Nera

Monthly Archive: May 2014

Leaving on a jet plane

I’m off to Budapest today. I had this great idea that I’ll spend my summer busking on the streets of Europe. I just thought that I have to do it, just go out there and play and sing for strangers. Frankly I am terrified. Not by the thought that I get robbed or where do I stay or how do I get from one place to another or I’ll be chased by the police or whatever…I am terrified by the fact that I have to go out to the street and play for people that I don’t know. How silly does that sound?

Why am I so afraid? Yeah, I am a crappy guitar player still, but who cares? There are buskers that are great and some, well, not so great. Could it be that busking involves a lot more of unexpected things than a “regular” performance. Anything and nothing can happen on the streets. I really have no answer for why I feel like this. I only know that since it seems to terrify my, I have to do it. I need to get out of my comfort zone. Plus this is a great chance to practice guitar.

Thankfully my friend reminded me that most people don’t stop and listen to buskers. No matter who they are. Joshua Bell’s experiment in the Washington subway proved it. The world famous violinist played and only little kids stopped to listen until they were dragged away by their parents. Here is a more detailed writing about the experiment:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2007/apr/18/joshuabellnoordinarybusker

I doubt that I’ll make a living out of this. I consider myself lucky if I can pay for the hostels and for the food. I haven’t planned where I’m going, except from where I start, Budapest. My 80 euro guitar is still there. I’ll take that for the Tour de Europe, so that I wont feel so bad if it get’s broken or something. The rest will come.

I did check a few things. In certain places you’d need a permit to play on the streets. And most interestingly, you need to audition to get to play. For example if you want to play in the subways of London, you have to audition and pass it of course. Wonder if it was the same in New York…All the buskers I heard there were really, really good. So if you don’t have a permit, well, then you have to leave once the police comes and tells you so.

Now it’s time to pack. As usual I’ll travel light, with just a backpack and a guitar. That should be enough. So wish me luck! I will keep you posted on Facebook and Twitter and whatnot. Oh and if you see me somewhere around Europe busking, take a picture and post it on my FB page and do come and chat! 😉

Let it go

I think every week at some point I get frustrated by what I see or hear on the internet or elsewhere. So many misconceptions about singing, so much confusion. No, I don’t know it all, not even half of it probably. The thing is no matter how many books I read, how many singing lessons I take or seminars I attend and how much I sing, I will never know it all.

What I know is this is a long journey and that I am losing at an invisible fight. Maybe I am imagining it all, just like Don Quixote fighting the windmills.

I wish I could go pointing at people and saying what you do is wrong and give the scientific explanation of why it is wrong. (By wrong I mean, you are damaging the voice and the person probably too.) But what good would that do? Most likely they’d stare at me that I’m crazy and I would not change their opinion or their teaching.

In the larger scale of things maybe doing all the licks you can think of so that you can barely recognise the song IS great singing. Or teaching people to think about hot potatoes in their mouth while singing is also good for something. I reserve the right to disagree. Is it all a matter of preference or taste?

By now I learned that I am a person that will always want to learn more and find out about things. What I don’t seem to understand is that others are not alike. How can you not be curious about the world?! I’m not talking only about singing here. I get that that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. The thing is, most people are actually happy with what they know and couldn’t care less for finding out more. Better not rock their boat. Yet, almost every week I wish I could change them or not necessarily change, help them. Unfortunately I have a Mother Theresa tendency, I always had. I want to help people, even when they don’t want my help. I must be mad or just plain stupid or both. 😀 So I asked the question why am I doing this to myself. I mean why do I try to help others when what I get in reward is nothing or even worse then nothing.

Do I want to help them for selfish reasons? So that I’d be admired if I’m “right”? Is it an ego trip? Might be, I can’t say that I’m a saint. But the real reason I want to help them is because in many cases I’ve experienced the same crap in singing they are drowning in. For example I had a hoarse voice and a soar throat for 3 years because of bad technique that someone tried to force on me.  The end result was that I was in queue for tonsils operation. I stopped going to the lessons, I stopped doing anything I was told to do singing wise and lo and behold, no soar throat, no hoarseness. And when the hospital called me to schedule the date I said thanks I don’t need it anymore. And went on to find another voice coach and no, I had no problems whatsoever since then.

