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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."

 

 

 

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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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! 

 

 

My Sunken Chest

All of my voice students spend part of each lesson warming up the head voice register and the chest voice register. I learned this as part of my Somatic VoiceWork training. It's not optional, it's mandatory. A strong, flexible voice includes a healthy head voice (think of angelic high "ooh" sounds) and a healthy chest voice (think of Santa saying a deep "Ho Ho Ho."). Relying on one register while disregarding the other is a recipe for frustration. I know, because for the first decades of my life, that's exactly what I did. I took traditional classical voice lessons from the age of 13, and I developed a great stratospheric head voice -- my natural range and easy for me to use. But, whenever the melody descended towards middle C, it got difficult for me. I noticed it when I sang solos and when I sang in my school choir. I just couldn’t figure out how to move from head voice to chest, let alone how to get back up. I carried my head voice down too far, and ended up with a tiny breathy low sound at the bottom of the staff. No one talked about it with me when they heard it, and I didn't know enough to ask.

I was taking voice lessons with Professor Hickfang, who was a great classical teacher. But I didn’t have a clue about registers, what they were for, or how anyone actually sang anything. If any teacher gave me advice about it, I forgot it instantly. I just knew I was great at high notes and lousy at singing in chest voice and I could never unite the two. When it was a matter of musical life or death and I had to be heard, I would shout and squeeze out the lowest notes in my chest voice. It didn't feel good, and it was more difficult for me to reclaim my head voice afterwards. Like anyone else with one overdeveloped range and one underdeveloped range, I had a noticeable break. I knew my chest voice and head voice were as different as Jekyll and Hyde, and it embarrassed me. So, I gravitated to songs that showcased my high range. I embraced opera and 1940s and 1950s girl singer repertoire. George Gershwin's "Summertime" -- in the original key -- was my jam! I loved Eydie Gorme and Peggy Lee, crooners who exhaled into the microphone, did not push or strain in chest register, and rarely ascended to head voice. The chanteuse Sade had a breathy dominant chest register, a big break, and an even weaker head voice. Ironically, that made it easier for me to imitate her so I became a big Sade fan.

UnknownIn the absence of any instruction to the contrary, I convinced myself that I couldn't sing notes below a certain pitch. I might as well have admitted that I couldn’t turn left. 

I spent a frustrating year in Shillelagh, my high school's show choir. I had auditioned as a singer, but my break and breathy low range was obvious. Then I made the mistake of showing our teacher Mr. Reardon that I could play keyboards, so naturally I became the keyboard player. I watched the backs of all the beautiful girls as they sashayed through each show, doing jazz squares in sparkly red leotards and black wrap skirts. Meanwhile, I was hidden behind the Yamaha DX-7, playing the accompaniment to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and "We Got The Power," keeping my mouth shut. I loved trying out new sounds on the keyboard and jamming with the rest of my bandmates, and I loved getting out of class to play for the Christmas parties of local businesses. But I wished I could sing with them, and sing like them.

Mr. Reardon was a fan of vocal jazz, so Shillelagh performed a lot of songs originally recorded by The Manhattan Transfer. All the performing girls were invited to audition for a short alto solo in "Birdland". I begged to be allowed to try out, too, and after a lot of pleading, Mr. Reardon relented. I memorized Janis Siegel’s rendition, all expertly mixed head and chest. I thought I had done an okay job of blending the break between my registers, and making some chest sounds when required. I sang the solo, hands shaking with nerves, and I looked and sounded just like a 15 year old opera singer with an undeveloped chest voice. And so I played the keyboards for "Birdland".

Finally, I got to perform a solo on one of Shillelagh's final concerts of the year. I loved a torch song by Julie London (another breathy chesty singer), called Cry Me A River. But there was no way I could sing those low notes, even with a lot of breathiness and a microphone. So I rearranged the song to make it easy for another pianist to play, and transposed it six keys higher. (SIX keys higher??? *Smacks forehead*)

I took music theory the following year, sang Soprano 1 in choir, and someone else played the DX-7. I played Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (an alto role!) who never really sang high notes and didn't have to sing beautifully in her lower range, either. I just emitted some chest voice sounds and left it at that. It could have been a golden opportunity for me to start learning how to balance my registers. Instead, I learned how to square dance.

