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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.

 

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.)

Jamming with the Q Band

Once a year I get to jam with the neighborhood band, in my own back yard. They come to support my husband's fundraiser for Fred's Team, a charity that supports the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. We eat, we drink, and make noise. Our set list includes "Kansas City," "The Girl From Ipanema," "Route 66," "Oye Como Va," and anything else we can convince the rest of the band to try. We rehearse about four times a year and play a few local parties each summer. It is great fun. New window box, installed and planted about an hour before guests arrived, laden with Fred's Team colors!

 Here we are performing "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams, in the key of Patsy Cline. I think I look a little too serious here, but I was concentrating on playing the bass line, trying to fill piano riffs and singing lead. (Oh shut up, Eden. Elton John can do it, so can you. Bring me another White Pumpkin Russian and I will!)

Ron's running medals from previous marathons and halfs. So proud of him.

 

 

My Happy Apps

I am selective about my smartphone apps: No to Angry Birds or Tetris, yes to Couch to 5K. No to Minecraft, yes to Vine. I only keep apps that I really like and use frequently. These apps make me happy! My music apps. . . some of them

Pandora reminds me of the summer I sold actual physical CDs and cassettes at Camelot Music. We sat around the break room digging through the large cardboard box filled with free promotional cassettes and CDs (okay, only I did that). I scored Madonna's Immaculate Collection, which was a big deal at the time.

I'm always justifying looking for apps for music education. My hardworking ClearTune app helps singers (including moi) figure out how to make the small changes that lead to more accurate pitch, and it's a godsend for nervous new sight singers and pianists ("Was that an E flat? It wasn't? I could have sworn it was. Are you sure?").

Being from the Dark Ages, I learned music theory the traditional way, with workbooks and flashcards. Writing out the scales is always a good idea, but apps are great for drills on note names, intervals, and chords. I like Musicopoulos for straight theory and straightforward practice. If you don't have a smartphone, Theta Music Trainer is a good place to practice.

My perfect pitch made ear training very easy for me, but I have begun to recommend these two solid apps for musical mortals: PlayByEar asks you to sing or play back chords and melodies accurately. EarTrainer shows intervals being played on a piano keyboard.

Blob Chorus by Lumply

For sheer fun, the best ear training app is The Blob Chorus. Groups of blobs sing individual pitches, then a purple King Blob repeats one of the previous pitches. Match the blobs, and King Blob gets a crown. Get it wrong, your blob explodes! This is great for singers who are learning to hear their part inside a choir.

I have loved the public radio show Music From The Hearts Of Space since I was a teenage waitress at Elby's. The program aired on WCBE every Sunday night at 10pm as I drove home from the night shift, and I would keep listening as I changed out of my 100% polyester uniform and speed-read some Faulkner for the school week ahead. I use the show's app frequently and also listen to their online archive at www.hos.com

My senior high prom date turned me on to the SomaFM website years ago, as we exchanged one or two perfunctory emails to catch up and therefore avoid meeting up at reunions. He remembered my teenage love of Hearts of Space and recommended this. It was the last I heard of him but thanks, Dean, and I bet you have the app now too! SomaFM is a collection of 15 quirky, well-curated online stations (and that's the last time I will use "curate" in a post) ranging from NASA beeps and blips to bachelor pad jazz. I always wrap presents from Santa while listening to "Xmas in Frisko," their not-safe-for-children radio station.

I just downloaded the Inception app and . . woah. Wierd and wonderful to have music played according to your own movements! When I miss Michigan or DC, I listen to the local traffic report through my iHeart Radio app and then I'm glad I don't live there anymore. I also use a couple of lolofit apps, including the 7-minute workout and Jeff Galloway's Easy 10K. They always make me feel like an Olympian, no matter how infrequently l use them. I wish the 10K app had more variations in run-walk ratios. I don't see why I can't run for one minute and walk for ten, and still have Jeff tell me "great job!" in his Southern twang.

Running is slightly easier with this app

Even on the worst day, my Random Gratitude app asks me to think of something good and type it in. The best feature of this app is that it randomly scrolls through my previous posts, reminding me of so many wonderful little things that I might have otherwise forgotten.

So, what apps should I add to my collection?

 

Love . . . . and Roses (slightly delayed)

Note from Eden: YOU'RE STILL INVITED! Due to the snow, we've rescheduled our concert for FRIDAY FEB. 22 at 7pm. Same songs, same place, same time of evening, same free admission. Hope to see you there! You're invited to an evening of love songs, and nothing but love songs!

Friday, Feb. 8 at 7pm, at Calvary Church in Stonington CT. The beautiful and talented Jennifer Christina Holden will be at the piano . . . we have been rehearsing diligently, as you can see.

