This is a complicated question and it’s a subjective answer! I can tell you what I feel makes a singer truly great, and I can start by telling you what does not make a singer truly great. I preface with this because in our quest to be better singers, it is so easy to lose sight of the real goal to become a better singer.
What does not make a great singer?
While each of these abilities may show up in great singers, the abilities by themselves do not create greatness in a singer (in my opinion).
Having a huge and expansive vocal range is a goal for many singers, but I would not say it automatically leads to singing with greatness.
There are several benefits of expanding your vocal range:
The more notes that a singer can hit with ease, the more songs they can choose from and not feel limited by pitch range. The extreme high and low notes can be fun to demonstrate and may boost your ego for a bit (no harm, no foul there). Having accessibility to a large range of pitches may make it easier to demonstrate intense emotions within a performance, like belting out a high note for excitement or hitting the depths of your range for a sultry twist.
Even with the benefits of building vocal range, an expansive vocal range does not make a singer great! There are plenty of people who have 3 and 4 octave ranges who would not capture an audience.
We all watch mesmerized as singers like Whitney Houston and Demi Lovato belt out the biggest, most powerful notes and make us feel something amazing! They use these powerful moments to bring the music to a climax whether it is a song of pain or loss or joy. It may seem that learning to sing powerful belted notes might be the key to becoming a great singer.
As much as I love hearing those powerful moments of singing, they stand out because they typically contrast with the other parts of the song. The beauty and impact occurs because of the balance. If powerful sounds were the key to success as a singer, how would you explain the calming voice of Norah Jones or the breathy tone of Billie Eilish? Both of those singers are master artists who are considered to be great by many people (myself included).
Stage Presence while singing
Being able to keep the attention of an audience for a song, a set, a concert, a tour…is an absolute must for a singer. Look to any great singer and they have their own personality on stage. The way they walk, stand, sit, hold the mic…everything is distinctly them. This is an area that every singer should develop because it will create a more impactful performance.
Gaining a look of comfort on stage will allow the audience to relax and enjoy the performance.
Being able to show the emotions you are singing about and showing that you feel the beat of a song will help others feel the groove.
Even though having stage presence is a big part of what makes a great singer, by itself it does not.
Singing Vocal Riffs
Having the agility to sing those crazy riffs and runs like Yebba Smith, Jazmine Sullivan or Beyonce, would be so much fun! As you train your voice, doing agility exercises are a key part of building your vocal skills.
While it is a stylish enhancement to add a riff or four for emphasis within a song, it is not a requirement for great singing.
So what does make a great singer?
In my opinion, a great singer is any singer who can make you feel something and can move you with their voice. They can be singers with soft or powerful voices, with rough or smooth voices, with big or small personalities and with small and large vocal ranges.
A great singer can bring me to tears, make me feel empty, make me feel hopeful and make me feel empowered all in one show. Their vocal abilities can vary greatly, but they lean on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses in each performance. Rather than worrying about what their voice can handle, I can watch and listen and enjoy the storytelling they are doing. They have complete control over their choices of timbre, tone, lyrical delivery and stylistic elements of their singing.
Think about some of your favorite singers. Some of them may be respected for their vocal range or ability to riff, some of them may have a more unique sound that stands out amongst the other artists. All of them make you feel something.
What do you think makes a great singer?