All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: June 2012

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!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Two Reasons You Should You NOT Sing

Sometimes we really should not sing - or even talk - if we want our voices to remain healthy. Two big reasons:
  • When vocal cords are swollen with active infection. 
During the condition commonly known as laryngitis, it is not at all helpful to even warm up. But note that after the infection has subsided, sometimes vocal cords are still puffy. Careful and gradual warming up is called for in this case. But not when the cords are still sick. How do you know? If careful warming up for say 5 or 10 minutes does not make your voice feel better, stop. You are either doing your vocalises wrong or your cords are still infected. Silence is golden... and that includes your speaking voice. By all means don't whisper... that is worse than talking clearly.

Bottom line... Don't add insult to injury. After laryngitis, go on voice rest until your cords are ready!
  • When the body is too tired to support and control the breath.
It takes a lot of core energy to support our voices properly. When we can't (or don't) apply balanced breath support and control, the vocal cords and nearby musculature in throat, neck and shoulders have to try and take on the task... which causes fatigue, limitation and lack of control in all areas. It can also cause a degree of vocal strain that you continue to feel next day. If you're applying breath properly, the next day of singing should actually be easier!

I was practicing some songs with my husband for our band 6Play and I found this out freshly. About half way into the songlist we usually go through, I noticed that the juice fast I was on for the day left me with an energy lag (duh!). Though I certainly know how, I could not for the life of me support my voice properly. I stopped when I noticed my voice was not liking the feeling of singing.... well before any vocal strain could set my vocal stamina back.

Bottom line... If you are physically tired, drained or even overly hungry or tight, don't sing- at least not for long! - and again, limit talking. Get some rest, food, water and recovery time before using your voice. Your vocal cords will thank you, I promise.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Should You Do Your Own Background Vocals?

Thom Flora and Judy Rodman singing bgvs

Doing your own background vocals on your recording project can be a very good idea, or can sabotage your project. Here are two big factors that should be considered as you make the decision whether to sing your own background vocals (bgvs) or to hire other singers:

The Recording Budget-
Singing your own backgrounds save or cost you money. Questions to ask yourself or your producer:
  • What is your realistic total budget?
    • No matter what type of background vocals would be best, you should never scrimp on studio time for lead vocals to have enough budget left for bgvs.
  • How fast can you be good enough in your vocal performance?
    • Do you have enough vocal ability, ear training and studio experience to not cost yourself more studio time than it would cost to hire another singer?
  • Is your overall producer also great at producing vocals or is a vocal producer specialist included on your team who can help you both with the quality of your vocals and with your choice of harmony parts and vocal arrangements?
    • Understand that veteran session singers can really add uniqueness and creativity to bgv arrangements. How much is that worth to your project?
    • Would it be worth paying a little more studio time to get some on-the-spot practical training and experience to creating and singing your own background vocals?
    • Consider working your bgv arrangements out in pre-production vocal lessons. After your leads are done, bring the rough tracks with the leads to your background vocal-strategy lesson. Or, if you pick up parts very well, just create the arrangements right on the session (called doing 'head charts') with the help and suggestions of your vocal producer.
The Sound-
Singing your own parts can add or detract from the final sound of your project. Points to ponder and discuss with your producer:
  • What to listeners to the type, lyrical content or genre of a particular song prefer to hear?
    • This will determine the texture, tightness and tone you want in backing vocals.
    • For instance, many gospel-flavored or rock genres of songs tend to be enhanced by the sound of multiple background singers. I often hire three or more singers for this type of music. If a choir texture is called for, I hire as many as six or eight singers and have them do multiple tracks, sometimes having singers switch parts for the sound of an even larger choir.
    • Some jazz, pop and country songs sometimes are better served with one harmony voice that can trace the lead voice like a thin film. Sometimes the artist who is a studio veteran can do that best.
  • What background sound would add most authentically to the emotion in the lyric?
    • Would a rich background vocal blanket or cushion add that special magic to take the heart of the listener over the edge? You will get a richer, thicker vocal ambience with multiple voices. 
    • Or are the lyrics so intimate that it detracts from the story and the emotion to add thick background vocals (bgv) or to rich a sound? Consider one bgv, maybe do it yourself, or don't put any bgvs on it at all.
I sang almost all my own background vocals when I was an MTM Records artist, because I was already a seriously experienced session singer before my solo career. However, for a few songs, we added the flavor of background singers like Janis Ian, Thom Skyler, Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy. Their voices really added to the richness of the albums.

We're working a few of those hits up to include in the new songs of my new band Judy Rodman and 6Play. I have to tell you, I really think having our guitar player Eric Normand and backing vocalist Jennifer O'Brien on bgvs really adds a texture that adds to the emotional reach of those songs. That's why we chose to have all three of us on our first 6Play recording instead of just me.

