Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: May 2011

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!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tongue Tips for Singing and Speaking - Updated 2020

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The tongue can get us in trouble, in more ways than one. Its base or root muscle is attached to the top of the larynx and if that muscle gets tight, it can cause vocal strain, limited range, obstruction of the throat channel (limiting resonance) and can cause over- or under- articulation (too much or too little clarity of pronunciation).

My favorite tongue fix:

Training the tongue is a paradox, however, because sometimes too much attention to it causes it to tense just trying to do the right thing. I'm not a fan of strenuous tongue stretching and exercising before singing. My favorite method of dealing with the tongue is to use it with intention to communicate something. The tongue should articulate a message so that the intended ear can understand not only the words, but the meaning behind the words. A tight tongue will create sounds that don't communicate what you usually intend, so this is a holistic approach can work wonders to get the tongue out of the back of the throat.

However, sometimes an ingrained habit will necessitate other approaches. So here are... 

More tongue tips:

1. Do stretches for the neck and shoulders. 
  • It's amazing how gentle neck circles, head-to-the-side stretches and shoulder rolls can free up the jaw, which then frees up the tongue. 
  • Never over-stretch; if in doubt, consult a doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist for stretches best for you.
  • Get a shoulder/neck/head massage. This is especially beneficial before stage or studio performance.
2. Let the tongue just ride along with the relaxed, circular chewing movement of the jaw. 

3. Use the tip and front sides of the tongue to articulate lyrics, not the base.
  • When you articulate from the back or base of the tongue, that muscle contracts and bunches up. Because it's attached, it pulls the larynx up, restricting its movement and narrowing the voice channel in the back of the mouth.
  • To articulate words or lyrics, the tip of the tongue should stay at or near the front teeth. Yes, certain vowels and pitches need different tongue involvement but the point is to operate the tongue in the front and keep the back of the tongue relaxed, not bunching or bulking up.
4.  Do NOT overzealously over-flatten the tongue because this will cause tension in the back of the throat. The correct way to lower the tongue for certain pitches and vowels is just to allow the beginning of a yawn.. not the end of the yawn. (People tend to yawn in my lessons a lot!)

5. Try to add more vertical space to all your vowels, even ee's and ooh's.

6. Try to create consonants in the front of your mouth, or your incisors, not your molars.

7.Some people worry their tongue is too large. I have never run into that being a problem, as long as the person activates the tongue more frontally and keeps the jaw flexibly open.

8. Tongue tanglers are terrific and very practical tongue exercises. Unless your tongue assumes the right position it can't articulate clearly, so the intention to clearly articulate self-corrects tight tongue positions. Try saying these phrases three or four times in a row:
  • "eleven benevolent elephants", 
  • "red leather, yellow leather", 
  • "good blood, bad blood", 
  • "tim the thin tinsmith", 
  • Mallory's hourly salary", 
  • "the sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick"
  • "rebel rubber welders" 
9. Do vocal exercises properly. Keep flexibility in your jaw at all times, and don't do them faster than you can without tensing your tongue or jaw! 
  • Try putting two fingers firmly up under your chin, pressing into the tongue base there. Purposefully intend/suggest that this area relax as you sing or talk. Expect the tongue muscle to obey and you'll be amazed at how it does!
  • Try putting your knuckle between your molars and saying or singing something. The lowered jaw helps your tongue base relax. Your voice will sound richer and freer. Then take your knuckle out and try vocalizing like it's still there.
  • Check out this vocal lesson I videotaped with a student on relaxing jaw tension, which relaxes tongue tension:

Want more help?

If you'd like a personal lesson with me to help you with tongue tension or anything else, just hit me up at the contact link on my website. I'd love to work with you!

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Music As Mentor

I've been reading a great book a dear friend gave me called "Athena's Disguises" (thanks, Kim! finally getting to it!) Author Susan Ford Wiltshire, a professor of Classics at Vanderbilt University, published it in 1998. The book uses the multiple disguises of the Greek goddess Athena in Homer's classic epic "Odyssey",  to show us where to look to recognize the mentors who have helped us along the way.  For me this book really increased my gratitude for my own mentors and my determination to pass the good stuff forward.

Anyway, I'd like to share a quote from the book. Millard Sheets, a leading watercolorist and public space designer, was giving a lecture at a local university at which Wiltshire was present. In the chapter of the book which discussed how the arts can mentor, Wiltshire reports:
...Millard spoke of art as a tripartite activity. The first part, he said, is to learn the language, to acquire the skills necessary for our work. The second is to bring everything we know from the life we have lived to the work we do. The third and final part is to build bridges back to the world, to give to the world in our own voice the stories we bring to the language we have learned.
Dear readers, is this not what we should do to be most effective with our voices?
  1. learn the language, acquire the skills...
  2. bring all our experiences individual voices to the work...
  3. create bridges of communication, giving our stories back to the world to help mentor others to higher ground?
To me, this triparte goal would sure beat winning American Idol. What about you?

Oh... and here again are links to the books mentioned...

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Funny Live Gig Solutions That Worked


The road can be a funny place where you have to think on your feet (can I get an Amen?) I want to start a conversation here about odd/hilarious solutions for live gig problems. Here are a small sampling of my experiences:

1. The picture above is a creative fix for the lack of a boom stand. Just recently I was playing in a dance rehearsal room for a charity event benefiting the beautiful Dance Theater of Tennessee. It was a simple low-tech engagement and they had good sound equipment but they didn't have a boom stand (and why should a dance theater know a singer/piano player needs a boom stand instead of a straight stand?). A moment of panic and then an ingenious sound man (I wish I could remember his name) got duct tape and a sponge. Look closely at the picture and you'll see he simply tipped the straight stand over and used the duct tape to secure it with a sponge between it and the metal casing of the keyboard. It wasn't pretty but no one cared... and it worked!

