Category Archives: lessons

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

What’s up with Singing Circles

I have two of them going now, and it’s quite a blast.

A bunch of friends get together at my house to learn some vocal skills and sing together. I provide the tea and cozyness, they provide their voices and participation. It really is a good time, because I get to discover more singers who want to develop themselves, and whenever a breakthrough sound comes out of them, it’s euphoria – “Woah, that sounded LOUD!”

And these folks come from all walks of life – everybody from bartenders to post-graduate professors – to get a little taste of singing beyond what they already believe they can do.

The first huge result of this experiment came at Christmas, when a circle was invited to sing carols at a local church service. We picked the songs, rehearsed a couple of times, and sang them to the congregation.

The victory? For at least one of the singers, it was her first time singing in front of an audience without a karaoke track.

I live for stuff like that. When it happens, it means that someone has thrown off a myth about themselves and their own voice, and now their singing is freed up.

Could this become an epidemic? Please, please! I think we could ALL stand to live in a world with happier singers, no?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

How to Deal With Unconscious Habits while Singing

Every so often, I get a voice student that will unconsciously trace circles with his dominant hand, or lean to one side, or roll forward on his toes as he sings. Whether he’s aware of it or not, he can’t help himself. It’s like a nervous tic.

One student of mine has a constant habit of raising both hands up to waist level as she sings higher and longer. When I made note of it, she said that yes, it’s a habit, and teachers have tried for years to get her to stop. But to no avail.

I figured it was probably because no one bothered to ask WHY she felt the need to do it.

So I offered the challenge myself: Over the next week, when you’re practicing, notice when you do this behavior and why. Don’t stifle it, just notice it. Do you do it to try to hit the high note, or support with the breath, or some other thing?

Often, these unconscious behaviors creep into our performance because we’re trying to do something – sing higher, better, longer, with more expression, or whatever else.

When you distinguish the reason for the behavior, fix THAT – not the behavior.

If your concern is breath, work on breath. If your concern is intonation, work on intonation. Work on the cause and not the effect.

The student agreed to take on the challenge. And as we went forward in the lesson, she discovered that she was raising her arms at points when she was worried about running out of breath.

Aha! Now you get to deal with breathing, I said. You found your trigger.

She lit up. Finally, someone who wasn’t going to pin her arms to her sides! Breathing was something she could control and work with, so that eventually her arms would be freed up to do more intentional things while she sang, whether deliberately resting or in expressive motion.

And intent carries great weight in vocal performance – even the most unsophisticated listeners can detect an automaton, a fake, a newspaper-in-the-wind kind of performer. No one wants that. So if you have an unconscious habit while singing, first find out why. When you find the cause, deal with that, and not the behavior.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

VoiceLab Revival: The Singing Circle

For the second time in as many months, I’ve hosted a small singing circle of women who know each other through karaoke. One of them was a voice student of mine, though only for a little while, because after a few lessons, she didn’t feel like she had the motivation to be committed for the long haul with daily practice. She wanted another kind of experience – she still wanted to learn voice, but on a more spread-out schedule that was less intensive. I tried to think of ways to accommodate her, because she said she really wanted to learn more from me.

And then it hit me…VoiceLab.

I could revive the little periodic singing circle that I used to have. I pitched it to her, and she lit up. She quickly went to tell a couple of her friends, and what ended up happening was I had three women in my house once again, doing some easy vocal exercises and singing some great songs to help them get in touch with their voices – and each other. It ended up being another form of girls’ night out.

And it dawned on me – I could do more of these. What other circle of friends want to get together to just learn basic singing skills, whether they love karaoke or choir, solo singing or whatever else – and do it in a setting that allows for connection between people… I don’t know why it took me so long to re-envision VoiceLab in this way.

It’s not just about voice training. It’s about being together.

See, group singing is one of the oldest – perhaps THE oldest – form of music making in all of human civilization. What if we were to embrace this again, but give it a new context: away from church, school and other formal settings where there is pressure to perform? What if we were to revive the songs-around-a-campfire tradition and make it accessible to people everywhere? Did you ever just get together with others to sing, with no other agenda or expectation? It’s crazy to me how we’ve lost this.

And so that’s what I’m hoping to bring in this revived VoiceLab. I’m thinking I don’t even want to call it VoiceLab anymore because it sounds a little too sterile. It’s a Singing Circle, really.

