Saturday, March 3, 2007

Spinal movements and the voice

The spine holds incredible secrets for singers. If you know how to say the magic word....

Actually, if you know how to bend the thing!

First of all, there's C-1, or cervical vertebrae one. That's the top of your spine, the bone upon which your skull hinges. If you bring that vertebrae back ever so slightly (without raising your chin), you can double the space at the back of your throat or vocal tract. Especially if you raise your eyebrows in an "I don't think so!" type of facial gesture. Try it... I bet you feel your nose flare.

Then there's the spot in your upper back just below your shoulder blades. You can open your whole ribcage by pressing this spot and moving it inwards. This gives your diaphragm room to hold back, or control, breath. Students of mine often get a hoola hoop lesson to help them literally loosen up so this spot becomes more flexible. According to my chiropractor, Dr. Dwaine Allison, , this spot is in fact the accupressure point for the diaphragm, and so affects nerve impulses to the diaphragm as well as physical space. I highly recommend this doctor, by the way.

And lastly there's the lumbar spine. Think of the diaphragm as having a mushroom-like shape. The outer edges are connected along the bottom of the ribcage. The "stem" has fibers that attach to the lower vertebrae of the spine, which sit above the tailbone. It's important to think of the lumbar spine as support. If you bend too much here (at the waist), such as in a sway-back stance, you can cause breathing problems (as well as back problems). Flexibility in unlocked knees will keep the lumbar in a better position to support the voice from the pelvic floor and still allow much needed flexibility in the upper mid-back, as described above.

Here is a site you may find interesting about anatomy and breath. Notice, however, that they are talking about regular breathing, not singing- which requires more control and thus a lifted and open ribcage during phonation.

I try to visit my chiropractor before every major vocal. I found that a spinal alignment could make a significant difference when I needed maximum voice. Also, feel the dance in your spine, the beat in your legs, sway the groove with bent knees, etc. what it takes to let flexibility into your spine. You might be surprised at how much this can help your vocal cords! (the hip-bone's connected to the jawbone... eventually!)

Do you have trouble with flexibility? What helps you loosen up? Click on "comment" below.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Recording Studio Vocal Producer...Do You Need One?

What is a vocal producer?
Do I need one?

These are questions which should be asked by everyone needing to record a voice. Period. Why? Because it can make SO MUCH DIFFERENCE to the final outcome.

Ok, I know this may be a bit self-serving, because I am one (a vocal producer). But sometimes you truly do NOT need one. Here's how you can tell:
  1. Does your vocal quality really matter that much in this recording? If you are just putting a quick song down that won't be heard by the music industry outside your inner circle, maybe it doesn't matter. Included in under this heading would be: songwriter worktapes (rough recordings to put the song down), pre-production recording (to experiment with vocal style, find the best key for your voice, see if the song really fits you, etc.) , casual or non professional recordings where you don't need to sound your best.
  2. Is the producer of your recording project really a good vocal producer as well as an instrumental track producer? Sometimes they are both instrumental and vocal producer rolled into one. Quite frankly, this is rare. There is a difference between KNOWING WHAT TO TELL SOMEONE TO DO when they sing and KNOWING HOW TO HELP THEM DO IT! For example, Tom Paden is a great producer and artist developer who is wise enough and caring enough of his clients to suggest they hire me for vocal production. They are not always quite sure why they need this, but after they record, they are amazed and very happy with the results they can get with a vocal producer. They also gain vocal instruction which helps them improve their voices immediately.
  3. Are you a veteran of the recording studio? Hey, sometimes even YOU need objective feedback from someone with a qualified ear who knows how you sing at your best. This is especially true with "master" vocals, which are "final vocals" you intend to sell, or with which you intend to pitch yourself or your song to the music industry. Assessing your own vocals while singing is never a good idea anyway. It scatters your focus. It IS best for you to make the final decision on whether to keep the vocal or to re-record it, but get another team member to help pull out your best as you record.
  4. Can you afford it? If you can't, try to at least find a recording engineer who knows some things about the voice. If you just get a great "techie" who is not a singer or musician at the board, you're on your own :) I love working with these techies because I can trust them to record the vocals right; when paired with a good vocal producer it can make for a great recording team. I have an engineer I've worked with who has decided to take vocal lessons from me to understand how to better serve his clients who can't afford another recording team member. How cool is that?

Have you had experience with or without a vocal producer? If so, click on the comment link below this post and share your thoughts!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Vocal challenges in Children

Are you a parent, relative, teacher or friend of a little singer- or are you a little singer? This post's for you!

Here's an email I just got from Ellen Dockery, a dear session singer friend of mine who has begun teaching piano and voice:

if i could rely on your expertise for a second...i have a 6 yr. old piano/voice student. she's a great little singer-do you have any advice or precautions for a child her age?
i look forward to getting your cd!
thanks SO much!
love and many hugs,
ellen :-)

Here is my advice for little singers:

First of all, check and see if they are straining when they sing. Unfortunately, well-meaning choir directors and school teachers can sometimes encourage volume and power that little voices are not ready to generate. Add the stiffness and uniform stillness that is often encouraged in the posture and you have a recipe for disaster. Hey...sometimes the kid just decides to sing too loud out of the sheer passion!

