Five Reasons for Vocal Conservatism

Whichever way you lean politically, when it comes to music, I’m hopeful that the following five reasons will convince you to become a “vocal conservative*” – your voice, your music, and anyone you choose to sing for will appreciate you all the more for it.

1. Don’t write cheques your voice can’t cash

How many singers have you seen (either live or heard in a live recording) where they completely fail to deliver the money notes of their best-known songs? Or they change the key so radically that the song loses all the life and zest of what made the original so enjoyable? Or worse, they just come off the microphone and let the crowd scream it for them. Maybe you’ve even been that singer, worrying every single time about whether THAT note will come out right.

The studio enables one to stitch together a final version that could never be delivered live, but the real problem with this approach is that now the singer now has to weasel their way out of that conundrum every time they sing. For those of us singing originals or covers, we often set the bar too high and add songs to our set list that our voice can’t deliver… or at least consistently enough that we never fret over it. This leads to vocal problems, and a growing complex about whether or not you’ll “make it”. It’s not worth it.

2. When everything is high/loud/intense, then nothing is

The best singers leverage dynamics to their advantage. They pave the way for a dramatic high note/climax by using space, and volume changes, melodic alterations, etc in their vocal journey to that climax. This means exercising restraint.

The more stuff you shovel into a song, the more you rob your climaxes of their true power. This might be sticking the whole song so high that it all sounds bright, or riffing all over everything to the point that the listener is fatigued before you even hit the first chorus, or singing full blast from the first word.

Stage your material like the plot of a good book. Craft the highs and lows so they accentuate each other, and so they work together. Don’t jump in all guns blazing from the start, but slowly ramp up organically – often in waves – til the crescendo hits. The punch will hit that much harder.

3. Singing is a marathon, not a sprint: sing like it

In the age of Instagram/X-factor, people are out to deliver an entire career’s worth of notes in 30-60 seconds. But singers with this mindset tend to blow their voice out whenever they have to sing for more than 10-20 minutes. I’ve spoken and worked with enough of them to know how common this mindset is.

Real singing is not even remotely like this. Legit professional singers can sing for 8-10 hours a day, every day, for multiple year contracts with no adverse effects. Singing is a endurance endeavour with high levels of technicality and precision, and NOT to be taken as a muscularly athletic “max-effort” attempt. Pick songs, alter keys, etc, such that your songs meet your voice where it is, rather than forcing it to try and keep with material that outstrips your capacity.

4. There’s no prize for singing a difficult song badly, only for being listenable

This is something I encounter constantly, and I understand it well, having lived in that mindset for years. It’s easy to think the way to be a great singer, involves being able to do difficult things. And singing a difficult song, however badly, must therefore make me a great singer… right?

Well, not so much. The best singers make a living on being listenable, first and foremost. People should want to listen to you. There are zero prizes given out for singing a difficult song badly. People might be impressed, but what they will come back for, is a listenable and moving performance. That’s why quality wins, everytime. Don’t prioritise difficulty, lose the ego and consider whether what you are singing sounds good, and could it sound even better.

5. When a good measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

– When it comes to singing, less is undoubtedly more. I’ve touched on this in point 2, but I want to go one deeper here.

It’s a natural trap, especially for smart people, to chase challenging songs because it presents a metric they can measure themselves against: “If I can sing song X, and song Y goes higher, than I’ve “levelled up”; “If I did 5 riffs in this song, and I did 7 in this one, then I’m getting better”. We can all chase things that can serve as metrics for progress, but Goodhart’s law sums up the problem:

When a [good] measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

People often seem to think that if they can just impress someone with how bombastic their vocal ability is, then they’ll make it (thanks for nothing, X-factor). But the reality is, after that initial minute or two, or even the first song or two, people become fatigued with more = more. It not only robs you of dynamics, it robs you of musicality, and worse still, turns music into an Olympic effort to set the bar even higher… when music is about artistry, not a competition.

Take-home message

John Mayer said in a Berklee clinic, that we all have a dynamic ceiling to our musical ability. Where we can sing no higher, riff no faster, sing no louder, etc. It’s our wall we can’t push through. And our goal is to sing creatively in such a way that we never get close to hitting that limit, such that the audience feels we are never even close to hitting it. This requires us to KNOW where that is, and in turn, requires us to be conservative with our energies as we navigate the space that upper limit defines. This requires us to grow our sense of artistry in order to play within those limits.

As we improve technically and artistically, that “limit” will seem less and less like an actual limit to your endeavours, but it is essential to develop this as a “vocal conservative”… otherwise you will quite literally hit that wall every time you go to sing.

*Conservative broadly translates as Republican, for our US friends.

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