Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: July 2009

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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Singers: Bored With Your Song? How To Make It Fresh

Songs you sing over and over again can get boring. One of the best wishes I can give an artist is: I hope that song is such a hit you get sick of singing it, haha! Actually, this can be a problem.

I got an email from a rock artist about this very thing... in her case, she was going into the studio and had rehearsed her songs so much she was bored with them. She recognized the trap and wanted to know what to do. Here are some thoughts I'll share with you as well:

Caution before we begin: no matter what you do, you must take care to use good technique when you sing. Don't tighten your throat or relax your breath support/control and strain your voice, no matter what.
  1. Rehearsal is NOT necessarily performance. You can rehearse a song, just trying out some different phrasing, style and licks and making sure you know it. You can do this all day long. This is different than rehearsing PERFORMANCE. When you do this, you have to "go on stage" and physically, emotionally & communicatively act as if you are. Don't do this more than a couple of times per song in a day. Give it a break.
  2. In the studio: Go for it the first time, or sing the song a time or two until you feel warmed up to it and the engineer is ready with levels. Then go for it. Don't expect to do take after take, however, and stay fresh. After about 3 or 4 good vocal tracks, I like to just start punching the bad lines. If it takes too long, come back another day instead of singing the life out of the thing!
  3. On stage: James Taylor once talked about this issue with his song "Fire and Rain" in a PBS documentary. He said when he and the band rehearsed it, they would all cut up and have a good time making light of the old standard. But each time he sings it to a live audience, he said it still feels like the first time. How? Because he lets the audience be a part of the equasion. He sings TO them, and their reaction feeds the freshness of his delivery. I'm paraphrasing him, but you get the point.
  4. Remember: Don't just sing. Communicate like it's the first time you ever said that to anyone. Know who you are as the deliverer of the song, know who you're talking to and why you're having the conversation.
  5. Passion rules. Keep the fire in your heart for your music, and it won't let you down.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

How A Talent Show Can Be A Win For All

I did something I rarely do today... I judged a talent contest. I know, it's usually against my principles. However, this one was a win for everyone. Let me tell you about my friend Wynne Adams and her "Galaxy Of Stars" songwriting contest: Wynne is first of all interested in judges who can help her contestants be better at what they do. This is not a situation where people are told that they are horrible. It is an event where people who enter the contest actually benefit, no matter how they place.
  1. The judging was completely legitimate... there was no pressure or even subtle suggestion who we should "like" by Wynne or anyone else connected with the event.
  2. All contestants got written notes of constructive, professional feedback and assessment of their songs by 5 pro writers.
  3. All contestants are treated with decency and respect, no matter how well they write. Actually, we judged demos they had recorded, so there was no "putting them on the spot" and belittling them.
  4. In doing their demos, the contestants got valuable experience recording their voices. For some, this took courage they had to summon to show their wares in public... and truly be heard.
I like this contest. I love Wynne for her care of people. I was very pleased with the caliber of persons who were my fellow judges. All songwriters win... and those that are ready for prime time will have a shot at it.

Have you been in a contest that benefited you (or NOT)? How do you feel about talent contests?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What Key Do You Sing In? Why That's A Dumb Question

When somebody asks, "what key you sing in?" What do you say? The best response is a question of your own: What key do I sing WHAT in?

Let me explain: There is no "right key" for you to sing EVERY song in! The key you sing best in depends on the melody of the song. Instead of asking "what key do you sing in?" the enlightened question is "what is your vocal range?". I'll use two songs most people are familiar to demonstrate:

The simple (no flourishes or vocal licks) melody line of "The Star Spangled Banner" melody uses a lot more vocal range than the simple melody of "Amazing Grace". The Star Spangled Banner uses 12 notes of the scale; Amazing Grace uses 8. Therefore, a singer would need to start the Star Spangled Banner a lot lower than Amazing Grace, so that the high notes are reachable. For instance, I would sing the national anthem in the key of "F", and I sing the hymn in "D".

So what key do I sing in? The correct answer... it depends on othe melody. Here are points to consider in choosing the key you sing a particular song in:
  1. What is the total vocal range of the melody? Where would the lowest note hit? Where would the highest?
  2. Will you be playing with the melody? Are you going to embellish the melody stylistically, going higher and/or lower than the simple melody? Those notes must be taken into account.
  3. Where is your sweet spot of vocal range? If you have a large range, enabling you to sing the song in several different keys, you need to figure out what key will put you in your richest vocal resonance. It's not about the high notes, folks-- it's about the tone quality. If you pick a key too low, you will sound dark and to put it bluntly, boring. If you pick a key too high, you will sound (and feel) vocally strained. If you pick just the right key, your voice will feel, sound and communicate so much better.
Hope this has been enlightening. Oh and one more point... don't let the guitar player pick the key, because their choice is often what key they play the song with open strings in (love to all guitar players, but you know it's true, haha!)

If you'd like to increase your vocal range, contact me at my website. Comments anyone?

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Choir Singing: Does Your Choir Know How To Control Vocal Volume?

