Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: August 2008

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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thanks for Dangerous Questions!

... if you have them, ask them like Nav did so we can discuss them!! Love it!...

PS...thank you, Nav. Hope my answer helps you and others. -Judy

Diaphragmatic breathing.. a dangerous thought

I got an email in this week asking about help with diaphragmatic breathing. The question itself is dangerous. Here's the question:

Hi Judy,

I am coming to visit the states for a week (I live in London)... I have an eleven hour flight and I thought it would be perfect to practice on strengthening my diaphragm as I won't be doing much else. My question: When i practice diaphragmatic breathing (and even singing along to songs without producing sound but focusing on when to breathe and the amount of breathe coming out) I can maintain strong, consistent breath. However, the second I begin singing and producing a tone, my breath goes all over the place. My voice is breathy and I can't even hold a consistent exhalation to support the tone. Why is this and how do I overcome it to keep that strong balanced breath when producing tones?
Cheers,
Nav

OK, why is this a dangerous question? Because I have found that "thinking about diaphragmatic breathing" invariably causes tension right where you don't want it... at the bottom of your ribcage where your diaphragm is connected. Even if you try to keep it open there, you may be freezing your position, which is STILL TENSION!

Here's the truth.. the diaphragm works as an involuntary muscle, like your heart. If you were to squeeze or otherwise physically interfere with your heart as it beats (unless you are a great heart surgeon :), your heart would have a problem, so yes, you can affect it by voluntary muscular actions. However, what you usually do is to interfere with its natural and automatic actions.

The only way to help your diaphragm is to stay out of its way. KEEP YOUR RIBS WIDE. This is universally taught by all correct vocal training. But even this begs yet another question... how do you keep your ribs wide? There's a place just below your shoulder blades in your spine. From this point, you can shift your ribcage forward. This point must remain alive and flexible, not frozen stiff even in a correct position. If you move your head so it is balanced over your tailbone, you will find this point moving in and your ribcage opening up.

You must not take this posture too far in a "swayback" spinal position. The point is in the middle of the UPPER, not the lower back. You must also not freeze it in place.

Then apply power (squeeze) from the pelvic floor. Singing this way will strengthen the diaphragm naturally, as well as other muscles in the abs, chest and back that do the work to hold the diaphragm open.

Learn about how the diaphragm works, what affects it and what you need to do for it, but then stop worrying about your diaphragm. In my "Power, Path & Performance" 6-CD training course, I teach everything you need to know about your diaphragm, and include illustrations. This training, comprehensively balanced with all the rest of the techniques taught in this package, will put to rest "stinking thinking about breathing" that gets so many singers and speakers in worse trouble than before they started thinking about it.

Trust your automatic nervous system with its silent conversations. Diaphragmatic breathing is created, strengthened and correctly joined with other muscle groups important for breath support and control when you concentrate on sensing your power in your pelvic floor.. not your chest!

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Singers: Wipe that smile out of your voice...

...unless you're singing a smiling song!

A hallmark of a master vocal stylist - whatever the genre - is that the emotional color of the tone of voice chosen matches what the heck the lyric is saying. Can you imagine Bonny Raitt singing "I Can't Make You Love Me" with a big smile on her face and in her voice? Those lyrics contain ANGST - and if the tone her voice doesn't contain some kind of quiet but powerful angst, the listener would feel betrayed by ... vocal fraud. Yes, I'll go that far.

That doesn't necessarily mean you need to sound angry. There are many, many emotional colors between "happy" and "angry". What about:
  • Sadly accepting (I Can't Make You Love Me)
  • Seriously sarcastic (Just Another Picture To Burn)
  • Comically empowered (Man, I Feel Like A Woman)
  • Powerfully reflective (The Dance)
  • Determined (This Is A Man's World)
  • Deeply thankful (Amazing Grace)
OK, I think you get the idea.

One of the biggest mistakes I hear amateur singers make is that of singing a lyric without the right emotion in the voice - and many times smiling all the way through the song like it's a popularity contest is the mistake.

I have also known professional jingle singers who've made a fortune singing commercials but cannot get arrested as artists. This is because they have made a career out of selling product in 30 or 60 second bursts of song. If you're selling a product, you usually do it with a friendly smile. You also do it with lots of energy... which gets tiring for the listener when 60 seconds turns into a 3 1/2 minute song. The lyric, unless it's punk rock, usually needs varying emotional dynamics to sound like an authentic message to a human being.

