Tag Archives: music

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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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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“Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter…”

Since I last posted here, there’s been a lot of change and drought and upheaval. The winter was no kinder to my business than it was to most others here in Detroit Metro, where we broke a 100-year-old snow record in the middle of April.

And the tendency I have when going through challenges is to hole up, hit the bunker, and go underground. It seemed the easiest thing to do as the snow kept piling up and the temperatures plunged below zero.

But there were points from January onward where I just couldn’t stand to be inside anymore, and couldn’t afford to stay shut off from the rest of civilization – points where I just had to pull my boots on and get out there because I had music to share.

I had gigs scheduled, an album to sell, contacts to make, rehearsals to schedule. And every time I stepped out the door and into the snow, it was for music.

I couldn’t do everything I planned, and not everything I did was planned. But the will to live and connect finds ways to trump everything, especially where art is concerned, and several of my musical friends felt the same way.

And I found some warm spots as the weather struggled to change:

I was inspired by a voice student I took on who was visually impaired; she was slowly losing her sight but very accepting in the face of it. I made house calls to her because she wanted to discover her voice so she could not only sing but recite poetry. Our work on her breath was amazing; she had more capacity than she believed she had. She inspired me to think about what else was possible in teaching music to people with similar challenges.

I took an opportunity to record ambient music, and I firmly believe that my chants to Shiva had him connect me to a local branch of the Isha Foundation, whose musicians welcomed me into their devotional music ensemble for a fundraiser. And our program opened with a song to Shiva.

And I’ve started to realize, with the help of some friends, that I am a closeted jazz musician. More on THAT next week…

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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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Something To Ponder …

Just read this: Something To Ponder ….

If a lifetime is your chance to express who you are in the most adventurous and creative way you can imagine … what are you doing that supports that idea?

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Healing the Inner Child Singer

You know the story. Some teacher or music director tells a young person that they can’t sing, and the young singer is so hurt by this judgment that she fears or rejects singing forever after.

Adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond report these incidents to me in detail and still feel the pain as if it happened just yesterday.

And no matter how many times I tell people that anyone can learn to sing, or that teachers just don’t have the patience or skill to deal with underdeveloped singers, they still INSIST with all their might that THEY CAN’T SING, even if they wanted to. They defend this belief to the death. They defend the nasty teacher’s judgment as if it were the Eternal Law.

No one feels this level of emotion with regard to the skills of plumbing or accounting or tax law. Then again, no teacher has ever had THIS conversation with a kid, have they?

“Put that wrench down. You don’t have the ability to use that tool; you’re actually a mono-tool. Here, have this ball-point pen. You shouldn’t do plumbing; only if you’re naturally gifted.”

Yeah, if we heard a teacher say that, we’d be thinking, “What a twunt.”

But this conversation happens with regard to singing all the time. No wonder we take it personally. Musical ability, and especially singing, is so personal that for many people, an underdeveloped singing voice means there’s something wrong with them.

Why do we still tolerate this belief? Why??

Good question. So let me ask all those people who have been unfairly criticized, silenced, and labeled monotone at some point in the past:

What made that teacher “right”?

Was it the truth?

Did you really believe it then?

Do you still believe it now?

Why?

As children, we think teachers know best, or if they don’t know best, they at least have the power to override our objections (which is scarier).

Then we grow up. And a huge part of growing up is finding out that adults are NOT invincible, all-knowing, or all that caring. They are flawed, just as we are. The wisdom to see this and accept it is the mark of an adult mind.

But why do we so often fail to employ our adult mind when haunted by memories of a Nasty Teacher From the Past telling us we can’t sing? Because the child mind sticks around and keeps busy with those old thoughts. Just because we gain an adult mind doesn’t mean we lose the child mind.

