All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: July 2008

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. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

For Strainfree Vocal Power... watch where you squeeze!

Ever heard the phrase, "sing your butt off"?

Well, that's what works, and that is the source of the "Power" I suggest for your voice in Power, Path & Performance vocal training.

Funny story.. I got turned down for a voice teaching position at a university once. They didn't like it when I mentioned the apparently taboo body part in the lesson I gave at my teacher audition. (They also didn't like it that I taught by my own method.)

OK, this may be squeamish to some, but imho, I don't think real singing is for the squeamish. The truth is, your voice needs your butt. Literally.

If you tighten your butt, notice a correlating tightening of your lower abs. This will cause a shifting of your abdominal contents upwards, which supports the diaphragm moving upwards. However, it's vitally important that you don't let the squeeze move upwards to the bottom of your ribcage. This area should remain wide and flexible to give your diaphragm the ability to control your airflow.

Squeezing at the wrong place- your ribcage- directly applies squeeze at your larynx.

Try it... press your elbows into the sides of your ribcage and slump forward so you get a real good squeeze there. Feel it in your throat? Not good in any genre, for any reason except some weird sound effect you need to make... and that better pay reeeeaaallllyyy well.

Sometimes I call this the "power of the pelvic floor". You can think Elvis, if it pleases you. However you picture it, singing is like many other athletic endeavors in that its power base should be centered right in front of the tailbone, in the pelvic floor, the hips, hey... the butt.

Think about the butt's contribution to ...
  • horseback riding
  • golf
  • baseball
  • wrestling
  • weight lifting
  • soccer
  • dance
  • tennis
  • volleyball
  • swimming
  • skating
  • most any other sport you can name
Then realize that great singing is truly an athletic event. I like to term well-executed vocal exercises "vocal aerobics".

So there. Go sing your butt off- not your throat!


Friday, July 18, 2008

Vocal contests... how to "win"

I did a favor for Wynne Adams, a friend and business associate of mine, this week that I don't normally like to do: I judged her talent contest: "Galaxy of Stars Premier Talent Search" Yep. I know, I tell you how much I hate em. But I agreed because, unlike too many talent shows these days, this one:
  1. Wasn't rigged.
  2. Judges weren't pre-scripted to say mean things to make people cry for ratings.
  3. It wasn't "live"... no drama! We judges watched video submissions and only judged talent, not video quality.
  4. We were specifically asked to couch criticism in ways that would be constructive, not destructive, and -
  5. We were asked to make comments that would give them accurate, objective assessments and help them with their weak points.
So... I gave away a lot of free voice lessons :) And the other judges gave lessons based on their expertise (judges included a video company staff member, a veteran session singer & songwriter, a D.J., manager of a famous Nashville nightclub, and me). It was really quite cool; we felt at the end of the (loooong) day that we had given them valuable advice they could act on pretty easily.

Afterwards, I thought about what helps people win contests.
As a judge, I was favorably impressed if the contestant demonstrated:

1. communicative skills and stage presence, active eyes and natural body language
2. no or minimal vocal strain
3. good pitch, sense of rhythm
4. a good song choice that fit the age, vocal range and tone color
5. a stage outfit that made the artist stand out but was not selling sex.

I was less than favorably impressed if the contestant demonstrated:

1. numbness in performance, disconnected from the audience and/or song
2. vocal strain - (HATE THAT!)
3. pitchiness, getting out of the groove or losing their place rhythmically
4. song choice with inappropriate lyrics or too much range for vocal ability
5. stage wear that either looked like everyday nothing special going on or selling sex.

We were all very impressed with Wynne's focus on the well-being of her contestants. She cares. She knows that the most important thing she can do is to help her people get better. She's passionate about helping would-be-artists from Nebraska be prepared for what it really takes to make a successful commercial career; not just be a "Jerry Springer" reality-TV moment victor or victim. I think she'll get one- a big one- and soon.

So, how to win a contest?

1. Know going in what spirit is behind the contest. If you smell rigged, just take the judging with not even a grain of salt, be OK with having fun no matter what the outcome... or don't audition!
If you avoid getting jealous or resentful of unfairness, YOU WIN!

2. Most of the time, the only good you get in a contest is experience singing. If you audition for this reason, YOU WIN- because the more you sing, the more comfortable you get with performance.

