Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Students and teachers often ask me how to learn a new style. I think my answer often surprises them, especially if they are classically trained – imitate. Imitation is a bad word in the classical singing world and rightfully so. If you try to sound like 50 year-old Samuel Ramey when you are 18, you could easily end up with vocal problems. However, in CCM styles imitation can be quite useful as long as the goal is to imitate vocal colors and stylisms. Think about how guitar players learn to play. First they study chords and scales and then they begin learning other artists’ songs and guitar solos. Eventually they start getting their own ideas based on all of the repertoire they have learned through imitation and they begin writing new chord progressions and licks that form the basis of their own songs. They find their own artistic voice by imitating.
Roger Love, a Los Angeles based voice teacher, suggests singers should take a similar approach. In his book Set your Voice Free, Love lays out four steps to help singers find their own artistic voice.
Step One: Have the student begin with a single singer that they admire and ask them to immerse themselves in the work of that artist. Have them listen to the artist over and over again analyzing the nuances of their voice, the way they use language, if and how they add riffs, and any other stylistic habits they have. Next have the student start singing along with the artist and instruct them to imitate every vocal quality and stylism they discovered during the intensive listening exercise.
Step Two: In the second step, the singer expands their repertoire of vocal possibilities by imitating multiple artists and multiple genres. Ask your student to find R&B, country, rock, and pop artists to analyze and imitate as they did in step one. The student’s goal is not to imitate the vocal technique of the artists they are imitating but rather to learn the flavors of the different artists voices, the nuances, the color possibilities.
Step Three: In step three, the student is going to find a song to work on and they are going to mix together all of the vocal traits they have been learning from other artists. Ask them to sing the first part of the verse as one artist, the second half as another, the pre-chorus as another, etc. It will seem odd at first, but in this step the student is learning how to move from imitating singers to imitating sounds and stylisms, which gets them closer to the end goal – step four.
Step Four: In step four, the student gets to sing songs they choose and they will begin to focus on finding their own artistic voice. If they have absorbed all the artists they have studied and imitated, they will have many new colors and stylisms in their ear that they will begin to integrate into their interpretation. The best part is that because they have studied so many different artists and genres, they will no longer be imitating any one particular singer but rather bringing together the language of all of their influences.
I use several variations of this exercise in my studio. When working with musical theatre students, I have them find five different performances of their song on YouTube, create a playlist, and then show it to me in their lesson. I ask them what they liked about each artist and then I have them mix elements of the different performers together. This keeps them from imitating the cast recording while also giving them tonal and musical goals to work towards.
If a student is unfamiliar with the history of pop/rock, I start them off in the 1950’s and 60’s and move through the decades week by week asking them to imitate the artists. As they go through the decades, they begin to notice influences and gain a better understanding of how the styles evolved. Eventually when we get to contemporary artists, they have plenty of ideas to integrate into their work. I also have them work on what I call “cover song projects.” I have the student find a song they would like to cover and then ask them to start thinking about how they want to change it up. I have them create a YouTube playlist with songs that have stylistic elements they would like to mix together in their cover. For instance covering a song using the piano style of Sara Bareilles, with the vibrato of Rufus Wainwright, and small percussion accents with shakers and a djembe. This makes them think outside of the box and start figuring out what they do and do not like. Best of all, it makes them take ownership of their work.
To read the exercise in full, check out pages 151-155 in Set Your Voice Free. If you have ideas of your own, please share them below in the comments section.
Thanks for reading!