My thoughts...Wisdom from over the years

Nailin’ Those High Notes-Part 1

Posted in: Uncategorized ♦ Thursday, December 3rd, 2015, 8:34 am ♦ No Comments on Nailin’ Those High Notes-Part 1

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With regard to today’s modern music culture, I’ve often said that we have a tendency to strive for what I call “vocal gymnastics”.  I suppose that if we did a historical study of vocal genres down throughout the ages we might find varying degrees of the same type of thing. People have always sought to push the limits of what the human voice is capable of. Our generation is certainly no different. We want more: more power, more control, more trills… just more of everything! Yet, I would be willing to bet that throughout ALL generations of singers from the beginning of time, one vocal skill has pretty much always been on every singer’s wish list: more range. Additionally, with the exception of a small percentage of singers, most vocalists would love to take their range higher. So, I’m going to try and help you figure out how to NAIL those high notes, once and for all!

 

First Things First

One of the first mistakes that singers will make is to simply not be prepared vocally.  In my video “The Ultimate Vocalist” I outline some key things that can help any singer maximize their potential. The first one is “being prepared” and I contrast this with the idea of practice.  As singers we often spend time practicing and preparing our music, but we tend to spend very little time preparing our voice to meet the many physical demands placed on our vocal mechanism and body overall.

Singing can actually be very demanding physically, and without a proper warm-up and work out, our vocal strength, stamina and ability will be hampered. So many singers spend little to no time putting in the necessary time to prepare their bodies for the physical undertaking of singing.  Our bodies and voices are capable of SO MUCH MORE than we may realize, but without proper conditioning, we put ourselves at a disadvantage. Because of this, we will most likely never reach our full potential.

As with any physical exercise routine, the muscles associated with singing need to be warmed up and stretched on a regular basis to maintain elasticity, strength and flexibility.  If we want to get the most out of our voice, we need to get prepared. This takes time, effort and commitment. Most of the singers I know tend to have unrealistic expectations with regard to what they should be able to accomplish with virtually zero preparation.

The Importance of a Vocal Work-out

There are some singers who have learned the value of warming up their voice. This is invaluable and perhaps one of the most important habits a singer can employ.  However, for those of us who want to take our voice to the next level, there is another important step that needs to be taken: working out. A solid vocal work-out is how we can learn new skills.  A work-out can help us to hone our old skills and safely push forward to find new ones. It is a vocal work-out that can enable us to reach the goals that we may have as singers. Without a regular, proper work-out, pushing for new heights can not only be ineffective but it can even be disastrous for us vocally. It is during your vocal work-out that you want to try to stretch your range and learn to “nail those high notes”.  There really is no more effective time to attempt this. If you don’t have a good warm-up routine or don’t really understand how to truly work-out vocally, I have a DVD available on my website to help you with this.

 

The “How-to”

In order to maximize your ability to not only hit those high notes, but actually nail them, you have to understand two different aspects of singing and employ them at the same time: breath support and resonance.  Breath support is the underlying foundation for every successful vocal endeavor. If you don’t understand and employ proper breath support, you should not try to extend your range.  The only way to achieve a powerful high note (or any note for that matter) is with proper breath support. The inherent problem with reaching for higher notes is that they require adequate support. If you’re not using the right muscles, you’re using the wrong ones. This is improper vocal technique and can lead to vocal damage.  Please, never try to stretch your range without using the proper support. You can really hurt yourself.

While we commonly think of breath support as a very basic aspect of singing (and it is), many people do not fully understand it. If you need help with understanding breath support, I offer instruction on my DVD “Basic Vocal Technique”.

Resonance, on the other hand, is commonly misunderstood and not often taught in contemporary vocal instruction. I think this is because most people really don’t think about this “more advanced’ technique with regard to contemporary music. Often, our training is “dumbed down” with little or no attention given to understanding different areas of resonance. This is a shame, really, because the ability to do so can enable us to achieve much more diverse styling. Without it, the modern singer is relegated to one sound or perhaps two if they are able to sing in falsetto effectively (men) or have a break in their voice (women). So understanding tone placement is the other key to being able to hit those high notes easily, with power and without strain.

In my DVD called “Developing Style” I outline several areas of resonance and explain how to access different areas of a singer’s body to produce different tone qualities. When we are trying to sing higher, it’s important that we learn to place the tone higher in the head so as to avoid vocal damage. Unfortunately, many people end up misplacing the tone when they attempt this and thus achieve an airy, operatic, small or “hooty” sound—none of which is appropriate in contemporary music. Next time I will try to explain-as much as it’s possible through the written word-where to best place your tone to achieve the power and the tone quality you want for a dynamic upper register. In the meantime, try working on some of the things I’ve mentioned so far so that you might be better prepared for the next steps!

(I’m sorry for the triple DVD comments by the way. I don’t usually mention my products in these articles, but I wanted to offer some resource options for you in case)

May God bless you as you seek to serve Him with singing!

Are You Actually A “Beginner”?

Posted in: Uncategorized ♦ Tuesday, October 20th, 2015, 7:35 pm ♦ No Comments on Are You Actually A “Beginner”?

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I recently returned from Virginia where I had the pleasure of teaching at The National Worship Leader Conference. I love teaching at conferences in large part because of the wonderful people I have the privilege of meeting and teaching. This conference was no different. Although, as the title indicates, this conference appeals largely to Worship Leaders (often in full time positions) there is something that connects the participants in that conference to every other conference I’ve ever taught at; most of the attendees have had little to no formal vocal training, thereby making them “beginners” in one very real sense. This is often underscored in a class I teach called “Harmony and Improv” where I emphasize the importance of learning to listen to ourselves and each other while singing in a group as well as learning some of the “simple” aspects of singing like minor ear training and interval singing. Often folks walk away from that class hopefully inspired but also recognizing their need to grow as vocalists.