Next time you listen to a playback of your voice, ask yourself if the emotional color you're using matches the lyric and the music. And unless the song is something like "I'm A Happy Girl", it might be best to loose that fake smile. (Think of this as tough love from your coach here, dear friends)

What do you think?

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Breath for the long notes

Long notes can be challenging to hold, and to hold in tune and with resonance instead of just being eeked out. I had an interesting question emailed to me about breath for long notes and got permission to share his question and my answer here for your benefit, too.

Andrew's question:

My name is Andrew Hawcroft, I'm 34 and currently living in Galway, Ireland. I am trying to make my break into the world of professional musical theatre at this age and I'm working hard at achieving my dream. In two weeks I have been offered a tour of Ireland singing musical theatre numbers in a cabaret show. At least it's a start. My dream role is the Phantom like so many other male singers, but I urgently need advice, and if it's not taking a liberty, I'd like to ask you.

To improve my ability to hold a long lyrical line, I have taken to holding my breath for as long as possible, maybe up to 2 minutes without undue strain, several times over throughout the day. Is this a wise thing to do? I feel I have better breath stores but I dearly wish I had a stronger feeling of 'compression' and I don't know how to acheive it. I am a serious weightlifter/powerlifter and I know this is frowned upon in the singing world, but its not going to change, it's part of who I am, but I wonder if this is unduly affecting me. I haven't that power and vocal strength I wish I had. Sometimes I get short of breath and feel I am breathing very shallow, even though I am a gym addict and am very strong and fit. Am I doing more harm than good? It feels like my 'bellows' are too expanded.

Sincerely, Andrew Hawcroft

My answer:

Hello Andrew...
I think your breath problem may be that you are not efficiently using the breath you have. Try to imagine, as rock teacher Jamie Vendera puts it, that you have an "inhalation sensation" when you sing. Here's a couple of ways to practice it:
  • Imagine and try to sense that you are inhaling instead of exhaling as you hold a note. Of course you are exhaling, but hold back that air pressure so much that it feels like you're inhaling. While "inhaling" the note, try raising your eyebrows and relaxing your jaw and it should feel like no breath is going forward, but great resonance floats your tone out.
  • Put the palm of your hand very close to your mouth. Now try holding a note, but letting as little breath as possible get on your hand.
  • Imagine a mirror right at your mouth. Hold a note, but don't leave a breath mark on the mirror. (You don't need a real mirror for this, just imagine it.)
With your breath efficiently compressed, your eyes active and your jaw relaxed, you should get volume from the rich resonation of sound from your open throat. No pressured tone will sound as beautiful.
Let me know how these suggestions work for you. And best of luck with your musical theater career! - Judy

Ok, folks, chime in about holding notes out. How do these suggestions work for you? What else have you noticed about having enough breath for the vocal chore to be done?



Thursday, August 21, 2008

3 Parts to singing breath

I got a new student in who complained of not having enough breath. Sounds like a simple fix... she just needs to breathe in deeper, right? Not.

It's more complicated than that. The truth is, you can be quite compromised in the lung area you have available, from respiratory diseases and scar tissue, and STILL be able to have plenty of breath to sing. How is that possible?

Because there are three parts to the kind of breath you need to power your voice.

1. The Inhale: Moving air inwards

An amount of air inhaled lower (at the bottom of the lungs) than that same amount inhaled higher in the chest will give much more effective breath to the voice. It should actually feel like you are inhaling air into your lower belly and back - all the way to the pelvic floor. Open and relax the lower abdominal wall, while at the same time feeling very tall. That should give you a great inhale.

The last two parts have to do with the exhale:

2. Breath Support: Moving air upwards

When it's time to move some air upwards (through your vocal cords), your diaphragm is told by your brain to relax. Because its rim is attached to the bottom of the ribcage and its dome is attached by a scaffolding-like network of ligaments to the sternum, etc, when the diaphragm relaxes it bows upwards, pressing air out of the lungs which sit on the diaphragm.

You need to support the diaphragm by tightening the lower abdominal and back wall so abdominal contents shift upwards and don't drag the diaphragm down by their weight. When you squeeze your butt, notice the accompanying squeeze in the lower abs.

3. Breath Control: Holding air back

Air moving upwards MUST be controlled (held back) when the vocal cords come together for speech or singing. When just the right air pressure is applied... not too little, not too much... you will not feel a tightening against that pressure in your throat, neck, jaw or shoulder muscles. It will seem as though your voice floats out of you. Breath support must occur and must be balanced by breath control. Breath control is enabled by keeping your lower ribcage wide... just like with the inhale. The difference between inhale and exhale, then, is in the expanding and contracting lower abdominal area. The ribs stay wide.

