(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Phrasing and song interpretation can be dramatically improved by this seemingly simple exercise.
First read through the lyrics a few times and examine their meaning. (especially important if you aren’t the composer) Understand what they mean to you and possibly to the listeners.
It’s surprising how often students won’t have a clue what the song they LOVE and have sung time and time again is really about. Big lightbulbs go off above their heads and a whole new approach is possible. So carefully read the lyrics and deepen your understanding of the song.
Then speak the lyrics out loud as if you were in conversation with someone. Remove the sing-song sound from your voice. Do not recite it like a poem, but instead make it really conversational.
Stop thinking about the melody and the original song phrasing. Really disconnect the lyrics from the structure of the song. You may find it’s hard to remember the words without the melody because the lyrics have become just a group of sounds connected to the melody.
Now for some reason this next part can be stressful and embarrassing. Everyone sweats when I ask them to do this and in fact I sweat too when I do it. But it has to be done so sweat away.
Are you talking to another person or are you talking in your head? Test this on a friend. Look them in the eye and pretend that your conversation is real.
Notice how your voice sounds. Check in with the, tone, intent, and volume. Which words stand out in each line and are these the KEY words in the phrase? Which words do you choose to say louder, gentler, whispered? Which words do you stretch or elongate? Do you string together a group of words and say some words slowly by themselves. “aaaall…. I EVER, really-want-to doOOOO, is bAAby, BEee friEEEnds with you” How is the meaning changed by these inflections? Try saying the same sentence several times with different inflections and see how the meaning changes each time.
If there are repeating words in a song like “baby, baby, baby” you can use this as an opportunity to say them differently each time to bring deeper meaning to the song either by intensifying or softening with each repeat, or by altering the timing or phrasing slightly to refresh the meaning.There is so much room to play with phrasing both with emotive intent and rhythmic change up. You do not have to do it like it’s been done in the past.
Now sing the song. Remember the things you previously noticed from speaking them and import them into the melody.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, once you have an understanding of the lyrics and how you would say them it will help you FEEL the emotion behind the song. You could imagine you are singing to a very specific person, your body feels the sensation of the emotion, you can see the person, or place you are singing about. You have a clear vision and sensation of the physical surroundings that pertain to the song. Often these changes are subtle but the result can be FELT by the listener. Suddenly the song seems more meaningful, believable, and powerful. YOU actually KNOW what you are singing about so the chances are the listener will know it too.
You have just made the giant leap from unconscious mimicker to song interpreter!
think injection not projection
Imagine that you are an acoustic guitar. Your vocal folds are the strings. Your body is the body of a high-end, well used guitar.
If you pluck the strings they vibrate. The thicker or fatter strings vibrate slowly and make a lower pitched tone. The thinner strings vibrate quickly and create a higher pitch tone.
Although your vocal folds don’t resemble instrument strings they do work in a similar fashion. When lengthened and thinned they make a higher pitched sound. When they are shortened and fattened they vibrate more slowly and make a lower pitch sound. Try plucking a rubber band as you lengthen and shorten it between two fingers.
If you were to pluck a guitar string in mid-air away from the body of the instrument you would hear a dull thud or a very low volume tone. It is the air and space inside the body of the acoustic instrument that picks up the vibration and transfers it to the wood which gives the sound it’s volume and tone. The listener hears the sound coming off the entire body of the guitar. If you lay your hand on the instrument body you can feel it vibrate.
The older and more broken in instruments tend to sound better because the structure of the wood have been broken down and is much looser. The more receptive the wood, the more readily it vibrates, the greater the tone and volume. Different types of wood (or other materials) affect the sound. Certain woods are known for their warmth, clarity and/or brightness.
Your body functions in the same way. Your muscles and bones would be the top back and sides of the instrument. Your lungs would be the air chamber within (or open space). Each body sounds unique because of it’s inherent structure and it’s ability to vibrate.The looser and more relaxed you are the richer your voice will sound.
