Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

10 Lessons from the Beautiful Voice of Sara Bareilles

My favorite Sara Bareilles album... 

NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
 Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps 

The voice of Sara Bareilles is quite beautiful and powerfully emotive. And also... I could be wrong... but her technique is so good I don't think we'll hear about her having to cancel a tour from vocal abuse! I find her a very worthy voice to study.

I've admired Sara Bareilles from the first time I heard her sing her “King Of Anything” smash.  She writes award-winning songs  about life and love from a woman's point of view, heavily influenced by her skills as pianist. Her DVD/CD "Between the Lines: Sara Bareilles Live at the Fillmore" should in my opinion be in every singer's music collection. 

Born in Eureka California, Bareilles' participation in everything from high school choir to community theater and University of California acapella group prepared and conditioned her voice for much that she has done since. In researching her, I found she is claimed as student by several different vocal coaches, and appears to be a constant learner. Her breakout single was 'Love Song' from the LP 'Little Voices'. That song has been certified 3x platinum. She has had 5 Grammy nominations and has played for the Obama White House multiple times. She has branched out in other creative directions being a celebrity judge for NBC's 'The Sing-Off', doing some cameo acting roles on TV and writing a memoir "Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song", which has become a NYT bestseller! Bareilles' musical career is still unfolding. She now has earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical Score for the Broadway play 'The Waitress', has put out an album of her singing those songs (Jason Mraz joins her on one). It will be interesting to see what kind of work this evolving artist puts out next!

Here are some lessons singers can learn from her voice: 

1. Well-developed head voice can be belt voice's (upper chest voice's) best friend.

One of Sara's most intriging vocal strategies is her brilliant use of head voice. She has developed strong head register, and uses it freely as part of her uniquely recognizable pop sound. A clear instance of the way she uses head voice is in the chorus of  'King Of Anything'. But she has also developed a strong chest mix, and makes playful sport out of mixing the two together. One of the hallmarks of popular genre singing is the so-called 'belt voice', a term that I've come to avoid because to get this sound, too many singers push chest voice up as far as they can. But healthy belting, which I prefer to call full voice singing, requires a strong head register influence in the upper chest voice, so the full voice can rise strain-free, instead of being forcefully pushed up. 

To illustrate, let's take a look at 'Love Song'. Listen as Bareilles starts the song with lightweight chest voice, then uses head voice at the end of the verse on the words "...hard on me" at  :57. In the chorus, she switches to rich, conversational chest voice which she pulls through her mask for strongly communicative but strain-free resonance: 

2. Middle voice can be more interesting when varied and multi-colored.

Bareilles takes great artistic liberties to play with weight, depth and tone color choices in middle voice. This creates dramatic, dynamic patterns of vocal sound result in strong emotional response.
Listen as she takes the listener on an heart tugging journey by varying these vocal tone factors in 'Gravity':

3. Don't be afraid to play with vibrato and straight tone.

On her song Brave, Sara uses "shimmer" or light small wave vibrato in verses and bridge. She uses straight tone on the choruses. At 3:00, she does both... sustains the word 'brave' with straight tone, then changes into a shimmer of vibrato to end the line. She has developed the vocal control necessary to choose the exact length of time to hold straight tone, the exact width of vibrato she wants to create and the exact moment she wants to make a change:

4. If you write with piano, let your fingers and your voice collaborate.

As a piano-based songwriter myself, I know the brain-voice connection can run through the fingers when creating a melody. Sara Bareilles sings and plays piano as one integrated whole. Watch her in this version of 'Gravity': 

5. Watch where you place a piano mic stand.

Notice in her videos how the mic stand is placed so the boom can be in front and on top of the keyboard, not coming over the keys. This is necessary of course with an acoustic grand piano, but I find it's also the best way to play an electronic keyboard. If you do have the boom coming from the front over the keys, be sure it's close enough so you don't have to lean in, and tight enough so it doesn't fall on you. Wherever you put the mic stand, do it to avoid leaning your head forward, dropping your ribcage and losing your breath support.

6. If you have a great feel for rhythm, carefully consider scat singing in your performance.

Bareilles definitely owns a great inner sense of rhythm. She can embellish her vocals with runs and scats, but she also knows when NOT to do them. Learn the art of 'when' to scat... so just enough doesn't become too much. Check out her freedom of expression, vocal runs and variations on the melodic theme of 'Many The Miles' here:

7. Watch your pitch when out of your most usual position.

It's a good idea not to stay behind your instrument all the time, but when she leaves the piano about 4 minutes into this live version, Bareilles begins to go sharp. The excitement of the crowd and not having the piano to brace against can start a crunch factor in the ribs, and that is when counterproductive pushing begins. There could be a bad monitor situation, too, but still... it's a good idea to go over the sing-without-your-instrument option with your vocal coach to make sure your technique is good: 

8. It's ok to write the whole song yourself.

The rumor behind Bareilles song 'Love Song' about bucking her mean record label is not, she says, quite true. It came after she developed writer's block for a while, and had become very insecure, just turning in portions of songs. Her label tried to set her up with co-writers. After several unsatisfactory co-writing sessions she finally regained her attitude and confidence and wrote this smash hit by herself (oh, and her label loved it!) Sometimes it takes an intuitive collaborator to help you write your truth, especially if you are new to writing or stuck. But sometimes... sometimes... only you can do it. 

