Eden Casteel Music Studio

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Filtering by Category: solfege

Unaccompanied minors

"They want me to sing sixteen bars a cappella," the student says as we start to prepare her for the audition. "What?" I ask. "No pianist?"

"No music at all, just me singing," she says.

What I'm thinking: "But you're auditioning for Fiona from Shrek! In the show you will have to belt high D-flats. How will they know you can do it? As your voice teacher, I know that having the musical score underneath helps you nail those notes. Unless the music director has perfect pitch or has a tuner handy, they won't know if you (or any other singer) can sing the notes the score requires you to sing. This is stupid. I can't believe you're expected to audition a cappella for a show that will have a full orchestra in the pit. That's like signing a baseball player to the team after he walks the bases, or telling McDonald's to cook your Quarter Pounder medium rare.

So they don't want to pay a pianist for auditions, or they don't have access to a piano in the audition room. Okay. You mean to tell me that no one in your drama organization can figure out how to provide you with a karaoke track to give you at least a little support? Well here, I took 25 seconds and found it on YouTube, and now I'm playing it on my phone at high volume. You can do this at the audition, if they'll let you. Or at least listen to it right before you go in. Definitely buy the Cleartune app, which can give you your starting pitch.

I don't blame you, student. I blame American Idol and Pitch Perfect, which have made a cappella auditions seem cool. In fact, a cappella auditions are often terrible and they make iffy and nervous singers sound horrid. Even professional singers can sound slightly unsupported and shaky in an a cappella format, without the bass line and melody of the score to balance out the voice. Most amateur singers don't know how to edit a song for a cappella performance. The singer continues to "hear" the melody of the accompaniment in their heads and they unwittingly include it, but the auditioners only hear awkward silence, and that ruins the energy of an otherwise good audition. Who thought this was a great idea for less experienced kids and teen singers?

I can't believe that in addition to teaching notes and rhythms and performance skills, I now have to teach you how to sing an accompanied song unaccompanied, just because someone thought it would be "easier." I just have to cross my fingers and hope that you sing the correct pitches in your audition. It stinks because I know that pitch accuracy matters, every time you open your mouth. Ultimately you will be singing with accompaniment, so you have to sing what's written. But your auditioners won't know if you're accurate or not (or if anyone else is, either). You could be vocally perfect for this part and sing a flawless audition, but you could easily lose out to someone who actually can't sing the role at performance time. GREAT IDEA, A CAPPELLA."

What I say: "Okay, here's your starting note. Go."

 

 

 

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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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.

 

 

 

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.