It took me another twenty years to finally learn how to strengthen my chest voice so I could blend my registers and make all kinds of mixes, including a belt sound. Right after I learned to belt, I got an unexpected promotion from keyboard player to solo performer . . . more later.

The "Babbino" Bunch

The small and lovely Salt Marsh Opera will present Puccini's comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi on May 16 at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT. You should go see it! The gorgeous aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" was written for this work, which premiered in 1918. You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don't even have to show ID.

You've heard that song, right? Such a beautiful, simple yet elegant melody. Lush, emotional strings support the singer throughout. It's easy to dress it up with a few tasteful portamenti, and a fermata here and there. It's been used in commercials and in the opening credits of the movie of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. My favorite version is by Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice is rich and round, just perfect for this aria. Feel free to disagree, my eight blog readers. But I'm right. Anna Netrebko's pretty great, too. Kathleen Battle's voice is smaller (like mine) and her mouth does weird stuff (a source of much discussion among voice teachers), but it's a heartfelt, artistic statement.

The English translation is "Oh, My Beloved Daddy." Gianni Schicchi's daughter Lauretta is begging her father to let her marry Mr. Right. "O Mio Babbino Caro" was the second aria my voice teacher Prof. Hickfang ever gave me, and I loved it instantly. What soprano wouldn't? All those octave leaps from A flat to A flat, all those delicious long notes practically sighing off the page, all those threats of suicide if Daddy won't let her get married! I think my teacher assigned me the aria so I could work on my Italian diction, and get an introduction to grand opera style. The A flats were easy for me to sing. Of course my baby diva voice didn't have the fullness or richness of an actual Lauretta onstage. I sighed with despair when I heard Te Kanawa's version, figuring I'd never sound even half as good or half as loud. I never actually performed it or used it for an audition in high school or college; I was no Lauretta and it was just a study aria for me. (The first aria Prof. Hickfang assigned me was "The Black Swan" from Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, an aria I never really liked from an opera I never really understood. Feel free to agree.)

Through the glories of YouTube I found a "Babbino" by Maria Callas, using an amazing amount of chest voice, as she was wont to do. La Divina can get away with it. If the desperate maiden is pushing 50, chest voice is appropriate and adds a certain note of verismo.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

It's trickier if the maiden is 9. "O Mio Babbino Caro" is now a staple for the Infant Diva who wants to audition for talent shows, but can't belt. (Dear Lord, it's like all talent shows are down to two acts: "Let It Go" and "O Mio Babbino Caro"!) The attractions of the aria remain the same: High notes, easy Italian, quick song. But most of the baby divas I've heard sing it on YouTube try to imitate Te Kanawa and other adult women in all the wrong ways -- they add chest voice to be able to hit the low notes, bunch up their tongues in the backs of their mouths, move their bent arms stiffly like mannequins, and add wobbly vibrato to try to sound more grown up. Some hear "The Voice Of An Angel" who is blooming early like an azalea; I hear a singer whose career will be over before she can drive.

Vocalists who have learned to sing without constriction and distortion will eclipse them. The only exception to this rule is Sarah Brightman, who commits all these vocal crimes and still seems to be able to put food on the table. I can't explain Sarah. I can't explain why the dinosaurs died, either, but as with Sarah's approach to Puccini, it was tragic.

I believe this is the fate that awaits Jackie Evancho, who sang the song she called 'O Mio Poppino Caro' on TV as a fourth grader. It might come even more swiftly for Amira Willinghagen, Holland's strangle-throated answer to Jackie, who was America's answer to Charlotte Church, who was England's answer to Deanna Durbin, who was singing the heroic tenor aria "Nessun Dorma" in English at age 22, on film. At least Deanna sang the hell out of it, and was wearing something larger than a training bra. She also had the good sense to retire in her mid-20s and live on as a legend until her death last year.

