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, January 5, 2019

What I Learned About Creative Courage In New Zealand

Me in the fantastic village of Hobbiton

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Do you ever get afraid to step out of your safe but boring artistic boundaries? Let me take you to a place where today (in Nashville) is already tomorrow, where tropical forests are just a few hundred feet from glaciers, where there are more sheep than people, more ways to fix coffee than anywhere else and where the arts they have created are powerfully unique and courageous. Let me take you to New Zealand!

New Zealand's strengths include multicultural communities who are willing to go beyond the usual, the expected, the safe clone of what's been done before. My husband John and I recently returned from our bucket-list vacation there and came back incredibly inspired by the fresh, brave, breathtaking land and people that we got to immerse ourselves in for a couple of weeks. Let me share some of what we experienced... and may it enlarge your own list of possibilities!

Earthquake? Do Art On The Healing

In February 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand experienced an earthquake that caused 30 million tons of ice to shear away from its largest (Tasman) glacier, damaged 100,000 homes, injured several thousand people and killed 185. Needless to say, it was catastrophically devastating financially, physically and emotionally. Some empathetic and courageous street artists got to work drawing beautiful pictures all over the city, to make people feel better and more hopeful during the continuing cleanup and rebuilding. Art for the heart!

Dance O-Mat In The Street 

The Dance-O-Mat was created by a company called Gap Filler in 2012 to bring 'people, life and energy back to the central city' in Christchurch after the loss of dance spaces due to the quake of 2011. To use it, people just bring any device that has a headphone jack, plug it in to the converted washing machine, and pop in $2 (NZ) to power it up ... and then start dancing! I saw it used by several people, right in the street in the heart of the city, between buildings being worked on. This is yet another example of the power of music to heal.

Create a new form of coffee

When you order coffee in New Zealand the next words out of your server's mouth is "What kind?" The list usually includes long black, Americano, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, and my favorite... flat white. My friend keyboardist Catherine Styron Marx told me she became addicted to flat white coffee while on tour in NZ, drinking 5 cups one morning! We commiserated on not finding it in the US so far, so if you know of a shop that serves it, please let me know! Without coffee, my first student in the morning would note a bit of brain fog from their coach:) (Yes, vocal health enthusiasts... I do have a glass of water along with that coffee!)

Grow your own sweet potato

I also became addicted to Kumara... New Zealand's unique sweet potato. I ate it in bread and as fries. I'm now trying to replicate the taste in recipes with our sweet potatoes... which have close but not quite that kumara flavor. This reminds me how lyrics and music have unique markers that make them seem to belong in certain countries, and we need to understand those nuances as we write for a certain market.

Create Shopping Malls out of Shipping Containers

'Start City Mall' was built out of shipping containers in the center of the Christchurch devastation. It was so successful and beloved it may turn from temporary into a permanent fixture. Think about it... how many lasting, beloved songs have been written in the middle of pain? It's an interesting parallel.

Eye language at work in a sheep dog

Creative eye language is used by dogs to herd sheep. New Zealand has more sheep than people, and they all need direction! Watching a sheep herding event reminded me of how creative a singer or speaker's eyes need to be in order to capture and corral our own audiences.

Sing In the Glow Worm Caves

The Waitomo glow worm caves in North island contains a glow worm unique to New Zealand. We took a bus trip there and met girl who is legally blind named Rachael Leahcar, who was a finalist 'The Voice' in Australia. Guided by her friend into the caves with us, our tour guide asked her to sing in the tallest section of the cave. As I listened to this brave angel sing "La Vie En Rose" in this beautiful echo chamber, I thought about the many opportunities we don't take as artists and performers because we're afraid. Oh, and then we got to see the glow worms, which for all the world looked like something out of the movie 'Avatar'! Breathtaking.

Celebrate Authentic Maori Culture

The Maori are the indigenous people who immigrated to Aotearoa (New Zealand) from Polynesia well before the Europeans. We were invited into their village to witness some of their rituals, dances and music. The Maori culture, art and language are highly respected and revered throughout the country, North and South islands. Their cultural symbol, the silver fern, has been adopted throughout New Zealand, including being painted on the tails of all the planes in New Zealand Airlines. Most public building names, instructions, restaurant menus and bathrooms include Maori language translation right beside the English words. I enjoyed learning and saying 'Kia Ora' to smiling strangers I met along the way. It reminds me... when we're performing, there are no strangers.

You know, musical genres are a lot like languages. Different people express the same emotion with different kinds of music. While we all have our own languages, we should respect all others - even possibly consider bravely listening and creating outside our musical norm!

Turn a beloved movie set into a permanent site

If you watched the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies, you may recognize this sign, which was in one of the scenes in a site they named 'the Shire'. In a lightbulb of creativity, Peter Jackson and company decided to turn the temporary hobbit hole houses into "Hobbiton"... a permanent site. They have a contract with the landowner there in New Zealand to keep the site groomed and guided and expanded for tourists that come from all over the globe. On the bus trip there, they of course played a song from the soundtrack. Between the music, the flower and vegetable gardens, the detail around the hole houses and the green dragon tavern we drank in, it really was a magical experience. It would be a good thing to turn our performances into experiences worthy of permanent memories!

Never take it for granted

The mountains, valleys, glaciers, forests, coasts and fiords of New Zealand are ever changing. Between earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and wildfires, the land is always making itself over. Therefore, part of the creative courage I see in New Zealand comes from not being able to take tomorrow for granted. One must learn to ride the roller skates and turn broken treasures into new dreams. So must we all.

