Announcing a Breathing for Singers Workshop this Saturday, 2/10/18, from 11am-12pm, at Swallow Hill Music Association (71 E. Yale Ave, Denver, CO). This workshop is both an excellent introduction as well as a insightful refresher to the notion of breathing as it applies to singers. We'll delve deeply into how it all works. We'll also work on numerous exercises that will get you feeling and controlling your breath support! Follow the link to register.
I'm taking a cue from students this week. My students teach me as much about music, arguably more, than I teach them.
This week was the Swallow Hill graduation, where all of the group classes culminated with a performance for each other. I had several classes perform. The songs spanned Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. I must say they all performed fabulously.
One of my students performed with a class I was not teaching - a fingerstyle guitar class with fellow instructor Jeff Rady. Her class performed "Colorado Girl" by Townes Van Zandt. I'd never heard it before, but it was just breathtakingly beautiful. The original version ain't too bad either.
Down a similar steel-stringed acoustic vein, my student Shannon has been persistently telling me to get in touch with the style of Western Swing, specifically Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. When I mentioned it to Dustin - who has never before this moment displayed any knowledge of country and western - he was like, "Oh yeah, Bob Wills, he's the best." Apparently you can't grow up in the Texas Panhandle and not know about Bob Wills. So much for me, I grew up in Kansas!
I'll share two tracks. The first one is instrumental, although you'll hear a lot of hootin' and hollerin' going on in the background. The YouTube video comes with a thorough introduction to Mr. Wills:
This little ditty is charming my cowgirl boots right onto the dance floor. A couple of listens will have you singing along. It also includes a pedal steel solo that Jeff Rady would probably be proud of. Shannon, I hope I chose well!
Last Sunday, seeking some fresh sounds in my record collection, we made a family trip to Black and Read in Arvada - one of my favorite record stores. I had some albums in mind, but then again, it's part of the record store experience to just browse and see what pops out.
I love going to the record store the way some people like going out for a nice dinner. And I'm training my toddler to enjoy it as well. Thankfully the employees at Black and Read are cool with him jaunting up and down the aisles. They even opened up the candy machine just for him. Well, maybe that wasn't such a good thing in retrospect.
I ended up bringing home "Black Messiah" by D'Angelo and the Vanguard - something I had been searching for - and "Adore Life" by Savages - something that popped out while I was browsing the punk section.
I'm behind the curve with D'Angelo, I know. While I was checking out my purchases, he was winning Grammys in real time. And although "Black Messiah" was critically lauded for all of last year, he's actually been around since the early 90's. In fact, Erykah Badu got her big break by opening for him on tour. So what took me so long? One thing is that I absolutely had to have this album on vinyl. No mp3, no CD, would do. Having it on vinyl is worth the investment because this is an album you must sit with. You must be patient and let it be a complete composition from start to finish. And you must read the liner notes. D'Angelo breaks it down for us, "We should all be a black messiah. It's about ..... every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. ... It's a feeling that collectively, we are all that leader."
The album is difficult and brilliant - but you probably already know that! It delves into different musical territories, but the track I was jamming out to this week was the final track of the album, "Another Life." Remember, you have to sit in it.
What could possibly connect the jazzy R&B fusion of D'Angelo with the brash, disjointed punk of Savages? A call to action and self-proclaimed manifesto, that's what. Savages' "Adore Life" has one too. In part, it says, "[This album] is about the power to change .... metamorphosis and evolution ... being the solution, not the problem .... showing weakness to be strong ... the parts and the sum of the parts ... the music and the message. But most of all it's about love, every kind of love. Love is the answer." You can read the full manifesto here.
There are punker sounding tracks on the album that I've been thrashing to in the living room (my toddler super enjoys this), but I'll put this track up because I think D'Angelo would feel it.
The rhetoric of our political "leaders" can be overwhelming and impossible to parse out. I believe that artists have always had an edge on leading communities towards progress. I hope that you enjoy your listens this Sunday and that their calls to action inspire you to also create positive change in your community. Be your own black messiah, because love is the answer.
Let me know if it does in the comments!
Wintertime can be divided into two halves: the period leading up to and including the holidays, then the anguishing period of waiting for spring to finally rescue us from the doldrums. It is this latter half that really tests our immune systems. It seems as though right around now, February, everyone we know has some kind of cold.
