Artist to Artist: Singing in the Age of Covid-19

My name is Sandra Booker. You have probably never heard of me.

I am not famous. I have never been signed to a major recording deal. I have never toured with a major artist or band. I have never had a manager or agent (until very recently). I was never the first (or second or 50th) call for studio sessions in Los Angeles or New York. I have never taught music at the university level. I never met the so-called right people and the ones I thought were the right people, usually turned out to be the exact opposite. I have never sung on or off Broadway. I’m hoping there is still time. I have never performed the National Anthem for a major sporting or political event.

On the other hand, I have been a working musician for most of my adult life, occasionally having to put my artistic career on hold to work as everything from a general manager of a foreign film import/export company to the executive director of a trade organization for photographers to make ends meet. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Go Bruins! I studied classical voice privately with Bela Berger, Mike Berger and Marion Cooper. I credit them with my development as a vocalist. I have never taken a jazz vocal lesson. I taught music theory and private voice for nearly twenty years. I have had some wonderful highlights as a jazz vocalist performing with artists like Billy Higgins, Dado Maroni, and Karen Briggs. I self-produced all of my recordings to date as a leader, including When Love Happens: The Loving Day concert: the first CD dedicated to the legalization of interracial marriage with a forthcoming release Songs from the 8TH Ward from my label The Booker Group (TBG). I have been the featured or guest vocalist for performers such as Lalo Schifrin and the WDR Big Band, Pepesito Reyes, Dennis Dreith Band, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA). My voice has been featured in ad campaigns including Ralph Lauren and Coca-Cola. I was once a Jeopardy! clue, (in the fine company of Esperanza Spaulding and Nina Simone). Does this make me an expert? You decide.

I offer my expert advice based on my experiences as a working singer, not based on my notoriety as one. I offer these suggestions for staying motivated, inspired and creative to keep your artistry alive in the age of Covid-19.

My maternal grandmother often said, “There is difference between famous advice and expert advice.” Sometimes, there’s more wisdom gained from the man who shines shoes than the man having them polished. Now, what in Bedford Falls does this has to do with keeping your artistry alive in the age of Covid-19? More than you might suspect, so indulge me.

In our current culture, we defer to the famous for guidance on everything from the best choice for organic baby food to who should occupy the White House. We put such a high premium on the popular, TikTok, flavor-of-the- day suggestions, that we far too often neglect the process required to achieve success, whatever that is. Development comes with commitment to whatever it is you want to accomplish. Progress takes place, but only over time. And time, is the one thing that in this moment is on your side. Are you using this down time to practice, to improve your artistic skills, to expand your creative vocabulary?

Having confidence in your talent when it feels like the world has come to a standstill has taken its toll on us all. Some of us are suffering from a lack of connection to family and friends due to social distancing, lack of opportunity, work, and income, in addition to stress, anxiety, and depression due to not knowing how long the current state of affairs will continue. Then there are those risking their lives to work so they can support their families. That’s equally overwhelming. For as frustrating as life has been this last year, the light at the end of the tunnel starts with you lighting a candle at yours.

The year 2020 will go down in the record books as perhaps one of the most devastating of the decade. Speaking only for myself, I have wondered if my career is over. It’s hard to make music without fellow musicians in this time of uncertainty, which feels like we are trying to make a comeback from the entertainment abyss. From the loss of so many icons in the world of music, art, literature, sports and politics, to the floods in the east, and raging wild fires across the west, we have weathered what feels like a never-ending hurricane. Add to that, the constant horrors of social injustice, racial inequality, and extreme domestic violence that has left so many of us shaken to the core as to who we are as individuals, but also as a people and a nation. And just when we thought, “What else could possibly happen?” Covid-19 descended upon the world leaving us all in a state of shock and awe. Where is the playbook for surviving a global pandemic? There isn’t one so it’s yours to make.

Unfortunately, artists are not considered essential workers, though I would argue to the contrary. There is no safety net for the average musician. We are usually compensated as independent contractors, so we don’t have taxes deducted from our pay to cover social security benefits, health and welfare, etc., because there is none, and that makes it yours for the making. No two artists are alike so deciding what is right for you is what matters at the end of the day, however, I want to offer you my expert advice as a non-working, working musician on the use of your time and how this is the perfect opportunity to make the most of yours.

