Sounds of the Spirit – Sacred Sounds and Holy Vibrations

The InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit

All sound is vibration. Vibrations at different frequencies make different sounds or pitches. And this week, we experienced the different frequencies on which faith traditions call out to or praise God.

Under the roof of Christ Church Cranbrook, which Rev. Dr. Bill Danaher said was meant to be a house of prayer for all people, we came together in music to share the beauty and meaning of our sacred sounds.

“We can build a community, woven together by empathy, love, compassion, and justice,” said Rev. Dr. Danaher. “When we are engaging in musical offerings, we are pulling them together. Music is meant to pull us together.”

Christopher Wells, the Music Director and Organist at Christ Church Cranbrook helped us understand the mechanism by which the pipe organ creates sound. A wind instrument, originally provided with air manually by bellows, and now electrically, it is played at a console containing 1…

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Vocal Warm-Ups You Can Do In The Car

If you’re a singer on your way to a voice lesson, rehearsal, or audition, it’s always good to do a bit of warming up in the car, because there are few things more annoying to music directors than singers wasting time complaining that they’re not warmed up yet when there’s real work to be done, such as theater scenes, big solos and such. It’s especially important to arrive warmed up if you have a voice lesson that’s less than an hour long, because one can easily spend 15 minutes just doing voice exercises, leaving little time to rehearse music.

But the thing about warming up in the car is that there’s always the risk of driving distracted, especially if you have your car stereo or iPod playing. So what kinds of things can you do?

First of all, turn off the music so that your mind can be focused. If you can sing warm-ups to an accompaniment track in the car without getting distracted, God Bless You, but your risk of distraction goes up tremendously. Besides, quickie warm-ups are more about how the voice feels than how it sounds. Sometimes you can start singing full-bore in the car to your favorite song and end up over-working your voice because your attention was divided–it’s easier to ignore your voice if more than 60% of your attention is on the road and you let a recording string your voice along. Then when you get to the studio or rehearsal hall, you’re already half-exhausted.

So there needs to be a balance. The focus should be on feeling loose, free, open, and ready to go when the downbeat comes, and here are some easy exercises to get there:

  1. Shoulder shrugs and circles. Start loosening and relaxing the shoulders and upper torso. A lot of us drive scrunched up over our steering wheels, which isn’t good. You want your torso to feel like it’s in singing mode–open, comfortably high, and relaxed.
  2. Lip trills. Make a motorboat sound with your lips, with and without phonating. Glide the pitch up and down.
  3. Big facial expressions. Do an exaggerated yawn, smile, or other expression to loosen up facial muscles.
  4. Hum and chew. Do these simultaneously. It helps to loosen up the jaw and get you relaxed while phonating.
  5. Breathing. Start to feel the breath low. Obviously, sitting in a car is not conducive to good breathing for singing, but if you’ve spent a little time loosening up, take a moment to just feel where the breath is. Take a few conscious breaths with focus on your abdomen.
  6. Sirens and sighs. Gentle glides on “oo” or your vowel of choice, starting in the head voice and gently sliding down to the lower range, will help to wake up the larynx and get it ready for singing. Do some descending glides first, then follow with some sirens–starting low and gliding up and over the top before coming down again. Feel the resonance in the “mask” or the third-eye area, and get present to it as you sing. Keep the facial muscles and jaw relaxed. It doesn’t need to be crazy-loud, just smooth and easy.

If you have a good chance to do some singing singing at this point, feel free to do so, but within your observable constraints. By the time you get to your destination, you should feel opened up and ready to sing for real and make your music director very pleased with you.

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The next difference makers need to step up NOW.

I’m writing this on Martin Luther King day, but this applies to any day, of course. This just happens to be the now-moment in which I’m committing this to typed words.

If you’ve ever had the thought of making a difference in the world on the size and scale of what Dr. King had done in his lifetime, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve ever had the desire to create something that speaks love and peace to the world, whether it’s in art, science, politics, business, or whatever professional sphere you find yourself in, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve wanted to make a difference socially, whether it’s in your community, in the schools, in your house of worship, or even just in your own family, the time to do it is now.

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of being the next Martin Luther King, the next Gandhi, the next Mandela, the time is now.

If you’ve wanted to get over your fears, your self-hatred, your doubts, or your ego, the time to do it is yesterday.

You’ve waited long enough for this.

