I firmly believe that crossing the final barrier between a good singer and a great singer has little to do with technique. There comes a point when having all the skill in the world won’t make people want to listen to you.
Now, don’t get me wrong. All the elements of singing are important. People want to hear someone who has facility. They want to be amazed at someone who can move up and down their range with relative ease. Technique can enable greatness. If a singer does not sing with healthy technique, he will most likely burn out his voice within a few years anyway.
Timbre (voice color) is also important. I have heard singers who have great technique, but you just don’t want to listen to their voices. There is something intrinsically grating or off-putting about it. These are the folks for whom I feel the most pity. There is little that can be done to make them great.
Today, however, I want to talk about the last major element of singing success. I have heard many singers perform with beautiful tone and skillful dexterity, yet they are missing something, that je ne se quoi (sorry, I’ve always wanted to use that). The listener might think, “O, that’s nice,” but she won’t be drawn to the performance.
So, what is the last element? Simply put, it is communication. The message must come across. This is particularly true with singing because it is the one instrument that almost always uses text. Communication is inherent in singing.
Emotion first, words second
How does one communicate? First, the singer must connect with the general mood of the music. It must move him before he can move others. There is an intrinsic danger with this. He must tap the power of his emotions without being carried away by them.
I take as an illustration the singing of a sad song. If he taps too much sadness, his voice can close up. His singing will be strained. Conversely, too little sadness can make for a very boring performance.
The importance of the words
Second, the singer needs to understand what he is singing. There are nuances in communication that only understanding the text can bring. This is one of those questions that voice teachers need to ask their students more often. Do you understand what you are singing?
Once the singer does this, he will be amazed at the reception. The listener will connect with the performance, even if she does not understand fully what he is singing. He might be singing in a different language, but she will still enjoy it if he communicates with enough emotion and understanding.
I have seen this barrier arise many times as I have listened to singers. I have heard singers with less technique get a more positive reaction from the crowd than someone with greater. Why is this? The answer is not that the technique was unhelpful. The answer is often that the skillful singer did not sing with emotional authenticity. This is incredibly important. If you incorporate emotional communication in your singing, you will be head and shoulders above most singers. You just might achieve greatness.