Eden Casteel

Rhode Island Based Voice and Piano Teacher

Eden Casteel music studio.

Ask Me Anything: The Questions I'm Asked The Most

As soon as people find out I'm a voice teacher, I usually get the following questions.

Q: "I can't sing!"

Not a question, but in fact it is. Properly translated, the question is: "Can I sing?" or "Can *I* sing?"

A: Yes. But if you take lessons, you'll probably be happier, and a better singer! Voice lessons help keep your voice healthy and can steer you to the right music for your voice.

Q: Do you sing opera?

A: Yes. But I also sing other stuff.

A bit of "Der Holle Rache" from Mozart's Die Zauberflote, followed by "I'm The Queen And You're Not" from a coloratura cabaret in Michigan, 2010. Music and lyrics by the incomparable Fred Barton.

Q: Should I take lessons at the same time each and every week?

A: If you want to, sure. Students who take more frequent lessons will see faster progress. But, it doesn't have to be at 3pm every Wednesday for the rest of your life. I offer flexible scheduling because I'm busy too!

Have a lesson on Friday at 5, then switch to an online lesson on Tuesday at 7. Students who buy a semester of lessons can schedule them any way they want -- four lessons one month, seven in the next, two at the end, then a whole month off. It's up to you! 

Q: Should I sit at the piano and practice for two or more hours a day?

A: Only if you want to burn out! Practice frequently, but break it up into smaller sessions. It all counts. Vocalize in the shower. Check out your tongue position while you're combing your hair. Practice your warmups in the car (sing along with the mp3s I send you of your lessons).

Be aware of how you use your voice in speech during the day. Use the "think system" and play air piano at your desk. The mental work you do contributes greatly to your progress! And yes, devote regular focused time to learning your lyrics, rhythms, and melodies. Record your practice and LISTEN and WATCH for even better results. 

Q: To sing pop, rock, or Broadway I need to study classical singing, right?

A: Nope! That would be like telling a football player that the only training he needs is tap dancing. For centuries, voice lessons have been associated with classical music. But now we have voice teachers who can train singers to sing in any style they wish {points to self}.

 

All singers should understand how the voice functions to make style-specific sounds. (Why does Shakira do that? How does Michael Buble sound like himself? Why can't I sound like Gwen Stefani except when I have a head cold?) In your first lesson I'll give you a short anatomy lesson to explain how your voice works, and how different styles affect what your voice does.

Classical is only one of the many styles that all voices can learn (or at least try!). But, just as some football players have found that ballet has made them better players, many non-classical singers find benefit from knowing how to sing a little bit "classically." It's all good.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

Ask Me Anything!

Have a question? Ask me anything!

What I'm Doing Now

As of August 5, I am . . .

1. Slowly preparing for college (as a teacher, and as the mom of a freshman leaving the nest)

2. Rehearsing the sixth and final Quonnie The Musical with my talented young cast

 

3. Celebrating another birthday (along with Loni Anderson and Patrick Ewing)

   

 

 

I hope you're having a great week!

What I'm doing now

As of June 17, 2016, I am: 

Celebrating my son's high school graduation . . .  (I got all verklempt) . . .

John Paul Simmons, Class of 2016

 . . jamming with my family band . . . (that's my dad Ron and my brother in law Robert) . . 

 . . .and rehearsing with Jason Shealy for our June 25 concert! Broadway, Disney, and gospel! . . . . click here for info! 

What I'm doing now

As of June 10, 2016 I am . . .

Writing down songs I might use in the sixth production of Quonnie The Musical

Typing out lyrics to memorize for my June 25 concert (info right here)

Scraping a badly painted deck so it can be repainted

Preparing to cry at my son's high school graduation

Inspired by Cait Flanders.

 

New For Summer!: Sip And Sing Workshop

I have many fond memories of sitting around the living room while my dad played piano. My sister and I would twirl as he played a waltz. My mother would drag out a box of old sheet music and I'd leaf through the dogeared pages, begging my dad to "play this one!" "play that one!" My mother would sing, and as I got older I'd join in. I learned a lot of great music that way.

Dad accompanying me on O Mio Babbino Caro . . . he's played it for me since I was 13.

Dad accompanying me on O Mio Babbino Caro . . . he's played it for me since I was 13.

I want to share this fun with you, so I've created the Sip And Sing Workshop! Come on over to my studio on June 30. It's an opportunity to sing for the love of it. You do not have to be a current student of mine to participate. Just sign up and get over here so we can start the music!

Laura Lee Hickfang, RIP

I recently sang at the memorial service for Laura Lee Hickfang, the wife of my late voice teacher Prof. Paul Hickfang. Laura Lee died in April after a short illness. Teenaged Laura Lee Green, about ten years after her first piano recital

Her obituary and her eulogizers described her as a true Southern Belle. She was all that and more, a tiny little Texan with prodigious musical talent, perfect pitch (a gift we shared and joked about), occasional dark moods, occasional wicked sarcasm, and a heart full of loyalty and love. Even though her husband was a fellow Texan, she always sounded far more Texan to me. She called her husband Paaaaahooul.

(I was also blessed to have an Arkansan as my piano teacher. I think I will always associate great musicians and teachers with Southern accents.)

When I arrived for a lesson at the baby grand in their living room, Laura Lee was almost always in the downstairs den of their split level home, watching a soap or whatever was on WCMH at four o'clock on a weekday. The two of them shared custody of the piano and taught their private lessons at different times. Laura Lee had the much larger private studio, and in retrospect I was probably making noise in her living room on her rare day off. She didn't disturb our lessons and we didn’t disturb her shows.

