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.


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.


From Mimicker to Interpreter

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!

My beginnings with Frank Baker and the Voice

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. 

Remembering Frank Baker by Edward Herbst

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
In the Fall before Frank passed away, we visited him in North Bennington. Beth Skinner had baked Frank a fresh blueberry tort, which he always loved, and we sat down at the kitchen table with him, as his daughter Betsy moved about, preparing tea. After their cat jumped on the table, and the little mess was cleared up, Beth and I began to talk. Frank’s ability to speak was noticeably diminished since his last (ninety first) birthday in 1999, and one had to focus one’s attention very intently—even more than usual—to catch his words. So I was filling up a few minutes of time, trying to provide him with pleasant “conversation,” talking about my research in Indonesia earlier that year. After a short while, I saw a certain impatience in Frank’s eyes that I’d come to recognize behind the beatific smile. He gently waved his hand in the air—kind of like smoke circling round as it rises—a signal for us to listen to him. And then he intoned, “Tell me what you learned from me.” I laughed embarrassedly, and asked him how many days he had to listen to my answer. He repeated the request. Then we spent over an hour intently discussing the voice, the process of learning and of singing, with Frank desperately trying to express himself, and indeed managing to engage on a striking level. He was completely alert, eyes gleaming, taking in all we had to say (with hearing aid mostly reliable), and offering questions and answers with the greatest of difficulty. But what an exhilarating experience! The few phrases Frank managed to blurt out were so incisive and heartfelt. With great passion he would try to comment on something one of us said— attempting to get the words out, only having to wave his hand in the air in a gesture of giving up, with a smile of regret on his face. And still, his presence and engagement—being totally in the moment—were overwhelming, just as with his performances many decades before. One subject we talked about was the effect his stroke had on his teaching. He confirmed once again that he still thought of it as a great blessing. (more…)