I want to dispel a myth about how to be a successful singer. This myth is often generated out of love and admiration; the best hopes and dreams or a parent, grandparent, or friend. The myth is that some singers are born amazing; that a great singer is born, not made.
Singing is a human trait. Scientists suspect that singing came before speech in human evolution (The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen). The skill to be able to control pitch, tone, and expression were part of human survival, whether that purpose was quieting a crying baby in the middle of a crisis, negotiating with another tribe, attracting a mate, or communicating a variety of needs and opinions through the original language of sound called Hmmmmm.
Because of this path of evolution many of us have great vocal muscle dexterity and fine motor control, resulting in great pitch. If we aren’t born with it, we can develop it. Many of us have wonderful imaginations that help us shape a phrase, or color a note with resonance. If we aren’t born with it, we can develop it. Many of us are excellent storytellers willing to be vulnerable and put our stories into song. If we aren’t born with it, we can develop it.
You might be saying, “What about…? She’s a great singer.” No, she’s a darn good singer, just like most of us. But the difference is when she was looking for how to be a successful singer, she put in hours of work, has the right attitude despite suffering countless rejections, and has devoted her life to this.
But that’s about an adult singer. What about a thirteen-year-old with an “amazing gift.” Lets look at the "gifted" teenager's situation by zooming out the camera. In the National Association of Singing, there are over 5,000 professional voice teachers. Lets say each of those teachers has an average of 12 students per week. Lets estimate that 3 of those 12 are really good at pitch, and at tone color, and at story telling (skills that not every famous singer has). Doing the math, there are 15,000 really good singers taking voice lessons. But it is possible that only about 1/2 of the singing teachers in the country are in NATS so lets bump that to 30,000 really good singers taking singing lessons every week!
Now let's look at the demographics of the people who are trying to make careers as singers. The one astonishing truth I’ve heard over and over, even from James Taylor, Jason Mraz, and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies and REM), is that they’ve never taken voice lessons. How many of them are there? There is no way to know how many would-be professional singers have never taken voice lessons. In the previous paragraph we estimated 30,000 really good singers study singing. Now we know that number is probably really small compared to the number of singers who don’t study!
You might wonder why I would point out such a discouraging statistic for singers. There are at least two reasons why it is important for singers to know that really, honestly, there are no gifted, special singers. First, so that a passionate, really good singer can start to prioritize what will actually help them with how to be a successful singer with the blinders off. The singer should have no expectation that their talent will lead to a career. Knowledge, networking, and strategy are key components to focus on. I cover this in full detail in my book The Teen Girl's Guide to Singing.
Second, is to build confidence. It can be a terrible shock to singers who find out the hard way - through rejection after rejection, in poverty and desperation - that they are just one of thousands and thousands of gifted singers. But if the singer goes in armed with this information, they have been armed with the resilience to see it through; to know that they are no better or worse than their competition, and that if they are able and willing to build the knowledge, network, and strategy, they will come out on top.
Taking off the blinders, building skills, and making connections is what makes a successful career for a singer. The sooner a singer realizes what is actually important, the stronger they will be for the journey ahead. And it is a journey well worth pursuing.
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