Upper respiratory illnesses can be disastrous for singers. It can quickly ruin our plans to head into the studio, play a show, or even keep up with our practice schedule. My students often ask me this time of year, what they can do when the ubiquitous "winter cold" strikes. Here's a short list of some of my favorite comforts, remedies and preventatives:
- Sleep, Hydration and Relaxation. It's what our parents told us, but as adults it still bears reminding. It can take a great deal of effort to set aside our responsibilities to co-workers, children, clients, spouses and the world at large, but even a temporary leave of absence on some of your duties can make a big difference. Try to set aside a moment to read a book in the bathtub. Turn your phone off and tell your family to give you an hour. Stress and fatigue will lengthen your illness, and often cause it. Hasten your recovery by taking some "me-time."
- Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol. I love a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening, but these stimulants not only compromise your already taxed immune system, but they dehydrate your mucus membranes. It is imperative to keep your sinus cavities, and their silia which help move the illness out of your body, hydrated. Below are some suggestions for alternatives to your favorite grown-up treats.
- Throat Coat Tea. This tea is delicious and it does exactly as the name advertises - it coats your throat. It includes naturally soothing ingredients such as licorice root and marshmallow root, which become viscous when steeped. I drink this when I am well too!
- Homemade Chai. Sure, you can buy some chai at a coffee shop, or get those flavored tea bags at the store, but this is not the real deal. My husband learned to make chai from an Indian family he played music with in Texas. He grates fresh ginger into the boiling water, and this makes all the difference. Ginger is not only an immune booster, but it is a natural stimulant. Combined with the gentle tasting black tea, this will keep you feeling awake and energized without the come down effect of coffee. I switched completely to chai while I was pregnant and did not get sick once! Here is the recipe my husband uses:
- Boil half a pot of water, add freshly grated ginger (peeled or not is up to you) and freshly ground cardamon pods including the husks (loosely crush them in a mortar, just enough to open the pods)
- You can add ground black pepper, white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, mint or other spices if they sound good to you and you have them in house. The basic recipe is plenty delicious on it's own but the above spices have their own medicinal properties as well.
- Add a few Tbsp of loose leaf black tea (amount depends upon your taste), we like to buy Mamri tea from the Indian market because it tastes great, but we've used Lipton in a pinch.
- After boiling for 5 minutes or so, reduce heat to low and fill the rest of the pot with milk. Stir frequently to prevent scalding.
- Strain into cups.
- Add a sweetener of your choice, or none at all.
- Heat on low equal parts chicken broth (homemade is best!) and coconut milk.
- Add fresh lime juice and chopped cilantro.
- *It is very important that you use either boiled water or distilled water because tap water has some microscopic bacteria that can cause serious harm via the mucus membrane if not killed through treatment. Information from the CDC can be found here.
Five for FridayAs a jazz singer, I do a lot of vocal improv onstage. Every time I do so I think of the lengthy history of vocal improv that I'm inheriting. Here are just a few examples of vocal improv I find inspiring and astounding.
1. Ella Fitzgerald "How High The Moon"In the case of jazz it's hard not to talk about the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. She transforms herself from just another singer to a fellow musician on stage. It is captivating and engaging. She performed "How High the Moon" throughout her career. It's worth watching videos of her from early on as well as renditions from when she was older. She constantly changed and shifted her interpretation, bringing fresh ideas to the bandstand up until she was no longer able to perform. Damn, lady!
2. Al Jarreau "Take Five"
3. Bobby McFerrin "Improvisation"
4. Amita Sinha Mahapatra "Raga Jaunpuri"
5. Natalie Dessay "V'adoro Pupille"
As singers, there is a massive library of songs to choose from. Taking the time to learn a song accurately, and with care, will help you enjoy the process of learning songs. This process is also great for songs you already know. It will refine your pitches, and help you to discover unique, personal ways of expressing the melody. This process will also tune your ears - a skill that will make learning other songs easier.
