Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Practice Does Not "Make Perfect"

There is no "perfect"!

So, now, what ya gonna do?  Practice can help maintain a level of competence or expertise.  Practice can also contribute to progress.  It may not be noticed the same day or even the same week.  Without practice, you will get worse.  That can be guaranteed.  Practicing the right things, the right way, the right time, and the right amount of time, can help you to progress, to improve and even to maintain very high levels of virtuosity. 

I was at a party a few months ago. There were two professional musicians there. One was a cellist and the other was a flutist. I got to spend some time and chat with the cellist. He told me that he had retired from playing. I asked him, "Do you miss playing?" He said, "Yes, of course I do but I don't have four hours a day to practice now."

I practiced 3 to 4 hours a day for about a year before I decided to sing in a production show in Las Vegas. I also recorded myself every day and sometimes I thought I sounded good, along the way. On mornings following my recording, I listened to myself and usually would hear the progress (however minor) and then take the cassette tape (I used a Tascam recorder which ran at double the speed of normal, thus had good quality) I took the cassette outside and smashed it into little bits with a hammer so that no one would hear how it was not exactly what I had been working toward. It was ok musically but I wanted to sound better and even when I felt an emotion, I didn't hear it on the recording. It was baffling but I persisted. Progress was slow but the feeling started to be audibly perceptible.

Had I given up along the way, I would never have auditioned for the show. I literally earned the right to have confidence in my singing. Three to four hours a day. If that sounds like a lot of time, in college I practiced trombone as much as 6 hours a day and piano 2 hours a day at times. The dues to be in the club are expensive. You give away time and effort but the rewards are far beyond what a non-artist, for lack of a better term, would ever ever know. Progress can be slow at times but patience does and will cure the disease of frustration.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Can C5 Be Sung In Chest Voice by a Tenor?

Many times I see confusion regarding chest voice, as if it is a specific timbre or tone quality.  This is largely due to either no standardization of nomenclature or to misunderstanding of the terminology. 

Chest voice got its name because vibrations from the vocal folds at lower frequencies have sound waves at a size to where they cause sympathetic vibrations in the thorax, or chest. 

Head voice got its name because vibrations from the vocal folds at higher frequencies have sound waves at a size to where they cause sympathetic vibrations in the head.

Technically, chest voice is not a sound, but instead is a range in the voice and is usually where mots people “live” in their speaking voices.  More technically, above chest voice is low middle voice.  Above that is high middle voice, then head voice then the whistle tone register, also called flageolet or superhead voice. 

The direction in which the sound waves travel is something which may be interesting.  In chest voice range, the sound travels mostly straight out through the mouth.  As the frequency of vibration raises, so do the sound waves in direction, to where on high notes, they travel up and on the highest notes, the sound waves are traveling to the back of the head.  These things are measurable and also are not something controllable to a large extent.  It is possible to force the sound forward at the top end of chest voice or the low middle voice but it may not sound musical.  It might sound like yelling or screaming.

There is a term called full voice.  Full voice can be achieved when the vocal folds are vibrating in close enough proximity to where an excess of air does not escape, as it would with a breathy sound.  When a singer can sing in full voice in all ranges, it sounds as if there is one “voice”, not 3 or 4.  It is possible for it all to blend and not change tone quality.  Additionally, this can be done at all dynamic levels from very soft to very loud. 

When properly trained, a tenor should be able to sing a C5 in full voice.  It will sound clear and loud, as if it were in the chest voice register.  A properly trained tenor will also be able to sing any tone with a lighter tone production or even with a breathy quality, should he choose to do so.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Will Learning To Sing Classical Music Help You To Sing Other Genres Better?

The great divide between classical and other styles of music has been so intense at times that it has resembled modern day American politics.  Classical was “right” and everything else was “wrong”.  Not many singers of other styles also shared the opinion of diametrically opposed sides but some did.

My wife is a professional dancer, so looking at another art from could shed some light.  In ballet training, there are things which greatly improve specific things with a dancer.  A ballet-trained dancer may have a better line, will dance with shoulders down instead of raised, will have excellent balance, a sense of center, may have better turns, better extension, may have coordination and better communication between mind and body and may also be able to learn steps and routines faster, easier and better.  All this comes with a caveat.  If the style of ballet is carried over to hip hop, to jazz, to tap or other styles, it will make the other styles look stiff, too smooth, or even silly.  With so many dance competition shows on TV, you may have seen this.

The reason I gave the example of dance is that it also applies to singing.  I know of one or two classically trained singers who can sing Pop and R&B and without a hint of anything classical or operatic.  Julia Migenes and Josh Groban can do this.  Many classical trained singers either cannot or will not.