I got a great question about controlling choir singing volume from a caring choir director named Tim Ingersoll. With his permission, I'll share our discussion:
"Hi Judy ... There is a perception I've formed over the years that I'm hoping you'll either confirm the correctness of, or point me down a different path. That perception is that, in order to sing softly with energy, you have to have developed the ability to sing loud with control, otherwise, soft just sounds wimpy.

There are some beautiful voices in the choir and I want to help them to learn to sing LOUD. Not only because this will give us a broader range of dynamics to work with, but I expect it will also help us retain that vocal intensity when singing softly. I think most of the choir members were raised in families where loud is impolite or something :-)

A technique I've been thinking about using, just to help them learn how powerful their singing voices CAN be, is to have them shout or yell (imagine your kid is stepping in front of a moving car) and then shape that into a sustained tone. I know for myself, those types of emotionally driven vocalizations instinctively seem to use the body very effectively. What I'm not sure of, is whether generating this type of vocalization will help others discover the power of their own voices, and if there are any risks in trying to teach "loud" in this manner?" -Tim
My answer:

First of all, Tim, thank you on behalf of your precious choir members for your care for them. You honestly care about both their impact and their vocal well-being.

Yes, you're right, a soft "meek" sound doesn't really bring the message adequately. As to your visualization of shouting or yelling like a kid is stepping in front of a crowd and sustaining that sound... Here are three tips to increase volume:
  1. I think you're on the right track to try and make them connect vocal sound with a real message. This affects their breath, open throat, and communication skills.
  2. Make sure they are standing tall, stretching spines flexibly and not leaning into the audience when they sing loud.
  3. Vocal volume should come from RESONATION, not OVERBLOWING PRESSURE! SPECIAL CAUTION: You need to avoid a common mistake I see so many choir directors making -- equating vocal volume with pushing more air pressure through vocal cords at the audience.
For increasing volume, singing loud without vocal strain...
instead of vocal strain, here's an exercise I recommend:
  • Ask choir members all to stand at a wall, head and heel flush against a wall. NOW tell them to "PULL A SCREAM". It should feel, as rock teacher Jamie Vendera puts it, like an "inhalation sensation". That is, for all the world it should feel like there is so little forward pressure from their throats that sound is being pulled up and back. Another way to help them find this would be to have them put their hand right close in front of their mouths. Then have them yell or scream while trying not to feel their breath on their hand.
The squeeze to power this big sound should come from the pelvic floor, not from the ribs or throat. They should be encouraged not to hand their hands & arm heavily against the sides of their rib cages, either. Hands are best used above the waist, like "talking with their hands, maybe holding their music or placing hands on a choir rail in front of them.

For singing soft with rich, communicative sound...
here's are some suggestions:
  1. For vocal control, the ribs should be just as wide as when singing loud. Collapsed ribs take away the ability of the diaphragm to control itself, which is extremely important when singing softly.
  2. For "life" in the sound, choir members should be encouraged to have expression in their eyes and faces when they sing. Not over-acting, but no dead eyes or frozen visages, please. Go over the WORDS in the music... what message should they bring? The expression of the physical face actually affects the inside of the "voice cave". To prove it, have your choir try singing a simple phrase dead-panned, then with expression such as they would use with a child or little animal, or just crazyfaced. This should help them see, feel and hear the difference their eyes can make when communicating a message with feeling.
  3. Also, encourage them to open their mouths well and keep jaw movement flexible... which increases the size of the resonance cave, important not just for loud singing, but also for soft. Soft sound needs resonance to avoid that "wimpy" sound you're talking about.
FYI, folks, I have an inexpensive 1-CD version of Power, Path & Performance vocal training available at this link to my website . There's even an instantly downloadable version now of this smaller course for which you pay no postage. Great for choir members who don't wish to invest in the more comprehensive 6-cd pro course.

Anyone else like to share some experience or insight on choir volume?

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vocal Training: Why Your Audience Shouldn't Hear It

I got a very interesting comment about over-trained singers at my page on The Modern Vocalist.com:
"What I strive for: no two voices are the same. It's that unique strong signature characteristic that separates people who can sing from people who become icons in music. Take Sting for example... not the greatest vocalist, but there's no mistaking that aged husky whimper of his. Technique is important for power and control, but I find that there are too many people sounding too trained. I believe that one should incorporate one's personality into one's sound as much as possible in order to go about creating that strong iconic signature sound that no one else can recreate. Take Chino from Deftones-that guy can't sing a note- but the Deftones wouldn't be anything without him. Same goes for Trent Reznor from Nine inch Nails. I think it's a fine balance between a trained and untrained voice that needs to be found." - Timothy Ian David Lester
This is, in fact, why some people think you can know too much about music or voice. They feel that too much musical knowledge can cause a musician or singer to over-think and turn their art... artificial. Actually, sometimes they are right-- but only because they are not being taught well, in my humble opinion.

