Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: November 2018

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.

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. 
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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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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Vocal Breaks: What, When, Why and How to Mend Them

Does your vocal register transition feel like this?

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
Unwanted vocal breaks are among the most frustrating, maddeningly puzzling and persistent problems a singer can have.

What is a vocal break?

It is a place in your voice where the coordination between muscles in your larynx is interfered with in some way. What you experience is a crack in your voice and big difference in tone quality of your sound above and below the break.

Purposeful yodeling, or the judicious use of a little cry-like style in appropriate places when singing is a very controlled vocal technique and can even give a note a sort of leg up and bust some counterproductive vocal tension. That's actually why some singers have learned to use those little cries, especially in country genres. What we want to focus on is the unwanted cracks in our range.

These are uncontrollable, distracting, embarrassing, range-shortening, tone-sabotaging and pitch stealing little uninvited guests. It is most common in the passaggio, or transition, between chest and head voice. With typical counterproductive strategy, popular genre singers bring unmixed chest voice up too high and classical singers bring head voice down too low to cross richly into the next zone without breaking. Some people even have multiple breaks, or passaggi, along their range.

What causes vocal breaks?

Vocal register breaks are created and made worse by whatever interferes with changes in length, tension and mass of the vocal cords, or with the mechanism that tilts the thyroid cartilage as the singer moves through different pitches. Freeze that tilt and voila… a break will occur, along with vocal strain. What causes this interference? Here are the top 6 culprits I see:
  1. Locking the jaw (this also interferes with the lift of the soft palate). 
  2. Tightening the root of the tongue (which goes along with locking the jaw) 
  3. Freezing the spine (which will tighten lots of other things). 
  4. Tensing shoulders (which will cause tension to flow to jaw, neck, and soft palate). 
  5. Numb facial expression or eye movement (which will limit vocal tone color by freezing movements that lift the soft palate and expand the nasopharynx). 
  6. Choosing to sing or talk too high or too low for current vocal capability, (which will cause pushing leading to chronic stress, tension and strain in the vocal apparatus).

Why do we use dysfunctional vocal technique?

  • To try to keep the voice FROM breaking (unaware that guarding and over-controlling to try and eliminate the problem inadvertently makes it worse) 
  • To try and hit notes that are difficult (again, a bit of a catch-22) 
  • Because of some erroneous vocal training that says to keep the jaw or any of the other body parts I just mentioned perfectly still, (Run, don't walk, from this kind of teaching) 
  • Because we developed bad speech pattern habits - such as talking too low, using a lot of vocal fry (constantly dragging gravel) or speaking without enough breath support (chronically holding your breath or talking from the throat or chest area instead of from the low pelvic floor. Sometimes you feel a “bubble in your throat”, your voice is weak and often cracks. 
  • We try to sing in keys that are too high or low for the current capabilities of the voice, not realizing the vocal dysfunction this is causing.

A few great reasons to re-train your voice to mend unwanted vocal breaks:

Smoothing the transitions in your voice can be attained by gaining more strength, flexibility and most importantly... coordination of the muscles of your vocal apparatus. Among the perks of the blended voice:
  • The vocal cords can freely fluctuate in length, tension and thickness, and the larynx can tilt freely, directed by the automatic nervous system instead of sabotaged by extrinsic muscles of the throat that create tension and muddy the works. 
  • It creates the “mixed or middle voice” which widens your practical vocal range. 
  • It requires you to balance your breath support and control, leading to all kinds of vocal ability increases. 
  • It enables vibration from your larynx to resonate in the open spaces of the nose, sinuses, pharynx, mouth, and as some suggest, the trachea -- resulting in rich tone colors and strain-free high and low notes. 
  • It makes your voice feel GREAT! You will have NO vocal strain. 
  • And...it creates confidence because these techniques you learn will erase the break AND you can do it anytime you want!

5 ways to begin changing dysfunctional (bad) vocal habits:

  1. First become aware of what you are actually doing. Watch yourself perform a song in front of a mirror. Do you see any of those actions I just listed? 
  2. Record yourself talking. Do you hear tension, monotone, cracking, bubble, gravel, lack of breath? Try talking with much more animation and "life" and record it again until your body, spine, face, tongue, jaw are loose and flexible. 
  3. Do corrective wall and mirror work. In front of a mirror, stand with your back against the wall... back of the head and heel touching the wall. Now slowly try to loosen those areas I named on purpose and watch yourself singing or speaking. Notice the effects. 
  4. Out of the pressure of public performance, privately practice doing things a different way. At first it may get worse before it gets better - like it would be if we were learning to walk with a different stride. Relax, relax, relax and trust the process. 
  5. If you have my PPP vocal training course, just listen over and over to the first two Cd's to let the insights sink in.

My specific approach to mending vocal breaks:

Before I developed my vocal training method, I had the worst and most un-mendable (or so I thought) vocal break I've ever heard in anyone. My brilliant Nashville vocal coach Gerald Arthur helped me get my voice back after it was damaged by an endotracheal tube. I still had that pesky break, though with Gerald's help I learned to mask it well and continue on with my vocal career as a session singer, and then a recording artist. Thank you, Gerald!

Not too long after I began teaching voice I was given a book by a student who asked me to explain it to him. The author was vocal coach Jeffrey Allen of California. In his book 'Secrets of Singing' Mr. Allen suggested holding a mental picture of a question-mark shaped path that the voice should take. That imagery opened up a whole world for me.

Check out how my 12 minute voice blending lesson with Julia Bowen

I began experimenting with what that vocal path imagery meant to me and how I could use it with my students. Long story short... this is what mends vocal breaks every day in my office: 
  • Locate and feel your breath power source in your pelvic floor – 
  • Use your power to lift you into the balcony above and behind you. Don’t lift your chin… float it levelly. From there - 
  • Articulate the syllable 'YAH' . Do not move your head forward. Drop your jaw and raise your eyebrow and with a subtle twist of your head and body, gently pull backwards against the wall like you're being space-invaded by someone with bad breath. 
  • Now pull a siren - slur a vowel such as 'oo' from chest to head voice. Be careful not to lift your chin... just twist tall and pull your head back across the transition zone, which should open your throat and ribcage allowing you to 'stretch the vocal wrinkle out'! 
  • Try a little jaw action. Say 'oo-woo-woo' by drop your jaw on the 'woo's'. Now try the siren again, opening your jaw in that chewing motion at the beginning, high note, and end.
If you’re used to pushing your voice, you may find this voice path confusing, often frustrating when first trying to learn it, but it works. If you've been pushing your voice through your break, this will feel like learning to walk all over again. But every one of my students will tell you that no matter what genre you sing, it’s well worth the effort. Every vocal exercise you do should be developing muscle memory to sound your voice using the right technique.

To this day, if I push my voice even a bit instead of pull it, I will find myself back with my old break. But I know how to erase the pesky thing now, and I can do it any time I want- just by choosing to express my voice via the imagery of the right voice path.

For more information on personal lessons and courses in re-training your voice, see Power, Path and Performance vocal training. While you’re there, sign up for your free 5 page report on vocal health, plus my monthly newsletter and updates on the All Things Vocal blog and podcast.

I'd love your thoughts on blending. Has this information helped you?

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