There is a saying that stupid people learn from their own mistakes, wise people learn from other people’s mistake. I am not here to judge who is stupid or wise. What I am saying is that maybe we could consider learning from other people, just consider at least. Well at least that would be ideal, but we don’t work that way, do we?

So I finally decided to stop doing this to myself, trying to make people see differently. Just let it go. I realised that the only way to change the world is by changing myself. I’m saying the obvious here of course, but unfortunately the only way to make a difference is by setting an example of doing things differently. Others might or might not follow, it doesn’t even matter in the long run.

I’ve had this vision for a while that singing in the end is simple. I don’t know from where it came from, I guess I’ve been doing this long enough to know that singing at it’s best feels simple. How can I describe it? Once you get out of the way of yourself and you have a solid reliable technique, you can just enjoy the music. It’s that simple. And I’d love to share that simplicity with others, to show them that there are other ways of doing things. And no, MIX technique is not the ultimate truth even though I found it really helpful. I wish I’ll explore more, find different teachings, techniques and I’ll get what I need from them. I wish the same for you, but from now on, that’s not really my concern if you don’t.

I’ve been reading John Henny’s blog. (http://johnhenny.com/blog/) He is a vocal coach from LA, that I never met. Anyhow, he says in one of his posts that “True simplicity actually requires great knowledge and study – some of it rather complicated.” What I mean by simple is that you have to know your craft profoundly to actually be able to simplify it, so that it’s easy to understand.

But what is good singing anyway? Can it be scientifically proved? And even if it’s all correct according to the science we know now, will it move you? It might not.

In my humble opinion this is good singing, a man with his guitar giving everything he can:

 

 

A universe in one song

Finally I got the chance to see Mariza live last night. I was blown away by how effortlessly great she is. Effortlessly great?! Yes, well, I’m pretty sure she puts a lot of effort into it to make it look and sound so effortless.

I don’t know much about Fado, I know it comes from Portugal and I know that the queen of Fado is Amália Rodriguez, that’s about it. If you want to know more, you can start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fado.

Unfortunately I don’t speak portuguese,  I can only understand a few words from here and there. As a side note, I find portuguese to be a very poetic language to sing in. I have no ida why, maybe I was Portuguese in my previous life. 😉 I just love how it sounds.

I had no idea what she sang. You know what, it didn’t matter. I understood what she was saying without understanding every word. She sang with her whole being, from head to toe. I loved that she controlled so easily her pianos and fortes. It was honey to my ears, especially the part she sang completely acoustic. I could hear her just fine up on the balcony. I loved her stage presence and the fact that she actually came down from the stage and sang a song in the middle of the audience. This song:

This is a song Mariza wrote to an Amália Rodriguez’s poem. This is also a song that I can’t listen to too often because I start to cry. I have no idea why, like I said I barely understand the words. Thanks to my Spanish studies, I gather it’s about the people of my land or something similar. The song and the way she sings it seem to awake a profound feeling of I don’t even know what. Remorse, hope, sorrow, pleasure, everything in the same song.

I realised something while I was listening to her. In order to be a truly great artist, you have to be able to corporate all those feelings into one song. Might sound strange, but it seemed that the whole universe was in that one song for that particular moment. You, as a singer, need to forget about yourself, stop thinking about how do you look, is your hair in the right place are your whatevers showing and so on. It’s not about you, it’s about the music and the lyrics and you being the vessel, a channel from which the song flows.

Easier said than done, right? We are way too concerned about what the others are thinking about us, than about the fact that what is this song trying to say or am I making the audience feel what I feel, and no, I’m not talking about making them feel that I am nervous and would rather be somewhere else.

Can you practise it? Yes, definitely! Next time you go on stage, focus on the audience, go closer, draw them in by small gestures for example. If it’s a known song, ask them to sing the chorus. If it’s not, teach them something. Just a simple melody is enough. Let them have fun, don’t take yourself too seriously. Make some jokes, laugh at yourself. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it 100 times more if you focus on them, not on you.

And if you get a chance to go see Mariza live, do so! She is worth every penny!