I also think it’s a lot like those painting party shops that keep cropping up in suburban areas – places where groups of friends (mostly women) get together to learn to paint while drinking wine. At first, the concept sounded bizarre to me – why would anyone pay to do this? But then TWO such shops opened up within a mile of each other right outside Detroit, and I had to conclude: OK…this must be the new hotness.

Could other art forms follow a business model like that? Like music?

Could SoundSorceress Studio be a center for singing circles?

So far, I have three enthusiastic women who are embracing the idea, even to the point of offering themselves up to sing Christmas carols at a church next month.

It’s a seed for the coming year, for sure. Be on the lookout on Meetup, those of you in the Detroit area who are sparked by the idea like I am.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Using the Single Vowel

One of the easiest ways to smooth out a vocal line in a song so that all notes work together as a unit, is to sing it through on a single vowel.

The “oo” vowel is especially good for this, when it’s round and spacious. And all you have to do is simply pour the sound through that shape as you connect each note to the next.

This strategy is very good for lots of things: note-reading, checking intonation, legato, breath management, resonance, phrasing, and on and on.

But what if you’re singing staccato? It still works. Just use your diaphragm action to articulate – don’t articulate from the throat. Imitate a Santa Claus laugh while touching the soft area just beneath your sternum. That point is what I call “the button,” because that’s what you use to activate the breath for singing. Use this for staccato singing on a single vowel.

Or, you can put a consonant in front of your vowel: “doo,” “loo,” “noo,” “too,” and so on. Different consonants will give you different effects, depending on what aspect of the music you’re practicing: “noo” will draw attention to resonance in the mask, while “doo” can help make intonation more precise. Experiment and see what works best in your situation.

Ultimately, what a single vowel should give you in your singing practice is unity – throughout the phrase, throughout your range, throughout your physical instrument. It’s one way of reducing degrees of freedom to isolate any challenges you face in singing a vocal line. As you sing on a single vowel, there should be no sensation of a break or kink in the phrase, even if there are rests.

From here, you can graduate to a different challenge: maintaining unity in the vocal line while singing on the words. You’ve dug the trench; now sow the seeds. Just simply drop the syllables on the path of the vowel you shaped in the previous exercise. The whole phrase becomes one gesture of breath and sound.

Or, take an intermediate step and sing only on the vowels of your text. Do the vowels flow into each other smoothly? Does the phrase remain a unity? Do you lose placement or feel an abrupt change when shifting from vowel to vowel? Record yourself doing this, so you can hear the difference it makes.

Add another element: dynamics, expression, or tempo. And keep going, step by step, to create the whole. Any new thing you bring to the table from here should only add to the unity you’ve created with the single vowel, and not take anything away. Even if the music shows changes or multiple facets in its final product, it will remain a unity – if that’s where you started in the first place.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The only music teacher a kid will ever have

I’m on the verge of teaching beginning piano. Some folks have asked me if I do that, and I’m ready to say yes. Here’s what happened.

I had a conversation with an upright bass player who supplemented his playing career by teaching piano to young beginners. Now, I have heard accomplished pianists say that they would never dare to teach piano even though they’d been playing for decades, because there was too high a risk for teaching it wrong and with poor technique. But this bassist was unperturbed. He said something about his experience that struck me: “You might be the only music teacher that kid ever has.”

Wow.

I had never thought about teaching music that way before. But it was true. When I was very young, my mother had me get piano lessons because she wanted me to have a firm grounding in music, even if nothing came of it. In elementary school, we had no regular music classes. Once in a blue moon we would have one, but by the time we got to it, I had already learned about scales and chords and stuff because I had been taking piano for some time.

Kids would be lucky if they even got half the instruction that I got in school. There’s no need for me to rant here about how school administrators and politicians throw music and art out of the K-12 curriculum with every budget cut. But as much as musicians and artists grieve over the loss of music in the schools, only some will take on the private teacher’s mantle to make up for what the kids lose. Others run the opposite direction, saying that teaching is only for those with just the right credentials and experience, someone whose heart is really in it to serve students in a responsible way. They say, just because you play good doesn’t mean you can teach it just as well.