So one thing we can do is have Adult Mind have a little soul-talk with Child Mind:

“Come here and have a hug and a cookie. You know what, I know it hurts. That was a very hurtful thing she said, and she just didn’t realize how hurtful it was to you. She didn’t understand. She didn’t know you. She didn’t understand that you were just young and only at the beginning of your development. Whatever she believes about singing is not the Law or the Truth. You don’t have to believe anything she said. There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have to let her words keep you from singing. They can’t hurt you anymore.”

That’s a good start.

But there’s further to go.

The Adult Mind has to do more than just reassure Child Mind that the past doesn’t have to keep hurting us in the present. Adult and Child Mind have to realize that they’re the same mind.

“Kiddo, the reason I know you’re going to be okay is because I’m going to be okay. We’re the same person. I am you, just all grown up! You can look forward to being this awesome, and totally free from whatever nastiness you’re facing now. Because, look at me – you survived. So you can just tell that teacher to piss off, because you get to be me now.”

In other words, if the past can affect the present, why can’t the present affect the past?

We let the past creep in all the time, as if the past had its own power that we can’t control – like it’s some kind of being. For many of us, it holds us prisoner. But who does my past belong to? Me. No one else. I own it. If I ever feel like it owns me, I get to turn the tables on that monster and give it what for – I make it look hard and long at this person in the present who’s stronger, wiser, and transformed…and the monster backs down.

If a teacher can make my young self believe that I can’t sing, and that my incompetence is innate…then why can’t I make myself believe that my inner strength is just as innate? That strength was always there. Why? Because Adult and Child are one person. Child survived the past, and that alone is proof of her strength as an adult.

So give yourself this little visualization – picture your adult self sitting down with your child self. (And it has to be your own adult self – not your therapist, parent, spirit guide, or anyone else but grown-up YOU.) Your present gets to tell your past that even though the past stuff hurts, we get to live in the present and choose what we believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Because that’s where our power is – the now. That’s where we have choice. Why live in a place where we have no choice? Why let your Child self live there? Let her join you. Let her see who she really is.

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The crazy thing that Jimmy Page said

Today is Jimmy Page’s 70th birthday, so I gotta wish him the very best and give him my respect, because he’s one of my favorite musicians in the universe.

I recently finished reading a new biography of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall. And it has renewed my deep love for the band, which started way back in grad school. At that time, the ecstasy/pain of Robert Plant’s vocal in “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” set off alarm bells in my head and got me thinking I MUST come out of the closet as a singer-songwriter before it’s too late. It spurred me into action like no alarm bell ever did before.

Now, one big thing that stood out to me in that book was a comment by Jimmy Page about learning music: “Teaching myself was the first and most important part of my education…I hope they keep it out of schools.” (p.60, my emphasis)

This threw me for a loop, of course, because I often beat the drum for keeping music in the schools, and it’s always weird when you discover that one of your idols disagrees with you, even in an innocuous statement.

But how innocuous is it? Is this just something that any rock-n-roll rebel would say, or was there a deeper meaning behind it? Wall’s biography says emphatically that Page was not acting as a rebel in those days, if ever he did. Not in the sense of being reckless, or resentful towards authority. He never acted mindlessly. Page knew exactly what he wanted his music to be, and he hand-picked the very musicians, songs, and stylings that would give him what he wanted. He didn’t set out to go against the grain of what was already popular or standard; he simply had a unique vision in his head that he brought to reality with the help of his band-mates and his manager, Peter Grant.

That vision became Led Zeppelin, and it made him one of the most renowned rock musicians this world has ever seen. He is regarded as the 3rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, although I would rank him 2nd instead of Eric Clapton, with #1 remaining for the OTHER Jimmy of legend – Hendrix.

And how did he get to that exalted position? Not through school.

He played around on his own as a boy, listening to records of the greats of his own time and earlier. He goofed around as a teenager with his buddy Jeff Beck and eventually found his way into doing session work. According to Mick Wall, one of his sessions got a little nerve-wracking when someone dropped a piece of sheet music in front of him. Jimmy joked that it looked like “crows on telegraph wires” (p. 157). But that didn’t stop him from developing deft fingers and a keen ear – both essential for becoming a rock god.

