My thoughts...Wisdom from over the years

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen To Me

Posted in: Blog, Featured, tip of the week ♦ Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014, 6:47 am ♦ 1 Comment on Listen To Me

Listening. Is it a lost art? I recently saw a small poster on Facebook: “Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters—think about it J” When it comes to singing, whether alone or in groups, much could be solved by simply doing a better job of listening.

Listen

Listening to Yourself

As singers we need to make sure we get personal feedback with regard to our singing. We need to record-a lot (and listen to it!). We need to ask others for honest feedback and we need to sift through the information we get (not all of it will be valuable). We also need to pay attention AS WE SING. I know it sounds really simple, but the truth of the matter is; most of us are lazy listeners when it comes to singing. We don’t put much effort into listening, certainly not as much as we put into singing.

Much of singing is about pitch and tone. When we sing, there are many muscles involved, none the least of which are related to the formation of pitch. The more we sing, the more we create solidified, concrete muscle memory. If we form this memory correctly, by singing in proper tune, the easier it becomes for us to recall and recreate the pitch when we want to. Conversely, if we have been sloppy with our pitch, we will find it easier to recall the improper pitches we have memorized.

 

Singing a Duet

For purposes of this article, I am going to make a distinction between “group singing” and singing with one other person. Some things are applicable to both of course but, depending on style and function, there are some things that are unique to duet singing. Most of the time, when we sing with someone else, we try to focus on blend. However, there may be times when you want to focus on the distinct differences in your voices or styles—this is layering. Listening to each other should always be the starting point. How are your voices the same? How are they different? How can we sing together to highlight each other’s strengths without competing? This is effective partnering and it starts with careful listening.

Much can be accomplished by creative arrangement and thoughtful listening. There are plenty of examples of popular duets that do this very well, and it’s especially apparent when the duet is between a man and a woman. One example that comes to mind is “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. To me this is a perfect example of two people completely maintaining their own personal style while at the same time being 100% tuned in to and listening to each other.

There are also times when the perfect blending of two voices can be the most powerful expression. A couple of examples of two superstars coming together with perfect blend despite completely different styles are “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” with Donna Summers & Barbra Streisand and “The Girl is Mine”  with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Impressive.  And if you’re looking for a fun example of a male female duet where the blend is superb, check out “The Prayer” with Donnie Mcclurkin & Yolanda Adams (Donnie is just such a fabulous singer anyway!). If you want to see a contrast, compare Celine Dion’s versions of the same song (The Prayer) either with Andrea Bocelli or Josh Groban—neither version blends as beautifully as Donnie and Yolanda’s in my opinion.

 

Either way you choose to go: blending or layering, the bottom line is that you need to focus more on listening and less on singing (especially while practicing) in order to accomplish an effective partnership and a powerful end product. Listening also includes watching your partner closely: listening with your eyes. Starting and stopping together, breathing together, enunciating together and emoting in a unified yet complimentary way. It’s even important to make sure that you deliver the song in the same way, checking that you each emphasize the words in the way they were meant to be spoken-not just sung. One popular song right now is actually comical in the inconsistent way the performer pronounces the main word in the song shifting emphasis on the syllables from “Un-con-di-TION-al” un-CON-di-tion-al”. How would you speak this word? That is how you should sing it.

Group Singing

Group singing is all about blend; “E Pluribus Unum” which is Latin for “out of many, one”. We want the power of multiple voices and multiple parts without a sense of the “multiple”. How do we achieve this? By listening to each other. It really is that simple—it starts there anyway. Blend has to do with other things as well of course. In my video entitled “How to be an Effective Background Vocalist” I outline several things that can help a group to achieve a good blend but at the core of it all, listening is the most important requirement.