Prof. Hickfang was a survival-level pianist. He met Laura Lee when they were grad students at University of Texas at Austin. She was his piano teacher -- for a little while. He broke up with his serious girlfriend and started courting Laura Lee. Terrible pedagogy, but smart move. If you can't play piano, get a fantastic pianist to marry you.

Mr. and Mrs. Musician

So, at voice lessons, he would play the opening few notes of whatever song I was working on, and maybe a quick arpeggiated chord. Then he would grab a pencil and start conducting the beat, expecting me to just sing a cappella. For a girl with perfect pitch, this was no problem. It was a good system for us.

Occasionally, though, he wanted me to practice with accompaniment. And so he would stretch his 6-foot-7-inch frame from the piano bench, and pad (shoeless but sock-clad) over to the entrance to the finished basement, and supplicate his wife.

"Laura Lee? Could you come play this aria for Eden?"

(Long pause. The sound of shuffling.)

"Ahool rahgt, ah'll be there in a mihhnute."

And up she would come, all five feet of her. She walked over to her beautiful dark brown Steinway (covered with an elegant brass piano lamp, a Mexican serape, a metronome, a bust of Beethoven, and growing mounds of piano books), and sat down. She adjusted her glasses, and began to play whatever was put in front of her, flawlessly. Prof. Hickfang would try to conduct her, too, and it was fascinating to watch them work together on music. They were a true team. She would play about once a year for me, at most. She never told me what she thought of my singing. I just knew it was a very special occasion when she would play for me.

Every other summer or so, Prof. Hickfang would tell me he couldn't schedule a lesson with me for a few weeks, because it was time to take Laura Lee to Texas. Her very best friends were a group of girls she had known since kindergarten. They would reunite about every other year to catch up, while the husbands played cards together. I wondered what it would be like to be that loyal a friend for so long, and what kind of spouse would follow his wife to a girls’ weekend every two summers. Most husbands would stay home.

Paul and Laura Lee, incognito

When Prof. Hickfang died in 2009, I was one of three singers who sang at his funeral. I sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah. I got through all of it, all those pages, and then I was down to my last few bars: "For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep." Sopranos know there is a lovely G-sharp on the word "risen," and it's usually held an extra beat or so, to make the point. I nailed the G-sharp, held it an extra beat, and then thought, "Oh, he would have loved that." And then I thought it again, "Oh, he would have loved that," and began to feel my lip tremble. I made it through the final phrase and began to weep immediately as I closed my music. I couldn't stand the reception and went home.

The next day there was a voice mail on my parents' machine. "Deeeear Eden, it's Laura Lee," she began. "Ah wanted to thank yeeeuw for singing soooh beayutifully yesterday. You were a little off pitch on a few notes, but overall, it was very good. Ah miss him very much, but ah know that Pahool is in Heaven now. Love to yeeu and your family." That was so her. A combination of love, sweetness, and a little pedagogical advice.

As a widow, she threw herself back into her piano teaching, the cornerstone of her life for over 50 years. We stayed in touch. We had lunch, I sent Christmas cards. She got a cute little dog, and her children Gary, Carrie Lee, and Chase began to spend more time in the house with her. Her eyesight got worse and she had to stop teaching. It was a terrible but necessary step.

Last June, with her health declining, she was moved to a nursing home. I visited her there. She was very unhappy that day and kept asking Chase to take her home, but she knew who I was and she was able to keep up with the conversation. I helped her grab her walker and we shuffled around the facility, and when I left her she was sitting happily with some residents, cuddling with her cute dog, and giving me a kiss goodbye.

Once a pianist, always a pianist.

I drove back to the home she had left. The house was being readied for sale. The Steinway sat in the corner of the empty living room, and the piano lamp was still sitting on top. The serape was folded.  Chase told me to take whatever sheet music I wanted, voice and piano, from the stacks that still remained. I took as much as my car could carry. The lamp now illuminates my own baby grand piano in my own living room. I tried to bring them both with me.

Carrie Lee called me the morning her mother died, and asked me to sing at her memorial. Of course, I said. Then, I promptly contracted a terrible cold (or a slightly less terrible flu, not sure which). I went through boxes of Kleenex as I packed my suitcase. I was feverish. My ears were blocked. I took Dayquil and Nyquil. I ached all over. I chose two songs that I thought I could sing in any circumstance (cold, jet lagged, and/or grieving) and hoped for the best.

Laura Lee's memorial was held at the same church where her husband's was. The organist pointed out the place where they had sat together for services. I said hello to Rickie and Jim, the other former students who had come to sing. We rehearsed quickly with Rose Zuber, the excellent pianist who had played for all of us five years before, and I managed to keep my sniffles and coughing at bay. I decided to just focus on technique, in order to get through the service physically. I also rationalized that since I had cried a river  at Prof. Hickfang's funeral, I'd probably manage to be dry-eyed for Laura Lee.

I got up and sang the Bach/Gounod version of Ave Maria. I've sung it at countless funerals. I kept my composure by refusing to look at anyone in the family row. A few minutes later I got up and sang "Pie Jesu" from the Faure Requiem.

[audio mp3="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/My-Song.mp3"][/audio]

I don't sing it at enough funerals. It's such a lovely piece. I could see the Latin text going by in my head, and the English translation. Dona eis requiem . . . grant them rest. Them. And I suddenly realized, I'm not singing for her, I'm singing for them. The two of them. The thought filled me with great happiness. I'm singing the two of them to Heaven. The reunion is complete. I finished the song, smiling. Wow!, I thought. I'm not crying! It's like I'm a professional or something! And then I sat down, and began to weep, and did not stop. Didn't even try.