We have inadvertently fostered a very interesting environment in many of our churches, one that encourages folks to discover their musical gifts but at the same time shies away from encouraging real training. Nowhere is this more evident than in the vocal department. We are often so “desperate” for folks to help lead the music, that we will often encourage people to step up to leadership roles when, in reality, they simply lack the skills to do an effective job. All over the country—even in other parts of the world—I see this. In fairness, often what church leaders are looking for is people with a heart to worship Jesus and serve their local church Body as their top qualifications, and musical prowess is much farther down on the list. Even our Christian colleges and universities, until very recently, have not offered quality training and education for those who want to serve in a Worship Leader/Music Ministry capacity, often only offering a smattering of classical music choices. This has contributed to the fact that often our music leadership is sorely lacking in necessary and applicable music skills.

 

What should we do about this?

I, for one, would love to see more emphasis placed on music directors/worship leaders having the necessary vocal training to lead a group of volunteers. The music directors in our local churches are largely volunteers. They are put in charge of other volunteers and most of the time NONE of them have any sufficient vocal training. This is one of the reasons I do what I do. I love serving these wonderful, sacrificial servants of God. But I wish there was more for them. People come to hear me teach and I whet their appetite and they hunger for more. They would LOVE to be better at singing and to know more about singing but many things prohibit them.

Proper Training

It’s astounding to me how many churches have music directors in place who have virtually NO vocal training, and yet these folks are in charge of everything musical in their churches from the worship team to the choirs. Vocal damage is rampant in our churches and although there are many reasons for this, first and foremost is ignorance. Knowledge can help protect and guide our vocalists and this is what they need. We don’t need great guitar players (or other instrumentalists) in charge of singers. We need great vocal coaches in charge of singers. I know many churches can’t afford to hire both, so the other option is to provide training.

 

Provide Continuing Education

Since most people serving in the music ministry at roughly 90% of our churches are not paid this leaves very little time and often no money for those leaders to go out and get extra training. Why is this not a priority in the church though? We choose our priorities and we pay for the things that are important to us. I recall many years ago, when serving in my first church position, I became slightly overwhelmed. I was handling the services on Sunday, 4 choirs, a coffeehouse outreach, a traveling “Ladies Trio”, a children’s musical drama program that also traveled AND I was homeschooling my children and trying to keep up my private vocal coaching at home. In addition to this, I was offering FREE vocal coaching to anyone in my choirs. At one point I went to my church leadership and asked if they could consider adding my position as a part-time employee (with pay, since I was currently serving as a volunteer working @32 hours a week) so that I could cut back on the private coaching I was doing to supplement our family income. Their response to me was this:”Yes you do sound overworked, perhaps you should simply cut back”. That was it.   At that time, around 1988, they were paying a church secretary $40,000 a year. I actually had quite a decent budget for my music ministry-about $15,000 a year. But they refused to acknowledge that a person in the music ministry was something that needed to be paid for.

This is my point. I believe that we need to make provision for our music leadership. Every year I meet thousands of musical servants who take time off work and pay their own way to go to a conference, workshop or master class. They often have to pay for their own travel and lodging expenses. Why/how has music been so denigrated as to not be deemed worthy of support from their leadership to get this very necessary training? Scripture is replete with verses that encourage us to provide for our leadership as well as verses that show us how important the music ministry has been historically to the worship of our heavenly Father.

Support Our Singers! (SOS!)

Let’s start a campaign! Our vocalists need help, support and proper training. Who is going to give it to them? We ask them to serve week after week and yet we don’t offer to take care of their most basic needs. Let’s start asking for the help and support that is needed. Let’s pray that our leadership will see the need and step up to the plate. It’s encouraging to see that there are churches that make it a great priority and colleges that are beginning to offer Music/Worship majors that include vital training—but we need more. We’ll do a carwash and a bake sale for Youth Group’s mission trip—how about for the Worship Leader’s vocal training? J

Can I help YOU? Please don’t hesitate to use me as a resource. I often offer help to those serving in the trenches-and there are many services I can offer for free. Please don’t hesitate to get the help and training you need. Be a leader-not a beginner. God bless you as you serve Him.

 

HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE BACKGROUND VOCALIST

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Saturday, May 30th, 2015, 10:33 am ♦ No Comments on HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE BACKGROUND VOCALIST

mainpic3In this article I would like to address a few key elements to becoming a truly effective background vocalist. An effective background vocalist is a real asset, as well as a blessing, to not only the upfront singer/worship leader but to the audience/congregation as well.

Less Talented?

Oftentimes we think that a background vocalist is typically “less talented”. This could not be farther from the truth! Many of the most celebrated singers of our time have found themselves in the position of singing backing vocals, from Whitney Houston, Carly Simon and Mariah Carey to Elton John, James Taylor and Michael McDonald! Truly singing background vocals is not (necessarily) an indicator of mediocre talent. In fact, it takes a good deal of skill to be good at singing in the background without upstaging and demanding focus. A good background singer also needs to have the ability to blend in and be able to sing harmony parts. So let’s look at some of the aspects of what contributes to an effective background singer.

Essential Skills

There are a few really essential tools that every singer needs to have in their “toolbox”. Here is a suggested list (not exhaustive) of goals that every background singer might want to work toward:

Good Intonation

Flexible Tone Quality

Natural Vibrato

Sight-reading Skills

Ability to sing and Create Multiple Harmonies (and ability to switch parts if necessary)

Humble/Approachable Attitude

Commitment

Let’s have a look at each of these and assess their value to the platform while giving you some tips as to how to achieve them.

Intonation-is the ability to sing notes in tune at will. This may seem obvious, but many singers lack this important skill. Good intonation must be consistent. I train singers to be able to sing simple half-steps and whole-steps without the aid of an instrument. This helps to tune up their ears. Singing a’cappella can also help to improve intonation by forcing singers to rely on their own internal sense of tonality rather than depending on an instrument. If you need more help, try some training software like Sing & See (http://www.singandsee.com/).

Flexible Tone Quality– is imperative for being able to blend with other singers. You do not have only one specific tone quality as a singer. This tool is invaluable as you need to be able to shade and color your tone to meet any need. If you have never learned how to affect your tone quality through different resonance then I suggest you buy my DVD called “Developing Style” (http://sherigould.bigcartel.com/ ) Please don’t resort to the unhealthy practice of adding air to your tone to be able to blend with others, there are so many other, healthy ways to blend with other singers.