With these three parts working properly, you will sense your breath falling in... then being squeezed at the pelvic floor, not the ribcage. This low squeeze will cause you to have "laser beam" breath rather than "flashlight spread" breath.

The truth is, it doesn't take much breath to sing, if the breath is applied properly with these three parts working together in synergy. This is the "Power" part of "Power, Path & Performance". Put it together and you won't believe how long you can hold notes (just ask some people who sang in "Runaway Home" last week - the last note of the last song was a killer!)

What are your experiences with breath issues? Is there anything more specific you'd like to know or share?

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Runaway Home a hit in Bristol!

The workshop showcase performance of "Runaway Home" was powerfully successful. It was an amazing, bewildering, stressful, beautiful, scary 9 days ... way too hectic to report on at the time. But I'm back and this will be my report on the journey of a thousand (million?) steps we took from threads of chaos to tapestry.

Day 1:

The Decatur and Nashville parts of the cast and crew hopped a plane in Nashville at 6:00am and arrived to meet the Bristol, Connecticut parts of the cast and crew in the afternoon. We dispersed to the houses where we would be sleeping. My sister Beki, who played "Edna" the homeless woman,and I shared the guestroom at the Mazzarella house. Darren and my Nashville production client Michael Hodges, who played "the derelict", would take couches and airbeds. Others of the Decatur cast shared another house - I think 7 girls shared one bathroom with our choreographer. Immediately after taking luggage in, we went to St. Paul's Catholic high school. My first clue to the difficult conditions was the complete lack of air conditioning in the school and auditorium. There were big fans, but it was hot and most of us sweated bullets throughout our stay.

When we walked in, we noticed the beautiful set Mark Mazzarella (Bristol producer and director at St Paul's Catholic High) designed and was building with help of Dave Glanovsky, Rich Parsons and Jake Larkin. Mark introduced Darren Butler (writer and director) and me (music writer and director) to the combined cast; tentative schedules for the days to come were announced and then we all went into the music room for music rehearsals.

I quickly gave them the basics of Power, Path & Performance method and then realized not everyone knew all the songs. People with laptops started copying and handing out guide vocal cds I had made to the people that didn't have it, and we began rehearsing the title song "Runaway Home". It wasn't blended, the parts were wrong, some voices were thin, straining, yelling, or too soft. Hmmm. It was gonna be a long week. I hit the pillow hard, worried and stressed that night.

Day 2:

Mark Mazzarella's wife Lisa became our hostess angel... we woke to breakfast already prepared for us as though the breakfast fairy had visited in the wee hours of the morning. It would be this way every morning, and every night when we drug our carcasses back, there would be snacks awaiting us as we gathered literally around their round table to discuss the progress (or lack thereof). We carpooled to the auditorium and began music rehearsals with a vengeance.

Then after lunch Darren took them for scene rehearsals. These began with our awesome choreographer "Sweet Sue" Kirkes stretching us in directions that most of us had never gone! It was a great way to start a rehearsal. Sue "blocked" the scenes with Darren, brilliantly creating movement as she discovered the physical possibilities (or not) of our cast. I grabbed any cast member not in a scene he was working at the time and we multi-tasked to optimize our time. Meals were always provided by Lisa and other moms such as Janice D'Ambrosi, Bonnie Parsons and Sheila Haney in the teachers lounge so we could get back to work. These women had it ready and afterwards cleaned up so we could work.

Day 3

This was pretty much a repeat of Day 2. By that night almost all the scenes were blocked. I think they ran the whole first act that evening. Mark Mazzarella had designed a beautiful, amazing set and the finishing touches were still being built by Mark, Dave Glanovsky and Rich Parsons (our Starbucks supplier - bless him!) as we rehearsed.

Day 4

This was Sunday morning. Some of the cast went to church, the rest slept in. I was among the latter, I'm afraid. But I prayed a lot, let me tell you!

That afternoon we met at Eric Miller's studio where I began producing the cast vocals on the tracks I'd previously cut at Ronny Light's studio in Nashville. Oh my gosh... we had so little time. I had to work fast and furious, and I thought the cast would end up hating me! But... they all came to the mat and worked like pros. They were amazing... the studio had little air conditioning and there were cast members laid out everywhere like sardines. No one complained much, and by that night we got most of the ensemble parts done. The studio was where they really began to trust Power, Path & Performance principles, because they began to blend, be in tune, sing with power and authority, and had no throat strain even with the pace we kept. I was so proud of them.

