September 13. 2013 

THE HEART OF SINGING

When I look at my students arriving for their lessons, my main objective is that they are up to the demands of the songs and performing they want to do. I want them to feel confident that they can express themselves fully using their whole range. (You can tell that's my main objective by how much time we spend on technique in your lessons.) However, listening to those fadistas in Lisbon this summer reminds me of the heart of singing. I wrote a song recently which I feel gets to the heart of my singing. Ironically, the note range in the song is very limited. And yet the song itself is emotionally evocative. That's what I noticed about the fado. The range is not that wide, yet the genre to me is just as compelling as, e.g., R&B, where you'll hear a lot more vocal acrobatics. (As an aside, there is a lot of beautiful ornamentation in fado, little riffs  and runs, just like in R&B). The point I am trying to get at is regardless of the level of expertise a singer gets to, I want them to feel free to, in the phrase I used earlier: "express themselves fully". Notice I didn't say, "sing correctly". The technique is there as a tool to reach the goal of full expression. It is not the goal. Let us see you, and hear from YOU, not some other singer you are trying to approximate. But you. Fully. 

 

I am committed this year to a greater balance in my teaching, where students do discover their whole range, but they feel free to use it, make mistakes, let the beauty of the natural and fallible human voice out. A phrase I coined a year or so ago was: "The most beautiful paradox: address the mechanics of a voice, release the soul of that voice". Just yesterday in my Skype lesson with a young singer in Costa Rica, we did some exercises to show him his pushing and straining at the top, at his 3rd bridge, was absolutely standing in his way. All he had to do was let go, and then he'd be in. The exercises worked, and he did let go, and I really can't get over the expression I saw on his face. I said "Doesn't that feel great?" He said "Yeah, free!". This year I wish freedom for each of you in your singing, songwriting, and performing.

May 23, 2012

What Makes Speech Level Singing Lessons Different from Other Voice Training?

Recently I was interviewed by Spotlighting Paradise host, Henry White, on NCTV; I tried to be succinct about why I think Speech Level Singing (SLS) technique is so effective. Being a bit of a rambler I feel I can do a better job on the page, so here goes. I’m going to tell you why, if you are considering voice lessons, you should work with an SLS teacher before you try anyone else. I know that’s bold, but here’s why.

 

Most people that I talk to the first time about voice work always say, almost without fail, “Yeah, I know I’m not breathing right. I got to get my breathing right.”  I think they know intuitively that can’t be the only thing that the voice is about, but they’re repeating what they’ve always heard: singing well is about correct breathing. Every voice teacher I worked with prior to SLS worked with me on breath. What they never got to was the rest of the instrument. The part in your throat.

 

The vocal folds are inside your larynx and if you are the best breather ever but your vocal fold coordination is off, you’re still going to have trouble singing well. We don’t get phonation (sound) except by the vocal folds coming together and resisting the air. The less they resist, the airier and weaker the sound. Too much resistance, or over compression, the tighter and less released the sound. So, I’d say, one thing that makes SLS training different from most voice lessons is that it gets to the rest of your coordination.

 

The second thing that SLS is not is style. I do not teach style. Though I do have a background in gospel, jazz, funk and blues, I don’t teach that unless a student is interested in expanding their repertoire in those genres. What I teach is technique. All of the teachers I had prior to SLS worked with me on material, but they did not teach me how to overcome the obstacles in my voice. My main issue was that I strained to go higher, my range was limited, and sometimes I would have to resort to falsetto instead of a more powerful head voice sound. I put out two CD’s before I ever learned how to bridge through my transitions! Thanks to SLS I now sing comfortably through two bridges on a good day, three on an even better day. (I’m still working on it.)

 

The third thing that differentiates SLS is that it is based on cause and effect. I do not ask my students to “imagine an egg in their throat” or “pick a spot on the opposite wall and sing to it”.  These are not logical or concrete ways for a student to learn how to cause their own voice to work the way they want it to. SLS is based on the science of the voice box married with phonetics, using exercises that are specifically designed to address your particular vocal tendency. And everyone’s tendency is different. So it’s my job to hear my student,  assess what they are doing out of sight with their vocal cords, larynx, tongue etc, and then I give them exercises that cause them to experience a whole new coordination that improves their singing. Then I help them gain neuromuscular memory and repeat the same coordination in a variety of exercises and finally in songs.