You must have heard the difference in how a classical singer sings, as compared to a singer of popular music.  Proper training will result in breathing correctly, no register transition area issues (no cracks), having a fully developed and extensive range, having control over all dynamics, and having excellent endurance.

Some differences between classical and other styles are: tone, timbre, articulation, rhythmic structure and its interpretation, pronunciation, enunciation, vowel formation, and musicianship.  This is not to say that a classical singer has poor musicianship but a jazz singer may have musicianship which extends beyond the norm of a classical singer, particularly with modes, extended chords, altered chords, and other harmonic construction not found in classical music.  The ear training for a jazz singer may similarly extend beyond that of a classical singer.  Rather than turning it into a moralistic and right versus wrong thing, think of it as different, instead.

Learning to sing classical music may be beneficial or it may be detrimental to a non-classical singer, depending on the instructor and the instructor’s view, dogmatism and pedantry regarding the subject, or a more open minded approach.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Is It All About High Notes?

"If I don't have high notes, the odds are that I won't ever be a famous singer, right?"

Art isn’t about odds.  Art isn’t about statistics.  Art is about expressing yourself.  It is also about being vulnerable but that sounds scary, doesn’t it.  When you sing to express, rather than to impress, that could be a goal.

Think of technique as something that allows you to express yourself, not as the goal.  Most singers, when performing, have no attention whatsoever on technique.  They have attention on it to some degree when preparing to perform and prior to that, to raising the level of the art of singing which allows the singer to more fully express.

Notes do not have to be high to be good.  Singing doesn’t have to be extremely loud to be good.  Loudness may affect the outcome of a hog calling contest but with singing, dynamics matter.  The variation in loud and soft and in between can be very aesthetic.

Some singers, such as Sade, may or may not have high notes.  We do not really know.

I was once told to not go to the extremes of my ability and to stay in a place where I could maintain control and to not have things fall apart on me.  I like making mistakes in my practicing, where they are safe to make and only I know about them.  In a performance, I won’t wander into a territory of uncertainty.  I always go for the art and do it with a thing I call artist’s integrity.  My standards are at a highly professional level, one which afforded me the opportunity to sing in a large showroom in Las Vegas.  I knew I was good enough.

Perfection exists only as a silly word and an unachievable (and undesirable) level.  If perfect singing is staying perfectly in the center of a pitch throughout its duration and if that is sustained, it will not sound human.  Some people overuse pitch correctors and they get a “robot” electronic sound.  You can hear it on some recordings.  Professional standards are actually above perfection, if perfection is staying perfectly on pitch because there is a beauty in being human and not a machine.

High notes are not as important as singing in a smooth connected meaningful way with emotion and more.  The more is hard to define but we know it when we hear it.  Make it pretty or intense or strong or whatever you want in your song.  You can make it interesting to listen to.  Music is a hearing art.  Listen to many singers and many styles as part of your preparation.  A famous trumpet player, the late Clark Terry, gave this advice: emulate, assimilate, innovate.  When you achieve this, you will be more than just good and more than just interesting.  High notes are not really hard, if someone shows you how to do them correctly and safely.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cross Training

Cross training. Some of the best athletes use it. Football players in a ballet class has to be quite a sight! Flexibility and coordination may be gained from ballet class. Ballet can also train a person to have more kinesthetic awareness or even aesthetic awareness, or the lack of it. Some athletes engage in related or unrelated sports: golf, baseball, track, tennis, swimming, etc. All can enhance aspects of strength and coordination which can add up to control and endurance being improved.

What are we getting at? How can cross training apply to music and to writing music? I've met many musicians who play more than one instrument. Most have a favorite instrument and it will usually be the one that is their best. Still, there is much to be gained from learning other instruments, even if it is more like a hobby in the approach. In college, classes for music majors can include: percussion techniques, woodwind techniques, string techniques, brass techniques, and vocal techniques. In those classes you can learn a little about the instruments and gain some familiarity with how it feels and sounds to play them.

Cross training can apply to finding inspiration. Anything and anyone can be inspirational. If not participating in other arts, I can still be inspired by them. Maybe I'll take more dance classes. For now, maybe I can watch dance on YouTube or go to a live performance. Museums, galleries, and exhibitions of paintings, drawings, and sculpture will inspire me. A recent one I attended is gigantic. TEFAF was in Maastricht. You enter and see some shops with gorgeous paintings and sculpture and speak with people inside. Awesome! You are not even in the main area yet. Thousands of square feet of exhibits by names you should recognize, many you will not, and the art is from all over Europe. It is too much to explain. Several restaurants and bars make it possible to enjoy the day even more, not having to leave for a drink or a bite. It is also a social event and the interaction and reactions of and with others just add to the experience.

