Tag Archives: performance

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.

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 , , , , , , ,

“…with no spoils of the game.”

Just read this: http://raprehab.com/confessions-of-a-failed-hip-hop-artist/

As musicians, we easily fall into the neediness trap: “If I just get in with this person and split a show with that guy and get reviewed on that blog…I’ll have it made!”

We think our success depends on how others view us, and so we push and push to make better impressions on the “right” people, thinking we’re lost without this or that big-name person giving us compliments and shaking our hand.

This is the poison.

Here’s the truth: Yes, it IS about who you know. But this truth can be anyone’s downfall.

What to do? Try to develop strong face-to-face relationships with average listeners; don’t just shout everything over the Internet. And if you happen to approach a person of clout, relate to them from your heart, and not from your business model.

Rob Jay learned the hard way, and I salute him for sharing his candid story.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Never thought it would happen to me.

I haven’t shared about this incident much, only to private friends and colleagues. And I’ve questioned the appropriateness of sharing about it in this blog. But that’s only out of fear, and why should an artist be afraid? We’re supposed to be the ones cutting through fear and misconception with our work. If I believe that’s part of my job, then I should just do it.

[BIG BREATH] …I’ve been dismissed from a band based on my appearance.

It was a real shock, because I’d been singing with this group for many months with reasonable success, and up until my dismissal there was never any question of whether I had what it took to sing everything from Aretha Franklin to Adele to Pat Benatar with strength and subtlety. It was a cover band – a bar/party/wedding-type operation that was poised to make waves in the casino circuit…until an “industry person” told our bandleader that I “looked like a librarian” and said,

“If you close your eyes, it’s a good band.”

Never mind that most of the other members of the band – all of them men – wore glasses like I did.

Never mind that they were all older than me and starting to show a tinge of grey, trading stories about their colonoscopies in rehearsal.

Never mind that at least one of them liked to wear baseball caps to gigs.

I was singled out because I was the female lead singer, and apparently I couldn’t dress or act like one. (Yes, like one of THOSE female lead singers.) Actually, I WON’T do that, because I resent the fact that men in music can get away with looking dreadful on stage and women can’t – unless they show their vagina or something. Or they’re Patty Smith. It’s a double standard, and even though it’s always been around and probably always will be around, it still doesn’t feel right.

I’m reminded of a song lyric by a good friend, Emily Rose:

“This is what a woman should look like / a tiny Tinkerbell jumping on a trampoline.”

This is the world of the “well-decorated mousetrap” that we’re all born into, even now, in the new millennium.

It wasn’t about my singing at all. Nor was it about my work ethic. Both were good. Some would say better than good. But because I stopped short of twerking, it wasn’t good enough.

Now, I’m not above being coached in the area of styling, and I said as much to this bandleader as an offering to look at myself and see what I could work on – I’d LOVE to be ambushed by a fashion-savvy friend who will raid my closet and tell me what not to wear! But it wasn’t enough. Not only did he want me to lose the glasses and dress differently, he wanted me to jump out into the audience and dance and interact with people more. The other lead singer of the band was doing exactly that, even standing on tables and being an outright flirt.

But here’s the thing: unlike him, I have a vagina! I look at the audience, and six inches in front of me is a sweaty, drunk guy trying to rub up against me! You seriously want me to jump out into that?

He said it was all about stage presence, not about how attractive I was. And he patronized me by saying I was a “very attractive woman.” But why is my attractiveness even a part of the conversation? Is praising my sex appeal supposed to be reassuring, somehow? That’s not what you hired me for. You hired me to SING, and I sang my ass off for months in your band before you decided my image had to be measured against some “industry” standard. You chose to ignore the best part of what I have to offer.

I steeled myself for what I thought would be the most common responses from my colleagues when I confided in them about what happened:

“That’s just how the industry is.”

“Duh – of COURSE you have to have the right image because that’s part of the product.”

“Don’t be surprised. It happens to everybody.”

“Customers are dumb/fickle/easily seduced.”

“Industry people are just bullish – that’s how it’s always been.”

But I heard none of those things. Everyone I told responded with shock and outrage at what this person had done. I was heartened to see that although image continues to reign supreme in pop music – from mainstream to indie and back again – more and more people are seeing it as a tyrannical emperor wearing no clothes. And what this bandleader did was bow down to him. He betrayed my loyalty by taking the low-hanging fruit that this “industry person” was dangling in front of him.

