Oobie-Doobie, Baby!

Roy Orbison

Why I wear black on stage

Singing is an odd art form in that training and education don’t always guarantee proficiency. While a person may never become a Rembrandt or Baryshnikov, anyone can be taught to paint or perform ballet if they are willing to invest the time and effort necessary – not so with singing: some people can receive all the instruction the world and still sound like a two cats in heat; while a blessed few never set foot in a classroom and still sing like angels. If a talent for singing is there, training can almost always yield positive results, but if no propensity can be found Caruso himself couldn’t help.

Training and education aren’t a prerequisite for success: there are plenty of successful singers with little to no training and atrocious technique making money hand over fist. Taylor Swift is a perfect example: no breath control, lousy phrasing – huge success. Bono is another: U2’s first decade of work is filled with recordings of Bono basically screaming out the high notes – biggest band in the world. Now, to give credit where credit is due, Ms. Swift is an amazing lyricist, and her voice is perfectly suited for her own material; and Bono is not only blessed with Gabriel’s horn for a voice, he performs with a passion mere mortals cannot match; but speaking strictly from a technical standpoint, Swift and Bono are just not the best vocal technicians.

Neil Diamond

My wife would dump me if he beckoned

On the flip side, though, the best technicians are not guaranteed fame and fortune: for every Barbara Streisand and Robert Goulet there are hundreds of almost-rans and wannabees littering the music industry countryside. Some wonderful singers never make it past a certain point in their career despite having all the right tools at their disposal. Success doesn’t always go to the most talented or highly trained – sometimes it goes to whoever wanted it the most, whoever worked for it the hardest… or to the luckiest piece of doggie-doo in the room. “Better lucky than good.” You bet your sweet ass.

I’m lucky – I was born able to sing. From the time I realized that was me looking back in a mirror, I knew I could sing. Like an idiot, I kept that knowledge to myself for years, so I missed out on a lot of opportunities; but like a genius, as soon as I made the determination to stop hiding my light under a bushel, I got myself a voice coach, Kathleen Turbeek. Lovely lady, soprano, sang with the Dallas Opera in her younger years, Ms. Turbeek was dispensing wisdom part-time to West Mesquite choir geeks during my high school days, wisdom I paid for out of my own pocket, wisdom that took me from fair singer to good-potentially-great singer in nothing flat (with less than two years training, I went to the State finals in UIL Solo-Ensemble – Lord only knows how much better I could have done if I’d just started training earlier). Nature gave me a pleasing sound and good range; training gave me useable breath support and decent phrasing.

So there are singers and then there are singers; one of my problems with my band is I’ve spent more time studying one than the other, and the music we’re performing is geared more towards growlers than crooners. My guitarist and band leader, Paul would really like it if I didn’t sing so clean all the time; it doesn’t help that I spent my formative years listening to my mom’s radio station, KVIL, rather than my brother’s, KZEW – it had an impact.

The Beach Boys

Surf's up, dudes!

My first love and best man-crush is the one, the only, often imitated but never duplicated, Roy Orbison. As far as I’m concerned, Roy Orbison is the greatest male rock ‘n roll vocalist ever: better than Elvis, better than Little Richard, better than Jerry Lee Lewis, better than any of The Beatles, better than Jimi Hendrix, better than Jim Morrison, better than any of The Eagles, even better than Steve Perry – THE greatest male voice in rock history. His voice and his technique are unmistakable and always recognizable – no one else sounds like Roy and no one else will. That he wrote or co-wrote most of his greatest hits makes him just that much more impressive and worthy of hero-worship. Roy didn’t just write love songs, he wrote broken-hearted lost-love songs, and from a decidedly male point of view. “Golden days before they end whisper secrets to the wind: your baby won’t be near you anymore. Tender nights before they fly, and falling stars that seem to cry, ‘Your baby doesn’t want you anymore.’ It’s over.”  THAT is how a man feels heartbreak. And “Oh, Pretty Woman” is still the best rock song written EVER.

What Roy Orbison is to the rock tenor, Neil Diamond is to the rock baritone. Grumble all you want about him not being a real, honest-to-goodness rock star, Diamond is the MAN. Not the greatest range in the world, but smart enough to stay inside his comfort zone and milk that amazing tone of his, that earthy rumble that just resonates in the female nether regions. And complain all you want about his tunes all being too freakin’ overblown and melodramatic -DAMN do you feel like a warrior poet crooning that stuff! I mean, come on, even the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley covered “Sweet Caroline.” And not many male vocalists have the cajones to not only perform a duet with Barbara Streisand but a song that’s mainly just you, her and a solo piano – “You Don’t Bring Flowers” is a Grammy-winning classic of epic proportions. Diamond hasn’t had a hit song in years, but his concerts still sell-out time and time again. Once, I didn’t understand why my lovely Lady Fair was so adamant about making his show every time he was in town – then I went. I get it now: in concert, Neil Diamond is a GOD.

