The Love of Singing

Donna-Smile3Bx300LightIf I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Sadly, if your dream as a singer is to change the world or help anybody else to change, your hardest chore will be to be heard over the clanging cymbals.

Sincerity is the loudest, sweetest bell; a sweet spirit is all you need to be encouraging.

As you walk your path to artistic karma, think of your work ethic and whether you would like to reminisce or regret.

Consider all aspects of the words success, luck, destiny, preparation, skill, experience…

And write lists!

Like these:

-Songs I’d like to learn
-Songs I have charts to
-Songs I need to transpose
-Foreign language selections
-Wardrobe ideas
-Cities I’d like to travel to
-Political figures I’d like to endorse with my singing
-Products I’d like to endorse
-Hotels and casinos I’d like to perform at
-Artists I’d like to do a duet with
(If they asked me, I could write a book…)

My Final Words

Now, as I end my Vocal Coach Residency, can I just say something here about how much I love to sing?

If you haven’t picked up on that fact yet, let me state my dream has always been to sing and share my stories with people all over the world.

I never cared what race or class or religion or culture or financial, educational, or medical state people were in when I shared with them.

In fact, the first things I want to know about my listeners is who they are; then I go into my background, my resume, my memory, even sometimes the memories of my ancestors, and find basic truths for us all.

Sometimes your interested presence and expression of caring is music to people’s ears!

So, Sing.

Sing with love, sincerity, compassion…and preparation.

Ideas for Creating Your Song Lists

song-list-photo-1Creating song lists can simplify your gigging work. When you are sitting down to create these, feel free to use some of the ideas presented here.

Here is a sample of categories you might use:


  • Rhythm & Blues
  • Gospel
  • Wedding
  • Jazz
  • Contemporary Christian
  • Classic Rock
  • Neo Soul
  • Beatles
  • Gershwin
  • Wonder
  • Ellington
  • Matthews
  • Warren
  • Pink
  • Sam Smith
  • Jarle Bernhoft
  • John Legend

There are many ways you can categorize your song. Here are some different ways to organize your approach:


Maybe you want to organize your music by styles.
List the pop tunes and their keys,
Then the reggae songs you love and want to learn; find their keys, then gospel, etc.


Maybe you want to list and find the keys of every Beatles song you know and love to sing.

If you are a George Gershwin fan, or you want to impress your folks, you might want to start learning some of his songs.

Why not a collection of Great American Songbook composers? You’ll definitely be learning songs and finding keys for quite a while!


Or your organizational approach might be all the songs of Pink, then John Legend, then Sam Smith, or Jarle Bernhoft. Try finding your best key for his song “choices”!! Good luck!

Dedication Beyond Vocals

jubileesingers-400x400I thought it would be a great idea to share what great teachers have taught me. These are the insights that lie behind any vocalist maintaining outstanding ethics and principles:

* Preparation. Warming-up, personal hygiene, and punctuality go a long way to signal to your co-workers and your client that you have a professional and dependable work ethic.

* Flexibility. Understand your role(s) in the overall goal of a project, even if the project is your own. The performance of the song, whether recorded or live, is just the result of all the comprehensive preparation for it, including its usage and destination.

* Change. Be willing to not only listen but to actually hear and carry out changes and suggestions according to the input of others.

* Faith. Always believe that you are supposed do this job and are there only because the client thinks so too.

* Journey. Try not to get preoccupied with any single project you’re included in; each experience is on the way to the next experience and never the ultimate destination.

Be Dedicated.

Dedication to doing the job well and building a lasting working relationship with the client should be a long-term goal.

With this level of dedication, your career will be filled with respect and esteem from producers, co-workers, and artists who share your passion for excellence, and your resume will be extraordinary!

Though my singing has been largely professional, all the “tips” I have for healthy, professional, long-lasting singing were ingrained in me in my formative years—in elementary, junior high or secondary school, and high school, and through my training as a lyric soprano in college (Fisk University,’77).

In other words, in my life, great teachers have taught me and helped me to maintain outstanding ethics and principles, and for this I am truly grateful.

The Quest for The Great Song

music-on-pianoI heard a radio interview yesterday with Marni Nixon, a singer who made her entire career from doing the singing for the lead actresses in many of the iconic films of the twentieth century.

When Ms. Nixon got started doing her work there were so many wonderful composers and lyricists to collaborate with, it must have seemed like a dream.

Singing the melodies of Richard Rogers and Leonard Bernstein!

Hmmm, delicious work and, sadly, a lost art form.

Keep Up Your Quest

We singers are selling our voices short if we don’t go searching for those great show tunes, learn the melodies, the lyrics (some lyricists like Cole Porter wrote volumes of extra lyrics!), and build our vocal strength by actually singing.

Not to mention building our repertoire and personal range, learning which keys we sing in best and learning how to transpose these beautiful old gems into our own keys.

What a world a singer can open up for herself if she can step away from the Karaoke version and arrange her own version of a great venerable piece of musical history!

Then add a lick or a run, but know what you’re licking from and where you’re running to!

The staccato arrangement of today’s vocals is meant to accommodate the choreography that’s dominating the popular art form.

Though I simply adore Beyonce for her versatility, style, and work ethic, it does seem that she breathes in the middle of syllables and embellishments.

Now, the way she’s kickin’ it, Beyonce has a reason for needing that extra breath –what’s your excuse?

Stage Stamina

imgallery-nasvhillejazzworkshopsjazzatOne way to view singing is as an expert use of a big gust of wind, or organized and appointed breathing.

