The Voice behind the Music


Hearing the Melody

A melody (from Greek μελῳδία, melōidía, “singing, chanting”),[1] also tune, voice, or line, is a succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity.

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

When you take away the words from a song, what’s left? Yes, that illusive melody! This comes up time and again with my students. You are not the only one who doesn’t know the melody when you take away the words or remove the familiar orchestration. There might be a section of the melody that you habitually skim over, and that just needs some loving attention. There is not something horribly wrong with you; you are not tone deaf, or miserably untalented. You probably just don’t know the melody, or how to listen for it. This is more likely to happen with a beginning student, but it is not uncommon with even the most experienced singers.

What is a melody? I think of the melody as the frame of the song.  If you were building a frame for a house, you would take careful measurements and note the distance between beams.  If you didn’t, your structure would pretty quickly fall down. The distance between two notes is called an interval.  What makes a melody interesting are the different combinations of intervals that shape the song. But if you are singing along and miss one of the intervals, it can be contagious, pulling the entire melody off center. Your structure warps, and your song falls apart.

If you play an instrument, it can help you find the melody. You can just pick out the melody to get an idea of the space between each note. Does it go up or down, and how far is it between each note? If you’re not used to doing this, it can take some time – but it is a practice well worth the effort, and it will get easier the more you do it.  Again, this is useful for even the most experienced singer – it will help you clean up your sound, and give you a better map of the road you are traveling on.

What I’ve noticed is that the way we THINK about a melody can interfere with our actually hearing it. For example, a student is missing one note repeatedly, and then says that they think the note is really high. When I pick it out on the guitar, we discover that it is just one whole step away (very close). They can then readjust the way they THINK about the note, and be able to find and sing it.

Another tool for tuning up on intervals can be a user-friendly app such as “Play by Ear”. I like this app because you can practice intervals one at a time (such as half step, whole steps, thirds, fourths, and so on), by listening and repeating.  This will help you recognize the distance between notes by ear, so that you can pick up melodies with more ease down the road. However, I recommend using apps with a cautionary note: if you are a brand new singer who has difficulty finding ANY note, the experience can be really frustrating – so approach using apps with caution. You will get better results by working with a patient teacher, or by spending time with musician friends and figuring it out together.

You CAN train your EAR and your VOCAL FOLDS to sing in pitch. I haven’t met a person yet that could not learn this. It requires patience and practice. Getting the melody right is part of singing, but it is not the whole equation. There are many aspects of singing that matter as much or more than being spot on with every note. So be patient, take the time to train yourself, and have fun. Relax and TRUST: the melody is there, you will learn to hear it, and it will guide and support you throughout the song.

The pop, hiss, and scratch of the old 78’s

Vocal student and singing contemporary Ruth Libbey discovered this wonderful image/concept for non-judgemental singing. She writes:

A quirky tactic for singing: Imagine the pop, hiss, and scratch of an old recording (for instance an antique recording of Caruso or John McCormack) while singing any song. In your imagination, hear the gentle scratching sounds of the turning record as the needle is dropped, before you even sing the first note. Imagine these sounds continuing while you begin to sing, and right through to the conclusion.

If you can do this, it becomes like listening to someone else from long ago, not to yourself now. This lets you drop right into your singing experience instead of standing outside judging one thing or another. It lets you forget obsessions with technique, worries about breath or posture, concerns about what you’re doing with hands or face. Instead of worrying about the next phrase you just enjoy the entrance of the melody as if listening to an old recording of someone else from a faraway time and place. You can relax; listening to “someone else” you don’t need any of your habitual singing tensions. It gets you out of the way so you hear and appreciate your own singing without overthinking or interfering.

Be the Singer you Love

Singing as if you are someone else can help you get out of your way and take the pressure off. It can also help you escape your less productive singing habits and enjoy some already well tested good habits. Sing as an opera singer would. Just pretend, feel silly if you must. Start by first hearing the Opera Singer in your mind and then, without question or holding back, sing like them. Try on your favorite singers of all time, go directly to the top of the list. Take on the physical stance and confidence of your personal Singing Legend. You may notice that you have better tone and breath control. You may find that getting to the end of that line or singing that difficult passage is effortless. Beeeeee that other singer, the one you love.

