Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: September 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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Problems Singing Phrases: Uncontrolled Beginnings and Dropped Ends

We all too often focus on the high or long or otherwise difficult notes of a phrase. But the secret to getting the hard stuff right is often how we begin and end the whole phrase containing the hard stuff.

Without getting the beginnings and ends right, we will not communicate the message within the phrase, either. So we miss engaging the heart of the listener.

Beginnings:

We must prepare... intend... to sing the very first syllable of the very first word. Furthermore, we must prepare and intend to sing that beginning syllable on the right pitch with the right emotion. Making the communication of this beginning word and note important will cause us to breathe in such a way as to accomplish the note. It will also cause us to position ourselves without thinking much about it to open our throats, if we have trained our voices with correct muscle memory.

I had the great pleasure, thanks to the generosity of my vocal client Jim Wilkes, to see Glen Campbell and Jimmy Web in concert with the Nashville Symphony this week. While Jimmy is a magical and master music creator (and oh my gosh did I and all present just melt in the symphonic arrangements he brought to his legendary hits), Glen is the master singer. In his 70s, I've never known him to sing better. I watched his posture change, his spine elongate, moving his head back and his chest open when he was getting ready to sing more difficult phrases... and this happened BEFORE he began the phrase. It works, folks. In fact the only note in a phrase he didn't get was a pesky "ee" vowel for which he DIDN'T prepare adequately. He sang everything else so well it didn't matter... not even to the musicians among us!

Endings:

I don't know about you but when I hear a phrase delivered almost to the end, and dropped to a disappearing act before I understand the last word, I feel cheated. Not supporting the ends of phrases will also sabotage the hard notes in the middle. And again... the intention to communicate the last word will usually cause a singer to take, support and control enough breath to do so. This is partly because when it truly is our intention to communicate, we will create a more confident, resonant tone instead of leaky, breathy sound. Amazing how the mind works for or against the voice. A master performer like Glen Campbell will not stop til he's done with a phrase.

Try it next time you sing: make the beginnings and endings of phrases the most important notes and lyrics to communicate. I think you'll like it:)

And by the way, if you haven't heard the Nashville Symphony lately... you are missing an experience that will leave you truly breathless, but in a very good way!

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Singing With Headphones: Pitch Issues

OK, another question and answer... this time about singing with headphones.

Question:
I usually don't have pitch issues when recording, but on occasion I do. I've tried using just one ear piece on the headphones, but on this particular song, still had trouble. Can you explain the science behind finding pitch when using headphones?
Thanks!

Answer:
First of all, I hope you mean you just took 1/2 of that one ear off when using headphones. I do not find that taking a whole ear off will not help you. To clarify, take one closed headphone (not "open" headphones... ones used in the studio are usually closed to avoid feedback) and slide it half off your ear. It should cling to your head in such a way as to avoid feeding back to the mic.

Rarely, I will come upon a singer who does better with both "cans" on, but by far most singers do best with one earpiece half off. You'll also find that you'll favor one ear over the other for this maneuver. Experiment to see what works best for you. Try the left ear, then the right ear half off.

Lastly... DO NOT hold your cans with your hands. This will cause your arms to weigh down your ribcage. Instead, raise your hands above your waist and either "talk with them" or press fingertips into each other to open your chest, stay tall and flexible.

For the best discussion on the "science" of headphones and hearing pitch, see this link. You'll see I've contributed my two cents to the discussion, too.

Power, Path and Performance... the difference is real.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Voice-Over Career: How to get started

I get questions from time to time about a specialty vocal career: Voice-Over. If you work in this area, you are known as "voice-over talent". It entails speaking over multimedia platforms like radio, TV, movies, Internet. It includes such things as commercials, news casting, narrating documentaries, reading books-on-tape, and even voices over animated movies. To be successful in this business, you need vocal ability to do as many things as possible. You can also specialize in niches like foreign language copy, cartoon voices, tone of voice (Tony the Tiger low voice, car-salesman type fast talk, etc).

Getting work in voice-over requires three main things:
  • expert ability and training to expand your vocal tone and timing choices,
  • a working knowledge of the business practices in this field
  • a great voice-over demo (which is a specialized demo and needs to conform to what will instantly tell producers you are professional-grade talent),
  • smart networking and the energy to do it. This includes systematically researching and getting your professionally created demo out to potential clients/producers every week; the audition process never stops for this career.
And here's a beautiful thought... one of the things that makes this a great career is that neither age nor looks matter! Only ability and professional knowledge.