I hope you've enjoyed this wider take on 'All Things Vocal'. If you'd like to see pictures from my vacation, you can check them out on my Facebook profile here.

Kia ora, dear readers and listeners... and don't forget if you are in New Zealand or anywhere else too far to get to Nashville, I teach online students across the globe! For more information on my lessons and courses, just leave me a message at my contact link.

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Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Adversity Has Blessed My Voice

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Nobody wants hard times. But amazing voices, music and songs can grow in the heavy soil of adversity. Where would the blues be, the classical lament, the bluegrass wisdom story, the dark pop ballad, the rock rage song without life storms and pain? The trick is to learn to use the storm like eagles do... ride the winds to higher sky. This Thanksgiving, my voice is grateful for it all.

The voice is affected by everything. There is so much in my life that I had no idea would eventually influence my voice and my work in music. Situations that have informed, strengthened and given value to my voice range from chores of childhood to very difficult life storms...  some that in fact looked like the end for my voice. Here are some light and heavier burdens that became blessings for me and my work:

Childhood demotion from lead to harmony

I was raised in a family that always made music. My dad, an air traffic controller, had been a singer and musician since his childhood; my alto voiced mother was raised by a musician, too, and both thought it only right to pass their skills on to their prodigy. As firstborn of my siblings, I got to sing the melody lead in our family band... until my sister Pam got old enough to sing. My father taught me to sing a part so she could sing melody! (How unfair!!) Then when the next sister, Beki, was old enough to join the family hootenanny, Pam got taught my part and I had to learn a different one! By the time our brother Bill came along, he got to sing whatever he landed on (but then, he was embarrassed throughout his childhood with the mandatory 'Little Blue Man' solo he was made to sing). But as for me... I always got parts duty. I sang melody only when there was a solo or unison section my father arranged for our amateur family band. 

I had no idea how useful this would be. Years later I would find that far from being a demotion, singing harmony (and even better - learning to read it) was my ticket to a top session singer career in Memphis and Nashville! (Thanks, family... I love you and love singing with you to this day!)

Mandatory piano lessons

OK so it was fun when I started lessons at 6, but after I found the joy of improvising and playing by ear, practicing for lessons was WORK! In fact, my piano teacher stopped demonstrating the song for me because she noticed I would memorized it by ear instead of reading the music. Yes, I was a brat.  But my mother (aka 'She Who Must Be Obeyed") made me do it anyway, for years!

Little did I know how I would use this abuse! I finally grew to love it so much I used to hole up in a college piano practice room for 5 and 6 hours at a time... for class and for the sheer joy of the sound and feel of my fingers touching the keys. The music theory I learned has come in handy on so many levels, including being able to get a job as a teenager playing for church and teaching beginner piano, getting a job as staff jingle singer which required reading music, later being able communicating intelligently with professional musicians as a producer. That theory I had to learn for piano lessons  enabled me to create and write vocal charts on staff paper. Just recently I experienced the joy of playing piano in a little band at church on a Dixieland jazz version of Just a Closer Walk With Thee!  To this day I depend on piano playing in teaching, performance, songwriting, arranging, vocal coaching, accompanying. Thank you so much for making me stick to those lessons - it's a gift that keeps on giving, dear Mother of mine!

Paying dues with vocal abuse

I was over the moon thrilled to land that choice staff singer position at the Tanner Corporation in Memphis in my early 20s. But singing from 8:30 am til 3:30 pm, 5 or 6 days a week, while simultaneously singing in nightclubs 3 to 5 evenings a week til the wee hours, and in between those jobs also singing background vocals in Memphis studios really tested my little pair of vocalis muscles. It meant my voice either got iron-chops strong AND learned to protect itself or my vocal control, health and career would come to an early demise. Janie Fricke was one of the girls with whom I did jingles, clubs and background vocals. Her voice was amazing... but right before she left Memphis to move to Nashville she was diagnosed with vocal hemorrhage. Her voice healed and she went on to a big career as internationally acclaimed country artist. Back in Memphis I was lucky... and somehow along the way I instinctively developed enough healthy vocal techniques to survive the abuse.

I don't recommend that anyone challenge the voice like this because it IS dangerous, but I'm now grateful for every hard thing I put my voice through. It has helped me become a vocal coach who specializes in protecting the voice and conquering vocal strain. I wouldn't fully appreciate or understand what I was doing correctly til decades later, but remembering what had always worked for me in studio and on stage would light the spark that eventually become my vocal training method 'Power, Path and Performance'.

Developing serious illness and vocal damage

I have experienced the old saying 'that which does not kill you makes you stronger'. When giving birth to my son, I had life-threatening complications. Long, hard story short... I was in hospital for 3 months, 7 weeks of that in the intensive care unit. From multiple emergency surgeries and intubations, my vocal cords were damaged. After I got home and tried to sing, I noticed I'd lost an octave and a half of my vocal range. My primary surgeon told me it was probably permanent vocal cord scarring, but at least I was still alive. (Note to doctors: Saying that to a professional singer may not result in their immediate gratitude.) 

Little did I know how incredibly important this life-shattering experience would turn out to be. As you may know, I didn't sustain permanent vocal damage. I had incredible doctors who did save my life. In the process of gaining my voice back, I learned the healing power of vocal exercise. I had taken one precious college year of classical voice and instinctively started carefully singing from the book '24 Italian Songs and Arias'. I noticed my voice beginning to feel better and gain some ground by working in my upper register. After moving to Nashville, I completed my recovery with Nashville's legendary Gerald Arthur, and alternative nutritional counseling with Liz Flannigan. I also developed an insatiable curiosity that continues to this day about anatomy, voice science and other alternative healing protocols including chiropractic, massage therapy, Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique. I love passing the healing on and witnessing the relief in the voices and faces of my vocal students.


