Nera

On Singing – my journey

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What is your story?

I attended a Masterclass last Friday held by jazz saxophonist Lew Tabackin.  (http://www.lewtabackin.com )

He reminded me of a very important thing that we, well I, tend to forget when we focus too much on technique. Music is storytelling. It is not really about having the correct technique and playing the correct notes. It is about telling our story.

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in my life I realised that I have A purpose. Yes, just one, pretty simple. My sole purpose is to tell stories. It took a while to understand that, but now that it’s clear it surely makes my life easier. I mean seriously, what else can it be? I’m a writer and a singer.

Maybe because of the fact that I am a schooled writer and musician I find that the media I use for storytelling is not important, meaning that I already tell stories through two different medias. What I mean is, we should be able to tell our stories regardless of the media or the art form we choose. You can tell stories equally by painting, writing, singing, or just by playing an instrument.  Stories don’t necessarily need words, you can paint a picture in my mind by simply playing a song. If you are telling your story, I’m sure I’ll hear it.

But what is storytelling? For one thing, it is surely universal, everybody loves a good story. A good story is something that awakes feelings inside us, it takes us to new adventures, new worlds. If it is really a good story, it teaches you about yourself things that you didn’t know existed. Yes, it is also a tale that has a beginning, a middle and an end. (except in open ended French art films)

But how can you put that into singing? Easily. Normally I do sing with words. I tend to choose songs that mean something to me. I ask the question why? Why is this song with it’s lyrics speaking to me? I try to find my own story, not the one that the songwriter intended necessarily.  But you can do the same without words. With music. Forget the lyrics and listen to the chords, what do they tell you? They seem to have a life of their own so to speak and sooner or later I start to hear what I want to tell. And then I just improvise. Sounds, words, anything that comes into my mind. Most importantly, I try to feel.

Music and singing is really powerful. The thing we have to realise as singers is to sing our own stories, even when we sing someone else’s lyrics. The story starts from the first note, not from the second verse. But how do we get there, how do we become great storytellers? I find that the key is to be brave enough to share a piece of you with others.  I don’t care if you are technically the best singer in the world, if you don’t reach me with your story, your feelings, I will stop listening to you. Be brave! Find your own story to tell with every song that you sing!

Lastly, here is a great song from the late, great Donny Hathaway, that speaks a language of it’s own:

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Crazy fun!

I have a secret, I love yodeling! I want to learn how to do it and let me tell you, it is hard, I’ve been really working on that smooth transition from chest to head back and forth and now I’m gonna have to intentionally “break” ?! What?! I must be out of my mind.

Yodeling in basically breaking(flipping) quickly into your head voice without a smooth transition. Yes, those dudes in the Alps do it, Pygmies in Africa do it, plus many country singers, like LeAnn Rimes, but you can find it also in pop, from Gwen Stefani to Jewel and to Celine Dion. Everywhere in the world you can find people yodelling.

You can read  more about the technicalities and the history here: here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yodeling

I got inspired by Willie Nelson’s song Crazy, sang by Patsy Cline. The history of the song is that nobody wanted to record it, saying it’s too dull. Now it’s a classic.

Here is another version by the contemporary Brandi Carlile. Hats off to her, lovely sound and performance.

So how do you practice it? Well, first off all, be prepared that your neighbours will be looking at you in a funny way, like you really lost your marbles. From my experience I sound like a donkey in pain while practising. This is not a silent technique and it’s not smooth. Depending on your voice, try to start high enough, so that when you jump a fifth (interval) you are in your head voice. I’m not sure if it matters what is the interval jump that you do, some do a forth, a fifth, an octave, anything that it’s not too close from where you start so you can flip. Play around with it! Try with the vowels A and an I, they are easier; I to E, and A to E, hope that makes sense. Remember, stop doing it if it hurts!

Here is a short video that is not of the best quality, but  you get the idea:

 

Like I said, everybody, including Brad Pitt yodels!

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My favourite exercise: Lip rolls

What are lip rolls? The thing that you might do when you come inside from freezing cold and you just go brrr with your lips loose, trying to “shake off” the cold. It is that simple!

Now how do we put that into practice? And what are the benefits of the lip roll? Why do they work?