When I get asked to work with a church’s team, typically the thing I need to do is to stop the singers and make them listen to each other. Most singers, if they have even a rudimentary level of control of their voices, can affect their tone to a degree. When I cause team members to stop and look/listen to each other they almost always instinctively have a sense of what to do to create a better blend. Just the process of making the effort to emphasize listening usually has a significant impact on the sound of a group. Sometimes I will break the group down to just two people to start with.  Then, once they’ve learned to listen and blend with each other, I will add one more to the mix until the three of them are listening and blending, then I’ll add one more etc..

 

Reflective vs. In the Moment

There are two different kinds of listening as a singer. There is the listening that you do while you are actually singing and there is the listening you do afterward (via a recording). Both are essential to growth. I would like to leave you a thought; don’t try to be the singer and the audience at the same time. It may sound contradictory to what I’ve been saying about listening carefully, but you should do the vast majority of your learning/evaluation listening when you are in the “practice mode” of singing. That is where you want to lay your foundation, create a positive muscle memory, etc Once you move into “performance mode”, although you HAVE to make listening to yourself a top priority, you must be careful to give out to your audience, not just focus inwardly. Additionally, you cannot continue to try to step into the audience’s shoes and try to assess yourself throughout your presentation. It will affect your performance negatively if you do. Practice to the best of your ability and then go out there and give your all. Stop judging yourself as you sing-just sing. Everyone will benefit from this. You’ll be focused on singing (and communicating) instead of critiquing so you are bound to do a better job!

“It’s Just Not the Right Time”

Posted in: Blog, tip of the week ♦ Monday, June 24th, 2013, 1:02 pm ♦ 1 Comment on “It’s Just Not the Right Time”

“It’s Just Not the Right Time”

Recently, I have gotten a few inquiries with regard to singers and timing. Timing can be a tricky thing. I used to joke about the fact the most of the folks that I knew that had trouble with timing decided to become drummers…ahem.  Of course that’s not exactly fair, but timing is something that has to be learned-and practiced in order to be perfected. We can’t just take for granted that we’ll naturally “get it”. I liken it to singing harmony. Some people seem to be a complete “natural” at it, but are they really, or is it more likely the result of training and practice? I’d say that more of the latter and less of the former.

Believe it or not, way back in fifth grade when kids were choosing instruments to learn in school, I chose the drums.  (I always wanted to march to my own beat I guess) Several years later in marching band I was continually being asked by my director to play the bass drum—while marching. I balked at this since I was the only girl and would have way preferred to play the cool little snare riffs.  When I questioned the director he said simply, “I’m sorry Sheri, but you’re the only one who can keep a steady beat”.  Hmmm, was that inborn or inbred? In finding the answer we have to step back even further in time…

My parents were dance instructors while I was growing up. They worked for Arthur Murray and often invited couples to our home for private training. I can remember my father always going through the same routine of sitting down with the couple and asking them to “feel” the beat in the music. He typically focused on the man because in ballroom dancing the man was supposed to lead. If the guy didn’t get the beat, they would be lost as a couple. I can remember as child beginning to hear the beat easily and wondering how it could be troublesome for a few of these adults.  Soon my brothers and I were also learning how to dance and keep that rhythm ourselves.

Additionally, my father played the organ. Night after night after dinner, while we cleaned the kitchen, I would hear my father play his familiar tunes.  His left foot would keep time perfectly while he played out a nice bass line with the pedals. Later, when I was about 7, I also took organ lessons and learned how to play that rhythmic bass line throughout my songs.  Then of course I started with the drumming lessons in fifth grade. So you can see how, by the time I reached marching band, I was just a “natural” at rhythm.  In “Outliers”, a book written by Malcolm Gladwell, he makes the assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at anything. I don’t know at what point I may have personally reached that level with regard to hearing rhythm, but I suspect that it may have been sooner than the average girl my age, making me appear more like a “natural”.

This is not to say that raw ability never comes into play, but we tend to elevate that in lieu of simple hard work.  So what can we do to develop timing skills? The first thing is to learn to focus on things OTHER than the vocals. So many singers are tuned into simply the melody and the words of a song because they tend to believe that those are the only things they need to learn.  When I do vocal auditions, I believe it’s important to have a singer audition three ways: a’cappella, with an instrument and with a track.  The first way shows me how good their intonation is without relying on an instrument.  The last way tells me whether or not they can hear rhythm and find their way through a song with no lyrics. Both are helpful for determining whether or not they are good listeners and independent singers.