3. Be truly kind to your fellow contestants. It's really too bad we compare talent to each other, the only one you should be competitive with is yourself. A talent show is a great place to show friendship and support to strangers. Anytime you make yourself helpful to others, YOU WIN!

4. If you are using talent contests correctly, you're going to try out again and again..just for the sake of learning and getting better. If "losing" the judgement it's a serious blow to your self-esteem, ask yourself why. Take the challenge and dig into stinking thinking that might stand in the way of the freedom of your spirit and of your true creativity. Get better at your craft... YOU WIN!

5. If you thought you were going to win but didn't, and it helps you obtain a bit of humility to know you might need a little help, YOU WIN!

5. If you happen to win the judging, IT'S ICING ON THE CAKE! and congratulations! (But don't get the big head :)

Anybody have thoughts on talent contests?

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Too Old, Too Young to Sing?

I got an email question from one of my subscribers, Mechele Warren, and with her permission I will share it, and my answer, here. Mechele says:

Judy, I just wanted to say that I truly love the articles that you send out and the advice that you give. I don't get to travel to Nashville for my vocal lessons as much anymore for various reasons so I find other ways to compensate by gaining as much information from professionals in the industry. I would like to ask you a question regarding the industry just for an opinion if nothing else. I have recently been picked up by an Indie label who has asked me to do a project (all at their cost of course) and the decided song will be promoted to radio. I guess my my head and my heart tell me that I DO have the ability to pull this off, however, the emphasis placed on the reality shows like Idol or Nashville Star make it nearly impossible to have success as an artist unless your 17-23 years old and drop dead gorgeous. What happened to the days of people like KT Oslin, who I consider a class act?...Do you think that the industry will ever re-open doors to talent without the airbrushed package and anyone in their 30's??....just if you get a chance, I'd love your feedback.

This is typical of questions I get all the time about age and the music business. It is unfortunate, but true, that age does matter to commercial music business.

If you're too young, some will ignore you because they think you haven't lived enough life to contribute anything meaningful. I did that until LeAnn Rimes cut my song "One Way Ticket"! Actually, I should have known better; some teenagers are wiser than some old people I know :<

Sometimes there is jealousy from people who can no longer get played on the radio because of their ages. (and it's true- I just heard a CMA official state they are purposely courting a younger demographic, while trying not to lose the older one).

If you're too old (and there's a joke that says the next signing to a major label may be a fetus), then you may get ignored because you have a few too many physical signs not conducive to good photo ops or TV. Or that young people don't want to listen to old. (I don't buy that).

But... especially if, as in Mechele's case, someone else is putting their money where their mouth is and is willing to invest in you, hire a good entertainment attorney who will watch your back, but don't let what you perceive is true in the marketplace stop you. As I told Mechele, I read a "tweet" on Twitter that gave this thought:

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it".

It is my opinion that with the bottlenecks being broken by internet marketing, more is possible at this moment, and in the near future, in the music biz than has ever been before. That said, this kind of marketing takes a big learning curve and a lot of work and dedication. Creating, updating, interacting on MySpace and myriads of other social networking sites takes TIME and persistance. You can't just throw up a MySpace page and rake in your cd sales. Most people will not go to the trouble to do it, but it can and is being done.

These days you only get a major label deal when you don't need one. The best thing is more of a joint venture with a major label, which can get you the massive exposure they are best at, but these deals are formed with artists who are already selling and have large fanbases. Think Taylor Swift (love that girl).

Another way to get a major label deal is to place high or win Nashville Star, American Idol, etc. The problem with this is that these careers are usually short-lived. Maybe this is because they tend to choose lesser talents to compete so they can highten the drama. Carrie Underwood is a great exception to the rule.

And about the rules.. the truth is, there aren't any. Every significant artist has "made it" their own unique way. So remember that tweet and ... go make somebody feel something. Then see where it goes.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Stage Fright... extreme condition

This is the 3rd in a series of posts on Stage Fright. If you haven't read the previous posts, they are: 

  1. Stage Fright - What Is it?
  2. Stage Fright - Changing Stinking Thinking

Extreme stage fright can be a truly debilitating condition. Sometimes knowing that your thinking stinks is not enough to conquer it.

To illustrate extreme stage fright conditions, here is a story from my sister Pam's experience. Many thanks to my sister for getting this unpleasant memory down from the shelf for us:
"If someone would ask me to sing that day I would have no problem so long as I kept my mind busy till then. But, if as usual they scheduled it in advance, I would gradually get to the point the day or two before that I became incapacitated and would sadly have to cancel. I say, "sadly", because it got to be very depressing.

