Singing for the Heart
Written by Ife Piankhi
Right now, with the growth of the creative industry globally and the culture of “bling” as perpetrated by mainstream artists, I think a lot of people think it’s a way to make fast money. It looks glamorous, being on stage, mingling with stars, having lots of money—which is a myth, there is always a price to be paid when signed to a major label—nice clothes, fast cars and beautiful men and women around you, but in fact it is a profession that takes a lot of commitment, practice and hard work.
I received an email the other day with a picture of an iceberg. The largest portion of an iceberg is underwater, which represented the rehearsal, and the smallest part being above the water, which is the performance that everyone sees but only represents a small percentage of what we do as vocalists.
The voice is a tool that has to be trained in order to get the best. Notable voice trainer Sam West recommends 30 minutes a day of vocal training in order to increase the capacity of the voice by building stamina through diaphragm control. Once you are a regular performer this training is essential in maintaining the voice, because it does get tired which is when strain occurs.
A lot of the singers I hear in Kampala have the potential for a great sound, but they don’t breathe properly.
When I discovered my intelligence in relation to how I learn, it turned out that I am musical, auditory and visual. In primary school I played guitar for many years but gave it up to pursue academia.
I never forgot how inspired I would become listening to different types of music and how singing in church would leave me feeling so euphoric. I would sing along to artists like Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Sade, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, The Blackbyrds, The Jones Girls, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Through listening to those artists I realized that being a good singer was about vocal quality (i.e. your unique sound), the message in your music and the quality of musicians you work with.
Vocalists also have to understand that studio recording is also a craft, developed through understanding the use of a microphone. I have watched—and performed with—some great artists, and I have come to realize that making it look effortless takes work and time.
The first step to singing is to believe you can. I sing because I love it. I started singing at home, and then in church, and then at events, but along the way it has become a livelihood which means I now have to maintain a standard of delivery, which I always honour when performing and preparing for gigs.
I remember once I went to a jam session with notable jazz guitarist Alan Weekes. I wasn’t prepared. I went up and tried to sing Weeping Willow in a different key to the original. Alan kept repeating the introduction and I just couldn’t find the key. I just stood there and ad libbed a little. I was so embarrassed.
Because of that experience, I decided to strengthen my ability to listen well. So I studied counseling and listened to different types of music and tried to break the sound into its components.
I think mistakes help one to grow and learn.
We can’t always be right. Sometimes we fail, but it is essential that we are able to reflect on it, instead of blaming someone else. It takes strength of character to admit it when one is wrong.
I realized that I needed to get to know my voice, to understand the signs of nervousness, fatigue and over-sensitivity. This is why I started to meditate. I can be sensitive to the opinions of others, and through meditation I’m able to create a little space between my feelings and my essence.
In a poem entitled Brave I have written “It’s alright baby girl, I just forget, sometimes I forget who I am”. What I mean by that, is that I am more than this body, thoughts or emotions. So when I remember my essence, I don’t take the performance so seriously—I can have fun with it. Meaning that I am free to get it right or to make mistakes. It’s liberating.
Before I perform I visualize myself doing well. I imagine how I want it to go. Essentially, I am programming my mind. I warm up my voice a little with some deep breathing exercises, but I now know it takes two or three songs for my voice to warm up, which is when I can really express its range well.
Being an artist also involves a divine element for me, I feel that singing connects me to a higher power, which when I leave the ego aside I become a vessel for the creative. I’m not a religious person, but I realize that music like sport has a way of unifying people, which is what we need both locally and globally.
When Nneka visited Kampala last year she came with a great crew of musicians. We had a workshop where we created a collaboration song with Keko, Irene, Tshila and MC Flower. After soundchecking and hearing how they played, I sang a phrase to a riff they were playing. It became the chorus for Powerful Women. Later we went ahead and arranged it, so people also had a verse.
For me, this was the biggest confirmation of my singing and creative ability. In a very short space of time we had co created something wonderful together with a band and an artist which is globally known and respected for its content and innovation in music.
I want to be an artist who has longevity.
We all know artists who had a few hits and then disappear. As singers we have to know how to look after the voice, train it, and understand the industry—what motivates people in it. Ultimately you have to love singing, not just as a means to an end, but because it is how you express your uniqueness in the world.
Ife Piankhi writes poetry and music that advocates for the untold stories of Africa and the diaspora.
For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of Startjournal.org, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. You can read the other essays here.