Natural Vibrato-is a naturally occurring vibrato that is healthy and not over powering-it is air (volume) generated and not pitch generated. There are times while blending that even a natural vibrato may need to be curbed, but overall a natural vibrato is an asset. It is only the mechanically imposed vibratos that cause problems. These vibratos are too prominent, overwhelming the singer’s voice and every other singer’s voice as well. For a complete treatment on the subject of vibrato, please refer to the May/June issue of Worship Musician! Magazine (http://www.scribd.com/doc/92863896/Worship-Musician-Magazine-MayJun-2012 ) or write to me at sherigould1@aol.com and request your own personal copy.

Sight-reading Skills-are generally extinct in most church environments with today’s highly technological world of both large and small screen generated lyrics (sans music). I will likely go to my grave still extolling the virtues of learning and being proficient at this long lost (and seemingly dying) art. The ability to read and understand (at least a rudimentary knowledge of) music should be an obvious requirement of any person who aligns him/herself as a musician. Sadly, most singers do NOT consider themselves musicians. This is likely because in the strictest sense of the word—they aren’t. But they should be and they need to be!

There were very good reasons that the original “writers” of the Gregorian Chant found it useful to write down the notes of the famous tune—none the least of which was so that they could remember it correctly in the future! How much time is wasted in our rehearsals today because our singers lack this skill? Reading music is not a difficult thing to learn, try a little bit of reading each week as a team. Building this skill will improve multiple aspects of your team. Sadly, I find it more and more common that “musicians” are proud of the fact that they cannot read music. To me this is like living in a country for years and being proud of never having learned the language.

The Ability to sing and create Multiple Harmonies-although it may not be essential to being a background vocalist in the truest form of the word, is nonetheless a wonderful asset. I require ALL my background vocalists to be able to sing harmony, and not only ONE specific area of harmony, but to be flexible enough to be able to switch parts if necessary. Anyone who can sing and hold a tune can learn to sing harmony. Next month I will devote my entire column to ways you can learn how to sing harmony. For now, start listening for the harmonies on the songs you currently enjoy listening to. They are there. Start to tune into them and try to sing along with them. Stop yourself from only singing along with the melody, this will start you on the road to singing harmony yourself.

A Humble/Approachable Attitude and Commitment-are perhaps the two most important things a background singer can posses. With these two things in place, I can do miracles-even if some of the other skills are lacking. Being a background singer is all about supporting the lead singer and the team. This means not drawing attention to yourself or your own voice, but making the leader and the team “look good”. No leader can function with a team that is inconsistent; therefore being confident that all the team members are on board and will be there for rehearsals/performances will allow a team leader to plan and move the team forward in every way. Humility in all the team members also allows the leader to do what’s best for the tam without worrying that one of the members will be offended. All egos need to be checked at the door.

With these aspects in place, you’ll be well on your way to being an Effective Background Vocalist. God bless you and keep on singing for Him!

RECOVERY-Part 1

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Monday, April 6th, 2015, 7:50 pm ♦ 2 Comments on RECOVERY-Part 1

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Most everyone will experience some type of vocal damage in their lifetime. This could be the result of a sickness, allergy, overuse, abuse, surgery, etc. How recovery is handled can have a lasting impact on your voice. I get asked for information with regard to this very frequently so I know it is a common issue that so many of you deal with. I am going to try and give you some tips that can help to speed recovery and maximize your vocal effectiveness as soon as possible. In this first part of a two part series, we will discuss dealing with recovery from sickness and allergies.

Sickness

Try as we might, there may be times when we get hit with a bug of some sort that seems to find its ultimate resting place in out vocal cords. Bad singing habits, such as failing to warm up, can contribute to vocal injuries but more often the culprit, in my experience, is this: Most worship leaders, choir directors/singers and background singers carry on even when they’re ill or over-fatigued, making their voices especially vulnerable. They may not be doing anything incorrectly vocally but they more than likely just have an amazing commitment to what they do. They don’t call in sick.

Let me first of all say this unequivocally; if you are sick you should not sing. Period. This is a fact and I cannot say it more emphatically. Singing when your vocal cords are damaged will only cause more damage and prolong the healing process—possibly forever if you do it enough. I hope that was a strong enough warning. I have to make it as strong and scary as possible because it’s true and because I know this about you—you are going to sing anyway. IF I could stop you I would, but since I can’t, let me give you some help.

Go Gently-Try to avoid coughing and clearing your throat as much as possible. When you absolutely must cough or clear your throat think GENTLY!!

Don’t talk-Talk as little as possible to give your voice as much rest as possible. This might mean that you have to disappear from sight in between services. REST YOUR VOICE!!

Hydrate like crazy-DRINK A TON OF WATER!! Stay away from things that you know dehydrate you (like coffee). Even if you normally can get away with cheating in this area don’t even try when you are hurting. Steep a bunch of Throat Coat Tea for a half an hour and sip it constantly instead. (http://www.traditionalmedicinals.com/products/throat-coat/) Do everything you know you are supposed to do (breathe through your nose, use a vaporizer, stay away from lemon and caffeine, etc). Don’t use conventional cough drops, find one with NO MENTHOL.

Warm-up-Although you want to give your voice as much rest as possible, YOU STILL NEED TO WARM UP!! Again, this should be done very gently. It would be best if you could warm up in a steamy bathroom-the more moisture in the air the better. Even if all you can manage is a gentle humming—at least do that much. Stretching the cords carefully and getting the blood flowing into them will help you when you actual do start singing.

Don’t push- Change keys if you have to but do not push your voice. Let others take the lead and sing as little as possible. Although your role is important the world CAN get by without you for a moment or two. TAKE IT EASY!!

Try some” Vocal Rescue”- I am in the process of gathering research on a new product I have come across. So far I am very impressed. I will be doing an in depth review in the near future but for now check it out yourself and give it a try. Let me know how it works (or doesn’t) for you. Be sure to follow directions carefully, this product is to be gargled with warm water and not swallowed. (http://store.superiorvocalhealth.com/?Click=296) I have a link on my website (http://sherigould.com/blog/) that will take you there as well. You can even use the promo code GOULD and get 10% off. I’d love to hear about your experience with this product.