I, as well as Thom Flora and lots of my other pro session singing friends still do a lot of bgvs for others where we are the only singer, covering all the parts. This saves money for the client, and each of us makes sure the sound is as rich as possible. However, we do understand that if it's in the budget, there are some textures for which you need more than one background singer. Sometimes not all of the group sing on all the songs. The best way to decide is to consider each song on its own merit.... what does it need? Sing your own bgvs or book background singers accordingly.

For a ton of great studio vocal training, check out my pro multimedia guide 'Singing In The Studio'

Wondering... What do you do about background vocals on your projects? Leave a comment to join the conversation!

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Your Voice In The Night

Your voice in the night has a sound all its own.

We sing and talk in our sleep and our dreams. We come up with lyrics, melodies, creative solutions to problems, direction for life. The subconscious mind is freed up to explore in ways that the controlled, awake, conscious mind cannot. The problem is that the conscious mind soon overtakes, controls and sublimates the subconscious mind pretty soon after we wake up.

Morning pages:

There is cool way to capture and use your voice in the night, suggested in a great book for creators called "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. Her concept is called "Morning Pages". To put it in a more earthy way, t's a brain dump. You write three stream of consciousness pages of unedited words FIRST THING in the morning before your conscious mind takes over.

Odd things appear in morning pages. Sometimes it's just nonsense, sometimes it's a brilliant idea, a creative solution, a secret longing of the heart that you've squashed or a persistent worry that really needs to be worked out. At the very least it frees up your conscious mind by untangling some of the subconscious threads of thought.

Night pages:

Another way to capture your night voice is to have a pen and paper pad next to your bed. Those 3:00am musings can be quickly jotted down when they wake you up before they turn into half-remembered jibberish later in the morning.

Try listening to your night voice, especially if your day voice feels uninspired or stuck. It has sure sung some great songs for me.

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Learning Vocal Style - What You Must Master

What techniques turn that particular lightbulb on?

Learning a new style or new genre of singing is a lot like learning another language. And just like a new language, we learn best when we immerse our ears in it and figure out what makes it sound authentic.

Acquiring a new vocal style or genre includes mastering new types of...
  • Phrasing
 Jazz singer Jane Monheit and pop singer Alanis Morrissette have quite different approaches to phrasing. The jazz singer phrases like speech... it's laid back, legato smooth with emphasis on the downbeats of phrases like a jazz pianist. The pop singer's phrasing is very much on the beat, with inner beat lyrics artfully tucked in phrases like a percussion instrument.
  • Diction
The type of diction, or articulation, that you use can vary greatly in different musical genres. Get it wrong and you sound like an American in beginner French! Take R&B and musical theater. R&B diction is relaxed, flowing easily from word to word, not overpronounced. Listen to Brian McKnight. On the other hand, musical theater diction needs to be crisp, clearly formed. A fun example is Kristin Chenoweth. I would caution that whatever the genre, the lyrics need to be understood by that genre's audience (in otherwords, articulated in the way they are used to hearing). Otherwise, you lose 1/3 of your performance impact.
  • Embellishments (vocal licks)
Melodic embellishments, commonly known as vocal licks, are an important marker of the genre you're trying to sing. R&B singers often use rapid fire type vocal runs. Think Rihanna.

Country singing tends to use more slurs and trail offs. Vince Gill and my vocal student Pam Tillis are good examples of country style. Jason Aldean reveals a rocker style of country. But you hear the slurs and trail offs.

Pop singing typically uses less slurring, quicker vocal lick articulation, slurring to the center of the note quicker. Check out Bruno Mars for an example.

Hard rock/metal of course makes use of screams, rasp and cries. "Immigrant Song" from Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with Karen O and Trent Resnor provides a great example. Better yet, check out my vocal student and friend Salem Jones with her band "One Soul Thrust". Warning... you must know how to do these vocal embellishments in a healthy way or you won't last in this genre. Salem trains like a vocal athlete.
  • Vibrato
Bluegrass singing uses no vibrato (straight tone) or what I like to call a fast 'shimmer'. Alison Krauss is the queen of this genre. Southern gospel singers often use slow wave vibratto. Check out my friend Ronny Hinson's classic song "The Lighthouse". Jazz singing requires complete control of vibrato... when to use straight tone and when to shimmer it out, quite by choice. Pop singer sometimes use a gentle vibrato, like my vocal student Mat Kearney.
  • Rhythm
Both big band, blues and hip-hop singers lay lyrics consistently behind the beat just a bit. Consider Alicia Keys on her smash "Fallin".  R8B singers sometimes lay back and sometimes sing right on the beat. Pop and bluegrass singers usually stay centered on the beat.
  • Subgenre Variables
 More than ever, genres are cross-pollinating each other. Figure out your favorite singers within the over-all genre you want to learn and check out how their choices of all the above. Study even more nuances of the style you want to learn, such as tone (how nasal or masky is their sound?), pitch habits (do they tend to flat thirds or hit the center of the third exactly, etc), how do they pronounce vowel sounds and dipthongs, so they like to flip into head voice ?

Next post... the fastest way to learn all this stuff.

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