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

I've actually coached a nine year old who chose "O Mio Babbino Caro" for -- of course -- a talent show. Like Jackie, she had no idea where the song came from, who was actually singing it in the opera, or how old that character was. She had heard lots of versions of the aria on YouTube and was imitating Jackie's bad traits, and internalizing them. So, I did some reprogramming. I insisted on natural vibrato only, and only very light chest voice on the lowest notes. I kept encouraging a light, age-appropriate head voice and an unaffected presentation. She won second place.

I'm looking forward to Salt Marsh Opera's production, and enjoying the aria in context. I admit, there's something about Puccini that brings out the opera singer in everyone, and sometimes they just can't be stopped. Here, the maiden looks a lot like Chris Tucker and sings a perfectly fine amateur countertenor.

Oh gosh, that was funny. I loved the predictably fatuous pronouncements by the judges. I loved the ending. I loved that it was over.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Something or Otter

Balance your registers, singers! A story from a recent lesson: She is 10. To emulate her favorite country singer, she pinches her throat, squeezes her lips tightly, and tries to carry her chest voice so high she ends up yelling. She looks like she's in pain. She has no idea she is doing this. But her mother knows that something is wrong with the way she is singing, and that is how she ended up in my studio a few months ago.

I know she needs to find a head voice -- the lighter sound you hear in higher pitches. I know from my Somatic VoiceWork training that she has spent too much time in her chest range, like many tweens who listen to Top 40. Her voice is like a barbell with a 100-pound weight on one end only, and nothing on the other. She needs to balance her voice by strengthening her head register. If she does, she will suddenly have another octave or more of notes to work with, and she'll be able to sing with comfort and ease. In short, she'll be lifting evenly and with power everywhere. If she doesn't strengthen her head register, she will severely hobble her vocal range and become one of those singers who say at age 12, "I'm more of an alto."

To access her head register, we make angel sounds on "ooo", and emit whoops and sighs. Some singers can find head voice while singing traditional vocal exercises, but many singers just continue to tense up on anything that sounds like music. So, we take out melody and rhythm and just make a bunch of weird sounds. It's hard to tense up if you're whooping and sighing, and that's the whole point. Then we add melody and rhythm back in, slowly.

She still strains her neck muscles and pulls her mouth into a rhombus shape to reach higher notes, even on an "oo," which means she's not really accessing her head register at all. We push air into our cheeks and say "poom!" in a light siren-y wail as the air spills out, and she laughs and calls it "chipmunk sound." And there is her head voice, light and clear and easy. She has learned to identify it when she feels it (that is a major accomplishment in itself), but she doesn't think she should use it to sing, so at every lesson I have to sell its benefits to her again and hope that she'll buy. In her very limited singing and listening career, she has decided that she must sing chest in order to be heard and in order to be stylistically "correct." Every time she starts to sing, she defaults back to her pained chest sound. She's much more familiar with that and it feels easier just because she's done it more. She has no idea that her idols don't sing that way.

Chipmunk cheeks = Good. (Getty Images)

This is when singing lessons become more like therapy sessions. Somehow I have to convince this sweet girl that it's all right to sing with a mix of chest and head registers. She has to identify what those sounds sound like to her, learn how to make them at different pitches, and then analyze her current singing and deduce which register she is using when (chest, 98% of the time, but I can't just tell her, she has to figure it out, too). And then, she has to consciously decide that she wants to change her register because she knows it will sound better. All this, while singing pitches and forming words and looking like an engaged performer.

I imitate her chest voice technique so she can see how bad it looks and sounds. I have her look in the mirror so she can see how she grimaces to make a chest sound. "Should you have to grit your teeth and stretch your lips tight, to sound like your idol?" I ask. I pull up a clip of her idol on YouTube. "Does your idol look like she's being poisoned when she sings?" My student admits that, no, she doesn't. "Well, you do," I say bluntly. "You shouldn't have to work so hard to sing."