How often have we said, “If only I had the time to do this or that” and with the stay-at -home orders in place, I decided to make wine from sour grapes. For those musicians, particularly singers, this is a chance to become a better musician, a better student of your craft, and hopefully, a better artist with something important and authentic to say when the audience returns. It has been extremely disheartening not to be able to play music and at the onset of the pandemic, artists were scrambling to figure out ways to keep working, generate income, and keep creating art. I took a different approach and this is the advice I want to offer to anyone reading this article.

It can be hard to be one’s own constructive critic, but it is vital to discovering what makes the individual push beyond the boundaries of where they are in the creative process, and perhaps life in general. I would encourage any musician, especially singers, to take this time and use it for self-investment to improve in areas where you are deficient. The audience is waiting for you and you should be preparing to give them something they will want to see, hear, and most importantly, feel. Make no mistake, when live music returns, and it will, audiences are going to go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck.

Always wanted to learn to play an instrument? Do it. I encourage vocalists, young or old, to learn guitar, piano or both. It’s going to take a little time but it’s an investment in your ability to communicate to other musicians what you want, instead of what they think you want. It will significantly improve your intonation and sense of timing. It’s never too late to learn. I started studying guitar and upright bass with excellent teachers (Thanks Benjamin Thomas, Jim Hughart and Katie Thiroux.), taken online music theory courses, master classes, and sight-singing workshops. Lots of these resources are free.

Check out the app called Ella that helps singers improve their intonation, because let’s face it, Auto-tune is great but it’s not God. Learning things like the circle of fifths, how to determine your key, both major and minor, clap and count rhythms, and sing middle C and the intervals ascending and descending from that starting point are all things that increase your value as a singer. Speaking as a singer and songwriter, I can’t over emphasize the importance of alone time to study, grow, and develop. If you are a storyteller, tell us your stories. Covers are cool, but covers have been covered and there has to be other songs to sing and those songs should be coming from you. Take a poetry or story writing course. Take a songwriting workshop. Your writing will get better.

Don’t discount the importance of physical exercise, meditation, relaxation and other self-care measures. It’s crucial to keeping your body and mind healthy. Practice harmonies to your favorite songs, which will improve your ear and make it easier to sing with others in a live or recording setting. Learn the lyrics of every song you want to sing. A pet-peeve of mine is watching a show where the vocalist is sitting on a stool – wait for it – with a fake book in front of them; or worse, singing the lyrics from an iPad or iPhone. The singer has a multi-faceted job and knowing the literature is a significant part of that. Either it’s a performance or a public rehearsal. The audience deserves better from you, and if you can’t deliver that, stay in the woodshed until you can.

This down time would be a good time to learn the material you’re eventually going to be paid to perform and reading or singing from a lead sheet is not performing. I practice my cursive by writing out the lyrics to songs to improve my memory of the song. Many musicians have created home studios, downloaded Logic or Pro-Tools, bought interfaces, pop screens, amps, microphones and such, to be ready for what could be a boon for musicians who can afford to do that, but if you can’t, don’t feel like you’re being left behind.

In times of unrest and uncertainty is when the most important art/music is born. Pain, despair, anger, frustration, and even disbelief, are but a few of the emotions most are experiencing, but we could be missing a great opportunity to better ourselves and the artistic community in general, which will bridge the some of the ideological gaps that separate and divide us.

Let this be a time of planting seeds in the form of self-investment and self-discipline. Love the process of planning ahead, preparing for the big comeback, and celebrate the progress made that is part and parcel of the journey of becoming what you want to be. I offer this advice only to those of you who are committed to a life in the arts. I want you to love the ups and downs of learning and the importance of knowing your craft and perfecting it. I want you to have confidence in your dreams by doing the hard and consistent work to make them a reality. It’s work! It’s hard, thankless work but it’s self-work that leads to self-discovery and greater creativity.

Be your own best friend and critic. You are worth the work. It’s only time wasted if you’re doing nothing to ready yourself for what’s potentially to come. I hope it’s a world that doesn’t take the arts for granted ever again.

Good luck!

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