Your body has a myriad of sounding boards which can be opened, loosened, and hardened by a mere thought or emotion. The physical vibrations that you create by singing cannot only be HEARD by the listeners ears, they are FELT INSIDE the LISTENERS BODY, transferred from your sounding board to theirs. This is why listening to music is often a physically moving experience. You may hear a singer and notice that the hairs are standing up on your arms, you may experience a huge emotion or be taken back to a personal experience. This is not just from the sound of the melody or the language of the words. It is the physical reaction to a RECOGNIZED VIBRATION, a vibration that is experienced within your own body.
Volume and tone are not created by what you push out and away from you but rather by what you BRING INTO the reverberation chamber of your body. Allow the sound waves to fully move inside of you. The looser (but not collapsed) you are the better. Think injection rather than projection.
These exercises are as simple as imagining yourself larger than you are. Rather than asking your body to relax by pushing outward, try instead to believe that your outer edges have expanded. Try making a sound while imagining your body image changed. Place your hands on your body. You will eventually if not immediately feel the vibration.
Although you may not notice it right away the change in your voice will often be remarkable and dramatic. These are your tonal palettes to paint with in the future. (try this exercise with a friend listening and get their response)
These can be done one at a time or mixed and matched. You can make up your own body images. Think BIG!!
Your head is round and as wide as your shoulders. Your cheeks are soft and widen out between your ears.
Your upper teeth are huge and bucked out past your lower lip. They are the most beautiful white teeth and you are proud of them.
Your butt takes up at least two bus seats and your stomach is round and jolly. You are eating the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich ever.
Your chest is warm and open as the sunshine itself. You are floating on a soft rubber raft in the salt seas of the Bahamas with the clouds slowly moving above you.
Your rib cage and shoulder blades open sideways and you have huge white wings fanning behind you. Your back expands backwards and you are flying.
Your nose is like an elephant’s trunk and your enormous leathery ears flap in the Savannah breeze. You spay water across your back.
You are 3 years old and you are sitting in you favorite dirt pile or sandbox. You’re face is painted with a fudge bar. There is probably drool coming out of your mouth and other pleasantries happening. You are conscious of only one thing….. GETTING TO THAT FIRE!!. Your chubby little hand firmly grasps your fire truck and you are racing at breakneck speed down the winding dirt roads of your imaginary town, round and round your adorable little body AND your siren is roaring!!
Are you there, sitting in your sandbox? Is your hand tight around your imaginary fire truck? YES….REALLY, you have to hold the fire truck. Imagine the sound of the fire truck loud and clear in your head and then make that siren sound driving your fire truck fast to the fire.
If you have successfully imitated a siren to the best of your ability your voice probably was making a high-pitched sound, it probably modulated from low to high and back again several times.
THIS IS SINGING HIGH! It probably felt easy and unconscious. You, as a small child learned by imitation without the limitations of thinking this is hard, this is up, this is impossible. All you knew was that you were a fire truck so that’s the sound you made and you got to the fire and saved all those desperate people. Your head was probably ringing like a bell with the sound you were making, but you didn’t notice. You certainly weren’t thinking “man is this hard singing high”. All you knew was that you had a job to do and that you were probably a hero.
Many students come to me saying they can’t sing high, that they are baritones or altos and high notes are impossible. What makes singing high notes difficult is your understanding of what high notes are. High notes are not UP somewhere above your eyebrows. The vocal folds stay in the same place and move horizontally, not up and down. REACHING for a high note is counter productive because when you reach you strain and when you strain your tension makes the note unobtainable.
I think reading music on a page gives us the idea that those notes are up and of course calling them high doesn’t help either. What if we reverse the language and called high notes low instead. Would what we once called low notes, now the new high, be considered unreachable?
KEEP STILL WHILE YOU SING. This was probably one of the hardest things for me when I first started singing. I was full of energy and twitching everywhere. My voice teacher used to beg me to stop moving! It took me a long time to rein it in and calm my body down. I used to BELIEVE “I have so much to express, I feel so much, I can’t possibly hold still.”
Try putting your expressive energy into your VOICE instead of your facial expressions or other body movements. FEEL what you are singing about instead of acting like you feel it with you face. If you feel it, the voice will express it for you. You don’t have to DO anything.
