Thursday, September 8, 2016

More Tips on Performing

    This last August I played several shows in California. Some of my friends are touring singer-songwriters who regularly do shows, but I’m not one of them; sometimes many months can go by in-between shows. Occasional performers like me can be more prone to stage fright. One show was in my hometown of Berkeley and looked to have friends in the audience I’d known as far back as first grade. I knew I’d be nervous, and I hadn’t performed in a year, and that made me more nervous. I had to prepare for possible performance anxiety in as many ways as I could. So while rehearsing I used every trick I already knew about preparing for a show: those methods are all listed here and detailed further in my book Singing Live. If nerves hit me onstage I can usually sing through it, but I make stupid guitar mistakes and get distracted, and I don’t give my best possible performance.
    The first show of the tour was good, not great: I played and sang decently and connected with the audience, but there was definitely room for improvement on all fronts. The rest of the shows were better, but I continued to learn (or re-learn!) ways to improve. So here are a few more things about performing that I remembered on this last tour, which included shows at clubs, house concerts, and coffeehouses:

Don’t schedule the hometown show first
    It’s common at smaller shows to meet and chat with audience members beforehand, but this particular show was packed with people I hadn’t seen in twenty years, along with friends I’ve known since childhood. It was a “Susan this is your life” crazy party and I was rushing around saying hello right up to walking on stage. Not a great way to get centered before performing, and I felt a bit scattered.

Wear layers to take off (or put on) if necessary

    This first show was in a venue with no ventilation or AC, it was sold-out, and it was 90 degrees onstage. Enough said!

Keep warming up before each and every show

    You’d think I’d know this one. I’m good about warming up regularly at home, but travel during the tour made this hard to do. We raced into town right before our last show. I thought after warming up and performing throughout the tour that I could get away with not warming up just one time, and I paid the price: on three different high notes that are usually easy for me my voice simply wouldn’t do what it usually can do, and cracked. In retrospect I realize my voice was fairly tired by the end of the tour, and I should have warmed up and babied it a whole lot more for that last show. Here’s what fatigued my voice the most:

Avoid noisy restaurants and parties in-between shows

    A student’s friend recently had dinner with Paul Simon, so I told her to ask Paul how he kept his voice in shape on tour. Among Paul Simon’s tricks: he gets 10+ hours of sleep a night, he drinks very little alcohol, and he avoids loud restaurants and dinner parties while on tour.
    I was meeting a lot of friends for meals in-between shows, and more than one time I requested that we switch to a less noisy restaurant. Talking loudly in noisy places can wipe out your voice. Even though I was careful I could still feel the fatigue from so much visiting. If your voice is tiring during visits, ask questions and let your friends do most of the talking.

Don’t start with a slow song

    I always like to start with an up-tempo, higher energy song--it gets the ball rolling, and I can channel any nerves into singing it. I save slower songs that require more vocal control for later. But a friend did a set before mine at one show, and she asked me to sing a duet with her during her set. As a result the first thing I sang onstage that evening was a slow ballad, and it took a lot of concentration to pull it off.

Don’t start with a low song

    Many singers notice that their vocal range shifts up in performance, due to adrenaline: high notes are much easier, low notes are harder. I’ve known this about myself for years, but I ignored it when planning my set! The first song of my set started with some very low notes that were a breeze to sing at rehearsal, but difficult to sing in performance: this didn’t make for a strong start. I should have put that song later in the set when I was more relaxed. I raised the key of another song for the same reason and it was much easier to sing.

Be willing to move or dump songs

    I like to build a set of songs carefully so that the pacing is good. Then I tend to stick with the same set throughout a tour. But I noticed during the first two shows that the audience was not connecting with one particular song, so I dropped it from the set and inserted another one. The result was a much stronger set.

    I hope these tips are helpful. If you are currently preparing for a show or tour: rehearse more than you think you should, avoid noisy restaurants, get as much sleep as possible, and break a leg!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What I Learned About Singing at Zumba Class

When I was living in Santa Cruz during college there was a fabulous afro-cuban dance class downtown, with live drummers. Over a hundred people would show up for an hour of hip-swaying, butt-shaking tribal dance. I’m not a trained dancer and I could never get the moves down, but since I love to dance it was still loads of fun. Going to a Zumba class at my local Nashville gym once or twice a week is as close as I can get now to recreating those Santa Cruz days. The music isn’t live, but the dance moves from different cultures and the array of music from around the world still can make for a great time. The teacher can make or break a class, however. A good Zumba teacher knows lots of routines and can convey them easily, can keep everyone moving, and will look like they’re having fun all the while.

