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Monthly Archive: January 2014

Songbird

After years and years of singing other peoples music, I started to make my own. It is crap. I’m not exaggerating. But I have to allow myself to do crap and maybe, in time there will be some gems in it. Songwriting has been so far a mostly unpleasant experience. The other day I saw a bit of light. Yay!

At the moment I am at a stage where I can’t even decide what genre should I sing in. I said already that pop is for 15 + people. Okay. Then what, reggae, jazz, rock, heavy metal? Folk? Country? Guess what, most of the half baked songs that I’ve written are country, at least lyric wise. Is it a sign from above that I should head to Nashville? Probably not.

I’m a trained writer, you’d figure that writing lyrics should be easy.  It is not. A totally different ball game. Some similarities though; in scriptwriting you’ll find that you want to hide or sort of camouflage your main character. Why? Because him or her is always you in some ways. You will want to hide the hero, because you are afraid that YOU might seem ridiculous. All the other characters are much more clear and easier to write. Apparently it is the same in songwriting. Songwriting is a pretty strict way of writing, it has it’s own logic, you have only so much space to say what you need to say and yet, I’m trying desperately not to say anything, not to reveal who I really am. Silly I know. My head goes, oh no, I can’t write that, what will people say. What people? I’m in my living room or kitchen with no one around. Solution? Get over it!

Just for the record, for this you don’t need to know how to read music, we are not trying to compose here a symphony. Might help to know, but I bet you can write songs without that skill. What you need for writing songs is an instrument, some paper and pen and lot of patience. For an instrument, well anything that allows you to play harmony on will do, go grab your ukulele!

To be more expressive, most songs in pop, country, rock and folk, don’t have a too complicated harmony. Three chords can make a hit! Even one chord, if it’s the right one! To simplify songs mostly they have triads, no added 7 or 9. Yes, there are plenty of  exceptions, but don’t complicate your life just yet, okay?

Should I now give you tips about songwriting? I have none. But I can give you the tips that I got when I started. That is the good old KISS, keep it simple stupid.

I started with simple triads, nothing added. Played around on the guitar, someone calls it “playing nothing”, which is easy, because my guitar playing skills are pretty much none existent. You can write a song if you know just a few chords!

Then I chose if I wanted the song to be in major or minor. You gotta start with the defining triad, I mean if your song is in C major, you start your song with a C and hopefully finish it too.

What next? Find a few other chords that fit that C, stay in the same tonality, if you can. (Tonality is a system/language of music in which specific hierarchal pitch relationships are based on a key “center”—and the root of the tonic triadIt makes your life easier. That is the chords in C are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and H diminished. (Bdim if you use the American system). Now forget about the diminished chord and use the others, but like I said, just a few of them.

Here is a great example of what you can do with 3 chords in a song, if this would be in C, the chords would be, C, F and G. There are only 2 chords in the verse. Takes U2 a while to get to it, bare with them!  Don’t get confused by the choir. (Oh, they sound lovely! )

Back to your song. Now what? Now, to keep it really simple, try to write your own song with those 3 chords. Once you played around and got into a “pattern”, hum a melody of some sort on the harmony. Anything. No need for words here unless they come “automatically”. You might want to separate the verse and the chorus in the beginning, focus on one or the other. Eventually it doesn’t matter.

Once you got a good thing going on, record it! Listen to it. Yes, it might not have yet the potential of a hit song, but you wrote a song!

Now the lyrics. Advise? None, or again, stick with one thing, one idea for the lyrics. Like if you write about loneliness, write about loneliness, don’t try to put also your lost dog in it and your a recently lost job, unless you use them as a metaphor for how lonely you are.  Keep the theme and the subject simple, just one thing. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t rhyme, if your lyrics are actually a poem or a short story, it’s okay. Maybe they were meant to be. (Just the other day I set out fixing my script, instead I wrote some vague lyrics about a man hunting for acacia trees, who eventually ended up with a chestnut tree. Great metaphor there, huh? )

By no means am I saying that this is a profound guide to write songs. No, this is far from that. The thing is, you need to start somewhere and setting the bar low might help. Getting just a few tips, instead of reading dozens of books, might help too.

Keep in mind that most likely you know how to write songs. You’ve been listening to music all your life, haven’t you? You might not have paid attention, but there is probably a map in your head about how many bars go into a chorus and so on. Just try to flush it out. If what I wrote is confusing, another way to get around it is by trying to copy from a song  that you love.  Listen to your favourite song, what is happening in it. How many bars? What happens in the chorus and so on. You learn by mimicking others. But you have to remember that if it’s too similar to the original, you can’t publish it or you might get sued. Use that for practice!