There was one more song. Rose, a friend to the Hickfangs for decades, played Debussy's Clair De Lune. It was a perfect tribute: Brilliant, heartfelt, demanding, emotional, and filled with beauty. And we all cried, knowing that while the music was coming from Rose's capable hands, it was Laura Lee we were hearing, for the last time.

[audio m4a="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/11-Track-11.m4a"][/audio]

When the service was over, people came over to me and said I sounded wonderful, and they meant it. I was flattered.

In Heaven, I dearly hope the reviews were mixed.

Happily ever after

O Mio Casteel Caro

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.06.47 PM About once a month I hold a Studio Class for my student singers. Some are preparing songs for auditions and performance. Some are working to get over stage fright in front of a small, supportive audience. Some just come to enjoy a casual, informal afternoon of music. We sing for an hour and everyone offers comments and suggestions on how to improve. We have a break for tea and cookies (and delicious desserts by moms), and then we sing some more. It's fun and lighthearted, but also productive. We make a lot of music and everyone leaves happy. My parents visited last weekend to cheer on my son in his high school play, so I scheduled a Studio Class just for their visit.

Three Casteels, cheering on  a young thespian son/grandson

I was thrilled to show off several of my talented students. My parents were delighted to see and hear them and, just like they did for me as a young singer, they made constructive comments and did a lot of cheerleading. At the end of the class, my dad (always my favorite accompanist) and I decided to join in the fun.  This aria is about a dad and a daughter, so it's a natural for us, and we've performed it countless times. Click here, or on the photo if you'd like to watch us perform! The video cuts off right after the end of the song, so you can't see the wonderful long hug my dad gave me right after . . just like always. I'm so glad my students got to see that too. We made a lot of music and everyone left happy. Want to come to a Studio Class? 

"If you forget the words, just look over your Dad's shoulder."

Unaccompanied minors

"They want me to sing sixteen bars a cappella," the student says as we start to prepare her for the audition. "What?" I ask. "No pianist?"

"No music at all, just me singing," she says.

What I'm thinking: "But you're auditioning for Fiona from Shrek! In the show you will have to belt high D-flats. How will they know you can do it? As your voice teacher, I know that having the musical score underneath helps you nail those notes. Unless the music director has perfect pitch or has a tuner handy, they won't know if you (or any other singer) can sing the notes the score requires you to sing. This is stupid. I can't believe you're expected to audition a cappella for a show that will have a full orchestra in the pit. That's like signing a baseball player to the team after he walks the bases, or telling McDonald's to cook your Quarter Pounder medium rare.

So they don't want to pay a pianist for auditions, or they don't have access to a piano in the audition room. Okay. You mean to tell me that no one in your drama organization can figure out how to provide you with a karaoke track to give you at least a little support? Well here, I took 25 seconds and found it on YouTube, and now I'm playing it on my phone at high volume. You can do this at the audition, if they'll let you. Or at least listen to it right before you go in. Definitely buy the Cleartune app, which can give you your starting pitch.

I don't blame you, student. I blame American Idol and Pitch Perfect, which have made a cappella auditions seem cool. In fact, a cappella auditions are often terrible and they make iffy and nervous singers sound horrid. Even professional singers can sound slightly unsupported and shaky in an a cappella format, without the bass line and melody of the score to balance out the voice. Most amateur singers don't know how to edit a song for a cappella performance. The singer continues to "hear" the melody of the accompaniment in their heads and they unwittingly include it, but the auditioners only hear awkward silence, and that ruins the energy of an otherwise good audition. Who thought this was a great idea for less experienced kids and teen singers?

I can't believe that in addition to teaching notes and rhythms and performance skills, I now have to teach you how to sing an accompanied song unaccompanied, just because someone thought it would be "easier." I just have to cross my fingers and hope that you sing the correct pitches in your audition. It stinks because I know that pitch accuracy matters, every time you open your mouth. Ultimately you will be singing with accompaniment, so you have to sing what's written. But your auditioners won't know if you're accurate or not (or if anyone else is, either). You could be vocally perfect for this part and sing a flawless audition, but you could easily lose out to someone who actually can't sing the role at performance time. GREAT IDEA, A CAPPELLA."

What I say: "Okay, here's your starting note. Go."

 

 

 

Eden's Ins and Outs for 2015

Eden's INs and OUTs for 2015 IN: Reading books OUT: Reading minds

IMG_0440

High quality audio and video recordings of music lessons for my students Relying on hazy memory

Diaries Facebook statuses

Running the 2015 NYC Marathon with my husband (yes, I am) Sleeping in

Charcoal gray as a neutral Brown anything (I only like brown as mulch)

Regular online voice lessons Irregular in-person lessons

Improv classes Half-assing

IMG_0788

Confidence Guilt

Helping my students learn more music theory and history Assuming they're learning it elsewhere

Fearless graying Real Housewives Hair

Trackr Bravo Missing cats

Low sugar cuisine New pants

Guest organ stints Cantoring

Christmas caroling at our annual cookie party!

Small ensemble choral singing Cyber choirs

Dave Ramsey Debt

Making my home studio beautiful and welcoming Schlepping all over the Ocean State

What? Me, drive?

Driver's Ed Texting

Daily prayer Worrying

RINATS No NATS

Kvetching Gratitude

Samaritan's Purse Kate Spade

Age appropriate performances Musical Jail Bait 

Massages for health Toughing it out

Learning how to audition in a challenging environment Giving up

Traveling Netflix

Deadlines To-do lists

Resolved: Cuddle ALL THE CATS

Blogging more Blogging less

HAPPY NEW YEAR, my Eight Blog Readers! XO EC

How To Carry A Tune In A Bucket

  Sad.

