A version of this article originally appeared on Cari Cole's Standing in the Spotlight blog.
It’s Grammy time again. I already sent off the Grammy ballots for the nominations for the 2019 Grammy Awards and it was a tough choice. There was sooo much amazing music this year, and I’m very interested to see how it turns out!
One thing is true: Grammy-winning singers and artists are badass. They have badass vocal chops, vocal techniques and killer vocal arrangements. It’s important to know that in the entertainment industry, nothing is “natural.” Voices are worked on, worked over, and worked through, in every which way possible, to make them stronger, better, and shine greater.
Matter of fact, all big stars have a vocal coach at some point, if not on speed dial.
Here’s a glimpse behind the velvet curtain of the top 15 best-kept secrets of Grammy-winning singers from a behind-the-scenes view.
1. Kickass vocal technique
Vocal technique is one of the best-kept secret weapons in the industry. No one talks about it or wants to admit it — but it’s the discerning difference between the good and the great voices out there. And the great singers practice it to be on their A game. All the time.
Lady Gaga blew us away at her Oscar performance a few years back— and are you ready for this? She not only worked with a coach, she worked with a coach every day for six months! Why, you ask? Because she wanted to blow people away with her voice. And it worked. Brilliant.
Legend Whitney Houston, known for her incredible vocal chops, was going back to training just before she passed away. She knew, as did Clive, how important her practice was to her voice. And she was one of the greatest singers of all time.
When it’s your voice and career on the line, who wouldn’t want every possible trick and technique in the book?
- Pro singers vocalize five days a week.
- Aspiring singers vocalize two days a week.
- Hobbyists vocalize whenever they feel like it. ;)
Quick Tip: Study vocal technique five times a week for a period of two-to-three (or more) years. I studied and trained for eight years. I vocalized five times a week for five years. That’s what it takes for a contemporary singer to build a killer voice and a technique that will run on auto pilot (which is what you need). And hey, don’t mess around with cheap techniques. They’ll cost you time, money and your vocal health in the long run.
2. Establish your signature style
Singers that catch our attention have their own style and sound. They sing with their voice, not someone else’s. They don’t mimic. As tempting as it might be to do, do not copy another singers sound. Find your own.
Quick Tip: How do you find your own sound? Here’s three things to try:
- Sing and perform a LOT. Every chance you get. It takes a lot of singing to get good.
- Go more in the direction of what your voice wants to do. Don’t fight it, be yourself. Great singers build on what they have, not what they don’t have.
- Record a lot. Work with a vocal arranger or coach who can help you build your sound.
3. Work on badass breath control
Yep. This is a big one. I get this question all the time. How do I hit high notes with more power? How do I belt? How do I hold a note better. It’s all breath. Breath brings fullness, range, big notes, high notes and power to the voice.
Air and breath are the fuel for your voice. It makes sound by creating movement at the vocal folds so they can vibrate. Most singers don’t breathe enough and often their breathing muscles are tight and constricted. Use your breath to better fuel your voice and to open your rib-cage allowing the diaphragm to drop.
Quick Tip: Place your hands on your ribcage with your fingers wrapping around the front and your thumbs around back. Squeeze your ribs with medium pressure. Slowly breathe into your ribs inching them outwards along with your stomach and back expanding gently. Imagine the diaphragm dropping down into the space you create.
4. Have killer clarity and tone
People always ask me, what’s the most important “tell” of a singer’s voice. What’s the one thing, that makes great singers so intoxicating. I would say “tone.” It’s the first thing to please or to offend the listener. A nasal or throaty tone vs. an open or full timbre or interesting texture make a difference in how the voice lands in our ears.
Quick Tip: How does one develop better tone? Technique is the true path. A quick fix is to sing without pushing air past your vocal cords. And the quickest path is to use Hearfones in technique or rehearsal at home. They will help you build tone faster than anything else. Find them on Amazon.
5. Develop original riffs and runs
I remember in the 80’s when I was an aspiring singer in New York. I remember hearing about Mariah Carey (who sang backup for Teena Marie at the time.) She would practice riffs all the time. Sitting on the bus, waitin’ for a train, walking around Manhattan, she would practice her runs.