That’s a perfectly sound argument, one that I have made many times. Then I heard this story…

When Gandhi was doing his activist thing in India, a woman came to him asking for help. Her young son was addicted to sugar and she wanted to hire Gandhi to teach him how to get off his addiction and eat healthier. He told the woman he’d be happy to do it, but she had to come back in a week before they got started. The woman was puzzled, but she obliged. She waited a week, then came back to him. Now would he help her son? Sure! They got right down to it, and Gandhi told her son exactly what do to.

Now, the woman became indignant and said, why didn’t you tell me all this last week? Gandhi said, because a week ago, I was addicted to sugar, and so I had to figure it out for myself before I shared it with you.

What did my bassist friend have to know to teach beginning piano? How to play beginning piano, and how to communicate with a beginning pianist. That’s it. He doesn’t have to be Horowitz. No parent looking around for simple piano instruction for their son or daughter is going to be looking for a Julliard professor. (If they are, then I’d like to know how they think their child is the newest incarnation of Mozart.) Nor is any adult student looking to enrich their lives with basic piano skills going to hire a Julliard professor just to get them started.

Such a teacher might not have the patience for them anyway.

“But you can’t just hang up your shingle and call yourself a teacher!” everyone says. Well, that’s why Gandhi waited a week, and taught himself how to get off sugar before extending the knowledge to someone else. Was it irresponsible of him to do it that way? Should he have become a licensed nutritionist before he decided to help just one child?

He was probably the only teacher that child was ever going to get.

Once you learn a skill, and learn how to communicate that skill, you can teach that skill. Teachers often scream “you can’t do that” for several reasons:

  1. They are jealously competitive with each other.
  2. They feel righteous and indignant about all the credentials they’ve received and don’t want to see a person with fewer do better than them, because that’s not how they expected it to happen when they were still in school.
  3. They worship their own method, or their own teacher, to the exclusion of everything else, and they think they have nothing new to learn themselves.
  4. They may still cling to the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” argument, so a person who teaches must be someone who can’t “do” music at all.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been busted on all of these points myself.

We put teachers on a pedestal on the one hand, but tear them down on the other, because of our own insecure egos running the show. On the surface, we say that teaching is too important to be left to the incompetent, and we think we’re honoring teachers by saying this, but we’re not. Underneath, our ego is saying, “therefore only someone like me should be doing it,” or, “therefore that idiot over there shouldn’t be doing it.” Or, “Look at me; at least I have some sense to stay out of the way, unlike that guy.”

There’s some version of “I’m too smart to teach” going on, and that’s ego. That’s ugly. The way you honor the teaching profession is to teach, not to run away from teaching.

What if you were the only music teacher that a kid will ever have?

I never questioned the competency or credentials of the woman who first taught me piano out of her home when I was a fussy child. She had the patience of an oak tree, even when my parents didn’t. She gave me something that no one else did, without which I wouldn’t have lasted in high school choir and gone on to become the musician I am now. Her gift lasted me a lifetime, and that’s all I need to know. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go knock on her door like before, only this time I’d show the kind of patience for myself that she had for me.

But instead of going back in time, I think I’ll go forward and offer beginning piano lessons at SoundSorceress Studio. I’ll pay it forward on my teacher’s behalf, because I might be the only music teacher some kid ever has.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

When goals get in the way

Could it be that I’m in love with practicing piano for the first time in my life?

Oh, I’ve done a lot of regular practicing in my lifetime, but never like this – gingerly floating through Hanon exercises and pages upon pages of beginner’s pieces without a care in the world, just enjoying the discovery of what my hands can do, and how good it feels.  It’s enjoyable and happy – what the hell?!

This happened after I read The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I bought it because I was convinced I had a perennial self-discipline problem. I always hated practicing at the keyboard; I resented it, it was frustrating, and I couldn’t keep my attention on it. Oh, I had absorbed a ton of musical knowledge from my piano teacher when I was young, but I couldn’t sit still long enough to play and master something and feel good about it. I would start and quit and start and quit and start and quit. And the last time I quit, my parents said, “Ok, but this time, it’s for good.”

Then after a few years away from music, I discovered the joy of singing in high school, and all I had to do to get up to speed in Chamber Choir was remember all those theory bits from my earliest days at the piano. It worked; the knowledge stuck with me. Then in college, once I decided to become a professional musician of some kind, I decided to try piano lessons again. I figured, “I’m an adult now; practicing should be easier and better because I know what’s at stake here.”