When I was a young girl scheduled to sing in church, I'd get very sick like with the flu (with fever, no less) and remember even sneaking into a robe room to lie down on the floor, I was so weak. I didn't want to admit to anyone I was sick because they'd think it was an excuse and that I was scared. (LOL) But the diarrhea and heart palpitations/anxiety stopped me in my tracks. Fact is, I was terrified. But I loved to sing! I really, really loved to sing. I needed to sing. So, I learned that if I just would go on a fast for two or three days before the event, I'd have no problem with the diarrhea. Problem solved...NOT!"

My body still found a way out of the singing arrangements: LARYNGITIS! Complete laryngitis. Not a squeak to be heard. Actually once I did squeak. It was a muscle spasm of my diaphragm. Happened during rehearsal but since it was uncontrollable, I feared I'd do it again. These disorders persisted into my adult life even after having children. I tried a few different vocal teachers to no avail. I got books. I got older. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Panic Attacks (anxiety disorder) along with chronic allergies. Lots of doctors and alternative health folks and biofeedback lessons...results: I no longer sing. I'm 54 years old now and am past the desire to do any singing, thank goodness. But sometimes I wonder what life might have been like if...

...and yet...I wouldn't be who I am if I'd been able to sing all my life. I've developed in other ways to compensate for my love of music. Still, there are times that surprise me when tears well up in response to a set of unusual harmonies or a phrase or just an instrumental flow...

There is a book written by a minister who was in a terrible wreck in which he lost both legs and an arm. He describes that having died and passing through heaven's gates made of undulating, pearlescent, opaque organic matter, there was music. Individual pieces of music, alive and coming from every direction; not in harmony per se, yet indescribably beautiful together. Do some of us sense the impossibility of attaining that in human form. Is that it? Or are we just terrified of each other?

Hopefully, Judy, you'll be able to help some brave souls to keep trying because we shouldn't fear sharing warmth from our deepest quarters even if those quarters aren't perfect."

I have personally known people who try to anesthetize stage fright with substance abuse. Besides the health issues that come from this approach, there is also this: If the cocaine, alcohol or other substance momentarily does cause anxiety to abate and courage to artificially (and many times arrogantly) increase, you become terrified to sing, play or write WITHOUT the drink or drug. Then you, my friend, are most horribly hooked on a merry-go-round that will steal your life. Don't know about you, but even my own voice- as important as it is to me- is not worth that.

As you see, self medicating can backfire. I asked James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. ( publisher of My Family Doctor Magazine) for a professional medical approach to this issue. He says:

"The prescription medicine most commonly used is a beta-blocker such as propranolol. It peaks within a few hours and slows the heart rate down along with decreasing a tremor. Also the SSRI antidepressants such ac paxil have been approved for "social anxiety" of which stage fright is a type. Theses are usually tolerated well in most healthy adults but, as in all medications, there are potential side effects that your doctor should go over with you."
Donn Marshall, Associate Director for Counseling Services at the University of Puget Sound, agrees -quoting an email in his blogpost on extreme stage fright:
"...the use of beta-blockers provided the much-needed relief. Plus, he wrote that with more stage experience, increased acceptance of his level of skill, and by allowing his playing to become more fun he has not needed to use beta-blockers in years. A real success story!"
Power, Path & Performance associate teacher Kayla Morrison had such huge issues with stage fright they came with symptoms like vascular knots in her neck and vocal cords that were partially paralyzed. Oh yeah. Amazing what fear can do. She healed, and says that talking it out, not keeping it to herself, was a big part of the solution to overwhelming fear.

Carly Simon and Barbara Streisand both have managed to conquer extreme stage fright and get back to the stage as a joyful experience. As for my sister Pam, she is singing, too. Last Christmas I sat at her grand piano playing Christmas tunes. She sat with me and then began to ... SING... inviting everyone else to come join us. Soon her daughter's boyfriend, a photojournalist, began FILMING us, and we all had a ball... including my sister! She says she can "do it in the moment... just not if there is scheduling involved", giving the brain too much time to build anxiety.

There is an old (Chinese??) proverb that goes "A bird doesn't sing to be heard, it sings because it has a song". Perhaps that is what my sister now does, and perhaps I need to add other motivations for singing: "To express your heart with music, feel your own song, find the joy of joining with other voices". Performance doesn't have to be scheduled to be powerfully successful!