If you really want to “know” the stuff  there are zillions of books out there about songwriting. I have a few of them, but I found them mostly confusing. If you want to spend money, here:

1. Melody in Songwriting by Jack Perricone

2. Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure by Pat Pattison

This one is in Finnish about writing lyrics:

3. Kahlekuningaslaji by Heikki Salo

There are also MA programs about songwriting if you really want to learn the craft. But as always, I think you can learn it perfectly well by doing it. The key is to start. Then as you improve you can forget about all the rules or make your own rules.

Oh and once you write that hit song that sells trillions, you owe me! 😀

Travelling Miles

The first time I heard her I was flabbergasted. What a strange voice! Just listen and decide for yourself:

Cassandra Wilson; a true contralto, if I’m not mistaken. Interested? Go to April Jazz in Finland. She is performing in Finlandia house, in Helsinki on the 22nd of April. You can get tickets here. I never saw her live, but if I am in Finland I’m definitely going!

Her Travelling Miles album is one of my favourite albums of all times, do check it out! I also liked New Moon Daughter.

Talking about making covers your own, another great example here:

Back on the saddle

It’s been a while. Frankly I’ve been busy doing everything else then singing. Plenty snowboarding, a lot of sushi and even an avalanche course in the backcountry. Yes, I’m in Japan, yay!

I have to admit that now I have a slight motivation problem. I’d rather be outside on the slopes shredding than inside doing lip trills or whatever other silly noises. But I know that with snowboarding, as much fun as it is, I wont make a living. How unfortunate.

So how do I get back to what I have and need to do? Sigh… Well, I need to start almost from the beginning. That means I can’t and shouldn’t be trying to do the same exercises I did before I stopped. No 3 octave lip rolls 3 times in a row. Back to basics it is.

This isn’t the first time nor is the last time that I had a break. Have to say that the more I sing, the less breaks occur. I can’t remember the last time I had a break, years ago.

Since I’m not a beginner with this, I know I need a plan. The plan is simple. Here it is for you to try too:

Take three times 5 to 10 minutes a day and start with a five note hum. Yes, hum. Try it. Just hum. There you go. Feel the buzzing in your cheeks and around your mouth and nostrils? Good. Now do the same for a five note scale up and down, do re mi fa sol fa mi re do. Focus on the sensation you feel in the resonance. Go up and down your range, but only as far up as you feel comfortable.

I find humming difficult in my higher range. With higher range I mean head voice here. I really have to focus on “holding on” to that tingling feeling when getting higher. Do this exercise once or twice, only as far up as you feel comfortable. Don’t be discouraged if you stop an octave lower than before, it will open up again with a bit of time. Come down with the humming, back to your chest voice.

Then what? Do the same exercise on lip rolls, a 5 note scale up and down. Then go to an octave, do mi sol do sol mi do on the lip rolls. Then tongue trills on an octave scale, the drrrrr sound. If that doesn’t feel right, either go back to lip rolls or do ney, ney on an octave scale. And well, the thing is, keep the connection. Then for the last part, I’d cool down with a hum or a lip roll from the top of my range, the range what I have at the moment. I would not sing a song, although the temptation is there.

I do these exercises for a couple of days and increase the range of the scales, I’ll start doing and octave and a half, when it feels comfortable. By now I know what does that feel like. It actually feels like nothing. Confusing, right?

Now, maybe it’s time to actually talk a bit about chest and head voice and what the (beep) is a mix. To my understanding and do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, there isn’t actually chest and head voice. What it really is that we feel resonances in different places. We actually produce the sound with our vocal chords. But because of the way we are built, we feel the sound either in chest or head.

Try this, place your hand on your chest, pick a note from your speaking range. Say Aaaa, do you feel your chest resonate? You should, that is if you speak in your chest register. If you don’t feel anything, try again. It might be that you don’t actually speak in your chest, which is more common with women. They have this small Minnie mouse voice which they might not be aware of. More about that later.

Now the head register. Put your hand on top of your head, say Uuuu and imagine you are a classical soprano, it helps! There isn’t much resonance in your head or at least I don’t feel much. With this one, you don’t feel anything in your chest.

Okay, if this is too vague, watch this video, she does the same thing that I just described:

She does  a pretty decent job explaining the mix. Pharyngeal something, something. Yes, it’s good to know occasionally what things are called. I have to admit, I don’t know half of it. Working on it. I do find that it’s more important to actually know what things feel like. So, when trying to find my mix, I focus on a thing that I call “metallic” sound. She calls it pharyngeal. You can name it anything you like, but remember to keep that for example when doing the hum exercises. You might find that you sound “nasty” or bratty at first, that’s okay, you wont sound like that eventually. These are just a few tools that help you find your mix. And most importantly, just like on the slopes, remember to have fun!