9. It's ok to have a name people have to spell check and hear pronounced.

"Bareilles" hasn't hurt her a bit - in fact, it adds to her uniqueness!

10. Everything you've ever done informs the music you make.

Sara Bareilles started out doing musical theater. In a significant career pivot, she successfully created her musical: "The Waitress". Each brave creative endeavor gives birth to the next. Who knows what great work she has to come?
What about you? Is there something in Bareilles' voice you'd like to aquire, too? Could you use a stronger, smoother mix? How do you use your vocal registers to define your way of singing? Check out PPP vocal training, and see how fast you can mix, improve and master all parts of your vocal range, without strain!  www.judyrodman.com

Note: This blogpost contains information from my article originally published by TC Helicon's VoiceCouncil Magazine.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

7 Songwriter Round Mistakes No One But Your Mama Will Love

A very special songwriter round in my life... 
Kevin Sharp, Jerry Foster, Jim McBride and me at what would be one of Kevin's last.

NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
 Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps

Songwriter rounds - aka performing 'in the round' - probably originated here in Nashville, Tennessee. This city is widely considered the songwriting capital of the world, and these acoustic showcases of original music are certainly on every nook and corner within 100 miles of our famed Music Row. But they are also taking place now all over the US and internationally. There's a televised one I recently watched on PBS called "The Transcontenental Sessions" which was really thrilling.

The format of a songwriter round calls for performers to set up on stage together. They all do one song each, then yield to the next person. They repeat the cycle for another round of songs until the allotted time is up. This is different from the multi-artist events where a singer/songwriter goes onstage alone and does all their songs consecutively, then leaves the stage to the next performer.

The reason for these rounds is primarily to promote and demonstrate the songs. Songs get discovered and recorded from these exposures. Also, artists have been discovered from these kinds of performances. And a third reason for doing these kinds of shows is that singer/songwriters can have artistically high moments playing their songs within a small circle of others whose music both contrasts and complements each other, in intimate settings before audiences who are there to actually listen.

I've seen some mesmerizing, inspiring songwriter rounds. But I've also seen some that were truly awful. Here are 7 mistakes to watch for that can make your next rounds boring at best, and downright repulsive at worst:

1. Talking too much or not enough

The audience is there to hear music, not a speech. Imagine this scenario: A songwriter keeps unrolling their personal story in spite of the fact that no one is listening... and like a huge speed-bump stalls the momentum of the show out. Talk about too much information! The audience is over the song before it begins. 

You need to earn the right to talk onstage! Consider not saying anything other than a quick 'hello' and your name... before your first song. After proving yourself with a good tune, yes, it can be very effective, compelling and entertaining to spin concise tales of how some songs came to be. And if you can say something to make folks laugh, feel comfortable and part of the interaction, great! But feel your audience out; sense how people are responding, note how long the performer before you talked, ask yourself what you think the audience would love to hear from you about when choosing when and how much to talk. Instead of a long-winded diatribe, cut to the chase. If in doubt, leave it out!

2. Mumbling your lyrics

One of my pet peeves in listening to songwriter rounds is when I can't understand the lyrics to a song that otherwise sounds interesting. Think about it: A song (with words) has a melody, groove and lyric. Why only deliver two out of three? If you don't articulate lyrics clearly it's like you've gotten my attention fraudulently... you don't deliver on the promise of the song. Remember that the audience doesn't care if YOU are into it... they only benefit when you bring THEM into it. Without lyrics, you seriously limit your success in pitching a song or your performance

3. Singing too soft, too loud or both

I was at a songwriter round not long ago where a clueless performer started passionately singing as loud as he could, desperately trying to get the audience's attention and maybe a standing ovation.  During his first song, the whole front table emptied out!

If you sing too soft and breathy you are not usually in delivery mode, you're in rehearsal mode. Your voice's resonance is thin and uninteresting. Not very effective at getting people to listen. If you're too loud, you might as well yell at the audience. Don't use the volume in a small setting that you would in an amphitheater. Remember that venue size matters!

Worst of all don't sing too soft and too loud! Pitty the poor person sitting in front of your speakers, leaning in to hear your quiet verse only to be blasted by the volume on your high chorus! If you don't know how to control your voice, learn!

4. Failing to connect

The best rounds I've ever performed in or sat through have been ones that felt like unique, magically connective and musically excellent events. The one pictured at the top of this post with Kevin Sharp was a round filled with magic, and now a great memory with Kevin, who passed away in 2014. Years ago I enjoyed making magic with a recurring foursome at the Bluebird Cafe with Marc Beeson, JD Martin, Thomas Cain and myself. I learned so much from them. The friendship, musicality and audience response made these rounds a very special memory for me and I hope for the audience, too.

Songwriter rounds are by definition exercises in social interaction. You should connect not only with your audience, but also with the other performers in the round with you. Look at them; let them into your performance equation... interact with them! Sometimes you know these people, sometimes you've never met before. You need to bring out all your social graces and turn them into instant friends whose world you've made a little brighter in some way.

5. Not being gracious

Speaking of graces... I don't care how good your songs are, if you are negative, stingy, overtly competitive or ungrateful I'm not going to be receptive to you or your music.