To my understanding, when done properly, they stop you from blowing too much air through your vocal folds. Just the right amount to create a sound, not more not less. Keeping that in mind, the lip roll will help you with the transitions between registers. They take the extra, unwanted pressure off from your vocal folds, along with all the “force” that you might want to put into the vocal folds when going higher. I find that it is really hard to engage (yet unfortunately possible) the neck muscles when doing lip rolls. I usually want to help myself when going higher with some extra activity in my neck, which is not needed at all. My brain is trying to tell me that I should do something. The thing to do is really do nothing, just let it fall into it’s correct place.

With the lip roll, once I’ve learned how to do it properly,  I can release into my higher range instead of pushing. Basically lip rolls help you with the coordination of the airflow and the vocal fold function.

Some people find it difficult to do lip rolls. Maybe their muscles around the jaw are too tight, I really don’t know. I’d say try it a few times and be patient with yourself. Put your hands on both side of your jaw and lift the skin. Please don’t push your fingers inside your checks, it’s a gentle lift, just to get the “extra” weight off your lips, so that they can flutter more easily.

In the beginning it is not necessary to go really high with the lip rolls. It’s also good to notice that depending on your voice range you might not be able to go very low with them. And maybe instead of doing a scale in the beginning, just do some glissandos from your chest voice into your head voice and vice versa. (glissando: A rapid slide through a series of consecutive tones in a scalelike passage.) Once you got the coordination right, you can go higher or lower. It is important to realise that the lip rolls don’t just happen in your  lips, but you should engage your whole body. I for example tend to stand on one leg when doing lip rolls, to try and wake up the connection between my lower body. If available a balance board is also great to use. And yes, like in the video that comes in the end, you can bend at your knees.

So how and when to use lip rolls? I use them as part of my warm up as the very first exercise that I do. Depending on the day or you can call it mood, I either do a long scale or just an octave, or both, beside the glissandos. I’ve been doing a lot of long scale lip rolls, so much so that I’ve conditioned myself, I mean the long scale gets me to the correct place rather quickly, but I should be able to do the same on other scales. What’s a long scale, or what am I referring to? It’s really funny to write it in words. It’s a one and a half octave exercise on the major scale, e.g. if you are in the key of C, then the notes you play starting from middle C( C4) are: upwards:C4, E,4 G4, C5, E5, G5, down F5, D5, B4, G4, F4, D4 and again C4. Looks messy, but it’s pretty simple. Ask your pianist friend to help!

Occasionally I “sing” through a song with lip roll, or some part of it. Again, lip rolls help with coordination throughout a difficult part. Then lastly I use them as a cool down. Just have fun with the lip roll!

In this video, Eric Arceneaux (http://aapproach.com) is demonstrating the lip rolls, along with a few other exercises that are beneficial when done correctly. If you are impatient, you can start at 4:05.

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What to look for in a vocal coach

A while ago someone said to me that I blow my chances in finding a great vocal coach because I only want them to teach me in a certain way. They don’t even have a chance. That might be correct. Just like every one of us, we come with a baggage of old habits, ideas, the culture we grew up in and so on. It’s never a clean slate. But since I am paying for the class, I’d like to get the most out of it.

I counted the other day that I’ve had about 20 vocal coaches up until now. Why so many? I’ve moved around a lot, moved countries too, plus I’m always curious what and how do different people teach. With some of the coaches I had just short meetings in masterclasses, some I’ve had for years. But how did I chose them? Some I did choose, some I didn’t, I mean I ended up with teachers that I didn’t want, but were teaching in schools that I attended.

Yes, I do have many expectations. I expect that I am not taught anything that is damaging, I am expecting that my range is widening not narrowing. I am expecting support and challenges. I am expecting that the bar is set high, maybe I can’t ever reach it, but it’s better than setting the bar too low. In my opinion, setting the bar too low will result in a frustrated student and it’s just not right to underestimate the student. Expecting too much? Well, I do pay for it. It’s just like in any other business area, you do want value for your money, don’t you?

In my mind there is a difference between a vocal coach and a singing teacher. A coach is more like a mentor, he or she will help you not just with your singing, but with your life. Seriously! A teacher on the other hand, and this based totally on my own experience, will teach what they were taught, that might or might not work for you. They are not tailoring their teaching to your needs.

