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What Singers Can Learn from Elton John

What Singers Can Learn from Elton JohnDuring an era when blaring lead-guitars reigned supreme, Elton’s piano based tunes set him apart as a master of contemporary melody and composition -says Daniel K. Robinson.

Born Reginald Dwight (1947), Sir Elton John is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s great pop-rock music influencers.

A controversial figure in many respects (his support for gay rights and criticism for a lack of compassion among religions), Sir Elton is known to speak his mind with authenticity and personally grounded honesty.

Sir Elton is known to speak his mind with authenticity and personally grounded honesty

It’s this very same honesty that permeates his music and vocal performance; winning him acclaim the world over.

“On Such a Timeless Flight”

So what can we learn from Elton John’s career which spans an incredible six decades? More to the point, what can’t we learn?

In order to keep this review brief, let’s focus in on a pivotal historical period in Elton’s career: 1986–87.

The lead-up to this period includes Elton’s hit records Honky Château and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Collectively these two albums contained seven hit singles.

In keeping with his skyrocketing success, Elton’s tour schedule was unrelenting. And this brings us to his 1986 Australian tour.

Check out his live recording of Rocket Man, 14th December, 1986

I spent much of my early to mid-teens listening to Elton on my Mum and Dad’s record player, so the shocking news that Elton John had undergone throat surgery in Australia (my home country) was of particular interest.

I can still remember being fascinated by the need for Elton to apply ‘absolute silence’ post-surgery.

Why? What had led to Elton’s voice damage, and more importantly, how could I, as an aspiring young singer, avoid a similar fate; or was it just the inevitable outcome of a working vocalist?

“Burning Out His Fuse”

I think there are five key observations we can draw from this period in Elton John’s career.

1. Even Celebrities Are Human

1-HumanHuman anatomy has no knowledge of our modern obsession with ‘celebrity.’ It doesn’t matter how famous you become, your anatomy will always be human: susceptible to the wear and tear of misuse just like the rest of the human race. In the case of Elton John, the removal of vocal fold polyps suggests persistent habits of vocally abusive routines.

2. Learn to Sing with Your Prime Voice

2-PrimeVoiceOne could argue that Elton has had two distinctly different vocal careers: one as a tenor, and the second (post-surgery) as a baritone. It’s hard to say whether it was the surgery techniques of the 1980’s (primitive by today’s standards) or the enforced discovery of the prime voice he had never exploited before that altered his iconic sound. What we do know is that when a singer spends too much time outside their ‘prime voice’ (typically an octave-and-a-half in the middle of their full range) the voice fatigues at a higher rate. The lesson: search for keys that suit your vocal sweet spot (prime voice).

3. Vocal Damage Does Not End Your Singing Career

3-DamageDespite the confronting need for vocal fold surgery Elton did not give his singing away to the memory of ‘what was!’ Indeed, it was less than two years later that he performed to five sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden (New York). Thirty years on and the surgery techniques, accompanied by well-honed speech therapy methods, facilitate far more consistent outcomes following vocal fold surgery. Our lesson today: while seeking to avoid vocal wear and tear at all costs, vocal damage need not end a person’s ability to sing over the long term.

4. Learn to use Vocal Effects by Choice

4-VocalFXDid you notice that in the clip of Elton John singing Rocket Man (which I love!) his voice regularly employed the guttural effect known as vocal fry. This effect almost certainly contributed to the development of the afore mentioned vocal fold polyps. Vocal fry, when used, by choice, is an important tool in the contemporary singer’s kit-bag; but when the voice employs the effect by virtue of ‘habit’ the vocal folds nearly always live on the edge of despair. If you can’t turn a vocal effect on and off at will, your voice may well suffer a similar fate to that of the 1980’s Elton.

5. Sing with Authenticity

5-AuthenticSo as not to finish our review on a negative note, allow me to highlight the wonder of Elton’s performance style. The positivity of Elton John’s presentation is evidenced by the breadth of his material’s appeal. Personally, I love Elton’s vocals because they contain a raw authenticity that connects with the human psyche. I think that should be the ultimate aim of every singer: connect with the audience.
There is no doubt that the voice that lives in the celebrity stratosphere is more vulnerable to wear and tear than the earthbound singer, but the lessons we can learn from their experiences are highly valuable and most certainly applicable to our ‘every-day’ singing.

This is the sixth part in our ‘What Singers Can Learn From’ series.
Previous: What Singers Can Learn From Chris Stapleton
Next: What Singers Can Learn From Karen Carpenter

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Justin Magnaye Justin Magnaye - Lay Me Down

Great work Justin. I really enjoyed the way your cover started. The ambient sound really sets the tone. Try to develop a more consistent overall dynamic build by giving consideration to where you want to take your audience.


Dr Dan is a freelance artist and educator. He is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts and presents workshops to singers across Australia and abroad. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11). Over the past two decades, while maintaining his own performance career, Daniel has instructed thousands of voices. This vast experience enables Daniel to effortlessly work with voices of all skill levels: beginners to professionals. You can join Dr Dan every Tuesday & Thursday on his YouTube channel: Dr Dan’s Voice Essentials. Dr Dan is also the creator of 7 Days to a Better Voice: a FREE one-week technical detox for your voice.

  • Scott P

    what is the point of vocal fry?…what is it good for as an exercise, what does it do?

  • Dr Daniel K. Robinson

    Hey Scott. Vocal fry is generally used as an effect. Singers tend to use it to apply emotion and/or a sense of tension to their performance.

  • jonv16

    Elton John seems to no longer have a head voice register since the surgery, and even in the example you put in the article, which was from just 2 weeks before the surgery, he had already taken many high notes (Bb’s in this case) out of the Rocket Man song and others. I am curious about what is physically different about his vocal folds that prevents him from going into that register, which he used to great effect throughout his career until about 1986.