  • How can you tell if they are too loud? Does it sound like yelling? It may be cute now, but it may truly damage their voices. I had a girl who developed little blood blisters (the beginnings of nodes) by a few days of singing too loud. I've read that it is possible to develop this damage from just 20 minutes of over-blowing your vocal cords. (Hear that, little cheerleader??)
  • Another way to tell... can you get them to make NON-BREATHY sounds in their head voice? Ask them to mimic Mickey or Minny Mouse. Then have them sing some little tune in head voice and see if they can clear the breathiness up. If not, they may need to be checked out by a doctor- preferably one specializing in the vocal apparatus, like the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic in Nashville.
  • If they are yelling, the first thing to do is get them aware that their throat is feeling strained. Many times they don't know there is another way. Have them sing at the wall with their head and heel against the wall so they can't lean forward. Encourage them to stay flexible and to keep the chin level and floating. If they go for a high note and strain, suggest to them that they back off the volume so it feels better. Maybe put a book on their head so they won't lift the chin too much. ASK THEM TO SING FROM THEIR EYES! Make it a game... keep them having fun.
  • Teach them the Power, Path & Performance technique of "pulling" words. For help, check my training cds.

Another common problem of children is having a weak voice. Shyness of personality, fear of being heard, and a dislike of the feeling of a tense throat can cause this.

  • First of all, talk to them and LISTEN TO THEM. Many times a child just needs to know his or her voice is valid and that someone wants to hear what they say or sing. This fosters a good relationship where they will trust what you ask them to do.
  • Next, have them pretend to sing to a stuffed animal or their real pet. Have them "sing a story". (Try to make sure they choose songs they can relate to!!)
  • Teach them to open their arms out wide and take a breath in their belly. Then teach them to squeeze a horse or pillow with their legs for power. This tends to crack them up and is great fun. It will teach them to use the correct area of pelvic floor for power, while not squeezing in at the chest or throat.

And then there are children who seem to be tone deaf. I will state unequivocally: Tone deafness is a myth. Anyone with ears can learn to sing on pitch. I once taught a girl who had sustained 70% hearing loss when she was very young. She was determined and I got resourceful and by "pitch target practice" she learned to sing on pitch just fine. I would play a note, she would listen (think it) then mime it, then sing the pitch and I'd tell her if she was right, or if she needed to move it up or down. She also learned to feel and count rhythm.

Here is a website full of wonderful ideas and suggestions for child singers:

And finally I'll reiterate... HELP THEM CHOOSE GOOD SONGS! Encourage them to write their own! They need to learn that singing is communication. And that what they say counts.

Do you have or know a child singer? I'd love to hear from you... what seems to be the vocal challenges in that child? What works? What doesn't? Click on the "comment" link below this post.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Runaway Home- New Musical wraps up first run

Well, it's either over or it's just beginning.

Runaway Home the Musical finished its first run today. It was a spirited performance by eleven actors I have come to love with all my heart. We hope to take it to New York's Fringe Festival, we hope to get it distributed far and wide, but I tell you the truth... if this was it, it was more than worth the time, travel, money, songwriting, track producing, vocal teaching and music directing I had the great privilege to do. (Thank you for trusting me with this music, Darren!)

My students Maria Standing Rock and her mother Esther Brown, Michelle Bunch and her husband and Kendall, my husband John and my son Peter were in the audience, which gave it the standing O. Michelle has done a lot of major theater. In her words, "This belongs on Broadway". Your mouth to God's ears, Michelle! Thanks to everyone of my friends and students who made their way to Decatur, Alabama to see this October 2006 thru February 2007 performance run. I am honored to share these memories with you.

The play benefitted greatly by the revisions made to the script and the music during the workshop performances. It was an awesome experience to see the play undergo such transformation. The actors always brought fresh fire. This last performance, I believe, was the best. What a cast.

In an emotional after-performance meeting, Darren Butler (the play's book writer and acting director) gave us all plaques with some of his journal notes during the making and workshoping of the play. Two of our precious actors spoke of how the play had changed their lives. Darren and I were presented by the cast with two stuffed teddy bears. Upon squeezing an arm, the song "Runaway Home", began to play, recorded in a bathroom by the cast at the store where they bought the bears. My bear will sit in my studio, where he will listen to students, and sing to me from time to time.

Did I cry? Duh. Yeah. I squeezed my sister's and my neice's hands (they were part of the cast) and whispered "This is why it's worth it".

Here's what I say: Sing. Write songs. Act. Make music, and every other kind of art you feel called to pursue. It is my firm belief that if we act upon our talents with all the excellence we can muster, we can trust God to make it mean something.

I'll let everyone know if and when "Runaway Home the Musical" is performed again. If you came to one of the first run workshop performances, please leave a comment by clicking on "comment" link below this post.