I do use Power, Path & Performance to train voice-over and public speakers' voices; here is what I can help with:
  • I can increase your tone color choices so you can choose and change the applicable tone quality that would best communicate specific copy
  • I can coach you to choose the right timing ... how fast you speak, where and how long you should pause, etc.
  • I can show you how to protect your voice... your most important career asset.
Here are a couple of other interesting links for expert advice and training... there are many others but these stand out:

http://www.greatvoice.com/
http://www.voiceacting.com/index.html

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Taming Tongue Tension

A question about tongue tension was asked at The Modern Vocalist this month. I thought I'd share my answer and elaborate it with you, dear reader of this blog, because it is a very common problem. Tongue tension equals soft palate tension, equals... throat tension!!

Tongue tension happens when you use the wrong end of the tongue too much! The tongue is said by some to be the strongest muscle in the body for it's size. It is literally connected by the hyoid bone to the top of your larynx. Tensing the root of your tongue raises the larynx uncomfortably. NOT GOOD. You need to be able to keep the mighty base (or root) of the tongue relaxed while you use the tip and front sides of the tongue to articulate.

Some things I suggest that have helped my students loosen tongue tension:

1. Wake up the face and do tongue tanglers, trying for clarity and not allowing the voice to "fall into the gravel" at the ends of phrases. Act like you are speaking to deaf people... make your lyric show in your face. This gets it out of the back of the throat and stiff jaw.

2. Speak or sing with the jaw moving in sort of a slight chewing motion. Tongue tension and jaw stiffness go together.

3. Put your knuckle inbetween your molars (not the front of your mouth) and sing. It will sound weird, like trying to speak with the dentist's hand in your mouth, but your jaw and tongue will experience having to relax.

4. Sing only on the vowels for a while, again allowing the back of the mouth and throat to fall open. This is harder than you think, you have to concentrate on NOT forming consonants. Then allow yourself to slightly let the consonants sneak back in, but keeping the back of the tongue feeling the same and letting the jaw relax flexibly.

5. Put two fingers under your chin. You are feeling the base of your tongue. Speak or sing, telling yourself not to tense there (bunch the muscle up).

6. DO NOT OVER-WORK the tongue in specific vocal exercises. Sometimes I find that exercises designed to stretch out and loosen the tongue can have the opposite effect. If you do these, be sure and note how they actually affect your tongue root's ability to relax.

By the way... some people can do tongue trills and some people can do lip trills and some people can do both. Just like rolling the tongue, forming French or German syllables, for some people it is easy and some hard, because there is a learning curve that makes it easier in childhood, and I believe, subtle muscle coordination differences in people. It doesn't matter if you can do these things or not. The main thing is to get your articulation out of the back of your throat, and there is more than one way to accomplish this goal.

Let me know what works for you!

Power, Path & Performance vocal training: The difference is real.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vocal Control For Studio Singing

A large part of vocal training involves learning vocal control. Without vocal control, any vocal recording will suffer dreadfully. With it, you can do things you can only dream about without it.

Another problem with lack of control is that if you are singing with any degree of power, you are going to experience a lot more vocal fatigue and risk damage to your instrument if you sing too long. With it, you can sing all day and not experience vocal strain. Yes, it's true! And a lack of control will cause y
ou and your recording team frustration -- or you'll just give up and settle for the best you and they think you can do. Usually, it's a huge waste of time and resources.

