Rather you want to learn how to sing for a rock band or you’re prepping for a one-night gig at the coffee house with some friends, here are some tips for fronting a band that no singer should be without.
I’ve rocked and rolled for over 20 years on hundreds of different stages and for a few years, I made more money singing that any job I held in my twenties. That’s not me bragging – because clearly, I’m not living the life of Steven Tyler and I never had the moves like Jagger. What I am saying is that even playing for a local band can be a fairly lucrative project if you put your heart and soul into it and grow the band – and there’s really not much else that compares to singing for your supper.
Before delving into the secrets of being a great singer, I feel a need to mention that anyone hitting the stage should learn to appreciate the moment – right from the start. I can’t count the number of conversation I’ve had with teens and young twenty-somethings, who enjoy playing live music and/or singing on a stage, but all they really talk about is how great is would be to “make it”.
I was playing for a packed house of over 500 people one New Years night and an hour before the show, I was sitting with some band-mates backstage, listening to them talk about how cool it would be to be famous and play to 60,000 people at Candlestick Park. Here we were.. getting ready to play four hours of music to a huge crowd that wanted nothing more than to drink a little and dance to our music all night long and these guys were busy dreaming about what it would be like to have more. Who cares about some stadium a thousand miles away? Would that environment somehow make playing and singing more enjoyable than this night?
On a separate occasion, I was talking to a female artist who has performed vocal solos for a show in Branson, Missouri for over 10 years. She earns her living that way but our conversation revealed that she was saddened by the fact that she was never going to be the famous star she dreamed of so often in her younger days. “I’m over 30 now, so I guess it just isn’t going to happen for me”, she confided in me.
What’s wrong with you people?!
If you’re lucky enough to play music to hundreds of people on any given night – if you sing at a show and make enough money to pay your bills? You’ve “made it”. I’ll never truly understand why so many musicians only attach being famous to being successful.
Appreciate the moment – the time of life you’re in right now. When you’re lucky enough to be on stage, you’ve got a lot of eyes on you and you’re the envy of the party. It really doesn’t get much better than that. It’s not like you experience a greater sense of euphoria with every few thousand people that are in the venue.
That feeling of playing your instrument in front of a small crowd and singing your favorite song? That feeling is the same, rather you’re playing to 100 or 100,000 people – so appreciate the moment. Love the moment, actually.. because when you’re an old fart, looking back on your life, you’ll realize that those were special times – the best of times.
Many famous musicians have actually stated that their favorite shows are when playing in small clubs – being up-close and personal with the audience makes it more fun for them. That makes a lot sense, actually. Wouldn’t you prefer to look in someone’s eyes while singing a song and watch a smile form – rather than being a fixture on an overly large stage and so far back from your audience that you have trouble making eye contact?
Some of my favorite band moments have been seeing old high school friends just show up at a venue I was playing – and watching their reactions to me playing live music. Most of my schoolmates didn’t even realize I was a musician so times like those just make for memorable musical moments.
The Secrets of Singing
So you’ve got your gig lined up and you’re excited. Maybe it’s your first or maybe you’ve played a few and you’re simply wanting to get better at working the stage while singing?
First and foremost – singing is about connecting with your audience. Eye contact and expression are essential – but neither one comes naturally to most people and that means you need to practice these singing skills.
I don’t care if you’re 15 or 50, if you want to get better at performing, you need to sing in front of a mirror and do it often. One of the first things you’ll realize when singing in front of a mirror is that simultaneously holding an expression and maintaining eye contact are actually difficult things to do. Your mind begins to wander, thinking about a part of the song or how your body is moving, and your expression is gone.
What is meant by expression? Well a smile is the choice for most singers, but hey.. maybe you’re trying to be a little more like Kurt Cobain and smilin’ ain’t your thing. Totally fine, but… you need to find your expression – something besides a blank stare. You need to practice a face that lets your audience know that you’re passionate about what you’re singing. Nothing makes a singer lose stage cred like a no eye-contact, blank stare all night long. You could be the best singer in the state but you won’t be remembered by too many people if you don’t give more of yourself when you sing. Life is short – let loose up there! Develop muscle memory in the way you perform and you’ll find that you become quite good at it without ever thinking about it.
Charisma is another factor that plays into the equation. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that can be taught in the way of being charismatic but if you have it, you’re far more likely to attract an audience and a following. You can probably think of a few singers that make you scratch your head when considering their combination of mass appeal and lack of talent?
Charisma makes up for a lot on stage. Those kids who were natural leaders in high-school and made everyone around them feel important? Those people typically do very well on stage – if they can sing at all. They smile, engage the crowd, joke well and lighten the whole mood in the room. They’ve mastered the art of making others feel at ease and that leads to good times for all. That stuff’s important – don’t think it’s not.
Female Lead Singers
Rather you’re fronting a band as a female or in search of a female to front your band, there’s some factors that are worth considering.
Female singers can generally sing anything. That’s a big plus if you’re playing in a band that’s playing eighties music or some other genre that requires a vocal range that most guys simply don’t have. It opens up the doors for letting the musicians play just about any song they desire.
The downside is that female singers often have to work harder to impress. If you can nail a Freddie Mercury song as a guy, everyone can’t stop talking about what a great vocalist “that dude” is. The word spreads fast. If you sing the same song, to perfection, as a female, there will still be people whispering, “yeah it was a great job but Queen is easy for a girl to sing”.