The program is all about the love, people. From the exuberant "Juliette's Waltz" from Gounod's Romeo Et Juliette, to Obradors' sensual "Del Cabello Mas Sutil" . . . from the tragic "La Maja Dolorosa" triptcych by Granados, to the soaring emotion of "Si Mes Vers Avaient Des Ailes" by Hahn. Many songs actually have "love" in the title -- no subtlety for us! We've included two bodice-ripping Benjamin Godard songs: "Amour! Amour!" and "Amour Fatal." It's like Fifty Shades of Grey, set to music. (Not that we've read it, mind you. What kind of girls do you think we are? If we did read it, it was strictly for research.) But it's in French so you can still bring your kids.

We'll wind up with some funny valentines from the English repertoire: "Love's Philosophy" by Quilter, "Amor" by William Bolcom, and . . . a bonbon or two. All's fair in love recitals.

Admission is free . . .bring a date!

 

 

Resolutions

Goals for 2013 I want to learn how to prepare a few more healthy foods. I always think it's going to take too long to make the good stuff, and I'm always surprised at how easy it is. I want to figure out how to make those Thai wrap up roll thingys with julienned carrots and peanut sauce. I always worry I'm going to rip the wrapper and wind up with salad all over the place.

I'd like to add some kind of decor to the white IKEA shelves in my office -- cheaply. I could paint the backs of the cases some hip color. What would Martha do?

Despite my continual reading of Color Me Beautiful in the 1980s, every once in a while I buy an item of clothing in brown. I tell myself that it's an alternative to ubiquitous black. I have loved ones who look great in brown, so I guess I figure that love will make me look good in brown. And so I put it on at home, and I look terrible and pale and sick in it, and I take it off and put it in the donations box. And I always recall this poem. It's time to say goodbye to brown clothing -- forever. Khaki, you're next.

Memorize as much of my Feb. 8 recital as possible. I'm working on this now and it's going pretty well. It really is harder to memorize when you're older!

I love teaching, and I love breaks from teaching just as much. Keep doing this.

Pray more and more and more . . . because prayer works.

Run a half marathon. Run a 10K. Run a 5K. Run. Or just tone up. Or just look like I've lost 10 pounds.

I'm writing a short children's musical about Saint Francis using music from his era. If I include every wonderful thing he ever did, it will be longer than The Ring Cycle. I have to turn in a draft by Ash Wednesday (Feb. 13), and a final by Easter (March 31). I have done a lot of research and collecting, but no writing.

I'm also writing "Quonnie: The Musical 3.0", but I won't even start that until June. That's an eternity away. Right? By then I'll have lost 10 pounds and run a half marathon.

I'd like to procrastinate a little less than my kids.

Restrict Facebook and other cyber time wasters. I turn to social media when I am bored or restless, when I should really be doing something else -- anything else. I use the Self-Control app to force myself to take a break. Occasionally I'll keep electronics off for a period of time. I'm always happier when I do, even if it's only half a day. It gets easier to do the more I do it. So, I'm going to do that more.

Say a long goodbye to my 20 year old cat Rebel, and have him make a peaceful trip over the Rainbow Bridge. He's holding his own now but I know it's coming. I cherish every cuddle.

Paint some landscapes. I aspire to be Winston Churchill. Paint some walls, too. And the garage doors.

Travel more. Last year I enjoyed short trips to New Orleans and Montreal. This year: Colorado? Key West? Graceland? India?

Plant ALL the flower bulbs before the frost. Even the ones you forgot in the garage.

Figure out that contact lens prescription once and for all, and write it down so I can find the right contact for the right eye. I think I keep mixing them up.

Plant a smaller vegetable garden, to make room for more flowers and trees.

Continue to celebrate the end of orthodontia payments, car payments, and house payments (ALMOST!). That process may take a year. I can live with that.

Be at peace.

Good singers act

Exhibit A: Ellen Greene performing "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors. I cringe as I listen to her, but I can't stop watching. She is heartbreaking to behold. Every note, gesture and expression delineate the character she's playing. She is Acting The Song. Exhibit B: This lovely young lady is singing "Somewhere That's Green," at her school talent show. She's blessed with a healthy voice that's pleasant to hear. She's dressed in a charming outfit just right for her age, and she's performing with poise and grace. She is singing, but she is not Acting The Song-- Thank God she's not!

Isn't singing a song more important than acting it? Good singing is the fruit of good acting. Good acting demands that a performer understand the history of a song and a show, its characters, plot, and lyrics. Good acting communicates physical and vocal cues that reveal and underline a character's thoughts and emotions - her voice. Good acting heightens high notes, deepens sighs, lengthens fermatas and expands rests. Good acting also makes vocal performances more believable, as singers discover aspects of themselves in the character. (Can a pubescent middle school Gleek successfully mine the emotional core of a downtrodden, centerfold-shaped floral shop worker who's being abused by her sadistic dentist boyfriend? Lord, I hope not.)