 

So yes, I’m sold. (If I wasn’t I’d have some explaining to do after 4 years studying the method.) I just earned my Level 2 certification as an SLS instructor.  And that brings me to the final point. If I had earned my degree in music and started teaching privately, I would not have what I have now. I have an ongoing interface with colleagues and Master teachers in the SLS organization who challenge my teaching and help me improve month after month, year after year. Though I’m the only certified SLS instructor in Western Mass, I have colleagues in Boston and NY as well as across the country and globe. We get together for conferences and workshops in person and over skype. If I feel I am not making headway with a student, I can check in with my colleague, have them listen to my student and give us feedback, so no matter what, my students will progress.

 

A new student recently said “You’re like some mad voice scientist!” I was pretty chuffed but I had to say “it isn’t me, it’s the method."  I invite anyone to come check SLS out in one lesson with me!

September 7, 2011

Does Voice Training ruin the artist?

“Don’t go get voice training. It’ll train all the authenticity right out of you.”

You might think that is some of the stupidest advice you’ve ever heard someone give a singer. Many singers from musical theater, pop, R&B would tell you that how they learned to access their whole voice powerfully and without damage is through voice training. Classical and opera singers would be confused by this advice as well.

Other genres may agree with the advice. Folk singers don’t tend to do gymnastics with their vocal cords. Think on Ray LaMontagne, or Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. That’s some beautiful soulful authentic stuff. From what I understand, it’s not a “trained voice”, but who wants training when you’ve got that much soul?Or take the unique sound of Amy Winehouse (may she rest in peace) or Adele. Could voice training interfere with their unique timbre?

In my 20’s and early 30’s my focus was not technical excellence but simple authentic expression. Recently I received an email out of the blue from an old fan who described what they felt at a concert 10 years ago: “you were breathtaking, vulnerable, honest, you cast a spell on those attending.”   Wow, nice compliment.

Funny thing is, I know that in my two cd releases in those years, I was flipping into falsetto at my first bridge, where I could have been blending into head voice getting a much more powerful sound. “No regrets”, but I’m just sayin’.  I also was mostly singing material that was in my chest range, so, working with a limited palette.

The advice I opened this little blog with was given to me back in my 20’s. Even though I did not really heed it -I took lessons from about 5 different teachers over the years - I was already on that track anyway: I was determined to follow my own artistic impulses as a singer but I recognized I needed some help, because there were those notes where I was hitting a ceiling, and I knew there was a sky above that ceiling.

Although the advice the person gave me was not great advice to give to any musician who hopes to make a career of it, they had a point. Here’s the problem: like with any instrument, to improve or expand your vocal capabilities, you will need to focus on coordination rather than on the simply artistic expression.  However, to produce art in music, you focus on creativity, expression, sound, feel, style.  How do you reconcile this? When students begin vocal training with me I ask them to suspend judgment on their sound, and only focus on what they physically feel their instrument doing.  In a way, I am asking them to suspend their artistic intuition. We make ugly sounds. All kinds of sounds, to explore how the voice works.  We develop an awareness of what our instrument is doing while we sing, and we learn to control it. If you chase sound you can’t focus on the mechanism of the voice; in fact, singers will do anything to produce a certain sound, sometimes getting in their own way or damaging their voice. The idea is, if you learn to sing with balanced coordination (good airflow, easy compression of vocal cords, stable larynx, a pure vowel) then the result will be a pure sound. But this is where you have to strike a balance, and where the dire warnings of those folks I mentioned earlier starts having relevance.

