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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 3

Lana Del Rey, cockeyed optimist And so we continue with I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!, where I explain the vocal sins committed by the singers you can't stand to hear.

One of my eight blog readers begged, "Do Lana Del Rey. Please." Okay. All I knew of Del Rey was the media coverage of her lackluster appearance on Saturday Night Live several years ago. So I watched a bunch of her videos on YouTube. Her videos are mini-epics that are superior to her pedestrian voice, which reminds me of Mama Cass in range but not in musicality. I wonder if Del Rey is popular because she is one of the few girl singers who's not belting and autotuning to the high heavens. In that way, she is a welcome relief. Every morose maiden can sing Del Rey with little to no effort, for that's how she sings too -- undersupported and under energized. I'd bet money that she told her first voice teacher she was "really more of an alto." Her range is low, small, and finite, which means every song sounds the same. While her tone is clear, her lack of vocal hustle results in some chronic nasality. Lana Del Rey sounds like she needs cheering up.

Kim Carnes: A voice as pure as New York snow.

"Bette Davis Eyes" is unsingable unless you are recovering from laryngitis, which is what Kim Carnes sounded like on her best day (But oh, she could whip that hair!). That gravely, wooly sound is her vocal folds coming together unevenly. It must be an injury from a long time ago. It seems to be happening throughout her range -- I don't hear a clear sound anywhere, except in a few brief head voice moments. She struggles to sing many interval leaps -- but in this song, I think it's less of a vocal problem than a conscious choice. Carnes' disabled voice got her a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1981. Call me contrary, but Carnes' quirky, weathered voice suited lyrics that celebrated a one-of-a-kind actress. Gwyneth Paltrow sang the song in a movie once -- her rendition is clear and controlled, her pitch is accurate . .. and it's totally unmemorable. Carnes has been married to the same guy since 1967 and she's still writing songs in Nashville, isn't that great? Terrible singer, but hopefully a happy songwriter.

Rod Stewart: Do Ya Think I'm Scratchy?

Carnes is often compared to Rod Stewart, the uncrowned King Of Raspy Singers. To me, Joe Cocker sounds like a hot mess, but Rod Stewart sounds far hotter. It's his material, of course -- the vocal range of his songs is higher, the tempo of many songs is faster. Stewart readily admits his voice is fragile, and when I listen to him I mostly hear the damage. I can listen to his early stuff but not his newer recordings. I like reading about Stewart, far more than listening to him. Stewart is a thyroid cancer survivor, which is of course wonderful -- but he has also admitted to taking loads of manhood-shrinking steroids to soothe his swollen throat after abusing it in performance. Don't let it happen to you, kids! Cher really is more of an alto. That's fine, but she also drawls her vowels, which leads her to sing with a very swallowed sound. You either love her or . . .you don't. Compare Cher to Tina Turner in this clip from Cher's solo variety show (after she divorced Sonny). They sing the same notes, but the sound is totally different. That's not just because they're two different singers, it's also because there are two different approaches to singing a particular phrase. Tina keeps her voice in a more "forward" sounding position and nasalizes words, while Cher goes straight back. If I could turn back time, I'd never hear her version if "It's In His Kiss." Ever.

Proud Mary with Half Breed

Who should we talk about next? Jewel? Stevie Nicks? Shakira? Cat Stevens? Contact me with your nominations and I'll commence this Very Important Research.

 

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! (Part Deux)

It's time for another round of "I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!", where I explain the bad vocal technique behind the songs I've never liked -- and even some songs I do like. This week, I'm including some nominations from you, my Eight Blog Readers!

1. Benny Mardones, Into The Night: It was one of the few songs to hit the Top 20 twice in the same decade -- 1980 and 1989. I liked the beginning of the song, but Mardones' highest pitches were produced with scratchy strained vocal folds, and that really turned me off. It sounded like screaming then, and it still does today. It's unfortunate, because when he sings "If I could fly, I'd pick you up," he has a lovely head voice "oo" sound on the word you. Only a few notes later, he sings "and you a love" on the same pitch (B flat), and the vowel is gravelly and the throat is tight. Head voice would have sounded better. I couldn't imagine any girl accepting an "Into The Night" serenade; maybe that's why I didn't date much in high school. (Watch the video, made a year before MTV started! It has an Aladdin concept and everything!)

Stay on pitch, Natalie!
Stay on pitch, Natalie!