More "Terrible Singers" lists later, but first . . . .

Q: Is It true that some people can't carry a tune in a bucket? Are some people born not to sing?

A: NO. Some people are born with a natural ability to sing, and some aren't. But everyone can learn, everyone can improve. Everyone can sing. 

I'll add to that: I think everyone WANTS to sing.

I recently worked with a gentleman who was finally taking voice lessons for the first time ever. He loved music but had no idea how to make his voice work. "Mom said I sounded best when I kept my mouth shut!" he said with a steely laugh. The joking masked real frustration and pain at not being able to sing like he wanted. He couldn't reach high notes, and couldn't find the low notes. He could hear and recognize a melody, but he couldn't get his voice to follow it. So he made sound wherever sound could be made, even if that meant singing the same same couple of notes over and over again, like a drone.

In childhood, he was not an accurate singer, but he was loud -- until he was told to shut up. He was made to stand in the back of the group, to step away from the microphone. He mouthed the words of the carol, while everyone else actually sang. In adulthood, he sang with bar bands and in ad-hoc groups, and tolerated the jokes and razzing when his bad singing was noticed. No one cared how he sang "Sweet Caroline." But then came something awful and wonderful: His child sang with freedom and accuracy and happiness, and he longed to have that same joy. Finally, the pain of singing poorly was greater than the pain of judgment.

For the technically challenged singer, just taking a voice lesson is an incredible leap of faith. My job is to reward that trust with gentle, supportive coaching on breathing, pitch matching, and listening. We focus on making accurate sounds, strengthening the connections between brain and ears, throat and lungs. I make sure the abdominal muscles aren't too tight or too loose to support a tone. I use a tuner to help pitch-challenged ears locate and match the sounds I play on the piano, or the tones I sing (some singers can hear voices better than they hear pianos). Progress can be quick, but usually it's slow and fitful -- a few extra notes here, a little more freedom there. I record the lessons so the singers realize they are, in fact, progressing. They are always amazed at the new sounds they can make. (It makes me happy too!)

A newly strengthened voice can explore very easy songs, or short sections of beloved songs that have formerly been out of reach and out of range. We talk honestly about what's technically possible now and what might happen later on with improving skills. The best part is, we start to think about singing in a whole new way. No more dismissal, no more embarrassment, no more despair. Like every other person on the planet, this person is a singer. This person can sing.

 

 

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! Part 3

Lana Del Rey, cockeyed optimist And so we continue with I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!, where I explain the vocal sins committed by the singers you can't stand to hear.

One of my eight blog readers begged, "Do Lana Del Rey. Please." Okay. All I knew of Del Rey was the media coverage of her lackluster appearance on Saturday Night Live several years ago. So I watched a bunch of her videos on YouTube. Her videos are mini-epics that are superior to her pedestrian voice, which reminds me of Mama Cass in range but not in musicality. I wonder if Del Rey is popular because she is one of the few girl singers who's not belting and autotuning to the high heavens. In that way, she is a welcome relief. Every morose maiden can sing Del Rey with little to no effort, for that's how she sings too -- undersupported and under energized. I'd bet money that she told her first voice teacher she was "really more of an alto." Her range is low, small, and finite, which means every song sounds the same. While her tone is clear, her lack of vocal hustle results in some chronic nasality. Lana Del Rey sounds like she needs cheering up.

Kim Carnes: A voice as pure as New York snow.

"Bette Davis Eyes" is unsingable unless you are recovering from laryngitis, which is what Kim Carnes sounded like on her best day (But oh, she could whip that hair!). That gravely, wooly sound is her vocal folds coming together unevenly. It must be an injury from a long time ago. It seems to be happening throughout her range -- I don't hear a clear sound anywhere, except in a few brief head voice moments. She struggles to sing many interval leaps -- but in this song, I think it's less of a vocal problem than a conscious choice. Carnes' disabled voice got her a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1981. Call me contrary, but Carnes' quirky, weathered voice suited lyrics that celebrated a one-of-a-kind actress. Gwyneth Paltrow sang the song in a movie once -- her rendition is clear and controlled, her pitch is accurate . .. and it's totally unmemorable. Carnes has been married to the same guy since 1967 and she's still writing songs in Nashville, isn't that great? Terrible singer, but hopefully a happy songwriter.

Rod Stewart: Do Ya Think I'm Scratchy?

Carnes is often compared to Rod Stewart, the uncrowned King Of Raspy Singers. To me, Joe Cocker sounds like a hot mess, but Rod Stewart sounds far hotter. It's his material, of course -- the vocal range of his songs is higher, the tempo of many songs is faster. Stewart readily admits his voice is fragile, and when I listen to him I mostly hear the damage. I can listen to his early stuff but not his newer recordings. I like reading about Stewart, far more than listening to him. Stewart is a thyroid cancer survivor, which is of course wonderful -- but he has also admitted to taking loads of manhood-shrinking steroids to soothe his swollen throat after abusing it in performance. Don't let it happen to you, kids! Cher really is more of an alto. That's fine, but she also drawls her vowels, which leads her to sing with a very swallowed sound. You either love her or . . .you don't. Compare Cher to Tina Turner in this clip from Cher's solo variety show (after she divorced Sonny). They sing the same notes, but the sound is totally different. That's not just because they're two different singers, it's also because there are two different approaches to singing a particular phrase. Tina keeps her voice in a more "forward" sounding position and nasalizes words, while Cher goes straight back. If I could turn back time, I'd never hear her version if "It's In His Kiss." Ever.

Proud Mary with Half Breed

Who should we talk about next? Jewel? Stevie Nicks? Shakira? Cat Stevens? Contact me with your nominations and I'll commence this Very Important Research.