If you're not inspired by art or other arts, travel may be great cross training. Inspiration doesn't always show up at your doorstep. Sometimes you must step away and seek inspiration. Every continent has great places to explore and discover. I've only seen 2.5 so far and a few islands in the Caribbean. For me, Paris, Venice, Rome, Tuscany, Munich, Aachen, Amsterdam, Maastricht, and Barcelona were some high points for experiencing culture, architecture, art, music, and food. Food can be inspirational.




Monday, April 03, 2017

Was I A Great Singer Before Getting Lessons?

Before training as a singer, I was good enough to work professionally and did.  I worked in Las Vegas, Florida, and 12 other states on tour.  I got a job, singing in a show in Las Vegas and I had a “break” in my voice.  I sang below the break and that is what I had done for years.  I thought that it was just part of singing and that there was nothing I could do about it.  Then I started studying with a lady and in a few months, I had no break.  I had no strain.  I had power throughout my entire range, which had over an octave added to it.  I could finally sing R&B songs in the original keys without cracking.

The lady insisted that I learn to teach what she taught me.  We met daily for several weeks and she then told me that I had to get some students.  I did.  The results were miraculous, the singers told me.  My teacher told me that she had never seen anyone get the results with singers as fast as I did.  I mostly did what she had taught me but I also had experience with trombone professionally, so I had some added insight that no other vocal coach could possibly have.  I had studied with one of the best brass teachers in the world.

One of my students was a plumber.  He had been a singer, playing the lounges in Las Vegas, until he injured his voice from singing wrong, had surgery, and could not work professionally after that.  He had a great tone quality.  He had a bad break in his voice and couldn’t get to the high notes like before his surgery.  When he sang, I noticed that he would fill up with air and then as he sang, he flexed his abs very hard.  A light went off in my head so I asked him, ”Are you a brass player, too?” He said, “Yes.  Trombone.”  Some brass players are told to fill up with air.  It is a very unnatural way to play, especially on short musical phrases.  My brass teacher had taught me a different way to breathe, which was to not fill up with air, unless it was a long phrase at high volume.  I thought about how to get him to relax.  I had him sit backwards on a chair, facing the back of the chair while straddling it and to lean his body into the chair, to take all his weight and to relax his abs completely.  My teacher was there and she and the man’s wife came running into the studio when they heard the return of his voice in all of its brilliance and range.  The three of them were crying and praying and thanking me, too.  He went back to work as a singer, which was his love and his passion.

For me, training got me to go beyond what I could do before training.  I went from frustration to freedom.  It took a little time but it also did feel like a miracle when in a lesson my break was gone.  There was one specific exercise I did when it happened.  The others before that one had prepared me for this day.

I studied karate privately.  There were many days of stretching before the day came when I could kick straight up.  Progress is incremental as long as you are doing the right exercises, the right way, in the right sequence, and for the right amount of time.  That amount of time will vary with each individual.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Can A Bad Singer Become A Good Singer?



How bad is “bad”?  How good is “good”?  What is bad and what is good?

A study was done at Stanford University and it was discovered that the only people who are truly tone deaf have brain damage.  I worked with a brain-damaged karaoke singer and was able to get him to match pitch, carry a tune, and to sing in tune with accompaniment, so that may not be an absolute “unfixable” condition.  My having the curse of perfect pitch was quite helpful in resolving his issues with hearing and identifying how his voice fit in with music.

Without some analysis of the singer, it is a bit of a guessing game.  I would assess several factors, but first would determine the goals the singer has: To sing to perform and is the goal to be an amateur or a pro?  Once that is established, I would have the singer warm up and then sing a song.  Then the analysis would be done.  Within the many components of musicianship, on a scale of 1 to 10, how do those rank?  Without analysis, there is no way to know where to start.  How is: pitch, rhythm, tonality, accuracy of intervals, perception and performance of melodic lines, etc.?  It is a long list.

Then, I would evaluate if there were any issues with the 21 most common problems of singers which include: articulation, breath control, use of the voice (as opposed to abuse of the voice) and many more.  I will usually know which ones are problems, after having heard a song sung.

There are 18 components of singing and performance mastery.  Artistic imagination and objectivity are but two of the 18.

I do not do a “one size fits all” kind of instruction.  I do not have singers work on things they have already mastered.  I don’t have a mental image of how a singer should sound.  Everyone is different from everyone else.  No two singers sound exactly alike and imitating singers can be dangerous to the health of the voice.  You do not fit into an imaginary mold.  I do not waste singers’ time with useless or outdated vocal exercises.  Any vocal exercises I use are proven, since there have been over 200 Grammys won by people who use them.  Each one has a purpose.  Some are used to build the voice, while others are used to maintain it or, in a state of advancing in quality and agility.  This includes range, which will eventually be extended to its fullest, but without causing strain or other problems.