  • Losing my jingle work 
After I recovered from that illness, I continued jingle work in Nashville. It was awesome getting national residuals from AFTRA, and it was horrible watching that work fade, as companies began to advertise without sung ditties as part of their branding. 

It made me have to focus on my background vocal work, which led to meeting Tommy West, signing with MTM Records, winning an ACM award and having a hit career as recording and performing artist.
  • Losing my record deal
In my experience, there's something worse than never having a record deal. It's having one and losing it. MTM Records folded when the parent entertainment company was sold to an entity that didn't want to have a record label. Overnight I went from famous to invisible - somebody to nobody. Because my jingle and background vocal career had been neglected, my professional voice was essentially silenced.

Without a recording career, I began to focus on my songwriting. A few years later, I would co-write "One Way Ticket (Because I Can), which would go #1 and win a BMI Million-Air Award (signifying over 1 million radio plays). 
  • Losing my songwriting deal, harsh criticism
After writing for a couple of different publishing companies and not having enough significant songs cut, I was let go. Once again, I experienced career failure. I even had to take in the harsh criticism of my friend and songwriting mentor Dave Loggins, who accused me of writing like a spectator, not a participant.  Once again, I was devastated. 

I had no idea how grateful I would be for another dead end. I had to brainstorm my next career move.  About this time, my session singing and co-writing friend Carol Chase landed a singing position on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd. She asked me to help her with a note she was having trouble with. Because I was able to help her (how did she know to ask me?), I wondered if I might be useful as a vocal coach. I took on my first student and found I was intuitively able to diagnose the problem and help make it better. The rest is history... but I'm not sure vocal coaching, now the center of my work, would ever have crossed my mind if I had continued as a staff songwriter.

I even began doing a lot of studio production and songwriting again with fresh participant fire. In addition to new songs and co-creating a couple of musicals, I wrote and released a new project with my husband  in 2015 which I feel is the best music I ever made. So thank you, Dave... you pushed me because you believed I could rise to the challenge. Thank you, Carol... your friendship has been a life changer. Thank you God... for putting this tapestry of events - and people - together!


Don't get me wrong. I could not have picked myself up and moved to the next era alone. I am truly grateful for every kind word of encouragement, praise and support sent my way. My spirit, like yours, breathes in positive reinforcement like lungs needing air. I'm also grateful for all the corrections and criticism that made me dig a little deeper.
Thank you to my husband, son, family and friends who are part of my eternal village. Thanks to all supporters of the music I've made. And thanks to YOU, dear All Things Vocal reader/listener. To paraphrase Rascal Flatts: I'm grateful for every broken road that led me to be useful to you. It has taken me to the most fulfilling part of my journey yet.

About YOU

When you come upon a hard place in your journey (and everybody does), use my story to encourage you. Every time I thought I was facing a dead end, it was just a turning point, a redirection. None of it was wasted! I have experienced God as the Great Compost Maker. When I turned 'it' over, that which looked like crap became incredibly useful fertilizer. So my advice is: Trust your journey! Do your very best and whatever comes, embrace it all. Then use your stronger, wiser and more useful voice to benefit the world. Your vocal gratitude list, like mine, will be full of colorful surprises, twists and turns, dips and heights.... and storms that birth rainbows!

I'd love to have your comments. Have you had hard times that fed your voice, your journey, in ways that now surprise you? Please share!

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Vocal Breaks: What, When, Why and How to Mend Them

Does your vocal register transition feel like this?

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Unwanted vocal breaks are among the most frustrating, maddeningly puzzling and persistent problems a singer can have.

What is a vocal break?

It is a place in your voice where the coordination between muscles in your larynx is interfered with in some way. What you experience is a crack in your voice and big difference in tone quality of your sound above and below the break.

Purposeful yodeling, or the judicious use of a little cry-like style in appropriate places when singing is a very controlled vocal technique and can even give a note a sort of leg up and bust some counterproductive vocal tension. That's actually why some singers have learned to use those little cries, especially in country genres. What we want to focus on is the unwanted cracks in our range.

These are uncontrollable, distracting, embarrassing, range-shortening, tone-sabotaging and pitch stealing little uninvited guests. It is most common in the passaggio, or transition, between chest and head voice. With typical counterproductive strategy, popular genre singers bring unmixed chest voice up too high and classical singers bring head voice down too low to cross richly into the next zone without breaking. Some people even have multiple breaks, or passaggi, along their range.

What causes vocal breaks?

Vocal register breaks are created and made worse by whatever interferes with changes in length, tension and mass of the vocal cords, or with the mechanism that tilts the thyroid cartilage as the singer moves through different pitches. Freeze that tilt and voila… a break will occur, along with vocal strain. What causes this interference? Here are the top 6 culprits I see:
  1. Locking the jaw (this also interferes with the lift of the soft palate). 
  2. Tightening the root of the tongue (which goes along with locking the jaw) 
  3. Freezing the spine (which will tighten lots of other things). 
  4. Tensing shoulders (which will cause tension to flow to jaw, neck, and soft palate). 
  5. Numb facial expression or eye movement (which will limit vocal tone color by freezing movements that lift the soft palate and expand the nasopharynx). 
  6. Choosing to sing or talk too high or too low for current vocal capability, (which will cause pushing leading to chronic stress, tension and strain in the vocal apparatus).

Why do we use dysfunctional vocal technique?