And the thing is, because he didn’t learn music in school, he was free to listen, explore, experiment and discover it at his own pace. He tapped into history by studying blues and early rock-n-roll, striking gold when he heard Elvis. He saw the relationship between music and spirituality and explored it as far as it would take him, even into the occult. He followed his curiosity eastward to the ragas of India and speculated on how to translate that sound to guitar. He wondered what would happen if he played an electric guitar with a violin bow, if he alternated acoustic and electric guitar in a single song, if it were possible to create a reverse echo in the studio….

Who recalls this level of creative experimentation in their own conventional schooling?

If Jimmy Page had been put in a class at the age of 5 to learn about those “crows on telegraph wires” and what they meant, would he have become the same musician? Would he have become a musician at all?

Rock-n-roll was born out of questions: “What would it sound like if I put this chord progression together with this rhythm? What if I did this crazy thing with my guitar?” We can go further and say that ANY revolution in any genre of music was born out of questions – not answers, not pre-packaged explanations of how things were always done, or what was already proven to work. Our current form of mass education takes care of that just fine.

Page understood that the blues – the genre that gave emotional weight to rock-n-roll – was the genre of the unschooled, the vagabond, the oppressed…and the rebel. And the modern school system is not designed or intended to cultivate rebellion of any kind. Such an idea is anathema. Teaching implies authority to which the student submits, and enterprising free-thinkers will have none of that. We think that rebellion is in our animal nature, and thus it has to be tamed if we are to live civilly as humans. But that is a fallacy. Rebellion is NOT the way of our nature. If anything, it’s the way of evolution. The human brain evolved because it became obsessed with questions – “How else can we do this? What is possible with this? What if…?”

That’s not the brain activity of someone trying to conform to what’s already there. That is the mind seeking new territory.

This is, I think, what Jimmy Page was hinting at when he hoped people would keep music out of the schools. The way schools are now, anyway. As much I will bang the drum for music in the schools, I will bang just as hard, if not harder, to have creativity in the schools. That’s the thing we’re really fighting for when we advocate for arts education. Because if the most important thing you learn as a music student is how to play a Chopin Etude note-perfect, or that Mozart was a better composer than everyone else, you might as well stop taking those classes and lessons and start teaching yourself.

It sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of thing we have to do if music is going to be treated the way we treat math and science in the schools – as a bunch of answers waiting to be bubbled in. The great musicians, the visionaries like Jimmy Page and the rest of them, know better. For them, music without questions, without creativity, without the rebellious pursuit of freedom, is just packaged sounds. Way down inside, we all know we want the real thing.

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A Minor Annoyance

It’s finally gotten on my nerves just enough for me to say something about it. I’m getting tired of hearing variations on this statement:

“I don’t like anything in a minor key.”

News for you: That doesn’t mean what you think it means. You’re using “minor” as a general term to mean “bad sounding” or “sad” or “evil” or whatever, when the actual musical definition is quite another thing.

I suppose it’s easy to equate major/minor with every other familiar binarism in our cultural file: good/bad, light/dark, happy/sad, male/female, and on and on. And so, naturally, the musical layman falls into the same pattern when trying to describe music that’s sad, dour, serious, or just played poorly – “it sounds minor.” But it’s inaccurate. I had a friend say to me that a god-awful string quartet played everything “in minor,” when the reality is they played out of tune, which is REALLY bad if you’re trying to play Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And that song is as major as they come!

Using “minor” as a broad brush to describe anything less than Ode-to-Joy happy and perfect is a misuse of the term; worse, it does real disservice to an overwhelming body of music in minor keys, modes and alternative scales that really do lift us into joy and wonderment.