Styx

That is some epic hair there

One listen to the original version of “Barbara Ann,” and you can hear where I got my ear for harmonies. Surf music is some of the most fun stuff you can play and listen to, and The Beach Boys are the undisputed kings of Surf. Yes, every song is either about surfing, fast cars or pretty girls (sometimes all three); yes, the lyrics can sometimes be simplistic to the point of ridiculousness – dear sweet baby Jesus, just listen to those harmonies: soaring falsettos over the baritone leads with a tenor harmony nestled between the two and a second, lower baritone anchoring what should be a utter cacophony of voices. “Surfer Girl” is still one of the prettiest songs ever written, and anyone who doubts the genius of Brian Wilson need only try and dissect the awesomeness that is “Good Vibrations,” a freakin’ masterpiece.

There’s a bit of Broadway in my voice and I’m not going to apologize for that – to the folks who keep telling me I can’t front a kick-ass in-your-face rock band sounding like that, though, I’m going to start pointing to Styx and founding member Dennis DeYoung. While rocking one awesome moustache, DeYoung wailed some Broadway-esque vocals over some classic hits: just try and imagine “Come Sail Away” without DeYoung’s clean diction or “Don’t Let It End” without his vibrato; for years, I couldn’t DJ a wedding reception without playing “Lady;” and yes, the damn song is stupid as hell and the rest of the band should have their collective heads examined for giving DeYoung the free reign for the damn concept album, but no one can deny “Mr. Roboto” is a permanent fixture in pop culture. DeYoung fronted one incredibly talented, successful and influential band while sounding like the male lead in “A Chorus Line” and looking like a Seventies porn star.

So I’ve got clean diction and strong vibrato; I’ve also got a love of harmonies and enough breath support to hold a note until the cows come home – as a singer, there are worse things. Just got to convince my band of that.

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One response to “Oobie-Doobie, Baby!

  1. OK, gotta disagree with a few points here:

    As someone who has had both training and education as a singer, I can tell you with certainty that learning to sing is like learning to play any other instrument. With proper, ongoing training and education, coupled with a desire to improve and dedication to practicing, anyone can be taught to sing well. Certainly, an innate talent will help someone move forward at a faster rate, but hard work and dedication beat talent every single time. Just like with piano or violin or guitar, there are physical techniques that can be taught that will allow anyone to sing well. They may never sing onstage at the Met, but that again is the same as any other instrument. There’s nothing inherently different about singing, other than the fact that a singer can’t hold his or her instrument in their hands (I hope). Training requires a bit more conceptual ability, but the technique of training is the same. I’ve taught numerous students of various levels of proficiency, and those who took their training seriously, who practiced and put in the effort necessarry, all improved.

    As well, I think you’re conflating “successful” (i.e.: commercial) singers with “good” (i.e.: trained) singers. The two are entirely different. Yes, Taylor Swift is commercially successful without being a “good” – or trained – singer. One would do better to describe her as an entertainer rather than a musician. She’s a package that appeals to the masses, nothing more. Holding her up as example of someone who has “made it” despite training and education is misleading, as it ignores all the commercial components she brings to the table, such as her appearance, her stage presence, etc. Her success has less to do with her singing ability, and more with her packaging.

    As to your point that not all trained, educated, accomplished singers make it big, that’s the case in any field of endeavor. How many great comic book artists are there out there that you’ve never heard of, or great novelists who never manage to break through to the best seller lists? The fact is, in any field, only a rare handful will make it to the top. Just because someone doesn’t isn’t an indictment of having gone through years of training and education, it just means that there’s only so much room at the top of any pile and only a few can reach that pinnacle. In the field of music, I guarantee that some of the most successful, exceptional musicians working today are people you’ve never – and will never – hear of, as they’ve pursued avenues other than solo careers, avenues like session/studio work or composition or movie scoring. Believe me, all of these guys are highly trained, highly educated, and highly competitive in an extremrly competitive field.

    In terms of being competitive in a tough market, there’s no substitute for training, education, and practice, practice, practice. The people who succeed, by and large, are the people that have dedicated countless hours and made enormous sacrifices for that success. It’s the persistence that drives you to be better and better each and every day – especially on those inevitable days when you’d rather just veg out in front of the TV – that paves a road to success. Sadly, there’s no short cut to getting there. If there was, everyone would be taking it.

    At it’s heart, the real truth is that music, as a career, isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t for me after a while. I put in my time, paid my dues, did more shows and more performances than I can count, but I never was able to move past a certain point. My brothers, on the other hand, did, and they’re doing well as pros in LA. But they have to keep working and keep practicing and keep hustling every single day, because they know that the success they’ve acheived is fleeting, and can disappear at any moment. Of course, that’s the case with everyone. When was the last time you heard from Brian May, for example,or Peter Tork?

    So anyway, my advice to you would be that if you really want to get better, if you really want to become a better musician, don’t negate the importance of practice, technique, and education. Find good teachers who can help you get where you want to go. Dedicate time to practicing every day – at least an hour per instrument – and don’t deviate from that routine. Be disciplines about your goals, and have a clear understanding of what it is you want to acheive. Worl your technique every day until it truly becomes second nature, and then work it wome more. Think of training as a singer – or a guitarist or a pianist – like training for the Olympics. Push yourself to be better and better and realize that you’re shooting to reach the top of a very high mountain if you want any kind of real success. That’s the way to get to where you want to be.

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