  • To try to keep the voice FROM breaking (unaware that guarding and over-controlling to try and eliminate the problem inadvertently makes it worse) 
  • To try and hit notes that are difficult (again, a bit of a catch-22) 
  • Because of some erroneous vocal training that says to keep the jaw or any of the other body parts I just mentioned perfectly still, (Run, don't walk, from this kind of teaching) 
  • Because we developed bad speech pattern habits - such as talking too low, using a lot of vocal fry (constantly dragging gravel) or speaking without enough breath support (chronically holding your breath or talking from the throat or chest area instead of from the low pelvic floor. Sometimes you feel a “bubble in your throat”, your voice is weak and often cracks. 
  • We try to sing in keys that are too high or low for the current capabilities of the voice, not realizing the vocal dysfunction this is causing.

A few great reasons to re-train your voice to mend unwanted vocal breaks:

Smoothing the transitions in your voice can be attained by gaining more strength, flexibility and most importantly... coordination of the muscles of your vocal apparatus. Among the perks of the blended voice:
  • The vocal cords can freely fluctuate in length, tension and thickness, and the larynx can tilt freely, directed by the automatic nervous system instead of sabotaged by extrinsic muscles of the throat that create tension and muddy the works. 
  • It creates the “mixed or middle voice” which widens your practical vocal range. 
  • It requires you to balance your breath support and control, leading to all kinds of vocal ability increases. 
  • It enables vibration from your larynx to resonate in the open spaces of the nose, sinuses, pharynx, mouth, and as some suggest, the trachea -- resulting in rich tone colors and strain-free high and low notes. 
  • It makes your voice feel GREAT! You will have NO vocal strain. 
  • And...it creates confidence because these techniques you learn will erase the break AND you can do it anytime you want!

5 ways to begin changing dysfunctional (bad) vocal habits:

  1. First become aware of what you are actually doing. Watch yourself perform a song in front of a mirror. Do you see any of those actions I just listed? 
  2. Record yourself talking. Do you hear tension, monotone, cracking, bubble, gravel, lack of breath? Try talking with much more animation and "life" and record it again until your body, spine, face, tongue, jaw are loose and flexible. 
  3. Do corrective wall and mirror work. In front of a mirror, stand with your back against the wall... back of the head and heel touching the wall. Now slowly try to loosen those areas I named on purpose and watch yourself singing or speaking. Notice the effects. 
  4. Out of the pressure of public performance, privately practice doing things a different way. At first it may get worse before it gets better - like it would be if we were learning to walk with a different stride. Relax, relax, relax and trust the process. 
  5. If you have my PPP vocal training course, just listen over and over to the first two Cd's to let the insights sink in.

My specific approach to mending vocal breaks:

Before I developed my vocal training method, I had the worst and most un-mendable (or so I thought) vocal break I've ever heard in anyone. My brilliant Nashville vocal coach Gerald Arthur helped me get my voice back after it was damaged by an endotracheal tube. I still had that pesky break, though with Gerald's help I learned to mask it well and continue on with my vocal career as a session singer, and then a recording artist. Thank you, Gerald!

Not too long after I began teaching voice I was given a book by a student who asked me to explain it to him. The author was vocal coach Jeffrey Allen of California. In his book 'Secrets of Singing' Mr. Allen suggested holding a mental picture of a question-mark shaped path that the voice should take. That imagery opened up a whole world for me.

Check out how my 12 minute voice blending lesson with Julia Bowen

I began experimenting with what that vocal path imagery meant to me and how I could use it with my students. Long story short... this is what mends vocal breaks every day in my office: 
  • Locate and feel your breath power source in your pelvic floor – 
  • Use your power to lift you into the balcony above and behind you. Don’t lift your chin… float it levelly. From there - 
  • Articulate the syllable 'YAH' . Do not move your head forward. Drop your jaw and raise your eyebrow and with a subtle twist of your head and body, gently pull backwards against the wall like you're being space-invaded by someone with bad breath. 
  • Now pull a siren - slur a vowel such as 'oo' from chest to head voice. Be careful not to lift your chin... just twist tall and pull your head back across the transition zone, which should open your throat and ribcage allowing you to 'stretch the vocal wrinkle out'! 
  • Try a little jaw action. Say 'oo-woo-woo' by drop your jaw on the 'woo's'. Now try the siren again, opening your jaw in that chewing motion at the beginning, high note, and end.
If you’re used to pushing your voice, you may find this voice path confusing, often frustrating when first trying to learn it, but it works. If you've been pushing your voice through your break, this will feel like learning to walk all over again. But every one of my students will tell you that no matter what genre you sing, it’s well worth the effort. Every vocal exercise you do should be developing muscle memory to sound your voice using the right technique.

To this day, if I push my voice even a bit instead of pull it, I will find myself back with my old break. But I know how to erase the pesky thing now, and I can do it any time I want- just by choosing to express my voice via the imagery of the right voice path.

For more information on personal lessons and courses in re-training your voice, see Power, Path and Performance vocal training. While you’re there, sign up for your free 5 page report on vocal health, plus my monthly newsletter and updates on the All Things Vocal blog and podcast.

I'd love your thoughts on blending. Has this information helped you?

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

How Dissonance Moves Music, Voice and Life Forward

...wait, that's not right!...

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Available also on iTunes , Google PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps

Dissonance. Sounds bad, right? Like when we sing a harmony note that's not in the chord, or press an elbow into the piano, or play two scales exactly a half step apart at the same time. It just sounds wrong! But used well, dissonance also has the power to move us! Bear with me, this is a vocal lesson - you'll understand as we go.