 

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! (Part Deux)

It's time for another round of "I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!", where I explain the bad vocal technique behind the songs I've never liked -- and even some songs I do like. This week, I'm including some nominations from you, my Eight Blog Readers!

1. Benny Mardones, Into The Night: It was one of the few songs to hit the Top 20 twice in the same decade -- 1980 and 1989. I liked the beginning of the song, but Mardones' highest pitches were produced with scratchy strained vocal folds, and that really turned me off. It sounded like screaming then, and it still does today. It's unfortunate, because when he sings "If I could fly, I'd pick you up," he has a lovely head voice "oo" sound on the word you. Only a few notes later, he sings "and you a love" on the same pitch (B flat), and the vowel is gravelly and the throat is tight. Head voice would have sounded better. I couldn't imagine any girl accepting an "Into The Night" serenade; maybe that's why I didn't date much in high school. (Watch the video, made a year before MTV started! It has an Aladdin concept and everything!)

Stay on pitch, Natalie!
Stay on pitch, Natalie!

2. When she was with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant's voice moved unevenly between her chest register and mixed chest and head register. In "Like The Weather" you can hear how some notes sound very swallowed and dark while slightly higher pitches are bright and pinched. But it was her pitchiness that drove me nuts. Merchant always allowed a pitch drop-off at the ends of phrases, partly for effect and partly because she ran out of breath. Also, what are the words in "Like The Weather?" I still have no idea. This kind of lazy, louche singing happened a lot in the grungy '90s. (I like Wonder. I can understand the words and she commits far fewer vocal sins.) (And I love her gray hair now.)

3. Aaron Neville was nominated by one of my readers. Good call! In order to extract a tenor range Neville has to engage in some vocal fracking, extracting a sound through a tense chest, neck and jaw. The tension is so great, his head and chin jerk with the effort of moving from note to note. Watch the clip with the sound turned off to see for yourself. Neville might not have enough air in his lungs to sing more than a few notes comfortably, so he sings lots of teeny tiny melodic lines instead and grabs a shallow breath between them. When you don't have enough air in your lungs, your throat will squeeze to try to help you finish the phrase your brain started. (Oh, whatever. I still love this song and remember it from the movie The Big Easy! I just can't watch Neville when he sings it!)

You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!
You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!

4. Vocally, Joe Cocker is Aaron Neville to the infinite power, with some laryngitis thrown in. Joe Cocker's voice proves again that a ruin can be charming. His raspy, breathy, gravelly voice is the result of damaged vocal folds not closing together completely and properly. Might be drugs, might be cigarettes, might be illness, might be all of the above. He swears the jerky body swings are not related to his singing or breathing, but how could they not be? Stiffness and rigidity in the limbs and shoulders is going to affect the voice. As with Neville, I think it's a way of trying to force sound out through a very tight throat and damaged folds. Watch what John Belushi had to do to imitate him, back when Saturday Night Live was funny. Have you ever tried to imitate Joe Cocker? It's exhausting. But millions of people are still happy to watch Joe Cocker be Joe Cocker. 

Each of these singers has had a great career while committing mortal vocal sins that I would try to remove or ameliorate in a voice lesson -- shows how much I know, right? But young singers routinely come into my studio and imitate singers by imitating their vocal problems  . . and I have to tell them all the reasons why it's not wise to do that. 

If you've ever wondered why a certain singer's voice makes you want to plug your ears, you just might have an appreciation for good vocal technique, and a normal sense of outrage when standards are violated. Yay you!

The ballot box is still open . . nominate your least favorite singers or songs and I'll tell you why your ears are crying.

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Eden's On The Air: "Conducting Conversations" With Mike Maino of WCRI

Don't touch that dial! Eden with Mike Maino of "Conducting Conversations", WCRI

Conducting Conversations has been a beloved radio show for years. Host Mike Maino has talked to Broadway stars, genius conductors, world-class instrumentalists and  . . . me. I'm the first voice teacher to be on Conducting Conversations! The program airs on WCRI 95.9 FM in the Rhode Island area on Sunday, October 12 from 7 to 8pm. It's available on podcast afterwards at www.classical959.com.

UPDATE: CLICK TO LISTEN!

Mike was a genial, generous host. I brought a mixed bag of music to share and he enjoyed the variety -- he asked if he could keep the CD I burned for the show, so he could listen to all the tracks again! I started with my own performance from last April, to prove my bona fides. We talked about how I accidentally discovered that I was a coloratura, and then we played some Beverly Sills and Natalie Dessay, who are far more bona fide than I.

When Mike and I talked about teaching voice lessons to children, I presented two contrasting versions of O Mio Babbino Caro, one by Maria Callas and one by Jackie Evancho. Many of my younger students imitate Jackie, who is imitating Charlotte Church, who was imitating Kiri Te Kanawa. No one imitates Callas. (Is such a thing possible?)

Mike and I talked about opera stars singing pop, and pop style in opera. As a voice teacher, I have to help singers figure out what is appropriate and healthy for them vocally and stylistically, and what's better left unsung. I brought two examples for fun: Placido Domingo singing the Beatles and "Catch Our Act At The Met," a great show tune by Comden and Green. Note that Comden and Green do not actually try to sing opera, and that's why the song works. I almost brought Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe . . .oh well, next time!

Thanks Mike, for a great hour of conversation and shop talk! I love helping singers find their real voices. Singers can stretch themselves to stylistic limits and imitate other singers as they try to find their own sound, but every singer sounds wonderful when they are true to themselves.

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I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!

