Do you want to be a great singer? Then sing the song.

Do you want to be a great singer? Then sing the song. March 24, 2015

Harry Connick Jr. you do runs homemade memeOne of my favorite contemporary musicians is Harry Connick, Jr. While I like some of his albums better than others, I respect his commitment to the craft and his deep understanding of American music and songwriting. I never watched American Idol at all until he became a judge. Then I tuned in last year just to hear his critiques, because they were so honest and insightful. Okay, maybe also to stare dreamily at Keith Urban, but never mind that for now.

ANY-way, before American Idol got smart and put Connick on the judges’ panel, they brought him in as a mentor on an earlier season. For those who don’t watch the show (which is okay, really—so not worth half a year of your life), a “mentor” is another celebrity brought in to coach the young singers through one particular week on the show. This mentor is (supposedly) chosen for his expertise in the week’s theme. In this season, the singers were given a week to prepare one current hit back-to-back with a Great American Songbook standard. (Which is a really dumb idea when you think about it, but I digress.) So, Harry was the obvious go-to guy to coach them through the standards. Really, I can’t think of anyone else his generation who would be better.
The problem was that while all of these 20-something aged singers were very talented, Harry walked in thinking they would also have some understanding of what they had chosen to sing about. He thought wrong. And they got a rude, but necessary awakening.

As a teacher, I love Harry’s approach here. He’s absolutely ruthless, but his care for both the songs and the singers is obvious. His task is two-fold: 1) To force the singers to process the lyrics, and 2) To help them craft a vocal built around those lyrics, not their vocal. Again and again, he stops them when they try to add runs and ornamentation, bringing it back to what the words are actually saying. Finally, he launches into this brilliant summing-up, culminating with what every singer or aspiring singer should have taped to his wall, scribbled on his mirror, inked on his hand… whatever: “Do you want to be a great singer? Then sing the song!” Or, as the great Glen Payne might have said, “Paint the picture. Just paint the picture.” Really, the advice is the same, just applied in different contexts. Here are a few of my favorite nuggets:
“Someone to Watch Over Me,” with Angie Miller
Harry: “There’s a little turnaround at the end where you go ‘Over me…,’ and you sang a lick after that, and I have no idea why you did that.”
Angie: “You don’t like that?”
Harry: “No, because it’s silly, and it doesn’t mean anything.”
“My Funny Valentine,” with Amber Holcomb
Harry: “What’s the first line of the bridge? Is your…”
Amber: “Figure less than Greek.”
Harry: “What does that mean?”
Amber: “Is your figure… and the way you are… less than Greek?”
Harry: “What is ‘Greek?’ What are we talking about?”
Amber: “Uh…”
“You’ve Changed,” with Candice Glover — After Candice runs through it again with his advice: “The way you just sang it, man, it’s smoking. Now, maybe some of the 14-year-olds in the audience won’t get it, but I would be willing to take that risk.”
“Stormy Weather,” with Kree Harrison — I actually really like the bit of Kree’s singing that’s shown in the clip. But judging by Harry’s reaction and the way she ended up performing it, she was adding way more gratuitous runs and licks that aren’t shown here, proving that she still needed to grasp the core melody and lyrical meaning. I loved Harry’s comment about a high note in the arrangement: “As soon as you go like this, ‘Walk in the sun once more…’ [imitates crowd cheers and applause] Wait, what are we clapping for? This girl is in the throes of depression! That makes no sense!”
The very end of this clip shows some of the judges’ commentary after Kree’s performance. In her nervousness, her vocal ended up being neither fish nor fowl, still with lots of runs, yet not elaborate enough for some of the judges. Keith Urban gave the most sensible critique by suggesting she should simply have picked a different song for her voice. But in this clip, Randy Jackson says she should have done a more pointedly bluesy arrangement, thereby showing he didn’t get Harry’s point at all. It gets really good when Keith literally drags Harry up on stage to spar with Randy Jackson. Dat face at 7:44. Burn.
“Randy, Randy, stop.”
[Note: Harry uses a couple of crude euphemisms while giving some particularly passionate coaching advice.] Of all the contestants, Candice Glover did the best job of putting Harry’s advice into practice with her Billie Holiday cover, “You’ve Changed.” She does employ some runs, but they’re sparing and purposeful, and she has clearly attained a thorough understanding of the text. The result is both emotional and beautifully controlled.
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  • Terry Franklin

    I agree with Harry. Too many singers make more of their singing than the song itself. The song should rule. And that starts with the lyric. How many of us have heard someone say, “I love the way__________ sings the National Anthem!” Usually this means that drawn-out style, with tons of hot licks, climaxing with the high note of the song going 4 steps above what was originally written. Really? To me, a certain degree of humility is called for when singing our country’s song. Example: I saw the lead singer of the rock group Train do an admirable job on the song. No hot-dogging — he just sang it straight up, just like it was written. I thought better of him afterwards.

  • Exactly. And this really applies to any performance art—whether it be singing, playing an instrument, or reciting Shakespeare. If you don’t respect the composer’s intention, or the writer’s intention, you’re making the performance all about you. You can’t just “wing it,” you need to get down to the nitty gritty if you want to have any hope of conveying the intent of the piece with respect and good taste.

  • Jeremy

    I think this advice fits with Christian music as well and it is kind of going back to the basics. This is advice that should be taken seriously by singers of all styles and genres. The lyric and the message comes first and what supports that comes second. It is great that you can sing licks, you can sing really high, you can sing really low, or really loud but does that help you get your point across. What are you really singing about? Are you being effective trying to get your point across? If you are singing songs like Til the Storm Passes By or It Is Well With My Soul, these are songs that have great distress. They resolve into hopefulness but you shouldn’t sing “In the dark of the midnight have I oft hid my face. While the storm howls above me and there is no hiding place. Mid the crash of the thunder precious Lord hear my cry. Keep me safe till the storm passes by” dancing around stage. Or at least you shouldn’t. You are scared and crying out for someone to help you. I think attentiveness to this kind of thing is a part of perfecting your craft as a singer.

  • Very true!

  • Terry Franklin

    A singer has nothing, without the song.