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After 15 years of practice...

Since 14, I was determined to be a great singer. But my pitch was bad, my tone was bad, and everyone said I was just not a singer.

At 17, I started taking voice lessons, and practicing two hours every night. I’d go into a soundproof room for two hours of long-tones, scales, arpeggios, and practicing specific song phrases over and over.

At 18, I started touring, doing two to four shows a week, always as the lead singer. Often they were outdoor shows, sometimes with no PA system at all, so I really had to learn how to project to be heard.

At 19, I was still practicing two hours a night, but still having a problem with pitch. People kept telling me I was just not a singer - that I should give it up, and find a real singer.

Then I heard a man giving a demonstration of Indian vocal music, and his pitch was so perfect, I went rushing up to him afterwards to ask how he did it.

I said, “How are you able to hit the notes so perfectly dead-on? Are you just natually good at this?”

He said, “No! When I first started singing, not only was I not within an inch of the note - I wasn’t within a football field of the note! I was horrible!”

“So how did you do it?”

He jabbed a finger in my chest, and looked me in the eye. “Practice. Thousands of hours of practice, and eventually I got it. I can show you how.”

For the next year, I’d take a bus out to his place every Wednesday night as he’d teach me some esoteric ways of thinking about singing. (I mentioned them in a previous article, here.)

I continued touring for years, always as the lead singer. Still taking voice lessons with different teachers in different cities. Still practicing tone, scales and trouble spots for an hour every night.

At 25, I recorded my first album. When I gave it to someone who was a real mentor to me, he gave it a focused listen, then said, “Derek, you’re just not a singer. You really need to stop trying. Admit you’re a songwriter, and find a real singer.”

But I bounced away from that meeting unphased. I knew I just had more work to do.

I toured for three more years after that, always pushing, always practicing, always determined to be a great singer.

At 28, I started noticing that my voice was getting good! I recorded a few new songs, and for the first time, I really really liked the vocals!

At 29, I had done it. After 15 years of practice, and about 1000 live shows, I was finally a very good singer, at least by my own standards. (You can judge for yourself at Old stuff at the bottom. New stuff at the top.)

Someone who heard me for the first time then said, “Singing is a gift you’re either born with or you’re not. You’re lucky. You were born with it!”

I had to remember this story now because I’m spending most of my time doing things I’m not good at. It’s overwhelming, sometimes.

I’m really trying to be a great computer programmer, and so in awe of the people who seem to do it naturally. I’m just such a beginner.

It may take me another 15 years, but I’m determined.

Reader Comments (4)

You want to be a good computer programmer? Get on to IRC (Internet Relay Chat). I have been doing so for a number of years now and can get help at a moments notice. You may think this is cheating, but for me it means if i work on something every night, as i do it means i can continue with other tasks around new things im taking on.

Try Quakenet and the channel #w3 (Channel i started which has freelancers, business owners and newbies covering all coding and programming techniques as well as other online development terms such as SEO)

There is also #html #css #php #mysql #c++ #asp etc etc

To stay on topic, i am a drummer of 3 and a bit years. The two guys i learnt with have over 20 years experience between them on the drums and stringed instruments and keys. I too had to take it on day by day....

The past week and half i have had inflamed tendans in my left wrist which has meant i am not able to continue my drumming routine, instead i have focused on counting, stretching and light exercise.

Where there is a will there is a way! You sound very eager which i love to hear!

June 16 | Unregistered CommenterMartinT

Programming gets so difficult to do, especially for the internet. Who's your server matters, what browser people use matters, & in my experience most "professional" programmers are willing to tell you "to get this to work, switch servers" which can't really be the solution....

Anyway, clearly the importance of practice is overlooked these days in this "get rich quick" & entitlement culture. It probably takes 1000 hours for a gifted musician to master an instrument. Probably somewhere between 5000 %10,000 hours for the rest of us. Please note that practicing isn't just playing your own songs.

I work a LOT with people who have long standing ear problems. This is what I've learned over the years:

There is no such thing as a simply bad ear or good ear. Instead there are several interlocking skills involved. Pitch memory (holding onto a note), key memory (staying in tune in a key), ear for timbre and overtones, as well as sight reading and general musical knowledge.

Sometimes if one of those skills is overdeveloped, compared to the others, they can cause real problems, especially for untrained musicians who don't know lots of ways to work around those problems. The result is that these people come off sounding like they simply have a bad ear --when that's not true.

For example, some people have *very* strong pitch memory. You give them a C, they've got it solid. Then you give them an Ab, they still sing that C, you give them a B, they sing a C. That's 'cause they can't wipe out the first note they heard.

Some folks have such strong ear for timbre --for the color of a tone-- that they hear overtones more strongly than the note itself. That means they're more likely to sing an E or a G, when you give them a C.

After a while with these kinds of mistakes, people get very discouraged. They think they're just "bad singers", and they're too scared to try. Emotional blocks can add enormously to the problem. The more scared you are, the less you will dare to try.

With steady work and support, many many people who start out sounding completely tone-deaf can sing in tune with ease. Start with your strengths and build on them. Got strong ear for harmonies but can't match pitches easily? Do ear training with a guitar or piano to back up the pitches. Figure out where your strengths and weaknesses are, and fill in the gaps.

Good luck with this!

THANKS for the inspiration, Derek (ha- I think...the truth sure can be sobering).

Reminds me of a friend who says back in the day when he was at the center of Motown and the like (playing on/producing literally hundreds of gold records), a bunch of the top guys lived in a big house together - all extremely focused on developing their craft - but nobody could outwork one guy, nobody. He was relentless, just wouldn't stop, was practicing/writing 18 hrs p/day...Stevie Wonder.

Not that we will all have his success by doing the same, but neither would he, without it.

Having that kind of will and drive is usually the difference in reaching true MASTERY (different from commercial success), in ANY skill, any endeavor.

Sure points to why part-timers will never inherit the music biz - or God forbid if they do, the level of artistry will be a LOT lower.

But also makes it frustrating to read of the top DIY artists having such little time for actual music (either I. Heap or A. Palmer recently saying 5%).

Not sure what the solution is, other than a strong team, but that takes major funding of some sort...

June 16 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

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