When you watch the great singers of the world you will notice that their faces are very still. STILLNESS does not mean frozen or held. Their jaw is relaxed, their brow is soft, their lips hardly move (especially the upper lip), their throat muscles and veins are not popping out. They are in a state of utter presence and relaxed stillness.
A tense body will hinder your progress in generating volume and tone. (more on that in blogs to come in)
When a performer is tense or uncomfortable, then I (the listener), am also tense and uncomfortable.
Because sound is a vibration it actually enters the body of the listener. The audience feels what you feel because the sound you generate (from a tense or relaxed body) resonates inside of their body in the same way as it resonates in yours. It is the instant unconscious recognition of the human language.
HOW TO PRACTICE: this is good for singers, speakers and anyone who talks!
Stand in front of a mirror and try to keep still. A soft face and a quiet neck.
IMAGINE your face is bigger than it is, very big like a beach ball, and soft, lips numb like you were given a shot of Novocain. Take the time to really imagine it until you FEEL it.
Let your cheeks fatten, allow the space between your ears to widen sideways.
Let your tongue fall to the floor of your mouth.
Make a sound.
Keep your attention on your BROW. Don’t let your eyebrows move up and down when you change pitch.
Check out your NECK, can you see muscles sticking out or moving up and down? If so try to stop moving them (this can take a while). Trust me, they don’t have to move and are hindering your progress.
THIS IS REALLY HARD FOR SOME PEOPLE BECAUSE FORMER BEHAVIOR IS A LIFE LONG HABIT…. BUT…. IT IS WORTH THE EFFORT !!!!!
KEEP AT IT until you can maintain stillness while singing.
When I think of Frank Baker I think guru. Not just vocal guru but a human being of the grandest stature. I know everyday how lucky I was to experience someone of light and love who gave to you his entire being in the minutes you spent with him. I saw the pure visceral joy in his body if you were flying in song. He was soaring with you. I saw him mad as hell if your wings were wet and you didn’t have the courage to be honest and try.
I heard about him from a few singers that had studied with him at Bennington college. There was something in their voices I recognized and had to do. I was in my early 20’s and realized I really, REALY had to learn how to sing, not just fool around singing. I wanted it so bad I could taste my impatience like a bitter metal.
I borrowed a friends ancient VW bug, scrapped together $15 for the lesson and made the 1 1/2 drive to Bennington. Frank taught short 15 minute lessons to 70 students a week. He was partially paralyzed from a stroke. He could barely speak some days, most days in a raspy whisper with the intensity of a roar, packed with so much intent he would transfix you. I sat before him not exactly trembling but emptied of self, like a new born, trying desperately to grasp what he was imparting to me. Often I arrived and realized I didn’t have a notion of a song to sing. Sometimes I’d make a glorious stride in sound and Frank would point and say “that’s it” just to have it slide away on the long drive home, lost again. With daunting reality I realized the incredible potential of the voice. The voice, your true inner voice, is a life long journey, always changing as your body and being change. What you can do with the voice has endless possibilities and with that, never ending growth. I find this extremely exciting and in the past I have often been demoralized by my inabilities to express myself as I hear it in my soul. But… I have found, I do always recover and try again.
I certainly have never grown tired of sharing what I know about the voice with my students and friends and anyone who will listen. For me it as much or MORE about a clear window to self realization than it is about the act of actually singing or performing a song. I’m sure it was even more intense for Frank having lost his speech and his ability sing. He had to sit and wait patiently for one of us to slowly grasp the process and fan out our wings so that he could fly along with us.
|Aloha,I just found this incredible story on-line after having a great talk with another fellow student of Frank Baker’s, James McCarthy (performer, writer, teacher) who I met shortly after moving to Hawaii. I studied voice with Frank in the 80’s and have not forgotten the many things I learned from him. I think about him everyday! James and I were trading stories over dinner and the similarity’s to the below story are goose pimple material. Frank taught thousands of students. It amazes me that there aren’t more stories out there on Frank and his courageous voice teaching methods. I am hoping more will show up and we can gather together to keep Franks beautiful, generous, impatient spirit circulating in the world. Mahalo, Louise
Remembering Frank Baker (1908-2000) Edward Herbst