More thoughts on stage fright:

The very act of singing can help in the healing of stage fright. Sound vibrations cause physical and biochemical changes in the brain. Just the music itself (humming, singing in nonsense syllables or languages you don't understand, etc) can have power to heal.

Encourage, but don't MAKE people, especially children, sing! Making children perform can lead to deep seated stage fright. Just let them know their voices are important to you and to others, and then them sing as they feel the authentic urge to do so, of course given the appropriate opportunity. Also, teach them to listen and to affirm others' voices. This will help them believe in the importance and validity of their own voices.

We should indeed "FEEL" something - Numbness does not communicate. Butterflies just add to the excitement of performance. But when the butterflies turn into battering rams, we need to talk to someone and find help.

Keep vocal ability in perspective. There is an old man in our little Presbyterian congregation who is a recovering alchoholic. Every year, with fear and trembling, he sings a solo as his gift of gratitude to God for his healing. Technically, he has one of the worst voices I've ever heard. But when he sings, there are tears in the eyes of most everyone, including me, at the beauty of his communication. His performance is wildly successful, and we can't wait til next year when he does it again!

Your comments are always welcome - if you want to comment publicly and add to the conversation, be sure to click the title, go to my blog on the web and find the comment link below this post, or just email me your permission along with your comment and I will do that for you.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stage Fright - Changing stinking thinking

This is the 2nd in a series of blogposts I've created on Stage Fright. Here are links to the other two:
1. Stage Fright - What Is It?
3. Stage Fright - Extreme Conditions

One huge and most usual form of stage fright comes from stinking thinking. The good news is, we can change that.

Some synonyms for performance are:
  • A public presentation
  • A show
  • An accomplishment
  • A rendering of material
I'm particularly fond of the last one... because the word "render" means to "give". This is the core that will lead to successful performance. Simply render (give) the message (communicate!).

I believe with all my heart that the biggest contribution to stinking thinking in performance is the subtle and not-so-subtle messages we get (and deeply accept as true) from society and most definitely from the music business.

Some examples of rotten messages:
  • You better be better than everyone else, or you are a loser.
  • You are being compared to everyone else, and you probably won't measure up.
  • You better get everything right, and you better look right, and you better move right, and you better be perfect. The audience is judging you. If you aren't perfect, they will think you suck.
  • If you suck at performance, you will or should die because you are worthless. (American Idol/Gladiator, etc!)
  • You are a failure unless you win the part/award/contest.
  • It's all about the high notes. It's all about the long notes. It's all about the vocal licks. It's all about the strong notes. It's all about YOU!
Here is the truth in two words: SO NOT! What do any of the above things have to do with rendering (giving) a message? Not a thing. And if you believe any of those things, you will have stage fright to one degree or other. Why?

The voice runs on instinct. We must train ourselves to instinctively use correct technique, that's true, but in practical application, we perform instinctively, based on habitual thinking and on actions of the automatic nervous system. Change your thinking and you can change the automatic nervous system response. Let's ask some questions:

Q. Why do we have voices?

A. To communicate messages TO someone. Period.

Q. To whom can we direct our communication?

  • To the one heart of the audience physically present in your venue,
  • To people-not-physically present (those who will in future hear the cd)
  • To fictional people (but you must make them real for yourself to do this)
  • to the living camera eye,
  • to a character we're talking to in a play,
  • to our own hearts (but to truly communicate to ourselves effectively, we must mentally send our voices outside ourselves so that our ears hear as if from someone else).
Q. To whom should we not direct our voices?

  • To more than one person at time (writer Michael Clark once told me that if you sing like you're singing to thousands, you can't really move anyone; sing like you're singing to one person, you can move thousands.
  • To someone you can't make real for yourself.
  • To no one in particular. This is completely unfocused and is NOT communication. It's thinking about communicating, but it's not the act of doing so.
Q. What messages can we communicate?

A. Happiness, relief, humor, pain, anger, sadness, hope, warning, love, an understanding, a request to be understood, a story, specific information, whatever the lyric is really about.

Q. Where are the hardest places to authentically communicate?

A. In auditions. Why? Because it's the most artificial circumstance to be communicating. They, after all, really ARE judging you. You must consciously choose people, either present or not, real or fictional, to deliver the message to, and mentally ignore and block "judging" as motivation for your delivery. Read the comment on my last post from "Leigh Ann" for some great suggestions.

