Friday, February 15, 2019

Advice for My Young Voice Student Who is Seeking a Music Career

A talented young singer who studies with me sent me some questions for a homework assignment. Here are my answers:

Question 1: What would advice would you give your younger self about pursuing music?
1] Practice, practice, and then practice some more.
2] Study music business as well as music.
3] Start a database of everyone you meet: fans, musicians, music business people, anyone remotely connected to you and your music. You will be amazed ten years later who ends up helping you. I got my first distribution deal because a friend from college chatted up a music distributor on a flight to Los Angeles.
4] It’s not all about you—be a fan of other musicians and help them out on their journey.  
Question 2: As a vocalist, I’ve always been confused and fascinated when singers such as BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry, Bob Dylan, etc. refer to “selling their souls”, to the music industry. Since you’ve been through the industry, what really does that mean? And as a vocalist, if I ever did get a record deal, is that something I’d have to face?
            I think it means that they gave up something very important to them in order to further their career. Sometimes they had to compromise their music and not do what they really wanted to do musically, sometimes they had to ignore their personal lives to tour and record and move ahead, and in the worst cases they actually had to offer sexual favors in order to get the deal—this happened to a friend of mine.
            Artists now are much more business-savvy and informed than they were when I was a young artist, so they have a decent idea of what’s in store when they pursue a music career. The Me Too movement has made it more difficult for music business people to sexually exploit artists. But artists need to stay aware and informed-- read everything you can about the music business as well as reading about the journeys of other artists and how they made strides and overcame obstacles early on.  Also, learning time management and stress management techniques is critical, so you don’t burn out or feel like you've lost your soul. 
Question 3: What is probably the best decade of music, (60’s, 70’s, 80’s, so on,), to refer to as an artist? Or to get inspiration from? 
            I like the 50s, 60s and 70s:  The 50s beatniks brought poetry to music in the 60s, and the hippie movement of the 60s brought an experimental atmosphere to music: tempo and key changes in songs were accepted, unusual chord progressions and melodies were welcomed. This combined with the great melodies from the Beatles and the Motown artists and writers and many others made for some wonderful music. In the late 60s and throughout the 70s the singer-songwriter movement brought deeper lyrics from artists like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.

Friday, July 27, 2018

My Visit to a Physical Therapist for Singers

    Chances are if you’ve gone to a vocal coach you’ve been told that you had tension in your throat that was affecting your voice. That’s what I was told at my first voice lesson, and that’s what I frequently tell singers when I first work with them. Throat tension is a common problem for singers that can affect tone, pitch, range, and endurance. There are many things you can do on your own or with a coach to ease the tension and free up your voice. But sometimes those methods aren’t enough.
    I worked with a singer who sounded great and got the lead in several musicals, but she developed intense pain on the right side of her neck when she sang for a long time. Another singer I worked with had so much tension in her throat and shoulders that she couldn’t sustain a note, no matter how big a breath she took. Another singer could not get his vocal strength back after an illness, despite time and traditional vocal therapy (which includes breathing and resonance work). I suspected that these singers needed to see someone who could work deeply in the muscles that were contributing to their problems. 
    Strong vocal technique, like good breath support and resonation, are vital to a singer. But sometimes technique isn’t enough. That’s when visit to a physical therapist who specializes in working with singers can be helpful. Think about it: singers are like athletes, using their bodies and vocal cords in complex and demanding ways. Athletes see physical therapists regularly, so why shouldn’t singers?
    Gena Thurston is a physical therapist who loves working with singers and performers. In her Chicago practice she has worked with numerous singers including cast members from Hamilton and Book of Mormon. She’s growing a new practice in her hometown of Nashville, so she invited me in for a complementary session so I could see what she does. While I’m not experiencing any vocal problems, I’m well aware of tension in my face, neck, and shoulders that I’m sure are not helping me sing. I’d heard of miraculous results from working with a PT for vocal issues, and I was curious what Gena would do.
    Here was the status of my voice and body pre-session: I’d been playing a lot of guitar recently, which puts unequal strain on the neck and shoulders. I slumped through most of my childhood and have spent my entire adult life trying to remember to sit or stand up straight. Like most people who have had their wisdom teeth pulled, I have TMJ and frequent jaw tension. The day of my session I’d slept poorly and was feeling a bit zombie-like. 
    Gena had me lay on my back and started working on my neck, explaining what she was doing as she went. She found tension in all my usual spots, plus a lot more tension on the left side of my neck, jaw, and face than on the right. That’s the kind of imbalance that can lead to irregular closure of the vocal folds, which can cause problems. It felt like Gena was giving me a very detailed neck and shoulder massage. The difference between what she did and a regular massage was the specificity: she found and worked on muscles I didn’t know I had in my neck, shoulders, and jaw. She worked near my glottis (where the vocal folds are housed) and just under my jaw near the hyoid bone, a prime spot for muscle tension in singers. Towards the end of the hour (which flew by and felt like fifteen minutes) she worked on my jaw joint from the inside of my mouth. The pain from that was very intense--if I’d known any state secrets I would have given them up easily. But afterward my jaw felt looser.
    With my permission Gena also used dry needles on my trapezius muscles. These are longer than acupuncture needles and only go in for a second or two, unlike acupuncture needles that are usually left in for 10-30 minutes. Gena said my trapezius muscles would be sore for the rest of the day and they were, but that the muscle release from dry needles can be long lasting. When the needle went into my right muscle there was a weird popping feeling that she said was a good thing, since it signals a deeper muscle release. The following day I noticed that that right shoulder did indeed feel more relaxed than my left shoulder.
    After my session my jaw muscles were as relaxed as they had been in years. I headed for Trader Joe’s to shop and found that I didn’t want to smile at anyone and lose the loose feeling in my jaw. It also felt easier to stand up straight. I felt very relaxed and a little spacey. As I drove home I sang and it felt easy--not much different than the day before, but there was a subtle difference.
    The next day some of my jaw tension was back, but overall my neck, jaw, and shoulders felt pretty good, better than before my session with Gena. I’ve had massages where it seemed that the beneficial results disappeared as I drove home. This deeper work appeared to have a more lasting effect. I sang that day and my voice still felt good. Again, there were no earth-shaking vocal results, but I felt a noticeable ease in singing.