So what am I talking about? For a great recording, you need vocal technique skills that will enable you to:
  • Control volume. (Without it, your engineer will have to use excessive compression to even out volume, control distortion and bring soft sounds up so they can be heard. Some degree of "riding the faders" and compression is normal and usual, but the less the better ...and the richer the resulting sound of your less compressed recorded vocal.)
  • Control vocal lics and embellishments. (Without it, you will not be able to sing some vocal lics you attempt; "scats" or phrasing nuances will not "turn" well or flow evenly.)
  • Control vibrato. (Without it, your vibrato will be too much, too little, uneven or inappropriately applied.)
  • Control tone color. (Without it, the tone color of your voice will be too "covered", "hooty", "edgy", harsh, numb and boring or just plain wrong for the message. Your choices of tone of voice will be seriously limited, and your voice will sound small and/or unpleasant.)
  • Control articulation. (Without it, you will over- or more usually under- pronounce the lyrics. There are differing degrees of articulation appropriate for different genres and tempos and types of lyrics, and singers must be able to know and apply the proper way to form words for their songs. For instance, blues music is pronounced more slurry, hip hop generally has sharper attacks, pop is usually articulated clearer. Musical theater diction usually needs to be very crisp, but if you try to use this kind of diction in a pop song you will sound fake. But ALL songs should be understood, or the connection to the audience is not going to be made well.)
  • Control sibilance. (Without this, recording your vocal can be a nightmare because too much sibilance hurts the listener's ears! And fixing excessive "s" sounds with de-"ss'ers always limits the quality of sound. A related problem is the popping of "p"s and other consonants. You must be able to control your consonants even while you clearly form them.)
  • Control dynamic expression. (Without it, you will over-express and sound fake, under-express and bore the listener out of their minds, or bring too many changing emotional levels to the song to sound authentic and really move the heart of your listener. You have to know how to express the emotion of the lyric like a great actor delivering lines that invite an emotional response to the message.)
  • Control the beginnings and ends of each phrases. (Without it, you will have trouble getting the beginning of the line right. You will drop off the ends of your sentences, robbing the listener of the complete thought. You will also find yourself with a lack of other kinds of control of initiating and ending lines, because you didn't set yourself up properly before entering the phrase or you've dropped your controlling support too early.)
  • Control rhythm. (Without it, you will not be singing with the groove. You will be too early, too late or have inappropriate placement of lyrics via the beat. Again, different genres ask for different places the lyric should fit with the beat, but you have to know what your genre norms are and have the ability to sing with the beat that way. For instance, hip hop usually has the lyric slightly behind the beat, pop usually right on top of it, gospel and big band "Sinatra" types are flexibly in and around the beat, but you really have to sing with a lot of the masters to get this authentically right.)
  • Control pitch. (Without it, your engineer will have to tune the vocal too much, resulting in a machinistic, artificial sound. You may be so inconsistent and inaccurate that tuning becomes almost impossible, because the tuner "grabs" the wrong pitch or can't draw the lic well enough to sound natural. Your bended notes may be so far off there is no way to make them sound in tune. Fact: The less you have to tune a vocal, the better. Don't get complacent here and think you can just have your engineer fix it in the mix. You'll be unpleasantly surprised.)
Can you think of other types of control issues you've found in the studio? Which of these would you like most to know more about?

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Vocal Health: The Most Important Nutrient For Your Voice

As singers, we can buy throat sprays, suck on lozenges, drink special teas that are supposed to coat the throat. We can drink peppermint to calm jittery stomachs, or have a beer because we think it will relax our throats. We take vitamin and mineral suppliments and avoid dairy to keep from coating our throats. But do you know the most important (and most neglected) nutrient we need for our voices?

WATER!

I know, you've heard this before. However, we all need a reminder to not just KNOW something, but to DO it. So here's your water pep talk:


Water is what over 2/3rds of our body consists of. I could be thought of a sack of water with some extra stuff in it! Water affects some things not readily apparent, like headaches and tendencies to overeat. Sometimes we think we are hungry when we are actually thirsty, but the body gets the signals mixed up. Paradoxically, water is a natural diuretic; if you don't drink enough you will retain excess fluid and become edemic. Water, like most everything, has a dark side. You have to take in enough so you don't retain too much.

According to Free Drinking Water website,

"The human brain is made up of 95% water, blood is 82% and lungs 90%. A mere 2% drop in our body's water supply can trigger signs of dehydration: fuzzy short-term memory, trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on smaller print, such as a computer screen. (Are you having trouble reading this? Drink up!) Mild dehydration is also one of the most common causes of daytime fatigue. An estimated seventy-five percent of Americans have mild, chronic dehydration."
(Read more facts about the importance of water to the body by clicking on their website link above.)

The human voice is very dependent upon water. Dehydrated vocal cords (folds) are not as flexible and able to thin as hydrated ones. These folds are so small and their operation so exact (or not), a little dehydration can result in a large dent in your vocal ability in any given performance. And the very use of the vocal cords causes them to lose moisture to the air.