Yeah right.

I was back on the start-and-quit program, which was to last me throughout my young adult life.

Here’s the thing. Every time I’ve decided as an adult to seriously take up the piano again, it has failed, but not in the same way it failed for me as a child. Back then, I had nothing at stake; but as an adult, I had everything at stake, and that was the killer. My thought pattern was, “I’ll never be as good as I’m supposed to be. I’m a fraud and a fake because now music is my profession and it just seems like hypocrisy for me not to play well. I’ll never be able to sight-read. I needed to learn this years ago; I’ll never catch up.” You’d think that having a goal of being a competent enough player to sight-read at the instrument and accompany singers in most situations would be a great motivator to spur me on to practice, but it wasn’t. Those thoughts derailed me every time. No matter who was my teacher, no matter what method I used, it just wasn’t going to happen like that. I would always be stopped by this unattainable goal.

Enter Sterner’s book. Now, reading this book did not seem like the huge revelation I thought it would be. I thought it would give me something I never had before. But not really; it was full of the wisdom of Eastern philosophies that I was already familiar with: enjoy the process, don’t get so hung up on the results, take a Zen approach to your practice, just be in the now, and so on. Reading that, I was thinking, “I know, I know! I’ve heard all that before! Give me something NEW!” But the new revelation did not happen while I was reading the book. I had read it all in one sitting and the lightning bolt never struck…until after I had set the thing down.

Many times I’ve touted having goals as a motivator for your practicing; it seems like such obvious advice, and it seems to work for a lot of people. But having a goal is one thing; keeping on the path towards it is ENTIRELY another.

After I set the book down, my thoughts drifted back to the time I took up singing seriously in high school. I was spurred on by the choir teacher telling me – prophetically – “you should be in choir.” I followed that out of curiosity, and with an inner knowing that I could sing and enjoy it. I wasn’t thinking about a career or winning contests. I didn’t formulate this big goal in my head that I would be a top-tier vocal student. I wasn’t thinking of being able to sight-sing or harmonize or build a whole skill set as a singer. I didn’t formulate a detailed picture of singing success and map out a plan to get there. None of that mattered. All I did was join the choir.

Over time, my sight-singing skills developed as a by-product of just singing a lot and following my musical curiosity. The only times I experienced disappointment in my singing abilities was when I set hard goals and didn’t meet them. When I simply followed my heart, the skills followed right along. I just kept on singing every day, because we had choir every day and being in choir with all my friends doing great music was just the best time I ever had in high school.

There was only the thought of “I want to do this.” There was never the thought of, “I have to do this,” except whenever I obsessed over reaching a goal.

And I never obsessed over goals more than all the times I clawed my way toward some upright Yamaha in a hot room the size of a closet with nothing but my sense of immanent failure.

The realization of all this hit me like a ton of bricks.

So what now – if all that goes away? Holy wowsers. I can return to the piano – I can embrace it again for the first time. I’m going to completely throw out my old goals, including that of sight-reading. Because I never learned sight-singing that way – why should I learn it that way at the keyboard? Every time I try it, I get frustrated and disappointed because I can’t do it all right now.

I get hung up on the product and think nothing of the process, as Sterner suggests time and again.

So I’m letting go. I’m going to think of piano practice not as a career-builder and something I should have done years ago, but as an opportunity to explore something new and see where it leads. I’m going to re-enter the Beginner’s Mind I had when I was in school, just discovering the possibilities of music and what I loved about it. I want to re-visit that place at the piano to just fall in love with the sound and the feel of it, expecting nothing.

It feels like a great weight has fallen away. I get to come to the piano with nothing, and expect nothing in return except just some quality time with the instrument and my little method books, like John Thompson’s First Grade Book. The first piece in that book is called Music Land: “Off I go to music land / Training ear and eye and hand.” It’s eight measures of whole and half notes, but that’s not all. Next to the grand staff there’s a line drawing of two children mounting the first step on a long, windy staircase. We don’t see the top of the staircase; we don’t know where Music Land is, or what it looks like, or if it’s even a place at all. Maybe in music there is no ultimate destination; there is just the path.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Observing the Observer

I’ve always hated listening to myself on recording…or worse, watching video of myself in performance. It’s because I’m always evaluating: “Am I in tune? Are my vowel shapes working? Do I grimace when I slip up?” But I have to do this, because I’m a voice teacher and choir director. If my job is to evaluating singing, I have to make sure that my own skills are up to snuff.

