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I review about 25 albums for RARB each year, so if you approximate about 12 tracks per album, that means I’m listening critically to somewhere in the ballpark of 300 solos a year: one solo every 1.2 days.  That’s a lot of belting, mixing, emoting, straining, screaming, warbling, and general vocalization.  Out of those 300, probably 150 are good, 75 are really good, and less than a dozen are pro.  I think that number could be much higher.  Here’s why:

When you are recording a solo, you literally have all the time in the world.  Ok, that’s not really true, but if you plan well, you’ve certainly got enough time to capture the best of what you’ve got to give, perhaps even something better than you thought possible.  Those other 150 solos, the not-so-goods, they have a major thing in common: they don’t sound like anyone took the time to get creative, to think about the most important elements of the song in question, and to marry those elements with the strengths of the person on the mic.  That’s what I always want to hear, and what I want to hear coming out of my speakers more often!

What follows are my opinions on what makes a great solo, and how you might go about finding one in yourself (as performer) or coaching one (as producer).  This is by no means presented as the be-all-end-all of solo craft, as always I hope it will serve as a starting point for your own thinking.

So, we have two elements in front of us when thinking about a solo.  First, what are the most important features of the solo (be it the original vocal, if you’re doing a cover, or just the raw melody if this is to be original)?  If you read my prior columns on the topic of arranging, you’ll know I like to talk about the “gut check” – checking in with your reactions to find the things that move you.  In a solo, this could include things like dramatic moments, the inflection of the singer on a key lyric perhaps, or perhaps a vocal run that feels just right.  Take note of these elements, and then get ready to step outside the box a bit.

Once you’ve got a handle on what musical elements are speaking to you, it’s time to back away from the specific song in question and look at the genre the song is in.  You’ve got the what, so now you’re looking for the why.  Trends prevail in styles because they are effective, and you want to see if you can find these similar elements in other like songs in order to more clearly isolate them for yourself. 

The ultimate goal is being able to make your own unique decisions in a way that is stylistically appropriate and effective, not just copy the original soloist.  That person drew from the influences around them, why can’t you? 

This is where the second element seeps into mix: what do you do really well?  Are you great at R&B runs?  Can you emote with the best of them?  Can you nail high notes like no other?  If the answer is yes, use it, but use it in a way that shows knowledge of the song’s genre. 

Don’t forget the message of the song.  Once you’ve got an idea of what sounds appropriate in your style, and which of those techniques sound best in your voice, consider which ones best serve the story you’re telling.  Read the lyrics on their own, and seek out different interpretations of their meaning (at the time of this writing, there’s a great site called songmeanings.net that is a great resource for this).  Work to become clear on three things: 1) What story was the writer of the song telling? 2) What is your interpretation of that story/how does it relate to your life? 3) What story is your group communicating with the way in which they sing the backgrounds?  The best solos balance all three elements artfully.

Even the simplest songs have a core message, even if that message is just about how great the party is going to be tonight!  Seek out that message and clarify it for yourself so that you can deliver a purposeful vocal.

Let’s apply all of these ideas to a couple great solos and see how they work themselves out in practice.  First, Patrick Lundquist of the Hyannis Sound on Rascal Flatts “Feels Like Today.” - http://bit.ly/hVGvAS.

1) What story was the writer of the song telling?

The message is uplifting – a change is about to happen.  It’s not quite here yet, but the anticipation is palpable.  We have a sense that we’ve come from a difficult place, and are just on the edge of something wonderful.

You can hear this in Patrick’s voice.  It’s steady throughout, but begins with a hint of vulnerability and reflection.  The choruses are huge and full of conviction, made all the more effective by their contrast with the verses.  His phrasing as well is smooth and upward – you really feel the big sweep of the chorus melody.

2) What is your interpretation of that story/how does it relate to your life?

I can only speculate, but the idea of experiencing hard times and being ready for something better is pretty universal.  Most everyone has experienced it in some way.

3) What story is your group communicating with the way in which they sing the backgrounds?     

If you know the original Rascal Flatts versions, you’ll hear that the Hyannis version puts more emphasis on the pop feel than on the country aesthetic.  Appropriately, gone is the twang from Patrick’s solo delivery.  His voice lends well to the pop style, so this was a great choice of direction for the group.

One more, Sara Bareilles herself on “Gravity” by Awaken A Cappella from BOCA 2004. - http://bit.ly/fx9ryG

1) What story was the writer of the song telling?

Being drawn to the same person time and again is hard, especially when you know that person just isn’t right for you.  How can you ever stand tall on your own when you feel so reliant on another person?  Even worse, when you know that that person is only taking advantage of you?

There’s great subtlety Sara’s voice.  Some lines sound wistful, as though fondly remembering an old flame.  Other lines sound hurt – perhaps the realization that that love still haunts her.  Phrases trail off into air, giving them an introspective quality.  At times it sounds like she’s singing to herself.  Her tone gets stronger when she addresses the lover in the second verse.  A hint of anger and desperation seeps in – a yearning to be free of this person.  The climax comes in the bridge, her voice strongest at the point of realization “you’re keeping me down.”

No wonder she made it big.

2) What is your interpretation of that story/how does it relate to your life?

Again, speculation, but she wrote the thing and I think it shows.  The level of subtlety she brings is the level I think everyone should aspire too.  There’s just more work to be done to uncover the meaning if it’s not a song you wrote! 

3) What story is your group communicating with the way in which they sing the backgrounds? 

The backs here are wonderfully supportive.  They match Sara’s tone, but beyond that are pretty much just unobtrusive so that she can do her thing.  Sometimes that’s all you need.

So, to recap:

1)    Identify your favorite technical elements of the original song.
2)    Do some research on how those elements relate to the style of the song.
3)    Identify which of these technical elements sound best in your voice.
4)    Tell a story!
    a.    Research the original story
    b.    Add your own life experience to the mix
    c.    Get on the same page with your group

Put it all together and you have a solid foundation for a top-notch solo that is as unique as your own voice.

What do you think?  Post below and let me know!

Until next time!

About the author:
Robert Dietz is a recent graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus.  In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and is pursuing a graduate diploma in Music Composition and Production at the Australian Institute of Music.