There is no tomorrow

Isn’t it funny how we work? We think we are experts in what’s good for us, right? Yet, I’d say that we do everything in our power to do the exact opposite. Instead of maximising our happiness we come up with various excuses and weird behaviours. And we do this most of the time without realising it. We are indeed slaves to our habits. Pablo Neruda wrote:

“He who becomes the slave of habit,
who follows the same routes every day,
who never changes pace,
who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,
who does not speak and does not experience,
dies slowly.”

If we are indeed slaves to our habits, is there anything we can we do about it?

I wanted to learn to play the guitar for years. I started a few times, then stopped. Why? I just didn’t understand it, didn’t understand how the guitar functions. It’s so different from a piano or an oboe or anything else that I’ve played before and I just didn’t get it right away. I stopped before I started. Yet the idea, this image of myself playing solo didn’t go away. I though my life would be easier if I learned to play guitar. No need to bother anyone to play with me if they have no time. Just do a gig all by myself.

So I started again a few years ago, I even got myself a teacher while I was in Hungary. All was fine until he wanted me to learn Sweet Home Alabama. I can’t stand that song. I stopped again. Now you can say that I am a terrible student. Agreed.

For some reason I decided to take my guitar with me to Japan. I figured I’ll have plenty time to do something with it once I’m off the slopes. As I mentioned in another post, I signed up for a free online course and started there. It was a basic course that got me into picking up the guitar once a day and playing a bit. Once I got back, I immediately found myself a teacher and started taking lessons.

As I progressed, I found myself thinking about what took me this long? I mean for crying out loud, the toughest part is getting my hands working correctly, all the rest is a piece of cake. I don’t need to learn to read music. I managed to learn to read the tabs in 5 minutes, I get the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodies, I can transpose. Yet, in my head I built this huge barrier of why I just can’t learn to play. The inner monologue was something like, oh but I can’t really see what I am doing and my fingers hurt and it’s just such a pain that I don’t know what note is where and blaah,blaah, blaah, why can you get the same C from 6(?!) different places, where are they…And so on. All that is irrelevant. I came up with invisible obstacles, all in my head.

I finally realised that the only thing I need to do is make it a habit, a good habit. Sounds easy right? Haven’t read this yet, but if you are interested, here is a book about habit:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

So I set myself a target, a daily target. Nothing that special, just pick up the guitar and play for 20 minutes. The only thing is, before I start playing I have to decide what I focus on, finger picking, scales or what not. That’s all. And yes, I stop after 20 minutes and do something else. Can pick it up later for another 20 minutes, but just shouldn’t do too much at once. Just so much that I actually get into playing and stop when it’s still fun and not painful.

My friend told me about the Pomodoro technique, basically that’s what I was doing without realising it. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique)

Now you might say, good for you, but I just have no self discipline. Guess what? I don’t have any either. I am terrible with that. I’d rather be drinking coffee and knitting. But I finally realised that the key to do anything is in the small stuff. It’s good to have a goal, even a huge one, but start with breaking it down into small pieces. Instead of thinkin gof I need to write the greatest novel in human history, start with one sentence, like Hemingway said. Then write another and so on, you get the idea.

By now my fingers are just fine.  20 minutes a day got me used to playing. (It also helped that I took my guitar to a place called Kitara factory and they fixed it. The strings were to high. ) I am still a crappy guitar player, but it’s fun!

Why wait till tomorrow to start something? Today is just as good. Small pieces. And since soon I’ll be a real guitar hero, here is a song from the greatest guitar legend of all times:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y79kRPYafAM

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

You remember the joke, right? A pedestrian asks someone on the streets of New York How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the reply is Practice! (Or just walk from Central Park, it’s two blocks away.)

Okay, you need to practice to become a great musician or excel at anything, understood. But what exactly is it that you need to practice? The same scales all over again? What is it really? It is important to realise what are the things that advance your musicianship and what are not. Have you ever heard of the term deliberate practice? The idea is to know what to practice and how.

If you want to learn more about deliberate practice, read this book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff ColvinOr this study from Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.

Or just get started without reading anything. I haven’t read neither of them yet.

Here is a glimpse of what I do when I learn a new song. Right now I have a few weeks to learn a new song for a recording session. Plenty of time, right? Sometimes you have a time limit, so maybe deliberate practice is the answer.

