Between the Vocal Folds S1.E1: What Makes a Successful Singer

Image of Kaitie Sly and Dee Daniels
Join Kaitie and singer Dee Daniels as they discuss what makes a successful singer.

Welcome to the first Episode of the Between the Vocal Folds podcast. Every episode features a new guest from the music industry to discuss any and all topics related to singing and the voice. This week’s guest is Dee Daniels, who is a jazz vocalist with a unique sound steeped in the art of storytelling through song. We are super excited to have Dee on the podcast where she shares her wisdom on what makes a successful singer. Below we share excerpts from Kaitie’s interview with Dee.

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On Developing Your Voice

How did you learn to develop your voice and you’re renowned four octave vocal range? Did you work with a vocal coach or were you more self-taught?

Dee Daniels:
It’s a combination. I’ve been singing since I remember. Although, I never thought of it as a career because I was really passionate about art all through university. My degree is in art education but I’ve always sung because I grew up in church. My stepfather was a minister, but once I realized that music was the true calling, I was out there. I stopped teaching in the middle of the school year, joined a band and that was the end of that. All I’ve done, fortunately, I’ve been very blessed, is music. But after about a year of being out there, I realized that there was more to my voice than what I was able to access. So, I went to a voice teacher at the time in Seattle, Washington and his name was George Peckham. And when I went to see George, he was 77 years old at the time but the man was still performing and had a five octave range.

Oh my gosh.

Dee Daniels:
That’s five octaves and it was really interesting. The lessons were just half an hour because I was at the end of the day. I was there for an hour and all I did… I never sung a note. He just talked but I was so ready for something more and so receptive that everything he said, it just resonated with me. And at the time I was working… This was back in the day where there were jobs. So, I was working six nights a week, week after week and just traveling and so forth. So, I had a chance to practice on stage. And what he told me was… One of the concepts was, “Dee, it’s the mind that is musical, not the body.” And at the time, that resonated with me but it wasn’t until a little bit later that I really understood what he was saying.

And he being the person who encouraged me to teach, I added to that saying and in my saying is, “If you cannot think it,” and it can be anything. It can be range. It can be your whole thing about nervousness. It can be anything but, “If you cannot think it, then it cannot be done.” Or at least it will be a hit and miss situation. And what you do think and continue to think and take steps towards will eventually manifest. So, I got that part about, “It’s the mind.” The music starts in the mind. So, that opened up a whole new world. And then another thing he told me was, “Dee, singing is merely an extension of speaking.” Okay. So, what that means to me and what I try to share with people is, whatever range you speak in, for singing, it’s just a matter of sustaining those tones.

So, if I say to a woman, “I hit a high C on the piano.” The first thing that happens is they say, “Oh my God,” to themselves. Sometimes they say it out loud. “That’s too high for me.” But if I say, “Well, you use that note probably at least once a week.” And they say, “What? You got to be kidding me!” And then you go all the way down to the bottom of your range. And you’re everywhere and you’re not thinking about where that is, how much breath do you have to have to execute that. You don’t think about any of that stuff. You just do it. So, it’s just a matter of sustaining those tones and feeling comfortable with that.

On the Road to Success

What’s one word of advice that you can give to aspiring singers that will help them on the road to success?

Dee Daniels:
Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is to have a clear intention of what it is that you even want to do. And once again, this goes back to the mental part of it. The mind part of it. You have to say what it is you want to do. We do that every morning. I mean, every day, all through the day, 24 hours a day. We set the alarm clock for seven o’clock and we think once that alarm goes off, you either hit the stop button or the snooze button.

So, you have a choice and that’s what it boils down. What do you want to do? Not what you think you… We go through the, couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t faze but then we need to get back to 12 o’clock on the clock, which is the yes position. And this is what I want to do. So, that is the first thing. And then once you make that decision, then there are infinite options that you can take in educating yourself and providing yourself with information. And that’s so available, even in these crazy times that we’re living in now. But to me, that’s the first step. What do I want do?

On Performance Anxiety

Delving further into what makes a successful singer. I wanted to ask you if you have any tips for our listeners on prepping for a performance or if you get performance anxiety and if so, how you might deal with that?

Dee Daniels:
Well, let’s go with the anxiety thing because that’s so common. People get the butterflies, they get nervous and dry mouth and all kinds of things happen. But once again, when you decide what it is you want to do and why you’re doing it, obviously on some level, singing and performing brings joy. There’s something exciting about that, that you want to do. You want to share. You want to connect. You want to create all of that kind of thing. But the whole nervousness thing… You’re not doing this because you’re afraid and nervousness has awful connotations of fear and so forth. But you’re not afraid, otherwise, you wouldn’t be out there in the first place or even thinking about it. But what’s really happening with the body is adrenaline. Adrenaline is like… It happens to me as much as I know and as comfortable as I am on stage, off stage or anywhere. It doesn’t matter. I’m me all the time.

But the adrenaline sometimes feels like it wants to spurt like a fountain from the top of your head. Well, that’s fine. We need adrenaline but what we want is to bring it down to like, if you can picture a little Japanese brook, that’s just swirling around ever so gently. There are no rocks in the bed. There’s cherry trees on the sides of the brook and they’re in blossom now. And one little pedal falls down into the brook and it just kind of swirls around with the current, as it moves. That’s where we want the adrenaline because we need that. It’s like a runner in a race. There’s three positions. Get on your mark, get set and then go. Well, the adrenaline is, the get set, part. You have to flex in order to push off.

So, we want that but we just don’t want to have it spurting out the top of our heads and making us crazy. So, how do you deal with that? Once again, it’s about what you want. You know it’s adrenaline. You can breathe the adrenaline down. Just breathe and as you’re breathing, if you give yourself intention for breathing and the intention could be, “I am calm. I am relaxed. I am communicating with my audience, with my band. It’s my living room. Their invited guests and I am a very gracious host. So, I am happy to have them in my space,” but you have to claim it all.

So, that nervousness. No way. That’s not… I don’t know where that came from. But anyway, it’s about adrenaline and just calm it down and claim the space.

On Working with Others

Do you have any tips or advice on how singers can best work with others?

Dee Daniels:
Once again, what do you want to do? For me, it’s not the singer and the band. And the band can be anywhere from you plus one or you plus a hundred in an orchestra. It doesn’t matter. But the mentality behind it is, you’re not separate, it becomes a unit. It is a unit. You’ve all agreed to be there at that particular time, playing that particular music, whatever that is, and to connect with one another, to share that music. So, that’s the first thing. And I think for a singer, sometimes the mentality, especially if you’re a female singer, is that you’re a necessary evil. Sometimes that happens, it has happened at different times in my career until they find out that that is not the case.

But I don’t take offense of that. I just take that and say, “Listen, we’re a unit. We’ve come together here for a common cause.” So, once you claim that and share that with your fellow band mates, you have the power to unite, whatever the number of people on the stage. Whether they’re male or female. That doesn’t matter because you’re a leader then. Whether you want to be, whether you like to be, whether you think you can be or can’t be. You are.

So, if you claim it and do it from a point, from a place of love, because that is extremely important. Matter of fact, I put that in the number one position. Love of the music, of what you’re doing, working with people and of creating with people. It makes all the difference in the world. So, there’s a lot of power that we have as singers to make a difference and to unite people because once the unit is united, then it becomes way more powerful because you’re on the same page with the same goal. And that is to connect and make a difference for everybody who happens to be in the space at the time. 360 degrees, not just 180 in front of you, but 360.

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