You gotta fight… for your right… to sing in the right key? // Jo Sear

I’ve been a lead singer in a variety of Pop/Rock/Soul covers bands for the past 27 years, and a teacher of Popular Music styles for 16 years. After such a long time inhabiting that world, very little shocks me these days. But I recently experienced an unusual and very pleasant surprise when I joined the Soul function band I currently sing with: Before we started rehearsals, they asked me which keys I would like to sing the songs in. Yes, you read that right. It was actually suggested to me, freely, without my having to ask for it. I had to stop my jaw from dropping wide open (which, let’s be honest, as singers we want to avoid).

This has never happened to me before. After I recovered my composure, I asked myself the same question I have asked many times before: Why is this the case? Why do singers like us often find ourselves having to fight our corner when it comes to singing in comfortable keys for us? How can we, as singing teachers, empower our students in this regard?

Some of my own past experiences serve as a warning to my student band singers. I joined my first professional Funk and Soul band as lead singer at age 21. It was a brand-new band, so no one had pre-rehearsed any numbers. I asked our lead guitarist and de facto band ‘leader’ if I could adjust the key for ‘Night To Remember’ by Shalamar by a couple of semi-tones as it made all the difference in the key lift at the end of the song. His response was a flat ‘no’. He had already learned it in the original key and so had the keys player, and anyway people in the audience ‘would know if it was different’. It was the same story with other songs I asked about. The ultimate result? Singing those songs in a key that was clearly too high for me, repeatedly, several gigs a week, resulted in me damaging my voice and having to take 6 months out to train myself back to vocal health. The band had to audition for a new singer and pull out of a few well-paid gigs while they found one. 

It Shouldn’t Be a Pleasant Surprise

The courtesy shown to me by my current band led me to hope that this was no longer a problem for band singers. Unfortunately, recent experiences I’ve had as a voice teacher and a participant in online forums show that this is not the case. An experienced male singer that I coached when he joined a tribute band to 80s synth pop outfit Ultravox was told by the keyboard player that he could not adjust the key for their most famous song (Vienna) as he had ‘already programmed it into the computer.’ A student I teach at a university told me that his friend had joined a cruise ship band and asked if the keys to a few of the songs could be altered to make it more comfortable for him. They refused, and he ended up leaving the ship a month or so later, having damaged his voice from regularly singing songs that were too high in his range. A Facebook group of singers and teachers recently debated the same issue, having picked up on a performer’s forum that there seemed to be an ‘unwritten rule’ that asking to change keys in covers bands – particularly tribute bands – was a ‘cardinal sin’. This provoked a vociferous response from singing teachers, who frequently have to deal with the fallout from singers whose voices are over-tired and over-stretched. My favourite comment on that forum called this reluctance on the part of bands to accommodate their singers’ ranges ‘gatekeeping bullshit’.

We PM voice teachers know that sound vocal technique is, of course, vital to career longevity as a singer. But we also know that even the most trained and skilled of singers can struggle when regularly belting out notes that are too high in their range. From a physiological perspective, it often means an uncomfortably high larynx position that can become ‘stuck’ (MTD), more extreme vocal fold collisions leading to swelling and excess air pressure to ‘force’ the notes out. This in turn leads, at best, to an unreliable voice that has less stamina and, at worst, permanent voice damage. 

Myth Busting the Reasons Bands Refuse to Change Keys

Some of the most common reasons that bands give when refusing to change keys appear to fit into the following categories, which I will address here point by point:

‘A tribute band singer needs to be authentic to the original sound’

Contemporary singers such as Adele and Hozier regularly lower the keys of their own studio-recorded songs in their live performances. Original singers from well-known touring bands that go as far back as the 1960s, 70s and 80s frequently drop their keys to achieve vocal longevity, since people paying good money for tickets generally like to see and hear the ‘true’ voice of the band if possible (think Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks etc). If the original artists who made these songs known can do this, why can’t their covering artists?

‘It won’t sound ‘right’ – the audience will notice’

Most singers who get the gig for covers/function bands do so because their voice is suited to the repertoire. These singers are therefore unlikely to need songs transposed out of recognition. Usually, we are talking only around two or three semi-tones. Realistically, this will rarely alter the perception of the song in the consciousness (or, more likely, unconsciousness) of the audience. But, for the singer, those couple of semi-tones can make all the difference. 

‘The band has already learned it in that key – it’s too difficult to change it now’

We live in exciting times as far as technology is concerned. There are phone and tablet apps for transposition everywhere. Websites such as musicroom.com and musicnotes.com offer sheet music that is transposable into any key at least 5 semi-tones either side of the original, sometimes more. All of these offer piano accompaniment and guitar tab. Most guitarists worth their salt can use a capo or adjust chord patterns. You have to ask yourself: Is it really that hard? Or is it because they can’t be bothered to change?

Getting the Band to Change Keys

Now we’ve busted a few myths, how do we as teachers help our singers get what they need from their musician colleagues? In cases of resistance, how do they convince the band to adapt their keys to suit them better? 

My approach is to couch it in financial terms. Quite simply, it is in every band member’s best interest to keep their singer in good vocal health so as not to lose valuable income. An uncomfortable vocal range extension, as we’ve discussed, leads to an unreliable voice. An unreliable or damaged voice leads to cancelled gigs for the whole band. Since covers and tribute bands need to have a comprehensive repertoire list, replacing that singer – who, after all, was chosen as a good fit for the band’s sound – is inconvenient and difficult. Sure, a dep can stand in as a temporary fix, but that will often have an impact on the sound you were going for in the first place. Isn’t it worth a little extra time at the outset to make sure your singer can perform to the best of their ability, gig after gig?

What We Can Do In the Voice Studio

I live in hope that, one day, this intransigence on the part of bands will change. But for now, it’s up to us teachers to empower our singers. Let them know that it’s not unreasonable to ask for adjustments that will improve their performance, maintain their vocal health and extend career longevity. Find the keys that suit them best during lesson time and get them to make a note of them, so they know what to ask for. Help them construct the right arguments to stand their ground and – most of all – explain that if the band want a reliable set of vocal folds for regularly high-performance gig standards, they may have to budge. No more lame excuses. 

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