We are reader-supported. Links on our site may earn us a commission. More about us

Elvis to Swift: How struggling singers became global icons

All commercially successful singers have had many improvements to make in their skills at the beginning of their careers.

The concept of putting in 10,000 hours of work to master a skill, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, is a general guideline for artists. The time required can vary among individuals, but consistent practice is crucial for skill development.

All singers have some aspect of their singing or performance that needs to improve early on. This article will highlight those imperfections and uncover how the singers catapulted their weaknesses into strengths.

About me

I have been singing professionally for 15 years and at this point in my career, I finally feel like I’m no longer “faking it,” I feel like I am a part of the music community.

I feel this because the amount of time I have spent studying music has created a deep feeling of comfort, challenge, and respect.

Marye Lobb, writer at Higher Hz

I have spent time studying music, understanding theory, studying music production, practicing singing, piano, guitar, ukulele, listening to music and learning new songs, writing my songs, and beyond.

I’m sure I have put in over 30,000 hours at this point in my career. To me, it is not about the hours put in as it is about your relationship with music.

Music and I trust one another, we understand each other and have spent enough time together that we know how to problem-solve with both our technical knowledge and emotion.

In short, music is where I am at home. It doesn’t mean I don’t have aspects of my craft to work on, it means that I am consistently ready and willing to learn and grow.

I wrote this article in hopes that it would motivate you, no matter where you are in your singing journey. In my opinion, learning and improving your craft never ends, and if it does end, that means you are dead.

Ed Sheeran

Challenge to overcome: Improve singing voice

In the early stages of Ed Sheeran’s career, his singing voice faced criticism for its perceived limitations. Critics and even Sheeran himself acknowledged that, initially, his vocal abilities were not as refined as his songwriting skills.

His voice lacked quality, and he struggled with traditional vocal techniques as you can see in this interview on the Jonathan Ross Show where he shares an early song recording.

In my opinion and experience, it is common for songwriters, who sing their material, to write songs out of their range or technical ability early on. However, rather than succumbing to these limitations, Sheeran embraced them as part of his authenticity.

Over time, he committed to improving his vocal proficiency through dedicated practice and experiences on stage as expressed in this video.

This journey contributed to the unique charm of his voice, showcasing the power of determination in shaping an artist’s sonic identity.

Elvis Presley

Challenge to overcome: Stage fright

Elvis Presley’s stage fright harmed his career, particularly in the early stages. The anxiety before performances affected the quality of his shows and hindered his ability to connect with the audience.

This unease sometimes led to shorter or less engaging performances, diminishing the overall experience for fans. Additionally, it limited his willingness to engage in extensive touring during certain periods, impacting the promotion of his music.

While Presley eventually overcame his stage fright through various strategies, the initial challenges had implications for the live aspects of his career and required him to actively work on overcoming this hurdle.

Elvis Presley’s triumph over stage fright is a testament to his resilience and dedication. According to biographer Peter Guralnick, Presley battled nerves early in his career but developed coping mechanisms.

In Guralnick’s “Last Train to Memphis,” the author highlights Presley’s backstage banter with bandmates as a crucial stress reliever. Additionally, the book underscores Presley’s commitment to extensive rehearsals, boosting his confidence.

Guralnick’s authoritative biography provides valuable insights into the transformative journey of Elvis Presley, shedding light on the strategies he employed to conquer his stage fright.

Janis Joplin

Challenge to overcome: Pitch accuracy

Janis Joplin’s evolution as a vocalist involved a notable enhancement in pitch accuracy. In her early career, Joplin faced criticism for her raw, unpolished vocal style. However, through dedicated practice and vocal training, she honed her pitch precision.

Janis Joplin
Photo: Elliott Landy

Author Alice Echols, in her biography “Scars of Sweet Paradise,” explores Joplin’s commitment to refining her singing technique. Echols emphasizes Joplin’s collaborations with vocal coaches and fellow musicians as crucial in her journey toward improved pitch control.

Echols’ insightful biography provides valuable context to Joplin’s persistent efforts to perfect her vocal prowess.


Challenge to overcome: Emotional depth in delivery

In her early career, Beyoncé faced criticism for her perceived lack of emotional depth in her delivery. Music critics, including Aisha Harris of Slate, criticized her ability to convey genuine sentiment.

Over time, Beyoncé’s evolution as an artist has addressed these critiques, showcasing a more profound emotional connection in her performances.

Beyoncé’s evolution towards a more sincere and emotionally resonant delivery is evident in her musical journey. Notably, her documentary “Life Is But a Dream” provides insights into her personal growth and artistic development. Beyoncé openly discusses embracing vulnerability and drawing from real-life experiences to infuse authenticity into her performances.

Critically acclaimed albums like Lemonade showcase a heightened emotional depth, as explored by music journalists like Jon Pareles in The New York Times. Beyoncé’s maturation as an artist, coupled with introspection and a willingness to share her truth, has led to a more sincere and impactful musical expression over the years.

Taylor Swift

Challenge to overcome: Vocal strength and range

Taylor Swift’s vocal strength and range have noticeably expanded throughout her career.

Music critic Mikael Wood, in a Los Angeles Times article, notes Swift’s maturation in Folklore and Evermore, praising her newfound vocal subtlety. Swift’s live performances, analyzed by experts like Chris Willman in Variety, showcase her enhanced vocal prowess.

Taylor Swift
Photo: Christopher Polk

Over the years, Taylor Swift’s commitment to refining her singing skills has resulted in a broader vocal range and increased strength, contributing to the richness of her musical repertoire.

Justin Timberlake

Challenge to overcome: Transition from boy band to solo artist

Justin Timberlake’s transition to a successful solo career involved strategic decisions and artistic growth. Analyzing his journey, Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz commends Timberlake’s solo debut Justified, produced in collaboration with Pharrell Williams, as a seamless shift from NSYNC.

Moreover, insights from Timberlake’s interview with GQ reveal his desire for authenticity and control in crafting his solo image. The critical acclaim and commercial success of FutureSex/LoveSounds, examined by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian, solidified Timberlake’s solo standing.

Justin Timberlake
Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand

Overall, Timberlake’s intentional choices, musical innovation, and dedication to authenticity played pivotal roles in his triumphant transition to a solo artist.

Justin Bieber

Challenge to overcome: Live performance stamina

Justin Bieber’s improvement in live performance stamina over time is evident in various sources. Interviews with his vocal coach, Jan Smith, as reported by Billboard, highlight the implementation of rigorous vocal exercises and physical training to enhance endurance.

Bieber himself, in an interview with GQ, acknowledged the importance of maintaining physical health to support his live performances.

Justin Bieber
Photo: Jeff Kravitz

Reviews of his Purpose World Tour, covered by outlets like Rolling Stone, commend his increased stage presence and stamina. Bieber’s consistent efforts in vocal and physical conditioning contribute to his sustained ability to deliver energetic and enduring live performances.

Final thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to read this article! I hope that it has left you inspired to practice and train whether you are struggling with stage fright, pitch accuracy, vocal strain, emotional depth, vocal strength, and range, transitioning from singing in a group to singing solo, or want to improve your performance stamina.

Whatever the challenge is, face it head on and little by little each day you will get there just like so many singers have who came before you. You can do it!