What makes a singer great?

Patterns and Defaults

By Guest Contributor Michael Marescafairygodmothermeme

Often times, we think of great singers being born the way they are. That perhaps, they were just granted this amazing ability to sing with such ease and strength. With this new language of defining and categorizing the human voice that has been established and discovered thanks to all the people of One Voice, we now can see that all the amazing things we once thought were impossible to do if you weren’t born with them – are now possible. For example, think of Sutton Foster, Gavin Creel, Kelli O’Hara, Beyonce’, Freddie Mercury, or Pavarotti. Regardless of what you think about them as artists, these vocalists truly have some form of mastery over their voices that the “average Joe” might not. Until now, we have seen these singers as the “special” or “gifted” ones. Utilizing this new language we gain new perspective for how the human voice functions, and how these A-list singers actually do what they do.

Great singing is nothing more than sets of brain patterned defaults that great singers don’t have to think about any more.

Great singing is nothing more than sets of brain patterned defaults that great singers don’t have to think about any more. Just like a big time basketball player who gets so used to dribbling a basketball that he or she doesn’t even have to think about it. It becomes “natural”, or perhaps a better way of saying this is that it becomes unconsciously habitual. Vibrato is a great example that most people are taught comes “naturally”. If this were true, don’t you think we would speak with a vibrato? Or when a baby is born, wouldn’t it have a vibrato? This is something we’ve picked up in the popular music society as “good”. So we either learn how to do or mimic it from a young age, until finally, it becomes “natural” or said in a nerdy way – a patterned default; something I no longer have to think about. 

Here are several defaults you want to make sure you have mastered on your way to becoming a great singer:

  1. Pitch – this is something that we all take for granted. Most people who believe they can sing are often very lazy with their pitch accuracy. If you’re going to play at the top, you must ensure that your ability to match and sustain pitch is solid.
  2. Volume – another often skimmed over facet of singing. Our ability to control our volume brings a beauty that you don’t get from the “tone” or “sound” of someone’s voice. Its the beauty of control. 
  3. Weight – this is the second theory of the One Voice theories for how the voice functions. Obtaining mastery over this part of your voice will allow you to change sound quality mid phrase. Or better said, allow you the choice to belt a pop song, or sing a classical (or legit) song.  

Most of these things are often overlooked because singers can do them in some fashion. But we’re not talking about being “good” singers, we’re talking about being “great”. If you think you’re really good at these three things, I’d challenge you to revisit them. In my experience, many singers who think they’re really great, tend to have mediocre control over these aspects of singing. 

In my experience, many singers who think they’re really great, tend to have mediocre control over these aspects of singing.

One final note. There is often an assumption that hitting a “high” note means that you are a “great” singer. I’d like to suggest that a great singer means you have a certain level of mastery over how you play the instrument you currently have. As you build different coordinations in your voice, your range will grow, but if you are lackluster in these other areas, you’ll never play with the heavy hitters. 

Good luck. Singing is not a quick fix or about finding tricks. Focus on your goal and don’t back down when you are faced with opposition or hard work. Go. Fight. Win. 

Michael Maresca is the head of Musical Theatre Voice at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. He is also the founder and president of MMOV Studios and creator of the One Voice technique. He has taught thousands of singers, changing both how they understand their voice and how they use it. He serves on the faculty of the Performing Arts Project and the Broadway Theatre Project. Performance credits include the Broadway national tour of Mamma Mia and the national tour of Saturday Night Fever.

Aspiring Musical Singer? Your #1 Piece of Advice

Having been in multiple musical training programs and classes, I can tell you that the most common bit of advice I have heard from college professors, musical directors, casting directors, and fellow performers is this: GET A VOCAL COACH.

Prior to the first day of an audition prep class at Collin College, my fellow students and I were asked to bring a prepared audition song to present at our first meeting. I quickly looked through my book and decided on “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl. I wanted a song that could show off my belt, along with my personality, and  needed something I could sing in my sleep. Since I knew the song forward and backward, I anticipated wowing my classmates and volunteered relatively quickly to take my turn. (more…)

Recommended Books & Articles

Helpful resources for vocal technique


Solutions for Singers: Tools for Performers and Teachers Recommended on Amazon.com – talks about breath management, posture, laryngeal functions, resonance, nasals and consonants, vibrato, registration, healthy singing, pedagogy issues, and performance concerns.

The Contemporary Singer: Elements of Vocal Technique (Berklee Guide) – If you’re singing in contemporary musicals with pop/rock score, this book could help.

For a long list of books: SHOP at Amazon.com: Helpful Books on Voice, Singing, etc 


Head voice, chest voice

Vocal coach Yvonne DeBandi includes details and diagrams in her advice posted online. “….When addressed with the question, ‘Should I sing this in my chest voice or head voice?’ my answer is always the same: sing the note. My coaching goals include teaching the student to balance all of the vocal components to achieve the best sound….” See her whole article at Should I Sing This with a Head Voice or Chest Voice? article from vocalists.org.uk

From another article on Using Your Full Range: When there’s a song you’re working on, decide what you want your voice to express. Is it tender and intimate? Is it aggressive? The lower end of your chest voice has more warmth and more bass tones-it tends to sound sexier, more vulnerable or personal. . . .As you work up toward the higher end of chest, the sound becomes more urgent, more intense.

Tone and Emotion


Breathing for singers


Performance: Staying Present in the Moment

The Inner Game of Music  Excerpt: “When you pay more attention to how you feel as you are doing something, it heightens your sensitivity to the feedback you are receiving. This increased sensitivity helps you to learn more rapidly and allows you to adjust your performance to help you achieve your goal…” p. 27

Acting technique

A Practical Handbook for the Actor Inside Flap Copy: 6 working actors describe their methods and philosophies of the theater. All have worked with playwright David Mamet at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.