Monday, December 31, 2012

NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS

If you haven't made a goal (or goals) for this year, and you like to do the "New Years Resolutions" thing, today is your last day in 2012. I have a few suggestions. I'll be following these, too, so we can keep in touch and share our successes and our challenges along the way. Michelangelo had an interesting perspective, which is in this quote: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti How many of us have achieved our mark that we knew was beneath our talents and abilities? This quote will mean much more when you read about the life of Michelangelo and how he pursued his artistic creations. He was prolific. Another quote: “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn't call it genius. ” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti This one shows humility and the reality of what it takes to do the highest level of your abilities. People who are doing their art with a backup plan for life will do the backup plan, almost without exception. There are exceptions, though. Some people are able to do "both", are able to have "both" but make no mistake; they did not neglect the arduous road to great art. The singers who do not put in the time with musicianship, vocal technique, and artistic imagination have set their aims too low. It doesn't sound like genius because too little time and too little effort went into the preparation. There have been many variations on the idea of a person reaping what he/she sows. Michelangelo's was this: “AS YOU GIVE OUT SO SHALL YOU RECEIVE.” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti For those of us who have lost our edge by being overly critical, there is this advice: “Critique by creating.” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti How good can you get? If you hear the faults in others, that does not make you a genius. It makes you a critic. It does not make you an artist. If you look for the bad, you WILL find it. Congratulations! You have moved over to the dark side, if you mostly focus on the bad. If you want to be a true artist, use the things you do not like in others to motivate you to try harder and to be better, not to make others "wrong", but rather to move yourself to a higher and higher standard of artistic creation. There is a story of a young coed who met Albert Einstein for the first time. She asked him what he did. He answered, "I am a student of Physics." She replied, "Oh, I took that last semester." Einstein profoundly understood that he did not know it all to the extent that he recognized that learning is a lifelong endeavor and that no one can know everything. Without putting himself down, he called himself a student. I am also still constantly learning and studying music, singing, the medical side of the voice and still consult with physicians to learn more and to verify my own theories having to do with the safe utilization of the voice and the elimination of myths and other false premises. My last Michelangelo quote: “I am still learning.” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti With all the work completed at the time of that quote, he was so brilliant as to state that he was still learning. Keep his wisdom in mind as you make your New Years Resolutions and may it be the best year yet.

Friday, December 21, 2012

One On One Study

Some people go to karate classes. I didn't go to a class in karate. I did study one on one with a friend. A lot. We went to a school and showed them what we knew and they said we would be wasting our money at their school. The reason was that they taught basic things with kicks, blocks, forms, and sparring. What does this have to do with singing? I have a book I read called Zen Guitar and you might think, what does Zen have to do with guitar? Only a lot. The teaching technique of my karate teacher had a few basic principles which apply to learning anything. One is "repetition". Tony Robbins said that "Repetition is the mother of skill." I can relate to that. Provided you are doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time, and for the right number of times, repetition CAN be the mother of skill. Practice the wrong thing at the wrong time or for much time and you will diminish your skill. I saw this with a trumpet player, who never moved past sounding like an amateur. He put in a lot of hours and sounded as if he had put in no time. BACK TO KARATE... Repetition definitely can work under the right circumstances. SLOW is the way to go. Try slow motion dancing, karate, or other physical activity and you just may learn more about balance than you thought was there to learn. In music, if there is difficulty, try slowing it down until there are no mistakes. Gradually increase speed without sacrificing quality. AURALIZE. What the heck is that? I just coined a word. It is the musical ear's equivalent to the mental eye's concept of "VISUALIZE". I karate, I would visualize myself doing a block, kick, or form and then do it. The thing is I also mentally felt the motion and "saw" myself from within, and then did the movement. You want the picture to match the action. You want the mental music to match the physical action of singing. You can actually practice like this. Auralize, then exercise, do it out loud. Do it in your head (sing) and then actually sing. Make it perfect in your mind then try to get the sounds and style become a perfect duplication of the mental concept. I learned more about arranging one on one than in a class. I learned more in private piano than in piano class. Classes are not bad, but they are never as efficient or as fast as learning one on one.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