2. When she was with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant's voice moved unevenly between her chest register and mixed chest and head register. In "Like The Weather" you can hear how some notes sound very swallowed and dark while slightly higher pitches are bright and pinched. But it was her pitchiness that drove me nuts. Merchant always allowed a pitch drop-off at the ends of phrases, partly for effect and partly because she ran out of breath. Also, what are the words in "Like The Weather?" I still have no idea. This kind of lazy, louche singing happened a lot in the grungy '90s. (I like Wonder. I can understand the words and she commits far fewer vocal sins.) (And I love her gray hair now.)

3. Aaron Neville was nominated by one of my readers. Good call! In order to extract a tenor range Neville has to engage in some vocal fracking, extracting a sound through a tense chest, neck and jaw. The tension is so great, his head and chin jerk with the effort of moving from note to note. Watch the clip with the sound turned off to see for yourself. Neville might not have enough air in his lungs to sing more than a few notes comfortably, so he sings lots of teeny tiny melodic lines instead and grabs a shallow breath between them. When you don't have enough air in your lungs, your throat will squeeze to try to help you finish the phrase your brain started. (Oh, whatever. I still love this song and remember it from the movie The Big Easy! I just can't watch Neville when he sings it!)

You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!
You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!

4. Vocally, Joe Cocker is Aaron Neville to the infinite power, with some laryngitis thrown in. Joe Cocker's voice proves again that a ruin can be charming. His raspy, breathy, gravelly voice is the result of damaged vocal folds not closing together completely and properly. Might be drugs, might be cigarettes, might be illness, might be all of the above. He swears the jerky body swings are not related to his singing or breathing, but how could they not be? Stiffness and rigidity in the limbs and shoulders is going to affect the voice. As with Neville, I think it's a way of trying to force sound out through a very tight throat and damaged folds. Watch what John Belushi had to do to imitate him, back when Saturday Night Live was funny. Have you ever tried to imitate Joe Cocker? It's exhausting. But millions of people are still happy to watch Joe Cocker be Joe Cocker. 

Each of these singers has had a great career while committing mortal vocal sins that I would try to remove or ameliorate in a voice lesson -- shows how much I know, right? But young singers routinely come into my studio and imitate singers by imitating their vocal problems  . . and I have to tell them all the reasons why it's not wise to do that. 

If you've ever wondered why a certain singer's voice makes you want to plug your ears, you just might have an appreciation for good vocal technique, and a normal sense of outrage when standards are violated. Yay you!

The ballot box is still open . . nominate your least favorite singers or songs and I'll tell you why your ears are crying.

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I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!

Michael W. Smith can't sing without hurting someone Back in the 1980s I listened to pop music just as much as any other teen. My favorite singers included Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer. I also developed a blacklist of songs and singers that just sounded wrong to me. Back then, I probably dismissed the offender with a casual, "Eew! I just hate that song!" and turned the dial. Now I can see that my teen ears were often just reacting to some very bad vocal technique. Here, a few of the few songs I couldn't stand when they first came out, and the vocal reasons why. The awful videos are just a bonus!

Place In This World: Michael W. Smith was a very popular Christian artist in the 1980s and 1990s and this was a crossover hit for him. Listen to that raspiness, especially on the choruses. This sound is the vocal equivalent of a three-day beard -- it could be totally on purpose, or just a lack of (vocal) hygiene. He pronounces place as "pleece" because if he sang "place" he'd never hit the pitch. Try and do it yourself. Once.

Madonna has Lived To Tell

Live To Tell, Madonna: Her first hit, "Borderline," featured a very bright, nasal voice and a light timbre -- so light, I could sing it easily and often did, and I really liked her for that reason. That, and the neon heels with socks. In this song, the melody is about an octave lower and Madonna is singing with a very dark, covered, almost swallowed sound. She's also trying to carry her chest voice higher and is straining to do so. At the slumber party we could all sing "Borderline" with a brush for a microphone, but no one wanted to sing "Live To Tell." I heard her sing it live on a concert video few years back, and she has improved. Keep up the lessons, Madonna, you may get somewhere!

Keep On Loving You, REO Speedwagon: I've hated this song "fereverrr." Every choir teacher on earth begs their singers to drop the final 'r's in words, because if you sing an 'r,' it sounds like nerdy and immature and sort of like .  . . . Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.

Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle: Vibrato tighter than her jeans. (But very cool eyeliner.) A too-fast vibrato can be an indication of vocal tension, or inadequate breath support. Carlisle's veers very close to tremolo, which sounds almost like a vocal tremble. At least it does to my ears. She sang that way when she fronted the Go-Gos too, but she sang in a higher range then. As a solo artist, she sang in lower keys and the fast vibrato was more noticeable to me.

Oh, there are more. And you have your own vocal transgressors to accuse. Tell me what you hate, and I'll tell you . . why.

 

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.