Category Archives: voice

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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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spectrum Singers Announces Auditions

Ok, people: here’s the official press release announcing auditions for my new choir. Thoroughly excited for this launch.

August 6, 2013 – Ferndale — AuditionsSpectrum Singers, a new vocal ensemble under the direction of Amy Saari, will be having auditions on August 19, August 26, and September 9 starting at 7:30 p.m. at Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church (2441 Pinecrest Dr., Ferndale 48220). Out of a desire to build community through music, the ensemble promises to be the premier interfaith, multicultural vocal ensemble of Metro Detroit.

Amy Saari began conducting in high school and has been directing choirs for much of her adult life. She holds a Masters Degree in both Choral Conducting and Composition from Bowling Green State University. She has had the privilege of singing under the baton of Suzanne M. Acton and Andre Thomas, and has also participated in a conducting masterclass under Jerry Blackstone of the University of Michigan. She loves to cause singers to be great, whether they love the classical or popular style, and maintains her own love of singing as a solo performer across the Metro Detroit area and as a section leader of the Rackham Symphony Choir. After six years of directing the GM Chorus, she is ready to head her own choral project and expand the prevailing notions of what a vocal ensemble could be: “A choral concert doesn’t have to just be four stiff rows of singers in identical outfits singing out of books. I want there to be communication, movement, audience engagement, multi-media elements, and above all, a sense of connection between people of different faiths and cultures.”

Spectrum Singers is looking for a minimum of 24 singers of all voice types, with prior choral experience preferred. Interested singers should RSVP for one of the three audition dates at soundsorceress@yahoo.com, or on one of the ensemble’s Facebook Page events: https://www.facebook.com/spectrumsingerschoir. Singers do not need to bring a prepared solo to the audition, but they must be ready to vocalize unaccompanied and sing from sheet music. Rehearsals for the ensemble will be on Monday nights starting September 16. 

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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.

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New Vocal Ensemble: Spectrum Singers

spectrumflyer

 

This has been a long time coming. For the past several years I’ve mused about forming an interfaith vocal ensemble, but it never seemed to be the right time.

Now it is.

Feel free to join me. We already have rehearsal space and a possible first gig in place. I’m combing through music and bubbling with ideas. But it’s time for me to step out of the vacuum and invite more people into the process.

I’m out to help form a community.

That’s the most beautiful thing about choirs; they are communities. They give us a place to make connections, where we can be part of something greater than ourselves. I want Spectrum Singers to be the exemplar of this in the Metro Detroit area.

And artistically, I want it to break out of the box that is so typical of community choirs. This is not just one more ensemble singing the Messiah in December and the Mozart Requiem in April.

We’re going to have real variety, diversity, and curiosity with the music. When we do sacred music, it’s going to represent a multitude of faiths and not just one. Secular and folk music will be multicultural. Not everything will fall neatly into the standard SATB voice parts; but regardless of anything, the sound will be vibrant and alive. When we do concerts, they’re going to be engaging, interactive, visual, and energetic. We can do hardcore classics as well as new pieces, and do it all with artistic excellence.

I get goosebumps thinking about it. I’m so ready – let’s do this.

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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!

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Everyone has one.

A voice is not something acquired. Everyone has one.

It’s not something that anyone can give you—not even the best of teachers or directors.

It’s not something that can be surrendered to anyone – maybe offered to a project bigger than yourself, but never, never sacrificed.

There’s no reason a voice can’t be a source of pride, something to be protected and nurtured, something to care for. It’s just a natural property of the bodies we’re given.

But as I’ve said before, it’s not “you.” It’s a vehicle.

In the same way that your voice is not “you,” neither is the pitcher his arm; neither is the accountant his ledger; neither is the model her body. The body is not “you.” The body is a vehicle.

Now, I’m not putting this out there as a fact, or as some eternal truth. It’s a realization that I offer to those for whom it is relevant. We get so obsessed with equating ability with identity in our culture that we overwork ourselves on our abilities, thinking our identities are at stake.

But if the body is only a vehicle of our being, then getting a doctor’s suggestion to lose weight or change our habits will be only be as personal as the suggestion of an oil change for your car. It wouldn’t be a big deal. We wouldn’t have to get defensive about it; we wouldn’t have to try to protect our egos. We can disassociate the body from morality and character; then adopting healthy habits won’t feel so personal.

The same goes for the voice.  If you don’t pass an audition, it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person, or something’s wrong with you, or the person who auditioned you. Your self is not at stake; you keep that going in and coming out, regardless.

And neither is your voice at stake; you keep that too. Just keep conditioning it and caring for it. While it’s not “you,” it is, however, yours. So be a good caretaker.

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