That’s not to take anything away from females who can hit the stage and let it rip. I genuinely love watching a female singer that can front a band – but there is some truth to the fact that most songs that are exceptionally difficult for a guy to sing are relatively easy to sing for a female with an average range.
Make it about more than the voice.
Females often can’t rely solely on their voice to take a band to the next level. The stage presence, look, passion and connectedness between an artist and the crowd are all essential elements of being a successful performer – and these elements may often be even more important for a female singer.
A great example of a female that incorporates every element of performance into her show is Dilana – who found fame by singing on the popular 2006 reality show, Rock Star: Supernova.
Dilana understands that by projecting the passion she feels, into her performance, everything else has a way of taking care of itself. She has a very unique female voice and a great look. Perhaps most important of all, she connects with the audience during her entire performance – completely engaged and absorbed in every syllable she sings.
Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett and even Karen Carpenter (to name a completely different style of music), all knew how to “work the mic” and use their bodies to extend the microphone – and that usually takes a lot of practice. Like all things in life, experience is the best teacher – so just keep singing and performing.
Girls And Groupies
Groupies – it’s why a lot of guys learn the guitar or sing for a band in the first place, right? Look at any popular band in your local town and you’ll be able to pretty easily spot a major reason for their success – they have groupies.
So what’s a conversation about learning how to sing have to do with groupies? Well, it’s worth noting that your singing skills can be less than perfect once the power of groupies take over. I’ve seen local bands blow up in just a few short months, despite having an obvious limited amount of talent, because groupies mean butts in the seats and club owners only care about how many people are filling the club when your band plays.
One of the strangest facets of live bands is that male lead singers tend to attract girls who want to constantly be around the band and go to every show. These groupies plan their social lives around the band’s next live performance and they spread the word to everyone they know. They seemingly live their lives vicariously through the band. Most experienced live performers will tell you that in some cases, this borders on being kind of sad – but you probably won’t meet many musicians who discourage groupies from coming around either.
It’s a prime example of the power of social networking and it has always worked well – even long before Facebook hit the scene.
Groupies are yet another disadvantage for a band fronted by a female. For every room of 100 listeners that a female sings in front of, there’s probably 10 females sitting in front of her that feel they sing just as good – or better. In many cases, they’re probably right, but hey.. you’ve got to get off your ass and make it work if you want something, right?
You’ll rarely find a lot of groupies for a female fronted band.
What about the guys? The facts are that the majority of guys won’t admit to being a groupie for a favorite female singer. Guys also don’t tend to be as enthusiastic about continually spreading the word and promoting a female, for fear of looking like a groupie and coming off a little less macho – even when that singer is someone they look forward to see performing.
Groupies are yet another reason that I feel female singers have to work a bit harder to get noticed and they’re a reason that some very not so talented boy bands find great success in a short time.
If you’re a guy who really can’t sing but still really wants to front a band, look to groupies to help you in quest.
Find Your Voice & Know Your Singing Limits
If there’s one problem that most local band singers have, it lies in not knowing their limitations as a singer. Everyone has limitations but quite often, people who can carry a tune feel confident that they can sing anything – in much the same way that someone who can’t sing thinks he can sing well.
While you may be able to sing on pitch very well, this doesn’t mean that you can perform rolls well. It doesn’t mean that you can sing R&B or rap in a song. It doesn’t mean that you can sing every top 40 cover song like you wrote it. It does’t mean you can sing low phrases as well as melodies in your middle range.
And by the way.. screaming high notes, instead of singing them, is usually impressing no one.
Finding your voice is one of the most difficult things to do – even for good singers. I’m always amazed to watch some 15 year old on American Idol with a unique sound and style. Figuring this out takes years for most musicians.
Have someone take a rough, live recording of your voice and give it an honest listen. If you heard that voice on the radio, knowing it wasn’t you, would you be able to recognize that same voice singing other songs? Is it highly distinctive? The honest answer for most people is “no” – though most people might not be honest in giving their answer.
Having your own sound means the difference in being just another garage band and taking the business of being in a band to the next level.
Developing a style all your own can be best learned by practicing on your own. Make sure you use a microphone and sing in different styles. Enunciate words differently. Use your breath in different ways and really listen to the different ways you’re able to use your voice and the way you’re able to affect the notes you sing.
For some, this will come much easier than others. Some people have a very unique voice to begin with. Some people have a sort of natural reverb that allows a voice to really fill a room. Most people don’t.
If you can sing on pitch but don’t really have a unique sound to your voice, work on getting one. It takes practice – in the same way that any musician practices an instrument. I can go to a karaoke bar any night and listen to a few on-pitch performances but it’s doubtful I’ll even listen to a whole song before returning to some table conversation. I want to hear the guy that makes everyone in the room stop what they’re doing and listen. You can be that guy if you put the work in.
After you develop your own style, go back through the list of songs your band performs and throw a few out that you can now honestly admit you don’t sound good on. If you can’t honestly make this evaluation, you might just be really damn amazing – but you likely haven’t developed the necessary skills to make this distinction yet. Even skilled musicians have a hard time critically examining their own performances.
Singing is ultimately a divine expression of the soul. For those that do it well, singing is it’s own reward. For those that want to sing for a band, it’s a whole different animal but it’s a path of discovery that the luckiest of souls get to experience.
Enjoy the music.