Choose Your Challenge

2016-08-28 Donna McElroy Teaching-1-300As much as it looks natural and second nature for some singers, it takes an abundance of qualities to be a successful vocal entertainer.

Knowing the skills you lack and merely wishing you were better will not lead to vocal success.

It’s time now for you to identify some key areas that go into the mix of a well-rounded vocal performer.

I’m speaking of aspects beyond warm-up and exercises, practicing in the mirror using the hairbrush as your microphone.

This week why don’t you choose 2 or three aspects of the list below as areas to develop:

* Movement skills
* Memorization
* Stamina to vamp as long as you want
* Audience interaction and crowd management
* Interaction with band members
* Online fan base management
* Song writing and publishing
* Band decisions
* Song lists and keys
* Event consciousness (How many wedding songs do you know? How about the National Anthem?)
* Sound equipment, i.e., mics, chords, mixing boards, amplifiers, pre-amps, reverbs and effects, EQ software, voice-enhancing programs…

The list of possible things to be aware of is endless, of course, but just choose 2 or 3 things from this list as a start.

Find Your Testing Ground

I grew up in a time when there were many community opportunities to compete as a musical talent.

Louisville, KY, was a great environment for the arts, and I auditioned for every thing and usually got in.

In your community, too, there are probably places to test out your skills and develop them without the pressure of “big-time” stakes.

This experimentation is so key and is missing in the lives of most young performers I see.

Explore youth choirs in your area and church and P&W(Praise and Worship) groups where you can work on your writing and performance skills and get great feedback from audiences comprised of your peers.

Back to Basics

Donna04-199x199I’ve always found that everything falls in place for my performances once my basic strengths have been re-established.

Your audience doesn’t expect you to do all the technical work, though you may know how.

They do, however, expect that you are the sole proprietor of their musical tastes and emotions for the duration of your performance.

So, let’s review the basics.

Your commitment to the gig is evidenced by:

1. How well you know the song
2. How well you know the arrangement
3. How the song speaks for you and your audience.

These three aspects are your responsibility.

Some Basic Ideas

Even a cappella, you should have the arrangement in your head playing while you sing the song.

Knowing the bass line and concentrating on it as you sing is a good way to stay with the form and arrangement.

I often ask students to just sing the bass line to the song, or “chart”, they bring in.

The singing of the melody is just one aspect of the totality of the performance; the most important puzzle piece in vocal performance is your awareness of the overall presentation and what message you want to leave with your audience.

Remember: one never graduates from the need to practice these basics.

What’s Your Vocal “Thing”?

Donna-WhatsYourThing2-300I love working with singers to help them define their identifiable sound or trademark.

When listening to our favorite artists, we are attuned to defining the one thing that makes their voice unique, definable.

It may be the rasp or the swoop up to every note; it could be the “lick” or embellishment they use to approach melody notes from above or below.

It may be their vibrato, its rapidity, or the width of it. Maybe your signature is the content of your lyrics, or the instrumentation, form, orchestration of the arrangement.

Do you have a sound that is unmistakably yours, easily identifying you when you sing?

A yodel, a glottal attack on every syllable, a breathiness that’s present whether you are singing loudly or softly?

Does a singer need a trademark sound in today’s vocal industry?

I always ask a singer to decide if she wants to be versatile and sing whatever the Top 40 requires, or she wants to concentrate solely on writing and arranging her music to bring out the unique quality of her personal sound.

For some singers it is an easy decision.

They are not aspiring to be a major mainstream artist, and prefer to sing backup or lead in a Top 40 or Cover band.

This backing/cover singing is actually a great vocal challenge – especially when you think of the many unique and varied styles of the most popular songs of today.

Of course, a singer who is striving for a singular record career may have to do Top 40 band gigs to survive at the start of their career.

Your Signature Sound – Ideas

If you think a totally unique sound is the key to carving your niche in the music world, how do you cultivate that uniqueness?

Can you sing any song and use your sound to sing it?

Here are a few tips to help find your signature sound:

Singing Your Own Background Vocals

Overdubbing your voice in parts over your lead vocal is always a plus; who blends with you better than you?

