All Things Vocal Blog & Podcast by Judy Rodman: April 2017

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, April 29, 2017

How Your Voice and Your Messages Create Each Other

As you think, so shall you sing...
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The message you are delivering is the autopilot that works your voice. That means your message actually directs the movement of the muscles, cartilage and other tissues of your vocal apparatus. The message you're communicating even affects how you breathe, and the shape of your throat channel! Let's talk about how this happens, and how we can use this information to give your voice more power.

The vocal apparatus is operated mostly by the automatic nervous system which I refer to as the autopilot, not the conscious mind. An autopilot (in tech speak a 'macro') is configured by consciously choosing the job we want it to do. In the case of the voice, the job is: To Communicate a Message! 

How the voice creates messages

Effective communication requires shaping vocal sound so the message can be understood by the intended ear. As discussed in this interesting article I found, shaping vocal sound is accomplished by
I would add that movement of eyes, jaw, soft palate, and the larynx itself help differentiate messages. The degree of tightness in the ribcage, stiffness in the spine, active language in the face and body cause subtle changes in vocal sound, too. Whew! Amazing how many shades of tone colors can be created in the human voice!

Let's try experimenting with some exercises. Using the sentence "You better not do that" see how many different messages you can create:
  • Say or sing it 5 times, each time emphasizing a different one of the 5 words. Notice how the message of the sentence changes, becoming a threat, a warning, a pleading, an invitation to play, sarcasm.
  • Say or sing it while moving the jaw with a slight chewing motion, then with a very still jaw. Notice the still jaw message is more menacing.
  • Now do it with a tight ribcage, then with your spine moving like a lava lamp.
  • Try it with a flat, then lifted, soft palate. 
  • If you know how, overlift (it will sound thin and strained) and then overdrop (it will sound hooty) your larynx while sounding the message.
  • Do it with a numb 'poker face', then while smiling and moving your eyes around.
  • Try pushing it out with a lot of (uncontrolled) breath, then pulling it out with wide ribs but using very little (controlled) breath. Oddly enough, the second way can sound a lot more confident!
These are only a few of the variations the human voice can use to create different messages out of the same 5 words!

How messages create the voice

Your choice of message will definitely change the configuration of your autopilot! Try focusing on the following messages and notice how it changes the working parts of your breath, throat and speech organs (lips, teeth, tongue). Sing or say a phrase like 'you're the reason I feel this way' and with the same 7 words, intend to send these different messages to the listener: 
  • you're the reason I feel this way (you make me happy)
  • you're the reason I feel this way (you made me angry)
  • you're the reason I feel this way (you left me lonely)
  • you're the reason I feel this way (you gave me this courage)
How did your choice of message change your voice? Your breath? Your throat? Your face? Where in your mouth did the words come from? What did you have to do to create those messages?

Messages that diminish the voice 

Sometimes we aren't consciously focused on a message, but we still deliver one. Here are some counterproductive messages that get delivered when the singer or speaker distracted, scattered, insecure or tired. Quite often they even result in vocal fatigue and strain. The response they get is usually negative or none:
  • I don't know what these words mean. I'm just making noises.
  • I'm bored with this song. It's not worth my time or yours.
  • I'm sick/ weak/ stressed/ tired/ worried/ otherwise in need of your pity.
  • Didn't I just hit a great high note there?
  • I'm scared. Don't hurt me, audience!
  • I don't know who I'm talking to. Certainly not you.
  • I suck. I'm just proving it to you.
  • This is a vocal exercise (not a message). Laugh, then come back when I have something to tell you.
  • I'm singing GOOD... you want to give me the PRIZE... I'm the BEST... I can do more VOCAL LICKS than anyone else (I hear these messages a lot at contests, church, and sometimes awards shows). 

Messages that empower the voice

The best messages are authentic, and strong enough to get the exact response desired. That means the choices of vocal tone color are perfectly matched to the meaning of the lyric being articulated, and the shape of that tone is as focused as the point of a spear on piercing the heart being sung to, eliciting a powerful response. 

To deliver such messages, you have to be crystal clear to whom you're communicating, and what response you want. And ALWAYS focus your message to one heart (or the one composite heart of a group)! 

The voice really exists for one reason: to deliver messages. 

How well that message is created will determine the strength of the response you get. THIS is the power of your vocal performance! Even when going after a commercial vocal career, the paradox is that vocal performance is the most powerful and valuable when it's focused on making a particular heart understand something at an emotional level. Your gift is made for giving.

Want more?

