocal confidence can come through your ears as well as your throat—Joey Elkins explains how.

Imagine confidently finding your starting note every time, no matter how complex the instrumental background.

Sound good? It gets better:

Your band goes off into an unscripted chord progression and you’re suddenly able to pick out notes to sing that make this unexpected interlude seem eloquently planned.

Maybe this is the best one:

You come to a practice session and you’re able to pinpoint some instrumental arrangements that aren’t optimal for supporting the vocal element; your band is convinced by your conclusions—and impressed by your musicality!

Are these fantasies that are simply too good to be true?

The Power of Your Ears

Your ears alone can lead you to the kind of musical awareness that translates into greater performing confidence.

You don’t need to know musical theory to do what I’m about to recommend; all you need is the desire to listen with different perspectives.

The very fact that you are reading an article about singing shows that you’re open to different perspectives; all that needs to happen is for you to translate this from the written page to the sound waves produced by instrumentalists.

If you’re willing to pull out a familiar song and listen to it three times, you’ll be on the path to greater vocal confidence.

The First Listen – Bass

Take a favorite piece of music that you’ve listened to a thousand times before, only this time say to yourself: “Ok, this time I’m going to listen to it but concentrate solely on what the bass is doing”.

I predict that you will immediately notice things you were not aware of before.
Just like a painting that catches your eye, it’s not until you take some to focus that you notice that it’s the green next to the red which really allows that red to jump out at you.

Learn to sing the bass line. Even if you don’t understand the theory of what’s going on, this is a great way to understand what the bass player is up to and what role they play.

You just have to watch this Bobby McFerrin vid— it’s a great example of what’s possible when a vocalist starts to practice singing bass lines (as well as other instrumental parts).

By doing this, you’re also making your ears aware of where the chord is grounded, which is so helpful if you ever get lost!

You can then move onto more analytical questions like: “How is the bass line adding to or taking away from the groove?”

The Second Listen — Percussion

Listen again to the very same piece of music but this time concentrate on the drums and percussion.

Ask yourself: “what is the percussionist doing to create these dynamics?”

There are a few more key questions to consider as you listen: “how are the drums locking into the bass? What’s going on in their musical relationship? What colors are being created?”

The Third Listen – Chords

Again, listening from start to finish, concentrate on one chord-based instrument (piano, guitar, synthesizer etc.).

Having a sense already of how the bass and percussion support (or don’t support) the overall texture of the piece, you can now ask yourself about the role of the chord-based instrument.

The key question here is: “how is this instrument supporting this piece?” It may be holding chords to act as a “launch-pad” for the vocals or it may primarily be adding to the rhythmic emphasis of the piece.

Here are a few more questions you can consider as you listen: “is this instrument “busy” or “sparse”? What role does the arrangement of the pianist/guitarist have in relation to the melody? How is what they’re playing feeding the vocalist harmonically?”

You don’t need to have answers to all of these questions; just let your ears lead the way to the answers that arise.

New Vocal Possibilities

Being more “on it” with your ears will lead you to experiment in new directions.

What used to simply be “your band accompanying you” can turn into a million musical suggestions:

“Oh! The drummer’s creating a different groove there…what happens if I sing this rhythm over what he’s doing?” Perhaps, in turn, your drummer will lock into your rhythm. It opens up the world of interaction.

But there’s more: being aurally aware can mean you know what to ask for musically in order to be fed what you need from your accompaniment.

For instance, I’ll mentally focus on my guitarist or pianist and find my note in what they’re playing in the lead-up to me coming in; sometimes, I’ll ask them to place a certain note at the top of their chord voicing.

Even if you’re not aware of what’s going on with the musical theory side of things, your ears will take it all in and you’ll find you’re much more informed; new ideas will inevitably follow!

And the key to all of this new synergy wasn’t your voice; it was that you dared to listen.

London based vocalist, Joey Elkins, is gaining attention as a jazz, funk, soul and contemporary singer. As a child in Adelaide, Australia, she delighted her jazz musician parents and friends with her high register, a range close to six octaves and a commanding style. Joey’s first jazz recording attracted the interest of some of Australia’s finest jazz musicians and before leaving for London, Joey was already a respected and regular performer in some of Australia’s top jazz venues. Being a natural improviser and composer enables Joey to own a variety of styles. Joey is currently recording and composing original music which will be released as a CD within the coming year. Joey’s Music and Website

Useful Sites

There Again –composed by Bob Long (Music and Melody) Joey Elkins (lyrics)

Another Incredible Vocal Instrumental by Bobby McFerrin

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  • G_Alexander

    Wow – this article puts into words something I've felt to be true for some time AND you've given me a way ahead…thanks Joey…

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  • http://www.toadware.net Jeff Sampson

    This is excellent, excellent advice. I only noticed it with hindsight, but one of the defining steps of beginning to sound like myself came when I started really listening to other instruments.

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  • Karl Byrd

    Amazing control and intonation. WOW !

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  • karlbyrd

    Amazing control and intonation. WOW !

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  • http://www.myspace.com/voxiferfation Brian K. Stevenson

    Joey,

    I'm absolutely moved by this piece!!! You've reminded me of the thing I loved most, when first experiencing music at an early age…before I could sing or write songs. I wasn't allowed to listen to pop or rock music as my parents were quite staunch but beautiful people none-the-less.

    Anyway, my grandfather gave me this old , 8-band, monophonic radio when I was 14. The first night that I had it, I stuffed it under my pillow and fell asleep to the varied sounds of rock-n-roll. The first pop tune I ever heard was Gary Wright's “Dream Weaver,” which is probably why I'm into synth pop to this day! After that…it was over…I was addicted to sounds and anyway I could get my ears on them.

    I joined the Navy a few years later & spent most of my income buying random tapes of as many styles of music as I could manage. Traveling the world on a ship helped to broaden my taste for the music of many cultures. Those 4 years were a grand experience…but music took over, in full regalia, after that.

    The first type of music I seemed to glean from the stack ended up being progressive music like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd..etc. I use to listen over and over to each section of the band…they all became heroes to me…from the bass on up. Watching Bobby's video made my eyes well up…something I need to get back in touch with…he brings out immediate emotion. Thank you for the lesson…I can't wait to bring these concepts back into focus for my voice and music!

    Namaste,

    Brian

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  • JoeyElkins

    Heya Brian!

    I'm so glad this really “hit a spot” for you… It was really interesting getting a feel for your story as this is very similar in many ways to how I was captured by this magical thing called “music”!

    Wishing you all of that same innocent joy you listened with in the very beginning – trust your ears, they'll lead you the right way :).

    Best wishes,

    Joey

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  • JoeyElkins

    Jeff, So glad you enjoyed the read… amazing things the 'ole ears eh?!

    Here's to being the best we can possibly be, and using every tool that's available to get there … most of all, our ears!

    Best wishes,

    Joey

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  • JoeyElkins

    G-Alexander,

    I'm so glad this rang with some truth for you and you were able to take something from it :).

    Best wishes,

    Joey

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  • Bob Long

    Fascinating and insightful. These are things that are not generally taught in conservatories, even in some that have jazz degree programs. The intuitive nature of a singer's performance could be greatly enhanced by taking Joey's discussion here to heart.

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