Take a for instance: It’s the holiday season right now, and the familiar carols are swimming around our aural fields like a bunch of excited birds. Lots of our favorite Christmas songs are actually in minor keys and are not downers: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings, and What Child is This are three common examples. Beyond that, there are millions of examples of uppity, happy, and positive minor-key songs across all areas of folk, rock, pop, and classical music. An easy example is Star of the County Down, a terrific Irish folk song about a guy feeling smitten by a sweet lassie with “nut-brown hair.”

Likewise, you will also find plenty of sad, serious, angry, and dour music in major keys across the board.  The biggest major-key weeper I’ve ever heard is Spiegel im Spiegel, a violin and piano piece by Arvo Pärt. Be warned – it might make you think of dying people if you’re not careful.

So what do “major” and “minor” really mean, musically? Ars-nova.com has a succinct definition:

Major and minor can be used to refer to the greater and lesser versions of certain intervals … and you most often hear them used to describe the difference between music in a major key (music whose scale contains a major third upward from its “tonic,” the starting note, so that the basic tonic chord is major) and music in a minor key (whose tonic chord is minor, since the scale on which it is based has a minor third from the starting note).

The difference is quantitative and measurable, when you get down to the actual notes. It’s not subjective. But ars-nova.com is also keen to note the emotional meanings we’ve grafted onto this concept:

There are other differences between the major and minor scales, of course, but the main thing is that tonic chord to which the music returns home so often. “Home” in the first case is a cheerful optimistic lighthearted major triad, and in the other case is a tragic ominous forlorn minor (who knows how those feelings got started, but maybe there’s something to them).

Actually, let me take a guess as to “how those feelings got started”: the idea of a major/minor dichotomy did not exist at all in Western music until the eighteenth century, when French composer Jean-Phillipe Rameau wrote his Treatise on Harmony to tell the world that there was a universal law governing all of Western music, and it could be explained mathematically, scientifically and philosophically under the heading of major/minor tonality. Before Rameau’s time, music was composed not in major or minor scales, but modes – Aeolian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Hypodorian, etc. – these were originally named after different civilizations in ancient Greece. Back then, it was believed that modes could affect people mentally and emotionally – some could cause relaxation and others, excitement.  So people like Aristotle and Plato could talk about how music could be used to stimulate people’s character and actions in a certain way.

This belief persisted from ancient Greece all the way up through Rameau’s time. Now, even though the music of the eighteenth century sounded nothing like the old modes (listen to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos next to Gregorian chant – night and day), the idea of harmonies tugging at people’s emotions never went away. And it just so happened that the major scale took on mostly “positive” associations and the minor scale was left with mostly “negative” ones. By the time we get to the nineteenth century, the obvious philosophical conclusion to make is that the triumph of positive stuff over negative stuff could be expressed in music that transforms from a minor key into a major one: Beethoven’s 5th – end of story.

So where does that leave us now? Well, we live in a world where fundamental binarisms (is that a word?) are being challenged right and left, particularly in the social world – gender being the big one of note. And music is also proving to be more complex and nuanced with each passing day (except in Top 40 radio, which I don’t get). Minor doesn’t have to sound sad, nor does major imply happiness. Sometimes major and minor flow into and out of each other like in a blues song, and sometimes the old modes come out to play again and transport us to an exotic world. Sometimes music delights in being ambiguous, or it throws tonality out the window altogether to expose us to a new soundscape we’ve never considered before.

We also live in a world where basic musical terms like major, minor, scale, chord, and tone are much less understood now than they were years ago. Today’s lay listener is musically illiterate. And because of this, it can be hard for musicians and listeners to speak the same language. I hope that throwing open a conversation about the too-casual use of “major” and “minor” will help in this regard.

So before you say you don’t like minor-key music, ask your musical friends to point you toward some real, life-affirming minor-key and modal songs and see if you feel the same way after listening to them. Also, feel free to post in the comments your favorite happy minor-key/modal/alternative scale stuff, as well as any major-key songs that are more complex emotionally than the key would imply.

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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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