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In his classic book 'The Prophet', Kahlil Gibran writes "Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you". Wisdom tends to cross categories; this wise relationship advice has several parallel applications to music. Let's explore them starting with...
SEPARATING RUN-ON SENTENCESRun-on sentences soon lose meaning. For instance, the Star-Spangled Banner notoriously begins with a run-on sentence:
Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight o'er the ramparts we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?OK so it's a run-on question, not a statement, but you get the idea. To give meaning to these lyrics, we need to separate the lines.
Three ways we can separate run-ons are with commas, consonants, and breaths.
Commas:Think of commas as 'insinuated spaces'. These are places where you accent or 're-pull' the start of a word to separate run-on sentences into thought-chunks, or phrases. For best results, I recommend that you pull the word open instead of push it out to articulate this accent. If written out, you would see commas at these points. Such spots don't always correspond to where you need to take a breath... you might have plenty of breath to continue without a pause. But unless you somehow accent the spot to insinuate the beginning of a new phrase, all the lyrics just blend together into a numbing jumble of nonsense.
Consonants:Several of my students are familiar with my correction 'give me your 's's and 't's! How important are they?
Consonants turn vowels into words.Yep. Without articulating consonants clearly enough, words become just... sounds. For both singers AND speakers, you literally lose the power of your message if it depends on the listener understanding the words.
Breaths:Another strategy to separate a run-on sentence is to, of course, take a breath! But don't just take breaths when you feel you're running out, with no attention to thought completion. Separate your phrases strategically... with the purpose of delivering a message that impacts the heart being spoken to.
In this hilarious performance by Kristin Chenoweth on the Ellen show, see how she separates sentence fragments with strategic breaths. Because I advocate a sense of powering your voice from your pelvic floor, I consider this song a wisdom tune!
SEPARATE FROM YOUR INSTRUMENTIf you play an instrument, it can be difficult to master both playing and singing simultaneously. To either learn a new song or do an old one better, try separate practice!
PlayBarely sing while you focus your concentration on playing your guitar, keyboard or other instrument. Practice short sections until you memorize them and playing the song becomes automatic for your hands.
SingThen focus your concentration on singing only. Don't play at all, or just barely play a chord or so, but do either put your hands on your instrument or put a stick such as a back-scratcher or wooden spoon between your palms to replicate the widening of your ribcage your instrument would normally cause. Now you can focus on experimenting with phrasing, vocal licks, melody variations. And you can perfect the techniques you need to ace the difficult sections in your song. Then seal in your lyric memorization by singing the whole thing.
Do BothAfter you feel confident with your playing and singing, then put them together singing and playing simultaneously. Spacing your practice should make the coming together much better- in many ways!
ALLOW SPACE WITH NO FILL
As Beyonce' knows... you don't have to fill every space with a vocal lick! In her classic hit 'Halo', she sings the melody simply for most of the song, and includes her well-executed runs strategically to build the emotion. Spaces separate thoughts, both for singing and speaking. This gives the singer time to breathe and fully set up for the next phrase(s) and gives the listener the opportunity to digest what has just been said or sung. This is one reason more people prefer the singing of Whitney Houston over Maria Carey. Lady Gaga made use of this, too in her highly praised 2016 performance of the Star-Spangled Banner. Some genres of music expect more vocal licks and runs, for sure, but even those pop & r&b songs deliver more emotional response with some space.
The runs may impress, but the spaces express.Another way to use strategic space is to... WAIT... for the next line. In speech, we call it using a pregnant (with meaning) pause. Try laying back behind the beat just enough, delay the onset of the word (especially useful in jazz singing); you can even leave a word out to make the line feel just right. Empty or elongated space can communicate like nothing else, and then well-placed vocal licks truly embellish the message.
EMBRACE PERIODIC SILENCE
Vocal RestThere are important times and reasons to stop sounding your voice.
- to allow an over-used (even with good technique you can't go from 1 to 90 by suddenly singing much longer than you've been) or abused voice to recover.
- to gain new fire, energy, and life for your over-performed or over-rehearsed songs.
- to silently practice vocal technique and become more aware of body/mind/voice connections. I have a whole vocal exercise routine in my 6-disc course in "Power, Path & Performance" that is silent, mental practice.
- to listen to the beauty, inspiration, and wisdom of other voices and songs (though if you have laryngitis, don't do that. Your larynx moves to what it hears, and sometimes your larynx needs to be still.)
MimingTo learn something vocally new, we need to listen without making a sound. It's a mistake to try and sing along immediately, thinking you are supposed to 'get it' that quickly. A great way to learn style, a new lick, anything out of our comfort zone is to immerse our ears in it. Then while listening deeply, silently move your mouth, face, soft palate, jaw and yes, vocal apparatus to imitate what you're hearing. I call this miming exercises. When you actively imagine making a sound, your ear can focus in much more detail to what it's listening to.
The Silent InhaleLastly, breathe in silently! You will take in a much better quality inhale, and you won't dry out your vocal cords like you do with a noisy inhale.
DISCONNECTING COMPLETELYI'm traveling to Crossville, Tennessee with my husband as I write this. I'm getting away for an extended weekend to allow my senses to come alive and my body/mind/spirit to be refreshed. It is so important to disconnect periodically even from the things we love. Like relationships, when we reconnect there will be a freshness, a presence, a renewed gratitude for everything we get to do together.
So go ahead: Make commas, take breaths, separate from your instrument, listen and embrace silence, and periodically take a real break! Be inspired by the vocal brilliance of Pentatonix singing 'The Sound Of Silence'...
OK I'm back from vacation now... finishing the podcast editing of this post. Let me know what you think... please consider leaving me a comment here and/or a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to the audio. That is the best way you can support me and this free vocal training I create for you. Thank you 😎 !