“Frank Sinatra! Pavarotti! Lady Gaga! Kristin Chenoweth! Justin Beiber!” When I meet new students, I always make a point of asking who their favorite musical artists and influences are, and I am inevitably surprised by the vast myriad of responses that I am given. My reasons for asking this question go beyond the wonderful novelty of hearing such a colorful and varied spread of musicians; I ask in order to understand where my students are coming from, musically. More often than not, a singer will exhibit traits (or their interpretation of said traits) characteristic of their idols, incorporating the vocal color and style they have heard into their own performances.
While I love to hear my students “getting into” their music by using these stylistic traits as they sing, I think it is incredibly important for them to find their own voices, separate from imitation. Each singer is given an instrument that is unique primarily because their emotional psyche and overall physical shape (from their height and weight to their facial bone structure) is unlike that of anyone else. While two people may sound similar, their individuality - both physically and emotionally - afford them the opportunity to explore their own voice and interpretation of music. Students who are willing to explore their own sound are likely to discover new ways of expressing themselves musically, both in their technique and in their musical interpretation. In fact, they often find that letting go of certain stylistic tendencies can help them feel more free while singing, as they are no longer inhibited by something that is artificial to their own voice. This is not to say that a vocal or stylistic device produced by one singer cannot be admired or serve as an example for another singer. We learn via experience and so it is paramount to the learning process that we soak up as much as we can from those already in the music performance business. However, it is of note that these artists (generally) did not become highly successful and admired because they made a career of imitating others; their status within the musical community was attained through honing their individual strengths and the willingness to trust their own unique instrument.
The goal, then, is to learn from artists whose music speaks to us on a deep level, and then set off to explore our own voices so that we can be true to ourselves when we bring a piece of music to life. We each have the chance to share the beautiful and unique music inside of us, if only we allow ourselves to search for our own voice.
Eileen Cooper teaches voice at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Sign up for a trial voice lesson at no charge to you!