And I’m going to speak directly to musicians: If you are inspired by your art and want to excel not just in making good music but in making good music make a difference, the time to do it is now.

And I will elaborate by saying: You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be cute. You don’t have to have an image or identity. In fact, let those things go. Just dig into your art and crank it out.

I’m currently reading a biography of Bob Dylan, who is revered as a songster not because he had the qualities of an American Idol, but because his music made a difference for people.

You may not like his voice, but listen to what he’s saying and you will hear why his music speaks.

Now is your time to say something. Now is MY time to say something, and I’m busy in my home studio writing it right now.

I can’t wait to see and hear what the inspired people have come up with at this unique point in history.

And let me speak specifically to people in my demographic, women over 35, because this is something that motivates me and I don’t want to keep it to myself:

Now is the time to live your epic life. Reject every notion that society will not market you, or market to you. That is not your identity. That is not your art. Live an epic life, such that when Hollywood gets around to writing your biopic, they will have to confront the fact that you are a woman over 35 who moved the world. They will be forced to cast a powerful, over-35 actress to play your role.

And she will shine BECAUSE YOU DO.

I reiterate: Here we are! At the beginning of 2017 we are standing at a precipice in history, and a lot of us are afraid. We still have racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and climate change. Don’t like those things? Do something.

Martin Luther King did something, but today isn’t important because of what he did; it’s important because of what we are about to do.


Back to Breath, or whatever that most fundamental thing is

If you do only one thing for your voice today, breathe.

Breathe, which is the same one thing I would advise for your soul, body, or mind, if I had anything to say about those things.

Relating to the breath powerfully makes so many things possible, it’s useless for me to explain. It seems the wisdom is everywhere. And yet, not.

I’m reminded of Detroit Red Wing Dylan Larkin, who so impressed the hockey world with his debut game in the NHL in 2015 that the press wanted to know what his secret was right there in the locker room after that game.

He told them that when he struggles on the ice, and he’s not passing, shooting, or scoring enough, he returns to his most fundamental skill: “Skate as hard as I can.”

That really stuck with me. It made me think there’s got to be an analogy for this wisdom in every profession, including music. What is that most basic thing? What fundamental thing do you return to when you struggle for peak performance?

For singers, it’s got to be breathing.

Countless challenges in singing can be dealt with by first monitoring the breath. Go to the seat of your breath and ask questions. Is the breath free? Am I holding tension somewhere it shouldn’t be? How low am I feeling it in the torso? Am I putting restriction anywhere in the vocal tract?

Do I even know what a good singing breath should feel like?

Monitor the breath not just while singing, but whenever you think of it. Deal with breathing as if there were no agenda beyond itself. Breathing connects singing to the rest of life, and the rest of humanity.

If you do only one thing for your voice today, breathe.

If you do only one thing for your universe today, breathe.


The Usual New Year Greeting and WAIT THERE’S MORE!

There’s SO much I could share right now as I start up this blog again, and a lot of it is truly awesome, but I won’t bog down my New Year’s greeting to you by blabbing about all I’ve learned during my teaching hiatus (yet).

This year is about now.

The has come for me to embrace teaching again, and I’ve responded by joining up with a great little music school in Detroit that I respect and want to grow: Brush Park Conservatory.

The Brush Park Conservatory is located on the 2nd floor of the International Institute in Detroit—right in the museum district, one of Detroit’s major cultural centers.

What I love about the space is that my studio is huge! Singers don’t have to feel like they’re singing into a shoebox; they can learn to breathe and sing expansively and freely, as if they were in a performance space. And there’s real room to stretch in and move around for warmups and physical exercises.

The school also has an alliance with style consultant Lucretia Nelson of Savoir Faire Detroit. She’s worked with public figures, models and performers on how to deploy one’s personal style with etiquette and class. Now, who wouldn’t want that for singers? I want that for myself! And she’s going to be offering workshops and instruction right alongside us.

In a few short weeks, we’ll be launching a new website and revealing more of the awesome things we’re doing, so if you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

Until then, contact Brush Park by phone at 313-263-2727 if you want a consultation for lessons.

Or you can stroll down to the International Institute, whose address is 111 E Kirby St, Detroit, MI 48202.

I’ll be teaching lessons in adult (high school age and above) voice and beginning piano for much of the week there—Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

And my teaching goals are the same as they always were: cause singers to be great, develop healthy vocal habits, break through performance anxiety, support the amateur as well as the professional, and have the art of singing be accessible to those who are committed to it.