Teacher, teacher

The below certificate was in my inbox this morning. I’ve been an associate member of IVTOM for a year or so now and I had a lot of help. The best part of it is actually the knowledge that if I do need some help, there are people out there who are willing to truly help.

Plenty places out there where you can get a certification, that’s for sure.  I can say about IVTOM that it has great tips on singing and teaching. They also have a mentoring program if you want to become a singing teacher. It is not too expensive. But I suggest you find out for yourself what costs what. The most expensive program I found to become a singing teacher was 12.000 dollars. It doesn’t include travels, food or housing, just the bare program.

What always comes to my mind about teaching is a quote from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.” It’s still a longish way to become a full time member, maybe next year. I anyhow think that teaching involves life long learning, no rush there. Being a teacher is just a part of who I am.

If you want to book a lesson, send an email to eniko@forpeanuts.net and I’ll get back to you!

 

IVTOM kuva

Rhythm is gonna get you

First I’d like to get something off of my chest. For once and for all, this goes to all you people out there: musicians and non musicians alike, grandma too, anybody!!! When you sit in a concert and you start to clap, you DON’T clap the beats 1 and 3, but 2 and 4. Comprende? Never ever 1&3, always 2&4. Why is that so hard? Okay, I’ll calm down now.

I find that there is one thing that truly differentiates a great singer from a mediocre one. That one thing is not charisma, although that wont hurt either. What I mean is their sense of rhythm.

This is a topic that I find difficult to write about. After all how you write about rhythm? What is rhythm, what is sense of rhythm? What does it mean to have a good sense of rhythm? Is it all subjective? You can find some sort of definition about rhythm here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhythm#Western_music

A song has a tempo or beat, certain bars of music, harmony, melody, right? But in all that where do you “put” the melody? Where do you land figuratively speaking. Here I mean that a singer should not “float” on the harmony, but should nail the rhythm as well. We are part of the band, even if it’s a one woman or man band. We gotta kill it. Have you ever had the feeling when you listened to someone sing and you were thinking ” nice, but I’m not quite sure what it is, seems like something is missing.” I’d say that most of the time, the singers have problems with the rhythm. Some more, some less.

Listen to the link below and maybe you get a grip of what I’m talking about. Before you start with the singing part, make sure you have the beat in your body. Get off your chair and dance. Then try to clap your hands to the beat while you move your body. Don’t think too much, just do. Now go ahead and start the video from the beginning, listen to the singers.

http://www.ruutu.fi/ohjelmat/the-voice-of-finland/kaksintaisteluennakko-soul-siskot-jepa-ja-katri-tyylittelevat-ilmoille

Did you notice anything in the singing? If not, it’s okay. This is a difficult song, it’s a Chaka Khan classic. I will not judge the singers, I think the tempo was just too fast to begin with. They did the best they could in this particular situation. Now here is the comparison, I know it’s unfair. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a decent live version with good sound. Here is the studio version:

As a reminder for all of us singers, if there’s a slower part in the song, like in this one, it doesn’t mean that you can tune out, think about the grocery list and forget the rhythm.

Now the question is, how can you practice rhythm? Take drum lessons? Maybe, they’d certainly come handy. But an easier way is to buy a metronome. It’s the best thing you can ever get yourself if you want to be a singer. Even if you are one already, you can always improve. I have one like this from my oboist days that still functions perfectly: http://www.thomann.de/fi/wittner_electronic_taktell.htm 

Can’t afford it and it’s a long way till Christmas? Okay, here is an online one: http://www.metronomeonline.com

What to do with it? Put it on. 😀 Choose something slow, like 84 or even slower and walk around the room in the same tempo. Then clap your hands on every beat. Then on 2 and 4, keep walking though to every beat.  Do this for a while when no one is watching.

Once you feel comfortable with this, get a song. Any song or one that you are working on. I’d actually suggest to set the metronome to a slower tempo first than the song is calling for. Go over the lyrics, just speak them. While you do this, keep walking to the tempo. If you find it too hard, just listen to the metronome, keep in one place and speak the lyrics.

Do you know where is the first beat of the bar? No? Your singing might not be on the first beat by default, it’s not meant to be I mean, but you should know where you are in the song. If you don’t, start again, if you do, congratulations. Move on to the next section.

