Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: February 2016

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.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Power of Getting To The Point - Your Central Message As Songwriter, Singer, Speaker

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. 

Writing the Message

Great songs, like any great art, have a point. The listener should be able to 'get' this central 'take away', no matter what twists and turns the lyrics take. You don't necessarily start out clearly knowing the point, sometimes it must be discovered as the song takes shape, but without that center of meaning, songwriting is just an exercise in rhyming lines. By all means, explore creative rabbit trails with your writing, then edit and re-write to the Point.

Often, the details of the 'scene' will be different for songwriter and listener. A powerful song can be just vague enough to fit several different exact realities. You will have to take into account the genre of music you want to write to when deciding how vague the details can be... for instance, r&b and country song details tend to be more earthy and specifically detailed than some avaunt-garde alternative and pop songs. And songs written for media can be even more vague. 

But there still should be some kind of central message or feeling communicated from the totality of the song. The verses, chorus, bridge and embellishment lines all need to relate to that message. This goes for story songs and speeches, too. Just like a movie, an emotionally compelling story song needs a crux point, a turning point, a central reason for being told. 

Great speeches have a central message as well. It's common today for speeches to be written with three stories or sub-points, but they all somehow connect into an overarching message.

Word Count Considerations

Concise writing uses only words that are absolutely necessary to make the point, and is a hallmark of memorable, legendary songs in all genres. A great exercise in editing and re-writing is to take something you write and cut the number of words in half, without detracting from the message!

There's a scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies with Indiana as a young boy coming into his father's study. The son hands his father an essay he has just finished. The elder Jones reads the essay, then hands it back and says something to the effect of 'now half it', much to the chagrin of the boy who wants to go fishing! This scene's central point illustrates the life-long hilariously adversarial yet character-honing relationship between them. 

If you think the skill of concise writing is out of date based on all the wordy hits in multiple genres of today's marketplace, I would ask you to examine the lyrics of the most successful of these songs. Notice how all the words actually do fit together in an expertly-woven tapestry. Yes, these songs use more words, but make every word count. The earliest I remember seeing this trend begin was in the 'Jagged Little Pill' album by Alanis Morrissette. Of course you tailor your word count to the space you have available... 15 seconds for a jingle, 3.5 minutes for a song, 45 minutes and longer for a speech or presentation. Perhaps to write brilliantly with a larger word count, one could try the opposite experiment: Take an essay, script or lyric and double it without adding useless words, writing all words to the central point! 

To help you get to the point of your next song, try this writing exercise:

Ask 5 questions:

WHAT

...is the central point of the message you're trying to deliver? In deciding this, make sure it's a strong message that somehow makes the world a better place for you and for your ideal audience who would love your music. If it's a sad message, it should somehow help make the person let go or feel better. Even a party song can lift the spirits of your listener! You should be able to clearly articulate this central point in one sentence.

WHO

...are you talking to? A friend? The composite heart of a group of people (such as a friend group or an audience)? Yourself in the mirror? Keep the lyric focused on this 'who'.

WHY

...are you talking to that heart- What do you want them to understand? Think like you're having a conversation. What would their facial and body language look like if you actually got through to them with the central point of your message? 

WHERE 

...would the movie scene take place that you're having this conversation? It can help tremendously to imagine being in that scene as you create the arc of your lyric story.

HOW 

...should you deliver the message? What kind of melody and groove would deliver the point? Bouncy, happy? Quietly pensive? Strong and dramatic?  Flirty and smooth? Or could it be opposite the message for an interesting irony (oddly inappropriate but works if you imagine the uptempo bouncy tune under the following lyrics "Hey ho, this ferris wheel's too high, hey ho, we're all gonna die")

Delivering the message with your voice

There is a secret truth understood by great singers, speakers and actors that can get overlooked in our complicated and competitive marketplace. 
The reason the voice exists is to deliver messages! If you deliver the message well, that is what gives your voice real value. 
The heaviness, phrasing, register mix and tone of voice you use when you sing or speak will color your lyrics with meaning (or not). To powerfully deliver a message, you can ask yourself the same 5 questions: 
  1. WHAT is the central message you're trying to get across? 
  2. WHO are you talking to?
  3. WHY are you saying this lyric to that heart? What do you want them to understand? 
  4. WHERE would you be having this conversation? What colors, smells, feels, tastes, sounds do you hear that place you (and anyone listening to you) in the scene?
  5. HOW would your voice need to sound to get the right reaction to the point you're trying to make?
What about you? I'd love to have your thoughts in the comments!

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Developing the Successful Artist: Interview with PCG Founder Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter of PCG 
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. 
My audio interview for this post today is with Bernard Porter, who is the President and Founder of the PCG (Premier Career Guidance). We had a great discussion about everything that goes into artist development, and why knowing certain things and developing certain skills can be vitally important to launch and sustain a truly successful career, while becoming a more well rounded and happy human being in the process! Bernard shared his insights honed by over 30 years of rich experience the music industry and as a forward thinking entrepreneur. 