    I didn’t have any dramatic results from my session with Gena, unlike a singer friend in Los Angeles who added several notes to his range after doing similar work with a physical therapist there. But I didn’t have any vocal problems when I saw her, so I couldn’t experience firsthand the healing properties of her work. Plus, I’m sure it takes more than a few sessions to really see benefits. Gena said she always gives her clients homework and exercises to speed the healing. She said clients who do their homework rarely need to see her more than once a week.
    The vocal-oriented physical therapy that Gena does could help many singers. Learning and maintaining proper technique is still essential, and singers in need of vocal therapy still need to go through that process to bring their voices back. But if muscle tension has contributed to or exacerbated any vocal problems, this kind of deep muscle work will accelerate improvement, and may very well be the missing link if a singer isn’t improving. Doctors at some vocal therapy clinics like The Vanderbilt Voice Clinic have realized this and now include deep muscle work as an option for patients.
    As Gena worked on me I thought of several singers I’d worked with who I suspected would benefit from seeing her. If you are experiencing long or short term vocal problems, or feel that your voice is stuck, this kind of work could be worth exploring. Make sure to see a licensed physical therapist, and make sure they’ve had special training for working with vocalists.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Singing and Emotions

    I made a new friend last year, and I gushed a little when I met her and learned that she was a singer I’d been listening to for years on my iTunes playlist. She plain and simple has a gorgeous voice. But when I met her she’d been having some vocal problems, and she learned at the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic that her chronic hoarseness was from muscular tension. Plus, she’d been compensating to get a vocal sound out for some time, exacerbating the problem. (Vocal compensating is when you tighten your throat and/or nearby muscles to produce a sound when your voice is weak, fatigued, stressed, or healing from a cold or allergies). The origin of her problem was not years and years of bad vocal technique, she was a good singer who knew how to take care of her voice. But she had recently spent a few years taking care of her terminally ill mother, and the stress of care-giving and then the grief after her mother passed took a toll on her voice.
    Another friend of mine is a very well-trained professional singer with a supple voice and a huge range: he can easily sing higher that I can. But after his best friend died suddenly he lost his voice. I tried everything I could think of to get sound out of him, but nothing worked. The trauma of his friend’s sudden death had sapped his vocal strength. It took a year for him to get his voice completely back.
    Many of us have experienced the feel-good surge of endorphins we get while singing. And many of us have experienced performance anxiety, when nerves seem to dismantle all of our singing technique. So we know how singing can improve our emotional state, and we know how our emotions can affect our singing. What I’m writing about is different: it’s how emotional trauma, whether short or long-term, can affect your voice. It’s an element that many singers don’t think about if they are experiencing vocal problems. We’re more likely to think “My support isn’t good lately, I just need to breathe deeper and stand up straight,” or “I’m getting hoarse easily these days, I need to warm up more and stop all dairy”. But sometimes going the voice technique route doesn’t help, and if so you might want to ask yourself if you’ve experienced an emotional trauma recently or in the past.
    I’ve sent students to mental health professionals when I suspected that grief, trauma, or plain old everyday stress was inhibiting their ability to sing freely. I’ve also sent them to vocal therapists and vocal massage therapists. There are many effective ways to address the effects of emotional stress on the singing voice.
    In many cases singing can help you heal emotionally if you’re in touch with your emotions. How many of us have sung our way out of a bad mood? I know I have. But singing can also help with stronger emotions like grief. A student of mine had only been studying with me for a few weeks when her husband of many years suddenly died. Though I thought she’d take some time off of her studies, she returned to lessons with me right after his memorial. She told me that lessons and subsequent home practice sessions were helping her cope and move through her grief. In her case singing was what she needed to process her emotions. Singing can be a powerful way to get in touch with emotions, and singing can help you release them. The deep breathing we do as singers can trigger the release of deep emotions. I always have a box of tissues nearby for students!
     Singing and our emotions are deeply entwined. If emotions arise as you sing let them come up and out. And if you you suspect that buried emotions are blocking your voice in some way please consult a professional.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Improving Your Pitch Accuracy/Singing in Tune

     It’s very easy to tense up the tongue, jaw, and/or throat when you’re fine-tuning your pitch accuracy: you may end up with better intonation but also a pinched tone, and possibly vocal fatigue. Here’s a method that can help: 

1] Work with Hearfones so you can hear yourself as well as the track or instrument to which you are tuning. A mic and headphones will work, too. More info on Hearfones is on their site, but they are usually cheaper at Amazon.

2] Massage the sides of your neck and perhaps your shoulders and jaw as you sing. DO NOT directly massage your larynx (behind your Adam’s Apple), that area is too delicate. It can be tricky to fit your fingers around the Hearfones but it can be done. You can also try swaying as you sing to stay relaxed.

3] Work with some kind of track or instrument when you’re doing this kind of work, not a cappella. It’s too easy to stray from the key when singing a cappella.

4] Record yourself periodically to fine-tune your vocal more.

     For most singers singing in tune is an ongoing project, not something you work on for awhile and then you are set for life.

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!