2.  True story from my MTM Records days... The morning van that was supposed to carry my band to the airport after our gig in Phoenix never arrived. Panic set in... then my enterprising band leader conscripted a laundry truck that was picking up at the hotel that moment. For an autographed picture, he drove us to the airport. We had to sit in the back of the van with the bags of dirty laundry - and he had a couple more stops to make before the airport.. but we got there in time for the flight!

3. I used to have a recurring problem of dropping my guitar pick in the body of my guitar during performance. Duct tape to the rescue again... someone just secured several picks to my mic stand:) I just emptied my guitar after each performance so I didn't run out of picks!

4. Another story from my bus days... our band bus headlights went out late one night and as we were booked in another town, we didn't have time to go somewhere and get them fixed. My band leader used a guitar and... yes again... duct tape to make them work - don't ask me how:) Every band needs a MacGyver like this!

5. My band and I played an outdoor concert in Kansas during locust season. The bugs got between our fingers and strings when they were still so what we did was...we moved like rock stars having a very energetic performance- which went over like magic! I also made sure my mouth was open as minimally as possible:)

OK... now I'd love to from you... I KNOW there are some great stories out there, and we can collect them all for future use!


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why You Should Sing "All Of Me" Without Actually Giving It

Sometimes you need to keep it zipped!
A great question was just emailed to me: 
"Could we discuss more the idea of letting your audience know a part of you without feeling like you have given them all of you.  I think this is a problem for me.."
OK, lots of times athletes, singers, public speakers, etc. are advised to give ALL of themselves to their performances. The truth is, if you did that, there would be nothing left of you to do it again, would there? Also, it is NOT true that if you use your voice publically, the public has a right to all of you. This belief can be a particularly treacherous problem for ultra sensitive personalities which include a great deal of creative people (and public entertainers). Here are some suggestions to help make some sense of this subject:
  • First and foremost... you will not be able to build a loyal following unless you can relate to your audience from part of your real self. It's not psychologically healthy to "fake relate"... and audiences can smell the fraud. 
  • However, what I mean is PART of your real self. You can and should stay a bit of a mystery, both for your sake and theirs. Smoke and mirrors have always been a part of the entertainment business. This is not a cop out. People actually DON'T want to know that the entertainer or public speaker they are listening to is afraid, mad, tired or in a bad mood! 
  • Think of public performance as acting... and good acting is not fake. (I love the book "No Acting, Please" with a forward by Jack Nicholson.) It's reacting/relating to-- and getting a response from-- a chosen object of the conversation. It's something you've done before with a real person, so you know how to communicate it. According to the subject matter you are delivering, you can make that object the focus of the lyric or you can make it a sort of composite 'one heart' of your audience. As with acting, stay in focused character while you're on the set (stage/signing booth, recording booth, etc.) and only when you are out of that environment, you can go back to your full, unsensored and unguarded self.
  • Consider the extreme: very successful public acts who hide most of themselves from the public ... Kiss, Marilyn Mason, etc. I would bet money that they draw from a rib or two  and then blow that characteristic up to represent something larger than life for entertainment purposes... while they themselves are able to stay quite private. Note: some acts whose public face is quite moral, positive, loving and compassionate are drawing from very little of themselves, too. To each his own, but it must be hard to keep up appearances if they are TOO far from reality:)
  • Consider the wisdom of establishing healthy 'boundaries'. You are friendly with someone you just meet, and you try to authentically connect from part of yourself, but you don't show "all of you" if you are wise, until that person proves themselves trustworthy of being let in that far. Well, your audience is like that person... you want to connect, but you hopefully wouldn't share your innermost thoughts or move in with them yet!
  •  Have a small circle of accountability partners that you can trust with "All Of You". VERY, VERY important. These may or may not be family members but they are your closest and best friends. Like unique shards of glass, this circle can show you the true reflection of yourself and keep you safe from your own press, your own sweet well-meaning fans AND from mean-spirited critics. 
  • Make sure you have enough personal 'space'... and this is different for different personalities. Ignore this need at your own sanity's peril! Interact as little as possible before going into performance. Then yes, be the social butterfly who actually cares about the people. Next step... get yourself some alone time. Breathe and feel the satisfaction of the event.
  • Laugh at yourself- a lot! It's not about you, anyway:)
Anyone else care to throw in a thought or experience with this? Please do!

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

How to Enrich Thin Voice

I got a good question recently... someone asked for tips to strengthen a thin voice.

There's a bit of a catch-22 to watch for. If you try to "strengthen" a thin voice with just a harder application of breath power, you will end up with a harsh (and strained) voice. The real goal should be to make the thin voice richer. How you do this is basically...
  • Get your breath right: 
Learn to send a confident airstream with just the right balance of breath support and breath control to your vocal cords.
  • Get your throat open: 
Vocal sound is determined by resonation. If the buzz from the vocal cords can reach more of the resonation zones that add their own characteristics to the laryngeal vibrations, the 'sum of the buzz' will be richer. it takes an open throat to allow the transfer of vocal cord vibration to alternative resonators.
  • Get your communicative intention focused:
Articulate your message in such a way as to get a response from the person to whom you're talking or singing. Your resulting body language will choose richer colors which communicate with more power. Consider when you talk in a thin, colorless and guarded way to someone you don't know as opposed to when you speak in an unguarded, richly colorful way to a  friend.

And for those who are counting... these three things happen to be the three points of synergy in Power, Path and Performance vocal training! This stuff works, it really does.

Now I have a question for you: How many of you have had problems with thin, lifeless, hooty, harsh or otherwise weak voices? I'd love to hear from you. After reading this post, what do you think cause your voice to sound thin?

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