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I recently had the honor of serving as a judge at the Gospel Music Association’s annual “Immerse Conference.” Every year, the most talented up-and-coming gospel and CCM writers, singers, and artists converge on Nashville for this conference. My role was to offer critique for those who were competing and to help decide the competition’s winners. This was my second year in a row to participate in the conference. This year, I was honored with the additional task of teaching a workshop to those entered in the “male vocalist” category. I was able to spend over two hours working teaching technique, style, and artistry to some truly talented people.

I consider “artistry” and “style” to be two separate ideas. Style refers to a method of delivering a song: characteristics of the way one uses his voice. It encompasses what a singer “does” with his voice when he is singing. Artistry, on the other hand, is much more difficult to define. It is born out of the inherent uniqueness of an individual. Style is something that can be added to a song, whereas artistry is something that already exists within. And artistic development is the process of uncovering it. Of discovering it. Of allowing it to continually evolve over the years of your life.

Something that people (almost all of the singers I had a chance to work with at the conference as well as 99% of the singers I work with on a daily basis) seem to miss is that artistry, not style, is what compels people. It’s what moves people. It’s what makes people want to listen to you sing over and over again. And it’s the key to winning most vocal competitions. There is no substitute for authenticity. No amount of licks and runs or powerful high notes can make up for a lack of emotional depth.

There were moments during the competition where I forgot that I was there to be a judge, because I got so emotionally wrapped up in the performance of an individual. When this happened, I voted for them even if they weren’t the most technically sound or “impressive” singer up there. I voted for the ones that created powerful moments that will not be easy to forget.

And yet, it’s the tricks, the surface-level, stylistic elements, that almost every singer relies on to try to convince us that we should fall in love with them. They think, “If only I can be impressive enough…” The problem is: no one is that impressive. There are many who can nail the final line of “Nessun Dorma” with volume and power comparable to Luciano Pavarotti, but none (none that I’ve heard, anyways) have ever matched the heart-breaking, passionate force that he could place behind it. And that’s why it is his performance of that song that will be remembered by most. Lots of people can sing much better than Willie Nelson. But almost no one can tell stories like he can. That’s why Willie holds such a special place in so many people’s hearts.

You want people to love it when you sing? Focus on artistry, not tricks. Tricks are exciting for a moment, and then they’re over. Artistry, on the other hand, has the power to make people reminisce about your performance for hours, days, even years thereafter.

To book a lesson with Jeff Mathena, contact [email protected] or 615-866-1099.

Jeff Mathena

Author Jeff Mathena

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