Is our end goal a pure sound? No! The end goal is expression! Producing sounds that express anger, joy, love, envy, desire, despair…The end goal is to express! If you chase after good coordination what you get is good coordination. An artist who focuses on ONLY good coordination is going to lose touch with their artist/songwriting/authentic expressive self.  (yours truly). The teachers that finally showed me how to blend or mix, started by telling me: “Don’t chase notes, chase coordination. “ When someone I trust tells me to do something, I do it. And I do it all the way. I turned my ear off, and fully turned my attention towards singing “right”. On the far side of voice training, I understand now how if technical excellence is pursued without balance an artist can alienate herself from her own artistry and vice versa, how if technical excellence is pursued not at all, an artist will struggle along with unnecessary limitations on their instrument and career.

It is hard to strike a balance as a teacher and an artist. I think it is just as hard for a student to stay close to their muse and to their own instincts, to what drew them to sing in the first place while they learn valuable tools. It is crucial that the singer trust themselves first. Turn their ear back on when they are writing or fleshing out new material. Yes, use the tools they learn if there is a technical obstacle, and to  groom, tune and develop the voice.  But in both practice and play, switch focus back and forth from coordination to expression. To your connection to the song. Your interpretation. Your audience. Record yourself. Chase sound again. Problems? Check in with coordination. Chase the music. Play with the songs. Try new keys, new genres if the songs don’t feel right. Good coordination is part of the art of making music, but certainly not all. It is what will help you make art.

So, does voice training ruin the artist? If you took a child with a lot of natural talent on any instrument and put them into lessons, could/would it ruin them? In a piano lesson with a young student this week, I played chords and encouraged her to find notes that she thought would sound good over the chords, just play around and make up a melody. “What if I don’t do it right?!” She said, very worried. I told her, listen, you will learn things from me, but I want you to know, you will find your own relationship with the piano. If you play notes you like, you’ve made music.” Her practice this week, on top of the reading exercises and coordination exercises I gave her, is to do the same thing. Play chords with her left hand and make up any melody with the right.

Singers will find their own relationship with their voice and unique ways of expressing themselves. Music belongs to all of us. Voice training should never confine or alienate, only make you free-er , stronger, better than you already were.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 4, 2011

 

 

A NEW CHANCE...

I was on the campuses of UMass and Hampshire this week and felt that sense of “world of possibilities” feeling that a new semester or new time of life conjures. That sense that anything can be tried and worked towards and gained.

One student of mine who came to me one year ago frustrated with breaks and limits in her voice will be performing beautifully,  flawlessly, and may I add, so evocatively I got the chills at her last lesson, the national anthem at a game in two weeks.  Another student is heading to LA to record with his band, and he is singing effortlessly up into his 2nd bridge, the notes he needs for his own compositions. Another singer who has struggled believing that he can sing at all, and had the resulting tension to prevent him from doing so, is now vocalizing over his 3rd bridge, singing Queen, and Billy Joel, Paul McCartney all up at A, B, above middle C and C5.

Why Speech Level Singing? These singers will tell you why. It works to free up the voice. Make you hit the notes you want, dynamically and effortlessly. You do the rest of the work, follow your artistry and expression, flesh out your performances. The SLS tools are what will help you do it easily, and protect and preserve your instrument for a long time to come.

This last Spring I studied in Chicago with SLS Teacher Claire Yarrington of California www.cstarts.com, and this summer I was recertified as an SLS Instructor by Level 5 Instructor Spencer Welch of Canada,  www.spencerwelch.com. I am committed to continuing my studies with these fantastic teachers and am excited to share the deepening knowledge of how this most soulful and intimate instrument works.

So yes, welcome to fall, and a new chance to explore your relationship with music through lessons with me in voice, piano, guitar, songwriting, theory, or performance..  I hope to see you, or your child, in lessons this fall. Register now to get the weekly spot that works best for you. I’m booking morning, afternoon or evening Tuesdays through Saturdays.

 

Happy Fall,

Celia

 

 

THE MUSE VERSUS PRACTICE

June 11- 2011

For some time now as voice teacher I’ve emphasized my belief that everyone has an instrument and everyone can sing. I’ve insisted that my students believe this too, that they have a voice, and the work we do within lessons is to gain the physical and emotional knowledge and coordination to sing publicly with confidence.  Some of my belief is colored by distaste for “American Idol” culture (though I enjoy the voices on that show very much). Where we elevate the “ stars” and in turn discourage the “lesser” singers to leave the stage for the “real” or “top” performers. This is the same culture that I believe has produced many people who do not even try to sing, and thus, can’t. A society that sings can sing! It’s coordination and ear training. It doesn’t happen unless you do it.