PERFORMING

Performing in front of an audience can be a terrifying experience. This is especially true if you have 1) never performed or 2) if you perform infrequently. Think about this: Is the emotion of terror proportionate to the situation? If you have uncontrollable physical reactions such as twitching of muscles, feeling a huge surge of adrenalin and thinking you must run away, then where is the actual threat? In fact, there is no actual threat and these feelings are not logical BUT logic and emotions can be like oil and water. They don't mix. There is a vast difference between STAGE TERROR and stage fright. There also is no "normal". Everyone is different from everyone else. This not only applies to singing; it also applies to public speaking. How many times have you heard that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death? I know I've heard that many times. Does that really make sense, though? If emotions are chemicals coursing through our veins, it would stand to reason that the more volume of chemical, the stronger the feeling. Where do these feelings come from? Are they electric, chemical, or electro-chemical? There are feeling-numbing drugs which probably block the ability to feel the emotion. The feeling may be "there" but your perception of it could be blocked by a drug OR, depending on the drug, the feeling could be "amplified". I'm not advocating drugs because you would most likely want to have certain emotions present in a performance, unless you are content with sounding like a robot. A natural hormone, secreted by the adrenal glands, adrenalin, can act as an "amplifier" of feelings. If you are back stage, you can do some jumping jacks or other exercise to help deal with an excess of adrenalin. Some people are quite animated while performing and this may help deal with nervousness. Think about this. Can you feel confident and terrified at the same time? This brings up a point. I have had the most fear when I have felt the least prepared. When I KNOW I am ready, I feel a little nervous AT FIRST, but it doesn't interfere with the performance. An amateur can expect a drop in the level of perfection, simply due to having too little performance experience. When you are singing 6 nights a week, where does the terror go? It isn't there. If it has been 6 months since your last performance expect two things: You WILL be nervous. Your performance will not be as good as it was in your rehearsal. If you are wanting a professional level of performance and you are practicing less than 2 or 3 hours a day, it may not happen for you. If I get to perform a new song, I like having a minimum of two weeks, spending one to two hours a day, total, working on that song. Until I have performed it in front of an audience two or three times, my confidence is still not sky high. Nothing replaces being prepared. Could it be the guilt of knowing that you did not do enough that causes the intense fear, or is it just too little experience? A little of both?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

80/20 RULE

The reality of being a vocal coach is that it is like a so-called "80/20 rule". Have you heard about that? 80% of something gives you 20% of something else. I've heard that 20% of your efforts give you 80% of your income. I've heard that applied to a few things. We'll get back to that 80/20 rule in a second. There are vocal coaches who use the full names of their students in their advertising and in their books. They SHOULD be very proud to have had the honor and privilege of working with those people. A successful "track record" is wonderful; it can't be denied. I am not disputing it. I will say this, though. Some people think that all the students of a vocal coach are GREAT because of the vocal coach. The reality is that the majority of the students of the famous coaches were successful and famous BEFORE they studied with the famous vocal coach. They (99% or more) had singing careers dispute problems and issues with their voices. I found the best brass teacher whom I think was the best in the world. I traveled over 500 miles to get to this man. It was worth the drive. I had already been playing professionally. I had some playing issues not unlike issues singers have. I was a pro, but some things were not easy. I had excellent range and excellent endurance but had some problems with extending my range and with some of the finer points of playing. I knew this but the audiences never knew it. He and I spent a few Saturdays together through the years and on the last one he showed me exactly how he analyzed an embouchure. We shared a pizza that day. On the first lesson I ever had with him he told me that my progress was going to be the result of practicing what he had taught me. He said that 80% of the results would come from my doing the work and 20% would be from what he had taught me. There is that 80/20 rule again. The point here is that he did NOT take all the credit. He knew he was an expert. His books are used to this day (probably by people who do not fully understand then) but even though he was pedantic and even dogmatic, he gave credit to the musician. I had a younger student ask me about a famous vocal coach the other day. She asked where he was located. I will say that she was not making the progress that she should make but I will also say that she was practicing 15 minutes or less a day and inconsistently at that. Her progress has been slower than I would like, but she still has progressed. The famous vocal coach would tell her that she needs to practice 3 or 4 hours a day. I have heard him say that. For a high school kid, up to the eyeballs in honor classes, there are not 3 or 4 hours a day to spare on practicing. She has the talent to be a professional but not the time and certainly not the passion. It definitely is a combination of hard work and long hours BUT on practicing the right things the right way at the right times and also knowing HOW to practice, which will produce the fastest and the biggest results. The credit really goes to the singers who "take the ball and run with it", ignoring the other players in the field (obstacles) long enough to get to the goal. Here is an interesting video of a singer/trombonist in famous group called the Four Freshman. The singer/trombonist is the late Bob Flanigan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETo_XFEGl24