Next, clap the rhythm of the melody with your hands and say the words simultaneously, keep walking. Too many things? Will get easier with time. If you have a backing track for the song, do the same with it, keep moving, clapping and eventually singing the melody. I have to be honest here, I still fall flat on my face occasionally. It’s not easy! And when I want to make my life even more difficult, I walk, clap some clave and sing in Spanish. You can try that too! As always, don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t nail it the first time. You will improve with time!

There has been in my humble opinion one singer above all when it comes to rhythm, the King of Pop:

 

The voice within

The Voice of Finland started last week. I watched the first episode. Just like everybody else, I am curious what’s out there. The thing is I don’t really know what to think about talent shows. For me it seems that who ever is the loudest girl is “the best singer” and the boy who sings with the high falsetto is the “best guy” far too often. At least that seems to be the tendency outside Finland.

I have to be honest here, I never had any luck with any talent shows. The best I did was 7th place in a local singing competition in Hungary. Either it is no thanks right off the bat or we will call you or something similarly vague. Does that mean that I suck? Maybe from the point of view of the programs. I never got any feedback why, this is just guessing, but I realised that I’m “too old” for pop and my voice just isn’t strong enough.

They say it’s the voice that counts, no matter if it’s the X factor, Talent, Idols or whatever, but seriously how many +30 you see on the shows? Yes, they are a few exceptions, like this 54 year old granny here:

I think it is important to realise that talent shows are first and foremost made for entertainment purposes. Yes, some people on them can actually sing. Understand that the shows are written, there are scriptwriters behind the scenes. They look for certain type of people with stories to tell. At least that’s what I would do if I’d be a scriptwriter on one of the shows. Unfortunately, it’s not just the voice, it is always the story behind it.

So what now? Should I quit? Hell no. There are zillions of different ways to make music, to be successful without the talent shows. Yes, I realise I might never get famous, but I just might be able to live with that. Plus these shows feed the illusion of overnight success, which is not true. Adrien Brody said in an interview that his father used to tell him that overnight success takes about 15 years, for him it took 17 and a half. Before he won the Oscar for the lead in The Pianist he had worked hard for almost 18 years.

Another thing about televised talent shows is that I’m not sure that I like that part where we sit on the couch and we discuss loudly how badly the singers suck. I know you’ve done that, don’t try to deny it. I used to do that too, but I stopped. I managed to get pass the jealousy of why it’s them, not me and to listen in a more analytical way, maybe from a vocal coach point of view of what are they doing and why they sound the way they do and what I can learn from them. It’s really easy to judge. And I know some might argue that since they are on TV, you are allowed to judge, that that’s the sole purpose of the show. Well,  I’d say it’s not good for your health.  Stop judging them and stop judging yourself.

Remember what I said in the beginning that female singers are just getting heavier? I’m glad that there are a few sparks in the dark, like Birdy and Ellie Goulding:

 

Good things will come

You know the moment when you watch the fireworks, the clock strikes 00.00 and a new year begins, full of hope? You recall the past and you think, I did all that and you look into the future and ask yourself what do you want now to happen? What is it that you really want? Is it also what you need really?

Last night I was asked to state a New Year’s resolution. I hate that, but in the end I gave in and said something that I knew I probably wont do or at least have a LOT of issues with it. Yes, shame on me, but I just didn’t want to have the conversation with a stranger of why I won’t promise stuff, so I came up with something. Technically I lied. I wish I wouldn’t. What’s done is done, but it will now haunt me until I deliver that promise, since I don’t want to be a liar. I promise not to make any resolutions ever again. 😀

The thing is I stopped promising things long time ago, even to myself. Either I do something or I don’t. It’s actually pretty easy, instead of your inner monologue going I might do it or I promise I’ll do this or that, you say I do it or you say no, I don’t do it.

I have to admit that I am superstitious and I want to keep my plans to myself. Plus I read an article or something somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where) that if you really want to do something keep it to yourself, don’t go out shouting it to everybody. Why? Cause you already get the gratification when you say it, so why bother to actually do it?!

But come to think of it, there is one thing that I don’t want to keep to myself. My true resolution for years to come is to be nice. Not just to others, but to myself as well. I can’t remember who said that nice is like a cup of tea, boring. (Sorry, all you tea drinkers.) Frankly at the moment I couldn’t care less if people find me boring. I’ll be the star of boring, whatever.

I realised that the world is a lot better place if I’m nice and what I get back is what I give most of the time. Funny enough, I even sing better when I’m nice to myself, that’s a fact. Be nice. Why? For no apparent reason really. Just try it for a while and see if it works for you.

In case you want to know the other resolution. I said that by the end of winter I’d ride a rail on snowboards, once.  Yikes! The good side of it is that it’s really out of my comfort zone. It will be good for me, if I survive it.

Happy New Year!