How do I start? Well, for one thing, I listen to the song. Since in this case it’s a gonna be a cover, I check out all the available versions on YouTube and compare them. I decide which one I like best and start listening to that one mostly. The version I choose might or might not help me establish the key. That’s not that important yet, I’ll get back to that later.

Next I google the lyrics. Then I check out the harmony on the piano or guitar or whatever I can find. Usually I can’t help myself, I check the range of the melody. I want to know what might or might not be challenging right from the start. Plus I want to know where the song lies, I mean which notes are used in the verse and where does it go in the chorus and bridge. Does it even have a bridge? I don’t really spend much time on the song form, by now it takes one or two listening times to know what is the song form.

So once I have a fair idea of the melody, I get back to listening to the song again. This time I have the lyrics in front of me. Next I listen to the timing of the lyrics. Then I start saying them, just saying them aloud, not singing and not even in time, just really blandly saying them. Once I’ve done that I listen to the song again, this time I pay extra attention to the rhythm. I continue saying the lyrics out loud and I clap my hands simultaneously. Meaning the way I say the words, I clap my hands in the same rhythm. Hopefully it is in the same rhythm as the original. If not I continue doing this until I get it right. Until I haven’t I don’t sing the melody. It might take a while, depending on how complex the song is rhythmically.

Finally I get to the melody. I do try and sing the song with the words a few times, but there are occasions when it just doesn’t fit. So I sing the song with lip rolls. It actually is a great way to start practicing the melody. The lip rolls help in regulating the air, you will have just enough for the phrases and it also prevents you from for example pulling chest. (read yelling) And I actually don’t sing all over again the song. Not even with lip rolls. I take the tricky parts under scrutiny.  If there are problems,I come up with exercises that will help me get past them.  In my case, I usually am too heavy, try to pull my chest voice to the sky or just have a too high larynx and it makes me stuck in chest. Or too light, I let go. Whatever the problem, I try to recognise it and come up with exercises accordingly. I mean I sing with ge,ge, ge or mi, mi, mi or whatever that helps me feel at ease.

Once I got the coordination right, I try the words. Not working? Back to the other syllables. It might sound tedious, but it’s actually simple and yet, so helpful. And it actually doesn’t require that much time. I usually do it more slowly then the actual song, until I get the melody and the rhythm right. No hurry. Eventually I get it right, rhythm, melody and coordination. (which doesn’t mean that I wont fall of the wagon occasionally, but I do have a reference now of how it should feel and sound like)

A few words about the key. I’ve notices that not all songs work in all the keys. Which might seem strange, why not? After all changing the key will still keep the same chord relations, it just changes the starting point. So why doesn’t it work? I have absolutely no idea. Is it just me who thinks this way? If you know the answer, let me know. But back to the key from a singers point of view. You want a key where you can showcase your vocal abilities at their best, that is not too high, not too low. But, you have to know what you are doing, what is your purpose. For years I put song in a key that I thought was showcasing my best vocal abilities, kind of they were. What I actually did was I put everything so low that I sang in chest all the time. I am still a soprano just as I was back then too. So be careful. If you don’t know how to hit your high notes, go to a good vocal coach that can help you with them. Transposing everything too low it not the answer.

When choosing a  key I’d say you have to consider that even thought the verse doesn’t go really high, the chorus might and if you transpose the song a fifth higher, you might get into serious trouble. Not just technically, I mean it might not sound right and it wont do justice for the song. This of course depends on many things, for example is the original song sang by a guy or a lady.

Don’t know about you, but for me it takes a few days to get into the song. I guess the more you do it, the better and faster you get. I’m not saying that I can’t learn a song in a day, but to really get into the feeling and essence of it, that takes longer.

Everything I described here is deliberate. I listen to the song actively, it’s not just background noise. I try to dissect everything in it, the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, lyrics. And if I have time, I’ll leave it be for a few days and get back to it later. It usually helps to see the song from a new angle.

I’ve found that there is no point in listening to a song a zillion times, unless you really break it down. Yes, it’s okay to familiarise yourself with the song and just sit back and listen to it without doing much a few times, but in the long run, you have to start paying attention. And practice it deliberately. I’m sure there are other better ways to learn a song. This is just my version. Let me know yours!