Subjects we covered include:

  • Areas typically missing in ‘artist development’ that can sabotage the successful breaking of new artists
  • Traits in a singer that turn Bernard off; signalling that singer may not ever succeed in the music industry.
  • Whether it is important for a singer to be a songwriter. 
  • The vital importance of an artist to be able to 'own' the stage with presence and performance skills.
  • The difference vocal training can make to a recording and performing artist.
  • The impact of persistence, dedication and even sacrifice required for the potential for the artist to succeed.
  • Ways even those without a lot of financial means can still find the money, heart, and effort to invest in training and preparing for a music career.
  • How PCG Artist Development works uniquely to grow artists in different dimensions, and what the byline of the company 'the science of artist development' means.
  • The brand new arm of the company that is offering training to everyone, even those who can't afford to enroll in the primary PCG program. (A little disclaimer… I am proud to be the author of PCG Online's vocal coaching courses, in the company of other instructors I highly respect authoring courses which include songwriting, auditioning, music theory, live performance. )
Links mentioned in this podcast include:

More on Bernard Porter and PCG Nashville:

PCG Nashville is recognized as America’s leading career/artist development organizations, working with established and new emerging artists. A successful business entrepreneur, Porter has spent his career developing and securing high profile joint ventures within both corporate and private sectors, guiding them in all phases of creative media, production, marketing and national product launches. In addition, he has served as an entertainment consultant to many record labels, broadband networks, major artists, large corporations, state tourism boards as well as to specialty venues, including the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Simon Mall properties, Dave & Busters and Marriott Hotels. Porter was instrumental in signing Superstar Jason Aldean to Broken Bow Records and has a long history of high level achievements. 

Note: I provide vocal coaching services for many PCG clients.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Singing Studio Vocals With Live Stage Magic

Going from stage mic to studio mic can feel like a trip to Mars     


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If you, dear singer, have done enough stage performance to feel confident with a mic or instrument in your hands, singing in the studio can feel as unnatural and uncomfortable as communicating a foreign language... on Mars! You find it maddeningly difficult to sing as well as you know you can do on stage. The harder you try, the farther away that goal seems to move. Self confidence slips away and you enter a stage that I call 'Red Light Fever' (referring to the red light that comes on when the machine goes into record mode). So let's talk about why this is, and what to do about it:

How are Studio and Stage Singing Different?

  • The studio feels more like an operating room than a performance space.

The recording studio can seem artificial and strange to a veteran live performer, offering very different sensory input for the automatic nervous system to respond to. And the performing voice is primarily worked by the automatic nervous system!

Tip:

There is no substitute for experience. Sing in every studio you possibly can, as often as you can! The more you do it, the less strange it will feel and the more you will be able to relax so your automatic nervous system can play with your imaginary friends.

  • The audience is not there

The singer loses focus on where and why to sing. The resulting vocal, even if the voice is hitting all the notes, sounds numb or disconnected.

Tip: 

Understand the audience IS there... in your imagination! Take your familiar sensory memories of being onstage into the vocal booth or recording space. Make sure the audience you're imagining is your most supportive, friendly and enthusiastic one. Before each song you record, figure out who the lyric is written to and focus, in front of your audience, on delivering your message to that one heart. 

  • The critics are there!

Even with a supportive production team, it can feel like you are singing to the critics instead of your fans - and your inner critic can be the hardest one to please! This can divert your voice's attention away from the heart it is supposed to be delivering a message to. Every take will have elements of the question 'was that ok?' in the nuances of the vocal performance.

Tip:

Ignore them! Do this by dimming lights in the vocal booth and maybe the control room, too, positioning at the mic so you're not looking straight into the control area, and leaving your own inner critic out of your recording space while you're actually singing.

  • The singer's hands and arms are usually hanging at 'rib anchor' position. 

Without the normal mic or instrument to hold, the hands fall lifelessly at the sides, which causes the ribcage to drop and collapse inwards. Even a little ribcage collapse will sabotage breath control because it relaxes the taut stretch of the diaphragm, which then can send uncontrolled breath to the vocal cords. This results in a loss of vocal control.

Tip: 

Talk with your hands in such a way that your ribcage opens. One of several ribcage stretching techniques I use is something I call 'studio hands', pressing my fingertips together to stretch the ribs and focus power coming from pelvic floor. Make sure you have enough space in front of you to do this while keeping your mouth at a constant distance from the mic. If necessary, ask the engineer to re-position the mic and have the pop filter connected from above.

  • You have studio headphones on your ears.

Your ears are hearing the details of your vocal sound under a microscope instead of stage monitors. Live mics are usually much more forgiving, with more reverb and and a smooth, rich ambiance from added room acoustics as well as crowd response. The sound of studio mics, even with reverb in the headphone cue, can throw the ear if it is unfamiliar with all the fine detail they pick up from the voice. The eq is different, too. The result can be a sudden lack of confidence, sabotaging breath support from a guarded stance and also tightening the throat.

Tip:

Ask for more reverb in your cue mix if the sound is too dry. Ground yourself acoustically in your recording space by taking one headphone side halfway off one ear. A good way to practice familiarizing your ear with more detailed hearing is to practice singing with HearFones, an acoustic gadget that actually sounds a lot like a clean mic or even stage in-ear monitors.

The good news

... is that you can get as good or even better vocals in the studio than you can live. If you are interested in getting the best studio vocals possible, here are the products and services that can help:
I'd love to hear your thoughts on studio vs live singing... comments welcome! (And don't forget to leave a review on iTunes if you like the podcast!)

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