So you go to see a local or regional bluegrass band. They seem to know their instruments really well and start off their set with a bouncy instrumental. Then one of the musicians steps up to the microphone and starts a vocal number. He/she is more out of tune than a piano that’s been sitting in a damp basement for 50 years and is attempting to sing in a key that is way out of range.
It is great that bluegrass musicians will practice their instruments intensively on their own outside of band practice. They know that people want to hear professionalism from the player. However, it seems that there is little care in giving the same amount of intensity to singing. Most think that if they sing in the shower or in the car along with the radio, that is enough practice. Think again.
Bluegrass has always been about the singing. Its roots come from the vocal choirs at the country churches, as well as performing on the back porch of a shack where the singer had to compete with a few stringed instruments. Bill Monroe knew that, and he worked hard to make sure that he or any of his other lead singers were in good form. Even today, if you pick out some of the top traditionally influenced bluegrass bands, the vocals are what makes them just as much as flashy banjo or fiddle solos (if not more so). Think about those voices that stand out, both past and present – Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Hazel Dickens, Del McCoury, John Cowan, Peter Rowan, John Duffey, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Russell Moore, Dudley Connell, James King, Danny Paisley, Alecia Nugent and Dan Tyminski to name a few.
Those above mentioned, as well as hundreds more well-known pop, country, blues and jazz vocalists (I won’t even get into opera singers here), consider their voices as a fine musical instrument. Thus, they treat it as such, with regular practice and care. When I performed in bands years ago, I never thought that I was a great singer I was good, and had a decent ear for harmonies, but not lead-singer quality. However, I saw (heard) other people in my bands that were usually worse at singing than me, and it was because there was no concern on vocal techniques. Because I did vocal practices on my own, I usually got stuck with lead singing whether I wanted to or not. In one of my last bluegrass projects, I tried to get everyone in the band to commit to every 3rd or 4th practice being dedicated to just our singing and harmonies, but that didn’t last long. One of the reasons that I have stopped playing in bands is that lack of commitment from others.
If you as a bluegrass performer want to be the best that you can, you have to practice regularly, and singing is just as much a part of that as guitar, bass, banjo or other instrument. You shouldn’t have people wince when you step up to the mic, but that can only be cured by work from you.
Record yourself and listen. Don’t sing along with an already final recording (which is easy to auto-tune your voice to) but to a track with no vocals, be it guitar only or a full band. Then seriously critique yourself, or have someone you can trust give an unbiased answer. If there are some flaws, then be honest with yourself and practice your vocals. Even if you have a great sound, it doesn’t mean that you can’t dedicate some weekly rehearsing just to your voice.
Unless you are planning on being a full-time performer in the near future, you really don’t have to spend the big money and get a vocal coach (but if you have the bucks, by all means). There are tons of books out there for strengthening your singing voice, including ones from the Dummies and Idiot’s Guides series. A decent book/CD/Audio Download series from Hal Leonard that should be easily found at either Guitar Center or Barnes & Noble is FastTrack – Lead Singer Method Books 1 & 2 by Blake Neely. One that I recently picked up for myself on the cheap ($6.95 through hamiltonbook.com) is How to Sing by Carrie and David Grant (Carlton Publishing). Of course, most of these books are geared toward pop-music singers, but the exercises and suggestions provided are extremely helpful to all genres of music.
If reading is not your thing, then there are also a number of videos out there that may be of interest. One that I find very good and is great for a starting point is The Ultimate Beginner Series: Vocal Basics by Mike Campbell (Alfred Publishing). This one is easy to follow, has simple exercises, and works with both male and female voices. It is also inexpensive compared to other videos. I have this on DVD, but I believe it is now only offered as a download (unless you can find one used somewhere). Alfred Publishing (alfred.com) has a number of other videos in this series that are dedicated to rock and blues vocals as well. Another good website that lists helpful books and videos for singers is singers.com./instructional .
If you have worked on your vocals for a while, strengthened them up, are satisfied with how you have improved, then you may want to check out the video Vocal Techniques for Old-Time Mountain Music with Cary Fridley put out by Homespun Videos (www.homespun.com). In many of today’s bluegrass bands, the high lonesome sound has been lost, with softer pop vocals becoming the norm Alison Krauss sort of began this. I am definitely not blaming her, as she established a unique voice on her own. Unfortunately, many singers went in this direction and considered it bluegrass. Cary has a true Appalachian voice and gives some great suggestions on how to sing more like that. If you are singing and playing an instrument at the same time (which is pretty much a gimme in bluegrass), Homespun puts out a few other videos geared toward this. One of particular note is Lead Singing and Rhythm Guitar with Peter Rowan.
The thing is, you could buy one or more of these videos, watch them once, and think that you have it! NO! These videos are like any other exercise video like aerobics or pilates. You need to continue to watch them and practice the techniques regularly. You need to quit treating bluegrass vocals as an afterthought – Bill Monroe would be offended. I hope this information helps, and I plan on talking more about vocals, especially harmonies, in future blogs.
Chew on it and comment.