Vowels “The Long Tube of Sound”

Words are made up of a series of sounds rather than a solid square block of sound. When singing there is all sorts of room to play with the word; movable vowels and consonants. One word (or group of sounds) moves to the next group of sounds continuously.

The longer more expressive sounds are generally vowels. I like to think of the vowels as my “long tube of sound “ which I then shape with my tongue and lips slightly to make the consonant sounds.

To practice, start your first word of a line with its vowel-sound even if the word actually starts with a consonant. This will help you to start with an open throat. Begin by thinking of and shaping your throat with the vowel sound you are about to sing while breathing in. Then sing the first vowel sound, and without stopping that sound, shape the first consonant of the word.
Your sound should be continuous from sound shape to sound shape. The only time the sound will stop is when you take a breath.

aaa-th-aaa “the” aaathaaariiiiveeeerriiisswiiiide (the river is wide)

You can practice whole melodies on one vowel sound to help smooth out all kinds of difficulties. Slide from note to note to help maintain composure and relaxation between pitches.
Next you can practice the song using only the vowel sounds of each word (leaving out the consonants altogether). This takes a bit more work mostly because it is hard to think that way. You can write out the vowel sounds and then sing them (considerably easier). Sing continuously moving from one vowel to the next, only stopping to take breaths.

Try to remember it what this feels like. Change nothing, do nothing.

Add back in the consonants trying to maintain “your tube of sound”. Try not to pinch off “the tube” when you shape the consonants. Merely move your tongue or lips slightly (as little as possible) around the tube. There is no need for facial exaggeration when making consonants.
Check yourself out in the mirror to monitor. Happy tubing!


Once in a great while an artists work shows up in my life and stands me on my ear. As I revel in what they’ve accomplished and go deep into their work listening I also go into my own journey and find momentary answers to my biggest questions. 

Darryl Purposes new CD “Next Time Around” showed up in my mailbox a few days ago. I popped it into my car CD player for a short drive around the corner thinking I’d give it a start. An hour later I was still in my driveway, stereo blasting, I couldn’t turn it off, the message was in mid stream delivery, how could I. I was filled with a deep sense of the value of the process of music. I understood clearly the reason we want to make music. 

There is something so powerful and reassuring in hearing someone (and in this case he happens to be a friend, so I judge unfairly with an even sharper ear) grow as an artist and a person. Darryl’s singing and writing have unmistakable advanced to another level. I hear Darryl’s intent and attention to detail in every word he sings, I hear his musical message deep in my soul. I envision where he’s been since I last saw him, his self discovery, his spiritual path and the things he’s been ruminating and paying attention to these past years which he has failed to mention to me. For instance, gathering 10 killer songs like his tear-jerk beauuutiful “Amy” which speaks with two voices; a conversation between logic and emotion, Purpose/Zolla cowrite; groove pop Orange Raincoat “I’m an orange raincoat walking through a blue umbrella town,” the late Dave Carter’s exquisite “Girl from Golden.” I love them all, but it’s more than that. I hear Darryl’s ability to collaborate, I get an idea of who he’s listened to and cared about. I make up a whole new story about Darryl Purpose. I think I hear him on the radio.

“Next Time Around” is lovingly and impeccably produced by Billy Crockett. Clearly Billy is the lightning rod. Besides being a multi talented instrumentalist, he has nurtured these songs with careful arrangements. He and a core group of masterful musicians lay down a foundational cool, a Nashvillian slick, and a time honored folk integrity.  Daran DeShazo on electric guitar offers up some devilish grooves and lush landscapes. Dony Wynn on drums and Glenn Fukunaga on bass set up some gorgeous and powerful feel throughout. Crockett on keyboard, guitar, percussion and mandolin and a few other great players and singers flush out the dynamics. Darryl’s vocals are intimate and smooth as silk, reminiscent of a salty James Taylor, with a peppering of Mick Jaggar drawl and phrasing.

