Photo Credit: I AM A SINGER Official YouTube channel | 我是歌手官方频道
There once was a singer called Jeff 张信哲。
He had the most angelic and flawless voice, the kind you could fall into a trance listening to. You felt like he was singing only to you, and that he meant every word. He never went out of pitch, and sounded as good live as he did in the studio (unlike many other performers).
His only weakness: he did not have much of a stage presence. He wasn’t the kind of live performer who excelled at making conversation, cracking jokes and engaging his fans. He was the “stand there and sing” type who seemed to have no idea what to do with his hands and feet, the kind who when he tried to dance, came across as awkward.
Then at the start of 2016, Jeff took part in a reality TV show in China called “I Am A Singer”.
7 veteran singers competed every week for 14 weeks, and each week someone would be eliminated and someone new would join the show. It required complete dedication, it was physically and emotionally gruelling, and above all, it forced contestants to continually push past their boundaries of “What kind of music do my fans know me for” and “This is the kind of music I love performing and that I’ve been performing for the last 20 years” into “Let’s give people something they’ve never seen”.
These were not amateurs trying to get their 5 minutes of fame and hoping Simon Cowell would offer them a contract. These were industry veterans of 10-30 years’ experience who performed live sell-out concerts, dominated music awards and whom many audience members had grown up listening to.
Jeff decided to surprise the audience.
Each week, he would experiment with his image. Sometimes it worked well; sometimes not so. Instead of the usual band or piano solo, he would include a variety of musical instruments (bagpipes! water percussion!) and backup singers (burlesque! Aboriginal children’s choir!). Not confining himself to Mandarin, he also sang in Cantonese and English, with perfect diction for the latter. He re-interpreted familiar favourites and added electronic beats to his signature hits. He teased his audience. He even DANCED.
The audience loved it.
They loved this “new” version of Jeff, who was as capable of bringing them to tears as he was of getting them to stand up and sway along with him. They could see the effort and imagination and creativity and the physical toll (one week, he performed in spite of being ill – you could see the strain and fatigue on his face). They gave him standing ovations, cheered him, and chanted his name. Fellow contestants stared in awe and admiration; the younger ones got right into the mood, waving their arms and singing along with the audience. Grown men wept when he sang ballads and folk songs, and grown women had their hands clasped as if in prayer. This was the Jeff they knew and loved – he had lost none of the unique singing ability that had made him famous . But he had gone further. Now nearly 50, and with 27 years of experience in the music industry, he had dared to expand his repertoire and style. He had become more than the Prince of Love Ballads.
Jeff made it all the way to the finals, coming in runner-up to Coco Lee 李玟。
Jeff is my inspiration for what it means to reinvent ourselves professionally. Here are the five things he taught me:
- You are never too old to do something new. Just because your fans associate you with a certain role or genre, doesn’t mean you have to stay there.
- Know your strengths and make the most of them. Reinventing yourself doesn’t mean discarding the knowledge and experience you’ve built up. Keep what works, and enhance it.
- Experiment with new ways of presenting yourself and sharing your message. It can be something as small as changing your hairstyle or wardrobe, or poking fun at yourself if you have a reputation for being serious and earnest.
- Do the hard things. Most people are afraid to try something that is challenging and unfamiliar. Be the one who dares.
- Stay fresh. Keep up with new developments in your industry or profession. Ask yourself how you can be a part of it, be it as a mentor to a younger person, or in collaboration with others.
Enjoy this video of Jeff turning 9 different songs into a 5-minute medley that covered a range of emotion from solemn and moving, to finger-snapping fun. Watch the audience’s reactions closely to see how he takes them on a journey. This is a master in flow, living out his passion and doing what he loves most.