Recently I had the occasion to watch video of myself in Ferndale doing a show of all original music (plus a run of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Faire”). It was a few weeks after the performance, but I was still nervous about watching it. When the videographer hit the play button, I braced myself for the onslaught of crazy – how did I look, did I hunch my back like some mad cathedral organist or undead vampire in a musty mansion, did my glasses blank out the whole upper half of my face; did I sound fake or pushed, out of tune; did my mouth look like a gaping dragon’s vagina; did my teeth look bad, and oh my gods I didn’t remember that one word in that song – DAMMIT.

These are what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, call “blurts.” They are reactionary statements that the brain spews out when it observes something that the brain’s owner does.

“I didn’t notice anything at all!” my videographer said. I kept quiet, but I thought, “Oh yeah, right, of course you would say that because you’re not trained to see the kinds of things that I see,” and, “You’re just being nice, you’re just being my friend.”

But then she asked, “Are you as self-critical as Elaine is?” (Elaine is my pseudonym for another performer she filmed that night.) And it struck me – I didn’t know how to answer. No videographer had ever asked me that before.  She was obviously very experienced at filming musicians, and had no doubt sat with them as they winced at every little thing that seemed wrong to them.

I don’t remember what I said to her, but that question snapped me into a different mode – one of observing the observer.  And it changed the experience for me.

Observing myself observing the video removed me from my emotional reactions and silenced the blurts. From there, I could actually start watching the video from a more objective and compassionate point of view.

I started to see more of what was working than what was not working. I did notice where my tuning was only 95%, and why that happened – it was a tonal thing, how I handled my breath and vowel shaping. And I noticed some tension in my face whenever the singing got emotional. I noticed where my eyes were focused at different times, my body language, all of it. And so my overall critique was, “Ok, I know the things I should work on to make sure my tuning is perfect. I just need to watch out so I don’t push.” But I also noticed the victories, what I liked: a ringing tone, clear head register, good breath control, good diction, good piano playing, good moments of eye contact with the audience, good twang where it was needed, and the soulful runs were a little pushed, but that’s fixable!

So I resolved in the future to make my self-evaluations a two-step process:

Step 1: After the performance, get your most emotional reactions out of the way as soon as possible. Don’t look at the footage just yet. Get the highs and lows out of your system first. Then cool off for at least 24 hours.

Step 2: And then, when you have zeroed out your emotional system, watch or listen to the footage. Observe yourself observing it. Maybe have a trusted buddy nearby, so you get more sides of the story than just your own. What do you notice now, and how do you describe and express it? Is it more objective or less? Do you notice things you didn’t notice before? Does anything surprise you? Do you find your singing was better than you thought? Maybe more challenged? Do you forgive yourself for the moments when you were less than 100%? Compare your reactions today with your reactions from right after the performance.

And remember: This is a tool to evaluate your work, not your character, your person, or your self.  Use it to form a less personal and more professional relationship with your voice. Like I always say, your voice is not you.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Can we kick the bucket list?

Guess which student never lasts beyond two lessons in a private music studio?

That’s right.

Teacher: “So why do you want to take lessons?”

Student: “Oh, it’s just one of those things on my bucket list.”

I feel weird about bucket lists in general, but I feel particularly weirded-out when the bucket list is invoked in a conversation about music lessons.

“Bucket list” sounds exactly like what it is: a receptacle. Like a trash can. It’s a repository for things one wishes to do before dying. And if you’ve finally done those things on your list, even just once, you can cross it off and call yourself a fulfilled and accomplished human being. The trash, and you, can finally go to the landfill.

Please.

This isn’t like taking a trip to Ireland, or participating in a pie-eating contest, or taking pictures of humpback whales.

There’s nothing one-and-done about music lessons, and that’s how many people with bucket lists treat them. It comes as a shock to them that music lessons are a journey, not a destination; it can scare them out of the studio after just a couple of weeks.

And the most common reason they give for quitting is money. Well, if it’s just because of money, how much of a “bucket list” item was it?

