Should Songwriters Take Singing Lessons?
written by Susan Anders ~ vocal instructor
Why should a songwriter consider the added time and expense of taking singing lessons? Of course, I’m biased: I’m a singing teacher. But I’m
also a songwriter, and over the years I’ve seen the many benefits of vocal study. Even if you are
convinced that you sound like a frog with strep throat and you will never sing in public, there are
reasons to take a few classes. They include:
• Vocal Health–Why leave a writing session hoarse when a few warm up exercises done
while driving to the session could prevent you from straining your voice?
• Ability to Think Like a Singer–This is invaluable if you are trying to get your songs cut.
I once wrote with a guitarist who came up with a line that sounded great on guitar but
was very awkward and uncomfortable to sing. When I said that the line “didn’t sing well”
he looked at me as if I were nuts. But I would bet my car that the difficulty of singing that
melody made the song less pitchable-I certainly didn’t want to sing it! Some lyrics also
look great on paper but feel awkward to sing-once you learn about singer’s diction in
voice class you’ll understand why. As you learn about your voice in singing lessons you
develop an instinctive feel for which melodies and lyrics flow vocally, and which don’t.
The more singable the song, the more pitchable it is.
• Better Work Tapes and Communication With Co-Writers–Even the aforementioned
frog-voiced writer has to sing for co-writers and make work tapes for demo producers,
demo singers, etc. Developing your range and pitch accuracy will make it much easier
for you to communicate to the world what you hear in your head. One writer I know was
only writing lyrics though she had definite melodic ideas in her head– after she took
some lessons she gained the confidence to also contribute musically.
• Singing is Fun!–Singing well is even more fun. When you sing correctly it feels good
and endorphins kick in. Singers often experience a “singer’s high” akin to a runner’s high.
I have on occasion been in a funk, forced myself to do some vocal practicing, and sung
myself into a good mood. And when I’m having fun I have a better creative flow, so I
write more and better songs.
The above points pertain to all songwriters. The following points are for songwriters who perform at
writer’s nights, song circles, and other gigs.
• The Better You Sing, the More People Listen–Rivers Rutherford, Gretchen Peters,
Leslie Satcher and Jeffrey Steele are all hit songwriters as well as wonderful singers. At
live shows their singing ability draws you in, then they deliver the songwriting goods.
Developing your voice helps promote your songs. A while back I heard a successful
writer squeak out his recent George Strait hit at the Bluebird Cafe–it was barely
recognizable from the version I’d heard on the radio. We in Nashville pride ourselves on
being able to distinguish a great song regardless of the singer, but had I heard the
writer’s version first I honestly don’t think I would have recognized just how good the
song was. I’m not saying that a writer needs to study singing for years and try to develop
a star quality voice–I’m saying that some voice study can and should improve tone,
range, pitch accuracy, sustenance, and overall delivery of a song.
• The Nerves Thing–Playing out is part of the job. It’s how we try our new songs out on
people and how we network. The more you learn your voice and what it can do, the
easier it is to perform. I’ve had episodes of world class stage fright but I knew my voice
would stay solid, which ultimately eased my nerves. Because I’m fairly comfortable with
my voice, stage fright never prevents me from getting my songs out to the world.
If you decide to try some voice classes, make sure to let your teacher know that you are a writer.
Better yet, spell out your goals in the first conversation: do you want to sing your own demos, knock
everyone out at live performances, get rid of the sore throats you get during writing sessions, simply
get more comfortable with your voice, or what? Being clear about your goals will help your teacher
develop a sensible study path for you.