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How Do Artists Achieve a Unique, Signature Style? Insights from a Classical Voice Teacher

How Do Artists Achieve a Unique, Signature Style? Insights from a Classical Voice Teacher

My voice teacher once told me that as a classical singing student, I was not competing against my classmates, the best singers in the country, or even the greatest performers of the modern age. No, I was competing against Maria Callas (1923 – 1977), Rosa Ponselle (1897 – 1981), and Pauline Viardot (1821 – 1910).

For those of you who don’t know who these ladies are, just imagine setting your performance standards against Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga. The greatest performances of classical music have already happened, hundreds of years ago even! Performance practice is set, what could I possibly contribute? The answer is: me.

The quest for musical individuality is a journey that musicians in any genre must embark upon. Finding your unique, signature style is a significant milestone in your artistic development. As a classical singer, I can decide what story I want to tell with each piece. As a voice teacher, I try to guide my students on this transformative journey. In this blog, we’ll explore the various techniques and strategies that can help musicians discover their distinctive musical identity.

1. Studying the Text

Your first step is to read the lyrics because it’s essential to know what you are singing about. Understanding the lyrics, their historical context, and the emotions they convey is crucial. Your interpretation of the text should guide your musical choices, dictating the dynamics, phrasing, and emotional nuances of your performance.

In classical vocal music, the text plays a pivotal role in shaping your performance. Often the lyrics are written in a foreign language.  After translating the text, I usually break it down into smaller components. Let’s take an example from a contemporary song. The chorus from “Falling Slowly” is “Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time,”. I can break this down into simpler sentences and write down my initial thoughts: 

Take this sinking boat: It’s a command, life or death, crossroads in a relationship,  desperation.   

Point it home: It’s a command, fight for survival, hope.

We’ve still got time: two people, hope, working together, a plea.

From here, I can figure out what I want to convey to an audience. Should I sing the phrase with more urgency or more heartache? Am I angry or hopeful? How might this change once I get more information from the second verse?
 
By studying the text closely, you can infuse your renditions with a level of depth and sincerity that is uniquely yours. Your audience will appreciate the authenticity and emotional resonance of your performances, which are a hallmark of a well-developed, signature style.

2. Listening to Different Artistic Interpretations

After gaining some initial insights from the text, you can then listen to multiple interpretations of the same song by different artists. So often my students get stuck listening to one recording, and will even dislike a song because they dislike the performer. Personally, I prefer covers and remixes to the original recordings. It feels like breaking the rules somehow.

Listening to different artists can be an eye-opening experience as it highlights the incredible diversity of styles within any musical genre. For example, take a timeless piece like “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley. His intoxicating crooning surrounds the listener until we can’t help but fall in love with him. Now listen to the hauntingly fragile version by Haley Reinhart. You can almost hear her smiling at this beautiful little secret. Now would it surprise you to know that this melody is centuries old? It’s based off of “Plaisir D’Amour,” a French love song by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini that has been performed regularly since the 1700s!

Listening to diverse renditions can help you identify the aspects of a song that resonate with you personally. Perhaps one artist’s emotional depth in their rendition or another’s unique phrasing captures your imagination. By exposing yourself to these variations, you’ll begin to define what you appreciate most in music, paving the way for your own distinctive style.

3. Copying People You Admire

One of the most effective ways to begin your journey towards a unique style is by copying the artists you admire. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a crucial step in your development. By imitating their techniques, vocal nuances, and phrasing, you gain valuable insights into the artistry that moves you. It’s a bit like learning to paint by replicating masterpieces in a museum. This process allows you to understand and internalize the elements that draw you to a particular artist’s work. Then, you can take elements from different artists and begin to sculpt a style that is uniquely your own. 

The ABA’ form of a baroque aria is ideal for this type of practice. You sing one section of music, then a completely different section before returning to the original section with added musical flourishes (runs, cadenzas, ornamentation, etc.). I can steal a high note from one recording and then an interesting cadenza from another. As long as I am not copying an entire performance, I can try it all out and see how it fits in my voice. You can do this for any type of music.

Remember, the key here is not to simply mimic but to learn. Pay close attention to the subtleties of their performance. Are they using legato in a unique way? Is their vocal quality powerful or delicate? What makes their interpretation of a song so captivating? As you dissect these aspects, you’ll start to develop a deeper understanding of your own preferences and what resonates with you as an artist.

4. Experimenting with Different Musical Approaches

Once you’ve gathered insights from these exercises it’s time to experiment. As a voice teacher, I encourage my students to be fearless in exploring different musical approaches. As Ms. Frizzle always said, “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!” Try singing the same piece in contrasting styles, tempos, or even different languages. Who cares if it doesn’t sound amazing? Try something else! Experimentation is the playground where your unique style begins to take shape.

Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and incorporate unexpected elements into your music. Remember that the process of discovering your signature style is about self-expression and authenticity. Embrace the freedom to explore, and you’ll uncover hidden facets of your musical identity.

Conclusion

In the world of vocal music, finding your unique, signature style is a journey of self-discovery and artistic growth. As a classical singer and voice instructor, I’ve experienced and witnessed the transformational power of these techniques. Copying artists you admire, exploring different interpretations of songs, experimenting with musical approaches, and studying the text are all essential steps in crafting your distinctive musical artistry.

Remember that there is no rush in this process. Your style will evolve and mature over time as you gain experience and refine your craft. Give yourself the freedom to change your mind and try something new. Embrace the beauty of your musical journey, and let your style emerge naturally. In the end, it’s the authenticity and passion you bring to your music that will set you apart and make the whole process feel exciting and new.

By: Emily Gradowski, Voice & Piano Instructor

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