Michael W. Smith can't sing without hurting someone Back in the 1980s I listened to pop music just as much as any other teen. My favorite singers included Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer. I also developed a blacklist of songs and singers that just sounded wrong to me. Back then, I probably dismissed the offender with a casual, "Eew! I just hate that song!" and turned the dial. Now I can see that my teen ears were often just reacting to some very bad vocal technique. Here, a few of the few songs I couldn't stand when they first came out, and the vocal reasons why. The awful videos are just a bonus!

Place In This World: Michael W. Smith was a very popular Christian artist in the 1980s and 1990s and this was a crossover hit for him. Listen to that raspiness, especially on the choruses. This sound is the vocal equivalent of a three-day beard -- it could be totally on purpose, or just a lack of (vocal) hygiene. He pronounces place as "pleece" because if he sang "place" he'd never hit the pitch. Try and do it yourself. Once.

Madonna has Lived To Tell

Live To Tell, Madonna: Her first hit, "Borderline," featured a very bright, nasal voice and a light timbre -- so light, I could sing it easily and often did, and I really liked her for that reason. That, and the neon heels with socks. In this song, the melody is about an octave lower and Madonna is singing with a very dark, covered, almost swallowed sound. She's also trying to carry her chest voice higher and is straining to do so. At the slumber party we could all sing "Borderline" with a brush for a microphone, but no one wanted to sing "Live To Tell." I heard her sing it live on a concert video few years back, and she has improved. Keep up the lessons, Madonna, you may get somewhere!

Keep On Loving You, REO Speedwagon: I've hated this song "fereverrr." Every choir teacher on earth begs their singers to drop the final 'r's in words, because if you sing an 'r,' it sounds like nerdy and immature and sort of like .  . . . Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.

Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle: Vibrato tighter than her jeans. (But very cool eyeliner.) A too-fast vibrato can be an indication of vocal tension, or inadequate breath support. Carlisle's veers very close to tremolo, which sounds almost like a vocal tremble. At least it does to my ears. She sang that way when she fronted the Go-Gos too, but she sang in a higher range then. As a solo artist, she sang in lower keys and the fast vibrato was more noticeable to me.

Oh, there are more. And you have your own vocal transgressors to accuse. Tell me what you hate, and I'll tell you . . why.

 

Warmups for Choirs

Let's make this go viral, but not Ebola viral My latest contribution to cyberspace: A video of warmups for the singers of The Chorus Of Westerly. Director Andrew Howell asked me to record some warmups that singers could do every day at home (I'm the vocal coach for the Chorus). I suggested that a picture is worth a thousand arpeggios.

We tried to include a cross-section of exercises to suit the needs of the majority of our singers, who range in age from 8 to 80. So we stretched, we yawned, we made whale sounds, we wailed sirens, and we did some breathing exercises. You can do 'em too! Go ahead! Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.00.07 AM

At the Chorus, I've been able to hear about 20 or 30 of the individual singers over the past couple of years. Some have come for voice lessons or for voice class, or I've just been sitting near them in rehearsal. But most of the voices are known to me only as part of a group. I still have to figure out how to help them sing better. One-on-one vocal instruction can lead to rapid results because you can zone in on individual quirks and abilities. How do you improve the vocal technique of multiple singers at the same time? A choir director can demonstrate and then ask for an "oo" vowel, but every singer will take that direction a little differently. One chorister will sing "oo" with little change in the vocal tract, while the one right next door might sing an "oo" that sounds like an "oh," with some  "uh," and "eeew" in there too. Each "oo" will be different because the person, like the voice, is unique, and the producer is too close to the sound to really hear what it sounds like. Each voice carries a lifetime of singing shoulds and shouldn'ts, unbroken bad habits, and (often) some overdone good habits. How do you get one person to brighten their "uh" to an "eeh" to wind up on "ooh" while the person right next to them needs to darken their nasal "eeew" with more "uh"? And then do that with, say, an additional 138 singers?

Yawn if you love the Chorus of Westerly

One of my solutions is asking everyone to make some extreme sounds, to increase flexibility and show a singer what's vocally possible in their own throat. Everyone, make "ee" so bright it needs sunglasses. Spread your lips, grin like a Cheshire Cat, and say "ee." Okay, that's bright! Feel the position of your tongue when you make that "ee." Now, make a dark, woofy "ugh" in the very back of the throat, like a monster on Halloween. Notice the difference. I mug, I grimace, I make very weird sounds and cheer every singer who's brave enough to do it with me. Most find it very freeing and fun. You're watching this on your computer? TRY IT! 

Every singer should safely explore the limits of their instrument, individually or in a group. We get used to singing vowels in certain ways, we get used to hearing ourselves sing the same way, and we begin to lose flexibility. Sirens and wails and extreme sounds can help any singer find new colors and new vocal possibilities. Singers might also rethink where their voice is, in relation to those extremes. And they might be a little more willing to make small changes or adjustments. 

Want me to come do whale sounds with your choir? Just ask! 

 

 

Boo-Boo Kitty, 2005-

Boo-Boo, where are you? What to do if your cat goes missing, as Boo-Boo Kitty did on June 25.

TO DO: 1. Go ahead, panic. WHERE IS HE?? WHAT HAPPENED? Boo-Boo Kitty was a homebody who came and went as he pleased, never traveling more than a quarter mile from the house. Oen afternoon he just took off like shot, like he was heading toward something. He never came back. That's not like him at all.

2. It easily could have been you who let the cat go out, and you've already forgiven him, but be a little angry at the guilty-looking husband who was so busy working that he didn't realize Boo-Boo had been missing for over 24 hours. He just assumed that he came inside at night and went to sleep. You drove 15 hours (it should have taken 12) from Columbus Ohio, walked in the door, and immediately realized the cat was missing. Start searching and calling together in the dark, to no avail. (Husband keeps up the search even when you are thousands of miles away in Europe. He's a keeper.)