I also like to recommend a homemade solution of 3 parts Aloe Vera Juice (George’s tastes the best-it’s distilled and tastes like water!) and 1 part organic edible vegetable glycerin. Put this together in a spray bottle, shake well and spray toward the back of the throat while breathing in vigorously. Swallow any remaining solution. Repeat this as often as you like throughout the day for maximum help with healing the vocal folds.

Get some sleep-Your voice needs rest but so does your body. When you are sick your body is working extra hard so make sure to get a good night’s sleep and TAKE A NAP!!

Even if you have mostly recovered from your illness, you should follow these steps until your voice is fully recovered. This could take days, weeks or even months. Continue to “baby” your voice. As you start to feel stronger, take care to warm-up and work-out your voice daily working back up to your normal capacity.

 

Allergies

There are thousands of different types of allergies that can affect people and they can manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. Unfortunately, many of these ways have a detrimental effect on the vocal cords leaving a singer in a quandary. They aren’t sick, so to speak but should they sing? The short answer is; if your vocal cords are stressed you short not sing. However, for the millions of allergy sufferers this could mean a lifetime of no singing! So with some care and preparation you can (hopefully) successfully keep your voice healthy enough to sing.

Many people take some sort of allergy medicine to help them cope with their symptoms. When your body comes into contact with whatever your allergic trigger is it makes chemicals called histamines-these cause your allergic symptoms. The medicines are typically antihistamines designed to reduce or block histamines, so they stop allergy symptoms. However, this is a double edged sword. Unfortunately, one of the many possible side effects of antihistamines is dry mouth. So although the medicine may help to reduce many allergy symptoms, it will most likely leave you feeling dehydrated and making it difficult to function vocally—at least not at your full capacity.

During an allergy “attack” when you’re feeling the effect on your voice, you need to follow all of the same suggestions for being ill or recovering from an illness that has affected your voice-especially with regard to staying hydrated. Although you may not be “sick”, your vocal cords don’t know the difference. In the 12 hours prior to singing you might want to try experimenting with a saline nasal rinse in place of your antihistamine. After you’re finished singing you can resume with regular use. This may help to alleviate some of the dryness. The Aloe Vera recipe I describe above will be especially helpful for keeping the vocal cords moist. The Vocal Rescue can give you an immediate ability to use your voice much more easily.

God bless you as you seek to serve Him through song and hopefully make it through the cold, flu and allergy season a little more easily!

 

“Let It Go”

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Wednesday, February 11th, 2015, 8:29 pm ♦ 5 Comments on “Let It Go”

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I have two adorable granddaughters. Both of them recently celebrated their birthdays in “Frozen” style (a month apart). If you live anywhere in the dim view of Disney/Hollywood movies (in other words not under a rock) you will have heard of the latest movie phenomenon: “Frozen”. Last year I was introduced to the world of “Frozen” by my eldest granddaughter (now 6) while I was tucking her into bed one evening and she asked me to read her a book. Her favorite book at the time was none other than aforementioned movie—in book form–geared toward the attention span of 4-5 year olds. It was my first real foray into the frozen world of Elsa and Anna the sisters who are forever emblazoned into the hearts and minds of children everywhere. Since then I have watched while both of my beautiful granddaughters enjoy their “Frozen” themed birthday parties, their “Frozen” costumes, “Frozen” birthday cakes, “Frozen” tea parties replete with themed dishes, and last—but surely not least—a full on costumed performance (duet) of the theme song “Let It Go” for the entire assembled family on Christmas Eve. Surely one of the highlights of the evening. J

As a nation we have had a couple of opportunities to listen to the theme song “Let It Go” aside from the movie. Idina Menzel belted out her famous rendition at the Oscars and in NYC for New Year’s Eve. Both of her live performances were highly criticized. In both circumstances it was obvious that Ms. Menzel had intonation issues, vocal problems and other problems associated with her performances. The blog on the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) website was erupting with observations and strong opinions-most all of which were concerned with Ms. Menzel’s style of singing and the obvious injurious vocal technique(s) she was displaying.

Here is my concern. When the world looks at Ms. Menzel, they see a successful artist. At this point she is a household name. The song she has become famous for is literally an international sensation. Thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of little girls all over the world are belting out their own wannabe version of “Let It Go”; Even my own kin. What the concerned educators on NATS are ruminating over will be completely missed by the adulating public and the little girls lined up to be little “Elsas” screaming out “Let It Go”. Their screams are deafening to our vocally educated ears. But who will be there to sound the alarm to this generation of little girls who lift up Ms. Menzel’s singing style as the standard of singing perfection and the ultimate in success?

It is not just little girls who are trying to emulate her style of singing either. She herself is likely a product of a generation given to a type of singing that is a form of vocal gymnastics forever pushing the limits of what is physically possible. Vocal feats heretofore untried—and for good reason—are constantly lauded and applauded. The general public wants more and more of a type of “passion” we see being pushed on singers, that depletes them of their vocal health and renders them vocal cripples while still in the prime of life. (It is notable that most of this type of vocal acrobatics is not genuinely able to be reproduced live—thus so much of the lip-syncing and auto-tuning we see so often employed nowadays) It is SO COMMON now for singers to end up with vocal damage, vocal nodules, vocal polyps, exploded vocal cords, etc. It’s hardly even news now. This rampant vocal damage is pandemic.

I often feel like my message is negative. Many times I am out there waving the banner of VOCAL HEALTH while other vocal coaches can smile and talk style without giving a nod to the importance of treating the voice with respect. Although it is becoming more and fashionable to talk about vocal health in vocal training circles, it is still not changing the popular view of artists and wannabes. Many unhealthy vocal techniques, such as belting, screaming and singing with a raspy (airy) tone are being used by singers of all genres—Contemporary Christian music is far from immune. The fact is, most of these singers are getting NO training or very light training and a good deal of encouragement to go for whatever style suits them regardless of the cost to their body, often until it’s too late. Then they have to go through a difficult rehab, relearn how to talk, sing and come up with a style that won’t slowly squeeze out the life of their vocal cords. Sadly, some just end up fading into the sunset of their singing careers far too soon.