I've been to rounds where performers barely acknowledge each other's presence. Sitting so close to people you ignore is uncomfortable.. and uncomfortable to watch! Smile, interact when it's natural to do so, listen attentively and support them when it's their turn.

Thank the one who invited you or accepted your invitation to the round, your audience, the venue, the one who retrieved the pic you dropped. Remind folks to tip their waiters. Be considerate to your sound-person. If something goes wrong with the PA, talk about how hard that job is and how much you appreciate their efforts. Hey, consider tipping them... they'll never forget you! And one other thing... try to support other songwriters in earlier or later rounds. You don't have to stay for the whole thing and sometimes you have other commitments, but as much as possible consider the golden rule:

Listen to others like you'd have them listen to you.

6. Singing too long

So I'm sitting at this songwriter round, and instead of getting wrapped up in the amazing songs, I find my car keys have jumped out of my purse and are now jingling between my fingers. Argh.

Leave them wanting more... not less! When considering how long to sing, factor in how long you'll probably talk plus a little on-stage interaction. I usually figure an average of 4 or 5 minutes per song. A typical 2 hour round with 4 songwriters usually calls for 6 or 7 songs each. Take into consideration how long the audience has had to sit through, especially in a multi-artist, multiple round event. If someone before you goes long, consider dropping some of your set to get things running on time. Odds are you will be the one who gets a better time slot from a grateful event organizer next time, and of course it's great when the audience wishes you would do one more!

7. Singing the wrong songs

Doing a songwriter round can be like cooking a great meal. Even presenting the right thing at the wrong time can ruin the magic. Choose your material wisely, and have optional songs ready to perform if a pivot is necessary! Consider the venue and the nature or theme of the event when deciding on your tempos and lyrical content. When playing in-the-round, consider the songs sung before your turn. Too many depressing ballads, angry  revenge tomes, preachy messages or sad failed relationship dirges will repel your audience. So will inappropriate lyrics at family-friendly events. Be prepared to switch your songs if necessary.

As for your biggest hit or best song, schedule it for last but if the round seems to be lagging behind, consider deleting another song so you are sure to end with the most important one. In fact, it is absolutely proper to ask if the next round is the last one.

Bonus mistake... Not telling them who you are!

If you're trying to build an audience, it's rather useless to perform a great round and leaving people wondering who you are and where they might find your music! This happens all the time... in fact, at one of the best rounds I've heard lately I didn't get the name of a wonderful new singer/songwriter I who interested me... and I was sitting in the front row!

Make very sure you say your name and website where people can find you online. Do it slowly and clearly enough so people understand you! And say your name again at the end of your round.

You know, even if you pack the house with your family and friends, you want more than polite support and unearned applause. Apply these tips to your next round and you may find that a lot more people than your sweet mama will  be so glad they came!

Want more?

My 6-cd Power, Path and Performance vocal training course has lots more to help you with your live performances, along with all other vocal issues. Check it out here. Or contact me for a lesson! 

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why You Should NOT Sing From Your Diaphragm

This is the last place you want to sing from!!
NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear.  
Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps
You hear this phrase a lot in vocal lesson circles... "Sing from your diaphragm." The two big problems with this mistaken directive are:
  • You can’t! You can’t consciously make the diaphragm do anything… it is operated by the automatic nervous system, not the conscious mind!
  • ... and you shouldn’t! It's downright dangerous! Yes, the diaphragm it is the major organ of breathing.  But if you try to power or 'support' your voice from the diaphragm, you’ll end up sabotaging its operation, and say goodbye to your breath control!

So what & where is the diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a very large, thin, dome-shaped sheet of muscle that you can imagine as a mushroom cap. It is located between your chest and your abdomen, separating them. It has connections to places in the upper and lower spine, as well as the clavicle. But the most important thing you need to know about your diaphragm that its edges are connected to the bottom of your ribcage. That’s where you can make conscious choices that affect the diaphragm, as we’ll talk about in a moment.

Here's a great video by 3DYoga.com of the diaphragm at work:

What happens when you try to sing from it?

OK, let me explain with some imagery. Let’s imagine you have this horse you want to ride. You somehow communicate to the horse something you've heard ... that it should run from its hamstrings. So the ever obedient horse starts to think about and focus effort on its hamstrings instead of just letting them work, as they naturally will if the horse just stretches itself out to run. What's likely to happen in this situation is that the horse will over-concentrate on its hamstrings, over-tensing them. The horse will become uncoordinated and use much more effort to accomplish much less... oh, and in its frustration it will have totally lost sight of where it’s supposed to be going and why it's running in the first place!

Like trying to run a horse from its hamstrings, powering your voice from your diaphragm is going to cause problems. The tensed ribcage will drop a bit, which leaves your diaphragm with too much slack. You sabotage both the quality of your inhale and control of your exhale! The more you try to work your voice from your diaphragm, the less coordinated your breath and the worse your vocal issues become. Your jaw and tongue, neck and shoulders will probably tighten - at least to some degree - against excessive air pressure. With all that stuff going on, there's no way you can focus on the message... the what and why you're using your voice to make sound!