 

With that said, I am going through a transition where as a teacher I feel challenged to balance my philosophy of inclusiveness with higher expectations. I need to encourage and somehow provoke practice out of students who do not. Usually what I do is try to include other topics in their lessons, but keep returning to vocal technique in attempts to engage them in the process. But I think I am going to really amp up my emphasis on the absolute necessity of practice.  If a student comes in for regular lessons, but does not practice, we will not study vocal technique.We'll study theory, songwriting, another instrument, harmony, repertoire – many new concepts at each lesson. Every lesson will be a new introduction to some other element of voice or music, but I will not attempt to teach vocal technique or encourage performance if the student is not practicing. Why? Because if they don’t practice, nothing changes and the student does not experience success or progress, gets bored, and I start questioning my abilities as a teacher, till I remember, oh right they don’t practice!. The whole point of learning vocal technique is so that you can do something vocally that you could not do before.

 

I have some incredible before and after students who do the work outside of lessons. One student who is in a local band (this week they are going to talk to A&R companies, including Universal) started with me 4 weeks ago.  At the first lesson he was straining for his top notes (Ab4) in one of their originals. 4 weeks later, not only is he releasing into that register, he has now developed compression at that bridge (his  2nd) so that his tone there includes the lower harmonics of chest as well as higher ones of head. His voice is powerful where it was weak and straining.

 

Another student would get very tight at Eb4, and her voice would break (literally, she was pulling chest up as high as it would go and then flipping into a falsetto). 3 weeks ago she was still struggling with that bridge, but today, she flawlessly sailed through her 1st and 2nd bridges, so that she is now nailing a song in the original key that we had to take down a step for a previous performance. Why? Because she was determined to conquer that area of her voice, and worked on it every single day in between lessons. It is very, very obvious if someone does the work outside of lessons. The method I use to teach voice, works. If you do the work outside of lessons, you will transform your voice.

 

I was just watching a show on PBS called “Whatever it Takes” about a principal who started a small school in the South Bronx, and took failing students from other schools bringing them to success –they all passed the New York State assessment exam after a year in his school. He demanded commitment from them. He asked them to do the work and he expected success.

 

I want to ask from every student, commitment. Commitment grows comes from a belief that you can be a great singer, pianist, guitarist, performer, and so you commit to the work that will take you there. Then comes Discipline: good and regular practice habits. Then Perseverance: when you hit a wall in your voice where you cannot find improvement, you follow through. See it through till we figure out what the block is, what tool you need to correct it and excel. Persevere until you see success. And then Excellence. Don’t accept second-rate. Excellence in technique, artistry, performance. Then you are free to let the muse take over in on stage.

 

And muse is really what we are after. That is why people take lessons in the first place. That experience of beauty and joy in music drew them in and they said “I want to do that”, I want to sing like that, play like that, make that music happen. That is what I invite everyone to:  everyone can sing and make music. Now the other layer, commit to being the best vocalist or instrumentalist you can be. Without commitment you will remain at the wanting stage. Commitment, discipline, perseverance and excellence will get you to that experience of beauty and joy at making music and being in the muse.

 

 

 

 

ARE SINGERS MUSICIANS?

January 14 - 2011

Recently I was at a local recording studio with some musician friends, and a really very excellent flautist, whom I’d just been introduced to as a singer, was laying down a flute track on one of my friend’s originals. He was having trouble with one spot and I pointed out something I thought he’d missed on the song chart. He said: “What, are you a musician?” After I finished being offended for one microsecond, I responded with the old joke “no I just hang out with them.” That evening though I was ranting about it to my friend. That same evening we’d heard a recording of local singer, Daisy, Rob Skelton’s daughter. Her vocal ornaments, intonation, and expression were exquisite. I asked my friend “Is she not a musician?” I suppose it’s a good question, especially in the age of autopitch, and new pop divas being churned out every month. “At least she writes her own songs/plays an instrument” is something even I’ve said about one or more of these singers. Alicia Keys plays keys and is a songwriter-but her voice stands alone. Her flexibility, power and ear for beautiful and unusual riffs make her voice unforgettable. Was Billie Holiday a musician?