We need to use our heads. I remember many years ago my mother telling me that people had no idea that smoking cigarettes was bad for them. She told me how doctors would appear in cigarette commercials giving everyone a sense of how healthy it was to smoke cigarettes. Really? I know the public can be duped, but did it really take a genius to figure out that breathing smoke into your lungs all day long was unhealthy? Is it just me that thinks it’s pretty obvious that if breathing smoke for a just a few minutes in a burning house can kill you, then breathing smoke all day long into your lungs can’t exactly be good for you? To me, many harmful vocal techniques are just as obvious (some not so much). If your throat is sore or hoarse after singing, that is a pretty good indication that something is wrong. It may not always be obvious to the untrained singer WHAT is wrong, but we should be smart enough and aware enough to know that something is wrong. I wish my mother had used her head a bit more rather than following the crowd back in the 50’s. It was no fun losing her to lung cancer…

I want people to reach their full vocal potential. I want to see people singing for a lifetime. Following passing fads of crazy vocal gymnastics is most likely NOT the way to reach either of those goals. PLEASE—take care of your voice, pay attention to who you emulate as a singer and watch closely to see how your children are styling themselves vocally. Make sure you learn what the basics of good vocal technique and vocal health are so you can spot the difference between good and bad vocal practices. Let’s not just follow the passion of the latest trending song or singer—let’s be smart enough to know when to “let it go”.

 

 

 

Train ’em Right–Train ’em Young!

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Monday, January 12th, 2015, 6:53 pm ♦ 1 Comment on Train ’em Right–Train ’em Young!

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Are you in a position to influence singers? Especially young singers? Then I have some suggestions for you. Training people to sing correctly, with vocal technique that will enable them to sing for a lifetime, is like giving them a gift that will return lifelong benefits. Here are 5 of what I think are the most important skills every singer should understand and apply. The younger we can still these in our singers, the better.

#1) Teach them to understand and USE breath support

Breath support is understood by very few and used by even fewer. Yet, of all the potentially significant techniques one can learn as a singer, this certainly as to rank at the top. Why? Because without truly understanding breath support and applying it, a singer will necessarily invoke the use of the wrong muscles in the singing process. In order to sing-or to phonate at all- one needs to use SOME musculature. A singer will either choose the right muscles or the wrong ones. If a singer doesn’t know the difference he or she may very well default to using the wrong muscles. Even singers who understand breath support often don’t use it. It’s not enough to see your students using proper breath support during vocalises, watch them for support when they are actually singing. Often there is quite a discrepancy between the two. This may be tied in closely with the way the singer speaks as well. This brings me to the second most important thing…

#2) Teach them to SPEAK correctly 

The trick here may be to make sure that YOU speak correctly. Speaking correctly involves the same processes as singing correctly; breath support, correct tone placement, relaxation, etc. Most of the time where there is a vocal/singing problem it can be traced directly back to an improper speech technique. Yet this extremely important aspect is often overlooked during the vocal training process. Even though I am not a speech pathologist, I spend a great deal of my time trying to teach people how to speak properly. I wish that EVERY singer would spend some time with a speech therapist and learn the basics of this crucial technique. This is why some clinics are now starting to join forces to incorporate singing and speech training under the same roof—like the Cleveland Clinic Voice Center-offering total care for the singer- ( visit www.clevelandclinic.org/voicetreatment for a free Voice Treatment Guide). I so appreciate the mindset they have that incorporates the total (vocal) instrument and its uses.

Make sure that you acquaint yourself with and practice healthy speech habits so that you can model for and also quickly diagnose speech issues in your singers. The younger they are the easier this may be to fix—but even an old singer can learn new behaviors. Then follow up on a regular basis to make sure they have not grown slack in their care. There needs to be a lifetime commitment to healthy speech patterns.

#3) Teach them how to RELAX the neck muscles and lower their larynx

 Understanding how to keep the muscles in the neck relaxed will help force students to use better breath support by taking away other means of supporting their tone. Additionally, it will help to keep them vocally healthy by eliminating unnecessary stress to the vocal folds. One of the key factors in staying relaxed, vocally is to keep the larynx in a low (neutral) position. This is typically only accomplished through training. The untrained singer is not likely to even be aware of the position of his or her larynx. When the larynx is high, much stress is added to the vocal folds and surrounding neck muscles often resulting is soreness after singing. The sooner the singer is made aware and taught to control the larynx the better, A positive muscle memory can be established and good habits can be put in place early on.

#4) Teach them to be discerning about who they imitate

Recently, there have been a number of videos “leaked” showing artists singing with all the band members stripped out of the mix and all effects lifted. Some have been unfair in their depictions of the singer’s actual ability and others have been quite telling. For example, there were several clips of Karen Carpenter in the studio—voice only—and she was incredible. Many other singers however, proved that without all the glitz, effects, auto tune, etc, they have very little real talent or substantial vocal finesse.

It is easy to admire the music of a particular artist without recognizing that, as a vocalist, they may not have good technique. I’m not referring to style. I’m talking about making sure that, whatever style is sung, it is sung in a way as to keep the singer singing for a lifetime. So many popular singers have ruined their voices over time and are no longer fit for live performance. This does not mean that their music or style necessarily was flawed; it simply means that they damaged their voice over time (for any number of reasons) during delivery. It is important to make sure that when you are training (especially when working with young) singers, you emphasize the need to be discerning about healthy vocal practices. Make sure you take time to find out who they listen to and perhaps spend some time together critiquing the vocal techniques of those artists. Invariably, if your student enjoys listening to a particular artist, they will likely end up imitating them. Try to encourage them to step out of their boxes and listen to other types of music with singers who may be older and time tested. It may make you sound a bit old fashioned, but emphasize that older artists who are still singing with healthy voices have learned and applied good teaching/technique. It’s important that your student does not confuse developing style with good vocal technique as if they are juxtaposed. They can be accomplished together!

#5) Teach you students about vocal health

Last but definitely not least, make sure your students gain a thorough knowledge of how to keep their instrument healthy. There are so many important aspects to vocal health; hydration, proper rest, understanding the importance of warming up, etc… Establishing healthy vocal habits from an early age on can help to set the stage for a wonderful, full lifetime of singing.

