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In a standout vocal performance, how you end a note is as important as how you attack it, and rhythm and intention can be as relevant as note choice and intonation
In 2011, I wrote an article for Keyboard magazine that used my song “Redhead Girl” to describe a technique that many bass players internalize early in their playing careers, but that many keyboardists and vocalists are never taught: exactly how and when you release a note is just as important as the way you attack it. Whether I’m playing jazz, rock, or anything else, I try to keep this idea in mind. Time after time, I’ve found that one of the best things I can to do to help a song lock in is to be mindful of both ends of every note I play. This is also true for a vocal performance.
I was reminded of this recently when listening to a demo I had recorded quite a few years ago. I was singing lead on a prog rock track and, while I was proud of many aspects of my vocal performance, I was surprised that the whole thing sounded… amateurish. Why? See above. My note releases were not as well-timed or nuanced as they could have been. They sounded somewhat random and unintentional — as, unfortunately, they were.
When you’re singing, the timing of your note release can do a tremendous amount to help or hinder your performance. Note that mindfully releasing your notes does not mean that every one has to end with perfect crispness, or at the exact same spot; in fact, you can achieve surprisingly cool results by holding a note just a bit longer than expected, or cutting a note off just a bit early. As long as it’s done with intention and musicality, chances are it will be a successful choice.
A few suggestions to get you started:
Try singing a single line from a favorite song of yours over and over, subtly adjusting how you finish each note with every repetition. Does the line sound more aggressive and abrupt if you pull off the final syllable a 16th note earlier than you normally do? Does it sound sweeter and more tender if you sustain that middle high note for an extra two beats? Experiment with adjustments both subtle and extreme and note what turns you on as the singer. Those same choices can excite your audience as well.
Record and review
Rhythmic nuances that might feel weird when you’re first singing them could sound mind-blowingly great on playback — and vice versa. When you’re practicing vocals and trying something new, hit “record” on your phone, just to capture the experiment and hear what it sounds like when the notes aren’t emanating from inside your own body. The playback quality may not be great, but it doesn’t have to be. You might be surprised by what you hear, what you like, and what you find that you need to improve on.
Sing as different instruments
Once when producing a singer who was having trouble making her vocal performance lock organically with the track, I asked her to perform her part differently: imagining that she wasn’t a singer, but a drummer. The results were like night and day.
Initially, the vocalist had been paying too much attention to her pitch and technique; by micromanaging, she was losing the overall vibe of the vocal performance, her intonation suffered, and the way that she released notes felt stilted, rather than expressive and organic. But when she shifted her perspective and sang “as the drummer,” her attention became focused on locking her part in with the overall groove of the tune. Because she wasn’t fixated on tweaking them, pitch and overall performance improved significantly, and so did her note-release choices.
To give this technique a go, start by singing “as the drummer,” trying to deliver the rhythmic drive, intensity, and precision that talented percussionists bring to a performance. Next try channeling the bass player through your vocals — not by making your voice any deeper, but by making your vocal part an intentional, powerful, foundational rhythmic force. Get creative and try singing as whatever instrument you want — accordion, DJ rig, violin. As long you’re thinking about the rhythmic effects of your vocal choices in a different way, you’re headed in the right direction.