"But I don't want to sound like a chipmunk all the time!" she protests. Aha. There it is. She is worried that if she gives up the only kind of singing she knows how to do, she will sound so different as to be unrecognizable. I hear this all the time. It is very scary to be asked to renounce your vocal identity, to be told it is necessary to explore and embrace something that feels so foreign. It never works to say, "this is how you must do it." With adults and teenagers, I compare it to real estate. I say, "You aren't selling your house, you're just buying the lot next door and getting ready to expand." Explained this way, most singers are then willing to try some different sounds, knowing that I am not going to ask them to give up their previous sound -- only add on to it. They can keep their "old" voice and add on some "new" parts, eventually integrating them into a whole. But how to explain it to this sweet, scared girl?

Don't sing like the otter girls. (grrrooooooaaaaaann) (Getty Images)

I decide to see if she can explain it to herself. "Let's make some high squeaky chipmunk sounds again," I say. She is still having difficulty, so I grab a wooden tongue depressor and have her place it on her tongue, to feel how it rises and falls. "Do you feel how your tongue goes way up when you are singing higher?" She nods. "Can you keep it from going waaaaaay up, just let it go up a little?" She does. "It feels bigger in my throat," she reports. "And easier." Then we make some chipmunk sounds at lower pitches. "It's not quite the same, is it?" I say. "No, it's not," she reports. "It feels different. It feels lower in my face." We're getting somewhere. "What would you call it, then?" She smiles and takes out the tongue depressor for a moment. "That's a squirrel sound!" she says. "Okay!" I say. "Can you go between squirrel and chipmunk?" And suddenly she is swooping from her highest pitches to the middle of her range, darting down into her chest range and then soaring back up again. I know this means her larynx is moving freely. The tongue depressor is keeping everything in check. I can see her lips are active but not terribly tense. "Do you notice how strong and loud you are?" I ask. She nods vigorously.

Then we make some chest sounds with the tongue depressor in, just for contrast. The sounds are a little lighter now, since she has been spending time in her head register. "What should we call those?" I ask. "Otter!" she says gleefully. She darts between otter sounds, chipmunk sounds, and squirrel sounds. She is a virtual menagerie. If I wanted to bring all this vocal development to a screeching halt, I would just ask her to sing a five note scale. She would sing every note in her chest range, then squeak out a few pained high notes and tell me she doesn't like singing "high" and we would be back to square one. Instead, I suggest something. "Can you sing part of your song in chipmunk and squirrel voice, even with that tongue depressor in? No words, just chipmunk and squirrelly "ooh"s and "ee"s?" She considers my strange request, and then says, "Sure!" Out comes the melody, plus a bunch of other random notes, but they are light and free. "Was that totally squirrel and chipmunk, or did you also sing a little otter?" I asked, knowing the answer." She is thoughtful. "I think it was mostly squirrel and chipmunk. Maybe a little otter."

"I think you're exactly right," I respond, thinking that Miss Berlin at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory Of Music never taught me the Otter Method of Vocal Pedagogy With Tongue Depressor. "Oh yeah, it's like so much easier to sing in chipmunk and squirrel. Totally," she says.

"Now, try a little of the words, but you're still feeling that squirrel-chipmunk feeling, with a little otter on the lowest notes," I say. "With the tongue depressor still in?" she asks, incredulously. "Yep, with it in," I say. "Let's go really slow to give your mouth a chance to get it all together." We sing a dirge-tempo version of the melody. It doesn't work for every note, but it works enough that she is grinning at the end of the song. And her mother, who has been watching, raises her eyebrows in happy approval.

"I don't know how you are getting that sound, but it sounds great, honey!" Mom says. "Now, how am I going to get her to do this at home?" I hand Mom a tongue depressor so we can all feel what our tongues are doing. This makes Sweet Tween giggle even more. "Now make otter sounds, Mom!"