So why has this counterproductive suggestion become so universal? Well, as happens in politics and sloppy science, if you say or hear something enough times, it can become accepted as unquestioned fact. Very few people even know what the phrase means. Even many pro music folks don't know what or where the diaphragm is! Most of the time, when someone uses the phrase "Sing from your diaphragm" they mean you shouldn't breathe by raising and lowering your shoulders. They usually mean sing from the middle of your stomach. But powering from the diaphragm causes a squeezing there, which drops the ribcage, allowing the slackened diaphragm to rise too far and deliver too much uncontrolled breath to the poor vocal cords.

4 things to do instead:

1. Widen your ribcage with tall posture.

    Your ribcage hinges on your upper spine. By standing or sitting flexibly taller, with your head level and balanced over your tailbone, you will open the bottom of your ribcage, and therefore stretch your diaphragm wide, instantly increasing your breath control.

      2. Support from your pelvic floor.

        Tense your saddle area for power, much like riding a horse downhill. Your legs and feet can also be used as part of this equation; for instance, press your heels into the stage floor and it’s the same as using your saddle. With this low power center, you literally power your ribcage and throat open!

        3. Don't push... Pull instead!

        Instead of pushing for power, PULL your voice from a spot above and behind your head. This will encourage your top vertebrae to move back slightly, which again straightens the upper spine and opens both the ribcage and the throat. Try consciously backing off your volume to learn this sensation.

        4. Articulate richly

        The most powerful vocal performance comes from clear articulation and rich resonance, not the excessive breath pressure shoved up from an uncontrolled diaphragm!
        These things will allow your diaphragm all the space it needs to relax and contract, its dome moving up and down in the chest for inhaling and exhaling. But like a well-stretched trampoline, the taut diaphragm will also be able to control its movements, only allowing as much breath pressure up as your automatic nervous system dictates to give your vocal cords what they need. In effect, you support your voice from tension you apply at the saddle, control your voice by keeping your diaphragm widely stretched, pull the heart in like a magnet and deliver a clear message. That, my friend, is true vocal power.
          Centered in the pelvic floor, this breath support/control balance will unlock all kinds of vocal freedom, improving control, precision, range and tone. You will immediately feel a decrease in vocal fatigue, tension and strain. When you habitually come from this low power source, you can sing or speak as long as you need to, and never get vocally tired!

          Bust the myth!

          Many vocal coaches, voice scientists and docs I respect are now trying to correct this mistaken belief about where we should sing from. No. Don't sing from your diaphragm. Don't support from your diaphragm. It can be downright dangerous for your voice! Instead, sing from your pelvic floor. Or to put it another way, sing your butt off so you don't sing your throat out! Your diaphragm can then operate automatically, and your horse (er... your voice, which won't get hoarse) will be so happy!

          If you need help with powering your singing or speaking voice in the healthiest and most effective way, try Power, Path and Performance training. You can take lessons with me in person (office, Skype or phone) or study a PPP course. Some students do both. PPP training teaches you to power your voice free of tension, but full of impact.

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          Thursday, August 4, 2016

          How To Conquer Adolescent Male Vocal Strain

          Nope... It doesn't have to feel OR sound like this!
          NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear.  
          Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps

          If you are a teenage boy, you've undoubtedly felt and/or heard the change in your voice. You probably have had your voice crack or otherwise feel uncontrolled. You may find it impossible to sing as high as you easily used to. I hope you are keeping a sense of humor through this, knowing it has happened to your male friends, but you may also experience embarrassment and worry. I hope this post helps you take this era in stride. I especially want you to know that you can come through it without straining your voice!

          First, be careful what you read on the internet. Here are some tips I found on the web that, from my experience working with teen boys as a vocal coach, may not help you much:
          • Understand why you're experiencing vocal problems.
          OK, it's all well and good to know you're going through a very normal process for your age, that your changing hormones are causing your larynx to grow so fast it's destabilizing for the operation of your voice. But like understanding that your body is aching because you have the flu, or that you're scared of spiders because you have a arachnophobia - understanding that you're going through the voice change stops short of telling you what to do about it.
          • Breathe from your belly.
          Actually, this admonition is better than saying 'breathe from your diaphragm' but it still doesn't help you power your voice in a way that won't strain it.
          • Speak in your normal voice.
          If you normally speak with a tight throat channel, then speaking normally is the last thing you want to do.
          • Relax.
          Hmm. Right. But your voice needs to be powered from somewhere, so you need to know what parts to relax and what parts to tense. 
          • Warm up your voice.
          If you don't know how to do vocal exercises, you can just tighten your voice up even further by doing them. Argh.

          So what should you do?

          I have helped many teenage boys successfully through the voice change era. I've discovered what can help you sing through this frustrating period safely without straining your voice. Here is what my students have done that worked:

          • Change your songs and keys

          Yes, understand that this is a normal challenge for teen boys, and give yourself permission NOT to sing as high as you used to for a while. Learn easier, less rangy songs and sing them in lower keys. Don't worry... you're growing into a vocal range that includes low notes you've never sung before and your high notes should come back beautifully if you avoid straining your voice through this period.

          • Know how to power your voice

          If you tense your pelvic floor to power your voice, you can relax at your throat and upper chest. Your posture should be tall and flexible, which requires strength in your spine to hold the bottom of your ribcage flexibly wide. 

          • Pull, don't push, your voice.