Well, in response to this rebuff, I decided to channel the power of Elvis Costello:


Here was a guy who just doesn’t give a crap about what people think of him; he embodies the punk ethic of “F— YOU” completely. He’s perfectly OK with being a total square. So I vowed to embrace my own square-ness and keep my glasses, thank you very much. And I won’t be ashamed to wear pencil skirts, straight pants, flowy tops and sharp jackets. And I’ll never wear high heels onstage because I have a hard time singing in them.

I give people my best product when I’m being fully myself, and the same is true for any successful woman in music – from Patty Smith all the way to Beyonce. I’m not going to hide it behind a style that doesn’t work for me.

And I’m not going to let one dismissal from one cover band ruin my career. I got lots of other things to think about, besides. Like my choir and my indie solo career. That stuff leaves no time for people who are willing to trash my loyalty to the art of music.

At this point in the post, I originally thought I should give you readers a sexy photo of me to prove that I can rock my look, but I changed my mind. I am beautiful, but I got so much more to share than beauty. Instead, I want you to hear me, and once you’ve done that, you can tell me if I got what it takes.

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 , , , , , , , , ,

Anti-Piano Bias?

Please excuse me if this sounds like a rant, because it probably will be once I’m at least two-thirds through writing this.

I’ve been going to open mics around the Detroit area for a couple of years, and what I love about them is the chance to show off my stuff, test some things out, and meet new friends. It’s been an awesome experience. My favorite open mic is at the Black Lotus brewery, because you see the best variety of artists there with a lot of amazing talent. The hosts are also very sweet and the sound system and stage facilities accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

I’d love to play more open mics like this, but it’s frustrating because there’s hardly anywhere else I can bring my keyboard. It’s not an instrument I can just strap on my back and jump on a bike with. It has 88 fully weighted keys which makes for a 20 pound instrument. I’m in the market for something less unwieldy, but until then, this is what I got. It needs a stand, which requires me to make two loading trips to get everything on stage.

But it’s not just about me and my inconveniences. There’s also the issue of what kinds of music the venue wants to welcome.  Some may say they are truly interested in getting wide range of styles up there on stage, but they limit the kind of variety they’re getting by not having a keyboard – or at least a keyboard stand – available.

So what they end up with is guitarist singer-songwriter after guitarist singer-songwriter sharing their version of the guitarist singer-songwriter.

I just saw a new “acoustic open mic” being announced at a local pub, and it begs the question: How acoustic is acoustic? Does that mean no amplification, or just no electronic instruments? In either case, it completely rules out the keyboardist, even if she only plays her Yamaha Portable Grand. If there were an acoustic piano on site, she’d have no problem walking in and playing an expressly acoustic show. I, for one, don’t play all these weird organ patches and stuff with loops and samples – 99% of the time, I’m playing my acoustic piano sound, because rare is the music venue that has an acoustic piano in house.*

It’s partly money, I know. But if you can afford to have a decent sound system, then how much of a burden is it to have a keyboard stand so that you don’t just get 14 Bob Dylan wannabes in a row?

And that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing – guys AND girls with guitars (though now all the girls have ukuleles), all doing the same kind of folk-rock in this angst-ridden, valium-induced balladeering which is all starting to sound the same. Or, they will get a whole slew of guys that play only classic rock and blues, and when the blues stuff really gets going, the whole stage overflows with 10 guys all playing solos on top of each other for 20 straight minutes – as if there aren’t any blues clubs at all in Detroit!

Don’t people know that songwriters don’t all play guitars, and that some of them play genres other than folk rock? If you’re a venue that’s committed to having a variety of music, then please make it possible for musicians other than those playing acoustic guitar come play at the open mics. It’s really tough to haul around keyboards, drums, pedal boards and other equipment just to share music and make new connections. If you make it easier for us, then you might just experience a blossoming of live music at your venue.

But if you’re just offering an open mic night as a way to throw table scraps to musicians you don’t want to pay, then all you will attract are table-scrap musicians, and you’ll wonder why live music doesn’t bring in the kind of money you want. If venues complain about the lack of variety they attract, they’re the ones creating it by not having facilities that accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

*UPDATE: I had a wonderful conversation today with a local artist/producer/consultant/man of many hats that got me thinking differently about this post. I mean, there ARE venues with pianos on site – they’re called piano bars and jazz clubs. Duh! So I wonder if maybe I just need to poke around a different scene? What if I’m the one who needs to think outside the box to connect with more listeners??

Also, I should add that I forgot to include Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak as a keyboard-friendly open mic – they supply a keyboard and stand for their Friday night event.

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remembering Voices of Light

At the end of Rackham Symphony Choir’s 2012-2013 season, a couple weeks removed from my last gig with them, I gotta say my fondest memory was performing Voices of Light at the Detroit Film Theater in March. It was just…wow.

