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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Trading Lessons With Mark Thress - Contemporary vs Classical Voice

Turning vocal insight over with Mark - always pure joy!
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As I listened to my new friend introduce himself and his work over coffee one morning, an insistent thought running through my head broke through to became a question. Would Mark Thress be interested in trading an hour vocal lesson of his classical training for an hour of my contemporary vocal training? Just once, you know, for fun? 

It was about a year ago that we had that first lesson exchange. Now we trade lessons for 2 hours almost every week, and we both learn something new all the time. My head register gained a step of vocal range I've never had in my life and my middle voice feels all the better for it. Mark is vocally nailing John Legend songs now and tells me he even notices more richness and control in his classical voice. Our respective students have also gained from our collaboration as we trade our singing and vocal training secrets and insights with each other. We decided to share some of the fruits of our vocal exploration to the village at All Things Vocal!

This blog post will contain 2 videos... one of our interview and one with our vocal lesson exchange.

Some topics we covered: 

  • How we met and our intention behind trading lessons.
  • Similarities and differences between the genres of classical and contemporary singing.
  • How all art is about effectively and authentically communicating a message to the one heart.
  • Subtle technical differences in formal and contemporary genres in performance focus, creating volume, using self-compression, facial expressions, vowel lengths, vibrato, the need for mic technique or to fill the hall acoustically, conveying emotion without pushing.
  • How “less is more” in contemporary music, while continuity in sound is important in classical music.
  • How cross training can benefit both contemporary and classical voice.
  • What issues students typically have when trying to cross these genres and perform them authentically.
  • Using tools such as a trampoline or bosu ball to loosen the body and increase access to breath and tone, as well as a coffee straw or balloon for warming up.
  • How 'pulling' helps both contemporary and classical singing.
  • How both coaches have improved each other's voices.

The Interview 

The Lesson Trade 

About Mark:

Mark Thress, MM, MA, is an accomplished operatic and studio vocalist with a demonstrated higher education teaching history, and his work in vocal research has helped carve a unique path of innovation and vocal science in the Singing Health Specialization.

As an opera singer, Mark is experienced with both the Operatic and Operetta Repertoire. Roles he has performed include: Rodolfo, La boheme, Prunier, La rondine, Tamino, Die Zauberflöte, Nemorino, L’elisir d’amore, il Messaggero, Aida, as well as Ralph, H.M.S. Pinafore, Frederic, The Pirates of Penzance, and Nanki Poo, The Mikado. He currently performs with the Nashville Opera. Mark was awarded First Place in the inaugural NATS National Competition held in Boston, MA. He won an Honorable Full Scholarship to the Cornish-American Song Institute, where he performed Art Song recitals and toured England. Mark is the featured soloist on the album 'Whispering of Fields Unsown', by Andrew Boysen, Jr., and 'If My People Pray', arranged by Phillip Keveren.

Mark has an extensive background in vocal health, voice science and research. Under the tutelage of Dr. Scott McCoy, he worked as research assistant in the Helen Swank Research and Teaching Lab. He worked as assistant in the Head and Neck department of the Eye and Ear Institute in Columbus, OH. He helped lead therapy sessions and customize vocal exercises for patients in the Speech Pathology Clinic of the Martha Morehouse Outpatient Care facility. He is slated to travel to Hangzhou, China to develop and implement an elite vocal research lab for the purpose of diagnosing vocal pathology in classical singers.

Mark currently teaches at Belmont and Lipscomb University, and is the owner and founder of Vocal 360 Global—an artist coaching and mentorship program. His clients have performed Internationally, as well as on National Tours, Broadway, and several have received recording contracts. It is my honor and pleasure to work with him, pick his brain and call him friend!

Find and Contact Mark on...
  • Facebook (Mark Thress Music)
  • Instagram (@MarkThress)
  • Website  (www.MarkThress.com)

What about YOU?

What do you think about contemporary and classical vocal training? Have you had an experience with cross training? What helped or didn't help you? I'd love to hear from you... Your comments and reviews are the oil that keeps this blog running!

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

How To Sing a Love Song

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Love is a universal subject for messages of music... And oh my goodness what a loaded subject! I want to start by giving you a sample of messages about love, along with some songs that carry them:

Four questions to ask:

The voice exists to deliver messages, and is successful if the message sung gets the desired response from the heart being sung to. So to sing a successful love song, you have to know
  1. what your message really is,
  2. to whom you're communicating,
  3. what response you want from that targeted heart,
  4. and what that response would look like in the body/facial language of that person. That's the brass ring... the ultimate goal you should be reaching for.
From the answers to those 4 questions you can choose the tone, volume, phrasing and vocal embellishments that you need to get that specific response.

Not feeling it? 

No matter, the only thing that matters is that the heart you're singing to feels it. Because it's not about you, there is no need to get nervous. No current relationship? Oh I beg to differ. We can sing love songs to our pets, our parents or grandparents, our friends, to the one heart of our audiences, to GOD, really to anything we love. And sometimes we need to sing love songs to ourselves. Patty Griffin wrote her love song, "Heavenly Day," to her dog. The point is, our choice of whom to sing to, should change the way we sing. Focus on that heart.