If you want to satisfy your desire to try something just to say you’ve done it, just to say “Ok, here is the point at which my life is fulfilled,” do not, for the love of Pete, elect to take music lessons unless you have something bigger at stake than just getting a few in before you die.

I heard a remarkable story of an independently wealthy man who loved Mahler’s second symphony so much that, in spite of having no musical experience whatsoever, he was determined to conduct it.

So he had a conversation with a prominent orchestra conductor and made arrangements for regular music lessons stretching over many months (years?), starting with “this is a quarter note” and eventually getting to “here’s how you best support the French horns with this cue in the second movement.” He experienced all the ups and downs and highs and lows that usually come with decades of training all compacted into a grueling customized program to get him on the podium, competent, as soon as he was able. He had all the money to do it, yes, but more importantly, he had the will.

And when he was finally ready, he stepped out in front of orchestra, choir and audience and conducted Mahler’s second. And the audience and critics were actually pretty impressed with the result – just this rich nobody, beginning from nowhere, with absolutely nothing but a singular will to be a conductor, and being that.

If you have a musical item on your bucket list, let it be something like this guy’s – where you get to become something rather than just try something. Then you and your teacher can really have something to talk about.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The word of the day is: Conditioning!

A few weeks ago, I had a wonderful massage session thanks to AJ at Celestial Touch Wellness Studio. After suffering for months with on-and-off tendonitis in my forearms from wrestling with a mic stand and overplaying the keyboard, she gave me a myofascial release, which is the equivalent of driving a steamroller over my arms.

I was tender for a day or so afterward, but then…no pain.

Miracle.

She advised that I come back periodically to get treated some more, because breaking up and re-assembling muscle tissue is never a one-and-done affair, as any athlete will tell you. And in the meantime, I have to start developing an exercise regimen for my fingers and arms so that they can handle the level of keyboard playing I’m committed to without injury.

That means I get to dust off my Hanon book.

A lot of musicians come to her with performance-related tension and injury which could have been mitigated or avoided with conditioning – those boring, mechanical warm-up drills that no student musician has the patience for anymore, like scales, chord progressions, and anything else that sounds like an army of marching ants. For singers, that means sirens, sighs, hums, lip trills, and any other crazy noises that make instrumentalists and others look at you funny, even though they know exactly what you’re doing.

Well, now the music teachers have lost all patience for drills because that’s one of the reasons why they lose students – they’re bored and they don’t see the point of doing them. Because of this, there’s an invasion of shiny, sparkly programs developed by savvy music educators to take the daily conditioning drills OUT of music practice so that a teacher can keep their students engaged. The programs involve (among other things) not practicing every day, or only doing “real” music to get students into performance mode as quickly as possible.

For a while, I was in support of this, because you DO want to have students engaged and wanting to learn all the time. You want to do whatever is possible to keep their love affair with music going strong. But there’s a risk that comes with throwing out conditioning – you will put your students at risk for injury.

Not that AJ minds having extra clients, but she will be the first to tell you that musicians (especially pros) don’t do nearly enough conditioning to keep their performance healthy. Of course, you don’t want to over-condition, but if you’ve ever had to jump up and sing or play something when your bodily mechanism is completely cold, it’s no good at all – at best, you sound and feel creaky, and at worst, you hurt yourself.

Professional athletes condition every day – they’re constantly at the gym, the weight room, or the running track. And they have massage therapists and nutritionists on hand 24-7, for obvious reasons. I watch hockey, and HERE’S a game where no one can afford to miss a morning skate or gym time if there’s a career at stake. I have a poignant memory of the oft-beaten-in-front-of-the-goalie-net Tomas Holmstrom of the Detroit Red Wings saying that on the first day of his retirement at age 40, he could finally get up in the morning without feeling pain. I’d say if it weren’t for conditioning, he’d have hung up his skates much sooner.

Granted, not every musician aspires to be a pro with that level of rigor to their game. But you don’t want to have performance-related injury be the reason for not pursuing that goal, or for breaking off one’s love affair with music forever.

So for cripe’s sake, do your scales. Do them with good technique and steady regularity. If you’re a singer, do your sirens and sighs and hums and whatever else you can do to get the voice in shape, even if you don’t do actual music for the day. Do them just enough to get you ready for the task at hand, and you can take off anywhere from there. If you do nothing else musically today, at least do your conditioning!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: