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What Singers Can Learn from Shirley Bassey

As a singer of torch songs, Shirley Bassey was, and still is today, an icon for all singers, with an unmistakable sound and an impeccable technique.

When I was growing up my father was fairly strict and distant at times – until he was finally absent altogether.

Shortly before he left I recall us watching a Royal Albert Hall performance on our newly acquired TV set. Shirley Bassey sang out ‘This Is My Life’ and my father wept in his armchair.

I remember being moved to tears myself as I recognised in her performance a power to move hearts as seemingly ‘made of stone’ as my father’s.

Years later when I re-established a relationship with my father, I thought about that day in front of the TV. I could see that he was simply hurting, but Shirley had released his pain.

I frequently show footage of her to my singing students to demonstrate many aspects of excellence. Here are some ‘top of the list’ tips:

1. Be present

As if in conversation, Shirley turns every song into her very own by pushing and pulling at the scanning of the lyrics until they almost bear no relation to the note value on the score!

This persuades us that the thoughts have just arrived in her head, so whether being her vivacious and raunchy self or delivering one of her ‘tear-jerker’ ballads, she is totally convincing.

Here she is at that very same aforementioned performance, astoundingly present:

Shirley was born into a working class family and she was unapologetic about her background, lifestyle and personality.

This unabashed behaviour became an asset and one that many great artists have indulged in. Of course, off stage this is completely one’s own prerogative but Shirley brought it into every song, on stage.

2. Get your body involved

Shirley interpreted every lyric with a heightened sense of personal drama, playing with physical action at every opportunity, so much so that her body, as much as her voice, was expressing the sense of the song and how she felt.

In this way, she reached not only the man in the 70th row but also through the camera and out into our living rooms!

Here she is singing ‘I Who Have Nothing’ from the start she gets into physical role:

3. Don’t underestimate the need for support

Shirley sang towards a crescendo in almost all of her material so her voice was, and still is in her 70s, under great duress.

Watching closely, one can see that many of her moves were designed to anchor or support her at these powered moments. In the ‘I Who Have Nothing’ video you can see the brace in her arms, shoulders and the back of her head and neck.

This is an opera technique, now used for musical theatre training too.

Show singers who deliver upwards of ten songs every night require serious technique to survive this.

A good upper torso ‘brace’ of specific muscle groups is a vital part of that support and Shirley is a great example of how the voice can remain intact with this rigorous practice.