Day 5

We began singing at the studio at 9am and finished the last solo just in time to meet the deadline we had in the afternoon. In between solos, Darren took some of the cast outside the studio on the lawn to rehearse new script changes! I think there were around 23 songs, some double-songs with ensemble and solo parts. Whew!!! Then we went back to the school auditorium where they began scene rehearsals and more choreography blocking. That night, they did the whole second act. I watched, and became aware that somehow, it was coming together. The studio experience had really brought everyone to new vocal levels. We had intended to run the whole show after that, but it was far too late.

Day 6

We tried on headsets for the first time, guided by our expert sound engineer Dave Glanovsky. I was scared of these, because they had to be turned on, muted and mixed with very complicated cues. But it started sounding really good. Somewhere in all this, Darren added three new scenes and we took out one song we'd already recorded. Whew! We rehearsed music and scenes, we grabbed dancers that were supposed to dance in the scene of the song we deleted and they generously agreed to turn into much needed stage crew. We rehearsed "tech" ... the dangerous dance of set changing in the complete dark, which would be done by our cast and crew. Our lighting expert Joe Trelli had his hands full with special effects and complicated cues. Oh My Gosh... how was this ever going to come together??? AHHHH!

The cast rehearsed scenes again... many things were still shaky. Sue and I grabbed actors not involved on stage for choreography and music rehearsals. Somehow in the midst of everything, head shots were taken by a pro photographer friend of Mark's. After the cast was finally dismissed, Joe (lighting pro), Darren and Mark stayed at the school til after midnight to get the cues right.
OK... now off to bed, because tomorrow was the ONE PERFORMANCE we would do, with theater powers-that-be and major casting agents in attendance!

Day 7

Everyone got to the school at 9am for dress rehearsal, which was to be filmed by Mark and his brother Tony Mazzarella. As Darren ran a few scenes which needed kinks worked out, last minute tweaks of sound, lighting and set changing were completed. Then we ran the show, filming the whole thing. It was beautiful! We sent everyone off to rest for a couple of hours before cast call for the show.

At 5:30 we premiered the short movie "A Fix", which is the back-story of two of the play characters. One of the stars of the short...Skye Bartusiak and her mother, casting director Helen Bartusiak...were in attendance. They, Darren and cast member Bridget Lappert (who also starred in the short) did a public "talk back" meeting while the cast got ready for the show. at 6:30, the lights were turned down and my heart skipped several beats. The Mazzerella brothers began filming our showcase performance.

The show went off with only minor hitches. The response from the 400 or so in attendance was nothing short of tremendous. They laughed, they cried, the roared. I have never been so nervous... I had no control over the outcome. Every professional we talked to who saw it tell us the same thing: We have something. As I said goodbye to Helen Bartusiak, she looked at me and said "Judy, I'll see you on Broadway". That night I slept in grateful bliss.

Day 8 & 9

The cast trained to NYC to hang out and go to some Broadway shows. My sister and I got to spend some time together getting lost on subways, dealing with crazies, meeting wonderful and helpful New Yorkers who steered us right, going to China Town and ground zero, eating at the best Italian restaurant I've tried (Il Cortile on Mulberry St). We hope to be back before long :) Two of our cast members, Daniel Martin and Liza Montgomery were taken by a major talent agency and told they could work Broadway almost immediately. Bridget Lappert already has this agent and freshly impressed her.

Day 10

We all slept in and then assembled for a picnic at the Mazzarella house before heading out to the airport. One of my favorite memories is when they asked me to play something on piano... I started the chords to "Runaway Home" and we sang it to the rafters. Tears all around, hugs like we'd known each other all our lives... whew. This play has to make it. It means too much and leaves too much love behind it not to.

It was a miraculous transformation that led to a show none of us will ever forget. Mark Mazzarrella and his wife Lisa have been like angels to this play... without their help (and that of their tech savy sons, Matthew and Michael), and all the other parents and crew who stepped in with anything we needed, we could not have done this. I am so grateful to everybody... especially the precious, patient, hard working cast. Special thanks to Geoff and Shelia Haney who bought us plane tickets. Darren did an amazing job at getting the actors deep into their charactors. He was a patient, kind and brilliant director, who got the best out of everyone. Sweet Sue was the same as choreographer... I loved the way she worked with the cast. Darren, Mark, Sue and I seemed to be joined at the hip by the time it was over. Joe and Dave (Lights and sound) were finally breathing!

