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.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Interview With Veteran Live Performance Coach Diane Kimbrough - Pt 1

Diane & me, double teaming at our clients' performances

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Available also on iTunes , Google PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps


As a performer, you are not just a disembodied voice. The rest of you, along with where & how you move the rest of you, can help or sabotage your performance impact - even on your recordings where they can't see you. Today I'm interviewing my friend and frequent collaborator Diane Kimbrough for some master ninja stage tips, so click the audio link here and listen up to PART ONE!

Some of the topics we discussed:
  • Diane's background & experience
  • Explanation of what live performance coaching is.
  • How Diane uses her dance and acting experience in her coaching.
  • Defining stage presence.
  • How Diane and I work synergistically to increase stage and vocal abilities.
  • The value of getting live performance coaching before recording final studio vocals.
  • How both of us work on focusing message delivery.
  • Why a veteran artist would need some updated performance coaching.
  • Diane's coaching strategy of videotaping performance and playing it back without sound.
  • A vital understanding Diane wants artists to get out of her coaching sessions: The song itself - the structure of the music and the lyrics - should largely dictate stage movement. How that goes with my vocal training.
  • How to figure out who your voice needs to represent in any song.
  • Diane and I discuss and solve our disparate ways of approaching and coaching authenticity. We discuss what is and is not 'real', how to use acting techniques to make the moment real for the audience even when it's not real for you.
  • Why you don't need to freak out at the thought of acting.
  • Case study about an artist we both successfully worked with who had a serious eating disorder and issues with 'feeling' emotion.
  • How critical voices and situations like bad-fitting heels affect confidence on stage. Knowledge brings power.
  • Case study about another of our artists who we helped go from serious insecurity to up & coming artist catching serious career fire.
  • Diane says it's best to have some stage experience before booking coaching sessions.
  • Ways Diane asks clients to practice what they learn from her. Written homework is assigned, along with continual videotaping and silent viewing to review how audiences see you.
  • The importance of separating singing and stage movement practice. Why you should put your guitar down and try singing without it.
  • How that same strategy - separate practice - is a wise way to practice vocal technique.
  • Diane and I bat around the concept of singing to the one heart. We use different words for the same thing... Diane calls it having a conversation on a melodic line.
PLEASE NOTE: There was so much we shared I decided to split the interview. This is Part 1. Watch for Part 2 to be published in a few days!

About Diane Kimbrough: 

As an actress, dancer, and choreographer, Diane’s career has taken her to Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East where she has directed and choreographed live shows for companies including IBM, Kawasaki, NCR, Chevrolet, Texaco, and Suzuki. She herself has appeared on stage & television with an array of stars from Garth Brooks to the L.A. Dodgers.

Her work has appeared on every major television network. She has staged a wide array of events from ABC’s “Monday Night Football” promo to “The All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade” for CBS. Diane is a veteran of eight seasons of the CMAs (Country Music Association Awards), staging such knockout numbers as Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochie”, Brad Paisley’s “Online” and Shania Twain’s “I’m Outta Here” and “Any Man of Mine”.

Managers and record labels, including Arista, Atlantic, Capitol, Columbia, Epic, Mercury, RCA and Sony as well as a host of indie labels, have hired Diane to coach their emerging artists as well as top-selling stars. Her clients include solo artists, vocal groups and bands of any genre. Diane’s philosophy… “Create an experience and you’ve created a fan.”

Find and contact her at her website http://dianekimbrough.com

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Saturday, March 30, 2019

How My Vocal Training Can Hurt You


Got your attention? Good! Listen up, grasshopper... careful what you think you know!
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Available also on iTunes , Google Play, TuneIn Radio, Android apps


Misunderstanding new vocal techniques, vocal exercises and corrections suggested by a vocal coach can at best do your voice no good, and at worst cause vocal harm! And yes, this goes for my vocal training, too. No matter who you take lessons from, here's the bottom line: Any change you make to the way you use your voice should cause your voice to feel and sound BETTER, not WORSE! To that end, here are some clarifications to make sure my training HELPS you!

Pull, don't push, the voice

  • Explanation of the training:
Most people push too much air when singing and speaking. This causes unnecessary stress to the vocal apparatus, including dehydration of the mucus covering of the vocal cords. It also leads to a tightening of the throat channel, limiting resonance and range along with a host of vocal control issues. A parallel is atomic energy... just enough and the grid is powered, a little too much and you blow the place up!

