1. A great work ethic
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but it means different things to different people. Many students are extremely motivated in spurts-deciding that they will work on vocal exercises for two weeks, 8 hours a day, or that they will get that impossible Whitney Houston song down by doing nothing but singing it for a month. Much more successful are the patient students who, over the course of months or years rather than days or weeks, combine practicing vocal exercises and working on a song or two every day, even if they only have time to put in 10 to 15 minutes a day. Learning to sing well is much more comparable to an endurance race than to a sprint.
It's not that putting hours of work into a song right before an audition or performance is a waste of time. If you have a strong foundation to build on, taking a week or two to devote long hours to a song can be just what you need to make you competitive. But a few weeks of very hard work is not going to make up for years of consistent work, any more than swimming 20 hours a day for a few weeks will prepare you to be an Olympic swimmer. Like any exercise, consistent vocal exercises will slowly strengthen your voice, increase your range, and build positive muscle memory over a period of time.
2. A playful, unselfconscious, fearless attitude
At the risk of making this sound like a self-help pamphlet, I'd like to say that I can not stress this one enough. While doing regular vocal exercises is indispensable for significant improvement, so is having fun with your practice. Your voice teacher can explain technique to you and give you music to work on, but he or she probably only sees you, at the very most, a couple of hours a week. If he is only giving you feedback based on what your voice is doing at a given moment, and not what it can do in general, his advice is necessarily limited. My most successful students play around with songs to see what their voices can do at home. Often, one of them will come in with 6 different possible ways she found to hit a note and then ask me which one I prefer. Unsurprisingly, tinkering students like this will improve faster than ones who wait for voice lessons before thinking about how they might improve a song.
It is not only playfulness, but also a certain fearlessness that these students have. No matter how talented and hard-working a student is, if she is unwilling to sound silly and make mistakes while she tries new ways to sing, it will be a long haul before she breaks out of her current habits.
3. An aptitude for listening and imitating a wide range of music
I know this one may get me in trouble with a number of voice teachers, and with good reason, so please keep reading before writing me off. Let me preface this by saying that I do not believe students should simply copy other singers. Every singer has his or her own unique tone and set of abilities. Some students will very comfortably use a chesty mix (ie they will sound like they are belting) up to a high Eb, while others will strain if they try to pull the chesty sound past A above middle C. Imitating another singer too closely may get you into trouble if your voice is simply built differently from that singer.
That being said, students can learn a lot through listening and imitating. I've found, for example, that it is virtually impossible to teach vibrato to a student who never listen to singers who use vibrato and who has no interest in the reproducing the sound. If I demonstrate something that sounds foreign to them, it's an uphill battle getting them to sing that way. This is not to say that someone who has listened to legit Broadway all her life will automatically sing with vibrato, but if it's a sound she likes, internalizes, and tries to imitate, she will most likely learn to sing in that style much faster than someone who typically only listens to singers whose vibrato is either nonexistent or has been auto-tuned away.
I've found that students who are good at listening and imitating other singers are much more likely to play around with their own voices until they're able to reproduce various sounds. Without my instruction, they'll instinctively mimic other singers' vowel definitions and ornamentation. Listening to and imitating great singers in different genres can be a very effective tool for students to begin thinking of different ways to use their voices.
Imitation alone is certainly not what makes for a great singer, even when a singer's voice is built to sound very similar to the singer's voice she is imitating. Closely copying another singer does not leave room for a student to develop her own style and feeling behind a song. This is where the hard work and playfulness come in. Ideally, students will use imitation as a jumping off point for being creative with their voices and discovering new things about themselves. I hope I've shed some light on what makes a successful student. More importantly, I hope it's inspired you to buckle down, experiment with your voice, and maybe, just maybe, act a little bit crazy.
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