And yet, good acting is something that we barely have time to cover in voice lesson and rehearsal. We have to focus on good technique, learning the notes, blocking the scenes, and following the spots. So, when you have a chance to delve into Acting the Song outside of recital or callbacks, you should take it. . .

Which leads me to my shameless plug: On October 27, I'm teaching a one-day course on Acting The Song at Courthouse Center For The Arts in West Kingston!

I taught a one-week version of this course at CCA last summer, including some wonderful resources from Tracey Moore. There were exercises, improvisations, character questionnaires, research assignments, free writing and coaching. Some students learned new music, some worked on their standard repertoire. Everyone improved concentration and focus, and their understanding of character, and yes - they just sounded better. The final performances were impressive. As soon as it was over we all knew we wanted to do it again! Contact the Courthouse now to reserve your spot: 401-782-1018 or kelly@courthousearts.org

In mid November I'll be back at CCA, teaching a two-day "Broadway History For Non-Dummies" course. . . but that's another post!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Write on

I'm back in writing/directing mode after two months of teaching the world to sing. My children's history show, Quonnie: The Musical 2012, opens in less than two weeks! Once again I've written the script and lyrics myself, borrowing melodies from many different musical eras. I like writing lyrics and sometimes I'm really pleased, which makes up for the other times. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and affectionately recalled the City of Light before the Nazi occupation. I used it in Quonnie: The Musical to provide a sentimental look at life in my neck of the woods back in September 1938, when Quonochontaug, RI (and the rest of New England) was devastated by a hurricane.

This year I have a couple of sweet elementary-age girls crooning the lyrics, which describe Quonnie before and after the storm: "The last time I saw Quonnie/the berries tasted sweet/the blush was on the roses red, we complained about the heat." The line I am proudest of incorporates a well known phrase: "The houses floated out to sea, the shoreline narrowed thin/our gardens drowned in ocean salt, a world gone with the wind." I meant it to refer to the song, which came out in 1937, but it could easily bring to mind the movie, which debuted in 1939. (And really, is there any better opening title sequence than this? ;)) To me it's a perfect visual image of how the hurricane affected this area.

I'm also proud of a lyric I dreamed up on the fly, Saturday night around 6pm. I was preparing to sing  "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. The original lyrics describe Annie's rivalry with Frank Butler, but my duet partner was Ben Hutto, the esteemed director of choirs at the National Cathedral School and St. Alban's School in Washington, DC. So, I started rewriting some lyrics to reflect our roles as music director and vocal coach at the Royal School of Church Music's Newport course. I scribbled out lines and showed them to Ben for approval. Some were clunkers, but some were good: "I sing music that'r make a window shatter," "I can stick my tongue out and sometimes stick my lung out." My very favorite will only be understandable to church musicians, but they'll howl: "I can Phos Hilaron with my underwear on." He delivered it perfectly and brought down the house.

Okay, then. YOU try to rhyme Phos Hilaron, wise guy.

Fix a flat

Many years ago I acquired an old  St. Gregory Hymnal. On the back inside cover, there's a note in a woman's handwriting. It says, "Herb, you don't open your mouth enuf! Consequently, you are flat." She wrote "flat" using the musical symbol shaped like a lower case b. I thought it was a perfect little comment. I imagined this soprano (how could she be anything else?), frustrated by his fumbling the "Gloria" again, finally snapped and fired off a note to poor Herb while Father intoned the Gospel. She couldn't take it anymore, but she was respectful of Herb's feelings. The "enuf" was her way of softening the blow.

What can you do when member of your singing group is so off key -- or sings with such tension -- that he or she destroys the blend you've worked so hard to create? I have never seen an ensemble director or group member accuse an individual singer of "sticking out," but I've heard sad stories from grown ups whose music teachers ordered them to lip sync, rather than sing. The hurt lingers. When these folks are brave enough to take voice lessons later in life, it's therapy as much as it is training.

Can anything be done to help the "stick out" singer, without hurting feelings? I've observed the following remedies and results.

1. Ignore it. It will go away. This works about once a year, and never while performing. If an obvious problem is continually ignored by a director or fellow members, listeners will question your hearing and/or your sanity. "Good grief, can't she hear how BAD that sounds?"

2. Call out the entire section. "Tenors, we are screeching on that note like cats in heat!" Sometimes the off-pitch singers get the hint and make the fix, while the rest of the section wonders what they did wrong. There are two pitfalls here: A. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, may overcompensate and become new problems to ignore (see no. 1). B. Well-meaning singers, singing correctly, will deduce that you're not accusing them of pitch problems. They will tune out your criticism altogether, even when they really deserve it. This reduces a director to the musical equivalent of Chicken Little.

