My friend Ryan recently sent me a link to a You Tube Video his 13 year-old daughter Skylar created. She’s covering the song It Will Rain
Her piano skills are competent (learned from YouTube!) her voice is in pitch with a lovely timbre. She’s attractive, fresh and yearning. She could go anywhere — or nowhere. It’s up to her.
She reminds me of myself at around that age. I had some talent. I had written a few songs, sung in a band, taken some lessons, had a few gigs. Then I didn’t win a musical contest, got my feelings hurt and dropped out of music for “real life.”
35 years later, I wish I could have told my 16 year-old self about the three pillars to success in music — and life.
Find your unique talent.
When I started playing guitar, I thought I’d be the next Melissa Etheridge — gutsy, angry, dynamic. As it turns out, I didn’t have a rusty, belting rock voice. A softer, folkier approach worked (think Mary Chapin Carpenter), but as a passable songwriter, I had limited success.
It wasn’t until my companions at a dinner party egged me to sing a couple of torch songs that I could imagine singing jazz. Jazz was always attractive, but a little too hot, vulnerable and sultry for my feminist frame on life.
But singing jazz at a ripe nectarine 48 is not like 23, and jazz finally felt like a tailored evening dress; snug to my body, smooth velvet and in just the right color! I had found my music at last.
Maybe your niche is comedy songs, or children’s music. I had a dear friend who excelled in Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. This is characterized by open tunings and dangling a needle over the guitar strings (from a thread hanging from the mouth) to produce a soft, chiming sound. He was so passionate and the best (and only one of his kind) in Buffalo.
Finding your singular voice will take time and probably be frustrating, but will pay off as people discover (and reward) the original that is you.
Work like a dog.
This as not as obvious as it might seem. In an era of instant stars ala “America’s Got Talent,” and “American Idol,” we have come to view success as talent + opportunity = meteoric success. And so, with all the other upstream swimming salmon, musical hopefuls scour opportunities, waiting in long lines to be heard, get auditioned – becoming demoralized (as I had) at the smallest failure.
This model disempowers the artist. It puts all the control in the hands of the judges, observers and critics. What sets the greatest musician apart surely is talent, but it is the unseen hours of work that boosts her over the top. While her fellow hopefuls attend endless open mics and talent shows looking for praise, she is in the basement singing, working, building on the talent she has. Work is her secret weapon — her edge.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of work before the greats experienced success (Bill Gates, the Beatles, Beethoven, Tiger Woods).
While one might quibble with the hour count, hard work is the non-glamorous component common to most success stories. You can’t control shifts in taste or create cultural tsunamis like Lady Gaga has, but doing the work? It’s all yours.
Seek qualified criticism and take advice.
In the current “everyone gets a trophy” “student-of-the-month” atmosphere, we have become soft. Everyone desires to be praised and no one likes to hear the truth. At my very first jazz gig, I sang in front of a small crowd in a coffee shop. I had prepared three songs and this was my first experience singing without a guitar in my hands. Not knowing what to do with them, I stuck them in my pockets.
In attendance was an ancient jazz aficionado named Harvey Rogers. Old enough to have and give an opinion on everything, he shouted from the audience “Take your hands out of your pockets!” Though mortified, you can be sure I did and from that moment on, paid attention to what my body was doing as well as my voice, later watching videos of Liza Minnelli and Nancy Wilson for good examples of stage presence.
I also have two vocal coaches — both old Italian guys who have been around the music business block. Guy Boleri regularly shouts at me for poor intonation and sloppy phrasing.
Andy Anselmo puts me through endless scales and vocal exercises to improve tone and berates me to “sculpt the words!”
My feelings have been hurt on many occasions by both of them — eliciting tears a few times too. Maybe it’s my age, but I can finally take criticism without permanently folding. It’s beneficial for me and I like to imagine the critics are so hard because they must think I’m good enough to take it.
The three pillars: find your talent, work hard, let go of your ego. I wish someone had been able to tell me these things when I was Skylar’s age. But, somehow, I doubt I would have listened.