If you are struggling with finding rhythm or staying on the beat, or if you have someone on your team that is, here are some ideas to help strengthen their ear.

Spend time listening for the beat of the music-NOT the melody.  Try listening for each individual instrument especially those that are providing a rhythmic foundation for the song.

Learn how to count the music.  One of the (many) downsides of not using music (and most teams today don’t) is that we don’t learn to count the music out. We don’t understand the musical value of a rest and how to count it out. Try finding the proper timing for a song: does it feel like it has a 2beat, 3beat, 4beat, 6beat (etc) feel? Then count out the spaces in the music where there are no vocals. These simple exercises will help to train your ear.

Practice with a backing track. This will be the ultimate test for you since a backing track will not follow you. You will HAVE to learn to listen to the music, feel the beat and count the rests.  Record yourself with a track to see how well you are doing. If you can’t tell just yet, have someone else listen and tell you where you might be off the beat.

Try using a “click track” while singing live: this is sometime helpful—not always. If the problem is slight, it may be just enough to keep someone on the beat. However, if a person has never really tuned in to the beat for the beat’s sake, then they may very well skip right over the click mentally and only listen for the other singers anyway. This can put a singer behind or at a serious disadvantage when there are no vocals going on. Sometimes a visual metronome can be more helpful for training purposes.

The bottom line is: PRACTICE. This is something you CAN learn, but you need to take the time and invest in your skills as a singer—especially when it just doesn’t seem to come “naturally” to you.

 

 

 

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Vocal Tip #6: Is it okay to be sore after singing?

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Vocal Tip #5: How do I achieve vocal blend?

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Vocal Tip #4: Help for a vocal breakthrough?

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Vocal Tip #3: How do I correct my pitch?

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Vocal Tip #2: How do I control my emotions while singing?

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THE ULTIMATE VOCALIST PART 3

Posted in: Blog, tip of the week ♦ Thursday, May 9th, 2013, 11:01 am ♦ No Comments on THE ULTIMATE VOCALIST PART 3

The Ultimate Vocalist PART 3

Last time I began outlining five “P” words to help you remember some key basics in becoming the best – the ultimate vocalist you can be.  These were:  Prepare, Practice, Position (your larynx), Perceive and Presentation. If you missed that article, you can find it archived online at worshipmusicianmagazine.com.  Because of the importance of the final “P”-Presentation, I decided to dedicate an entire article to this aspect of singing.

The actual presentation of a song is really the culmination of all the other work you’ve done so far. Yet, in spite of the importance of all of those—none compare to the impact of this particular aspect. In actuality, if you could somehow get a hold of your presentation and do a great enough job with it, you could conceivably accomplish nearly all of your primary goals as a singer. I say this confidently because of the incredible number of singers out there who clearly have not worked on some of the finer points of singing and yet they touch us. They move us. Why? The answer is: their presentation.

The Goal

So what is your goal as a singer? You need to remember that everyone who comes to see/hear you sing is looking for an experience (even if they don’t immediately realize it). Depending on the venue, the experience they’re seeking will likely be slightly different. For example, if you’re singing in a coffeehouse, people may be looking for one type of experience. If they’re coming to see you at a large outdoor concert, then it could be a slightly different type of experience they’re looking for. If they’re coming to see you in a church…you get the idea.  Yet even though these experiences are different to a degree, they’re likely to be very similar in that it’s an emotional response most of us crave when it comes to music, especially singing.

Unlike other types of music, singing can direct your thoughts more pointedly. All types of music are capable of moving you and creating a response, but with vocal music we can communicate more specifically.  Because we have the advantage of language in our music, we can communicate very specific concepts. These concepts are designed to touch people and reach them where they live. Those are the types of experiences that people enjoy and remember. So we need to make sure that our primary goal as a singer is to be a servant. A servant that serves up a message that can touch, effect  and even change our audience.