          Now more than ever your changing voice needs you to back off your breath pressure and learn to 'pull' instead of 'push' for controlled, confident compression power, again centered from the pelvic floor. You can think of it as what boxers call 'pulling punches', controlling their power. Here are three vocal exercises to help you sense what I'm talking about.
          1. Sing with a pad of paper right in front of your face. If that pad of paper was a glass window pane, sing as if you don't want to leave a breath mark on it. That should focus your breath into more of a laser beam than a flashlight beam, which will vibrate your vocal cords without making them feel 'blown'. And your resulting tone should become richer instead of thin and pushy or breathy.
          2. Blow on a candle about 5 inches from your face; make the flame dance but don't blow it out. See how long you can blow. 
          3. This is the best one, but you may have to swallow your pride: Get a bottle of kid's bubbles and try to blow the biggest bubble you can, instead of a lot of little ones. You'll notice that you have to 'pull the blow'. That's the sensation you need to control your air pressure to your voice. 

          • Articulate clearly

          When you're worried, stressed or not feeling confident, you tend to form words at the back of your jaw and mouth. This tightens your throat, and leads to vocal strain. Instead, try loosening your face, jaw, tongue and activate your eyes. Communicate your message like your talking to the deaf. And speaking of talking...

          • Watch abusing your speaking voice!

          Speak like you sing... with your new singing techniques! Open your mouth, ribcage and eyes. Sense your speaking voice being powered from the lower part of your body, not the upper.

          • Don't stop singing! 

          I don't recommend that you stop singing, except for temporary voice rest for swollen, diseased (laryngitis) or damaged vocal cords. Just like for any muscular effort, 'use it or lose it' is true of the voice. But as is also true for any muscle, the vocal apparatus must be operated wisely and with correct form. The best practice is to keep singing through the voice change, carefully, consistently and with good technique, never challenging the voice in a way that causes it to strain. Wait for it. Your full, adult voice will come!

          A Word of Caution: 

          It can be very hard for a singer to let go of counterproductive effort in the voice. Very much a catch-22, when you have trouble reaching notes and controlling your voice, the natural instinct is to try harder. This reinforces the things that make it even harder for your voice to work such as pushing, tightening and straining the voice. For help with these techniques, consider a Power, Path and Performance vocal training course. Or contact me for private lessons, in my office, over Skype or by phone.

          What about you - have you had some experience with adolescent voice change? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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          Sunday, July 17, 2016

          Singing Scared - The Ironic Danger of Guarded Voice

          Nope. Guarded stance won't help.

          NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear.  
          Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps

          Fear can be a healthy thing. It can keep us inside when the mountain lion is in the neighborhood. Or make us change travel plans where the Zika virus is prevalent. Or stop us from eating food we become allergic to. Fear can also cause problems. It can even bring about the very thing we're afraid of. Such is the case when a singer sings scared. Here's what happens:

          A Trigger Event Happens.

          There is usually at least one trigger episode, or consecutive series of episodes, that induces chronic fear for the voice. This event is often when you are injured, sick or very tired and still try to perform. A trigger can also be the anxiety of stage fright.

          Fight or Flight Response is Initiated.

          Stress and fear cause a release of the hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. They increase the heart and breathing rates, change blood flow priorities and tighten muscles to focus on and prepare to respond to the perceived threat. You'll assume a 'guarded stance', where your core contracts to protect itself. This counterproductive tightening is the very opposite of the wide open ribs necessary to stretch the unconstricted diaphragm for breath support and control. You also notice a locking of the jaw and face, and maybe a lump in the throat. This is the opposite of the relaxed tongue, jaw and throat conditions needed for clear articulation and free access to resonation zones, as well as free laryngeal movements necessary for vocal cord lengthening and shortening and accuracy of pitch.

          You Experience Loss of Vocal Ability

          When the guarded stance is triggered, you will absolutely lose some some degree of vocal ability. It will be noticeable by you, and often it will be noticeable by your audience. Anybody remember Adele's 2016 painful Grammy performance? Start listening about 2:15. Though she tries to hide it, you won't listen for long without recognizing her fear, pushing, loss of control, sharp pitch and tightness that actually led to her previous vocal cord hemorrhage. The trigger in this performance for the fight or flight response was something totally out of her control... a microphone issue. She should be applauded for finishing the song like a pro. Tech disasters can happen to any of us!

          You Have a Crisis of Confidence

          When you experience singing scared, it is very likely to compound itself, causing you to fear the same thing or worse will happen when you sing again. You really must do something to reverse this vicious cycle in order to protect your instrument from developing bad habits leading to worse vocal strain and possibly damage. The good news is, barring true organic disease, you really can get your voice operating as good or better than ever, and defeat the vocal problems caused by fear.

          Two Keys That Turn Vocal Fear Into Vocal Fearlessness

          • Understand why the problem exists
          Vocal confidence and healing begin in the mind. Understanding can truly change reality. It is my hope that this post has taught you some things that can help you let go of your guarded condition and believe in your voice again.
          • Re-train and refine your vocal technique 
          Muscles operate in one of two ways... they contract and they relax. They get shorter and they get longer. Every action of our bodies come from a coordination of what and when certain muscles contract and relax. It's like a beautiful dance, which is directed by the automatic nervous system. When the dance is unlearned or the steps are learned wrong leading to dysfunction and inefficiency, we need to retrain by relearning the dance. That's where vocal training and vocal exercises, done with correct form, can free the voice to operate optimally again. Many times the need to correct or relearn vocal technique actually causes a voice to gain ability it never had before! 