God bless you as you strive to serve Him through helping and training others!

3 Best Vocal Tips for Cooler Weather

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Monday, November 10th, 2014, 6:17 pm ♦ No Comments on 3 Best Vocal Tips for Cooler Weather

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I love winter.

In fact it could be said, on any given snowy, wintry day, that winter is almost my favorite season. (It just can’t quite beat Fall)

However, there are some tricky roads to maneuver, during the cold, dry winter months, if you are a singer-and that’s before you get in your car! 😉 So in honor of the winter months, I’m going to give you some tips to help keep your voice healthy.

#1)  Stay Hydrated

Drink, drink, drink!

This is number one on the list of important things to do ALL WINTER. In fact, it’s probably the most important thing you can do ALL YEAR. Staying hydrated requires more than simply drinking enough water every day, although that’s a great place to start. Make sure you start drinking water first thing in the morning when you get up. I keep water by my bedside all might and make sure I drink it all when I first get up. This is important-especially when you’re planning to sing. Since I recommend warming up every day, that means that you should be singing every day so you will definitely need that water! Don’t forget that it takes about an hour for the water you drink to get to your vocal cords, which are situated on the trachea not on the esophagus. When you drink you may feel an immediate sense of hydration down your throat, but in order to get to the vocal cords themselves, the water must be metabolized and that takes about an hour, so you need to stay ahead of it. If you become thirsty while on a platform, even if you have access to water, you will not be able to “catch up”. You will most likely be thirsty the entire time.

Add moisture to your air

Don’t forget that the air is drier in the winter and not capable of carrying as much moisture as warmer air can. Therefore, you may need to add moisture to your air. This is especially important if you live or work in an environment that has forced air (very dry) heat. So, if you don’t own one already, invest in a warm air vaporizer and use it! This is especially important at night when you may not pay attention to the way in which you are breathing. It is considerably healthier for you, for multiple reasons, to breathe through your nose: it cleans, warms and moistens the air you breathe. So while you may make a habit of this during the day, it’s difficult to pay attention to this when you’re asleep. Ha! So make sure you add moisture to your air.

Watch what you consume

There are many things that have a propensity to dry out the vocal cords. Smart singers stay away from them. When you know you’re going to sing try to limit your consumption of:

Alcohol, Caffeine, Menthol (or any product containing peppermint), Citrus fruits (such as lemon)

This is a short list and there are of course many other things—such as salt—that can dry you out as well. You need to listen to your body and see which things bother you and which things don’t.

#2)  Watch Your Mouth

Winter is the season for a lot of outside activities. Things like caroling, football games, enjoying an outdoor fire or even a hot tub (there’s nothing like an outdoor hot tub in the snow!) can put you in a situation that is really harsh vocally. That cold air on the vocal cords is a killer. I can remember many years ago I was the music director at a church that did caroling as an outreach—right before the annual Christmas Cantata. The pastor, of course, wanted all the best singers to participate. He and I had to have some (respectful) discussion as to why my singers were NOT going to go out singing in the damp, cold weather the night before another important outreach—our Christmas program! Eventually, he moved the dates around to try and accommodate the choir, but I continued to skip that particular event as it was simply too risky for me.

Shouting at a football game in the freezing cold (or even in your living room!) may be a fun way to spend your afternoon or evening, but the damage you do can take weeks to heal. You need to be wise about the use of your voice if singing is a priority to you. It may have been fun as a kid to scream until you “lost your voice”, but it’s not now. Serious damage can occur even from yelling for just a couple of hours and once you’ve reached full “adulthood” it can take much longer to bounce back. These situations are dangerous, vocally, anytime, but in the winter time with the cold dry air it’s even more so. You can have fun, spend time outdoors and even use your voice– you just need to be smart about it and more cautious than usual. Keep a non-mentholated cough drop in your mouth when you go out. It will help you to salivate more and breathe through your nose.

#3)  Eat, drink, be merry and sing!

Having said all that, I just want to reiterate that it is important to stay singing in the winter months. Even if you tend to hibernate, make sure you keep on singing. Stick to your regular warm-up routine. (If you don’t have one—get one!) In fact, this may be the time to stretch out a bit and start working out your voice if you can. Maybe with a little work you’ll even be able to hit that high “C” you’ve been dreaming about! So put on your favorite music, get a nice cup of herbal tea and settle in for a long winter’s night of singing…

The New Choir Part II

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Wednesday, November 5th, 2014, 4:33 pm ♦ No Comments on The New Choir Part II

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Last time I reviewed some important aspects of being an effective choir director especially in light of some new and different ways that choirs often function in today’s worship settings. This month I’m going to outline some more practical things we can do to make our choirs more effective.

Covenant Agreement and Commitment

First of all, we can’t get anywhere without a solid level of commitment. Anyone who had ever tried to manage or direct a group of singers knows the TOTAL frustration of trying to deal with absences and lateness. When half of your group meanders in over a period of 15-20 minutes late it is disruptive and disrespectful to everyone involved. Rules regarding involvement should be outlined in a covenant agreement that should be signed yearly by everyone. From time to time these agreements may need to be updated but they are very helpful for making clear what is expected of everyone and what the consequences are for not living up to your commitment. We are often hesitant to require commitment of people in our music ministries because it’s all volunteer (most of the time anyway). However—that is erroneous. YOU are most likely a volunteer and YOU are committed! We can eliminate so many problems if we can simply establish a firm level of commitment from the beginning. I have often said in my workshops, “Give me three committed people and I can give you a kickin’ trio. Give me 15 people who are Uncommitted and all I can give you is chaos!” It is a privilege to serve in this capacity and it needs to be treated as such.

Personal Growth

A side note to commitment is personal growth. One of the reasons I recommend requiring auditions for all choir/worship team members every year, is to help challenge members toward growing in their craft and musicianship. (For more information on the importance and “how to” of auditions email me and I’ll be happy to send you information on this important topic)  Without an incentive it’s easy to become lax in this. Everyone benefits when each person takes responsibility for growing. Consider making this a part of your covenant agreement.