The lesson is over. She has accomplished so much in 60 minutes, and I tell her so. She sings a little bit of the melody, then stops herself. "That was my old voice," she says. "I'm going to sing it with my new voice." From experience, I know that the next time I see her she will sing with her old voice. She will probably start in her chest register. She will need to be reminded of what her head register sounds like and how to get there. But, she has made a great start. She has three animals for reference. She has tongue depressors to help her feel the action of her tongue, and she has a mirror for observation. Best of all, she has a willingness to change, because now she knows it will sound better.

 

Simple Dreams

The great American singer, Linda Ronstadt: The Lovely Linda

Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 1: 

Dorky/adorkable Zooey Deschanel, often compared with Linda Ronstadt. (www.cheezburger.com)

 

 Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 2: 

The dorky sophomore Eden, about to sing from the Great American Songbook at the high school talent show, 1985

While I was learning how to ride a bike, Linda was enjoying a multiplatinum rock career and dating Gov. Moonbeam. She had even sung operetta on Broadway to good reviews, around the time I convinced my mom to let me get my ears pierced. I memorized "Blue Bayou" because my dad played it over and over on the 8-track in his Lincoln Continental. Occasionally I'd try to sing like her. I got kind of good at "Silver Threads And Golden Needles."

The Lovely Linda, singing a standard from the Great American Songbook, 1985

And one night, while I was asleep with Clearasil on my face, Linda appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in a vintage dress, singing "I've Got A Crush On You" supported by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Some viewers thought it was an elaborate joke -- a rock singer, crooning a Gershwin ballad from 1928? But it wasn't a joke, it was a revelation. No other rock singer had so successfully crossed such a wide musical divide. (If this music is all new to you, watch this wonderful concert from beginning to end, just like I did for most of 1984! Thanks early HBO!) Ronstadt's three albums with the legendary Riddle -- "What's New?," "Lush Life", and "For Sentimental Reasons" were all surprise hits, and resulted in the following life-changing occurrences for a teenager living in Dublin, Ohio:

1. I was introduced to Frank Sinatra. Before Linda, I thought he was just the guy who sang "New York, New York." I rooted through my parents' old LPs to find more versions of the songs I first heard on Linda's albums, and discovered the genius of Sinatra (who had worked with Riddle), Julie London, Keely Smith, and Peggy Lee.  Sinatra's Where Are You? is the finest suicidally lovesick album you will ever hear. 

2. I discovered fake books. They're everywhere now, but in the mid 20th century fake books were illegal due to copyright restrictions. I had never seen one until my dad, intrigued by my interest in the "oldies" in the age of Madonna, dug into a box in his closet and produced several thick notebooks of yellowing lead sheets. He described buying them 'under the counter' at a music store in the 1950s. He played piano and organ in bars and restaurants to make money during his college years, and used the books to take requests and lead sing-alongs. I tore through them, learning novelty songs, ballads, and tunes from the Great American Songbook. I also learned that having music in a singable key is really important and most fake books totally fail in this regard, legal or illegal.

3. I learned to read lead sheets. Thanks to the sketchy, incomplete music in the fake books, I learned how to read chord symbols for the first time. My musical reading began to pick up speed, and I found a reason to stick with piano lessons. 

4. I learned I am not very good at arranging a tune. Riddle's masterful arrangements (he died before the last album was completed) were published as piano/vocal songbooks; I still have them and still use them. That dorky photo from the talent show?  Ronstadt had sung My Funny Valentine supported by a string quartet arranged by Riddle. I re-arranged it for three clarinets. Because my fellow sophomores Terri, Missy and Shelly were all good clarinet players and agreed to serve as my musical guinea pigs, that's why. They endured one Saturday afternoon rehearsal as I wrote and re-wrote. This was before Sibelius and Finale! It went so well I sang "I Only Have Eyes For You" instead, because the music was already in print and I had a pianist to play it. (And, now that I think of it, I sang it in the dorky key of C. Should have lowered it, but that was the key on the printed page. See No. 2.)