When my beloved Zumba teacher of several years switched careers, two different teachers took over her Tuesday and Thursday classes. I went to Marie’s class on Thursday and it was awful: she was clearly new to teaching Zumba and her inexperience showed. She only knew 25 minutes worth of dance routines, so we had to do the same clunky dances twice during the hour. She kept stopping to look at her notes during the routines. The music she chose was too disco-y. I tried her class a couple of times, then gave up and avoided it. That only left one other class I could take, Annie’s class on Tuesdays. She was a trained dancer and knew her stuff. I joined her class and stayed with it for several months.

As the months rolled on the classes became less and less fun. I realized that we always did the same routines, and that the moves seemed more militaristic than hip-swaying/African/Latin/Cuban-ish. Annie moved well, but she never looked like she was having any fun. She often looked liked she’d rather be at the movies with her boyfriend.

Other people were voting with their feet, and Annie’s class size was steadily shrinking. I skipped it one week due to another commitment, and in desperation for exercise (this was in the dead of winter) I returned to Marie’s Thursday class. Holy moly, what a difference! She not only had collected a huge variety of music and learned a bunch of routines, she not only had learned how to signal us new fun moves as we all danced, but she exuded enthusiasm all the while. She clearly was having a blast teaching the class. She’d scamper up and dance with different students, and made sure she knew everyone’s name. New students of any level were welcomed with enthusiasm. She even played the quick “Jeopardy” theme twice during the hour, so we could all get water--no teacher had ever thought to add water break music to their mix. Everything about the class said “Whoever you are, come have some fun!” As I danced away I was filled with the sheer joy of dancing, something I hadn’t felt for many months.

So what does this have to do with singing?

1) Don’t pigeonhole someone with an initial judgement. I gave a few lessons to someone years ago and pegged her early on as someone who needed lots of help-- and even then would probably never improve much. She disappeared for a year and then returned, telling me that during the year she’d been working with the recordings I’d made for her of our few lessons. She not only sounded fantastic, but she got a record deal six months later. I learned not to make hard and fast predictions about how quickly or how much a singer might improve. Wish I’d thought not to judge Marie so quickly as well!

2) Don’t pigeonhole yourself with a judgment about your singing. Just as with athletics, singing is partly mental. If you decide that you’ll never sing high (or powerfully, or in tune, or well enough to go pro, or whatever), you may be setting yourself up to fail.

3) The joy factor is vital. Most people study voice or pursue careers as singers because they love to sing. Singing is one of the great joys of life. It engages you physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. If singing has been no fun for you lately, figure out why and make some changes. Recently I realized I’d been singing the same practice songs for way too long. I recorded some new practice songs and voila`, suddenly I was having fun again.

Now you know where I’ll be on Thursdays at 5:30.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sometimes Dreams Come True

Anyone who has every tried to get anywhere in the music business knows that getting a record deal or having your song cut is like winning the lottery--it’s next to impossible. So it’s wonderful to see someone who is talented and deserving actually get somewhere in this occasionally heartless biz.
    I met Kelleigh Bannen a few years ago in Barbara Cloyd’s Pitch to Publishers songwriting workshop. I liked her immediately--she was very pretty and friendly, and appeared to have a brain. During the workshop she played a song live and in my humble opinion I thought she had a great voice, but she needed to strengthen her guitar and performance chops. After the workshop we wrote a few songs together, including one I liked so much that I recorded it for my album Swimmer. While writing we hung out a bit and talked a lot about her career path. She was totally open to any feedback I had, and was very focused on doing anything she could to improve as an artist.
    Though she was clearly talented, she was one of hundreds, if not thousands of talented artists trying to get somewhere in Nashville. So during the couple of  years Kelleigh worked her butt off and did the following:
• Worked on her guitar playing.
• Gigged whenever possible.
• Took even more singing lessons, though she’d been studying since she was a teen.
• Recorded and released an album on her own.
• Followed every lead possible to meet with industry people.
• In an effort to stand out in the crowd, she organized and did a “90 Gigs in 90 Days” tour. If you booked her to play in your closet, she did it. As her website says, she did it “In honor of my little brother who passed away after a long battle with addiction.” (Just in case you think her life has been a bed of roses.)
• Because of the tour she got a meeting with producer Paul Worley, who proceeded to mentor her, sign her to his publishing company, and then set her up with a bunch of high profile songwriters.
• Spent almost every waking minute for many months writing with different songwriters, proving to Paul she had staying power.
• Recorded with Paul, who then got her a deal with Capitol Records.
• Knowing that getting a deal was not the end of the story but one more rung in the ladder, she then did everything she could to prove to the label that she was worthy. She gigged, kept practicing, and kept writing.

