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

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

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

UPDATE: CLICK TO LISTEN!

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

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

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

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

(Sign up for all my emails, over there on the right hand side of this blog. Want a voice lesson? Click on the "Book Now" button at the top of the blog and choose a time!)

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.)

The Seven, Vol. 2

1. I wore high heels more than one day in a row and my feet are in agony. I have short legs compared to the rest of me, and I love to wear heels (even medium ones) to balance my frame. I'm worried; is this the end of high heels for me? Now what do I do?

2. Adding to my shoe anxiety: I've lost or misplaced a favorite pair of Danskos.

WHERE ARE YOU?

I know they're clunky and weird-looking, but my feet never hurt at the end of a Dansko day. So, I scarf them up wherever I can find them on sale, and I now own several pairs. I wore my tan pair of "Kate"s while gardening a week ago, and they got a little wet and muddy, so I took them off before I entered the house. I saw them the day after but didn't bring them in, and now they have disappeared. To my knowledge there are no Dansko-nappers in my neighborhood. I have checked all the outdoor spots, I have sternly interviewed the dog, I have begged my kids to help me figure out where they are, as I am the one who finds all of their missing shoes. No sign of them.

3. Adding insult to injury and fulfilling the Murphy's Law of Footwear, these missing Danskos are the ones that I didn't wear for several seasons, while trying to find a shoe repair store to fix their shot elastic. These missing Danskos are the ones that were finally repaired in New York City a few weeks ago, resulting in their rotation back into my wardrobe. If only I had kept them useless, I'd still have them.

4. Thanks to my iPhone OS upgrade, I got to hear the new Miley Cyrus album on the new iTunes radio station. My husband said, “You’re going to get on the Miley Cyrus bandwagon and jump all over her, aren’t you?” I promised I wouldn’t jump all over her. But I will say: * A fast vibrato (also called tremolo) can be a sign of excessive throat and tongue tension. * The lee-da-dee-da-dee interval Miley sings in “We Can’t Stop” is a sixth interval. Wide interval leaps are made more difficult by excessive throat and tongue tension. * Drug use can irritate the vocal folds and vocal tract, exacerbating throat and tongue tension. * Bad posture can reduce breath support and increase throat and tongue tension. * A singer’s vocal range can be reduced by throat and tongue tension. * The inability to sing high, clear pitches at a soft dynamic is often the result of. . . . you know.

However: Sticking your tongue out -- while singing -- can reduce tongue tension.

Miley Cyrus, possibly doing something vocally right

5. Rihanna, Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj have already marked the corners of the room Miley has just started sniffing. Oh well, she’ll be the crazy judge on “American Idol” soon enough.

6. There has always been a Miley. Let us now praise Samantha Fox, a topless model from Britain who had a hit with “Touch Me” in 1986.

Samantha Fox, like a virgin. (Courtesy Photobucket)

Like Miley, Sam Fox had a strained vocal production, limited range, provocative lyrics, exhibitionist tendencies, and the ability to eroticize vomiting. You want to see more? Here are three minutes of your life you will never get back.

7. Three years ago this month, I married The Best Photographer In The World. He is an ideal husband, devoted father, steadfast friend, insane uncle, and the person you’d most want to sit next to in jail. And in church. I am such a lucky girl! This sums up our relationship pretty well.  [video width="640" height="306" mp4="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Young-Frankenstein-Sweet-Mystery-of-Life.mp4"][/video]

How's your week? EC

 

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?

 

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.