Vocal Dos and Don’ts for Covering Holiday Classics

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GUITAR GIRL MAGAZINE ISSUE 6

The holiday season is fast approaching and can often be one of the busiest times of the year for professional musicians. Extra gigs, gatherings, and repertoire requests are common. It is a great idea to have a catalog of covers you can use at the drop of a hat for these performances.  

Some professionals balk at the idea of “doing covers” with the idea that it is not creatively satisfying, whereas other professionals make a solid living successfully covering others’ material. It is a matter of personal preference, vocal strengths and career goals that make either decision right for you. I would argue that being able to do covers is a skill every musician needs to have, whether your focus is on creating original music or not. So here are some tips to make your covers stand out! 

Do choose a song that is in your comfortable singing range or feel free to adjust the key or modulate certain sections of the piece to make it work for you. I find many voice students want to emulate their favorite singer or cover songs exactly like the original and feel like a failure if they can’t hit a high or low note or do runs just like the famous singer. I believe that limits their personal potential and prevent them from finding their own strengths, vocally. Don’t feel the need to try to cover the song exactly like the original, especially if you don’t have a similar instrument to the original performer. In fact, doing a cover is a great time to experiment with your range and abilities and how you can make a piece of your own, so audiences aren’t tempted to see how well you can make a replicate the original which they likely already know.

I believe one of the inherent jobs of artists is using art to provide understanding and bring people together. Regardless of your personal beliefs, using music to explore other faiths, cultures, and languages during the holidays is an incredible opportunity- both for the performer and for the audience who benefits from hearing diversity in music. So, do try learning something completely new to you as long as you have time to get it right. If you want to get started learning the music of other cultures, I strongly recommend you don’t wing it, but do your research. Head to Youtube and some of the many wonderful musician community message boards to find someone who can recommend songs and perhaps even coach you in how to do a culturally appropriate performance, understand the background and history of the song as well as some famous performances to study. All these things will go a long way to you presenting an authentic and appropriate performance.

Here are a few links to kick-start your research: 

112 Non-denominational Christmas Songs 

11 Interfaith Songs for the Holidays 

20 Jewish Classics 

Other Religious Holidays Celebrated in/near December 

You might be wondering how many more renditions of holiday classics should really be done in the same style, and I agree it can get very boring listening to the same music every season. I do recommend you change it up to keep covers interesting such as alternative instrumentation (I’m looking at you, ukulele), changing tempi faster or slower, or an unexpected genre switch. However, don’t confuse your audience. For example, recently Fergie performed the national anthem in a sultry, almost bluesy style, and she was met with a lot of criticism. The problem was that while it is perfectly fine to do some genre-bending, it still has to make sense with the lyrics and purpose of the performance, and purpose of the performance and a sexy national anthem simply didn’t work. For example, you wouldn’t want to perform a rock ‘n’ roll version of “Silent Night,” but maybe you could pull off softer jazz or Bossa nova version.

Cover Photo by Model Mayra Veronica sings “Santa Baby” during a USO show at Thule Air Base, Greenland, Nov. 9, 2008.

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