As an extreme example of the vocal cord-water connection, I had a very bad case of laryngitis and a very important gig. I literally could not talk but had to lead a background vocal group in two days of sessions. I discovered that if I drank huge glasses of water with a little pineapple juice added, I could sing, even in my head voice. I ended up drinking about 18 mega glasses of water a day, and really didn't pee more than usual. The moisture was being used and evaporated from my vocal cords into the air.

So how much is enough?
I recommend following advice I was given by medical professionals: Take your body weight and half it. That's the number of ounces you should drink a day. So if a person weighs 120 lb, they would drink 60 oz of water, which comes out to 7.5 8-oz glasses a day. If you are particularly active or out in the heat, use common sense and drink a little more.

Do other drinks count?
My nutritionist advised me that if you drink 75% water and no more than 25% unsweetened natural juice, it counts as water. If it makes you drink more water, I say add that orange, pineapple, apple, tomato or other 100% juice.

Herbal teas count. Coffee and caffeine in general are less healthy, but there is a lot of controversy about their addition to necessary water intake. The dehydration effect seems to be a diuretic effect. Possibly you pee out more than you take in? Caffeine has other detrimental effects, though, from jittery nerves (affecting pitch and vocal control), stomach problems (affecting breath support and control), and sometimes affecting other health problems present. It's best to at least limit caffeine. Be wise and notice how caffeine affects you before drinking it when you need to sing.

Freshly juiced vegetable juice counts. It also ensures mineral additions to your water, and balances overly-acid ph levels in our bodies. I try to juice every morning.

Sugary drinks, artificially sweetened or flavored chemical-laden drinks and alcoholic drinks most definitely do NOT count. These are poisons to be diluted by... you guessed it... drinking more water.

Especially great additions to water:
ceyenne pepper and lemon juice
ceyenne, lemon and honey
throat coat tea

Bottled, tap or what?
I highly recommend getting a good water filter for your tap... I use and love Aquasana filters...and filling your own glass or stainless steel jugs. Plastic leaches into our bodies easily, and of course pollutes the environment. Only drink from plastic if there is no alternative available, such as in the airport where you are not allowed to carry your own.

What temperature should water be?
Most experts I've talked to say it's best at room temperature. They also concur that in the end, if it's hot or iced, the most important thing is that you get it down the guzzle! Sometimes iced water causes throats to tighten a bit in some people, but again, notice how it affects YOU.

How can you make yourself drink enough?
I like to decide how much I'm going to drink and measure it out. That helps me when I get sidetracked to actually get enough in. Some people set a timer to periodically go off and remind them. This post will hopefully give you the will to go to the trouble to find out what will work for you.

So go fill up a glass and actually drink it. That "action" step is the all-important one:)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Vocal Training: Should We Train the Intellect or the Senses?

There is a point and counterpoint dancing among teachers of voice. Some say it's best to teach the intellect, using facts, logic, the left brain, so to speak. Others say the way to go is to teach the sensory system... with imagery and subjective "feeling" of concepts. Like many, I think the answer lies in the mix. Teaching is always a team sport, and needs the input and energy of both teacher and student to really make a lesson come alive. This becomes especially true in the art and science of teaching voice. Observation of the student as he or she tries to apply teacher's suggestions, insight and creative approaches to problem-solving are vital as factual knowlege of anatomy and effective, healthy and proven effective vocal technique.

I believe it is healthy, protective and empowering at vocal lessons to train on two fronts: Intellectual and sensational.
  1. Intellectual vocal training deals with our thinking brain...the hemisphere commonly referred to as "left brain" ... which uses a mathematical and analytical processes to learn a technique such as vocal support.
  2. Sensory vocal training deals with more abstract "right brain"... more visual and artistic in it's processes... which considers feelings and sensations that go along with ways to do something. Paradox: The sensations our nerves present us with often do not correlate with anatomical movements, i.e. a vocal break is "felt" in the back of the soft palate, but is happening in the larynx. The power of breath, when properly applied, should be "felt" as coming from the pelvic floor instead of the diaphragm or lungs. Consider the phantom limb syndrome, when a felt body part is not really there.
Some reasons both intellectual and sensational training is needed (and I speak from experiential success with my students and clients and my own professional vocal experience) is that both hemispheres are necessary for working the voice. In fact, according to Natasha Mitchell's webpage;
Every single cognitive function has right hemisphere and left hemisphere components. - neuropsychologist Associate Professor Michael Saling
When you use the intellect to understand how your anatomy is supposed to function, you can use the imagery that goes along with sensation to much better effect. You can protect yourself from what your intellect knows is damaging, even if you sense no damage (pushing when you're so used to it you don't even feel it).