1. Listen to recordings of your song.
Try to find as many versions as possible, including instrumental versions. As you listen: Pay attention to the tempo choices different musicians make, Is it swinging or Latin infused? Is it slow and rubato, or uptempo and metronomic? Are there a combination of tempos?; Notice the timbre of the singer in different parts, is the vocalist choosing to sound rich and deep, or delicate and thin?; Listen carefully to the chord progression the band is playing. Is it the same for each recording that you listen to? Do the chords sound “jazzy” and complex? Do they sound folky? Blues-ey? Rockin’? Form your own opinions about what you like and what you don’t like about the different versions
2. Tap the rhythm of the melody to a metronome.
Start slowly so that you will be accurate, then work up to the tempo you want to perform the song in. Be rigid, at this point, with the rhythm. Things will loosen up once all the components are put together.
3. Play the melody only on piano or guitar
in the register that you will be singing it. Slowly, work through the phrases one at a time on “AH.”
4. Practice speaking the lyrics as though they were a poem.
Pay attention to the natural cadences of the phrases. Where do you elongate vowels? What words do you put an accent on? Let the structure of your communication evolve organically.
, speak the lyrics to the correct rhythm. This is where you will find your lyrical expression.
5. Put the lyrics, rhythm and melody together.
Go slowly, working phrase by phrase, paying close attention to precision. Use a recording device to test your accuracy of pitch, rhythm and to be sure you are pronouncing words the way you want to. It’s shocking how much our own ears can mislead us. Depend upon a recording device for this stage. As you notice things you aren’t happy with, mark the adjustments in your score so that you will remember them the next time you sing that passage/note/etc. As you go through this process, work your tempo up to the speed you want.
6. Memorize your song.
7. Do complete run-throughs of the song
with accompaniment, either a recorded track or a band. Continue to record yourself, evaluate, and adjust as necessary. Then, forget everything you’ve been working on and sing the song as though it were the very first time. Reconnect with the emotional aspects of the song that drew you to it initially.
8. Perform the song.
After performance, reflect. Don’t be too hard on yourself and start with things you liked and were proud of. Nobody gives themselves a perfect 10 after performing, but make a list of things you would like to work on or improve and then come up with an action plan. Go over this with your voice teacher.
Next steps: repeat steps 1-8 ad nauseum!
There is something that still charms me about making mixes. I love the idea of sharing something as personal as, "This is the song I can't stop listening to right now!" I also love playing DJ in my bedroom, painstakingly choosing the exactly perfect song to go after this other song - the process of mixing and matching beats, moods, and musical ideas.
So, to kick 2014 off in style I made the modern version of a mix tape - a YouTube playlist. I spent hours picking out just the right songs and finding a way to seam them together in a cohesive manner. Please check out my mix. It's filled with music that I have found to be inspiring to me as a singer and musician. I hope it's interesting and inspiring to you as well. Here's to a new year filled with creativity and passion!
Link: HAPPY 2014 "Mix Tape" on YouTube
2. The Bulletproof Musician
This is a blog focusing on practicing practices for musicians. Dr. Noa Kageyama is on the faculty of Julliard and has combined his knowledge of music with psychology to break down how we can make the most of our time in the practice room. One of the articles I particularly liked was: Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight I've since embraced a random sequence of tasks while practicing - trust the Dr. on this one.
3. Do The Math
This is a great, all-around blog by musician Ethan Iverson. He is the pianist of The Bad Plus - a band I'm really digging these days. He writes about musicians he respects, and musical ideas or techniques he's working on. It seems as though lately he's been lamenting his poor trills. Something I wholeheartedly relate to. If he thinks trills are difficult on the piano, perhaps he should try vocal trills - an entirely different beast. Here is a video of The Bad Plus, because they're just wonderful to listen to:
4. The Talk House
A blog where musicians write about music. So obvious it's brilliant. The range of albums that are reviewed is broad and the writing superb.
5. Jessica Hopper's tumblr
Jessica Hopper is one of my favorite music journalists. She writes for Spin, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and various other online publications. Her observations are always trenchant and she seems to know everything about music you wish you did. Her tumblr account is particularly entertaining and random, albeit somewhat colorful.
6. Music History in gifs
Exactly what is sounds like. A perfect way to waste time on the internet - when that's your goal, of course.
7. French Torch Singer Radio
This may be the only station that Pandora is unable to provide you. A 24/7 stream of classic, French torch singers singing classic French torch songs. It's makes a lazy weekend morning feel decadent. An added bonus if you can read in French are the factoids throughout the website about various French musicians.
