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