I just finished reading Simple Dreams, Linda's new musical memoir, and I eagerly read and re-read the few pages she devoted to her vocal technique! I hoped she would talk about how she did what she did, so I could pass on that wisdom to you, my eight blog readers. Well, she did, kind of. Linda was raised in a very musical home in Tucson but had no training for her pure rock singing. She always identified herself a soprano who sang rock and roll. But when she took on the role of ingenue soprano Mabel in a rock-tinged, mash-up version of The Pirates Of Penzance (a production and movie that spawned many other pop-style reboots of classical music), she knew she wasn't vocally prepared.

Linda as Mabel in "The Pirates Of Penzance," singing "Poor Wandering One" in the keys of her choice.

Linda: "Until I went to work in Pirates, I had never had any formal voice training. The show's vocal demands were considerable  . . ."The girls' chorus {was} belting high notes that had originally been written to be sung in the upper extension of the voice -- where an operatic soprano sings. It sounded funnier that way, and more like the contemporary pop style that Wilford Leach had envisioned for the show. Eight performances a week of belting high notes could have created serious vocal problems for the chorus. . ." 

Yes, Linda. Yes it could. I think your chirpy, high-pitched, head-dominant speaking voice actually helped to balance your chest-dominant singing voice for all those years and probably saved you from sounding like Yoko Ono. The music director of "Pirates" also lowered a lot of the keys for you (which you readily admit helped) so you could belt with gusto in the range you knew best.

"From all those years of screaming over a rock band, I had an overdeveloped belt range and an underdeveloped upper extension. [I hear it all the time, Linda! It ain't just you!]  . . . my high voice sounded more like a choirboy's than that of a grown-up lady opera singer. Rex [Smith, who played Frederic] and I, coming from rock backgrounds, had developed the unfortunate habit of muscling our way through difficult vocal territory and, for lack of a better word, yelling."

"Vocal coach to the stars" Marge Rivingston came to help Linda and the rest of the cast bring some balance to their belting, so they could survive eight shows a week, and they survived well enough to make a movie of the production. But the existence of the movie -- and its role in adding pop elements to opera -- means that almost everyone who sees (or produces) a live production of "Pirates" now expects to hear at least a little chest voice somewhere in the 2 1/2 hours. They don't realize the popera version has lower keys, shortened scenes, and rock instruments. They think that's the way it was originally written. It can make things . . .difficult.

Me as Mabel, trying to think of how to belt in original Gilbert and Sullivan keys

When I played Mabel a few years back, I knew I was expected to try to add a little Ronstadt somewhere, but soon I realized it was vocally impossible for me in the original keys, and we weren't going to be rewriting. It's only possible to belt "Go ye heroes, go and die!" if you're in a lower key, like she was. So, when I got to that scene, I did my best to act tough and belty, since my voice was going to have to stay right where it was, in head and mix range. Sorry. But, in honor of Linda, I transcribed her exact cadenza for the end of "Poor Wandering One", gave it to our flutist, and we performed it together for every show.

Linda's singing career ended several years ago due to the advancement of recently diagnosed Parkinson's Disease. This year she'll be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but she may not be able to travel to the ceremony. I'm glad I saw her perform live in the late 1990s, when her voice was as strong as ever. Oh, that voice! 

(Depending on how you look at it, you can also thank her or blame her for The Eagles.)

Positively Perfect Pitch

It's true. I have perfect pitch. I can look at a piece of music and hear it playing in my head, in the correct key. In rehearsal you don't have to play pitches for me, because I already know where to begin. If you play a B flat on the piano, I can tell you it's B flat without peeking. If a siren is wailing I can tell you what pitch it's on.  If we're listening to music, you can ask me what key they're playing in and  I will tell you and I will be right. You can test your pitch ability, too. (I just tried it. 12/12. I've still got it.)

 

Perfect Pitch. Still a dork.