          It's a very good idea not to try to self-correct singing fearfully and guardedly without some kind of expert help. A vocal coach who helps you back off breath pressure, open your throat and free your face can be a lifeline to your vocal freedom and healing. But beware of anything that makes your throat feel worse, or your vocal cords more stressed. This should never happen. If the coaching and the new techniques are correct, you should feel the improvement immediately. Then you have to practice the new dance moves into muscle memory. 

          Case studies:

          I have tons of case studies of turning vocal fear into vocal confidence and fearlessness. It's one of my favorite things to do. Here are three:
          • I had a student whose chronic vocal problems we traced back to a show he sang with neck muscle strain. He had hurt his neck from a weight lifting workout he did incorrectly.  The resulting pain created a tightening of the neck muscles which inhibited the freedom in the vocal apparatus as well. His voice didn't work well that night and he didn't have a vocal coach he could consult, so he started pushing his voice a little harder to sing notes which used to be easy for him. This caused a vicious cycle of tightness, loss of breath control and vocal cord swelling. He stopped singing publicly until our vocal training put him back on stage and in studio.
          • I had a Skype lesson this week with a person whose vocal fear manifested in numbness and limitations. His problems started when he had to sing with a virus, and though he recovered from the virus, his voice never got better. Of course he became guarded and very concerned, tightening up like he never had previously. He was eventually diagnosed with partial vocal cord paralysis. He finally reached out to me to see if there was hope he could get his voice back. I'm happy to say that within the hour we worked, even his speaking voice felt better! His range opened up, his high notes began floating up effortlessly, and we even got his head voice working again! He will need to practice vocal exercises to remember what worked, but he does trust the process so the prognosis for his gain of vocal ability is excellent.
          • I understand singing scared, because I did it myself. You can read my story in a previous post, but suffice it to say I earned my living for many years as a session singer and when I lost my voice, I was very afraid. I started going to Nashville coach Gerald Arthur, who worked with most of the other major session singers in town. The first thing I remember him telling me was that I had to stop 'guarding' my voice. The only way I could do that was to choose to trust him. This was back in the early 80s, and I've sung on plenty of hit songs on plenty of stages and studios since then, including my own. I offer this hope to you as well. 
          Power, Path and Performance vocal training has been proven to unlock vocal tension, strain and fatigue. I teach you to pull instead of push your voice, to open your throat and to use it fearlessly in the service of delivering a message. It is a great privilege for me to midwife the voice back to health. Check out my products and vocal lessons, and keep reading this All Things Vocal blog, which I write so that absolutely anyone can receive help if they want to do the work.

          What about you? 

          Have you ever sung scared? Have you learned any techniques that helped you become vocally fearless? I'd love to hear about your experience.

          And please help others by sharing this post and podcast. Thanks!

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          Wednesday, June 22, 2016

          Lessons from The Remarkable Voice of Chris Stapleton

          My copy of his record (bought it! love it!)

          NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps
          I recently wrote an article about Chris Stapleton for Voicecouncil Magazine. Since then, it became public that he had some vocal problems requiring him to reschedule a show. He is reportedly, thankfully, back on tour and in fact played Nashville's recent Bonnaroo Festival. I wanted to share some points from that article that I've revised here for you.

          Here are some milestones from Chris Stapleton's career so far: He shot to the top with four awards at the last year's CMA Awards, six ACM awards this spring, two weeks at #1 on Billboard 200 all-genre chart, four Grammy nominations and a duet with Justin Timberlake that Entertainment Weekly labeled ‘an unapologetic display of abnormal levels of talent’. Originally known for writing hit songs, Stapleton had been singing, writing and performing for 15 years before his album 'Traveler' rocketed him into the solo spotlight.

          Here are some lessons we can learn from his voice:

          1. Tall, flexible posture should be an ingrained habit.

          Any time you see Chris in performance, notice his tall, flexible posture and open stance. He 'wears' his guitar, instead of cradling and crunching over it. Why is this important? With tall and flexible posture, the ribcage remains open and the diaphragm stays flexibly stretched. This creates breath control that is the secret to vocal control.

          2. Lighten your higher middle voice.

          Back off breath pressure and add headier tone to influence and lighten your mix to create strain-free upper middle voice. You don't have to make it pure head voice... just learn to lighten your chest voice, also called full voice. Chris illustrates this at the beginning of ‘Honey load up your questions’. The sound easily morphs into his signature rich masky tone. Check out Fire Away

          3.      PULL sustained notes for rich resonance and protection from vocal strain.

          It feels and sounds like a magic trick when you do this right. Chris and his wife singing backgrounds can both be seen pulling their voices on this song. For instance, notice the slight backward tilt of Chris’s head at 1:51.

          4.      Drop your technique from time to time for effect.

          Sometimes it’s the slight swell of volume, a sudden drop, a little gravel and even a purposeful numb tone that creates deep emotional response. Listen to The Difference Between Whiskey and You, at 10:24 on NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. If Chris’s voice doesn’t move you, check your pulse.