Voices of Light is a choral/orchestral piece written to accompany one of the greatest silent films of all time: The Passion of Joan of Arc. Composer Richard Einhorn went to France and had an epiphany watching Joan; he saw the possibility of composing a whole new soundtrack to the film. It reminded me of Philip Glass’s soundtrack to the old Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast, only Joan was a silent movie, and there was no need to sync up vocal music with dialogue. For that, Voices of Light stands on its own (for now – I can see this setting a precedent for other composers to let themselves be inspired by classic film and see what’s possible for multimedia presentations of their work).

And among large-scale choral pieces I’ve sung, this certainly stands alone, at the top. Most of the text I’d never heard of; I’ve sung plenty of Hildegard von Bingen before, but none of the other Latin and Middle French texts that make up the libretto – certainly not the letters of Joan herself. There are also bits of inspiration from Medieval mystics, some of whom were heretics like Joan, others more accepted by orthodoxy, like Hildegard (although I think if you read deeply enough someone could call at least a little of her stuff heretical). So the text was unique. Also, the flow of the music had to fit the flow of the movie. It exists in movements, but the divisions are seamless, and within a movement you could experience a thousand different moods and ideas, all flowing with the story.

But beyond all that, the performance experience was the most unique thing I’d ever been a part of. We performed at the Detroit Film Theatre, a place not particularly known for musical concerts of any kind, though it has hosted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other folks presenting multimedia work. We sat in risers a little bit behind and under the giant screen, able to see only the orchestra pit and a fraction of the sold-out audience. We were in semi-darkness; some hardly able to read our scores – at least one did the smart thing and put the score on her iPad. The acoustics were dry and dead; one could only hear the singers immediately around them if it weren’t for the monitors backstage. It was like singing in a sensory-deprivation chamber.

And then we had to put out a full-on choral sound with all the dynamics and nuance the music demanded, all while following Maestra Suzanne’s tempo, which was expected to fluctuate depending on how we flowed with the film. Maestra lifted her eyes rarely at us, mostly to see the screen and what was happening. She was entirely focused on that and on directing traffic, so she couldn’t give as much to eliciting expression from the 80-odd singers in front of her. She had to play traffic cop for an hour and a half. She wasn’t using a click track either. She went entirely on the visual cues of the movie. So we had to be totally on alert, to be self-sufficient and at the same time dependent on her cues.

Not much attention was given to the singers’ expression and extracting the emotion of the text. We were advised to keep our eyes up for sure, but not for the purpose of telling the story – the movie was doing that just fine. We were telling the story, but not as a theatrical element, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. We were more like members of the pit orchestra. Our text served to provide comment and a spiritual backdrop to the story. It was up to us to bring succor to an otherwise brutal and intense movie about Joan’s suffering and martyrdom –  the movie had a freaking bloodletting scene in it, and contortionists, in addition to one of the most famous public executions of all time. The choir is set up to be a sort of audience proxy to all this, to be people witnessing the story and trying to make sense out of it by placing it in history, among stories of persecution, inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Similarly, the movie itself is not a biopic, nor a documentary, nor even a kind of epic film adventure like Ben Hur. It’s an isolated episode of Joan’s life, and a tiny but defining moment in French history, told with little one-on-one dialogues and extreme close-ups. It’s an intimate story, and so the music of the choir is just as intimate, a private window into the lives of mystics. And even though we didn’t have to show it on our faces, the emotion bled through with every utterance: “O feminea forma…O soror sapientiae… (O feminine form…O sister of Wisdom…).”

And so we sang, slotted in rows toward the extreme rear of the stage, behind that giant screen, in near-darkness, unable to see or hear, but with senses sharpened to feel beyond what we could normally perceive as singers. It was a very monkish sort of way to sing, like you’re in some Medieval choir stalls at Notre Dame; only here, your voice doesn’t ring in any rafters but gets sucked up into the blackness of the film theater, with no reverberation to greet you on its return. You feel alone. But Joan did, too. And I guess that’s the point of the whole performance. As part of the entertainment package, you get to be alone there with Joan as she goes through her ordeal. And so, Einhorn’s music asks: Isn’t it in moments like that where the presence of God is felt?

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Bravo to Dino’s New Open Mic Experience

Wow. I want to recommend what is possibly the best new open mic experience in metro Detroit. I had the pleasure of playing my little 15 minutes at Dino’s Lounge on Woodward and 9 mile under the gaze of new emcee Jill Jack, a prominent Detroit musician who is hugely supportive of songwriters. And after playing for Jill, it’s gotten me all geeked to play again for both her AND Chris Bentley, the other emcee on the team, because it was just that awesome.