Friday, December 14, 2012

HOW TO APPROACH A NEW SONG

HOW to approach a new song is always an issue. Do I stay as close as possible to the original singer? Do I change it a little, a lot, or in between? There are many things to consider, including the audience. I'm not talking about "selling out" or "doing karaoke". Remember the thing called musical maturity? You don't scat sing to a country song, you don't sing classical like it is country, and you also do not sing 50 riffs in every line of a song to show off your prowess in velocity, accuracy, and "creativity". I once saw a performance by two of the most famous female singers ever and it was more like a fight than a duet. It was a battle of riffs and lost musicality, emotion, and I was embarrassed for them. They seemed like enemies instead of friends. The most stupid thing is that there is no real competition among people who are great. There is plenty of room for them all. The point is, know how to use the spices, when you cook, and don't overwhelm the dish. You also have to find the balance between emotion and musicianship. There can be manic emotion, over the top and to the moon to the point that pitch goes off, the voice cracks, tears flow, blood spurts out of the eyes, veins pop...you get the idea. Too much feeling can interfere with control to the point that a song can look like a psychotic break to the audience. Volume can be used, meaning dynamic contrast, but are you singing or in a hog calling contest in West Virginia (where I grew up)? If your audience is conservative and expecting "pop music" and you give them anything else, do not expect much from them. If they are into R&B and you sing country, the may walk out. I played a gig once with my wife on a cruise and there were two audiences, depending on the song we were doing. The dance floor would literally empty and refill if we did popular on one song and R&B on the next. It was almost funny. You cannot please everyone. So what does that leave you? Regardless of everything else, you must have artistic integrity. You do your absolute best no matter what. In other words, you always do your absolute best no matter what. You have to have this standard because everything else will make you less of an artist. You will not love yourself if you: do less than your best, hold back, be too overly "careful", do not connect to the song or the audience. It is your job to connect to the song. What does the message say? Who could benefit from the message? Are you trying to make people feel better or feel worse? If it is worse, get out of the business. There is this thing which most songs have in some form or fashion-the concept of something having to do with love. Even the angry ones are expressing that love did not work. Everyone in their right mind wants it to "work". Artist integrity is about a quality and a responsibility. That is how to prepare a song. Dig down deep as you can into yourself and bring out true feelings and be honest with your audience. They know when you are lying to them. If you are paid for your performance, you would be lying and stealing from them at the same time. If this sounds intense, it is. Who wants to hear a wimpy singer? Show intense skill and emotion and have the sense to do it in a way which reaches and audience and will have the impact that greatness always has.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

CRITICISM

One of the easiest things to do is to criticize singing. If you have perfect pitch, know style, form, dynamics, interpretation, emotion, and acting, you may well have a lot to say about a singer's performance. There is also a thing which I call "musical maturity". What is that? It is having the judgement to know to not show weakness, to not do something stylistically out of the "character" of the style, to not go for the note which will be flat or splat or break or to do something else which detracts from the art. My wife, one of my best students, knows I hear EVERYTHING and is sometimes a little nervous doing a new song in front of me the first time. Still, I am not harsh with criticism. When I hear things which are "off", I know why they are off. I also know what to do to improve them whether they are: transition issues, vowel distortion, breathing issues, melodic interval problems, lack of perception of harmonic structure, misunderstood lyrics, lack of connection to the song or to an audience, trying to "hide" and to sing at the same time, articulation issues regarding consonants, not practicing enough, not knowing HOW to practice, having illness (physical or mental), and much more, too numerous on a post on Facebook. Some people have no idea precisely what they are hearing and know far too little to analyze it. Most people DO have the ability to notice if something is bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! Be careful about criticism. Giving it and getting it can be harmful to your artistic health. NON-artists' criticism is sometimes very destructive. If something can be used to aid in improvement, use it. If not, DUMP IT!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