          5.      Marry (or at least find) a background singer whose voice fits yours like a glove.

          Chris’s wife Morgane is an incredible singer. With her vocal ability, it's no surprise to me that she was formerly signed with Arista Records as artist herself. As Chris's background singer she weaves her voice around her husband's with masterful precision, anticipating and tracing his moves, embellishments, tone and volume changes. His show and his sound would not be the same without her. 

          6.     The voice wants access to movement!

          The minute the jaw freezes and the 'neck veins' pop out on a performer, there will be some degree of vocal strain. Strain on the voice will limit the fine movements necessary to nail vocal licks, control pitch, create rich tone and so much more. Keep your neck, shoulders and jaw at least slightly loose for vocal freedom of movement. Check out Chris's much lauded CMA performance with Justin Timberlake and notice how loose Chris’s head and shoulders are when he sings the vocal runs at 1:00 and 2:44 on Tennessee Whiskey. Even in this high-stakes situation, his neck and jaw stay loose!

          7.      Support the ends of lines to maintain control of pitch and tone.

          Chris is a master at controlling the ends of his lines, and he way he does it is to create a stable balance of breath support and control. To him it probably seems effortless because he has internalized the action needed.  He pulls breath pressure back, but continues to support the very end of the lyric. Listen to the last syllable of 'brandy' at the end of his vocal run on every chorus of 'Tennessee Whiskey' during that same CMA performance. His perfect pitch just floats out. The same thing happens on Drink You Away" at the end of his run at 3:54 on the word ‘pain’.  If he tried to lean on the lick, his control and precision would have been at risk. I would add that you see Timberlake doing these things, too, but his voice is worthy of a whole other blogpost:)

          8.      Use active facial language.

          It may be a little hard to see, but if you watch for Chris’s eye language under his hat you’ll catch a lift of an eyebrow, a scrunch for grittier mask tone, a glint of conversation. Again, his jaw is not overactive but is loose, freeing his mouth, tongue and lips to vary his tone at will. If his face stayed frozen, his tone would be numb and not nearly as emotionally communicative.

          9.      To increase performance power, self-compress and articulate more clearly! In other words - Back off breath pressure; add passion.

          Chris's strong vocal delivery is powered by breath compression, which is the balance of breath support and control. I call it Pulling instead of Pushing. You literally power your ribcage and throat tract open instead of tight. Power is centered in the hips rather than the ribcage, and the even volume results are so much better for audience ears and the soundcrew! Then you are free to add passion that doesn't strain your voice or their ears by the way you articulate the lyrics! On an SNL performance of his song Nobody To Blame, watch him pull back on his pressure at 1:05 on the words 'changed out all the locks':

          10.  The demands of a successful vocal career call for constant vigilance to protect the voice from damage.

          Chris has joined the ranks of successful artists whose performance demands create perilous conditions for the voice. I found this live performance of Fire Away, where Chris's voice is showing some fatigue. At 1:30 notice that Chris is pushing a little, leaning on instead of lifting his voice. He sounds a bit tired and less controlled. The 'ceiling' of his soft palate and upper pharynx is flatter than usual. All singers are vulnerable to illness, lack of sleep, good food and adequate hydration. As I mentioned earlier, Chris had to cancel performances from vocal fatigue. Now, back on the road with the load of performances he's doing at this point in his career, I do hope he has a good vocal warmup routine, knows and applies vocal health principles for the road and has a good vocal coach he can check in with. 

          11. Don't be afraid to do it your way.

          In many ways, Chris Stapleton does not follow the pattern suggested for music career success. He looks at and engages with his wife on stage much more than he overtly engages the audience. He doesn't articulate clearly sometimes. He sometimes does push his voice into a thinner sound (and compromises his voice doing so). He is older than almost anyone else on stage. His staging has no smoke and mirrors (unless things have changed in the last few weeks). A paradox in many ways, he really is king of his genre right now!

          12. Make music that makes the world a better place.

          In the promotional video for his song Fire Away, Chris joins the movement to call attention to those with severe emotional pain. There is no telling how many lives that have been impacted positively by his voice:

          In the case of Chris Stapleton, the exceptional quality of singer, song, sound and spirit have combined to create great commercial success. May he keep rocking stages and hearts for a very long time!  What about you... have you heard Chris sing? What did you think?

          If you want to go farther with your voice, check out the vocal lessons, vocal production services and vocal training products I have available on my website. I would love to work with you to maximize your vocal performance ability and protect your instrument! 

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          Monday, June 6, 2016

          Top 30 Terrible Studio Singer Saboteurs

          "Know thyself, know thy enemy" - Sun Tzu

          NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
          Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps 
          Studio singing is exhilarating, exacting and can be exhausting. There are many gremlins and wrenches that can sabotage the voice in the vocal booth!

          I've been working in recording studios for over 5 decades now. I've seen almost everything except Elvis reappearing at the mic. Although I did get to re-sing some background vocals on several of his legendary hits. The oxide had degraded on the edges of the old 2-inch tape his masters were recorded on, and the edges happened to contain the background vocal tracks! I was called as replacement for one of the Holiday sisters who had done the original and wasn't in town. So much fun to sing on songs like 'Suspicious Minds', 'Caught In A Trap', 'In The Ghetto' while hearing Elvis' disembodied voice in my headphones!

