New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 24: How to Be a Unique Singer hero

New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 24: How to Be a Unique Singer

Posted January 24, 2020 by Greg Kefalas
Matt and Andy break down the concept of being a unique singer with your own voice, and ways to approach how you search for that identity!
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Released: 1/24/2020

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Episode Transcript

Matt
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the New York Vocal Coaching podcast. I'm Matt.

Andy
And I'm Andy. Welcome back to you, Matt.

Matt
Welcome back to you. So you and I both have a bunch of students who come into lessons asking, "How do I get my unique sound? I don't want to sound like any other singer. I want to sound like me, myself and I, and how do I accomplish that?" And that can sometimes be a loaded question and because it's so common, I figured we could talk about that today.

Andy
Let's do it. I think it's a very common question and it's, at the same time, easy to answer and difficult to answer. You know what I mean? I always tell people, I always give them, I always use this word, the unsexy answer, because I think people want something really in depth and like, yeah, this and this and this, and it's certainly there is that answer. But also sometimes, it's just a simple answer that doesn't seem satisfying, but also at the same time, it's not as big of a deal as we make it out to be. Because we do want that authentic sound. How do I sound like myself? I don't want to be like any other person, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And the answer really is, because you are you, you're not going to sound like any other person, unless you are physically and vocally training yourself to be an imitator or an impersonator. Naturally-

Matt
Which has a lot of value.

Andy
Which is fine in its own place. Again, that's totally fine. But unless you're really doing that, you're going to sound like yourself. And that's the unsexy answer. Now you and I are going to break it down a little bit further and dig into it a little bit more. But yeah, that was my first thought on it.

Matt
Yeah. And I guess the important thing to mention is why people think this is such an important thing, and it's because the world already has a Beyonce. They already have a Mariah Carey, a Justin Bieber, whoever, right? That one person made their own mark on the world of music, in whatever genre it is. So they want to say, "Oh, well I want to be my own person and express my own music and add something else to the recipe or put something else on the table." Right? So it's that desire just to break out of what is already out there and make your own mark in the industry.

Andy
Absolutely. So when someone comes into us or to you, Matt, and says, "I want to find my voice, what do I sound like? I don't want to imitate people." What is your response to that?

Matt
I always say that my response is a cop out answer, because it's the exact opposite of what they want to hear. But I say, "Imitate people. Listen to your favorite 20 performers. Find a humongous list of people that you enjoy, and just to listen and learn what they do, try and do it yourself and then forget about it. Because those influences and the imitation that you did will persist in some form, into the vocalization that you do, but you're going to bring your own life experiences, your own skills, your own abilities, and to make it somehow unique in its own right."

Andy
I love that actually that you're saying influence versus imitation. I think people get those confused a little bit maybe, where it takes actually a lot of skill to truly, truly imitate someone's voice. But really at the end of the day, when we are imitating, we're just being influenced by. And so I like that idea. I've never really said that to anyone about imitation versus being influenced by and I like that.

Matt
Yeah. Actually, I really liked that as well. I had never really thought of it like that. But if you think of this, I mean in the grand scheme of things, life is an influence. Everything about your life influences you in some way. You are not born able to speak English and do philosophy and geometry and all that stuff. The teachers that we work with and the friends that we have, the way that we're raised, really trains us to be who we are. And just as a short anecdote, when I spend a lot of time around certain friends, like I've actually taken their laugh, taken some of their asides, their comments, and it became like a part of me just because I've heard it so much. Now, it doesn't mean that I'm no longer me or that I became a different person, but it's just whenever I do it, I think, "Oh, now I'm remembering that person." That's kind of nice. It's like I'm carrying their friendship with me and that's kind of what we're doing with the influence of listening to a lot of different sounds.

Andy
We are all unique and yet no one is unique. Think about, when we're little kids, who are we imitating? Our parents, our siblings. We're not just coming up with stuff. We're imitating sounds. We're laughing. We're eating the way they eat. It's like the way we drive or whatever. We're always imitating. We're always influenced.

Matt
We have those role models.

Andy
Exactly, that's how we learn to do things. We are imitating. Otherwise we, as babies, if literally no one was around us, there'd be nothing. We wouldn't know how to talk. Maybe, I don't know. Probably not though. Right? We wouldn't know how to make sounds. We wouldn't know anything because we are imitating people.