I think the best quality a vocal coach should have, is the ability to see the true potential in each student. They should understand that everybody learns differently and coach accordingly. They can communicate well and they know the topic that they teach. From a technical point of view they teach the correct singing technique that I want to learn, the Mix. Mix is the technique that allows you to sing with both registers in an even voice without any apparent breaks in your voice.

If you want to know more about Mix: http://www.ivtom.org/mix-true-bel-canto/

Hence, I seem to have trouble with teachers that teach you to sing in either chest or head voice. I had a teacher that said they never use anything else then chest voice, which actually was not true. They mix, but they just don’t know about it. Okay, fine, agreed, you can sing jazz only in your chest voice, it’s more of an issue of style, but why do you want to limit yourself? To complicate matters, to my understanding every voice that comes out of you has both chest and head in it, but it’s the proportion that matters.

Obviously some things are just about chemistry between two people, with some you get along better than with others. Even if you get along, you really need to take a good look at what they are teaching. I can say from my own experience that many teachers say that they do teach the Mix and a healthy way of singing, but when it comes down to the actual training part, whatever they ask you to do will hurt. Really hurt. For an example I had a teacher long time ago that I had to work with. Unfortunately I was taught to keep my ribcage open by force all the time I sing, to support, plus to put it (the sound) into the mask and to open. I did this for 3 years. As a result I had a sore throat for 3 years. It came to a point where I was supposed to have tonsils operation. I had the feeling that my sore throat had nothing to do with the tonsils, but the incorrect singing technique. I never went to the operation. I stopped whatever she was teaching me to do and going to her classes all together and like a miracle, my sore throat issue disappeared.

I advise you to find a teacher that can engage your whole body and mind into singing. It’s not something that happens in your mouth or throat, it’s your whole being that sings.

I’d also say and this again just from my own experience, avoid teachers that teach you how to breath and make you do breathing exercises. You breath automatically, I don’t think that that’s an area to touch, even if it seems that your breathing is too shallow, I mean too high. I find that breathing will fall into it’s natural place by doing other exercises while vocalising and again engaging your whole body while singing.

And lastly, a vocal coach is not there to tell you how things are suppose to be, but to help you feel the correct sensations in your body while singing.

I’d advise you to trust your instincts when looking for a vocal coach. If it doesn’t feel right for the first time, I’d say it never will. I understand the fact that I’ve learned a lot from the wrong teachers, but occasionally I do wish I could’ve avoided them all together. It would have made my life easier and probably theirs too. Yet, I consider myself lucky, I have a met a few vocal coaches that I can rely on and can trust. But it certainly took a while.

 

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The right to sing

Once people hear me sing they have a tough time believing that I didn’t always sounded the way I do now. Somehow they seem to get into their heads that I was born with the voice I have and I had nothing to practice, just open my mouth and sing.

I hate to brake it to you all, but it took a lot of practice to get where I am now. So where exactly am I now? Technically thinking I am at a place where I know how my voice works and what I can do with it, where I am confident enough to try and sing anything that is thrown at me. I know my weaknesses and strengths. I can trust my voice to work well and if it doesn’t I know most of the time how to fix it. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s more complicated than this.

I don’t know from where comes the preconception about singing that either you have it or you don’t. Either you are born with a heavenly voice or you are screwed for the rest of your life. Is there such a thing as natural talent? Or is it just an excuse for not doing anything? “Oh, I’d really love to sing but I just don’t have a natural talent, so I can’t be bothered?!” I’m really not the expert to say if it exist or not when even scientists can’t seem to come into an agreement about the issue.

What people don’t seem to understand is how far can you get with practice. Yes, you are born with a certain kind of vocal chords, a certain tone to your voice and you can’t change that. But is doesn’t really help if you don’t know what to do with it. It’s like having a Stradivarius in your hands and not being able to play with it. I don’t rule out the possibility that some can figure out how to play an instrument or how to sing with ease by themselves, but I certainly didn’t.

So how did I get here? By practising, a lot. I do mean close to 10,000 hours. But the thing with practice is knowing what to practice. I do believe that it’s not just about the hours you put into practice, it’s about what you practice.  I met a Polish male singer in a seminar in Krakow last May and he told me that he practices 3 hours in a row daily and that he had vocal problems, his voice is in a terrible condition.  Really?! This is not what I mean by practice. It doesn’t help if you do the wrong things for 3 hours daily.