          I've recently worked as main producer, vocal producer, background singer and arranger and have been thrilled to work with some of the best pro audio teams in town. But in my rather long studio history I've witnessed umpteen gazillion traps that sabotage studio vocals. Here are thirty of these dirty devils. Drumroll please....

          Producer Bads

          1. Not doing enough pre-production preparation. Not determining a singer's strengths, weaknesses, artistic definition, best songs, keys and tempos, etc. Be prepared or be scared!
          2. Over-challenging a singer's range! To sabotage a singer by making them record higher and/or lower notes than they will be able to consistently sing live on stage is a very dirty trick indeed. The kindest wish for the singer would be that this recording never becomes a hit!
          3. Using intimidation to get a stronger vocal, instead of positive support from knowledge of what a singer needs.
          4. Bullying the artist into unhappy decisions. There's nothing wrong with trying to move an artist past their comfort zone to determine artistic direction. But if the artist can't fully embrace what is being suggested, the suggestion should be dropped. If your artist leaves a production meeting crying, only the sabotage will be successful.
          5. Covering up the artist with the band. If it is a recording with a vocal, the lead vocal is the main element. Too many instruments or too much background vocal layering can bury a vocal performance.

          Vocal Producer Bads

          6. Not actually knowing how to be one. Many awesome track producers don't know how to produce vocals, which is the act of coaching a singer into their best performance. In that case, they will have to coach themselves, or you need to introduce the idea of bringing a dedicated vocal producer in. It may or may not cost more to include a vocal producer, because of studio time saved.
          7. Not inviting the team to approve the final take. The vocal producer (actively coaching the vocalist), main producer if different (who should know the vocal they are shooting for), engineer (who can say whether a particular note can be tuned or not) and artist (who should know if they can do better) all should be in on the final thumbs up for the lead vocal. 
          8. Putting technique ahead of message. This is one reason engineers often hate seeing a vocal coach come into the studio. There is a difference between perfecting technique and creating vocal performance magic. The latter is the most important in the studio, and sometimes it's the 'mistake' that creates the 'magic moment'.
          9. Not gauging the singer's stamina level to determine whether to do the next song or stop for the day. There is a difference between vocal fatigue, which shouldn't happen, and physical/mental fatigue, which will happen if one is supporting and controlling the voice well. A vocal producer should recognize the point of diminishing returns.
          10. Neglecting to have session-formatted lyrics. If at all possible, this should be done before the session. It is so much easier and a faster process if both engineer and vocal producer have the same typed lyrics, formatted line-by-line with all choruses printed all the way out.  And it's a bonus if the words are tabbed over so production notes can be put on the left to make comping and editing the vocal tracks easier and faster.

          Audio Engineer Bads

          11. Not knowing how to set the singer up at the mic for best breath control (join the known universe, very few engineers actually do it right).
          12. Not offering reverb in headphone mix. Some singers don't need reverb but most lead singers and many background singers do better with it.
          13. Taking too much time between takes, sabotaging the singer's energy momentum.
          14. Putting too many swimmy instruments in the singer's headphone cue.
          15. Not getting rid of the crickets or other noisy creatures in the walls before the session. Yep, I've heard that, and some of you may remember that Nashville studio. OK so maybe it was the studio owner's bad, not the engineer:)

          Background Singer Bads

          16. Singing out of tune. This saboteur will get you never invited back.
          17. Making the wrong vibrato and/or tone choices. This one will get you immediately fired.
          18. Being too pushy or un-engaged in the session. Either attitude will sabotage the comfort and general friendly spirit in the room, which can undermine all working larynxes.
          19. Not having enough vocal control to trace the lead singer or blend with other singers. This can get you a bad vocal reputation.
          20. Not working the mic for low volume oohs or high strong notes. This can get you on the bad side of an engineer.

          Lead Singer Bads

          21. Not warming up vocally before the session. Duh.
          22. Crunching in and singing from your tight ribcage. Your control will be lost.
          23. Reading your lyrics while singing. Your performance will be, to some degree, numb.
          24. Not singing into and out of punches. Your punched lines and breaths won't match.
          25. Eating bagels for breakfast before an important vocal session. Fueled by sugary carbs and no protein, your vocal stamina for singing will soon be sorely missing.

          Anybody Bads

          26. Bringing a party into the control room. Loud or excessive talking can sabotage the work of the production team, and therefore, the vocalist.
          27. Wearing strong scents, even burning too many smoky candles that can interfere with a singer's sinuses and lungs.
          28. Asking the singer if they are nervous. It's like asking them not to look at the purple elephant with the diamond earring in the corner...
          29. Opening studio doors while recording is going on. You could destroy a great vocal take.
          30. Taking video without the consent of performers. Sometimes in-studio videos can be taken for promotional purposes, but if uninvited and unexpected, they can sabotage a critical instrumental or vocal performance. It's a good rule to ask before you shoot.

          The Slayer of Singer Saboteurs is ...

          ... application of good information! There is a ton more information that can help you avoid what can hurt you, dear singers and production teams. I offer the following courses if you wish to dig into any of this further:
          So what about you? Have you faced a studio singing saboteur yet? Did you conquer it?

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