The Money Note

On every song there is a note that listeners love for you to hit. It usually comes in the body of the song, say after the bridge, and is held for at least a bar or two, first with a straight tone, and then going into vibrato to add passion and dynamic.

The Hook

A rhythmic or a syncopated section that starts the song, appears throughout, and builds in inversion or intensity with each successive chorus.

These are just a few ideas for developing a recognizable sound of your own; just don’t limit yourself to the “safe” stuff. Be bold and try lots of different sounds and approaches on your way to vocal nirvana!

 


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

Do You Get Enough Vocal Rest?

http-::morguefile.com:search:morguefile:8:sleepingcat-ClaritaOk! I wanna talk about the elephant in the corner. I hear it whip its ugly trunk all too often.

I have students who come to me without having slept, admitting that they have no voice ‘cause they’ve been up in the studio all night.

I ask, “Why did you come to me?!” Somehow the desire not to anger their voice instructor causes their brain functions to lapse, and the need to please trumps the common sense of rebuilding the energy that is required to sing healthily and survive a day as a vocalist!

Or even, for that matter, as a cab driver!! Everybody needs rest!

Think of the voice as a set of soft sensitive membranes which, while needing lots of lubrication, also need relaxation and rest!

If you are near a drum snare head and make movement or noise, the “head” of the snare drum, or the membrane that stretches across the frame, vibrates involuntarily.

Thus, the cords, or membranes of the vocal apparatus vibrate involuntarily whenever there is sound.

Sometimes just getting some silence in is better than the most calming guitar solo or the most absolutely gorgeous Bruno Mars cut! No offense, Bruno!

I just think my student needs to hear some silence for a while to rest that weary voice and give me a fraction of a chance to help him learn the best skills to use for vocal longevity.

So I tell my student, “Invest in your vocal recovery!

Spend an hour reading the lyrics to all your songs and organizing them in order of, say, the most to the least difficult to memorize.

Or read up on the careers of some pioneers in the style of music you do; see how they got started.”

Sometimes it’s best to get some rest!


sleeping cat courtesy morguefile.com/Clarita

It’s Time to Scat

Donna-Smile3Bx300LightHow does a singer get the ease of improvisation, the language of scat, the vocabulary of the solo?

A simple start would be to sing the part above or below the melody.

In gospel music, harmonization is the rule for most songs; as the chords progress, so the three parts sung by the choir move in parallel motion.

Any alternate melody sung within the chord structure is improvisation.

Can you free your mind to sing notes that are not Beyoncé’s and still stay within the harmonic structure of her song?

If so, then you’re improvising!

Understand Scatting

Vocal jazz improv, or scatting, is best accomplished with a tremendous commitment to learning the chord progressions of songs and being able to sing the members of each chord – either “arpeggiating” or singing the scale notes available in the chords.

It is important to know that this is the method used for all instrumentalists and there is no escaping it!

Also, listening to instrumental improvisers and picking out (even notating) patterns and phrases exclusive to the respective instrument, you’ll be able after a while to decide if you want to improvise in the style of a particular instrument.

Trumpet, saxophone, guitar and piano all present patterns that can inform singing – even drummers play in patterns which are “singable” if you listen closely and figure out the rhythmic pattern.

The most famous and innovative jazz vocalists improvise instrumentally.

However, they all have a unique and personalized syllabic approach, as should you, resulting from years of instrumental listening, harmonic analysis, and experimentation, or jamming, with other players.

Here’s a tip:

Pick your current favorite song and for a whole day just sing the bass line to it.

Dedicate your ear to the bass player’s performance.

Then move to the horns or strings or some other part of the arrangement – free yourself from the melody.

Your knowledge of the song as a whole will be greatly improved, and you will gain more confidence in your improvisation skills!

Berklee Global Jazz Institute at the Newport Jazz Festival 2016

Yesterday my Berklee Global Jazz Institute vocal group sang in the opening concert of the Newport Jazz Festival! We did one song, “Autumn Leaves,” my arrangement! The two young ladies are the children of the director of the Global Jazz Initiative at Berklee, Marco Pignataro, who was also a disciple of Dizzy Gillespie! Singing in the Newport Jazz Festival was truly an amazing experience!