3. Scour missing pet websites, including www.missingpetpartnership.org. List your pet as "missing" with RI Lost Pets, Craigslist, and other online groups. Bring posters to the local shelters and veterinarian offices. Try not to notice how many other pets are missing, too.

4. Don't shake your fist at karma too hard when you think of how you spent a vacation's worth of savings on your cat's teeth only two weeks prior to his disappearance. You rationalized, "Hey, he's only nine years old, he's going to be around for another ten years at least, let's make him comfortable." Be glad that even though he has far fewer teeth Out There On His Own, at least you know he has his shots, and he always did like to gum the grass.

IMG_89755. Make eye-catching signs for the neighborhood telephone poles. Cut sheets of neon poster board in half to double your supply. Include basic information only: "LOST CAT, GREY/WHITE TABBY, CALL ME." Use plastic sheet protectors to keep your color photo looking nice for weeks on end, even though you devoutly hope the posters will be coming down in a few days, when you find him. Be sad but glad, weeks later, that the posters are still up and still looking good. Glad but sad.

6. Hang the posters at major intersections in your community, and be amazed and relieved that no one rips them down. Instead, all the walkers and joggers and bikers stop, read, and they start calling. It's high summer and there are many, many people around to help look. Feel hopeful.

7. Hand out little flyers to all neighbors in a half mile radius. ALL of them. Accept their sympathy while trying to get access to their garages, sheds and backyards so you can conduct a thorough search. Keep flyers in a Ziploc bag with a pen, so you can add a personal message like "Spotted near your driveway on 7/14, please keep a look out."

8. Talk to the lady down the street who feeds ferals. Five of her seven ferals went missing about a month ago. She saw the coyote take one of them in his mouth. Also discover there is a chicken coop not too far away from your house and the coyote likes to park there and shop for dinner. Be sobered by this information, but also realize that there are several other cats who walk about the neighborhood completely unmolested. It's luck, it's chance, and it's also geography.

9. Make your sleepless nights productive. When you awaken at 3am worried about your cat, put on your shoes and go out with a flashlight and softly call him. Hope that your neighbors are sleeping soundly. Flash the light into closed garage windows and sheds, hoping but also not hoping to find him or hear him trapped there after three weeks of being missing. Cats can survive that long but you hate to think of the suffering.

Crazy Cat Lady In the Vintage Bathing Suit At The Independence Day Parade

10. Leave your family's holiday early because you are heartbroken and anxious about your missing cat. You got a possible lead the moment you arrived at their home, six hours away from yours. Go home and keep searching after the lead turns out to be false. At the Independence Day Parade in your neighborhood, hand out more Lost Cat flyers while wearing a vintage bathing suit because this year's theme is "Living History." Own the title of Crazy Cat Lady.

11. Begin a desperate search for ways to keep your two remaining cats safe. Invest in an indiegogo scheme that will build GPS pet collars trackable on an iPhone. Get your Invisible Fence fixed but balk at training Cecilia the Huntress Cat to stay inside it. Instead, buy the Loc8or, a kind of LoJack for cats, and put the little radio units on your cats' collars. Be happily amazed at how well they work. Teach everyone in the family how to locate Lou-Lou and Cecilia with the little monitor, that beeps faster and louder when you get closer to the cat or the cat gets closer to you. Play this game of feline Marco Polo every night at dusk. It now takes you five minutes to locate Cecilia in the back yard, or one street beyond. If it took any longer you would be immediately alerted to trouble. And now you know Cecilia gets around so much she should have a passport.

12. Hire Marge the Missing Pet Detective to bring her dogs to your yard, to see if they can pick up a cat scent. Try not to be too elated to have the help and support, and try not to be too discouraged when they don't lead you straight to your pet after three outings. The process itself is very interesting, even if you don't get the result you want.

13. Deploy wildlife trail cameras (on loan from Marge the awesome pet detective) in your yard. Put out a Kitty Buffet of smelly mackerel, cat food, and dry dog food to attract diners to the camera. Do this so many times, you can do it by feel and not even need a flashlight. In the morning, see that the plates are empty. Bring your laptop and check the SD card from the camera. See raccoons, possums, birds eating your food . . .and a few cats you've never seen before. But not Boo-Boo.  MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

14. After several weeks of not seeing any cats in your own yard, convince neighbors and vacant home caretakers to let you put trail cameras in their backyards. Check them daily. When you get no hits after a few days, find new neighbors to beg.

15. Leave used kitty litter at the lawn's edge; they'll smell their way back.

16. Put a can of tuna in a crock pot with water. Heat it up. Load it into a spray bottle and spray it on trees and shrubs near your home, hoping the smell will lure your cat home. (This even impressed Marge.)

17. When you find cats on camera, prepare humane traps and hope to catch them -- maybe catch your own. Trap two giant ferals within 12 hours . .but release them when you realize it's a Saturday night and you have nowhere to send them to be neutered. Damn, damn, damn.

Pharrell the Big Mean Feral. He looked . .Happy . . when I released him.

18. Follow up every lead. Try not to be too elated when a caller insists they saw your cat. Text them a photo of your cat to confirm. Try not to be too agitated when they don't call back right away, and then you have to call them after waiting an hour to find out that, "no, I guess it wasn't him, so I didn't call you." They weren't even going to bother calling back; that's the part that hurts. Don't they know you are sitting on tenterhooks waiting for their response, while they think they're making it easier on you by just ignoring you? What do they think you are doing, thinking about something else? Learn to send out more than one photo -- send out three photos, like a kitty lineup, and see which one they choose. It makes it a little more likely they'll call back.