What I like about this open mic is that it’s STRUCTURED. There’s an emcee and a separate stage manager who runs the sound and does a tremendous job keeping the musicians cozy and welcomed. Then there’s what I call a “high mastermind,” an admin assistant who keeps track of the performer list and all communications. So there are clearly defined roles, and the people filling them are tops.

Second of all, you have to sign up in advance – there’s now a waiting list going 3 months into the future for Jill’s nights – and the admin structure around this is refreshingly tight. When you sign up, you’re encouraged to send in a bio so that you’re properly introduced, and no matter if you’re an experienced pro with a national following or a local player looking for a first stage appearance – Jill will make you feel welcomed and honored in front of the audience, like you truly belong there.

And it doesn’t matter if you screw up your song and have to start again; she will rouse up some applause in the audience to give the performer some love and support.

There’s an emphasis on original songs ONLY, with minimal instrumentation – no drum sets or crazy/elaborate setups – so the focus can remain on the songwriting itself and the night can flow smoothly from one performer to the next.

And Jill also does something that I’ve never seen an open mic host do before: she will shush the audience and tell them to respect the musicians by listening. Not easy in an uppity bar such as Dino’s, but the thing is, this open mic experience is really supposed to be different – this is a songwriter’s showcase, in the same tradition as the monthly event at The Ark in Ann Arbor, where you submit your name in a drawing for the chance to play on that legendary stage. Because it is so highly refined, the Dino’s open mic allows for tremendous variety while weeding out the people who just want to cover Leonard Cohen or Bill Withers all day.

And furthermore, there’s no place for those long, boring sets where you see a whole band set up to play and just pass the mic around from person to person – that’s not an open mic, that’s a band hijacking the stage, and it’s insulting to listen to while you’re waiting your turn.

Jill understands that it often takes a reduction in the degrees of freedom to really get the variety and diversity you want in an open mic experience. She wants to see increasing support for the songwriting community of Detroit, so that the city can eventually be on the same level as Nashville as a music center. I’d say we’re not too far away from that ideal if we see more highly refined events like this to really give songwriters the kind of chance they’re looking for.

Of course, it helps if your emcee is musically talented and already has a huge following and a vast sea of songwriting friends to invite to play, but it’s not about her – the Dino’s team does whatever they can to make it all about YOU, the songwriter, and Jill knows this.

And I tell you, the experience of actually playing there was like nothing in the world. I played in front of a room packed to the ceiling and everyone was listening. And I sold a CD and passed out business cards to people I’ve never met before.

THAT’S what an open mic is supposed to be like – a place to show an audience what you’re really made of, where the audience can actually see what you’re made of, and acknowledge it.  I plan to play there again on May 7, with host Chris Bentley, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Take the instrument out of the box.

Any instrumentalist first has to take his or her instrument out of the box, and in some cases, put it together before tuning and warming up. That process makes a perfect bridge between mundane activity and musical activity, whether it’s practice or performance. It’s a chance to settle the mind and body into the process of playing for the next hour (or three). The process is the same for the mindful pianist who raises the lid just right, or the drummer who taps his kick pedal to feel and hear the reactivity of the bass drum.

Singers would do well to adopt a similar practice with their voices. Most of us don’t think of our singing voices as instruments, and because of this, we tend to skip warm-ups or sing absent-mindedly. Though it’s true that singing can be casual and spontaneous – and should be, really, as that’s part of its magic – those that commit to hours of practice and performance with their voices need to make a gentle but deliberate transition from everyday talking to singing, so that they can respect and protect their instrument and become present to the task at hand.

Begin with stretching, especially in the torso, shoulders, and neck. Massage your jaw and do a couple of big yawns. Check your breath. Is it low, deliberate and free? Start phonating. Test your onset. Is it too glottal, too breathy, or just right? Test your vowel shaping. Do you tense up in the jaw or lips, or is your larynx moving around too much? Test your placement, the resonance of your hum, your connection with the breath, your posture. Are you releasing the sound freely without trying to hold back or push? Test all parts of the mechanism and gently move into more intensive warm-ups.

If for no other purpose, the opening process of singing – a pre-warmup, if you will – should prepare your mind for singing, to bring it to the present task. Singing involves all the same biological processes used in normal speech, with the vital difference that singing is more deliberate with those processes: we hold to this pitch for this long on this vowel shape, etc. It takes full consciousness. The brain then becomes the mouthpiece, the bow, the pick of the vocal instrument. With everything out of the box, and the brain in alignment with the rest of it, you’re ready to go.

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