3. Change the key of the song. This can alleviate a problem in the short term, but it drives perfect-pitchers like me insane. I have been forced to transpose on sight because a couple of singers needed a lower pitch. Their problem was gone, but mine was just beginning, and I resented it.

The best way to respectfully address vocal faults is by assessing and improving vocal function. Improving the function often alleviates the problems.

Be dispassionate when someone keeps hitting a clunker. Simply note what is happening, and ask for information. "We're under the pitch at measure 17. Mackenzie and Malcolm, what do you feel happening when you sing that note? What happens in your throat before you sing that note? Singers, what can we do when our throats feel tighter on these kinds of pitches? Okay, good answers. Let's have Mackenzie and Malcolm demonstrate those last two suggestions, and then we'll all try it together."

Mackenzie was never directly accused of not hitting the note, she was simply asked to report what was happening before and during her singing. A few singers demonstrated the correct practice, and then everyone tried together. It's also fun to have everyone actually sing a melody "the wrong way" and then switch to "the right way." It's like a mini-master class, and it's quick. I know it's not always possible to do this, but when there's time and the courage to try, the results are amazing.

Yes, addressing vocal faults uses precious rehearsal time, but fixing them benefits the whole group. In the end, it saves time and results in healthier singers and better performances. Do it before you've had "enuf."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.

A decent interval (song)

Intervals. We know 'em when we hear 'em, right? Can you sing one when you're asked? Can you read it in music? Intervals (which lead to scales and key signatures) are some of the toughest concepts for young musicians to learn, especially singers. But, all musicians must know their intervals -- the measured distances between individual notes. Knowing intervals helps you read music faster and more accurately. Pianists can press a couple of keys, brass players can press a valve or two, and the result will usually be the same each time. Singers learn intervals by feeling the resonance in their heads and throats, while listening to the sound that come out of their mouths -- and that can mean endless variety of pitch. A tuner can help singers identify intervals before they begin to associate them with a "feeling" in their own bodies.

Music teachers always use common melodies to teach intervals; for instance, the perfect fourth interval sounds just like the beginning of "Here Comes The Bride," and the opening notes of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" comprise an octave. Other intervals are harder to quickly identify in music because  . . . they sound weird, they aren't used in music that people can recall instantly, or they're hard to sing. To the rescue, a few YouTube videos that I found helpful:

1.  "The Interval Song," a Latin-beat ditty by a British composer named Django Bates. May also make a good drinking game for college theory students. Sing it a few times and you will know it forever.

2. "Interval Song" by Anonymous. I have never heard this one before but the song and the performer are both really cute. I like any song that attempts to rhyme "octave" and "provocative."

3. "Intervals In Inversion Song," by David Newman. I'd like to hand this guy a rose for coming up with this hilarious song. I love the wonderfully sappy piano accompaniment.

4. For kinesthetic and visual learners, check out Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts," which devotes an entire hour to intervals called  "Musical Atoms." Might be interval overkill for some, but if you're at all interested, it's an hour well spent.

Do intervals really matter? Ask him.

Goodbye 2011, hello 2012

A few of my favorite memories of 2011: Taking a vacation to Provincetown MA, and meeting up with my extended family at the Grand Canyon in honor of my Aunt Lee's 80th birthday. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching students, and learning more about the art and science of singing. You all enrich my life.

Joining The Chorus of Westerly. I'm honored to be part of this community of high-quality choral music makers! Thank you, George Kent and Chorus, for just being you. (Mr. Kent is retiring in 2012, a mere 53 years after he founded the chorus. Godspeed!)

Having my little girl ask me to braid her hair.

Writing, producing and directing Quonnie: The Musical! And releasing it on DVD and in songbook form!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having my son play DJ in the car with his iPod. Even when I don't like it, I like it.

I'm so blessed to love and be loved by these three people -- one tall, one medium, one short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What's coming up in 2012:

In May, I'm teaching a week of master classes at my old stomping grounds, Dublin Coffman High School in Dublin OH.

I'm going to cheer for my husband in his second NYC marathon. I'll run some kind of race, but probably not a marathon.

I expect to continue to practice important life skills I learned from Kenny Rogers.

Quonnie: The Musical gets an encore production in August. I'm going to tweak several scenes.

I really hope this is the year I sell my house in Michigan.

I'll be singing more, teaching more, creating more. . . living and loving more! I wish the same for you. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy 2012. XO EC

 

 

Voice Lessons, Vocal Coaching, Piano Lessons, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.