Matt
But also there are a lot of society rules that are set in place. If you want to be a good person, you hold the door open for someone, or you say please and thank you. And those are learned traits. Now if you're listening to a singer and different genres, what sets those genres aside are the traits of the genres, the rules of the genres. And that's why you sing, as a female, head voice in classical singing. Because if you belted an aria, that would sound a little bit odd and wouldn't quite fit in, but you can belt pop rock. You can belt musical theater. So the ability to listen and disseminate all these different rules, from what you're experiencing, allows you as a singer to say, "I want to go after that genre. I want to fit into that category as a singer."

Andy
Yeah, absolutely. I love that. And I was having a conversation actually with someone, one of my clients, about style and rules for different genres of music. And it's one of these things that there are the rules, this is the rule, and someone says why? And sometimes there's a good answer. And sometimes the answer is just 'cause.

Matt
It's the way it is.

Andy
Just 'cause. It just is the way it is. And then there's also the other aspect of it, can I do it differently? You can. Nothing's stopping you. You know what I mean? It depends on your goals and things like that. So, I think that's an other side of this imitation thing, that's super important to talk about.

Matt
Right. And then if you are listening to music and you hear all these different rules, now you can say, "Oh, well, let's try this a little bit differently," and already it's become more unique. Already you're bringing something new, where something hasn't been heard of before. And the other way to think of this is, there have been millions of singers over the course of years upon, as long as this planet has existed and all that stuff. And the singers that we listen to now, who are at the apex of their careers, who are at the total top and just everybody wants to see them live, everybody wants to have a career like that, if you look back, they've had their own influences. They've sat in their rooms and copied singers when they were younger, just because that's what turned them into the singers they are today.

Andy
Absolutely. There are, out of all of the billions of people in the world, there's a very small percentage of people who have taken voice lessons since the time they were a little kid. And yet, millions and millions of people have some sort of career in singing. Why? Not necessarily because they took lessons and learned how to do it. It's because, like Matt said, they imitated. And so when someone, I'm sure Matt gets this question a lot too, they always say, "Do all professional singers or did all professional singers take voice lessons?" No. That doesn't mean they have never, doesn't mean they don't. There are some people who have, and certainly many of them, but it doesn't mean all of them. And so then you say, "Well how do they learn how to do it?" Imitation. Hello.

Matt
Imitation.

Andy
And so, a big thing that listeners of our show know, Arbender, he always talks about in one of our acting classes with singers, he talks, he always tries to guess who people listen to as a kid, based on what they sound like.

Matt
That's pretty cool. That's fun.

Andy
And he's always really good at it. And so, he'd be like, "Oh, you listened to dot, dot, dot, dot, when you were a little kid, and they'll say, "Yeah, I did," or "No, but that style was really influential," and it's not because, as a six year old, they were training and really digging into the intricacies of '90s Mariah Carey. No, it's because they're a kid and they thought it was a bop and they just loved singing and they were just imitating the riffs, and the thises and the thats, and that has nothing to do with training. It's just what their voice is.

Matt
Right, right. And a lot of it is piecemeal too. So if you're listening to a large number of artists, you take what you like from this person. You leave behind what you don't like from that person, and you create your own amalgamation of all these different styles and sounds and all that stuff. And also the different genres that you listen to. I have not met one person who said, "I only listen to indie rock. That is it. I don't appreciate any type of music. It's awful." People don't say that. Usually they say, well, there are a few genres that they prefer more than others and maybe they don't like some others quite as much, but the listening to all of them, once again, allows them to create that mixed type of idea, that mixed inspiration of many different sounds and genres.

Andy
You know what? I always challenge people when they say, "I don't want to imitate other people." My response is, "I challenge you to imitate, perfectly, a singer." I want that to be a challenge for someone and then have them come back to me and be like, "I tried it," and are they going to sound just like that person? No, but guess what? Their skills are going to be different because they were really digging into how they can make these sounds. That's the cool part of imitation. Again, if you are impersonating or, we're going to talk about Brendan Houdek's Voice Breakdowns here in a little bit, but if you're really trying to do an impression, that is a whole other skill, an amazing skill. And if you have that skill, awesome. But when you imitate people, you are actually doing super-duper specific vocal technique work.

