Singing with Soul: A Lesson from Bill Brickey of the Old Town School of Folk Music
Folk. When most people see that word, they think of open plains, acoustic guitars, and rowdy campfire sing-alongs. Not Bill Brickey. To him, folk has as much to do with Curtis Mayfield as Woody Guthrie. Bill is a guitar and voice instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square, where he specializes in soul and R&B music. Regulars at the school might recognize him as the co-leader of the Soul Ensemble, which he conducts with fellow instructor and soul savant Alton Smith. I sat down with Bill and asked him to explain what makes soul such a uniquely American art form. He was also happy to offer some tips for those who wish to sing and play it themselves.
GROUPON: When people think about folk music, they generally don’t associate it with soul and R&B. Do you consider soul music to be part of the American folk tradition or part of a different tradition?
BILL BRICKEY: For me, soul is one of the first truly American folk musics. It’s the thesis and the antithesis of slave culture, Irish culture, and Appalachian culture. If you see music—and particularly folk music—as something that’s generated by a group of people that live together over a long period of time, you have to realize that these three very diverse groups of people created a unique music that didn’t truly belong to any one of them. Soul music, which comes from gospel, blues, R&B, and even hip-hop, is a truly American experience. You couldn’t have created it any other way.
G: When you came to the Old Town School, did you feel that styles such as soul and R&B were underrepresented?
BB: When I started working at the Old Town School [in 1990], they didn’t have a black teacher on the guitar staff. They did have people who were teaching Motown because that’s hard to avoid when you’re talking about folk music. I wouldn’t say I introduced it, but I did help bring the spirit of R&B and soul to the School. There’s a very personal, loose, intuitive element to this type of music that you have to experience. You have to live it. If you don’t come from that tradition, it’s almost impossible to teach it because it has a lot to do with helping people lose their inhibitions.
G: You lead the Soul Ensemble at the Old Town School. Can you describe what that is and how it differs from a regular class?
BB: The ensemble is a traditional format for the Old Town School—most feature bass, drums, guitar, and sometimes piano. Soul Ensemble is unique in that our primary focus is on the singers. The element that sets us apart from everybody else is the choral singing and the fact that it’s so intimate.
G: Soul music arose from African American gospel, and its roots are tied to the black experience in America. Do you teach this history to the members of your ensemble? Do you find that people sing a song differently if they know more about where it’s from?
BB: It’s essential. To sing soul music, you have to understand that gospel music came from the drums in the slave camps. When the drum was taken away, that percussive element was divested from the instrument and bled into the vocals, causing the vocals to become even more percussive than they already were. That’s always been a very important part of African singing.
G: Since you bring up issues of race, I noticed that one of your upcoming courses is called “Blue-Eyed Soul” and focuses on how white vocalists have co-opted and expanded upon the soul tradition. Were you at all apprehensive about introducing such a combustible topic into a course?
BB: My apprehension didn’t start with the class. It started the first time I saw the term. I was like, “What? Why are you separating these people out? They’re singing soul music, and that’s the end of the discussion.” Calling it “blue-eyed” implies that there’s an element that makes it distinct from soul music. The fact that some people don’t sing as soulfully as others—that’s a statement you can make. When I walk by a class and hear somebody teaching soul music, the first thing I do is listen to the vocals. Then I usually cringe.
G: So do you think any good vocalist can sing soul music, or is there something else required?
BB: Well, there are some people who can’t do it. It’s about inhibitions. You have to let go. You have to be spiritual and sexual at the same time.
G: If you’re lacking in a certain type of personal experience, does it keep you from tapping into some key element of soul?
BB: Well, think about the blues. You have to be able to ascribe to a certain mindset in order to really perform the blues. It’s not so much that you have to have the same life experience as someone else, but you have to be able to see the irony in that life experience before you can really touch the blues.
G: You mentioned letting go of your inhibitions. A big part of singing is overcoming performance anxiety. Is that something you teach in your vocal classes?
BB: I would never tell this to a class, but primarily I’m trying to teach people to laugh. I want to get them to have a good time with music and to see music as a partner. It’s not Mount Everest. You don’t climb it, stand on top of it, and then come down. You try to become the mountain, which is the much greater feat.
G: Do you have any any advice for soul singers in particular?
BB: With soul singers, I try to teach them to relax their bodies. Singing soul music is very different from singing anything else. It’s intimate. It’s an invasion of the personal space. As a soul singer, you invade the audience’s personal space, and you expect that the audience is going to invade yours. You offer yourself up as a spectacle. You’re saying, “Look at me.”
G: Are there any easy ways to expand one’s vocal range that don’t require a lot of training or practice?
BB: Just relax. Listen to yourself for a change. Stepping back and listening to your own voice helps you answer the question, “What does my voice actually sound like when I’m not trying to do a perfect job?” Also, be kind to your voice. If you owned a $6,000 guitar, every night you would put it away after polishing it. Try to treat your voice the same way.