First... What is dissonance?

Two definitions, according to an online dictionary:
  1. A lack of harmony between musical notes
  2. A tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements. 
Dissonance can be present from the micro to the macro - from intracellular activity of stress and illness to societal disfunction and war. It can be both disturbing and powerful when present in music, alarming and strategic when present in the voice. Let me tell you the story that got me thinking about this.

A Dissonant Symphony

My husband John, son Peter and I went to hear our truly outstanding Nashville Symphony on this season's opening night at the Schermerhorn. John was formerly a percussionist in the Memphis Symphony and Peter thought it was high time we three attended together, to see an orchestra at work and see what his father used to do. We thought we were going to hear Brahms. But before that  gorgous concerto, we were treated to a a mind-blowing work by contemporary composer John Corigliano - his Symphony No.1. Hear the He has won 4 Grammys, a Pulizer Prize and an Oscar Award, and serves on the composition faculty at Julliard. Corgliano and our 6-time Grammy winning conductor Giancarlo Guerrero met the audience in a conference room for 'Conversations' where they introduced themselves and told the stories behind the music the orchestra was about to play.

John Corgliano's symphony was about rage, remembrance, sadness and finally, closure for the lives of the victims of AIDS, including three of his musician friends who had died of it back in the 80's when it was first diagnosed. To really 'go there', Mr. Coriglano used some unique staging and instrumental choices... for instance, the very busy percussion section was in front of the brass. The horns were split at both sides of the stage instead of together; there were two timpani; and for one section, the violins used mandolin picks instead of bows! Dementia is one of the ways AIDS tortures its victims. Periodically, a piano located off stage where we couldn't see it could be faintly heard as a pianist played an old tune in such a way to depict memories that would fade, reappear, then fade again - all while the orchestra continued to play.

Throughout the work, there were sounds of sudden percussion bursts, chords dissolving like melting wax, and oh my there was DISSONANCE! From time to time it seemed like some sections would play in one key and some in another... and there was purposeful unsynching of rhythm. Overall the effect was so incredibly emotional. The composer and conductor had warned us there would be an orchestral 'primal scream'... and they did not disappoint! You could feel the rage, sadness and insanity. We would have loved to have seen the score! Finally as the music simplified, you felt it come together like waves of the ocean in eternal release.

After the well-earned extended standing ovation, I mentioned to my son Peter how very much I loved hearing the dissonance in that work, how refreshing it was to my ears. He said something I'll never forget... he read in a book called 'Sapiens' that
... dissonance moves you forward.
I was instantly struck by that phrase. Googling it, I read many sites which talked about cognitive dissonance, and the need to resolve it for happiness and mental/psychological health.

Isn't dissonance what we fear? Is it not cousin to chaos; doesn't it conjure up the frustrating moments of 'this-does-not-compute'? Yes, but the very discomfort and tension of dissonance makes you want to resolve it! If you let it, it can move you forward.

Dissonance in music

  • The musical genres that most influence my own songs and style include singer/songwriter (ala James Taylor/Carol King), r&b, bluegrass, traditional country, rock and classical art songs. I know, I'm a musical mutt! However, I have always loved the ear-cleansing dissonant music of Bela Bartok such as his 'Suite For Piano'. (No, I can't play that now!) It feels like fresh cold water on my musical imagination and frees me to be more creative in any genre... it even inspires creativity in my teaching! 
  • The most interesting atonal music requires great skill, and has a math logic to it! Like great expressionist painting, at first sight (or listen) great atonal music can seem to be completely chaotic with no order. However, as per former classical radio host Bob Weir's explanation, totally random dissonance is not as interesting as structured dissonance. 12-tone music is explored in this delightful though hyper-speeding video by the artist known as Viheart
  • Dissonant chords or melodic/harmony pairings that move or resolve to harmonious chords and harmony choices create emotional strength. Think the 1/2 step saw-like movement of the 5ths in the theme for the movie Jaws. There's a funny story (I'm sure it's not true) about how Beethoven's mom used to play a 5⁷ chord to wake her sleeping son, who couldn't stand it until he got up, went to the piano and played the 1 chord (tonic) resolution! Listen to this video of only dissonant music and tell me you it doesn't move your imagination towards a nice triad at the end... 

  • Sometimes, as in the above piece, the music never resolves. It can suggest moving forward, and let that happen in your imagination, your intention, or the next song. It's a good factor to take inconsideration when creating set lists for your gigs, or song sequencing for your recording projects.
  • Strong lyric writing in any genre often paints a problem situation and then moves the listener to resolve it. One of my rock students and I discussed dissonance of the lyrics of Pierce The Veil's 'Low On Gas and You Need A Jacket'. They are full of rage, many lines make no sense at face value. She said these kind of lyrics move you to stop accepting things the way they are. After listening to the Sara Bareilles song She Used To Be Mine about the dissonance between who you've become and what you wanted to be, it seems to me you would firmly resolve to find your authentic way again. In Jennifer Nettles song Stay, the truly dissonant situation of being involved with someone in relationship with another makes the lyrics lead to the phrase 'I don't have to live this way', and powers the will to let go and move forward.
  • Great producers can use dissonance to help new talent create their unique artistic definition. Instead of just recording the songs the singer is familiar with, the producer will take the budding artist through a period of exploration, pushing the person's envelop vocally, lyrically and musically. Wildly going to outer edges of the person's musical boundaries creates a dissonance that will eventually resolve into a unique meld of music that best expresses the artist's heart, vocal talent and life experience, and best focuses the career direction of the artist.
  • You look at the landscape of the music business and see how things are not working the way they used to... profit is not created the same way and music makers are struggling to find streams of income that they can live on. It's so unfair that creators are stolen from every day in every way. The dissonance must lead to creative solutions as the music industry continues to morph its successful business models. You can get stuck and give up, or show up to learn what is different, what is working, and how to creatively structure your own music business model which won't break your bank. 

