Derek Sivers

After 15 years of practice...


Since 14, I was determined to be a great singer. But my pitch was bad, my tone was bad, and everyone said I was just not a singer.

At 17, I started taking voice lessons, and practicing two hours every night. I’d go into a soundproof room for two hours of long-tones, scales, arpeggios, and practicing specific song phrases over and over.

At 18, I started touring, doing two to four shows a week, always as the lead singer. Often they were outdoor shows, sometimes with no PA system at all, so I really had to learn how to project to be heard.

At 19, I was still practicing two hours a night, but still having a problem with pitch. People kept telling me I was just not a singer — that I should give it up, and find a real singer.

Then I heard Warren Senders giving a demonstration of Indian vocal music, and his pitch was so perfect, I went rushing up to him afterwards to ask how he did it.

I said, “How are you able to hit the notes so perfectly dead-on? Are you just natually good at this?”

He said, “No! When I first started singing, not only was I not within an inch of the note — I wasn’t within a football field of the note! I was horrible!”

“So how did you do it?”

He jabbed a finger in my chest, and looked me in the eye. “Practice. Thousands of hours of practice, and eventually I got it. I can show you how.”

For the next year, I’d take a bus out to his place every Wednesday night as he’d teach me some esoteric ways of thinking about singing.

I continued touring for years, always as the lead singer. Still taking voice lessons with different teachers in different cities. Still practicing tone, scales and trouble spots for an hour every night.

At 25, I recorded my first album. When I gave it to someone who was a real mentor to me, he gave it a focused listen, then said, “Derek, you’re just not a singer. You really need to stop trying. Admit you’re a songwriter, and find a real singer.”

But I bounced away from that meeting unfazed. I knew I just had more work to do.

I toured for three more years after that, always pushing, always practicing, always determined to be a great singer.

At 28, I started noticing that my voice was getting good! I recorded a few new songs, and for the first time, I really really liked the vocals!

At 29, I had done it. After 15 years of practice, and about 1000 live shows, I was finally a very good singer, at least by my own standards. You can judge for yourself at Old stuff at the bottom. New stuff at the top.

Someone who heard me for the first time then said, “Singing is a gift you’re either born with or you’re not. You’re lucky. You were born with it!”

I had to remember this story now because I’m spending most of my time doing things I’m not good at. It’s overwhelming, sometimes.

I’m really trying to be a great computer programmer, and so in awe of the people who seem to do it naturally. I’m just such a beginner.

It may take me another 15 years, but I’m determined.

Tortoise and Hare