What Does “Artistry” Even Mean? // Jess Baldwin

Stop for a moment and think about what the word “artistry” means to you.

Got it? Okay. Hold onto it. (I’d also love it if you shared it in the comments. I love seeing what it means to different people.)

Now, let’s see what the dictionary has to say. The dictionary is never the end all be all, but I think it gives us a pretty good template to talk about some of the basic differences I see in how people define it.

Mirriam-Webster defines artistry this way:

  • artistic quality of effect or workmanship
  • artistic ability

And what does artistic mean?

  • showing imaginative skill in arrangement or execution

Voice Teachers and Artists Lean Toward Different Meanings

As I’ve worked with both voice teachers and popular music artists in my business, I find that there is a general line in the sand when it comes to the definition each one favors.

Many of the voice teachers I’ve worked with lean toward the “quality of workmanship” aspect of artistry in their definitions. The higher the quality of workmanship, the greater the artistry.

But most of the artists I work with lean toward the “quality of effect” aspect of artistry in their definitions. They are very interested in being more and more imaginative in how they create and perform music in order to have the desired effect on their audience, and workmanship is just one of many ingredients toward that end.

Artists Need Both (Not Just Workmanship)

As a profession, voice teachers’ focus on workmanship is evidenced by how we spend our money and time at workshops and conferences. We can’t get enough of anything having to do with vocal technique, and our conferences have only a smattering of presentations around increasing imaginative skill and quality of effect.

Unfortunately, most voice teachers I know confess that the only tool they were given to increase the quality of effect in their performing was increasing the quality of workmanship. Perhaps this is why we focus here so passionately. It’s what we know. It’s what we love nerding out about when we’re together.

And I’m not saying that all of that delicious science-y technique-building goodness isn’t helpful or important. It is. But it’s only gonna get your students so far. All of the acoustic knowledge in the world has nothing to offer a budding artist who’s trying to figure out why their performances aren’t connecting with the audience.

Just like they need help increasing the quality of their workmanship, our clients also need help increasing their quality of effect and their imaginative skill.

Increasing Quality of Effect in Artistry

Every artist wants to have some kind of effect on others with their music. They might want to…

  • comfort people
  • motivate people
  • provide hope
  • let people know they’re not alone
  • provide balance
  • help people appreciate something
  • Anything else!

Asking your student what effect they want their music to have is a powerful and necessary starting place.

While workmanship can definitely be a way to increase the quality of effect for an artist, it’s only one of many ingredients.

I would argue that it’s not even the strongest ingredient.

The strongest ingredient (IMHO)? Being a human being with a strong identity, a compelling story, and a willingness to bravely share both.

Think about the artists who threw a knock-out punch to your emotional gut. What was it about them that had a huge effect on you? Most folks I ask this question confess that the artists who really get to them have something more than a voice. Sometimes they’re not even a great singer. They show up in a very authentic, vivid way, and it’s powerful.

This is where we have to start spending more time as teachers if we want to balance workmanship with the other aspects of artistry.

1. Build Your Identity Awareness

In order to increase the quality of the effect of their art, you need to help your students figure out…

  • who they are
    • life
    • identity
    • history
    • personality
    • stuff that’s important to them
    • goals
  • what they have to say
    • the high stakes stuff
    • the stuff they deliver with great energy
    • strong emotions
    • passionate messages
    • compelling stories
    • powerful memories
  • how they want to say it
    • genre
    • vibe
    • vocal style
    • lyric writing style
    • body movement
    • emotional embodiment
    • visual aesthetic
  • who they want to say it to
    • their target audience

Just starting lessons with these kinds of questions (and revisiting them annually) will give a superboost to both of you in terms of motivation and direction.

2. Apply What You Discovered

Then what?

  • Put all of that together in different ways
  • Put it out in the world in different ways
  • Observe the quality of the effect each time. What works? What doesn’t?
  • Try it all again
  • And again
  • Over and over
  • Until the effect matches their intent

It’s a messy process. Accept it and expect it. The only way to do it wrong is to do nothing.

Increasing Imaginative Skill in Artistry

Many teachers have also confessed to me that they had little to no help in developing imaginative skill during their training. For many, it was something you either had or didn’t.

But artists value imagination and creativity. They need it. It’s an essential part of successfully having the quality of effect they want.

Thankfully, imagination’s not something you just have or don’t. It’s a muscle you build. I can speak from personal experience here.

You can lead the way in developing imaginative skill in lessons.