The first thing we vocal coaches should do is to interview our new student and find out what his or her vocal and musical goals really are. Do they need to sing classical songs to get into (or through) college with a major in voice? Do they want to sing what they are writing... r&b, country, pop, jazz, hiphop, alternative... we must know so we don't guide them into a style that is not where their heart is. Yes, people can learn to sing both classical and popular genres, but sometimes the jump can be hard. It's like learning to speak different languages VERY FLUENTLY. Yes, you can do it but it takes time, careful & accurate coaching and exposure to the masters of the musical genres you want to sing to do multiple genres well. If you want to sing in more than two or three genres (like pro session singers must), this is what I call "stunt singing". Does your student really want to be a jack of all trades or do they want to be a master of ... one?

I believe we need to do exactly what Timothy is suggesting... help our clients find their UNIQUENESS. This is what really sets the heart free, and sometimes gives a vocalist a career as a recording and performing artist. It really takes experimentation, a feeling of safety to try on new ways of using the voice, and feedback from someone with great intuition about how an audience would react to what they are hearing. We want an audience's immediate reaction to be: "Wow what a song- and what a delivery of that song!"... not "Wow, I wonder who this artist's vocal coach is and what method they use?"

My favorite artists actually play with their voices, sometimes "de-supporting" for a weak, sensual or sad sound... but when it's time for business they ramp up all the vocal wisdom they ever learned and deliver such controlled power that we are mesmerized with their song. They scream, use breathy or husky sounds on purpose, but ... and here's the rub... they NEVER hurt either the listener's ear or their voice. It's like an aural (instead of an optical) illusion. And it comes from being - you guessed it - very well trained.

A good example is the masterful performance of a great actor. If they are doing what they should, you never even detect the slightest whiff of "acting", do you? But you can bet your bottom dollar that they used top dollar acting teachers to get to the level they are at in their craft. According to her biography, Janis Joplin planned every "impromptu" scream she did.

A singer who is serious should be trained... by an insightful and wise vocal coach who will train them so well you don't hear "vocal training" when they sing. You hear... a song that elicits from you an emotional response. Period.

What do you think?

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Tone deaf? Try Target Practice

 
Someone asked me this week if I had any suggestions for training people who are considered "tone deaf". First we need to agree on a definition of what "tone deaf" is. I like this one from Webster's Dictionary-
"...relatively insensitive to differences in musical pitch."
Other names for chronic pitch problems are: "being pitchy", "not being able to sing in tune", and "not able to carry a tune in a bucket". These are varying degrees of "tone deafness", with different sets of limitations.
  • A session singer who is consistently 1/4 step sharp or flat can be considered too tone deaf to hire.
In this case, serious professional training should be sought out. The problem is usually one of breath control and/or a tight throat. This singer does hear the pitch but can't fine-tune their aim, hence the small but professionally limiting degree of tone-deafness. Pitch accuracy, for a session singer, has to be surgically precise, and pitch problems can short cut a studio vocal career.
  • A singer who can sing very well in tune in one key but can't find the melody if you change the key has a greater degree of tone deafness, and is prone to embarrassing themselves by singing a song in a completely different key than the band is playing. I've heard major stars do this. Really.
This singer needs to become aware of their pitch problems. Someone needs to speak up for their sake, because tone-deafness is limiting their options. They will always have to have a band that knows their limitations, will have to be very careful singing "on the spot" with strange players and will need to avoid singing acapella, when they may change pitch in the middle of the song (how many times have you heard someone do this with the Star Spangled Banner?!) Again, the solution is some serious target practice with someone who knows whether they are on pitch or not. This singer may also need help not straining or tightening their throats, as well as using good breath support, control and posture habits.
  • A beginning singer whose pitch-matching ability is akin to "pin the tail on the donkey" is considered someone who can't sing in tune. Or in short... who can't sing, period.
This singer will need to understand that it is indeed possible for a beginner to learn to sing in tune, but that it will take consistent practice over a period of time to educate the ear-brain-voice connections.

As a vocal coach I have successfully trained people who were "tone deaf"- even with some hearing loss and breathing limitations - to sing in tune! Unless there is true organic (physical) damage to the ear which eliminates the ability to process sound signals, anyone can learn to sing. Being tone deaf is what I would call a "lack of aural education". Somehow you missed a natural training of your hearing abilities to distinguish differences in pitch.

The question is-- are you are willing to dig in and do some consistent target practice? Simply play a note on a keyboard, guitar, or listen to a note sung by someone else, and try to match it. At first you will need to have someone present (a vocal coach would be great) to tell you if you are right. If you are wrong tell they need to be able to tell you you that you are too high (sharp) or too low (flat) so you know which way you need to go. Then move up to target practice with patterns of several notes in a row, then notes in strange intervals, etc. Practice daily if possible because the more you practice, the faster you will improve your ability to hear and "sing in tune" or "on pitch".

You also need to be able to apply good breath support and control, to keep your throat open and flexible, to know how to listen well to pitch in music tracks, and to eliminate subtle sources of inappropriate tension, in order to sing the most accurately.

For more help, here are some articles I've written on pitch problems:
Pitch Problems In The Recording Studio - 7 Solutions
Do You Have Pitch Problems As A Singer? 10 Solutions
For information on my vocal training classes and products, comment or reply to this post or contact me through my website.

Anyone else have experience with tone deafness? What helped? What didn't?

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