So, call Brush Park at 313-263-2727. Or you can just as easily message me or say hi in the comments, if singing is on your current list of to-dos.

See you next week, right here.

A letter to my first piano teacher

Dear teacher,

Yes, it’s me – the one who didn’t practice, who couldn’t sit still, and who was always lagging behind her sister in overall progress. The one who quit piano lessons…and then started again, and quit again, and started again, and quit again….finally for good.

I’m here to say thank you.

More than that: I’m a musician now.

As in, a professional musician. A professional keyboard player and singer. I also direct choir and compose music too. And I’m even just now learning to transpose church songs by sight! Bet you never saw that coming.

Neither did I.

I have to say thank you, because none of this was possible without you. All those little drills and scales and endless Czerny knock-off pieces from John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano did their work. Even if I didn’t do mine.

I was a restless child, and parts of me have never recovered from that. I was frustrated and bored. I hated being admonished by my mother to practice when I didn’t want to, even though I also wanted to be a better player than I was.

When I quit piano, I actually took up guitar for a year and some. Until junior high, when I had to pick a wind instrument for band. Then I played clarinet. And by the time I quit clarinet (because I was bullied by another clarinetist), I had made it to first chair. I was actually pretty good!

And then singing found me in high school. Choir just enraptured me, and that’s where I stayed for much of my young adult life.

Now that I’m further developing myself on keyboard, I find myself wishing I had been more patient when I was your young student. I wish I would have practiced more. I wish I’d found a way to fall in love with the instrument at that age. I wish I’d created my own reason and motivation for playing, so that it wouldn’t be about pleasing adults.

But your magic worked. No matter what I thought of it, it worked. Every new musical adventure I tried, no one has ever had to go over the basics of reading music with me. And when I started studying music in college, learning about harmonic structures and phrasing, it was a breeze because it felt like I was just learning a language for things I already knew by instinct.

You had released that in me when you showed me where middle C was.

And if I hadn’t chosen music as a profession? Well, that’s something I can hardly imagine, given my love for making music. But let’s say I chose another discipline that fascinated me in college – say, anthropology. I’m sure I would still have a reason to thank you and credit you for teaching me what the mastery of a few basic things in childhood can do for the complex work of adult life.

Thank you for giving that to me. Thank you for being patient with me. Thank you for not pushing me, or laying the guilt on when things went bad, or flattering me to death when things went well. Thank you for not using me to further your own ends. Thank you for being on such good terms with my Mom, too – that always helps.

Thank you for teaching me the language of music, without which I’d be nowhere. It’s one thing to have a deep love for something, and quite another to know its language and embody it. That’s what you showed me. That makes the difference.

And it doesn’t matter that I didn’t “get it” when I was sitting on your piano bench and my feet couldn’t reach the pedals. I get it now.

Just so you know, your lessons never left me.


A Million Little Pains

I have a really bad urge to write right now, but I feel like I’m taking my life into my own hands. Because I have tendonitis in my writing arm. It doubly sucks, because I also rely on that arm to, you know, play piano for a living.

This has happened before. A year ago, I was happily doing writing exercises every day in The Artist’s Way, the brilliant book by Julia Cameron all about reclaiming and discovering one’s own creativity. The number one thing out of that book that often makes the biggest difference for people is the morning pages, which are simply three pages of freewriting (stream-of-consciousness brain spill) done first thing in the morning. I did it for a good eight weeks and loved the opportunity it gave me to unlatch my brain after whatever kind of night of sleep I had. It gave me a chance to start fresh every day, and to even come up with some great ideas for creative projects.

But by the eighth week, I noticed with growing dismay that my morning pages had a constant theme – the pain in my right forearm. It was the result of an injury I got months earlier from wrestling with a sticky mic stand. The pain went from thumb joint all the way to elbow and sometimes a little beyond, and that was all my brain could express in my notebook. It was hard. I had to stop to pause several times and wiggle or massage my hand and elbow, even though I knew I was violating a cardinal rule.

My piano practice suffered too. I could only play short sessions and follow them up with an ice-down. I stopped playing at my favorite open mic for a while, reserving whatever I had left for paid gigs.

And then the morning pages stopped completely. After trying different kinds of pens and paper, switching to typing, writing fewer pages or more slowly, nothing relieved the pain. All I could do was stop.