We don't know for certain what causes perfect pitch, but it may have something to do with the area of the brain that processes language -- somehow my language and my listening may have been tied very close together, so I was able to label sounds with ease. There is also probably a genetic factor -- I come from a musical family. We're not the Bachs, but we are musical. I was sitting at the piano, playing melodies by ear, at age 4. (My teenage son has always had excellent pitch accuracy. He always sings a melody in the correct key, even when he has not been given a starting pitch. But, he can't accurately name pitches out of the blue. I wonder if that skill will improve as he gets older.)

When I was little, I thought that perfect (or absolute) pitch developed from taking piano lessons, which I started at age 5. My voice teacher, Prof. Paul Hickfang, was the first to "diagnose" me, when I was 13. We met for lessons on Saturday mornings, in the choir room of his church in Linworth, Ohio. He sat at the upright piano and I stood on the opposite side. I was learning "O Mio Babbino Caro" and we had stopped to go over a phrase. He played a piano key to indicate where I should continue singing, and I asked, "You mean on the A-flat?" He stopped and looked at me. "How did you know that was an A-flat?" I said, "It just is. Doesn't everyone know that?" He smiled slowly. "No, Eden, everyone doesn't know that. But my wife does." His wife Laura Lee also has perfect pitch. He played a few random notes all over the keyboard, and I named each one instantly.

It's been very helpful in choral situations. I can provide pitches for all parts faster than you can extract your pitch pipe from your pants pocket. I can labor mightily to keep my section from going flat, by my sheer pitch-itude. I can quietly help singers find their way out of the tough spots. But sometimes they're so flat, I just have to go with 'em. (I was a pitch bitch in my earlier years, bemoaning the effort of staying in tune as the rest of the section sagged. I hope I'm nicer now.)

Absolute pitch can sometimes be a bit aggravating. Transposing on sight is difficult for me, because I "hear" the music in one key while I'm trying to sing it in another. If I have the chance, I'll write in the letter names to make sure I don't start singing the "wrong" pitches. (My freshman roomie completed music theory homework while listening to jazz on the CD player, which astonished me; I had to have silence so I could accurately "hear" the music I was reading.) Once I know a piece, it's easier to transpose.

In high school music theory class, we had a test on melodic dictation -- it's like a spelling test for musicians. We were expected to listen to a melodic line and correctly write the music on staff paper. To be helpful, Dr. Keller told us the first note was a C. He played a cassette tape with several melodic examples, that were all supposed to start on C. But . . the cassette player's batteries were almost dead, so the tape was playing slow, and the first pitch was not a C, it was a B-flat. I knew it was a B-flat. I looked up, bewildered. How was I supposed to write what I was hearing when I knew I was hearing something different than what everyone else was hearing? I looked around the room. All the heads were bowed over the papers, but John Justice was looking up, too, and shaking his head. We nodded knowingly, then just shrugged and tried to figure out how to write what was expected, instead of what we were hearing. Perfect pitch pals.

Perfect pitch affects the way I teach music theory. I understand why scales are taught as a series of half and whole steps, and I understand why Guido d'Arezzo developed solfege, but I don't need either system to secure a pitch. I know they help everyone else more than they help me, so I use them and teach them. I can quickly identify intervals. I just know when a minor 7th is a minor 7th, but I have had to search for ways to explain this to a group of kids with regular ears.

Sometimes I think it would be fun to have "absolute car repair" or "absolute ultramarathon stamina" as a God-given gift. But I have perfect pitch, as did Mozart, Hendrix, Beethoven, Nat King Cole, and Chopin. Stevie Wonder has it too -- so that's how he finds his way around the keyboard!

Apparently some "absolutists" are so perfect, they can hear pitch in cycles per second. I can't do that, and I'm glad. I think that would be torture, to hear 20 violinists at 20 slightly different pitches.

By the way, Unforgettable is in F major. Watch the first 20 seconds of the clip, and you can tell that Cole just knows it.

 

 

 

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