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  Finding Your Own Voice

Discover, and cultivate, what makes your vocals unique

By Debra Davis

As young, budding singers, we learn and develop our voices by imitating others. I remember listening to Linda Ronstadt and Ella Fitzgerald records and playing them over and over until I felt I mastered (or at least got close to) every lick or inflection or sustained note they executed so well. Now I see kids at my shows who sing along with my own songs and mimic my phrasing and style just like I did with singers I admired. (What a good feeling!) Emulating other artists really is a great way to ripen the voice and work on your chops.

However, as you progress in your singing, it's important to realize that there's no other singer out there in this teeming-with-talent world who sounds exactly like you--and that's a beautiful thing. We all have our own individual sound and style and offering; when you discover that, you start being recognized as an artist in your own right.

Finding your voice is a noble quest. Those who are born with a very distinguishing quality or tone may come by it more easily, and the characteristics that set singers apart from one other may be more obvious in some than others. For example, Chrissie Hynde's vibrato is a trademark for her, whereas Jakob Dylan's (and dad Bob's) tone is one of a kind. But it goes beyond sound; some singers who may not have such an unusual vocal quality have developed an identifiable style. There's the gliding, conversational style of Joni Mitchell, or the tasty mix of chest and head voice and air that Sarah McLachlan uses so effectively.

Pulling Off the Covers

If you're working in a cover band, of course, the tendency is to imitate the artist you're covering, and for the most part, that's what the audience wants to hear. But it's OK to weave in your own personality and interpretation of the song, and to find a way to deliver it that speaks in your "voice." Doing a Mariah Carey tune can be a challenging feat for many singers, given her lofty range and vocal calisthenics. Don't feel like you have to attempt to do all or any of the licks she pulls off. If you're shaky at it, skip it--it's better to nail the pitch and deliver the song with conviction than to slip and slide through vocal gymnastics that aren't "you."

Finding Where You Shine

Being in a cover band is great for finding where you shine. Singers need to try a bunch of different styles and listen to an endless variety of music, and soak it all in. It's almost like the "you are what you eat" concept; we can develop our own style by combining those that we feel most akin to. Also, be honest with yourself. If you aren't really slick at singing a specific style like R&B, let it go. Don't try to be someone you're not. If you have to cover tunes in a genre that isn't your strong area, fine--give it your best and sell it in your own way. But as an artist, be real.

Owning the Tone

Everyone is born with a certain "sound" to their voice. Many people sing similarly to the way in which they speak; others can talk in a mousy little voice and then belt out a wide-angle tone as if they're channeling someone else. Maybe you have a lot of grit and girth to your voice, so singing the blues or bluesy rock might be a better road than trying to be a convincing jazz singer. If people say that "your voice really reaches me when you're singing high and light," then don't try to be Janis Joplin.

Honing the Style

If you write and/or perform original material, it's easier to develop your own vibe or style because it's something you're creating from inside. But even in this situation, there's a great deal of discovery. Are you trying to wail like Rod Stewart or Kurt Cobain when your music and voice speak more like James Taylor? As an artist, what story are you trying to tell? Is your vocal delivery telling it in the most effective way?

It's helpful to record yourself at many different types of gigs (more on this in my next column). Find the good stuff, the areas where you sound most "at home," and build on that. Where does your voice really start to sparkle? On what songs, in what range? I'll say it again: Don't limit yourself, just make the most of what you have.

Of course, we can and should constantly work to improve our voices--the sound, the versatility and the ability. And it is important to be somewhat like a chameleon in the music world. But the more you identify yourself and find your own voice, the more people will see you as an artist and a musician.

Debra Davis has honed her style singing the gamut of gigs and performing her own songs from her debut CD, Uninvited Guests, available in retail stores nationwide and on the Internet.