Vocal Health

Today’s singers are inundated with harmful vocal practices from many different sources. It’s more important than ever to make sure that your vocalists understand and use proper vocal technique—especially low larynx singing. It’s particularly easy for singers in a choir to default to high larynx singing and that takes its toll vocally very quickly, leaving your singers with sore throats and strained neck muscles. In addition, a thorough understanding of what makes for good vocal health is essential for all singers. Hydration is SO IMPORTANT so make sure that water is always available for your singers. Making water easily accessible during rehearsals will increase their ability to stay hydrated and help to get the most out of their voices. Also make sure that no one consumes any type of drop that contains menthol—menthol is very drying. If good vocal technique is applied and proper vocal health care is followed, your choir will have the essentials for thriving! (For a more complete discussion of vocal health care, don’t hesitate to contact me and I can send you some helpful information)

Blend

Getting your choir to blend their voices is essential to getting a unified and powerful sound. Lots of different things affect blend: vowel shapes, vibrato, volume levels, tone quality, resonance, registers, timbre, etc. However, I would venture to say that nothing is more important than the art of listening to each other. This cannot be emphasized enough. The old adage “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we speak” should certainly be applied to singing in a choir! Listening is the key to changing each of the above mentioned issues from problems into assets. So make sure you spend a lot of time focusing on the importance of listening and even employing some exercises and warm-ups that help your choir members learn how to listen better to each other. One way to help improve blend—and listening—is to have each section sing a selected part and have the other sections assess whether or not they were blended,  in tune, singing with proper dynamics, etc Then, of course, give each section the opportunity to be on the hot seat! One great thing that happens as a result is that everyone becomes a vocal coach, to an extent, and it doesn’t always have to be YOU pointing out issues. You will find that your singers are better at this than you may have thought and that they respond well to each other (providing no one gets critical).

Presentation

The final step for any choir is the actual presentation. With today’s modern church choirs we often have what is commonly referred to as a “Worship Choir” either instead of or in addition to the more traditional choir. This often makes the final presentation somewhat different in that the songs are not sung as a type of “special’ music to be focused on but rather as an extension of the worship team/congregation in worship. There is an important difference here in terms of preparation. Traditional choirs need to perfect their songs musically so that the presentation is an accurate depiction of the written choral piece including, but not limited to: dynamics, harmony, rhythm and overall countenance. Whereas the “Worship Choir” is typically less focused on perfecting the musical aspects and more focused on leading in worship through the medium of song. This is not to say that they are off the hook for preparing musically, it is simply to say that because they serve a different function in the service they have a different priority in presenting. This will obviously affect what should be focused on during preparation.

Both types of choirs need to know their music. I am a huge proponent of memorizing music whenever any type of presentation is involved. However, with a “Worship Choir” this may be nearly impossible at times considering the sheer volume of music that must be sung and prepared. Many of the songs will be sung repeatedly over time and that will help, but preparing multiple songs each week with only one rehearsal of likely no more than 2-3 hours will make it very difficult to memorize each and every song. The use of lyric projection can help to make it appear as though the songs are memorized and that is helpful.

Since the “Worship Choir” functions as a part of the overall worship team, they need to remember that their primary function is to serve as worship leaders. Therefore, they need to focus more on being able to worship freely as they sing. Two important exercises I recommend are 1) speaking through the lyrics individually and as a group so that the meaning becomes more clear to the singers. So often we, as singers, gloss over the words hastily without taking time to truly ponder and understand their meaning. We cannot effectively communicate the message behind the song if we don’t understand it ourselves. 2) All members of any worship team need to be taking time to worship alone at home. This should involve not only singing through the songs in terms of practice but worshiping through the songs as well. Having a clear understanding of the lyrics will help to make the meaning more personal. As the Lord speaks to you through the songs during your practice throughout the week, you can pray, worship and sing through the songs in a true spirit of worship that will help to prepare you for leading others in worship when you gather corporately.

 

 

 

The “New” Choir-Part 1

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Thursday, August 21st, 2014, 9:49 am ♦ 2 Comments on The “New” Choir-Part 1

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It’s been quite awhile since I have visited the subject of choir. Recently I have had increased opportunities to speak/address the needs associated with participating in or leading a choir. As I travel around the world, my goal is always to encourage and help equip those I speak to. I want to help them to be able to accomplish their goals in all things having to do with music ministry. Since I last wrote an article about choir, I believe things have evolved somewhat and so I thought it might be time to revisit the subject. This article will be part one of a two-part series.

 

First I want to briefly review things I’ve covered in the past:

 

A choir director is like a pastor It’s very important to take advantage of the opportunity available to you as a choir director/ music minister/worship leader for truly loving your “flock”. A choir is very similar to a “mini-church” in that it is a body of believers set apart for a specific task. As a choir director you are the leader and therefore I am calling you a “pastor/shepherd”.

 

Validate each and every person’s value and strengths-As a choir director, it’s important that you take the time to get to know each member well enough to understand their strengths and gifts. A choir member that feels important and necessary is much more likely to be committed and take the position of choir member seriously.

 

The director needs to be prepared and upbeat-As the leader in this music ministry (as with any other) it’s important that you be good at what you do. You need to set the example of being prepared. Know your music. Be familiar enough with each of the individual parts that you can spot a wrong note when it’s sung. If you feel inadequate with regard to your training (which is so very common) then take some courses or study on your own to get better. Grow!

 

I have always believed that most people truly don’t mind showing up for a rehearsal that is effective. What people mind is having their tine wasted. So make sure that you maximize your rehearsal time by being prepared and having a plan. Keep the rehearsals moving. Make sure people leave better off than they came. Most people want to do a great job, it’s your job to help them do just that.

TEACH your choir-And while you’re at the business of growing as a director, take your choir along with you. Never forget the wonderful opportunity you have to help shape and grow your choir. You may not have a lot of extra time for this—in fact, you probably feel that you have none. But, let me assure you that EVERY minute you spend teaching your singers new skills will save you time in the future. You will be helping to fill their “vocal tool boxes” and once they’ve acquired these new skills they will be able to readily use them when you need them to. It’s way worth the investment of time. Take five minutes—FIVE MINUTES—each week to teach them something new. Perhaps you don’t feel that confident as a vocal instructor. You can at least share with them each week the things that YOU’VE been learning. I offer multiple resources on my website to help equip you as a vocalist if you are looking for some help.