  • Allow yourself and your student to explore ideas when they pop up, no matter how weird they seem.
  • Try a series of options without having to choose one.
  • Be purposefully silly.
  • Make purposefully “ugly” or “weird” sounds and movements.
  • Play the “what if” game. “Let’s see what would happen if…”

Use Parameters

For many, imagination thrives within parameters, mainly because parameters provide a starting place. Starting with a cue or a set of limitations can often send someone into a flurry of ideas. Limitations can look like…

  • Only choose notes in the middle of your voice for the melody here.
  • You can only use two chords in this section.
  • What animal do you want to sing like right now?
  • Every line of words must start with “B.”
  • Pick one emotion to sing on that phrase.
  • Nothing can rhyme.
  • Write a song about autumn.
  • Draw a series of random notes out of this jar for your next vocal exercise.

Play

Imagination is play. And play sometimes feels scary to people who didn’t feel safe as kids, and who probably don’t feel particularly safe as adults, either. Safety is the prerequisite to play. If you and/or your student are finding play scary, be patient. Seek therapies that build a sense of safety. Create a safe space in your studio. And gently incorporate imaginative games over time.

Do Something Not Musical

Many play-averse people I’ve worked with have found a spark of imagination when putting together image boards of their visual inspirations, and then incorporating some of those things into their spaces. Something about a task that has nothing to do with their voice and has no pressure to be good frees them up to play and imagine. This is the reason many artists explore imagination in multiple mediums, all of which inform the others. They paint. Write poetry. Create a new recipe. Decorate a corner of the apartment. And then a little spark happens in their music, too.

Creation is naturally and necessarily unorganized. It eventually takes form and finds order, but it needs permission to be very messy at first and to not be sure about its path or purpose during many stages of its creation.

The only way to do it wrong is to not do it.

Sound familiar?

In Artistry, The Mess Is the Path

Artistry is messy and weird because humans are messy and weird. There is no math equation to help us create the best thing. No one would even agree on what that is.

That means the stuff that makes artists artists…the why and what and how…has to be given the freedom to happen in messy, unorganized ways, and sometimes artists need someone to let them know it’s okay and to be there as they navigate all of it and to provide encouragement and wisdom when they need it.

Artists Need You

You can be one of those helpers.

Too often, voice teachers leave artists to figure artistry out alone. And without the tools to navigate it, seedling artists either (1) sell out to our authority and agenda, (2) flounder and give up, or, (3) if they’re in the very lucky few, figure it out on their own.

But we can choose to be brave alongside our students. Help them figure out what they really want their mission and identity and style to be. Walk that windy road of finding their songwriting voice. Normalize creative anxiety. Persist through revisions and collaborations and marketing and all of the discomfort of putting our work in the world. Live with them in the life-giving space of making meaningful art with no guarantees.

Resources for Developing Artistry

There are many resources out there for developing artistry. Here are just a few. Please share your favorites in the comments!

Classes/Coaches/Teachers

Artist Coaching for Voice Teachers with Jessica Baldwin

Marcelle Gauvin

Julie Dean

Laura Donohue

The Awakened Creative coaches artists as they develop an artist brand that has a strong effect on their desired audience.

Books

Coaching

Become a Creativity Coach Now! by Eric Maisel

Coaching the Artist Within by Eric Maisel

The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee

Artistry

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Find Your Artistic Voice by Lisa Congdon

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Anything by 99U

The Songwriter’s Idea Book by Sheila Davis

Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

Related SPM Articles

The Delicate Balance of Technique and Artistry // Laura Donohue

Imitation vs. Originality—What Makes a Singer Unique? // Kelly Hoppenjans

Developing Vocal Style // Jess Baldwin

Please Share and Comment!

Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “What Does “Artistry” Even Mean? // Jess Baldwin”

  1. What a fabulous post! It is a messy journey to help a singer through this process but is so rewarding to see them celebrate small wins on the way! I have always thought of artistry as the ability to put your stamp of yourself on something that can make people experience an emotion when they see/hear/feel it. I love your reading list too! Thank you for sharing!

  2. “Asking your student what effect they want their music to have is a powerful and necessary starting place.” Yes! This is a fantastic starting point, so helpful. This entire post is so good and makes me think of something Steven Pressfield said about how making art isn’t self expression, it’s “self-discovery”.

    Also thank you for the shout-out and the book recommendations! There are several here I haven’t read and look forward to checking out. 🙂

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