I think the thing that strikes me most as I listen is that art and artistry matter. That communication from one soul to another really does matter. It’s not by accident that things of beauty are made. That it is not solely about skill or by shear force of will but by long standing dedication to intention. It’s about cleaning out the closets and being present enough to know when something right is happening and being able to act on it. Making a truly great album requires a lot of great things coming together under one roof, as delicate and fleeting as the alignment of planets, as random as the chance meeting of three people at a house concert in Texas… but that’s the back story. Ask Darryl.


The 3 Minute Lifetime

One of the things I love about singing is it’s meditative quality. It takes a deep inner focus to travel along the moving sound scape of a song. It is a landscape that changes with each passing even though you are walking along the same stepping-stones, (words and melody) the things you notice and the places you go will be different every time.

Singing is an opportunity to wake up and view your inner details with a powerful microscope. The song becomes a vehicle for traveling the inner spaces of your focus and intent. The more you discover the more you find there is to learn. I call it “The 3 Minute Lifetime”. (also known as a song)

Starting the Journey:

Body Awareness: Lining up the body and being centered before you begin. Placing your intent inward much the same as you do in yoga, martial arts, and meditation

First Breath: Taking in that first breath with intention and keeping it; not letting half of it out before the first word or expelling it during the first word

Being Present for the First Word: Really starting strongly on the very first sound instead of warming up through it

Pacing Your Breathing: Deciding before you begin where and how deeply you will inhale during the song. Choosing the logical lyrical breaks so that you have enough breath to sing each phrase with support. Take as many breaths as you need, never sing without your voice supported by breath.

The Last Word: State the last word of the phrase with intent, concretely, instead of disappearing or giving up at the end of the phase. The last sound of each phase is the most import because it is the last thing the listener hears, it leaves the biggest impression. (having enough breath really helps, so plan ahead)

Emphasize the Vowels: The vowels are your long sounds, shape them to express your emotions. This is where you can play with tone and phasing.

Staying Present: Being present and aware from the beginning to the end is your 3 minute challenge. Many things are there to distract you; your own mind telling you unkind things as you go, the laundry list, outside noise.

Flying Zone: When you are really in the singing zone everything else falls away, all your effort becomes a natural way of being, one process leads you to the next, you leap along the stepping-stones and take off into effortless flight.


Renewable Dreams

I was reading Bette Midler”s tips “10 Things I Know Now” in AARP yesterday. Ha Ha, I can’t believe I was reading AARP it but I was. She said something like “if you lose your dream get a new dream.” So simple. I love wisdom tidbits especially from people who have experience. Dreams born from passion, mother and child.

Giving up a dream can be as hard as quitting an addiction.How do you know when your dream is unhealthy? You were high once, then hit ground, high again, then bouncing. That’s the nature of dreams. If a dream has a material goal with a predetermined ending point still unrequited (which has a certain sexy appeal) when do you stop?

I can definitely relate with being disappointed that things turned out differently than an originally imagined ending but usually I hear that stupid song again. It’s one of those annoyingly catchy jingles with words like loser and quitter snaked in the verse. Then there’s the bridge with that fantastic turn around at the end “Just One More Time” and I head to the cash register.

The death of passion however is another story. If the mystery is gone why would you want to do anything? If there isn’t something born greater than yourself and your practice time, then boo hoo, it’s bad. I’ve been there, to the point of no return. Allergic to my own dream. The loss of creative passion was unfathomable to me, I walked around checking my pulse, I couldn’t believe that I had killed that part of me. I was in the mud in the dark.

Luckily for us sensitives, passion can be resuscitated with a good set of paddles and some mouth to mouth. You fly to the ER. You get a heart transplant. There is a recovery period. For me it was pretty damn long. I still walk gingerly, looking nervously behind me hoping the boogie man is gone. I stumble across a new dream.

Having a passion or dream is more a way of being in and WITH the world. It can have an outcome but that is not the real “WHY” of it. Now I think of dreams very much the same as sleeping dreams; veiled, transparent, unpredictable. One minute you’re at the grocery store squeezing avocados and then you’re in a kayak cascading down a 100 foot waterfall and your groceries stay in the boat unsullied. That’s magic. Letting your dreams morph over time keeps them a renewable resource, a reason to be, a process not an ending point. Like Bette said: “squeeze an avocado, get a kayak.”