As a lover of all types of music, a concert and theater goer, a talent buyer and manager, and an avid observer, I’ve often reflected on what separates a good vocal from an iconic one. As art is evaluated in the eyes – (or ears) – of the beholder, you are free to disagree, of course. So many people can sing, but really, what separates the good from the great? For me, it’s simple. Emotional intelligence.

Did you know music, specifically vocals, can be intelligent? And no, not in that “I went to school and have a degree and I’m technically perfect” kind of intelligence. But rather in that “I feel your pain, I reflect your deepest hopes, dreams, fears, cravings and values, and I hold them all dear and carry them – sometimes gently and sometimes with force – but always without hesitation, to every listener on the planet” kind of intelligence. If emotional intelligence relates to understanding and managing emotion, then a vocalist who understands their own and their audience’s pain, joy, fear, love, etc., effectively taps in and connects to it, and stays in that emotional place consistently during delivery, can create that iconic moment.

As an actor, can you imagine just walking onto stage, or in front of the camera, without “getting into character”? Delivering the scrip without emotional intelligence, without becoming, is just reading and rote memorization. You might be a perfect reader, word for word, perfect pitch and annunciation, but it’s just reading or memorizing all the same. Same with delivering vocals. Even if you have perfect pitch and placement, delivering without digging deep and connecting, may be good, but it will never be great.

And by the way, this has nothing to do with genre. Ballads, rock anthems, Broadway, jazz – it’s all the same. It’s not the what; it’s the how. Each can be emotionally intelligent — or not. Each can, as J. Lo says, give us “goosies” — or not. For some artists, this comes easy. Natural empaths, “old souls” if you will, often connect as part of their nature. Others may have to work harder. It is possible for all vocalists by virtue of being human, but for most it is usually not right on the surface.

So how do I personally distinguish the “good” from the “great”? Where and when does that performance cross the threshold? Is there a checklist? Is it quantitatively measurable? Well, I go back to an old analogy. When asked about what constituted obscenity back in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart said, ” I know it when I see it.” So, for me, what constitutes that iconic vocal performance? When has a vocalist delivered one of those moments? I know it when I feel it.

For an example of an emotionally intelligent delivery, please check out this performance of Burn, from Hamilton.