Dissonance in Voice

  • Because dissonance creates the desire for movement, it can be of great use in vocal training. I always say 'the voice wants access to movement'. When I get my students creating free jaw, eye and soft palate movements it frees the voice to move in more nuanced, human ways. This releases tension in the areas that has kept the student's voice stuck. Also, controlled dissonance can be great for hearing and singing with pitch precision. One of my more advanced pitch exercises is to have a student sing exactly 1/2 step sharp or flat to a melody or scale I play for them. It's quite the challenge even to the expert ear!
  • In fact, vocal problems create dissonance. You need to be confidently delivering messages, but your throat hurts when you sing or speak, you develop pitch problems or range limitations, or your speaking engagements are wearing you out. Enough vocal dissonance will move you forward to learn new technique and resolve your issues for your vocal health and career.
  • You are singing a song with great vocal technique, but it's boring. It's a strange dissonance that is asking for MORE dissonance to be able to move you and your listeners. This kind of dissonance asks you to consider some things that may be outside your comfort zone. You can try a moment of 'dropping technique', dropping your breath support, letting your throat channel tighten, using gravel or other stylistic tactic. Then re-apply your technique and resolve the grit into open vocal tone and control for an emotional delivery that can really takes the audience for a thrill ride. I heard Bruce Hornsby do just that recently. One of my students (John Mailander) is in his band, so I went to see them in Nashville. He came out singing like a bird after a short section where he was scratch-talk-singing, like he had vocal trouble. Turns out he was just using dissonance to move the heart of the listener forward!

Dissonance in life

  • Your physical body can be affected by dissonance, too. You eat something that your gut does not recognize or wish to tolerate. Your body resolves the issue with some sudden elimination, and you then can either keep your diet the same, or resolve not to eat that again!
  • Relationships can be dissonant. You have a fight with a friend or loved one. Everything inside you wishes to resolve the conflict until peace and relationship is restored. 
  • Cognitive dissonance can create spiritual and ethical issues. You claim a certain faith or political orientation, but you don't live your day to day life according to the values your faith or politics espouse. Your cognitive dissonance will make you feel numb, fake, fearful of being exposed and unable to be true to yourself or to others. You can never fully experience personal happiness, contentment and peace ... nor the ability to trust others, until your faith and your actions are in harmony with each other. You can stay stuck or move forward.
  • History is chock full of dissonance, its consequences, and its resolutions. I can only imagine the degree of dissonance in society that lead up to ratification of the Women't Right to Vote and the Civil Rights Act. South Africa's Nelson Mandela chose to take the dissonance of apartheid and move to the resolution of reconciliation.
Dissonance can move us forward. The alternative is getting stuck in chaos. 

One soul's dissonance is another soul's awakening. The deeper reason I wanted to dive into dissonance is that I feel there is a frightening degree of it in the world right now, and it is tempting to buy into a frozen hopelessness. It's a fine line we walk between sticking our heads in the sand and becoming overwhelmed. I invite you to use the energy of dissonance to make our music, to sound our voices in song and speech, to join the heart of God to change the world for the better as we are moved to do so.

Last example

On my podcast you will hear an ending of one of the sections of a composition written by my husband, John. I hope his last chord makes you smile as it does me.

Your homework assignment, should you accept it:

  • Listen to some dissonant music. Whether or not you 'like' it, ask yourself how it affects you. Does it disturb, energize or otherwise move you?
  • Google the term 'cognitive dissonance' and explore that concept.
  • List where in your music, voice or life you are experiencing dissonance. How can it move you forward? 
There is so much more to be said on the subject of dissonance. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Interview With Rick Barker - Part 2

Rick Barker

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 PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps

Here is part 2 of my interview with music marketing guru Rick Barker. If you haven't heard it yet, listen to part 1 of our interview first.

Some music marketing strategies we got into in part 2:

  • When an artist is ready for a good manager and booking agent... why you need to be making enough money to make it win-win to get quality people on your team.
  • Educating yourself to get to that point.
  • How to protect yourself from bitterness and self-pity which stops your progress.
  • The strategy of re-thinking major labels and using them as joint ventures.
  • The singles game.
  • Building your own buzz.
  • How to create fan engagement on social media (great tactics)
  • Why Rick says it's crazy to spend a ton of indie money on Billboard radio station promotion.
  • We chat about Spotify, Soundcloud.
  • How to earn people's attention instead of turn them off on social networks.
  • Rick's book and courses that help artists create successful careers.
For more information and to download his free book, go to www.RickBarker.com . Please tell him I sent ya!

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview With Music Biz Mastermind Rick Barker - Part 1

Rick Barker

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 PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps

Rick Barker teaches artists how to be artists. These days, that involves not only making great music but also getting great at doing business. He has a truly incredible string of successes in the industry, including former manager of Taylor Swift, Social Media Mentor to finalists on American Idol (he now manages Season 15 Idol winner Trent Harmon), he's been private consultant for Big Machine Record Label Group and Live Nation.