That’s where I’m at now. After three days of trying to re-introduce morning pages to my routine, I’m once again stymied by another flare-up. I’ve had drugs, ice, heat, chiropractic, massage, reiki, yoga – anything I can throw at it. But no relief, nothing that will have me write comfortably every day.

I easily sound pretentious. There are a billion more things actually worth crying over. I’m not an NHL hockey player with a broken leg or a union electrician with a slipped disc and kids to feed. I’m not a military sniper who at any moment could step on a land mine.

But ask anyone whose living consists of millions of small movements how it feels to live with a small pain that won’t quit unless you do. And it’s the small pains that are the most sinister, because they could mask bigger issues or make you just pissed off enough to throw your commitment out the window completely.

It wouldn’t hurt my arm so much if it didn’t hurt my heart, my soul, my faith in who I am.

I have a friend who is a yoga teacher diagnosed with MS. She inspires me, not because she’s doing full-on yoga and teaching others in spite of her condition, but because sometimes she does have bad days and missed days, and complaints and annoyances like anybody else. She too is bothered by little pains.  And she doesn’t always have the answers to mine.

And I wonder if my drive to find answers to my pain is only making it worse. If only I can separate my mind from it, or not think so much about it. I don’t want to ignore my body and its needs, but my heart and soul are just as starved. If I can feed my heart and soul while giving my body the space to heal, that would be the best. It’s just that the things I normally want to do for that purpose require the parts of me that hurt the most.

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Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Music Teacher

Um, yeah.

The Trombonist's Mouthpiece

Inspired by an excellent post by SamPsychMeds.

We teachers hear lots of different things from our students throughout the day. Some of it brings a big smile to our faces, some of it warms our hearts, and some of it reaffirms why we became teachers. This post is not about those things.

1. Are we playing today? No, we’re not making music in music class today.

2. Can I go down to [insert teacher here]’s class for some extra help? Sure, as long as they send you down here during their class so you can catch up on some of the stuff you missed.

3. I forgot my instrument. That’s cool. I forgot to wear pants today.

4. This piece is dumb. Actually, if you can give me a couple of valid musical reasons for not liking a piece, I might let it slide. Maybe.

5. I can’t make…

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Dance like no one’s watching…

I just had an epiphany this morning.

I remembered that I used to dance to the radio. All the time. Whenever I had a spare moment, I would put on music that I liked and dance to it.

It started when I was really young. My Mom remembers me as a toddler leaning my ear against the big stereo in the basement, absorbing the music. When I got older, I would go down there as often as I could to listen to the radio and dance. And I would dance in front of the mirror, testing moves and pretending I was on stage.

My Mom got me a leotard when she knew I was serious about it, but she never got me dance lessons like I wanted. Instead, I got piano lessons, which was not even a close second, but I dealt with it.

Dancing was a ritual I practiced nearly every day. I knew exactly what radio stations I liked, and I got to know a lot of great songs in the 80’s – it was the golden age of pop with Michael Jackson and Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I even choreographed dances to the Pointer Sisters and Starship, and Mom has since shown me my childhood drawings to prove it!

The trend continued as I grew up, into high school and college. Instead of finding a basement, I just took up whatever little space I could in my bedroom or dorm to just let myself move and gyrate to all the CD’s that I grew to love. My tastes had expanded into grunge and hip-hop, and as I developed my taste for classical music, I would even put that on and pretend I was a conductor!

I just realized, whoa…I’ve lost this ritual. In grad school I may have done some dancing by myself, but after that, it just totally petered out. And nowadays, I spend free moments on the Internet instead, sitting on my ass, getting jealous of other people’s Facebook lives and reading twisted news stories about politicians and pundits, feeling awful about the world.

What a horrible trade.

When I danced, I was exercising my whole person – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – all of it. And I think my development as a musician owes more to my dancing than to most formal instruction I got as a child. When I danced, I was truly free. I could forget about the world and enjoy myself. And when I danced with others, I was uninhibited. I brought that same freedom to the dance floor.

I realized most suddenly today that I have to bring this ritual back to my life. I have to move again. I have to dance again. Bouncing to the car stereo is but a pale substitute, too – I gotta have arms and legs and torso involved. And brain. And heart. And I can’t do all that while driving.

Because I realize, that’s how I learn music – by touching it. As a pianist, I’m very tactile, I like to play it like a drum, even if my notes aren’t accurate. As a singer, I move and depend on sensation to guide my technique. As a conductor, well, it goes without saying.