Try Power, Path and Performance vocal training.
Communicating the message is a primary cornerstone of my 3-stranded vocal training method, with balancing breath support/control and keeping an open throat comprising the other two. The synergy of Power, Path and Performance courses and vocal lessons creates significant vocal improvement with immediate and ongoing gains... and without strain. Check it out at

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Why the Message is Music's Point of the Spear, and How To Miss It

My bowed psaltery
NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
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What I'm about to share with you is rather humbling, but I've come to believe the best teaching is informed by actual experience. That said... I'm going to teach you a fresh lesson I learned this weekend about musical performance. In this case, the voice was that of my bowed psaltry. It's a German variation of the ancient plucked psaltry. This one is laid out like a mini-piano keyboard, and I play between the pegs with two bows. I place it on a tripod (mine has a screw hole in the back) so the wooden sound board can vibrate freely.

I was invited by Melissa Dupuy, brilliant multi-instrumentalist, writer and teacher who frequently plays at Nashville's 2nd Presbyterian, to play this instrument I hadn't played in years for both Sunday morning services. I would be in a quartet of musicians for an instrumental round of the 8 bar cannon 'When Jesus Wept'. It's a beautiful piece, and the other players - on guitar, recorder, violin - were truly gifted musicians. I'd never heard the song, and had to translate the sheet music into numbers to learn it because my bowed psaltry is tuned in G, not C. Also, I had never played it with anyone else, so I'd only tuned it to itself. It was about 1/4 step sharp, so I tuned all strings down with a guitar tuner (a major feat itself for this delicate instrument) and practiced for days to try and get my bowing-between-the-pegs chops back up. Melissa kindly came over to rehearse a couple of times. I felt ok by the time Sunday rolled around, but I found myself unusually a bit shall we say... anxious!

To get to the church for our first and only practice before the early service, I had to get up far earlier than is my custom, so there was that. I wore heels, which is usually something my lazy legs only do when I get to sit down a lot. Coffee was non-negotiable. Drank my protein smoothie in the car while my husband John drove. We were also joining the church last Sunday, so there was that to do between services. They actually vote on you in the Presbyterian denomination. We love the people there so much already, but there was still that fresh meat probie aspect... and I'd be performing for the first time for them, too!

OK so it gets to be mid-service; time for the offertory. We've been standing for a while, so my heeled legs are feeling a bit fatigued. Did I say I started the round? Yep. It's a light, ethereal sounding instrument, so we put it first to give it sonic space. And of course my bow slipped a bit. Did they hear that? Also the rosin in my case was hard as a fossel. There could be some dinosaur DNA in it. So my bow was a bit scratchy, and harmonics appeared from the psaltry that were reminiscent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Hmm. The psaltry was mic'd so its volume was balanced in the auditorium, but we didn't have monitors, so I couldn't hear the thing when the other beautiful instruments came in for their part of the round! I realized mid-performance how much I depend on hearing what my strings are playing. We finished; no one seemed appalled, and I pretended nothing was wrong. However, my husband knew I needed some air. Yep. Oh well, I'll never have to do that again. Oh no... yes I do... there's the 11 o'clock service and tons more people!

Between services, I drank more coffee, unexpectedly took sweet compliments from several folks who had attended the early service and then hunted down the violin player, from whom I begged a bit of her jade rosin. Quickly rosined up both my bows and prayed for help! It really was much better this time; the fresh rosin made a quality difference, I focused on the pegs and sweated my way through. Did I say these musicians were awesome? after the service, I got all kinds of questions about my odd instrument, and comments about how cool these particular 4 instruments sounded together. Whew. Driving home I felt like a truck had run over me and then backed up. Amazing how much stress I experienced with this.

So, as is my habit, I thought back on it all day, and a lightbulb came on. I had forgotten what I know and teach... it's about the MESSAGE, dummy! I had focused on perfection of playing, on what people thought, if my mistakes had been noticed, if my musicianship was judged inadequate... on MYSELF! This is not like me. But it was true. Everyone was so kind and complimentary, but I figured I was just barely able to pull it off. Thank God I guess the music blessed the room anyway!

Here's what I missed:

The point of the spear of this music, like all art, is the message. And this was the message I had missed on Palm Sunday: Jesus hurt! Jesus was in every kind of pain one could imagine... physical, emotional, even spiritual pain. The song's haunting melody sings of Jesus' deep suffering. A 'man of sorrows', Christian belief says he is more than able to be present with and care for all who suffer, and to follow Jesus means we do the same. This message was all I needed to have avoided the stress and anxiety of delivering it. 

Next time, I will remember. (Remind me I said that!) My job whenever I am playing or singing is two-fold: 
  1. To prepare my instrument or voice and rehearse so I know the music like the back of my hand.
  2. When performing, to focus on and deliver the message in the music. Period.
Oh, I'm also going to get myself some Jade rosin just in case anyone ever asks me to play the bowed psaltry again!

Humbly yours:)

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