A Quick Note: This is the from a series of posts about “How To Not Be a Dumb Musician”. These posts outline common frustrations associated with certain types of musicians in an attempt to become better musicians. Enjoy.
Hey singers, here’s a little secret you may not know: the other musicians on stage are annoyed with you. They shoot each other glances while they’re playing that say, “Can you believe this singer?” There’s things they wish you did and didn’t do, but have a hard time talking to you about it. Here’s how to not be a dumb singer.
Why Instrumentalists are Annoyed With You
Instrumentalists get annoyed with singers. Singers get annoyed with instrumentalists. Forgive me for getting all “instrumentalists are from Mars, singers are from Venus” on you, but it’ll make sense at the end.
Many singers have been singing their entire lives. They don’t remember the first time they began singing, probably because they were too young to remember. Chances are, when you first started singing, you weren’t half bad. Sure, your tone sounded like a 4 year old, and you had an adorable lisp, but your pitch was pretty good, and you were after all, 4. The point is, you probably just started singing naturally without thinking, “I want to learn how to become a singer!” You were pretty good, and kept getting better. It’s come naturally for you, and you can sing whenever, wherever. In the car, at home, in the park. (Before I get angry “you think you know me?!” comments, I know there are exceptions to this. Congratulations, you’re probably not a dumb singer.)
Now let’s look at instrumentalists. If you ask an instrumentalist when they started playing, they will probably give you an exact date. 5th grade band. Middle school orchestra. High school in a garage with my friends. And you know what? They were terrible. They had to pick up an unfamiliar hunk of wood or brass and learn to play. The learning curve is steep. Just ask any parent of a 5th grade musician. Instrumentalists have to spend years learning how to make a sound that doesn’t make their parents want to pour bleach in their ears.
As a singer, you’ve had a head start to sounding good. It’s come much more naturally for you, and you may not have had to worry about chords or rhythms. Instrumentalists have spent much more time and energy with their instruments to get to where you are. And through that process, they’ve learned a lot of other stuff. Chords, rhythms, song forms, and transposition, to name a few. So when a singer shows up and doesn’t know these things, but expects the rest of the band to understand what they mean, instrumentalists get frustrated.
What You Can Do For Yourself
Now that you understand the why, let’s take a look at the how. Here’s a few common phrases said by dumb singers, and what you can do to never have to ask these questions again.
What Not To Say: “Oh, what key? I dunno, it’s Ella’s key.”
This doesn’t mean anything to instrumentalists. They aren’t familiar with the recordings you sing along with. You can’t expect them to be. If you want to do “Ella’s key”, figure out what that is and memorize it. If you want to do a song in a slightly or higher key, figure out what that key is ahead of time and memorize that. “Down 3 keys” is another term that doesn’t mean anything. Is that 3 half steps? 3 whole steps? The key you sing in is specific to you, know it like the back of your hand.
Instead Say: “I sing this song in G, is that okay for you guys?”
What Not To Say: “Wait, when does the chorus come in?”
Like it or not, you’re the front person of the entire group. Everyone in the audience is listening and watching you most of all. You need to know your stuff. Song form is one of those things that gets thrown to the bottom of the list of things to remember, but it should be right at the top. If you jump to the chorus early, or worse, don’t come in at the chorus at all, the whole band is thrown off. Now they have to figure out where you are, and how to get the song back together. On top of that, the audience knows something is wrong. Either that or they think the band is taking some creative liberties by adding in a 5 bar interlude before the chorus.
Instead Say: “I know this form well, don’t worry guys.”
What Not To Say: “Sorry, I forgot the lyrics on the second verse.”
What’s the biggest thing that differentiates your sound from every other instrument in the band? The fact that you’re singing words. That’s the most important thing. That’s why you aren’t just singing nonsensical syllables (unless you’re scatting, in which case, shoo bee do wee keep it up!). When you forget the lyrics or sing wrong lyrics, the band isn’t thrown off, the audience is. They’re either thinking, “I think I’ve heard this before…” or “even I know the second verse to Don’t Stop Belivin’ …” Words are your thing. Know them.
Instead Say: “Workin hard to get my fill, Everybody wants a thrill!”
What Not To Say: “Sorry, I guess I should have cued that double chorus at the end.”
If you decide that you want to repeat a chorus again, or start that second verse over now that you remember the words, you need to cue the band. They can’t read your mind, and if you just start singing that part again, that’s not clear enough. You could sing, “Cho-rus one-more-tiiiime!” or something to let them know, or if you have a predetermined set of hand symbols, cueing one of those is always effective. If nothing else, move away from the mic and yell to the band, “CHORUS!!!” You’re the front person, you need to take charge and be very clear about cueing the band. There’s nothing more refreshing to an instrumentalist than a singer who knows their stuff and effectively communicates to the rest of the band.
Instead Say: “All right guys, uh, listen. This is a blues riff in ‘B’, watch me for the changes and try and keep up, okay?”
What You Can Do For The Band
Now you know your stuff. You’re totally prepared for your part of the job. Now what about everybody else? Another thing that annoys instrumentalists is the fact that some singers just show up, grab a mic, and do their thing. Instrumentalists got there 2 hours early in order to set up all their gear, the sound system, and your mic. Here’s what you can do to help the band out.
Arrive Early and Leave Late
Showing up 10 minutes before the downbeat shows the band that you’re just there to do your thing, get paid, and get out. It also shows that you don’t care much about them. Instead, show up earlier than you think you should. Stay later than you think you should after it’s over.
Help Tear Down
Ask if there’s anything you can help with. Keyboard players and drummers often have the most gear. Gravitate to them. Ask them if they’d like help. Even if they say no, they’ll appreciate the thought. Or you could tear down your mic and start wrapping cables. For a detailed video on how to wrap cables the right way, watch this. By showing up early, staying late, and helping the instrumentalists with all their gear, you’re saying, “I’m part of this band, and I appreciate you guys.” You know what they’re thinking? “Wow, this singer sounds great, knows their stuff, and they’re super helpful. I’m definitely calling them again.”
Become Friends With Them
I know, you hate it when the guitar player starts talking pedals, and the keyboard player is always talking about how he wants to “reharmonize that one song, I’m telling you guys, it could be way better.” Guess what, they get annoyed by you singing all the time, even when you’re eating during the break. Who’s the person that calls you for the gig? The instrumentalists in the band. So get to know them, become friends, and they’ll call you for more work. Everyone has their quirks. Let’s just all get along.
If you’re a singer and you do all of these things, I guarantee you’ll get more work. You know why? Because this is the ideal singer every instrumentalists wishes for. They are the complete package. Do these things and they won’t think you’re dumb. Unless you do your vocal warmups in front of them.
Photo credit: Evan Forester