Good musical sense is the ability to know, without being directed, what to play and where to play it and, just as importantly, when not to play at all. Jazz genius Miles Davis used to preach that music is always a combination of sound and silence, that’s the source of the dynamic, and the silence, or the phrasing caused by the silence between notes, is as important as the notes of the sound. That, in brief, is musical sense and not all musicians have it.
Since my return to Guyana, I’ve done some work with local musicians, at various times, and with three, in particular, who have good musical sense. In my relationship with those three gentlemen, I feel free to make suggestions or comment on various aspects of a musical career – including song-writing and recording – but it is a subject I avoid with performers generally because egos can get in the way and can cause advice given sincerely to be often taken as criticism.
However, over the past three months several people in the creative corral here, including the three referred to, have suggested that I should relay some of the things I’ve learned in my 50 years in the business of music, so as the New Year dawns here is some unsolicited advice for people interested in a musical career:
Talent alone won’t do it;
you must be committed
Talent is the prime requisite, yes, but there are many talented people who have failed as musical performers; I know of several. There are a host of other things that have to be in place for a musical career to work – determination; discipline; focus – and the competition is enormous and fierce so that luck and circumstances can also come into play, but commitment must be there.
Barbadian singing star Rihanna, for instance, happened to be in the right place at the right time to be spotted by a US producer who took the chance to work and develop her potential. Luck, and her unique look, was on her side, but her willingness to put in the hard work, for small money, to build her career, was critical.
However, don’t sit around waiting for luck to strike. I’ve heard singers here say they want somebody to discover them. The reality is that the Rihanna story is not the norm. The majority of people who succeed in the music business make it by dint of their commitment (sacrifice, discipline and persistence) combined with their talent. Behind almost every successful musical career is considerable sacrifice, usually involving some devilishly hard times, like the then unknown group called the Beatles spending years in small German nightclubs learning their craft.
A more recent example is the popular US singer Jewel who was poverty-stricken and living in her van while travelling about the country doing street performances and coffee-house gigs trying to get known.
Put in the time
to learn your craft
If you’re a singer, and you can’t afford a teacher, listen to singers, all kinds of singers, good ones and great ones and bad ones, and dissect their work. You will begin to understand not just the techniques of singing (breathing, projection, tone, etc) but you will begin to see what style is. There is no school for this kind of knowledge. It’s something you have to acquire on your own, and then use to find your own way. While this commentary is aimed at music, the same is true of dance or literature or other creative arts. Immerse yourself in the work of the other creators in your field – be it live, video or stills. See how they do what they do.
If you’re a songwriter, take the time to examine other writers’ work; where they use a chord; how they develop lyric ideas; how they construct melody. Professional songwriters go so far as to actually study the images of various famous singers, and styles, so that they can tailor the song to match the performer. Paul Anka’s classic hit ‘My Way’ was not a “bulb lighting up” moment.
Anka wrote that song specifically for Frank Sinatra based on Sinatra’s image as a maverick and a fighter who lived life on his own terms, despite the criticisms, and was looking back on it with no regrets. Anka wrote it, but it sounded as if came straight from Sinatra’s gut; that’s a great craftsman at work.
I had a good laugh in Trinidad carnival many years ago while chatting with the calypsonian Crazy, who writes his own material, but will also use another writer’s work. He told me: “This young boy bring me a good song the other day, but I couldn’t use it.” I asked him why; he said. “The song didn’t resemble me.” Crazy’s remark was comical, but it was also true: he meant that the song did not fit with his image. Hopefully, the young songwriter must have learned something about craft from that exchange.
Be prepared to work
Rivers of money won’t wash over you overnight. Almost every popular performer has a background of working free, or almost free, in order to get a chance to display their ability. Bob Marley cleaned studios waiting for a recording session where he could present a song. Tradewinds paid their way to Trinidad carnival and played free shows to get exposure. Paul Anka moved from his family’s home in Ottawa, and hung around recording sessions in Nashville on the chance that a singer short of a song would choose one of Paul’s. To get known, the then unknown Sparrow would sing at Trinidad parties for only food and drinks and find your own transportation. And part of this process, for Guyanese performers, will almost inevitably mean leaving the comfort and security of home. If you want to make a musical career, you have to go where the opportunities are, and right now that’s not here.
Aim for originality
The unique sound, the original style, the new approach is the one constant in every successful musical career. With no introduction, Michael Bolton sings a phrase and you know who it is. In the delivery of just the word “baby” the singer tells you it’s Billie Holiday. You know from the vocal sound of one word whether it’s Ray Charles or Shaggy or Michael Bublé. If your vocal sound is not unusual, find your own style, or your own message (Dylan, Marley, JayZ) to set you apart. Time and again, the performer who breaks out from the pack and gets attention is the one who sounds or looks or presents differently. Good luck to the boys copying Jamaican singers here; all they’re doing is promoting someone else’s originality.
Nothing I’ve said above originated with me. As most hopeful performers, I learned those essentials by trial and error. The current hopefuls, each in their own way, will have to take a similar path. Success is a journey with no shortcuts.