 

What It’s Not

Many singers, intuitively recognizing the goal as stated above, can get confused as to how to get there.  I often see performers mistakenly thinking that THEIR emotional response to the message or the song itself is what will move their audience. There is a big difference between a displaying of your own emotions versus an evoking of emotion in your audience. Make sure you understand the difference.  Try to remember this: the audience is not so interested in how you feel, but you make them feel.  Lots of outward emotional responses and overused hand motions simply become distractions for the audience and prohibit them from getting in touch with the message themselves.

 

Along this line it’s important to remember that when you are nervous or uncomfortable in any way, this will also greatly affect your audience. They will naturally respond to your needs and find themselves concerned for you rather than simply responding to the song. This is because your message has changed, it’s no longer rooted in the song you’re singing or its message, but instead the message has become all about you and your emotional state.

 

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THE ULTIMATE VOCALIST PART 2

Posted in: Blog, tip of the week ♦ Tuesday, April 30th, 2013, 6:53 pm ♦ 2 Comments on THE ULTIMATE VOCALIST PART 2

The Ultimate Vocalist PART 2

 Position

Position your larynx properly. Many are the problems associated with high larynx singing.  Make sure you learn how to relax the muscles in your throat and neck.  When the larynx rides up, it creates tension and also squeezes up against the trachea making the area you have for air and tone flow in the throat—much smaller.  The throat can be a great source of resonance leading right into the chest area, but not if the larynx rides high and cuts it off.  When that happens, you are relegated to only being able to sing with a resonance from the jaw upward.  Therefore you’re much more likely to have a thinner resonance (upper head register)   with a high larynx.  Most of us prefer the richer sound of a lower register (chest) or would at least like to have the option of choosing between the two. When you constantly sing with a high larynx you have fewer options.

Additionally, keeping the larynx low not only eliminates tension, but it paves the way for extending your range because of it. So learning how to relax and master this technique will really help you in your quest to deliver your songs with the tone quality that you want.

Perceive

The mind is an amazing thing. Scientists tell us that we only use about 10% of our brain; I can only imagine what capabilities lie locked inside.  I just know that I wish I could use what I have more effectively! When it comes to singing, there is much that we can do to get our mind working for us rather than against us.

Take stock of the many mental messages that play over and over again n your head with regard to your singing—or singing a particular song, or even a specific part of a song.  Often the messages coming from within are not always helpful or encouraging. We need to take hold of these thoughts (…taking every thought captive) and make a decision about whether or not they are helping us accomplish our goals.

I want to just look at one common thought process and it’s regarding pitch. Most of us think of pitch as something that goes “up” (or down).  We tend to envision the pitches we sing in this way. As we do so, oftentimes we begin to react physically to what’s going on mentally and we may tend to tense up. Perhaps we’ll raise our eyebrows, or stand on our toes in an effort to “reach” the pitch. All of this goes against what we should be doing; which is relaxing.

I try to think about pitch as rolling put in front of me on a slight decline. That way when I picture the pitch, I’m actually “stepping down” in my mind to scoop up the pitch: I’m not reaching up for it. This has a significant effect on my whole body—but it’s my mind that’s controlling it.

There are so many aspects to this particular application that there is no way to cover it in a small section here.  I do ask you to try and take an inventory of your personal thoughts with regard to your singing though and don’t let them get the better of you—take control and you that fabulous brain of yours! 

Present

Presenting your song is probably the most critical part of the whole process. Why? Because even if you have done everything else I’ve listed but fail to present your song well, it could be all for naught. On the other hand, even if some of the other things don’t get handled as well as you might have liked, there are certain things you can do with your presentation to help smooth over some bumps. . Because of the importance of this topic, I will deal it more fully in my next article.

See ya next time! Until then, keep on singing for Him!

 

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