 

Choose GREAT music-I can’t emphasize this enough. When you are choosing music make sure that the songs you choose “grab” you within the first 10 seconds. Make sure that they are fun, exciting, beautiful, powerful, etc. You want to love the song so that you can teach it with enthusiasm. You want your CHOIR to love the song so that they can SING it with enthusiasm. And lastly you want your congregation to be able to connect immediately with the song so that they can truly have a powerful experience.

 

Require respect for the director-One of the most difficult things about working with a church choir is that although you are in authority by virtue of your position, you are working with your friends and peers. This creates for an interesting dynamic.  In school choirs, the students are led by teachers who are in authority over them and give them a grade at the end of the semester. In professional choirs the members are chosen and/or hired by a professional that is clearly in authority and in fact may be in charge of your paycheck. There is rarely any fraternizing between director and choir members in most of these situations.

 

In a church choir however, it’s completely different. Your choir members may be in other positions of authority over you—for example, I have always had the privilege of having my pastor be in my choir. Three different churches that I served as music minister in all had pastors that loved to sing (and were good at it!).  Your choir members may be filled with your close friends (mine always have been). I even had my older brother (who was a great singer and way more talented musically than I ever will be AND with more experience in better choirs than I had!) in my first church choir. These types of situations can make it difficult for you to lead in a truly effective way. It can even contribute to losing complete control at any given time. But it is essential that you take and maintain control as much as possible. Take authority and realize that everyone will benefit when you do. Make it clear from the beginning who is in charge and what the rules are. Then do your best to follow through. This will help to make your time together enjoyable for everyone and highly effective.

 

Next time I will get into more of the nuts and bolts of how to work with your choir to make them the best that they can be and to be a total blessing to God, you and your congregation. Until next time!

 

How Much is Enough?

Posted in: Blog, Featured ♦ Wednesday, June 4th, 2014, 4:59 pm ♦ 1 Comment on How Much is Enough?

So you love to sing. In fact, you sing on your team at church. Maybe you sing in a band on the weekends.  Perhaps you sing for an occasional wedding or funeral. How much should you practice to stay in shape (or get into shape!)?  Let’s take a look at what you need…

The Weekend Warrior

Let’s face it: unless you’re a professional singer you most likely have a “day job”. That “day job” could mean you leave your house daily to work out in the world or perhaps you’re a stay at home parent. Either way, you don’t spend the vast majority of your time thinking about singing. Instead, singing is more like a hobby to you, something you enjoy doing but haven’t managed to pay the bills with just yet.

However, if  you are like so many other singers I know, you likely sing-a lot-on the weekends. The weekend is the time when most churches hold the majority of their meetings that include music. The weekend is the time when you’re most likely to sing if you are dabbling in music outside the church as well. So how can you best prepare yourself physically to be able to maximize your vocal capabilities when the time does come for you to sing?

Growth or Maintenance?

The first thing you have to decide is what your goals are vocally. Are you trying to maintain what you have and keep yourself healthy vocally? Or, are you trying to move forward and grow as a vocalist? That will determine how much time you really need to spend in preparation and conditioning.  At a minimum, you need to put yourself in a position where you can continue to sing and serve for as long as God gives you breath and a voice right? So…

Maintenance

To maintain your current vocal level and to provide the right amount of practice and conditioning we first need to assess how much you are singing (on a stage or platform). Tally up the amount of hours you typically sing in each 24 hr period when you perform or take part in a team. For example, if you typically sing on Sundays, what does your day look like? Do you start out with a rehearsal in the morning from 7:30-8:45 and then sing for two consecutive services each requiring you to sing approximately 30 min each? Then you would say that you typically sing for two hours on that day. This is an important number for you to determine. If you sing for two hours on any given day, then you need to condition your vocal cords to be able to withstand two hours of “stress”.  You see, your vocal cords are muscles and need to be conditioned and prepared like any other set of muscles that you would use.  If you were going to run an hour long marathon, you would need to consistently run for an hour to condition your muscles to be in the right shape for your marathon. Well, the same is true of singing. Your vocal cords CAN withstand two hours of singing, but if you want them to give you a great performance you need to prepare them to be able to do so.

How can I possibly sing for two (or more) hours a day?

Here is the trick—look for things that you do in your life that you can add singing to. There are lots of times during the day that you could actually be singing and do what you are doing! But let me back up for a minute. You need to start every single day of your life by warming up your vocal cords. Period.  Add this to something you already do; the shower is the perfect way to start your day with a warm-up but there are other ways too. Find something that you do every morning that you could add singing to. Warming up doesn’t require the same type of focused energy and concentration that “working out” the vocal cords would. When you warm up, you need to gently and systematically stretch your cords,  that is pretty much it. It’s not very complicated.  Ah, but you say, I don’t have to sing every day so why should I warm up?  Any day that you use your voice is a day that you could benefit from a warm-up, even if you only use your voice to speak. Starting out your day thinking about caring for your voice will help you to think more like a “singer” throughout the day and that might encourage you to practice better vocal health overall.  Besides, if you do a 15-20min warm-up every day, you will be that much closer to conditioning your cords for your weekend work-out!

Next, throughout the day look for opportunities to sing and use them. Try to sing as often as possible in the same way that you will sing when you are on a platform or stage. Get into the mindset of “giving it your all” as often as you can. We all sing a bit differently when we sing in front of others, so try to mimic that when you sing throughout the week. Let your mantra be “sing, sing, sing!” Making singing a habit will be good for you in countless ways. Singing itself is good for you! But the continual practice will help to condition your vocal cords for your “warrior weekend” and you will find your voice stronger, more agile and better equipped to handle the hours of singing.

Growth

Next time I will devote this column to helping those of you who want to go beyond maintaining a healthy voice and keeping your current strength, stamina and range. We will look at some ways you can take your voice to the next level. Until next time, God bless you and  happy singing!