Mistakes to avoid:

  • Mixing your messages. Unless you're going for coy or confused... which actually become the central message, 'I'm being coy' or 'I'm so confused'.
  • Delivering your messages to the wrong place (anywhere the lyrics are not addressed to).
  • Failing to fully intend and commit to your delivery.  
  • Singing a song that's out of your wheelhouse of experience. This is why I don't like young kids singing mature adult relationship songs. They may nail the high note, but not the emotional response.
  • Over-emoting. Sometimes the power is in what you don't do. Leave room for your audience's imagination. Don't lose the realness of your delivery by trying too hard. As Star Wars' character Yoda says, 'Do or do not - there is no try'.

How to create nuance:

To really sing (or write, or play) a love song in a way that effectively captures the intended heart, you have to be able to perform in multiple nuances of human language. Vocal nuances require changeable external facial/body movement, fine control of breath, and morphing of the throat channel to create differing tone colors.

Here's an exercise for you:

Let's take a phrase and make it mean different things: "This is how you make me feel". Choose or create a little melody and sing it...
  • while frowning. 
  • while smiling.
  • with very wide open eyes, then squinting.
  • with a tight jaw, then while making chewing circles with your jaw.
  • while over-articulating the words, then while slurring or mumbling the words.
  • with a very flat, frozen soft palate, then with a yawny lifted palate.
  • while standing with your arms on your hips like supergirl/superman.
  • then while crossing your arms over your chest.
  • while standing stiffly frozen, then while swaying, moving your arms/hands or lightly dancing. 
Ask yourself... what does any of these changes do to the sound of your voice? Do you see how you can deliver different messages with the same words?

Now try this: Sing the same phrase 'This is how you make me feel" to get the following messages across. Let your message intention choose the changes you experimented in the previous exercise.  You are...
  • angry (you want an meek response, maybe shrinking body language)
  • happy (you want a corresponding happy response)
  • confused (you want a response of clarification or reassurance)
  • sad (you want an empathetic response)
  • infatuated (you want an 'I'm interested, too' response)
  • ecstatic (you want a mutually joyful response)
  • aroused (you want a mutual warm response)
  • safe (you want a deep breath response, a sign of acceptance and trust)

Ask yourself... what did you have to do, to change, to get those different messages and their respective responses?

OK so it's your turn: What's your favorite love song to sing? To hear sung to you? Hope this helps you deliver some love on Valentine's Day!

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Singing and Creating Harmony

 The Hall Sisters at our vocal lesson - working the breath control straw

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From the two-part harmony of Simon and Garfunkel, the multi-dimensional tapestry of a classical or gospel choir, to the experimental vocal arrangements of pop rock songs like Bohemian Rhapsody or Africa by the band Toto, singing a note that is different but complements another note is like... 1 plus 1 equals 117! Let's talk about...

The power of harmony...

Human voices can resonate and magnify each other like violins can. Singing harmony can be incredibly fulfilling as it emanates from you in the middle of a rich multi-layered, co-created sound and connects you to the people you're singing with.

If you are or are seeking to become a professional vocalist, being able to find and sing harmony can add a significant revenue stream to your career. Here are some instances...
  • When your lead career is on pause or not happening at the moment, you can get employment singing backgrounds for someone else's live show or studio project.
  • There can be significant networking and career-building possibilities if you can sing harmony with another artist, say on a TV show, a co-tour or a writer's round. 
  • Musicians who don't normally sing can learn to do so pretty quickly. I have taught touring players who never considered themselves singers to sing harmony confidently in live shows and in the studio. 
For all these reasons and more, learning to find, choose, match and create harmony is a worthy goal for anyone, so let's dig in.

How to pick a part...

Harmonizing is a bit tricky because there's more than one choice of notes you can make that work with the same melody.  For instance: 
  • You can simply sing an exact parallel distance above or below the melody (say thirds, fifths or sixths) or you can sing different intervals to different notes. 
  • Or you can do like Emmylou Harris and create a contrasting melody to be the harmony part. 
  • If the melody goes all over the place, you could cross voice in harmony without going too high or low. 
  • Or as a group you could create block harmony, inverting chords to move as little as you can while letting the melody do as it wishes. 
  • And of course when you create more than one part (three or four (or more) -part harmony), you have to take into consideration how each harmony note works with the other. 
Some choices just sound better than others, so experimentation is often needed to settle on the best harmony options. To make the best choices, you also have to take into account the musical genre in which you're singing. There are certain harmony choices that sound more true to specific genres; you must immerse yourself in that music and study it to chose parts wisely. How much vibrato you use matters, too. For instance:
  • Blues uses lots of flat 7ths, bluegrass does NOT. 
  • Jazz incorporates major 7ths, 4 sharps, diminished and augmented chords, etc and these more complicated chords are taken into account in harmonies. 
  • Western music is instantly recognizable with 4 part barbershop-like tight harmonies, often using 2s and 9s in note choices. 
  • For rock music, sometimes your harmony choice can be so 'wrong', disregarding the underlying chords and chord progressions in the track, that it's just right! 
  • Celtic music prefers 5ths and I really like to leave 3rd's out for some traditional mountain-country music that uses one harmony part. Bluegrass commonly fills choruses with full simple triads, strong progressions and sometimes momentary suspended notes leading into the next chord, mostly sung straight tone. Check out Alison Krauss and Union Station performing 'Down To The River To Pray':
  • As to multiple parts, there are some brilliantly complex arrangements in many pop as well as black gospel music that frequently change from unison to 4 or more parts, but are so masterfully arranged they sound like a sonic tapestry with no seams.   
  • Harmony choices can indicate generational eras. These days there are a whole lot less oohs and aahs in background vocals than there used to be, so if you use them you need to take care that it doesn't make the song sound 'dated'... unless you're going for retro! 
  • And then there's the fact that for every rule created for harmony, there is usually a hit song that broke that rule. Whew!