8. Sybil Vane's Twitter Feed
Ok, an extra recommendation - my own twitter account. Follow my stage personality, Sybil Vane, on twitter @sybilvanesings . I'm figuring out this whole hashtag thing, posting about gigs, band goings-on, and other musical things of interest.
I struggle with students who use the word "pitchy" to describe their own sound because it is imprecise, and unhelpful to singers. It is my goal to help people sing better - something I believe anybody can do. These pop culture trends have generated some myths for singers, and would-be singers, and I intend to do my part to dispel them. Everyone deserves to feel like learning to sing is an opportunity available to them, especially if it's something they want to do.
Pitch PerfectAlright, "Pitch Perfect" is just a comedy. One can't take it too seriously. That is, until singers cite it as an influence on their singing. Don't get me wrong, enjoying musical films is a great way to get turned onto the craft of singing (for me it was "Newsies"), but there are some erroneous assumptions that the movie "Pitch Perfect", in particular, enables. Let me debunk some of these myths about singing that have come into my studio:
1. Perfectly harmonized mash ups of 80's songs can be composed and performed on the spot. Good harmony and voice leading is the work of sensitive and skilled arrangers. In fact, many people have built careers upon arranging well-known songs to suit vocal harmony. These pieces are performed by well-rehearsed choirs under the tutelage of a skilled choral conductor. Sure, bluegrass bands like the Carter Family were known for whipping out pleasing 3-part harmony to old folk tunes, but they were raised to harmonize with one another and furthermore grew up singing the very songs that they later recorded beloved versions of. It just isn't possible that college students with varying backgrounds and little experience working together would do anything like this:
2. To learn a song, you really just need to sing along with the original recording a few times. Listening to a song you love and singing along can sometimes be helpful, but many young singers do not know whether they are singing the correct pitch or not. Matching pitch is not something that comes naturally to everybody, but is something that can be learned with the help of an instructor. Hearing pitch is also an underestimated skill, particularly for singers. Instrumentalists learn to hear pitches as sharp, flat, or centered early on. Guitarists, for example, must learn how to tune their instrument by ear. Singers are at a serious disadvantage because they do not need to press keys or fret strings in order to hit, say, an E. But, knowing whether your pitch is centered is key to interpreting a song well. When you learn a song only by singing along to a recording, you are highly likely to memorize inaccurate rhythms and pitches - something that is far more difficult to undo down the road than to have learned it accurately from the beginning. The movie "Pitch Perfect" never shows any character doing vocal warm-ups, looking at sheet music, or rehearsing parts and adjusting mistakes before hitting the stage. Sure, that would make for a really boring scene in what is in reality a silly movie, but many of my students have erroneously thought that they would be ready to hit the stage after having listened to a song on repeat on their iPods. Nope, real singers work real hard. We're talking about hours and hours of practice. Even your favorite pop stars maintain exhausting schedules of rehearsal and vocal coaching.
3. Great singers either just have "it" or they don't. A few of the main characters in the movie indicate that they have never sung with any kind of group before. They seem to just show up to the auditions with professional sounding voices, and "Wow!" The actors who sing in this movie have all had careers as singers, and have trained many years to be able to do what they do. Not to mention that the actors are all in their mid and late 20's. Even an extraordinarily talented teen will still have to grow into their voice. It takes time, practice, and the assistance of an instructor to discover what your unique voice can do and how you can use it. Furthermore, teens' vocal folds are not fully developed. For women, this won't happen until around the age of 30. For men, vocal folds are said to be developed in their mid 20's. Additionally, I believe that all aspiring singers can learn to sing great no matter the level of natural ability they enter the studio with. Again, time, training and practice are the keys to success.
4. The term "Perfect pitch," means you sing really well. Actually, musicians generally take "perfect pitch" to mean that a person can identify any pitch simply by hearing it, or that they could sing any pitch that is called out. For example, if I played an Eb on a piano without the person looking at my hands, they would correctly identify the pitch. Piano tuners may have perfect pitch. I have met orchestra conductors who had perfect pitch. It is a reflection of a musician so involved in their craft that they have acquired acutely sensitive hearing. To them each possible pitch has a unique and distinct quality that identifies it apart from the other pitches. I think it is important to clarify this special trait that a small number of musicians have. A singer is actually working towards having accurate pitch, meaning the pitch they are singing sits harmoniously within the harmonic framework the band, or orchestra, is laying down. In other words, when we notice that a note sung sounds very good with the notes the other musicians are playing.
