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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 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?


Long legs and high notes

Handel's Care Selve has several sustained A flats in the melody. Coloraturas like me just looooove those high notes, but D., my student, was having a tough time with them. As she reached for the high note, the sound would just disappear. She was frustrated. I knew it would be pedagogically unhelpful to issue orders such as "move your tongue out of the way, relax your lips and jaw, and let your larynx fall so your sound waves can efficiently exit your vocal tract."

Instead, we talked about long legs and shoes.

I am not Nicole Kidman, so I am always trying to make my legs look longer. D. sympathized. I love high waisted skirts and I avoid tunics. I still pine for the nude-toned high heel sandals (from Payless, no less), that made my legs look positively Amazonian for seven glorious years, before they stretched out and became unwearable. I adore D'Orsay style pumps, because when I show off a little more of my foot, voila! Legginess!

The trick to instantly longer legs is to pay attention to what goes on your feet. Do that, and you'll see immediate improvement. The trick to singing high notes effortlessly is to recall what it feels like to sing low notes effortlessly. Do that, and the high notes will be easy, easy, easy. Follow?

D. realized that she was so focused on aiming for the high notes, she had tensed and constricted the very muscles that need to relax and soften. . . in order to sing the high notes!

When she spent a few moments recalling the physical sensation of singing lower pitches, her face and larynx relaxed (she watched it happen in the mirror) . . and the A flats popped out, effortlessly and beautifully. To aim high, think low.

And now . . . . I wonder what's new at Zappos? . . . .


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.


Deep Thoughts on the Summer Music Theater Camp Teaching Experience, written in Bossypants-ese. 10. Enrollment Axiom 1: If your summer theater camp has only two enrollees, both will be low-energy, gluten-sensitive tweens whose parents confused emo with interest in acting. The class will meet for six hours a day, five times a week, for a solid month. You will have to abandon your groundbreaking production of Oh, Calcutta! Jr. and endure their silent scorn as you desperately try to find something they can present at the camp showcase. With proper medication and diet, these kids can become excellent lighting designers.

9.  Enrollment Axiom 2: If you are blessed with enthusiastic, energetic actors who are eager to learn and experiment, the head count will be 56. One of the five days of camp will be a national holiday so you will be expected to cram five days of rehearsal into four. Five years from now, one of these campers will win the Tony Award for Lead Actress in Musical Theater, having never forgiven you for relegating her to the chorus this summer.

8. Whatever you encourage hesitant students to do in rehearsal will be executed at Mach Level 3 in performance.  "Move around the stage a little" will look like a human pinball. "Act sadder" will look suicidal. "Go ahead, be flirtatious" will look like Courtney Stodden.

7. Success stories are always inspiring. Invite professional actors to perform for your future Nellie Forbushes, and watch their little jaws drop when they see the pros go at it. It's even more fun because you can actually sightread the material the pros bring to show off their chops, which makes you feel like a bit of a pro yourself. (No snark here, that is really fun. And wow, Marvin Hamlisch still sounds good in 2012.)

6. Each day you shall hear at least two of the following: "I'm more of an actor-dancer" . . . "I'm a really low alto in school" . . . . "Can't you just transpose it down? That's what my choir teacher always does" . . . . "These pages of the song don't fit my voice, so I just leave them out" . . . "I just can't remember all the words to the song you gave me last week and the concert is in an hour, so my parents just said I should do Meadowlark again, you have the music around here, right?" Try to figure out a way to extract money from students for each utterance.

5. You will teach this lesson continually: Unless you are rendered unconscious by your own greatness, the performance isn't over when you stop singing. No, Oliver Twist, you will not lower your arms and shrug two seconds before the final chord of "Who Will Buy?" and ruin all the good work you did in the previous two minutes. We will practice it nine times until you hold those arms up for the duration of the final chords of music. The performance ends when I say it ends, mister. And it starts when you are walking onto the stage, so we're going to rehearse that too, until you stop shuffling and start walking. (Half of the campers will be so excited that they will forget to bow at all, but a few will do it perfectly and make me glad I took the time.)

4. Stop looking at me like you're drowning. I told you this performance would be memorized and you didn't believe me.

3. Just look at me if you forget the words. I will help you. You'll be okay.

2. If you are not the parent or relative of a camper, do not view any videos of summer theater camp performances. No matter how successful the showcase, if you watch it on video, you will deflate. Cherish the hazy memory. It actually went well.

1. Honor tradition. After the show is over and the kids are gone, treat yourself to mint chocolate chip ice cream. This dates back to your childhood, when your dad took you and your little sister to McDonald's for a Shamrock Shake after each piano recital, which was usually held on a cold gray Sunday afternoon in March. You didn't perform today, but you did work your butt off and it's time to celebrate. The iciness also helps to reduce the inflammation in your throat from weeks of shouting over preteens. If there is no ice cream, alcohol is an acceptable substitute. Long live theater!