         Last fall I took a student of mine to see Kelleigh play, and saw how she had transformed herself through sheer hard work. She had retained her smarts, sense of humor and friendliness, but the non-stop writing, practicing and gigging had paid off. Her voice was better than ever, her guitar playing was confident, her songs were powerful, and her performing was completely professional and passionate. She exuded star quality and charisma, but in a very open, down-to earth way.
    Signing with a label doesn’t mean that you’ll ever release a thing. Some artists sign with labels like Capitol and then spin their wheels for years, recording and gigging, until finally the label lets them go. Two years after she signed her deal, Kelleigh’s first single came out. She debuted at the Grand Old Opry last week, and posted on Facebook a picture she took from onstage at another gig with the comment “This is what 25,000 people looks like!”.
    We chatted this week about how to keep one’s voice strong with the demands of multiple radio meet-and-greets and a demanding tour schedule. She’s on her way, and she deserves to do well. Rock on, Kelleigh!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Inspiration for a Wimpy Voice

I fell off the practicing wagon while on vacation, then once home promptly got the summer cold everyone seems to have had lately. Then my voice finally came limping back, and it was time to rebuild strength. I knew what would happen the first few days: it would feel like I hadn’t sung for years and I’d cringe at my vocal wimpyness. I’d feel like a beginning singer, a charlatan, an imposter. Then gradually, if I could tolerate my sound and keep practicing, my voice would get stronger, I’d get over the initial weak voice hump and I’d feel like practicing and singing regularly again. But I was resisting moving through the hump. I needed inspiration.

Last night, while researching a project online, I listened to several master singers singing wonderful songs. Some were songs and performances everyone knows, but I hadn’t heard them for awhile. By the fifth song I was revved up and ready to practice. Maybe that’s the mark of an extraordinary singer and a wonderful song: they not only move you, they make you want to sing.

Here are the songs and performances that got to me, in case you’re looking for inspiration. If you’re short on time just listen to Sam Cooke, that should do it:

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

Eva Cassidy: True Colours

Judy Garland: Over The Rainbow

More Over The Rainbow: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Let Him Fly: Patti Griffin

Marc Broussard: Home

   If you've found or rediscovered songs and performances that inspire you, feel free to post them in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shout-out to NSAI

Some large organizations drive me insane with their bureaucracy and their ability to hire employees that just don’t care about making any kind of effort. But there’s an organization here in Nashville that’s the exact opposite: Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (NSAI). The people that work at NSAI are ethical, hard-working, talented, and always thinking about what they can do for their members. I’ve been a member since I moved to Nashville in 2002, and have watched them expand their membership and offerings hugely during that time. As a songwriter, I’ve learned a ton from their workshops, one-on-one mentoring, and networking opportunities. As a teacher, they’ve helped me expand my network of students: I’ve given workshops for NSAI in several states, and I regularly teach at their annual Songposium (more on that later). They just interviewed and filmed me for the online educational video section of their site, and since once again I was impressed by them I thought it was time to sing their praises in my blog.

By the way, they don’t just cater to country music writers and singer-songwriters. No, really. They just connected me with a possible co-writer, a true rocker who just opened for Rick Springfield. I’ve met hip-hop producers at NSAI functions. We’re talking all styles here.

It’s completely worth joining NSAI even if you don’t live in Nashville. Their online resources for members are formidable, and their song evaluation service alone is worth the membership cost. Plus, there are numerous regional wings of NSAI where you can find a community of songwriters closer to you.

In recent years NSAI has made an effort to find and get publishing and/or recording deals for well over 250 of their members. So they don’t just educate, they mentor, guide and help their members make connections. In case you haven’t noticed, the music industry has gone through epic changes this century, and NSAI keeps working to find ways for songwriters to roll with the punches. They are also fighting the good fight against illegal downloading, which has decimated the incomes of many artists and songwriters, including me.

Songposium is one of the many conferences NSAI offers each year, and it’s really great: five days of workshops with some of the top songwriters in the country, as well as workshops on music business, craft, performing, new media, and singing--the latter is where I come in, I’m teaching three workshops at Songposium in September.

If this sounds like an over-the-top fan letter, it is. It’s hard to be a singer, songwriter, or both in the current music industry climate. I’m grateful that the staff and volunteers at NSAI are working so hard to create educational and career-building opportunities, and to help songwriters stay positive and inspired.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How to Turn Vocal Cords Into Corn Flakes: Singing Vs. Air Conditioning

Yesterday I started warming up a very gifted student of mine and her singing sounded like her vocal cords were made of corn flakes. “You sound air-conditioned out,” I said. “Huh?” she replied. “Do you run your AC at night?” I asked. “Yes, I blast it,” she answered. “Is that a problem?”

I don’t know how she missed all my ranting about air-conditioning and what it does to the voice, but in case you have missed it too, here goes: Vocal cords like to be moist. Air-conditioning cools the air by pulling moisture out of it. Breathing air-conditioned air dries out your vocal cords.