19. Start a Facebook page called "Cats Of Quonnie" to keep track of all cat sightings, and to keep people looking. Upload videos from your trail cameras, which are really kind of entertaining. Give the feral cats cool names like Kanye, Pharrell, Greystoke, and Christian Grey (he had many different shades of, well, you know). Upload photos of every cat you can find in your neighborhood, so when people call and swear they found your cat, you can direct them to the Facebook page where they will either exclaim, 1. "I really did see your cat" or 2. "Oh, I guess it was that one who lives down the street, sorry." Two other local cats are now missing. Add them to your page.

20. Practice your calm demeanor when someone casually mentions, "You know, my neighbor found some kind of small animal intestines on her front lawn a month ago, that same place where we thought we saw your cat. But she didn't call you about it because she didn't want to upset you." You're not upset about a dead animal's intestines; you're upset because you're thinking this ordeal could have been over a month ago if someone had bothered to pick up the phone. Your phone number is all over the telephone poles in the neighborhood. Swear to yourself that you will never do that to anyone else, out of fear of upsetting them.

21. Go to that house and check out the property anyway. Find no evidence of fur or anything that would suggest a coyote kill. There are coyotes and fisher cats in the area, but there are also many places to hide, and you've had potential sightings (even though nothing has panned out). Be aware that lack of despair is not the same as hope.

22. Feel tremendous sympathy when your neighbor's cat suddenly goes missing four weeks after yours. Share your advice, your kitty buffet, and your cameras.

23. Let your heart race four days later, when you get a solemn call from a friend two blocks away. She has found part of a cat in her backyard. The landscape crew was mowing her lawn and blowing away the freshly cut grass when they noticed fur in the air. They remembered your signs and they told the homeowner. Shake as you drive to her house. Follow the bits of grey fur -- a sure sign of a coyote kill -- until you come upon the remains of a cat -- a tail and a leg, nothing else. Scrutinize it carefully and realize it's not your cat. Gently take the remains to your neighbor's house, and hug her as she identifies them as her missing cat. Be sad for both of you. Her ordeal is over; yours isn't.

24. Acknowledge that Boo-Boo could have met the same fate. Keep looking for evidence of death, as well as life.

25. As weeks turn into months, and the sightings are further apart and each trail goes cold, begin to face it as much as you dare. You worked so hard, you did everything you could. Your neighbors are amazed and slightly appalled at your tenacity. You attracted every cat in the area, except him. The sightings could have been him, or could have been Greystoke, a feral cat who had some similar markings. Boo-Boo could be eating plates of wet food and purring into the neck of someone only a few miles away, or he could have died the night he went missing. You will probably never know for certain, but more than likely it's the latter. You never had control over any of this. If he returns home, it will be a miracle that will be shared on the missing pet blogs for years. But you don't expect a miracle anymore.

26. Return the traps and the cameras to Marge the pet detective. Start to take down the signs in the neighborhood. It's very hard to do this so you do one at a time, every few days. Keep one trail camera for yourself, just in case, and because it is still kind of interesting to see the wildlife in your own yard.  You hear that some vacationers adopt a cat for the season, then take off in the fall, leaving the cat to fend for itself (horrible). Maybe you can catch these homeless cats on the camera and start a feeding station. Maybe Boo-Boo strayed that far and he'll show up there. Maybe you can still salvage this experience.

I miss our not talking together.

27. Be always grateful you were never conducting a desperate search for your missing child.

28.  Be satisfied that you were able to dispel many misconceptions about missing pets; it might help the next grieving owner. So much of the folk wisdom is dead wrong and it reduces the chances of cats coming home. FACTS: Even confident cats can become scared when they are out of territory, even just a few feet. . . . Even friendly, social cats can appear feral when they're trapped, which can lead to them being euthanized in a shelter instead of being reunited with an owner. . . . Lost cats will not come when called, at all; they shut down into survival mode even if their beloved owner is three feet away with food in hand and calling for hours. It can take a week or longer for these cats to break cover and move. . . Cats who show no signs of ill health or age do not just go off into the woods, "fixin' to die". . . .Cats do not just decide they want to live somewhere else and take off like hobos; they will warn you first by detaching, and by disappearing for a short time. And all of this applies to dogs, too. They are creatures of habit.

Boo-Boo in his usual spot. I miss hearing him.

28. Cats who are one Pounce short of a can, cats who started life rough in the barn and were grateful to live in a warm house, cats who were declawed as kittens and didn't have great hunting skills, cats who sleep all day behind your back, cats who are first in line for the crunches, cats who look for chances to purr into your neck -- they do not just run away. They are missing, they are lost, they are gone. You can do a lot of things to help bring them home. One of them may work. All of them may work. Or not.

29. You have used your hard-won knowledge to help others. It just couldn't help Boo-Boo. Be sad about that for as long as you need to be.

30. Admit that the girl cats are not exactly crying into their Meow Mix about Boo-Boo's absence. They get more food when they want it, the litter box is a lot cleaner, and both of them have become more social with the rest of the family. Boo-Boo hogged the spotlight, like Rebel before him. But you miss that wonderful, quirky male feline adulation. You are already cruising the PetFinder website, looking to save a cat from a shelter. You just want to save something. 

IMG_2342 IMG_3914 IMG_3004

31. Oh, how you wanted to end this post with a little update saying Boo-Boo had been found and was purring contentedly behind your back as you were writing. Maybe that's why you didn't blog for three months. You were hoping to write a happy ending. Good night dear Boo-Boo, and sleep well, wherever you are . . .

 

 

 

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