The Berklee Global Jazz Institute is designed to help instrumentalists and vocalists with unique talent and wide-ranging musical interests achieve their artistic goals through an experiential and interdisciplinary approach. As part of the BGJI this summer I have been coaching this vocal ensemble.

Singing in the Newport Jazz Festival was truly an amazing experience for my students, and me!

Donnas BGJI Vocal Buzz-640

Global Jazz Initiative Vocal Buzz!!!!! Jack O’connor, Daniel Barbrack,John (Jack)VanGorden, Daniela, and Carolina! Thanks, Young Musicians, for a remarkable week!!! WE ALL GREW SO MUCH! <3 Forever!

Donna-Marco-640

w Marco Pignataro, Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Initiative.

Organize Your Songs

Tie Charts Blog 7-19-16It’s time to make those lists AND make them work for you.

The first thing I say to students is, “List your favorite songs you have sung; then list songs you don’t know but want to learn.”

You have probably learned more songs than you realize. Listing them is a cool project that could inspire more consideration.

After the name of each song you could write what key/style/feel /tempo you like to sing it in.

After listing your keys, you might find that you’re most comfortable singing ballads in certain keys so your “money note” can help you really make the performance incredible.

When you get a list of songs from a bandleader, sit at the piano and experiment with the keys or tonal centers singing the melody, modulating up or down, to find your most comfortable key.

I sing “Misty” in Bb, Summertime in C, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…) in Db.

Once you know your best key, your artistry has begun.

The Basics

Remember: a singer can communicate on a musical level even without a prepared chart or sheet music.

All you need to know is the key and tempo of each song, then you can be off to a great start building and developing a versatile repertoire, and will never be at a loss for a great song to sing for any occasion!

The songs you want to learn are less of a challenge because you’ve already heard the melody.

If the song has been recorded, listen to many versions of it. Your perfect version is somewhere in the mélange of different other artists’ interpretations.

And remember, once you’ve learned a song, there is no version of it that you HAVE to do! Good luck organizing your repertoire!

Dottie West

DottieWestDottie West was a super hero type woman! She overcame so many dastardly odds to become the singing sensation she was. She had so much personality and was so smooth in her delivery of a line or a song! I found her enchanting to be around and was devastated when she passed!

When asked to fly to LA and sing with her and Kenny on the tour of their duet album, I was ecstatic! And while in LA, I was especially honored and thrilled to call my friend Denise Stewart (Denise S Bates), who was a fellow Fiskite, to sing the third part on the songs we were to perform!! That was something! we had a ball!!!!

Somebody Talkin’ About Jesus

I was recovering from a horrible auto wreck, in barefoot, following through with a show I’d been rehearsing for weeks before the wreck. I went on the stage at Exit Inn( Ithink, somebody help me! It may have been the War Memorial or some place like that!) When I had finished a horribly frantic over-done, busy set of maybe 4-5 songs, the emcee came out and said, “We’ve got a young lady who just came to town this week… she wants to have a career in the record industry. Why don‘t we help her get started with a nice welcoming hand?”

We clapped…

Out walked Kathy Mattea, guitar strung across her shoulder and under her arm. I’m still speechless in remembering that indescribable rich true gorgeous siren of a voice!!! Next thing I knew I was singing on her record(s)!! This is one of the opps Vicki Hampton and I got to be as creative as the artist, and it’s because Kathy had the chops to let us do our thing and still show totally OUT!!!!!!!

Berklee Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Symphony Hall

The Fisk Jubilee Singers at Symphony Hall: A Tribute

Sunday / February 21, 2016 / 7:00 p.m.
Symphony Hall, Boston
310 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA, 02115, United States

(view map)

Fisk Jubilee Singers

Organized in 1871, the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers have played an important role in introducing and sustaining the tradition of negro spiritual and black American religious music to the world. That music created the paradigm later followed by the blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and the many styles of music derived from the African cultural diaspora in the United States, thus permanently altering the course of the world’s music. Composed of Fisk University students annually selected for the quality and unique harmonious compatibility of their voices, the Fisk Jubilee Singers was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest artistic honor, in 2008.

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