Scott Borchetta, who ironically was my former record promoter under Bruce Shindler for MTM Records, hired Rick Barker as his first record promoter for Big Machine. Later, when Rick founded his own marketing and consulting firm, his first client was Sony Music Nashville. His marketing tactics have been featured in Billboard Magazine among others. He is the author of the e-book '$150,000 Music Degree', the course 'Social Media For Music' and the mastermind behind 'Music Industry Blueprint'. As you can see on his website at www.RickBarker.com, he is also extremely generous with his free resources, and hosts his own podcast.

We've worked with the same people from time to time. and have become friends these recent years.. His personal story of living and growing as a human being commands a ton of respect on all levels.. I trust him, and what's more, dear voices, you can take his advice to the bank. Our chat contains too much info for one episode, so I split it into two. Listen to the All Things Vocal Podcast episode audio link above (or on whatever app you listen to podcasts) for part 1 of our interview.

Some of the things we covered:

  • How Taylor Swift got him interested in her artist career; Rick's work with Big Machine.
  • Artist development includes communication skills.
  • Rick's view of the importance of vocal health and vocal training for successful careers.
  • The mindshift necessary... from hobbyist to serious artist.
  • Rick's strategy of interaction for music business success... how musicians, songwriters, vocalists, social media masters can engage and help each other.
  • The mistake of not registering your music. There is now $1.6 billion of unclaimed music royalties.
  • Steps to take for studying and developing multiple streams of monetary transactions.
  • Smart places to prioritize and invest your money in your career.
  • The importance of processing mechanical and sync licenses.
  • What major labels are looking for, what they are good and bad at doing. 360 deals.
  • How money flows to artists and labels. How to create a win-win.
  • TV talent shows and specific strategic steps you can take to make them work for you.
  • The importance of songwriting... 
  • We discussed pop artist icon Mat Kearney and new country artist Preston James
  • The importance of patience and not rushing the process.
....and much more.

Find Rick at www.RickBarker.com. You'll see his social networking links there as well.
Find part 2 of our interview here .

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Top 10 Vocal Issues a Vocal Coach Should Fix

'I can fix ya...' 
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 PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps
We put so much responsibility on those two little bands of tissue in the middle of our necks! When they don't do what we need them to do, we can either try to beat (push) them into submission or ... get some expert help! So... what can a vocal coach really do?

Well... A vocal coach worth their salt can of course help a student develop into their full vocal potential. But they can also help a speaker or singer conquer pesky vocal issues that come from bad habits, stressful career situations and harmful vocal mis-information. There are many things that can limit your voice, most are quickly fixable. Here's a list of vocal issues that you should expect to conquer when you work with a good vocal coach:

1. Vocal Strain

This cuts to the core of vocal ability. Vocal strain has cut many a star singer or speaker's career short due to the irritation and eventual damage that comes from repeatedly straining the voice. The first thing a good vocal coach should do is assess what is causing the strain. Then a corrective technique should be taught to counter whatever faulty habit, belief or fear - or combination thereof - is found. Almost always, breath control must be increased. Often, the throat is tight, too. If the student still feels vocal strain even when applying the technique change, the coach should suggest that an ENT (fellowship trained if possible) be consulted. In extreme cases vocal rest may be necessary, but only for a limited time. New vocal technique needs to be practiced into muscle memory as soon as possible to get the vocal apparatus stronger, more flexible and more coordinated in its many fine adjustments.

CAUTION... please know that a good vocal exercise correctly performed will NEVER strain your voice! If it does... it's either a bad exercise or you are doing it wrong... so don't do it!!

2. Limited Vocal Range

Most singers can sing higher and lower than they think... they just don't know how to get their voice into the best frequency resonance placement zones for extremes of their range. A coach should again watch the student sing and assess the reason(s) for the range limitation(s). For popular genres, training for higher notes almost always involves developing a better 'mix' of registers in the middle voice - specifically getting head voice register 'helping' chest voice lighten up as it goes up, so the singer can sing higher in full voice without straining, then seamlessly transition to head voice.  Low notes can also be instantly more reachable and rich with corrective techniques that let the larynx settle but don't lower the larynx too much which causes dark hootiness down there. And as a bonus... extending the low range can also release freedom in the higher range, too - but only if good technique is used.

3. Weak Voice

The voice can be strengthened in many ways. It's a huge and completely unnecessary mistake to try to get a stronger voice by pushing it in a way that leads to vocal strain! A good vocal coach will help you increase your vocal volume by teaching you to power your breath with a feeling of compression centered in the pelvic floor, by opening the throat so laryngeal vibration has access to all resonation zones, and by clarifying communicative focus. You can create a very powerful response to even soft verses with hushed intensity if you know how!

4. Numb or Emotionally Disconnected Performance

Even a technically great performance is quite useless unless it is in the service of communicating a message. A good vocal coach will not just teach technique, they will teach the singer or speaker how to choose the 'point of the spear', using the voice to deliver a message so compelling it gets a response. Once again, the core cause(s) of performance numbness or disconnection must be assessed. Correcting mental focus... learning to think in such a way that the voice knows it's job... can breathe life instantly into a deadened voice - no matter how distracting or fear-provoking the performance situation is! A good coach should show you how to go there.

5. Chronic laryngitis from vocal abuse

Laryngitis, for any serious voice, is not to be ignored. If the cause is viral or bacterial upper respiratory infection or other organic disease or condition, the cause should be assessed and treated by a physician. If, on the other hand, any degree of laryngitis is from over-blowing vocal cords, tightening the throat channel, tongue base and/or muscles in the neck, articulating from the wrong place in your mouth, or any other terrible vocal habit, a good vocal lesson can change your life. You should, by the end of the lesson, find immediate improvement in the feeling and sound of your voice. Then you need to learn how to create new habits of your corrected techniques. You may need more than one lesson to be sure you're practicing correctly, to create consistent new muscle memory for speaking and singing.

