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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 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.

 

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.

 

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