But intellectually studying and understanding anatomy is not enough. Case in point: A math geek who understands the science behind throwing a ball might make a poor baseball player due to limited muscle coordination and under-rehearsed (or wrongly repeated) muscle memory.

For sensory training I find it often very effective to find out what physical activity is familiar to my client's body. Many times performing an athletic skill can be correlated to a vocal technique. If the singer plays basketball, golf, baseball, does karate, etc, I can suggest that they power their voice from the same center that they do their physical activity. This unlocks the naturalness of good support without eliminating the necessary effort for breath support and control. At the same time, I teach the student what should be going on vocally, and I call attention to a harmful sensation that might be right in a physical skill, such as tightening the neck and shoulders for dance or weight training.

Even though there is tension involved in low abs, butt & back for breath support, I call it a "power center" instead of a tension center. It is also not like a solid foundational stone; the vocal power center has to change shapes to support our voices, because singing is not static. It is a living, moving thing. It should become so natural to power our voices from this center that one is not aware of even using it. It should feel instead that our voices just resonate out of us, even when we up the volume or scream metal.

This dance of teaching both sides of the brain is a tricky and sometimes sneaky thing. Sometimes I still get puzzled as to where the source of the incorrect tension lies in my student. This is where, as a voice teacher, I find concepts and insights from the Alexander Technique, as well as the Feldenkrais Method, highly useful. When mysterious vocal inabilities don't respond to my usual methods, I try to be creative. I constantly study other reputable teachers' techniques. I am always looking for new ways to defeat vocal challenges. Sometimes it can be as simple as addressing the other side of the amazing brain!

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Singers: What To Do When The Flu Is After You

OK, admit it (check title)... I'm a poet!

H1N1, H3H4H5abcdefxy, whatever the name of the dang flu bug trying to jump on you, if you need to use your voice, your fear and justified paranoia is the same. I have it this week; you don't want it. (Don't worry, you can't catch it from a blogpost:) Here are some random thoughts:
  1. The best offense is defense. In public right now, assume everything you touch has just been touched by a virus shedder (how's that for a visual?) If you must touch it, don't touch your face until you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or with an alcohol based sanitizer til it dries. In my opinion, grocery store carts would probably be biological wonderlands! I know, ewe.
  2. If anyone sneezes or coughs close to you, assume those tiny little droplets drifted towards your mucous membranes and you've been exposed. That's the hard truth. (Read the next tip)
  3. If you've been exposed to the flu, try Tamiflu prophylactically (which means for prevention). My doctor and brother-in-law Charlie Ferguson says it may prevent you from getting it or shorten it's severity and duration. The drawbacks...it requires a prescription and it's about $100 a package. Of course, Dr. Ferguson and I would both tell you to consult with and follow your own medical professional's advice. All I know is that it's working great for me.
  4. If you get the flu, cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing to protect others. Also, use alchohol wipes on surfaces you touch and wash your own bedding (from all that sweating). I'm in the guest room till I'm bug free :<
  5. If you have the flu, take Tamiflu, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever reduction, drink lots of fluids and sleep. Trust me, it's all you'll want to do anyway. Also, my sister Pam Hubbard made me some of her precious tonic which I put in tomato or orange juice and makes my throat feel great. For the recipe, click on "Master Tonic" on this page. Correction... use jalapeno peppers instead of ceyenne, sorry bout the mistake. You have to let it steep for a couple of weeks so you might want to make it NOW.
  6. When can you go back to work? If you have the flu, CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.) Even if you do go out after this, err on the side of caution and continue covering any cough or sneeze, don't touch people or shake anyone's hand, don't breath in anyone's face, wash your hands frequently, especially after you sneeze or cough on them.
  7. And finally...a great site for more information is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) page here.
The flu. Don't panic, singers. But it's out there waiting to get you!

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