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What makes a ‘good’ singer? – it’s all about context

  • [A version of this article first appeared as a post on my blog From the Front of the Choir]

     

    Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I believe that everyone can sing. If you want to know more, you can read “Everyone can sing” – what the hell does that mean??!!

     

    photo by Hollywata

     

    Given that everyone can sing, what might it mean when someone says one singer is ‘better’ than another? What makes a ‘good’ singer any way?

     

    what is a ‘good’ singer?

    What do people mean when they say that someone is a ‘good’ singer?

    Here are eight possibilities that I can think of:

    They might …

     

    1. have a pleasing voice
    2. sound like a proper pop star (or opera singer)
    3. be able to hit notes that other people can’t
    4. work as a professional singer
    5. pick up tunes easily and quickly
    6. have had professional training
    7. sing without any apparent effort
    8. hit all the right notes all the time


    But is that enough to make someone a ‘good’ singer? Let’s unpick those statements.

     

    1. a voice that pleases some people can really grate to others. The beauty of a voice is in the ear of the listener. Some people like Cliff Richard whilst others love Tom Waits. Some people love vibrato, whilst others prefer a straight tone.
    2. to sound like a proper pop star (or opera singer) is simply to sound the same as everyone else who the public likes at the moment. It’s flavour of the month. Next year people’s tastes will change and this year’s good singer will sound bad.
    3. hitting extremes of notes (very high or very low) is impressive, but says nothing about the quality of someone’s singing voice. Billy Holiday for instance had quite a small range yet sounded amazing. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.
    4. there are loads of session singers out there who are bland and uninteresting yet they manage to make a living from it. Just because someone gets paid to sing doesn’t mean they’re any good at it.
    5. many really great singers take months to get a song under their belt so they can truly sing it and express themselves through it. Some people can pick up tunes really fast. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean they can sing any better than someone who takes longer.
    6. the world is littered with singers who’ve been through music schools, academies and conservatoires yet haven’t quite got what it takes. It’s not that hard to get professional training, you just have to pay for it.
    7. I wrote last week about the concept of sprezzatura: the art of making something look easy and effortless. For some singers this comes naturally whilst for others they have to spend years perfecting their technique. Just because it looks easy doesn’t mean to say it’s ‘good’.
    8. everyone makes mistakes. Nobody hits all the right notes all the time. And even if they did, there might be no expression or emotion present and it sounds like a robot. Beautiful music is made by flawed human beings with all their mistakes and vulnerabilities.

     

    you only need to be ‘good enough’ for the context

    We can see then that being a ‘good’ singer is not as straightforward as it seems. There won’t necessarily be any universal agreement on one particular singer’s voice.

    In fact, the idea of a singer being ‘good’ makes no sense at all unless you know the context.

    Everyone can sing. That means that (given time and some practice) everyone can pretty much hold a tune. But that’s not usually enough to call someone a ‘good’ singer.

    What might be a better concept is that of the ‘good enough’ singer.

    A singer can be ‘good enough’ to:

     

    • be in the local auditioned choral society.
    • perform in public and charge for tickets.
    • be signed to a record label and make records.
    • be paid to work regularly as a session singer.
    • get into a major music conservatoire to study voice.
    • get through to the live finals of X Factor.
    • sing with their friends in a small harmony group.


    Whoever you are, there will always be someone ‘better’ than you in any given context.

    Fortunately singing doesn’t need to be competitive (unless you’re being auditioned or trying to get to number one) so this isn’t really an issue. It can however spur you on to better things.

    Remember, whoever you are, you are always ‘good enough’ to sing wherever, whenever and however you want, and always ‘good enough’ to join your local open-access choir.

     

     

     

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    Chris Rowbury

     

    website: chrisrowbury.com
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