The Problem with Gifted Singers

Or “How Gifted Singers can Confuse the Understanding of Good Singing in Mere Mortals”:

I was hanging out with an old friend a few weeks ago. He’s an incredibly gifted singer. He’s probably one of the best male pop/theatre tenors in Canada. Great guy, too. Love him. And we were talking about other singers we know. And then he said, “I bet that guy could sing better if he just went for it more.”

“I bet that guy could sing better if he just went for it more.”

That’s when things got a bit uncomfortable. Because my friend may be one of the best male singers I know, but... he doesn't really understand, on a technical level, all that much about how healthy singing really works. He just knows how to do it—really really well.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that he knows how to sing so well is worth a lot ...for him.

It gets nuanced, however, when I think about what would happen if he were to coach others. Now my friend is smart and caring, and I’m sure he could help anyone sing a bit better (if he wanted to--he's not a teacher). I also suspect he could help a few singers sing way better, but... probably only if they were already gifted, too.

Ways you can be gifted as a singer:

Giftedness in singing comes down to about three things, off the top of my head:

  • Communication giftedness, which I’m gonna skip, for now.
  • Musical giftedness, involving things like style, rhythm, and other less technique-oriented factors of singing—also gonna skip, here.
  • Finally, there’s technical giftedness, anatomically, or “being born with a better-than-average instrument for great technical singing.”

I want to talk about the phenomenon of “gifted anatomy for singing,” a bit, and how its existence can mess with everyone’s understanding of singing.

If you sing beautifully, here’s why:

If you sing beautifully, there are about five ways that may have happened:

  • You were born with gifted anatomy, and never had to take a lesson.
  • You were born with gifted anatomy, and even though you took crappy lessons (in terms of technique), you still sound great because... you have gifted anatomy.
  • You were born with gifted anatomy, took crappy lessons, sound great ‘cause you’re gifted, but... you think you sound great because of the lessons.

So far, it’s best to be born with gifted anatomy and take zero lessons, because that way you’ve saved yourself or your family a lot of money, and maybe even avoided being taught some bad habits.

There are two more possibilities.

  • You weren’t born with gifted anatomy, but took good lessons, and learned to sing beautifully, anyway.
  • You were born with gifted anatomy and you took good lessons.

If you’re in the very last category, congratulations! Singing-wise, you’re in a pretty great place, and you’re going to be pretty hard to compete with, forever.

Breathing, placement, "going for it," etc.

Now let’s look at the third category of good singer, again:

“You were born with gifted anatomy, took crappy lessons, still sound great ‘cause you’re gifted, but... you think you sound great because of the lessons.”

Watch out for this.

Anytime you hear a great singers, or music directors saying “you need to fix your breathing” or, “you need to fix where you place it.” or, “You just have to go for it, more," please ask yourself how much they really know, science-wise, before accepting their thoughts as truth. They may sing beautifully, but those concepts probably aren’t why they sound so good, even if they believe they are. It's more likely, they sound great because they were born with gifted anatomy.

If it’s not about breathing and placement, what is it about?

Beautiful, easy, healthy singing consists of a good command of three main factors. This is based on my fairly exhaustive dorky study of voice production, over the past many years. I know, "breathing" isn't on the list...

  • Cord closure, or how open or closed the vocal folds are when you sing. This mainly affects tone (clean or breathy), phrase length (how quickly you run out of air), and stability (whether or not you feel your voice might break).
  • Pitch adjustment: Do you know how to “thin out” your vocal cords for high notes? Or do you approach high notes with cords that are too thick, and then blast air/volume to try to bend your way up to the pitch?
  • Register shifts, or “how vowel adjustments affect your singing.” Vowels have a huge effect on how advanced your singing can become. Vowel formation can help or hurt the other two above factors significantly--these elements all interact. Singers with gifted anatomy have a specially shaped epilarynx which makes register shifts uncommonly easy for them, and therefore everything else--even if they have no idea why.

These concepts have been investigated by numerous voice scientists[i], and have been accepted by some elite singing academics for decades[ii]. But this info has not trickled down into much of mainstream voice teaching.

Whether these concepts sound complicated or not, they’re pretty easy to explain and implement in your singing—but you need to know they exist, first.

Many singers go through life without even hearing about most of these concepts, because most advice on singing technique is still a drone of archaic tidbits such as “sing from your diaphragm,” “place it more in the mask,” “release the resonators in your forehead and kneecaps.” We hear things like this so much, we think they’re valid--especially if the person telling us these things has a prestigious teaching or directing position, and/or they can really sing.

Anyway, my friend and I are fine, in spite of getting into a bit of a tense discussion. I felt bad, because I love this guy, and I really wanted to just keep things chill and super-friendly. On the other hand, I’m fairly passionate about the dorky stuff I’ve learned about singing, both intellectually and experientially, so, yeah, I feel that reductionist statements like “you’ll sing better if you just go for it more,” especially coming from incredible, but non-technically educated singers, can perpetuate confusion about how to sing better. So I might be tempted to respectfully disagree about these kinds of statements.

Sometimes, people just need to go for it more.

On the other hand, sometimes people do just need to go for it, more. After training clients to stop blasting for high notes, some of them start to back off on high notes, which isn’t correct, either, and I end up saying something similar to “just go for it, more.” I might say “but don’t back off, either” or “now don’t blast, but can you add, like, two percent more air for that high note?”

I’m just realizing I might be a giant hypocrite.

It’s all case-specific. Maybe my friend was totally right, in the case we were discussing. I doubt it, though. Most pop and musical theatre singers I work with definitely do not lack the confidence to “go for it.” When my friend “goes for it” that generally works for him—when others do, they often end up straining, going flat, or cracking into falsetto. So it's case-specific. I know this partly because I was not born with gifted anatomy and had to train and study a lot to figure out concepts that worked better than the standard breathing and placement advice.

Thanks so much for reading. Here’s sincerely wishing you all success on your journey to better singing, regardless of what you were born with, and wherever the breakthroughs come from.

p.s. We’ll get into how to actually sing better in the upcoming posts. 


[i] I’ll cite Ingo Titze’s Principles of Voice Production, 2nd Ed, but there are many publications, now, explaining why these concepts are key.

[ii] The American Academy of Teachers of Singing is a very small, elite group of voice teachers, from many disciplines, inducted by invitation only. They recently published an article entitled: “In Support of Fact-Based Voice Pedagogy and Terminology” lamenting the persistence of outdated concepts such as “support with the diaphragm” in the teaching of singing. Article can be found here: http://www.americanacademyofteachersofsinging.org/assets/articles/AATS_Final_In_Support_of_Fact-Based_Ped_AATS_final_draft_5-14.pdf