Selling more than 100 million records over a 40-year career, Prince was a musical chameleon whose stylistic excursions spanned R&B, soul, hard rock, funk, jazz and pop.
As unique and bold a performer as Prince was, is there anything young singers today can learn from him?
1. Live Your Artistic Vision
As a singer or songwriter, do you imagine your work as an alternate reality? Prince visualized his music, dance, fashion, iconography and worldview as one large artistic statement. If you could create an artistic world, what would yours look like? What would you wish to say that’s transformative or uplifting or challenging?
2. Borrow From Your Idols
It’s well known that Prince borrowed heavily from his idols: Michael Jackson, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Smokey Robinson. Your goal is not to shun musical influences but to hide those influences and combine them in an inventive way.
For example, Prince was influenced by Stevie Wonder’s virtuosity and melodic strength; Sly and the Family Stone’s panoramic mix of genres and gender-bending; and the irrepressible rhythms of James Brown, all the while never sounding like he was directly ripping off these great artists.
Listen to Prince’s song, “Pink Cashmere” and you can hear Smokey Robinson’s influence. “Uptown” alludes to Michael Jackson’s impact. To hear the rhythmic heritage from James Brown, listen to the groove on “Controversy”.
3. Don’t Avoid Head Voice
Prince embraced the use of head voice (also called falsetto).
Prince embraced the use of head voice (also called falsetto). Listen to his song, “Kiss” and notice how he maintains head voice for almost the entire song.
Historically, in many vocal genres, male singers have not been encouraged to sing in their head voice.
Head voice has often been considered too feminine and therefore there has been little music written for men to use it. Head voice is a legitimate way to sing and express. It’s a shame that so many men don’t explore or utilize it. Chest voice or head voice, it’s all good!
4. Play an Instrument Well
Prince was an absolute electric guitar master, but also taught himself bass, drums, keyboards and percussion. His musical abilities allowed him to be a fully creative and independent artist plus his skill and versatility helped him stand out when his manager shopped his first record deal.
When Eric Clapton was asked “What does it feel like to be the world’s best guitarist”, he responded, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.”
Many singers feel intimidated by the hours of practice and dedication required to play an instrument well. Yes, it is a big commitment, but mastering an instrument improves your musicianship, your writing ability, your value in a band, and gives you yet another way to contribute when you’re onstage. Pull out your axe and get crackin’!
5. Shyness Shouldn’t Deter You From Performing
Known for his extreme shyness, Prince’s dedication to pursuing his gift despite his fears should inspire all inhibited performers.
My first encounter of Prince’s shyness was at a party showcasing the debut of my first record in 1984. It was at a famous L.A. restaurant, Chasen’s, with the actress Joan Collins hosting, and only at the end of the party did I learn that Prince had attended. He had been so shy that he had sat in the corner with his bodyguards so I never got to meet him!
6. Sing, Write and Play Every Day
Over the course of Prince’s career, he produced 39 studio albums, 5 soundtrack albums, 4 live albums, 5 compilation albums, 17 video albums, and 12 extended play records. That’s a lot of hours of work!
Ever heard of the “10,000 Hour Rule”? It’s been estimated that a minimum of 10,000 hours of work is required to achieve mastery. For example, in 1962 the Beatles were playing eight hours per night, seven nights a week just before they burst onto the international scene in 1964.
Do you sing every day? Write songs on a regular basis? Do you have a set time in your schedule where you go to either rehearse or hone your craft? Making music at the level of Prince’s ability is an every-day affair. Excellence comes from major ‘hours in the saddle’.
7. Be Obsessive
Great artists are rarely “normal” people; they’re often driven by a focus that can’t be explained. Prince was as driven and focused as they come – with an inner fire and a never-tiring desire to create. He will be remembered as one of the most unique and provocative musicians in the history of popular music.
Lisa Popeil is one of LA’s top voice coaches with over 40 years of professional teaching experience. As a singer, she’s performed and recorded with Frank Zappa and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and her album ‘Lisa Popeil’ was a Billboard ‘Top Album Pick’. Lisa has an MFA in Voice, is the creator of the Voiceworks® Method, and is regularly featured in leading music magazines, journals, books and conferences.