How to train for harmony singing...

You can see why creating good background vocal arrangements (harmony), takes experience. Most professional singers who do a lot of studio session  work or live background vocals have been harmonizing since they were children. Many times they have also worked for veteran producers who ask for certain harmony, and thus learn various strategies for arrangements that might not have occurred to them otherwise. That doesn't mean you can't learn to sing parts without this history; I've successfully trained many singers to do so. Here is my harmony training strategy:
  • First I create a cool harmony the singer or group likes, that fits the genre of the song.
  • Then I sing and/or play it on piano and record it so the singer can practice and memorize it. If it's a group I'm dealing with, I'll do this for each part so the singers can individually learn their harmony before putting it all together. 
  • Then I have the singer(s) practice. I use a plastic gadget called 'HearFones' to help singers zone into their own parts instead of being pulled into the melody or another part. It works great with groups of any number. After having the singer practice the harmony line a few times, I have them sing with the melody or other parts. If using them, I take the HearFones away and have them practice 'holding their own'.
  • And lastly, I have the singer work on controlling the volume of their voice while singing the harmony part. If the harmony is too loud, it will overtake the melody. If too soft, it will not create the sonic envelope that compliments the melody. Getting the volume just right is as much of an art as finding the right note! 
One way that you can become familiar and experiment with more harmony choices is to dissect recordings of songs with background parts in them. You may need headphones for this to discern distinct notes in softer blankets of harmony. Try to focus on listening to just one line of harmony at a time, writing it down either in manuscript on staff lines or using a shortcut method such as Nashville's number system. For instance, here is how I would write in numbers a three part version of three blind mice (the melody is in the middle). For those not familiar with the number system, '1' is 'do' or tonic of the key. 

      5       4       3                                                                                                     G       F       E
      3       2       1        In the key of C, these numbers would correspond to    E      D       C
      1       6       5                                                                                                     C      A       G
"Three blind mice"

Just for fun and to see how it changes the feel and genre placement of the phrase, you might try out a few different harmony strategies for that melody, such as:

  5    4   3                      5   4   3b                  5   5   3                4#  4n   3
  3    2   1       ...or...     3  2    1     ...or...     3   2   1    ...or...   3    2     1
  7b  6   5                      1  7b   6                  1   1   5                 1    7     7
Which sounds Dissonant? Modal? In what genre does it seem to belong? There are many more choices you could make. Go on, try another! Then try to sing the melody while each of these chord progressions play (or while listening to them on the podcast audio). Good luck!

What I find is that with time and experience memorizing harmony, singers start being able to create their own harmony lines. Sometimes they use their favorite harmony strategy to create their unique artistic definition. The country duo 'the Judds' comes to mind, where Naomi typically sang a haunting bluegrass-style part or two to Wynonna's lead melody. You'll hear that she didn't always trace the melody in parallel fashion in their early hit 'Grandpa'. When Wynonna went solo, her first single was "She Is His Only Need". I sang backgrounds with the writer Dave Loggins as Wynonna doubled her own melody to create three part harmony including the male voice. It was, on purpose, a different sound.

Some examples of great harmony...

Now check out some of my favorite harmony examples. We of course, have to include Pentatonix doing 'Havana'. The vocal arrangement is incredibly creative and tight and includes the voice as trumpet and beat box!

 The Washington Performing Arts choir illustrates the power, complexity and resonance of Black Gospel:

I would be completely remiss not to mention the incredible harmonies of Vox Grata... a women's choir whose members include some friends of mine:

And let me finish with the vocal group pictured in this post's header that I've been thrilled to work with (thank you, Diane Kimbrough, for putting us together!) The Hall Sisters really do sing this precisely - even live with no electronic tuning!

Harmony is everywhere, weaving through the melodies creating the music of the spheres. Oh, I know I've left out some other incredible examples, so please... feel free to add a link to your own favorite harmony performances in the comments!  

As always, I'm here if you need some help... just write me at my contact link.

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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?

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
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!...

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

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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