"Pitch Perfect," is an entertaining, humorous film, (although, it's worth noting that the characters of color have little to no importance in the film which is a shame,) but it's not an example of the kind of trajectory one might have in their pursuit of becoming a singer. The film's central plot is to show a singing group preparing for a competition, and that becomes the central problem to aspiring singers who might take a cue from the film - the preparation depicted is nothing like the real thing.
TV shows like "The Voice" and "American Idol" have popularized a word I have come to disdain hearing in my studio: Pitchy. I began hearing this word about a year ago from students of all ages and wasn't sure what the students meant by it. It's not a particularly specific term and certainly isn't used by any musicians I know. Sometime after hearing this word used by students, I went to my mom's house one night. We watched several episodes of "The Voice" together and I solved the mystery.
I'm not a historian or an etymologist, but I believe the term "pitchy" was invented by Randy Jackson circa 2010.
Let me tease out the problematic implications of powerful music executives throwing this word out on TV as though is were any kind of helpful critique:
1. That the term "pitchy" is synonymous with "off-pitch." In episodes of these singing programs I have watched, judges occasionally use the term pitchy when in fact the singer is not off-pitch, and neglect using it when a singer is off-pitch. This indicates that the judges are not, in fact, helping a singer to know when they are singing slightly off-pitch. It would be helpful for the judges to identity pitch problems for a singer so that the singer could address the specific issue, but the judges seem to be referring to pitch problems only some of the time. Without clarification the singer is woefully lost in how to improve.
2. Confusing the term "pitchy" with a quality of tone production. In many cases, I believe what the judges are trying to communicate to the singer, is that their tone production is poor, or an inappropriate choice for the repertoire. For example, a singer may have an overly nasal tone. Singers on these programs tend to push, or strain, their voices in order to sound louder and this can create a "brassy" or stressed tone, which is not pleasant to the listener. A singer may want to create a different tone for a sad, country ballad than an uptempo pop song. A singer must choose carefully what sort of tone quality the song calls for. Audiences are very perceptive to these details even if they are not able to clearly articulate their tastes and preferences. If something is off, the lay person may be prone to say it sounds "pitchy," but again, this does not help the singer clearly identify the issue in order to correct it.
The solution to the term "pitchy" would be to use more specific critiques and comments with a singer.
1. Singers are frequently off-pitch - even the most famous singers today and in the past were occasionally off-pitch. The voice is a vulnerable instrument and many factors can contribute to the pitch being slightly off. A more helpful critique would be to let the singer know if they are sharp (a bit high) or flat (a bit low) so the singer can consciously raise or lower their pitch. Voice teachers are trained to recognize the causes of faulty pitch, whether it is due to breath support (the most common reason), vocal strain, a poor/closed mouth position, or even merely fatigue. By identifying clearly where the pitch is off and the probable cause, a singer can quickly and easily make adjustments.
2. Singers must discover through experience, practice, and the guidance of a vocal coach or teacher, what tones they naturally produce and how they can alter these tones. This is not only a stylistic matter, but a technical one as well. Many young singers are still developing their registers and have not learned how to blend them. This can create poor tone quality as singers try to sing high notes with too much chest, or low notes with too much head. Likewise, young singers sometimes do not trust how loud their voice actually is and can be inclined to push their vocal folds beyond their capability. Not only does this produce an unpleasant tone, but it can cause permanent damage to the delicate folds. With appropriate guidance from a teacher or coach, the singer will learn how to rely on physical sensations to create specific tones rather than what they think they hear in their head. A good teacher will make specific suggestions as to a change in posture, mouth, head, tongue, etc. A good teacher will also guide singers through the process of blending registers so that the singer has a stronger control over their own voice.
If you are an aspiring singer, I can't urge you enough to find a voice teacher that you feel compatible with. Don't fall for the modern pop singer mythology - singing takes work, practice, passion and the help of experienced instructors.
Next Steps: Make a bowl of popcorn and enjoy pop movies just for what they are - entertainment.