Remember Border’s Books? I was playing a gig at the west Los Angeles Borders in the late 1990s. It was icy in there from the AC. I was wailing away when all of a sudden: no voice. Gone, just like that. It was a duo performance with my drummer pal Albe Bonacci, so I squawked a barely audible: “Drum solo!” and dove for my water bottle. Once I was hydrated my voice returned enough to finish the show. Later I read that it was zero humidity in LA that day, and the Borders AC was drying the air who knows how much more. My poor vocal cords didn’t stand a chance.

Some singers are more affected by AC than others. Before that show I’d noticed some vocal dryness from AC, but I’d never experienced just how much it can mess with the voice.

We had a very mild winter and spring here in Nashville, Tennessee, which does not portend well for the summer. On Cinco de Mayo I sat sweating in the park, watching the wonderful Fisk Jubilee Singers. It was 90 degrees at 5 PM in early May and I thought “We’re in for it this summer”. AC is necessary when it gets really hot. What’s a singer to do?

1) Ceiling fans. Some think they are bad since they can blow dust and other allergens around, but I love them. Just wipe the dust off the blades periodically.

2) Build up your tolerance for heat. When students aren’t around I keep my thermostat set at 80 degrees. No kidding. 82 at night, and that’s for my labrador's sake since she can’t take off her coat. It’s the green thing to do, too.
Last summer the government of Japan requested that the country's workforce keep the thermostats in their office buildings set at 82.

3) Wear light clothing made of breathable fabric like cotton and silk.

4) Drink gobs of water, room temperature. A gallon a day at least, says Carlton Lee, the LA voice doctor I sent all my students to when I lived there. See my article on what singers should eat and drink for more on that.

5) If it’s really hot and you must run your AC, run a humidifier as well to put some moisture back in the air. Cool mist humidifiers won’t heat the air, but regular cheap humidifiers are often quieter, so take your pick. I use the latter.

While I’m ranting, what’s up with movie theaters, restaurants, museums etc. where the thermostat is set at 62 in the summer and 72 in the winter? There I’ll be in my nice summer dress in July, shivering away. My local movie theater finally changed its ways this year, but before that I was taking my down jacket with me to summer movies. Don’t the owners of these places realize how much money they’ll save on power bills by adjusting the thermostat a bit? Not to mention conserving energy.

Okay, back to singing:

6) Warm up and do your practicing early in the day, before the heat rises and the AC kicks on.

7) Warm up and sing in the shower where it’s good and steamy.

8) If you live in humid places like Tennessee, take breaks while singing and go outside to get some moisture on your vocal cords.

Don’t think that celebrities are immune to the effects of AC. When Celine Dion had her zillion dollar concert hall built for her in Las Vegas she made sure it was humidity controlled. Plus there’s a steam room backstage for her voice. Sounds good to me!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lessons for Singers from Whitney Houston

As of this writing no one knows for sure what killed Whitney Houston, though from initial reports it sounds like a lethal combination of alcohol and drugs. My heart goes out to her family and friends. In her heydey, no one in the pop/R&B world could match her. Her voice was a stunning combination of beautiful tone, strength, range, and finesse. I didn’t closely follow the ups and downs of Whitney Houston’s life, and I certainly don’t know her motivations and demons. So I hope it doesn’t seem crass that I’ve been pondering a few things that other singers might learn from her life and her passing. Here goes:

• It helps to have talented family. I’m sure she was born with tons of innate talent, but Whitney’s mother was Cissy Houston and her cousin was Dionne Warwick. I have to guess there was some serious vocal mentoring going on as she grew up. Listen to your elders. I bet Whitney did.

• Even with talent, prepare to work hard. Once she was signed to Arista by Clive Davis, Whitney worked her butt off on all aspects of performing for years before she became an “overnight” sensation in the mid-80s.

• If you hit it big, give back. Whitney gave much more to the world than her gorgeous voice. I think many of us didn’t notice that because we were busy watching her life go from glorious to melodrama. Among her many contributions: she refused to work with companies who supported apartheid in South Africa, she supported the release of Nelson Mandela, her non-profit foundation helped needy children worldwide, and her Bodyguard movie helped pave the way for greater acceptance of interracial relationships.

• Respect your instrument. As her drug and marital troubles mounted, Whitney let her voice go and lost her beautiful upper register. If you are blessed with an incredible voice, take good care of it. If you heard Bonnie Raitt on this year’s Grammies, you heard how good a singer can still sound at age 62. Bonnie also had substance abuse problems, then got clean and now sounds as good as ever.

• Want longevity? Avoid drugs and alcohol. Singers statistically live longer than regular people, perhaps because we breathe better so our organs are better oxygenated (at least that’s what I’ve read). At any rate, those longevity stats are for singers who don’t abuse drugs like poor Whitney. And Billie Holiday and Cass Elliot, and the list goes on.

Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.