The Professional Vocal Coach
by Gary Powell
Every singer, regardless of where they are in their recording careers, needs an outside ear of someone they trust who is a competent coach in the recording studio. As a vocal coach, helping to sculpt a vocal performance of a talented singer is one of the most exciting musical events in the studio.
After getting a feel for what the voice might be able to do, I listen for pitch accuracy, tone, weight, phrasing, color, air and any missed opportunities across all of the singer’s performance choices and gestures. That may be even the right order for my listening hierarchy. It all happens sort of at the same time though, so itâ€™s hard to know which comes first for me.
Concurrently, while discerning the capabilities of the voice it’s a mistake to not also consider the person playing the instrument. The psychology of the artist will always be present in a recording session even if it’s unconscious. Fear, anxiety, nervousness, feelings of inadequacy, overconfidence, and arrogance are all likely to show up in the studio, especially with singers. A singer’s instrument of choice is already integrated in a physical-emotional-walking-talking-singing-human-unit. Chances are all the disparate parts of that human unit are actually not, however, very well integrated. Making conscious the unconscious in a respectful and effectual way should be the goal. Insightful observations will help any coach discover the person who is in the studio or on stage with you. Knowing when and how to actually share these observations is a skill as important as what we know about the voice itself. I strongly suggest becoming a student of the psychology of an artist and of yourself BEFORE attempting to interpret or intercede. Stepping up to the next level for a singer will not only be about their singing capability. Step lightly. There is a human being behind that voice.
Singers hoping to transition to the recording studio after having had some success in live performing present a special issue for a vocal coach. The excitement alone of a live performance can mask many vocal problems of a singer. Audiences can respond emotionally to shear bravado and volume. A $10,000 signal path of preamplifiers, tube microphones and compressors is not as easily impressed as human audiences. This electronic audience simply listens in more detail than we humans do. I’ve often said that no one learns to sing until they start recording. That said, there are some great voices out there whose recorded performances sound just terrible. Seldom is it the fault of the microphone! Usually, it is either the fault of the vocal coach or… the lack of having a vocal coach.
Most recording producers are secretly intimidated by singers. A producer’s skillful use of technology can help mask their lack of knowledge and experience.
Nashville likes the term vocal producer. The term producer has become meaningless to me, so I prefer the coaching model.
Learning to sculpt a vocal performance takes years of mindful experience especially if your goal is to have singers still enjoy their singing after you’re gone. Veteran vocal coaches work in VERY fine detail not unlike the aforementioned signal path. Some singers will fall into this experience willingly and with great joy. Others might be resistant or even confrontational. It’s our job to discern when someone’s singing is being enhanced by our presence and when it is not. Hopefully, we can ALL know that much.
In the meantime, nurturing the awakening of a person’s talent in a way that both sustains the voice and the singer should be the goal.
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