INFLUENCES IN YOUR LIFE

Happy Birthday to one of the most complex, talented geniuses I've ever known. He did nearly everything at a professional level. Professional at golf, pocket billiards, baseball, engineering, architecture, piano, and the list could go on and on. I haven't met anyone else like him. Was he perfect? No one is. He was passionate about enjoying life, was intense at times, had been the gunnery officer on a naval destroyer, ranking second to only the captain of the ship. He supervised many projects, which he designed. The construction costs of those, we added up once and it was over half a billion dollars (60s, 70s, and 80s dollars). He left his mark on the world in buildings at universities, hospitals, schools, industrial projects (including a 60 million dollar steel mill), and was licensed in at least 7 states. He sat in with Duke Ellington's band, twice. First time was on drums at the age of 21 in NYC. The second time was on piano at the West Virginia Governor's Inauguration Ball. He would have been 87 today on 12-12-12. His favorite singer would have been 97 today, Frank Sinatra. My father taught me chords on piano, architecture, and engineering. He also taught me an appreciation of 40s music. I got to play lead trombone in big bands in Las Vegas with some people from those famous bands. Wouldn't have happened, had I not had the influence. He pushed me harder than I needed to be pushed, but I think he never full realized his own strength. He took his genius for granted. Many do. Who are your influences? You might look for successful ones. Acknowledge them by learning and doing. Appreciating them and thanking them won't change your life. Being grateful is a great thing. Demonstrate your knowledge and your skill. Doing something effective; well, that's another story!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

STUDENT TYPES

There are several types of students: ELEPHANT-gives you a twig to try to push it. ROPE - and you are supposed to PUSH it up a hill. NO ROOM - Do not enter the dojo with your cup full, there will be no room for anything new. SHIRLEY - This is like an actress who has been into EVERYTHING and this type gets advice from EVERYWHERE and most of it is either wrong or useless. CAKE BAKER - Learn the secret in one lesson and go after it! Do NOT try this with flying lessons! PARTICIPANT - this type tries a little, but not enough to ever be excellent. ALL IN - This one learns, applies, works, has self discipline, a powerful goal, awesome purposes, strong work ethic, and trusts in and has faith in the process. I've seen one of those get a recording contract and tour. Another one sang in the Broadway play touring group of The Producers. The odd thing is that the differences look huge, between those who do and those who won't, but it is amazing that a little more time and a little more effort than average can often lead to miraculous results.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A few years back, a couple of guys had other people sing for them while they lip synched (moved their mouths but were not actually singing). This became a huge scandal They dropped out of the music business even though a valiant effort was made to save them. The most famous vocal coach, Seth Riggs, worked with them and made public statements that they were, in fact, able to sing. This was too little, too late. Perhaps they could sing, but were they good? The whole mess was considered a fraud, a sham. TODAY Today, when you hear an album of a singer, they may have put a thousand hours into the vocals. The vocals have been altered electronically in many cases. Having done some recording engineering, I have experience with pitch correction and a nearly infinite number of possible tweaks, which can be done to enhance the sound of vocals. Many, if not all, of the same effects are available for live performance. What are we actually hearing in performances? If the singer sounded great on the original CD or download and then he/she sounds worse or terrible, is that less of a sham than Milli Vanilli? If it is less, not by much. YEARS AGO Years ago a singer had to have developed the art to a level of near perfection and without the aid of equipment beyond the singer. There are still some great singers around, but in the past, there was no assisting an amateur level singer into sounding as if the time was put in to be great.