To get breath support (breath sent to your vocal cords) and breath control (breath held back from your cords) balanced so the voice is confidently powered but not 'blown', I use the term 'pull' instead of 'push' for vocal power.
  • How to get it wrong:
If you interpret my suggestion as meaning pull chest voice up too high, you will definitely strain your voice. Pulling chest voice is typically interpreted as singing too high in unmixed lower register. It's an abusive way to 'belt' your voice, and leads to vocal strain and eventually, damage. Another misinterpretation of my suggestion to pull is to pull your mic away from your mouth. It doesn't take much for the mic to lose your voice's signal, and pulling very far will quickly get you on the bad side of your sound person trying to get your volume consistent!
  • How to get it right:
Instead of moving your microphone away from your mouth, just give it a little squeeze, slightly twisting your torso so you are a bit taller. This move can be almost imperceptible... like avoiding a space invader with bad breath. That works with most people!

Try this experiment: Put the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and say the word 'three'. I bet you felt a big puff of air on your palm. Now say the word again, but this time, try to limit the breath you puff into your hand. You just experienced the difference between pushing and pulling your voice! Like a boxer pulling her punch to avoid full contact with a sparring partner, you can control your air stream!

Now try the phrase 'three pretty felines', first pushing the 'th, 'p' and 'f', and then try pulling those consonants. You may realize that pulling not only controls excessive breath but also increases your vocal volume! This is because done correctly, pulling will open your ribcage, increasing your breath efficiency, AND will open your throat channel, giving your voice access to more resonation.

To get this pulling sensation into your muscle memory, you should create the sensation with every vocal exercise you do. Straighten the upper curve of your spine a little flexibly taller when you make a vocal sound, moving your head back over your heels instead of forward over balls of your feet. Other phrases that trigger this pulling action include 'power your voice like a magnet', and 'resonate like strong coffee, don't dilute your sound with excess air'.

Take a breath and don't use it

  • Explanation of the training:
I have developed certain little catch phrases to crystallize complicated vocal technique concepts into easy to remember corrections and habits. I use this phrase to trigger the most efficient use of breath. You do want enough of a breath to expand both your ribcage and your throat channel, increasing breath control and opening the throat path to resonation zones. But at the same time, it really doesn't take much breath to vibrate the vocal cords confidently and strain-free!
  • How to get it wrong:
Holding your breath is the wrong way to interpret this phrase. You actually need to support your voice with breath, in fact, your voice should always be riding on a thin and steady cushion of air. Holding the breath back too much can create tension in the throat, jaw and vocal apparatus, creating vocal weakness and inconsistency.
  • How to get it right:
Realize that 'don't use it' is just a hyperbolic figure of speech! I keep saying it because, especially for those who push too much breath, it works!
Alternative phrases I use that get breath pressure balanced: 'Back off pressure, add passion' Don't leak! And... Don't leave a breath mark on a glass window pane in front of your mouth.

Use your face

  • Explanation of the training:
The richest and most communicative voice requires active facial language. A zombie, frozen or poker face will sound mechanical, bored or disengaged - not the sound that gets the typical response you want for your message!
  • How to get it wrong:
If you've been singing or speaking with a blank face, just learning to move your face may seem weird and even tiring at first. But like most things, you have to find the balance. Using active facial language correctly shouldn't create facial fatigue or tension... in fact, it should help release tension! Don't over-stretch your tongue or jaw. Definitely avoid holding a squint in your upper cheek area, which can cause your soft palate to freeze.
  • How to get it right:
Here's where the synergy of Power, Path and Performance can help. When performing as singer or speaker, really focus your mind on the heart you're communicating to. Now imagine that person is at least partially or selectively deaf. Use active facial language that would enable the person to 'read your lips' and know both what you're saying and what it means.

Press fingertips together

  • Explanation of the training:
Simply put fingertips together about mid-chest level and lightly press them into each other to straighten the upper spine, opening the ribcage and the throat. This is something I teach all my students to do in exercises, as well as in the studio (where I call it studio hands). The wider diaphragm instantly increases breath control, and the open throat increases access to resonance and therefore, this technique increases vocal ability. It also instantly decreases vocal strain.
  • How to get it wrong:
When people try this for the first time, a common mistake is to press fingertips together too hard, creating shoulder and neck tension and paradoxically tightening the ribcage. You can also press too lightly, which does nothing.
  • How to get it right:
The first time you try it, do it while you're standing with your back to a wall.  Don't allow your head to move forward when you press your fingertips. If you have a wider chest area or bulky shoulders, you can try pressing the longest two fingers together, or put a back-scratcher between your palms and lightly press in. Don't use your pectoral muscles, just forearms to hands. Also, don't be stiff about it, just loosen up and experiment as you vocalize. As with everything... if it doesn't help, don't do it. You can always contact me if you want me for a lesson to personalize this for you.

