Singers: The difference between Vocalists and Performers

The thing with being a voice coach and spending almost the entirety of every day immersed in voice, is that your ear gets exposed to so much music being made by many different kinds of people. Time and the experience that comes therewith is the great educator in this regard. Things that seemed so exciting and interesting when you first start rapidly expose themselves to be a novelty. Things that maybe seemed a bit boring actually start to reveal a deeper nuance that I just wasn’t experienced to hear in the first instance. Glacially speaking, your ear starts to pick out subtleties and seeking out depth of quality in a way that isn’t possible just as a casual enthusiast.

So when people ask me…

“What do you think of THAT singer?”

… that’s really quite an enormous question. I’m not just hearing their voice or their music, I’m taking in a wide variety of different factors, whilst also trying to ignore factors that should not be relevant for the purposes of assessing a voice. We as humans are far too swayed by psychological factors that skew our judgment.

On the stage

Consider how the context in which someone is singing can completely change your view on how someone is singing. For example, when you put someone on a platform where they are about to perform, we generally assume they deserve to be there, and we tend to look for reasons in their singing as to why they deserve to be on that platform. This can often lead to substantially more favourable views on their performance than if it had just been in your own living room. Add in the psychological effect of higher volume gigs (which our brains are prewired to prefer) and suddenly you can’t really trust what you think you’re hearing.

On the radio

Or when you hear an album or song on the radio – we already know the artist is commercially legitimate by the estimation of thousands/millions of other people, otherwise they wouldn’t be on the radio, and they wouldn’t have an album. It’s a subtle form of peer pressure affecting how you hear their performance. Maybe you like the music, maybe you don’t, but this context still leads to a suspension of critical thinking of that person’s singing. Not only that but the songs will have been HEAVILY produced – you will be hearing their voice with every pitching mistake ironed out of it. The context creates a bias, and hinders people from making a fair assessment.

Merely someone in your living room

In contrast, if it’s a friend or family member singing in your living room (and someone you don’t already put on a pedestal), you should find you are able to make a fairer and more complete assessment of their singing than in either of the above contexts.


“Performers” and “Vocalists”

There are many singers I hear that I would call “performers” in the main. That is not to say some of them aren’t vocalists, but those who actively seek out the stage love to perform, and that’s absolutely fine.

There are other singers who show themselves to be what I would consider to be a true “vocalist”. I’d say a vocalist is someone who takes their voice and their vocal sound seriously. They work hard on their technique and their craft every day. This involves knowing their current strengths and current areas for improvement, seeking out solutions and new knowledge to improve, and using exercises to do so. They know that being a great singer is a byproduct of great technique, and that artistry flows from removal of limitations, rather than trying to manipulate the song so as to sing around those limitations. Stagecraft is the supporting attribute that lifts up their vocal ability, not the other way round.

When internally assessing a voice, I am always seeking to do is place that person (even if it’s just in my mind’s “ear”, so-to-speak), in an unremarkable room with me, accompanied only by a piano. No stage, no microphone, no PA system to aid them. 100% acoustic. THAT is where the rubber meets the road. I try to picture what they are doing in that environment, and imagine what I would take away from that. I’ve heard hundreds of people who perform for a living in this context, and the difference between their onstage/album sound and their actual “offstage” ability is shocking – often they don’t even sound like the same person, and you realise how much other “stuff” was propping them up. This is where I’d say at least 50-80% of people we hold up as great vocalists with amazing voices reveal themselves as performers who rely on their stagecraft in their songs.

Let’s be clear.

Singing absolutely involves performance ability, and if you are a modern artist looking to get gigs, it’s a non-negotiable quality to have. I have no problems with working on stagecraft in this regard. The days of singing with one hand on the piano and letting the voice itself do the work are long gone. Good performance ability is necessary to keep getting you gigs. But it cannot be a crutch that covers up for a voice that is standing still or even going backwards. I’ve seen it hundreds of times before – at some point, the bill comes due. That’s when gigs start getting cancelled, that’s when the voice starts to feel hoarse after even just one or two gigs, and when set-lists start getting changed to be able to make it through without losing your voice.

To my mind it’s absolutely possible to a vocalist and a performer. Someone who cares about the visual AND the audio performance. The problem comes when one prioritises the visual performance over the aural one. The voice should come first.

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