Bad breath(ing)

One of my students brought the Colbie Caillat song Realize to a recent lesson. She kept running out of breath before the ends of phrases, and that wasn't really like her.  

We listened to the mp3 together. Amazing! There is only ONE place to breathe in the chorus: If you just realize what I just realized/ then we'd be perfect for each other/ and will never find another/if you just realize what I just realized // (BREATHE!)// We'd never have to wonder if/we missed out on each other now


I wondered how Miss C would ever be able to manage this feat in live performance. So, my student and I checked out  Realize live, and we realized (ha!) that even Colbie herself couldn't sing the long phrases in one breath! One of her bandmates harmonizes the melody on the choruses and sings a little longer than she does, so Colbie can get a breath. If he didn't harmonize, there would be a little gap in the song and in the "rushed" mood.

Girlfriend wrote the song by herself, presumably for herself (along with Jason Reeves and Mikal Blue)! I think she was trying to make the chorus sound like a rush of words, the kind that come with the


Okay, you're the artist, it's your call. The miracle of music track editing can cover up the fact you have no place to breathe in your own song. No one else can sing the song quite like Colbie . . .even she can't really sing it.

Taylor Swift likes to breathe in unexpected places, and seems to avoid breathing in the logical ones. (And Caillat has written songs for Swift; what a perfect pair of blue-lipped maidens!) Listen to her sing the chorus of Love Story: "You'll be the prince (BREATHE!) and (BREATHE!) I'll (BREATHE!) be the princess." She sounds like a four year old running up three flights of stairs to tell her friend how to play Make Believe Castle. But the ending will leave you . . . . . .uh . . . . . .breathless: RomeosavemeI'vebennfeelingsoaloneIkeep (BREATHE)

waitingforyoubutyounevercomeisthis (BREATHE!)

inmyheadIdon't know (BREATHE!)

whattothinkhekneelstothegroundandpullsoutaringandsaidmarrymeJulietyou'llneverhavetobealoneIloveyouandthat'sallIreallyknowItalkedto yourdadgopickoutawhitedressit'salovestorybabyjustsayyes.

The girl's in love! Oxygen! STAT!

Alanis Morrissette paved the way for the Bad Girl Breathers with lyrics that have been called "a mangled web of garbled syntax, overheated metaphors, and mystifying verbal contortions." She doesn't engage in the kind of melodic rushing that Caillat and Swift (and Sara Bareilles) do. Instead, she messes with beats and so-so rhymes and emPHASis. Like a Pied Piper of Lyrical Grammar, Alanis has led many astray; I still like her. My favorite song of hers is "Uninvited", from the City of Angels soundtrack. She knows when and how to breathe, even if she's not so careful about pronounCIation: Like anyone WOULD be/ I am flatTERED by your FAScination WITH me. . . .you're uninVIted, an unforTUNate slight."

So if you want to sing one of these one-breath-per-stanza songs, what do you do? 1. Slow it down, so the time between rhymes and words is slow enough for you to take some quick breaths. 2. Sing it with a group of singers, so you can all stagger your breaths. 3. Feign a dramatic emotional breakdown if you have to breathe and miss a few words. If all that fails . . . .  4. Sing something else.




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."









Somewhere out there

My son, the world's No. 1 Rush fan, recently became a blogger. Reactions to his blog were mixed. (You can do a quick search for it at the Good Man Project's Good Feed Blog.) The feedback from his peers -- whose tastes run more to hip-hop -- was mostly negative, but that was no surprise. Readers old enough to know all the lyrics to Tom Sawyer were supportive and enthusiastic. I wish he had more support from friends in his area, but I know he will find camaraderie eventually.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree. Last year I started "Chants Occurrence," a Meetup group that I hoped would help me link up with people who liked Gregorian chant and early sacred music. It was a way for me to handle the sudden musical isolation I felt after my big move to the East in 2010. I was hoping to start a mini-schola, and maybe even bring that group to a church occasionally, because I think St. Augustine was right. But, we all live too far away from each other for that to happen anytime soon. I've had the pleasure of meeting a few of the 11 members of the group at concerts, and I'll see a couple of them at a Vespers I'm singing this weekend in Connecticut. I still hope we'll get to chant together sometime, but I feel better just knowing they're out there.

Finding my tribe has not happened the way I thought it would, but isn't that God's favorite way of answering prayer? A few weeks ago, recoiling from negative news stories, I found I had an urgent desire to save a life. I prayed to save just one life. Less than 24 hours later, I had an unexpected extra hour in my teaching schedule and out the window, I saw a red-letter opportunity. I walked into a building near my teaching studio, and gave a pint of blood.

I feel better just knowing it's out there. ;)








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 Coaching, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

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