Articulate clearly

  • Explanation of the training:
No matter what genre of music you do, you need to be understood to get a response to your message, right? Even slurred genres require articulation so that the audience for that genre can understand the lyrics. And of course, if you're a speaker, mumbling will not communicate. Synonyms for articulation include pronunciation and enunciation. In verb form we say articulate, pronounce, or enunciate clearly.
  • How to get it wrong:
Over-articulate for the genre you're singing in and you'll be heard as inauthentic (fake), overacting (fake) and/or yelling (LIKE TYPING IN ALL CAPS!).
  • How to get it right:
Again with the 'B' word: Articulating appropriately requires balance. It also requires nuance... a fine-tuning of the way your audience likes to hear lyrics or words. If you're unsure, get help from a coach familiar with your song's genre or language. Polish singer Jona Ardyn's producer Laura Lorraine Culbertson hired me as vocal producer for Jona's English project to among other things, help her sound more authentic, like changing De-CALF to DE-calf :)

Straighten your spine

  • Explanation of the training:
This is an easy one... straighten both upper and lower curves of your spine.
  • How to get it wrong:
Don't go overboard and assume stiff military posture. Freeze your spine and your voice will complain! Another mistake is to think well, you've got a bit of scoliosis so you can't ever do this.
  • How to get it right:
Stand or sit flexibly tall. If this is tiring for you, do some core physical exercise and strengthen your back muscles with exercises like free weight rowing. Not only will your voice thank you, your whole body will benefit from deeper breathing and core strength. And if you do have scoliosis... I've trained plenty of voices with that spinal condition and it really doesn't take much to make a big vocal difference. Just stretch a little taller and balance your weight on both heels instead of just one.

You can sing as long as you want without strain

  • Explanation of the training:
It is my firm belief that if you consistently use great vocal technique, even though long performances can tire your physical body they don't have to tire your voice!
  • How to get it wrong:
If you try to go from 0 to 100 and play 'survivor of the vocal chord', you will be misunderstanding my suggestion.
  • How to get it right:
Just like any athlete, if you haven't been singing much, or there have been long stretches between your performances, you have to re-develop your muscular stamina. To avoid vocal strain, it's critically important to sing full voice for a week or two... at least 4 days... with great vocal technique before a long performance.

Apply the inner smile

  • Explanation of the training:
Creating flexible lift in the soft palate is important to your voice, which wants access to movement in that area.
  • How to get it wrong:
Squinting is how most people over-do this suggestion. Tension in the upper cheekbones will ironically cause tension in the soft palate, and lead to all kinds of vocal mischief.
  • How to get it right:
Think Mona Lisa smile, or 'I know what you did last summer'. You know..

Warnings for other vocal training (aka things I don't say)

  • Keep larynx at speech level
Caution:
There are methods out there which try to counter the over-dropped larynx of classical singing. My warning is not to try to freeze the position of the larynx. Even for popular genres of music and definitely for speaking, the larynx needs freedom of movement at the direction of the automatic nervous system. I like what vocal coach Lisa Popeil suggests: the larynx should be allowed to raise, lower and tilt in the neck. As long as you aren't really aware of it without putting your fingers on your Adam's/Eve's apple! Your voice shouldn't feel strain!
  • Just relax and sing
Caution:
There is a definite need for training that relaxes counterproductive tension in the mind/body/voice. However, to sing or speak confidently and get a powerful response, something's got to give! I would rather say 'relax everything that doesn't need to tense'! Power your voice from the pelvic floor, through active facial language. Then your big muscles may make you hungry from the effort, but your voice will practically float out to your thrilled audience!
  • Sing from your diaphragm
Caution: 
Don't do it!

Read this blog post and learn how this teaching can collapse the ribcage, sabotage the diaphragm's control of breath and result in one of the most destructive vocal training concepts out there.

Last caution about my training:

OK and finally, my vocal training can hurt you if you don't actually practice it. So to all my students who do their exercises as perfectly as possible, warm-up adequately before performances and practice good vocal health actions in general... YOU don't have to be afraid. I will never hurt you! Promise:)

What about you... ever been hurt by vocal training? Your story can help protect others. Please share it in the comments.

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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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Available also on iTunes , Google Play, TuneIn Radio, Android apps



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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Available also on iTunes , Google PlayTuneIn Radio, Android apps

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

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

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



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
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.

Failing

  • 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!

Kindness

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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