Riffs, runs, and melismas are one of the distinct features that brings an original sound to a great voice. Everyone uses them differently. Some use a lot of them, and some singers use few. It’s all about taste and style. As a vocal arranger, I style the person’s voice depending on their genre and aesthetic. It makes all the difference in the delivery.
Quick Tip: Start by practicing runs of singers you love to learn the pentatonic scales and the kinds of runs they do. Work them into your voice like a vocal exercise. Riffs take practice to perfect speed and accuracy. Then once you’ve got them under your belt, bring your own twist to your runs to make them more original 😉.
6. Build a solid belt voice
All great singers master their belt voice. Commonly referred to as “chest” voice, it’s the ability to to sing with power. On a technical level this means having laryngeal compression or resistance.
When you sing with more power or force, generally you are sending more air which pushes up against the laryngeal muscles (your voice box) and pushes it upward. This leaves the voice vulnerable to cracking, shaking and it won’t be able to handle the force of the air.
Quick Tip: Think down for higher notes. Work to keep your voice in chest voice to improve laryngeal resistance and build your chest voice. Don’t force it, but build slowly and healthfully.
7. Sing with amazing phrasing
One of the biggest “tells” of a great singer is their phrasing. Phrasing is the rhythm of the vocal line – how it sits in the music. Phrasing in pop music comes from rhythm and blues, so if you want better phrasing, study blues singers to sit in the music more effectively.
Improving your rhythm skills by taking up drums or tapping the beat of the music while you sing to get that internal metronome inside you, are ways to beef up your skills. Many famous singers are drummers.
A little-known fact of the album 25 is that Adele played drums on “Hello” alongside producer Greg Kurstin. Marvin Gaye, Don Henley and Peter Gabriel are also drummers, besides being vocalists. My past Grammy-winning student Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, was chosen as the lead singer for Steely Dan, not because of his vocal quality, as much as his ability to phrase. He had great vocal phrasing. It makes great singers.
Quick Tip: Sing “the blues” to take your phrasing up several notches. Learn to sit in to the music, don’t rush your phrases or you’ll sound too “eager.” Also, try singing your own songs with a more “blues” approach by adding scoops and simple riffs where appropriate.
8. Cultivate emotion-centric sound
Great voices keep two balls in the air at all times. Technique and emotion. Easier said than done to do this effortlessly. Because, when the emphasis is on emotion, technique seems to go out the window (pitch and precision suffer.) And when a singer is overly focused on technique, the voice is void of emotion. Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) sang sharp for years. Mary J Blige and Annie Lennox sang flat during performance. They have since corrected it as they performed more and became better as singers.
The trick is to have technique so dialed on automatic that you can sing without thinking about it. Technique is then in the background where it can be used but not overused. And then, emotion is in the foreground which allows the singer to focus on expression. Emotion is what people respond to the most, but if your technique is not solid when you do this, you’ll fall flat. Literally.
Quick Tip: Practice technique 45 minutes a day, five days a week. At performances, keep technique in the background and emotion in the foreground.
9. Sing with big open vowels
You can’t get much out of your voice if you ignore your vowels. Vowels are the “pop and ping” of the voice. It’s what shows your voice. Great singers have big open vowels. They emphasize the vowels, linger on them when they can, hold them out big and bold. It makes the voice shine bigger and stand out.
Quick Tip: Sing on the vowels. Try making your vowels pop out more. Hold them out whenever you can. Let them shine big and bold. When holding out a vowel: hold your mouth in a stable position. This will help to keep the note steady and secure and help you avoid wobbling.
10. Create effective vocal arrangements
One of the benefits of being a Grammy-winning singer is that by the time you get there you’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of help. You’ve learned by trial and error (and a lot of recording techniques) how to build an effective vocal arrangement.
Quick Tip: Dynamics are the first thing to approach. There is a “dynamic arc” to your song and to each section. You want to build the vocal line using dynamics (softer to louder) as well as build the notes upward as you move through the song gaining a note higher in each section.
