I was very sad to hear of Whitney Houston’s death last month. She possessed an extraordinary voice that appeared to have no limitations, her vocal style influenced thousands of singers of my generation and since.
Unlike many chart singers of today, Whitney cut her teeth as a working singer before hitting the big time. She worked as a session singer, backing artists such as Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson. Her mother, Cissy Houston, is a highly respected singer who has had both a solo career and a session career working with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, Bette Midler and David Bowie. Naturally, she mentored and helped Whitney to understand the ways of the industry. I expect she was able to open a few musical doors for her talented daughter, and who blames her. In addition, Whitney’s cousin, Dionne Warwick, and Cissy’s friend, Aretha Franklin, were on hand to guide, inspire and advise the young singer. So it is not surprising that Whitney developed into a great performer blending her natural ability with those unique opportunities and influences. Many a singer, I am sure, would say this was a dream scenario. Learning on the job and from ‘highly qualified experts’.
‘One of the greatest singers that ever stood behind a microphone’. Aretha Franklin
I don’t know if she truly felt the songs she sang time after time, maybe she just had a natural gift that allowed her to deliver with total conviction and passion. For me, The Greatest Love of All only ever sounds corny when being sung by someone else (sorry, George). Hearing her version still makes my heart swell and eyes mist up. No one can doubt that of late she did not sing like the vocal goddess she was at the height of her career. But even in her worst vocal moments musicality and emotion oozed out of her. It seems so sad that an amazing voice, gorgeous looks, supportive family, fame, awards and adoring fans were still not enough to bring her happiness.
The lesson here is that happiness does not stem from how you sound, look or how successful you are as a performer. So often a singer will define themselves by how well they think they sing or what they believe others think of their voice. I know those thoughts, I have certainly had them myself! In a recent conversation about Whitney, fellow vocal coach, Jono McNeil and I both agreed that it is important not to hinge our self-worth as a singer and person on what we believe about our voice or performance. Whitney and Amy Winehouse both demonstrated that no matter how successful one becomes as a singer, ultimately, if one is not happy within all that success stuff is worthless.
If you are inclined to be down on your voice or performance then my advice is to get proactive. Set some goals for improving, find some singing buddies who are striving for similar things, go out and get as much performance experience as you can, yes that includes singing for free and karaoke! Find an inspiring teacher or mentor, be objectively critical, strive for ‘direction, not perfection’ and focus on the passion that drives you to sing. It is also important to stop and recognise that we are fortunate and blessed to have the freedom to follow our passion and to sing. Vocal technique is there to serve your creativity and allow your soul to soar.
Allow the Whitney’s of this world to inspire your singing and to be grateful that they exist for our ears to enjoy.
‘Learning to love yourself, it is, the greatest love of all’
Wishing you happy singing, always.