She always considered herself a ‘drummer who sang’. She started as a reluctant singer who gave herself permission to call herself a singer –says Daniel K. Robinson.
Growing up there was one voice that I adored more than any other. Karen Carpenter, to my ears at least, was like listening to perfection personified.
Karen, alongside her brother Richard, formed the 1970s duo Carpenters, and until her death in 1983 she was considered to be one of the music industry’s leading ladies.
A Foreign Sound
Karen’s sound is rather foreign to the 21st century ear. Today’s audience is drawn en’ masse towards the inexplicably high vocals of Sia, Katy Perry and Beyoncé.
But Karen’s voice was different. Often described as a contralto (similar vocal range to the countertenor), her voice wowed audiences with its wonderfully low timbre; a sound all too uncommon even during the 60s and 70s (the height of Karen’s career).
Before we discuss Karen’s vocals further, have a listen to this recording of the Carpenters 1970 hit Close to You:
I love that song so much my wife and I had it performed at our wedding. Daggy…but magical!
4 Key Lessons for Singers from Karen’s Career
So what can we, as singers, learn from Karen’s career, both as a vocalist and as a performer? Here’s a few key points of interest:
Embrace Your ‘Natural’ Sound
Our fascination with singing higher seems to currently know no bounds. Consequently, a good majority of today’s population is trying to sing way outside their anatomical limits. This in turn leads to frustration, not to mention voices that are being driven to wear and tear by users who are expecting biological impossibilities. When I write ‘Embrace Your Natural Sound,’ what I’m really saying is: embrace YOU. Be the singer you were born to be. Karen Carpenter’s voice was unique…and so is yours. Stop comparing your sound to those around you, and start developing your own unique vocal signature.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
The death of Karen Carpenter came as a massive shock to the western world. Sadly, Karen had suffered with anorexia nervosa and bulimia for many years; and it was these two conditions that led to her untimely death. We are fortunate that today eating disorders and mental illness is far better understood by the medical fraternity and the general public. But better understanding doesn’t mean squat if a person is suffering in silence. And it’s all too easy for a performer to suffer in silence when they feel the pressure (stated or otherwise) to present an up-and-up persona to an adoring audience. We are human beings first and singers second; we must always get this order right. If you or anyone you know is battling mental illness I encourage you to seek out professional care.
Give Yourself Permission to be a Singer
Did you know that drummers can sing?! I’m being purposefully playful…but seriously, before Phil Collins made it a thing to sing from behind a drum kit, Karen was working the skins on national tours of the US. Actually, she always considered herself a ‘drummer who sang.’ The point here is that she was a reluctant singer. So many of us come into the singing thing via other instruments, and as a result we stop short of calling ourselves ‘singers!’ Allow me to encourage you to give yourself permission to call yourself a singer. Step out from behind that guitar (or those drums) figuratively speaking, and BE a singer.
Leave Something in the Tank for Tomorrow
Karen was known to be a ‘one take wonder.’ That is, she would step into the recording studio, sing the song through once, and that was that. The single take would be so good, there was no need for another. Urban myth tells us that if Karen ever got to a third or fourth take, the producer would send her home stating, “It isn’t happening today…let’s try again tomorrow.” Myth or not, there’s a lesson here for us. Often, whether during recording sessions or during practice, we work the voice until it’s dead on its feet! Now, it’s important to work and massage the voice, but there is always a point at which the smart vocalist says, “Enough! The voice has run its course today.” My advice is to always leave something in the tank for tomorrow. And when recording, if it’s not ‘happening’ step away and come back to it at another time (schedules and budget permitting).
On February 4, 1983 the world lost a beautiful sound, and to all accounts a beautiful human being. We can learn so much from Karen Carpenter’s personal struggles, both as a singer and as a person; but the lessons are only worth something when we act upon the instructions they are giving us.
This is the seventh part in our ‘What Singers Can Learn From’ series.
Previous: What Singers Can Learn From Elton John
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Johnny Walker - Americans
Hey Johnny. Lovin’ your energy man! I can really hear your passion in the tune. Be careful of when the melody travels towards your upper register. Do your best not to ‘push the notes’ when your voice approaches your transition.
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.