6. Unwanted Voice Cracks

Never yodel unless you mean to! Yodeling can be great fun... one of my students, Taylor Ware, won America's Got Talent with yodeling which she taught herself. Later, however, she came to me to help her mix her voice and NOT yodel for other kinds of singing she wanted to do. If you perform yodeling songs or use a crack or cry strategically here and there for stylized emotional effect when you sing, that's one thing. But unwanted voice breaks, surprise note cracks, big differences in the sound of upper chest and lower head voice, and straining when you sing full voice in your upper chest register are another. They are all evidence of a lack of mix in your middle voice. Good vocal coaching will help you change this by teaching you to approach your middle voice range with better breath control, and with subtle movements that allows different pitches to find their 'sweet spots' in your resonation zones, instead of being made to go where they don't want to go. (Trust me, they will complain!)

7. Lack of Vocal Control

You must be able to control your voice to allow the fine movements necessary for precision pitch, even rhythm, smooth vocal licks and volume levels that are not extreme even when dynamics change and notes in the extremes of your range are sung. Control of your voice also enables you to make more nuanced choices in vocal tone colors, articulation, scoops and other stylistic choices. These nuances enable you to communicate more powerfully. because they are more 'human' sounding. A good vocal coach will help improve all of these things - mainly by improving the balance between your breath support/control. When you get breath right, your vocal apparatus is able to operate with much more efficiency and effectiveness.

8. Pitch Inaccuracy

Being able to sing in tune is, as mentioned above, heavily dependent on good breath technique. It is also of course dependent on the ability of your ears, brain and vocal cords to coordinate in the act of aiming at pitch. A good coach will give you exercises for pitch practice to educate and coordinate your neural pathways from ear to brain to vocal apparatus. Be assured, I've witnessed it - even people who believe or have been told they are 'tone deaf' can almost always learn to aim at pitch if they are willing to work at it.

Because you will need to practice your aim on your own a lot, a good coach needs to make sure you know how to do the suggested routines. This can involve showing you notes on the real or virtual piano or guitar to use in your practice, and if you can't tell if you're on the note or not, brainstorming who you know with a good ear that would be willing to assess your aim between lessons. For those who hear it but can't hit it, your coach should be very specific about HOW you practice corrective techniques to free your voice to move more precisely.

9. Style Concerns

I think of genres of music as languages. Many things are involved in differentiating these languages, including where the rhythm falls in relation to the pocket, articulation clarity, typical vocal licks or the lack thereof, types and usages of vibrato, scoops and slurs or the lack thereof,  throat configurations creating vocal tone choices. If you sing a type of song with the wrong style language, it will not translate the message very well to the listeners of that genre. If you want to improve your ability to sing in a particular style, make sure the vocal coach you are considering is familiar with and teaches that style. A good teacher will be able to help you transition from one style of singing to another... and back again for songs you want to sing in your former genre. Don't be afraid to learn different languages. Just make sure you're using the right one for the right song!

10. Lack of Warmup

Not warming up before any significant vocal performance is like a serious athlete not warming up before the game. Crazy. There are different ways to warm up your voice, and the benefits of doing so include both sounding better and protecting your instrument. A good vocal coach will teach you not only vocal exercises but more importantly, how to DO them properly!! Please know this: At no time should a properly executed vocal exercise cause you vocal strain! If it does, don't do it... it's either a bad exercise or you you're not doing it right. You should also be encouraged to cool down your voice, too.

BONUS (aahhh... I couldn't stop at 10!):

11. Mysterious vocal issues

There are many other vocal limitations that vocal training with a good coach can address and conquer. But most are offshoots of breath, open throat or performance focus mistakes. But some can come from other physical or neurological issues.

  • Strange 'h' breaks in your singing? It can be caused by a lack of breath control or a hidden condition of acid reflux. 
  • Articulation sluggishness? It can come from the habit of forming syllables with a tight jaw and tongue or a stroke. 
  • Inability to sustain tone evenly? It's almost always a breath balance issue, but can come from fear-caused tightness in the chest and diaphragm. 
  • A strange catch, uncontrolled or irregular vibrato in your voice combined with shortened vocal range? It could be a combination of breath and tight throat conditions or a neurological isssue - anything from Muscle Tension Dysphonia to Spasmodic Dysphonia or a partially or fully paralyzed vocal cord. 
  • Breath doesn't last long enough for phrases? Could be a bad phrasing strategy, bad strategy limiting inhales or COPD or other lung disorder. 
  • Chronic breathiness? It can be a false assumption about necessary air flow, swollen vocal cords from abuse or cancer.

The main thing to know is that a mysterious vocal issue is NOT OK. The cause(s) MUST be discovered. Any mystery a good vocal coach can't make better immediately should be investigated by a doctor... a fellowship trained ENT if possible. Then, with good advice, you can know the best plan of attack for the issue.

Your team of expert help should include an intuitive vocal coach. It may also need to include a doctor, chiropractor, masseuse, nutritionist and/or psychologist! Don't put up with vocal issues. Get the help you need for your precious voice. You only get one!

Help me help you:

My desire is that this blog and podcast is truly helpful even if you can't afford to ever study with me. To help me help you, consider sharing the post with someone else that could benefit, or leave a review where you listen to the podcast.

To go farther, check out my vocal training products and lessons. Thanks for being part of the All Things Vocal village!

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