I’ve become familiar with that modern proverb, “dance like no one’s watching…” But I’d like to take it a step further and say, dance when no one’s watching. Decide to do it whenever you need it, whenever it works for you – dance while you’re cleaning house, if that’s what does it. (I find that Korn’s first album is especially good for cleaning dirty bathrooms.) Don’t just dance socially, with other people. Dance with yourself – you are your own best dance partner.

And if you realize you’ve lost this ritual, get it back. Use some of your Internet time blasting music and moving around. While standing up – no butts in chairs, even if your chair rolls around.

Stupid me – I could have done this all winter when the weather was horrible. Can’t go for a morning run? The floor’s too cold for yoga? DANCE.

Ack! – I hate it when I realize what I’ve lost sometimes. But then I love it, when I know I can start doing it again…

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Confessions of a Closeted Jazz Cat

In rehearsal for a show in Plymouth, a good friend and fellow singer-songwriter noticed my jumpy syncopations on the keyboard and felt compelled to say something about it. In her other life, she is a therapist, so she has a finely honed practice of noticing things in other people that they normally wouldn’t see themselves.

“You are a jazz musician.”

I froze. An embarrassed grin spread across my face, like I was caught denying something. “We need to have an intervention,” she said.

“I’ve NEVER thought of myself as a jazz musician. Never ever,” I said. She just kept looking at me like there was no escaping it anymore.

And it wasn’t the first time this was said to me. A highly respected producer and recording artist in Detroit listened to my debut album and observed that I could market it as jazz, at least partially. And I abruptly denied it: “What? Are you kidding? Maybe in the Norah Jones sense, but…naaah!”

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to be a jazz artist; I get a good share of vibes and inspiration from jazz. I’ll listen to everything from Frank Sinatra to Ornette Coleman. It’s just that I admire jazz people so highly for their skill that I could never imagine counting myself among them.

Perspective: My first real exposure to live jazz was a blow-the-roof-off solo performance by Herbie Hancock twenty years ago. He and I both went to the same alma mater – Grinnell College. So for the college’s sesquicentennial, he played a private performance in Darby Gym, sharing exalted versions of old favorites like Watermelon Man and Dolphin Dance. I was in the fourth row, where I could see his hands in action, and I had never seen anything like that before (or since).

The very next day, I and the rest of the music majors got to have lunch with the man, a real treat. Not just a great musician but a great guy all around; it was an interaction I’ll never forget.

So that experience set the bar miles above my head for jazz performance, as it was the closest encounter with a jazz juggernaut I’ll probably ever have. There’s no way in eternity that anyone would include me with HIS ilk! Being around and hearing someone like that makes you feel like you’re hardly good enough to play Hot Cross Buns.

Hence my dismissal of jazz as part of my own performance.

But as soon as I started sharing my friend’s recent comments with other folks around me, more and more confirmations came back – I’m a closeted jazz cat. Musicians, listeners, friends, and even my parents wondered why I haven’t figured it out sooner.

But could I ever go down to a jazz bar in Detroit – like the Dirty Dog or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – and be taken seriously?

Then came the cherry on the cupcake: Of all the free Reverbnation opportunities I signed up for in the last three months, the ONLY ONE to accept my submission for airplay was…a jazz station.

Ok, I give up!

The first thing I gotta learn is that jazz, as a genre, is much broader than I think. Herbie, for all his mastery and genius, only occupies a small portion of the realm, which includes hard bop, lounge jazz, big band, and show tunes, among other things. I’m also reminded of Louis Armstrong’s answer to the perennial question of what is jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, I’m not claiming to be a jazz scholar of any kind, but that’s precisely the point – jazz was not born out of scholarly investigation but out of radical self expression. And who can’t claim that as a musician? That’s where all the best music lives, regardless of genre. Ergo, if I’m resisting calling myself a jazz artist, it could be that I’m resisting my own self expression.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Any person who resists the beauty that others see in her needs a little wake-up to reality, and it seems I just had mine.

So now I’m going to start dropping my resistance to jazz as a performer, and to see what’s possible with it. I think it’s just a matter of embracing the process, and not worrying about the product. Whether jazz listeners take me seriously is not the point; it’s about me taking my own self expression seriously. I once told a jazzy friend of mine that jazz was a method, and he nodded in agreement with me. If that’s all it is, why not make use of it?

Wish me luck.

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