How do you know what to practice then? I suggest you find a good vocal coach that guides you to the correct way to practice for your voice. Yes, there are some things that are probably common to us all, I’ll address that topic later.

The most important thing is to realise that everybody can sing and has the right to do so! It’s such a blessing that everybody have a unique voice. In the end it’s simple, if you want to sing, well, sing! The only question is are you willing to make an effort and practice?

Here are the thoughts of Justin Stoney from New York Vocal Coaching about the right to sing:

 

 

 

 

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Recovering from the alto curse with the help of Joni Mitchell

If I’d to name one idol, I think it would be Joni Mitchell. Why? Because she fearlessly did what she thought she should do and up to this day continues on the same track. I love her spirit, not to mention her songs.

For me it took a while to understand and appreciate her music. I guess first I didn’t even like how she sounded. It was too high and thin for my liking. Then something happened. I heard her Mingus record and realised that there are many more sides to this lady. If that wasn’t enough, Both Sides Now album from 2000 blew my mind. I still don’t know how she managed to put so much soul into old jazz songs. Absolutely lovely!

It’s hard to name a favourite Mitchell song. Now and then I’d try to sing one of her songs, but I never performed one publicly until this Thursday. I sang in a matinee Both Sides Now. It was a breakthrough for me. It felt that singing that song finally liberated me from what I call an alto curse. Although I’m not an alto, I’ve been put to the alto section way too many times or asked to sing only in chest voice. It took me years to recover, to get my head around the fact that I do have a 3 octave range and that I AM a soprano. Knowing is not the same as believing in it. And finally I start to believe that too.

Recovery is a long and ongoing process. I do wonder though why it happened in the first place, why was I thought as an alto? Was it because my voice is dark? (Actually it’s not even that dark!) Or because I had no idea how to get into my head voice or mix? Because I didn’t know how to sing high and instead of trying to teach me, it was easier to avoid the issue by letting me sing the alto for years. The worse thing is that I went along with it. I accepted it, not sure why. I didn’t know better? I trusted the teachers? The choir directors or what? Is it just that if you are told often enough you are this or that you start to believe it, even if it’s really far from the truth?

Let’s focus on the now. Now I know that I can do a lot more than I thought it’s possible for my voice. I am happy that I had the courage to sing something completely out of my comfort zone. Yes, I’ve been singing other songs from that range, but it is different to sing for example r&b than the lyrical songs of Mitchell. You can’t go about it with the same heavy approach. There is so much more to a human voice than we can imagine!

And lastly, here is an interview with Joni Mitchell from not so long ago:

 

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Pitch perfect

I’ve been singing since I’m 5 or 6, can’t really remember. There is a tape somewhere from around that time when I sing some Madonna song. I am out of tune. Now maybe things haven’t changed so much since. Countless times I’ve heard from some of my teachers in the past that I’m flat without them telling me what to do with it. The question is why? What to do with that “you are flat”? Change the teacher? Is it true or could the person/persons be wrong?

My guess is that I am trying to hold on to something that just isn’t right. My tendencies are to pull up chest, that does make me flat the higher I go. Actually it’s not the higher I go, it’s around my break. I try to hang on to my chest voice instead of letting it to “float” into it’s correct place. I try to control it cause my mind tells me that that’s the correct way to go about it. I should DO something. But my mind is wrong.

My instinct told me that I really shouldn’t do any fixing my pitch at the time it is pointed out, but correct my technique in the long term. That is, I shouldn’t try and engage some muscles that might temporary help, but wouldn’t fix my pitch problem for the long haul. Finally at the IVTOM conference in May 2013, I got a verbal confirmation that I was right. It’s not really about being right or wrong, I’d say it’s about correct technique and not reinforcing bad habits.

The other thing, what many seem to miss, is that if you sing with other people, if you don’t have similar technique, you will sound out of tune. Only because some will sing with low larynx, some with high. I heard a live demonstration of this last December when Brett Manning was giving a masterclass in Budapest.

The bottom line is, please refuse to help the pitch in any way. Learn the correct technique and you will have perfect pitch.

 

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