If someone is listening and saying, "Gosh." If they're really tuning up their ear and saying, "Gosh, what is that riff?" Or, "Is that a 40, 60 mix or is that a 45, 55 mix?" And although it sounds silly, your ear is tuning up to that and you're trying to figure it out. That would be an ideal client to me, who's listening actively and trying to figure out what's going on. Amazing.

Matt
Right. Because then you could make all of your own choices with how you want to do something, when you don't want to imitate. Yeah. When I talk about this with people, some students usually quip back with the idea of the unique sound. "Oh, I am specifically not listening to other people, because I want to make sure that I don't have any of those outside forces pushing me in one direction or another." And my question back is, "How do you know what rules you're trying to follow? How do you know then what sounds you're going to make? Because there is no type of model that you're going to be listening to or driving toward or anything like that. It's all about that process of being able to go through and pick up on different thoughts from people who have lived it and performed it and made a career out of it."

Andy
Know the rules. Follow the rules. So then you can break the rules.

Matt
Exactly.

Andy
You can't know what to do if you never try. People are trying to pull stuff out of thin air and it doesn't work like that. You've got to listen to stuff. How did they do that? I want to try to do that. And then, okay, that works for that and I, because I want to do something differently, or today I'm a little sad, or I want to just rip it today, or whatever the case may be, then your own unique sound is going to come through. In terms of, Matt, for finding that sound and imitating, and if people say, "Well, what else can I do besides just imitate?" What do you do for folks, and I'll answer this as well, if they're trying to find their authentic sound or what their voice sounds like?

Matt
I always bring attention to them, some of the rules of the genre. We talk about style and that kind of stuff. And then it boils down to how does that person want to express that song? Because everybody has their own unique backgrounds, their own influences of life and friends and family. So they're going to see the text, the lyrics, the background music, the drums, the piano, the guitar, in a different way than the person who wrote the song. And us, as performers, don't need to line up exactly with what the songwriter intended. We get to put our own spin on it and ask how does it move us? How would we feel those emotions and what do we want to tell? What story do we want to tell from the music we're singing?

Andy
I love that.

Matt
Thank you.

Andy
Yeah, no, I'm thinking about that. That's really nice. One thing that I do, that's very basic for people, is I'll have them just speak the melody of whatever song we're working on. Speak the melody. I said speak the melody, but just speak the melody. It's that simple. And people say, "Well, feels like I'm talking on pitch," and my response is "Yes, this is what you sound like. This is your authentic sound." And so then we connect the dots from there, and then we get into the rules or breaking the rules, and then we get into what do you want to do? How creative can you be? Do you want to sing quietly? Do you want to sing out loud? Do you want to change the key up a little bit? And then, one thing before I forget that is important, that also kind of got brought up with a client of mine, is what genres of music are more fluid in this situation, versus what are more strict?

If we're talking about more art song, more classical music, more opera, the rules are a little more strict. It just is what it is. Now, if you're performing in concert and you're doing your own thing, do whatever you want, there's always going to people who are like, "No, that's not right." Do whatever you want. But if you are pursuing a career as a recital performer, as an art song singer, as an opera singer, there are rules that you're going to have to follow. It just is what it is. That's one of those unsexy answers. That's just, you're going to follow the rule. And that is what is. Even musical theater, I think, is changing a bit now, because we're doing a lot of pop and rock music in musical theater, but even for that, there are rules as well. For certain genres of musical theater.

Which also then is musical theater a genre? Not really. It's stealing from genres of music. So what type of music? Oh, it has a '70s feel, or whatever the case may be. Now that there's a lot of pop music in it, written by Sara Bareilles, or Alanis Morissette, or I think there's a Paul Simon one coming out, Bob Dylan, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All these things, it's a little freer because it's pop music.

Matt
Right, right. And I'm thrilled that you brought up musical theater, because musical theater has pulled from the evolution of music for hundreds of years. So, if you take a look at Hamilton, which is this humongous sensation, there's no other rap that sounds like that, but it's so heavily pulled from the rap style. And that's one of those ideas where Lin-Manuel Miranda has his influences and he talks about them a lot. He talks about the rap, he talks about Sondheim, but he makes his own thing that nobody's ever heard of before. And that's why it's such a big thing. So it goes to the idea of how everything comes together in the end.

