My students always ask me for examples of “good singers”. It’s important to have a selection of singers who demonstrate not only good artistry but also good technique because, to a certain degree, we do imitate the artists we listen to the most. In this Sound Studies series, I’m going to be talking about some examples of these singers. These are some of the artists who have inspired me in the past, who I’ve studied and imitated and obsessed over, and who continue to challenge me to cultivate my craft.

You know you’re getting older when the singers you grew up listening to ring absolutely no bells with your younger students. But one such singer who I think deserves to be a household name today and always is Mariah Carey.

In order to really appreciate Mariah Carey’s talent and her enormous impact on the pop and R&B music scene, one has to look back at her performances from the 1990’s to early 2000’s. Here’s one of my favorites, a live performance of Vision of Love on Saturday Night Live in 1990:

There are so many impressive things about this performance, but I’ll just name a few. First of all, it’s so clean and controlled. Her pitch is accurate almost 100% of the time, and her dynamics (getting louder and quieter) are well-placed, intentional and deliberate. She sings a number of quick and complicated riffs and runs, all of which sounded very clear and distinct. There weren’t any notes running into each other or turning into sloppy sliding scales.

Second of all, her performance seems so effortless. I’m not talking about the difficulty of the song – I think it’s pretty obvious from listening to this song that it’s challenging, and anyone who tries to sing it had better be ready to rock or ready for a good serving of humble pie. Mariah, on the other hand, makes it seem so easy. There’s no shouting, no yelling, no veins popping out of her neck. At no point while I’m listening to it do I feel uncomfortable because it sounds like she’s about to rupture a vocal fold or crack into the wrong key. She just soars through all her phrases, and she makes it easy for the audience to enjoy her performance all the while because she’s not sounding like she’s struggling.

Last but not least, everything sounds clear and balanced. She sings with a breathy voice in a few parts earlier in the song in order to create more of a build-up into the climax, but besides that intentional stylistic choice, there isn’t any indication of poor vocal health or bad singing habits. She’s not having to push to get louder, her voice sounds smooth and clear, and her low notes (some of which were super low) and high notes (hello, crazy whistle tone from 2:53-2:57) don’t sound disconnected or imbalanced.

Maybe growing up in the ’90s has something to do with my admiration for Mariah Carey. But if you listen to this live clip, I think you would have to admit that in her peak, she was a singular talent. Unfortunately, her voice hasn’t been the same for the past few years. Perhaps it’s related to her health, or maybe it’s just the effect of having sung such challenging repertoire for so long. It doesn’t matter to me. Whenever I feel the need to listen to some inspiring vocal acrobatics, Mariah Carey is definitely one of the first on my playlist.