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Singers: Are You Well Equipped?

Tessa (left) performing in Eric Clapton’s band

Why are so many singers remaining uneducated about live sound and damaging their voices as a result? – asks Tessa Niles.

Tessa Niles is one of the most successful backing singers of all time, having performed alongside David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Eric Clapton. 

She explains how live sound can interfere with even the most polished vocal technique. 

Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to sing and a little boy who wanted to play guitar more than anything else in the world.

Their parents invested in extensive musical training. But there was one big difference between them…

Let us tell you a frightening fairy tale…

The boy’s parents bought the best quality guitar, effects pedals and amplifier they could afford and he gradually learnt how to play and to control his own sound.

The little girl had no equipment of her own. No one felt it was necessary.

Both musicians worked hard at their craft and took every opportunity to perform. This often meant working in places with less than perfect sound systems.

The boy made sure he could always hear himself and learnt how to speak to the sound man to ask for improvements.

The girl did not know how to ask for the sound she wanted and often used microphones that were old and monitors that were not suited to her voice. The sound guy would roll his eyes at the girl because she couldn’t communicate her needs.

Sometimes the onstage sound was so bad she didn’t even sound like herself.

Often the girl could not hear herself properly and as a result began to compensate by over singing. She didn’t know she was damaging her voice. It was a case of do that or not be heard.

One day the girl lost her beautiful voice…

Even superstars suffer

Sadly, this less than fairy tale ending is an all too real scenario for singers worldwide.

Thankfully voice coaching and vocal health advice are widely available, with extensive information ensuring good habits right from the start of a singers life.

So why then do music’s M.V.P’s such as Adele, Meghan Trainor, Steven Tyler, Sam Smith and John Meyer encounter grave, almost career ending problems? Surely their technique is sound?

Doctors provide solutions when problems are finally diagnosed but for me the real issue lies in the failure to address how these might develop in the first place.

When looking into Adele’s vocal problems I did not find one ‘specialist’ who addressed where these problems may have begun.

A singer will encounter any number of monitoring problems throughout their career with almost every gig providing a challenge. How many times have I seen vocalists wildly gesticulating at the sound man, to be turned up, with the sound man battling to keep the onstage levels manageable.

Bad monitoring radically alters the dynamic range a singer can use.

If a singer cannot hear themselves they cannot sing like themselves. Bad monitoring radically alters the dynamic range a singer can use. Often it becomes a competition to be heard above amplified instruments.

Lets face it, that’s an onstage battle that a singer is never going to win. As a former alumni of The Brit School in London, I find it hard to believe that Adele did not undergo proper vocal training. So why then the problems?

Granted, the rigours of touring put a huge strain on the vocal cords but at stadium level these artists have access to the best technical equipment and support available.What then are we missing?

Invest in your vocal performance

In my opinion a singer should consider investing in their own equipment the same way other musicians do. Right from the get go. With the majority of singers working in clubs, pubs, hotels, church choirs, without the benefit of a dedicated sound guy, this is so important. Because the more understanding and control we singers have, the more we can help enhance and protect our fragile instruments.

5 tips for singers

  1. Invest in your own equipment the same way musicians who play instruments do.
  2. With hundreds of microphones/monitors/in-ears available, don’t simply choose the most basic. Take the time to find out the best options for your voice.
  3. Invest in the tools of your trade.
  4. Prioritise long term vocal health and start good habits whilst young.
  5. If your voice hurts, stop and seek expert advice.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Nicole Hammett Nicole Hammett - MusicForKids

Nicole is an accomplished performer for one so young, with a wonderful stage presence and is compelling to watch. The choice of Carmina Burana was performed with full dramatic effect. However the key of the second song was wrong for Nicole and she struggled to fully show off her voice as she needed to push too much. Taking two songs from different genres can work if the arrangement is well thought out. Also when choosing songs for younger performers, consider the lyrical content. It’s not always convincing to hear a young person sing songs with an adult content.

Tessa NilesTessa Niles first entered the music scene in 1981 and has since become one of the best known session singers of the past three decades. Her first big break came when Sting asked her to join The Police on the Synchronicity world tour. With her versatile voice and ability to blend within a myriad of styles, Tessa has hundreds of recording credits and live appearances to her name.Tessa has recently turned author with her first book, a memoir titled ‘Backtrack’ – the voice behind music’s greatest stars. Recently described as ‘the most famous person you’ve probably never heard of’ Tessa proves that you can still shine brightly whilst in the background. www.tessaniles.com | www.backtrackbook.com