Andy
And this is influenced versus imitation. People would maybe listen, now that you brought up Hamilton, it's like, "Oh yeah, this is rap, this is hip hop." And it's like, "Is it or is it just influenced by that?" And I'm not saying there is a right or wrong answer, but that's a question you can ask yourself, "Am I really imitating? Do I really sound like someone or am I just influenced by someone?" And isn't influence good? Especially if it's someone you love or an artist you appreciate or who you think their vocals are bonkers or whose style of music just blows your mind? Don't you want to be influenced by that?

Matt
Right. Yeah, I love that. And the other thing is don't be afraid to fall down the rabbit hole. So we're talking so much about listening to so many other things, but also listen to how that developed. If you take a look at classic rock in the '70s and '80s, there are elements in there that led to pop of today. And it's the same thing with like the RnB style, which has so much gospel in it, which pulls from blues. It has such a larger background than we might give it credit for. Go down that rabbit hole and listen to all of that. Listen to those influences and how we got to where we are today. And it'll be fun, first of all, but then it'll make you really appreciate the music that you want to sing and how you want to portray it.

Andy
Absolutely. History of music is so darn important. And yes, if you want to go back to the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, fine. But if you're like, "Eh, not really interested in that," fine, but start at the 1900s, when popular music, where that came from and you're going to see, gosh, there are truly, truly only a handful of original artists, like truly original.

Matt
Pioneers in certain styles.

Andy
Pioneers. There are very few people because they're always influenced by other people and styles of music. So is someone really at the forefront, if they were listening to someone else singing? Of course they're going to be influenced by that. Do you know what I mean? So it's everything, looking at the history of it is also so important. So I'm glad you brought that up.

Matt
So I think, overall, it really does boil down to that idea of inspiration rather than imitation. Go back to the music and think of how you want to express and tell that story. Speak the song, as Andy recommends. And I have not had a student once, who walked in and sounded exactly like another person. You're always going to be unique. You're going to be you and you need to celebrate you. Just a little bit of self love on the New York Vocal Coaching podcast. And if you find that self appreciation, nobody else is going to be able to copy your style. It's just the way it is. It's the way that our voices work and all of that. So, self love, friends.

Andy
I love this. Self love. You are influenced and that is wonderful. You imitate and that is wonderful. You are authentic, no matter what, and love that about yourself.

Matt
I'm feeling inspired.

Andy
Woo hoo!

Matt
So, before we go, a colleague of ours who will soon be on the New York Vocal Coaching podcast, Brendan Houdek, does a series on YouTube called Voice Breakdown, and he is a voice imitator. He takes all these different characters and, how many videos does he have so far? 25, I think?

Andy
Many. Several.

Matt
A little over that, of many different characters, cartoon characters, very familiar voices that you may have heard on television and movies. And he imitates them and it's really fun to go through. And he lists all the different vocal qualities that he uses to make these voices. And we're talking about influence and imitation. It would be very interesting for you to watch these and think, "Oh, how is he making those sounds? What variables do we have in the voice to create a different sound and voice and what have you?" And those variables are going to be fun to tinker with, when you're performing your own styles and going through your own music.

Andy
You've said it perfectly, Matthew. So if you haven't yet, do go on YouTube and check out Voice Breakdown again. That's Brendan. He will be on an episode very soon to talk about all things pertaining to imitating and how that works and how to break it down. So with that, Matthew, do you have any final thoughts or do you feel good?

Matt
Feeling good? Yes. Self love. Find those influences. And always be you. Be true to yourself.

Andy
Perfect. Have a great day everyone.

Matt
Thank you for joining us for this episode of the New York Vocal Coaching podcast. If you like what you hear, please subscribe, like, leave a review, and share the podcast with friends and family. And we thank you in advance for that.

If you have questions, comments, or topics that you would like to hear more about, please email us at podcast@newyorkvolocalcoaching.com and we look forward to hearing from you.

You can also find more NYVC content with our Voice Lessons To The World, Quick Singing Tips, and Voice Breakdown series on YouTube. You can also catch us on Instagram and join us on Facebook for our weekly live videos coming to you on Sundays.

We're looking forward to seeing you again two weeks from now for another episode of the New York Vocal Coaching podcast.