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to take you on this journey with us. (And this is just what I remember... there was so much more). It was incredible to share this journey with my sister Beki, we'll never forget it. Next phase will find us, with the help of Mark Mazzerella, sending the DVD, sound recording and script to top producers. And we'll see how the show goes on.... Wish us luck!!

Wanna see pictures? I have some working shots... there will be shots of the play in future to show you as we get the DVD edited. If you are a cast member and see any pictures of Leah Holleran or our precious dancers-turned-stage-hands, please leave a comment so I can update the pic titles.

Go here for pictures.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Packing for " leaving on a jet plane"...

... Please tell me you've heard of that song :)

Well, I'm packing for tomorrow morning's 6am flight (which means I get up 4:30 to get to the airport at 5:00)! For the next week and a half, this blog is going to look more like a journal of this upcoming adventure for "Runaway Home -The Musical"; I thought you might want to know what goes into the process of getting a musical off the ground (hopefully!!). I gave a few lessons today and wrapped up some production work scheduling; all that's left is to get my suitcase in order for 9 days of who-knows-what.

I'll check in from time to time to give updates; thanks for all of you who sent well-wishes for us... talk soon! -Judy

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

"Runaway Home -the Musical" : My Big Dream

"Runaway Home - The Musical" is going for a grand adventure in Connecticut and New York, August 7th - 15! I can't tell you how excited I am. Runaway Home is My Big Dream.

I don't know how many of you have been keeping up with my news about the development of this play, but if you have, be advised: upcoming plans have changed. (I'm learning why they call it "Drama" :<) We didn't get our ducks in a row to be able to have enough top producers attend the Leonard Nimoy theater workshop productions we had scheduled. The money just to book the theater for two days was almost $4,000. We will not go to Stamford, either. We decided that money would better serve our purposes funding a different scenario. If you purchased tickets, please let me know and I'll be happy to send you a refund.

Anyway... after much gnashing of teeth, worried minds and churning of stomachs, Darren Butler (script writer) came up with the following scenario, which everyone thinks is brilliant. I think you'll see why I wholeheartedly agree with the new plans:

You're hearing about it for the first time here-

Emmy-award winning producer Mark Mazzarella, who directed "Runaway Home" for a workshop performance by his drama group in Bristol Connecticut to rave reviews, has generously offered his audio/video facilities, his theater at St. Paul's Catholic High, his actors, his expertise and connections to get a promo package together to submit to top producers and theater professionals.

A combined "best-of" cast of actors from the Decatur, Alabama and the Bristol casts will travel to and meet in Bristol, Connecticut on August 7th (I'll fly in from Nashville). Darren will begin scene rehearsals that evening, and I will begin music rehearsals. Darren and I have made major changes to the script and the music and we're both anal-retentive control freaks, and so everyone will have to re-think what they did before. We'll continue intense rehearsals through the next Wednesday. Did I say rehearsals will be INTENSE?? Oh yeah. because...

We will perform the play for a Bristol audience which will include some top theater professionals from New York - who have confirmed in writing that they will be there - Wednesday night, August 13th.

Scheduling will be interesting, but during the time we are in Bristol we also intend to complete the following:
  • I will produce voices in Bristol for a CD cast recording of all Runaway Home music (tracks were cut here in Nashville by Ronny Light)...

  • Darren Butler will direct the cast as Mark Mazzarella films, scene by scene with multi cameras, a DVD of the play...

  • AND, Mark Mazzarella will produce a documentary of the creation of this new American musical! (We're of course rooting for him to win another Emmy. )

  • Thursday and/or Friday the 14th &15th we will train to New York, and go to some Broadway shows.

  • Last but not least: not only will the play benefit; the actors will receive experience, promotion and exposure, too, so it is a win for all of us.

  • If all goes well, we will leave Bristol with a DVD of the play, a CD of the music, and a documentary of the journey to package up and send to the theater powers-that-be.
Anyway, dear friends, I wanted to let you know why my blog may look strange for a couple of weeks. I'll fill you in as the Runaway Home adventure unfolds, OK? And if you happen to send up a prayer for us, that would be most appreciated.

May God bless you and Your Own Big Dream, whatever it is!

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