Q. If we accept the communication of messages as the primary conscious motivation to perform, how does it change things?
  • We will assume a different posture and body language, which will affect your breath and the openness of your throat.
  • Our automatic nervous system's flight-or-fight response will be calmed, once again affecting breath and throat.
  • Our self-consciousness will dissolve quickly into other-consciousness
  • "Stage fright" will turn into "stage presence".
Here's a cool, entertaining video put out by coach Janet Tabaka that shows a transformation from just changing stinking thinking to actual communication.

For those with Social Anxiety:

And here is an article by Rob Liu with helpful advice for anyone with a very special and debilitating phobia. It's called Overcoming Social Anxiety

In the matter of winning awards and contests, getting parts, even in the act of moving an audience, all you can do is all you can do... and that is always enough! If you have joy in the actual act of performance, you have succeeded in doing your job. Believing this truth will set you free.
I agree with writer and retired CEO Adrian Savage, who says in his brilliant post "What Is Performance":
Finding satisfaction and purpose in the action itself is far better than fixating on an outcome that lies mostly in the hands of chance. If doing something well increases the odds on success, that’s a pleasant bonus... Winning is rarely as important as we assume, but if winning is all that counts, as in war, remember Napoleon. When someone asked him what kind of people he looked for to be generals, he replied: “Lucky ones.”
What's your experience with stinking thinking, or with changing it? To comment on this post, click on the title which will take you to my blog on the web. Then click the comment link below this post.

Next post we'll talk about severe forms of stage fright based more physical issues such as biochemical imbalances in the brain. (Getting a doctor's input for this one!)


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stage Fright - What is it?

I get a lot of people needing help with stage fright. So here is the first of my series of posts on the subject. Here are links for the following ones:

  2. Stage Fright - Changing Stinking Thinking
  3. Stage Fright - Extreme Conditions

First, let's define the problem. What is stage fright? Wikipedia says it's ..."an anxiety, fear or phobia related to performing in front of an audience or camera. " That's the most simplified definition I could find. There are levels of this problem, from mild anxiety (butterflies - actually can be a great thing) to incapacitating conditions that causes show cancellations and stop careers in their tracks.

It's not limited to newbies. Veteran performers are sometimes plagued with it. Carley Simon once passed out in the middle of a concert. George Jones famously anesthetized his with alcohol. Barbara Streisand forgot the lyrics to a song once and then dealt with incapacitating stage fright for three decades.

Fortunately, such severe cases are not the norm. I believe that the sooner one deals with a stage fright issue, the less likely will be the length and severity of the problem.

So... I intend to explore both my own and others' views and strategies to deal with performance anxiety, and try to shed some light on it for all of us.

I am not prone to stage fright. This doesn't mean I'm strong or special, because I have other issues such as no-sense-of-direction which means I can't get around the block without a map, a friend navigator and/or a gps system! Three times I really did have stage fright were the first times I sang on the Grand Old Opry and stood on that ancient circle of wood, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Farm Aid, where they forgot to introduce me and I had to introduce myself in front of thousands of people. When I played these places again, I didn't experience near the anxiety as the first time.
So... here are the first three remedies I will offer that can help defeat stage fright:

  • Don't tell anyone you're nervous unless you know they won't play into it with you. If some well-meaning clueless person asks if you are nervous, (like RIGHT BEFORE YOU GO ONSTAGE, ARGHH!!), dismiss them as quickly and kindly as possible and later, tell them never to ask you that again! And certainly, don't do it to anyone else. Now you know.

  • Play as much and in front of as diverse audiences as possible. As vocal coach Jennifer Rutherford says "perform whenever and wherever you can." This can include friends, your pets, your mirror! The more you do it, the more natural it feels to your automatic nervous system. And don't fear the second time will be as hard.

  • Deal with stage fright as soon as you know you have it. It's like depression... don't ignore chronic conditions; they may grow out of control.
Please chime in with your comments. I'd like to know as I write these posts:
  • Where have you had the worst case(s) of stage fright? What were the circumstances?
  • What has worked for you that you could share?
  • What has NOT worked for you?
  • What are you afraid of - dig down and be specific - that you think brings on your performance anxiety?
Next post... how stinking thinking can cause stage fright, and how you can change the pattern.