 

Honestly, I blame it all on Bob Dylan. Before Bob, singers were the front musicians in the band and were considered musicians in their own right. When Bob started his one-man-band phenomena, singing, playing guitar, harmonica and writing songs he stole thousands of jobs, starting a whole craze of singer/songwriters doing the job of every musician in the band, many of them singing when they might have left that job to someone who could do it better. I will admit though, this last new years’ eve gig I did with drummer Lincoln Hubley, I banged on a tambourine and sang but also spent a lot of time watching Lincoln and his keyboardist and bassist in awe. First, they were all over their instruments and smoothly switching keys in the middle of songs, executing endings and intros to the next song with a couple chords, and singing beautifully too.

 

I guess that leads me to what I’ve concluded from my years in teaching singers. If you’re going to be a singer who won’t have to debate about your musicianship, other than mastering your instrument you will want to know the language of music-you need to know what is going on when you’re stylizing and interpreting a song. We don’t get a break because we’re not schooled classical or jazz singers. If you’re a rocker, a folkie, a popster, and you want to work with instrumentalists-your best bet is going to be to learn very basic music theory. Know key signatures, develop your ear for chord changes and whether they’re the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th etc, ideally know how to write your own charts and know how to count time. It means the difference between being able to control the direction of your songs, to participate in how they are interpreted by the instrumentalists, and not. Several Valley instrumentalists do not read music, do a lot of what they do by ear and feel, and they’re amazing. What they are completely on top of at the very least is the structure of the song, and where and what the chord changes are, where the “one” is. Whether or not you as a singer communicate those elements by feel or musical terminology, you will want to be able to communicate them.

 

Yes, I’m a musician. I am on this long and fascinating road of mastering my main instrument, developing others, and diving deeper into the complexities and magic of music.

January 4, 2011

One key concept in the vocal technique I teach is that the vocal cords should adduct through the entire vocal range. i.e.. so that instead of flipping into a breathy lighter falsetto when you sing higher, your voice remains connected to, and is just as powerful as, the lower range. It involves a certain compression but once you learn the coordination it's as easy as talking. One way to feel it, if it doesn't come naturally to you, is to sing the sound "nay" high up into your head voice, but doing so with a bratty sound. As you learn this coordination, you can let go of the bratty sound and find a fully released, but still connected, sound in your head voice. (Male voices start transitioning to head voice at about Eb4 while female voices start around Ab4.) One thing I've learned in the last month is that yes, many students have to learn better cord closure (to understand what I mean by cord closure, simply talk/sing the word  "at" staccato in your lower range.). But, once they  get the cords closing better they tend to swing in the other direction. Now they have a harder time releasing into their head voice as they have more weight in the bottom of the voice to transition out of. To help them do this I'll use a sound "gee" on a scale that takes them across their first and second bridges, (those transitions I mentioned earlier). Now they find more release and aren't carrying up all that weight from the bottom into the top of the voice.. But now we have to help them get that connected sound where they've just found release. So we work on that....in this way, my work as a teacher is constantly bringing a singers' voice into balance. Too breathy? Let's get better cord closure (muscle). Voice is straining? Let's get more release (air). After several lessons (and weeks of the singer practicing in between lessons-this is key!) the student has learned the coordination, is getting better and better balance, and can begin getting that connected sound in the songs they sing.

 

I'm writing this blog as much for myself as for you the reader! I tend to get hyper focused on one concept in vocal technique. I want all my students to have a powerful sound throughout their entire range, but to get that power, you have to have release too. In this way I am training my ear as well as my students to look for and support that  vocal quality of balance in a  voice. That beauty in a voice that's penetrating, maybe even fierce, but seems completely effortless.