You also want to add held notes or riffs where appropriate and where the emotion of the lyric calls for it. Pay attention to the dynamics of the music so the vocal builds as the music builds.
11. Work with a vocal arranger
Great singers have a secret weapon and it’s not autotune. Matter of fact, you won’t need autotune when you have this. Introducing…the vocal arranger.
A vocal arranger is the person who decides how the singer will sing/interpret the song. It might be a line that the arranger thinks sounds better if the singer uses a straight tone or a little vibrato here or there. Maybe the note should be sung an octave higher or lower, or perhaps a nice touch would be to add a breathy tone to the words. Maybe this part of the vocal line needs more dynamic or rhythmic phrasing.
Here, the vocal arranger may say “Hey, let’s add a riff right there, or an ooohh aahhh.” A great vocal arranger will bring out even more emotion than you thought you had in you. Your voice will come across more powerfully and with more of a signature than you ever have heard yourself sing with before.
Quick Tip: work with a vocal coach who has arranging techniques. Record some demos first, or have them work on your tracks before you go into the studio to work out the kinks and help you find your own sound. If you don’t have that opportunity, then record your voice a lot. Go over the parts where you don’t sound good and experiment until you smooth out all the rough edges.
12. Find an experienced music mentor
Every singer who climbs into the limelight has a dedicated lifelong mentor or two to help them get there. Starting with their vocal coach, or producers they met along the way or industry peeps that “get them…”
A mentor is an experienced, knowledgeable and important person to have throughout your career. These are the people who will tell you the truth, when everyone else won’t. They will care about you throughout the ups and downs, and offer solid advice and guidance from their vast experience in the biz.
For a great read about how a music mentor can help you, check out Clive Davis’s book, The Soundtrack of My Life. Great stories and tips about how he helped many big stars carve their way.
Quick Tip: Who is in your contacts that you can reach out to? Who has helped you in the past? Who made an impression on you as someone you’d like help from? Make an appointment to discuss your career.
13. Build confidence
Nothing is more important than confidence. If you don’t believe in you, then no one else will. But it’s tricky, because even super talented artists doubt themselves at times. It’s not about bravado or pumped up confidence. It’s about an inner knowing that no matter where you are in your career, that you are doing your very best. And that even if you don’t feel confident, you believe in your ability to get there. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
Quick Tip: If you struggle with confidence, don’t worry – it’s pretty normal. It may be because you struggle with self esteem (most artists do.) Or maybe because you have a really good ear and what you hear is not what you’re after – yet. The first step to improving confidence is to train ~ hard. That way you know you are working as hard as you possibly can on bettering yourself. It can be the fuel that gets you there.
14. Go on blind faith, even when in doubt
To be an artist, a singer, an entertainer is wracked with doubt. You have the odds against you. You don’t know if you’re ever going to really get there. It requires a sort of “blind faith” and willingness to suck until you don’t. A willingness to be rejected until you’re not. An ability to stand up to yourself and others with a belief that you will get there one day, even if you doubt yourself. You do this, not because you are so strong. You do it because there is no other choice. Because you must.
Quick Tip: Don’t use doubt as confirmation that you won’t be successful. It’s a normal part of your evolution. Practice having faith even when your mind is unsure. Do that by being more in the moment, not in the future ;).
15. Don't have a fall-back career
Eddie Murphy once said in an interview, when asked why he was successful, that he it was because he gave himself no other option. Many successful artists, musicians and actors say the exact same thing. There is something about that kind of unreasonable-ness that makes you do what others won’t.
Everyone on that Grammy stage had to take the leap at a certain point. That said, it’s not about being foolish, or leaving your day job when you have no other income. It’s about making a plan, getting help and then sticking to it with the certainty that it is going to happen.
Quick Tip: What are the ways you can make a living making music right now? Join a cover band? Play at a piano bar? Go out on tour? Play colleges (they pay ;))… Make a plan.
Cari Cole is a celebrity vocal coach, artist development expert, and new music business mentor. She helps artists and musicians find their voice, build their brand, and create successful careers in music. Grab a free copy of her Vocal Road Warrior three-part series: how to keep your voice healthy while you're out conquering your tour!