Watching Voicecouncil’s Peer Review Videos the past couple of weeks has shown me, yet again, that many aspiring singers really need to work on this area.

In fact, getting in touch with your breathing pattern and learning to control it is a skill that will not only improve your performance, it will also benefit you in calming yourself before going on stage!

An Excercise

In the very first lesson I have with my students, I give them the “TWELVE-STEP BREATHING” Exercise:

a. Inhale for four steps [these are literal steps – I have them walk around the room!]
b. hold for four steps,
c. exhale for four steps,
d. repeating this cycle as you walk:

4 steps………………4 steps…………….4 steps

Repeat this as many times as you can.

A Break with Your Past

You are breaking your normal breathing pattern and your body may take a while to get used to this exercise, but keep it up…keep experimenting with durations of time, staying aware that the middle, or holding, phase is what you want to build.

One thing, though: if you get light headed, stop and breathe normally until you can resume exercising!

Next, start using some physical-muscular force to control your dynamics.

Do you know where your abdominal area is and how knowledge of its potential will enhance your singing?

More support from the abdominal area means more control of every note at every volume – but don’t think that we’re talking about pushing hard on the muscles in this area, or having a distended belly whenever you sing!

Getting in touch with the use of this essential musculature is one of my first and longest-lasting drills I use in teaching performance.

Control of one’s breathing through the entire experience on stage is essentially mastery of these muscles and breathing techniques.

I’ve become a disciple of this pre-gig preparation, and it really works!

Now, testing this new breathing out is virtually impossible with an Adam Thicke dance tune, so go get “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate, or “Something Good” from The Sound of Music, phrasing that makes more sustained demands on your lungs.

Your Next Song

donna-oops-300x300I’m so impressed when singers make a slight mistake and keep going, not letting the lapse in lyric memory or the place they are in the song blow the rest of it for them.

I’ve seen singers sabotage themselves – especially in auditions by letting nerves steal their concentration.

It’s so important to move onto your next song free of the past and fully ready for what is to come.

A Tactic to Try

Here’s a tactic I’ve developed over the years to help me make a full transition from one song to the next.

Sometimes when I’ve just finished singing a song, I get a little light-headed, as though I’m out of my own body, and watch the whole room from the perspective of the audience, the band, the sound engineer, the waitresses and bartenders, etc.

I’ve gotten used to doing this whether the song went well or terribly, just getting a vibe from the room as to a general atmosphere.

Most of the time the mistake I made was noticed by no one but me or the keyboard player, or possibly the songwriter if they’re present; in other words, the whole gig didn’t fall apart because of that misbegotten phrase.

I remind myself that there’s really nothing I can do about the previous song, and I certainly don’t have to let the rest of my show suffer just because of any lapses in concentration.

I’ve also learned at the end of the gig to accept any and all compliments with grace and a smile (I’ve practiced this in the mirror!!!), and not correct the audience members.

What they don’t know won’t hurt anybody.

This kind of thinking has been my savior, this transitioning away from what I just sang. NEXT!

Redefining Excellence

It’s only over time, after many successful gigs filled with great and grim outcomes, that I’ve come to understand excellence.

Excellence is not a single moment of performance success, but the culmination over one’s life and career of successful performance tactics that work to keep you focused—focused on the musical life you want to live and to communicate with others.

So keep on blazing through every song and performance experience.

And try to have a grand and glorious time no matter what mistakes were made.

In the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara:

there’s always the next song!

Who’s Your Audience?

mi0001765026That was the first question asked when I sat down to talk to A&R people at Warner Bros. for my first record (Bigger World-’89).

I was, admittedly, clueless, and though tremendously talented, a much harder “sell” than the artist they next interviewed.

She came in with a mailing list, a website, upcoming scheduled performances, a soft drink idea, a doll design with a complete wardrobe, and an organization she was affiliated with just waiting for her first release!

I had no chance. The company’s attention was on how to plug this artist’s existing package into their larger corporate machine; I had no organized career to speak of.

Just an example of the music industry not being only about a great song and a wonderful performance, but more and more about the multi-marketing potential of a talent and the profit that is generated from it.

The Demographic

Don’t feel dumb if you don’t know that term; I didn’t either ’til I had to.

The demographic is your fan base, the people whom you’ve reached and the ones you aspire to…the people moved by your music.

A successful artist will likely have done a ton of research on a particular targeted demographic.

The wonderful thing is I can tip you off to the industry expectation of its importance and influence in building your career.

Think through these factors when it comes to people connecting with your singing: age group, educational level, religious affiliation? American Cancer Association? CARE? ASPCA?

Now is the time for all good singers to decide their demographic and claim it!

Cover Tunes and Your Best Key

imgallery-berklees60thanniversaryconceFatai is the best example of taking a cover tune and making it your own! She sings “CHANDELIER” so distinctly, so stylistically in possession of the song, you kinda forget the original recording!

I have students all the time who want to do the “cover” tune and sing exactly what they heard on the original track. Karaoke, you know? Booooo-ring!

At the same time as wanting to sing a song just like the original singer, folks wanna grow their dynamic range and their personal tessitura. “I wanna get rid of my ‘break’! I wanna sing higher in my chest voice!” I call this instrumental schizophrenia…

I always start at the top of the singer’s range. Invariably I get a look of, “I don’t like that part of my voice!! Yuch!!!” But after I have gotten them back in touch with the BEAUTY of their upper register, then I hear, “I lost my lower range!!! My low notes are weak now! Why can’t I sing BOTH sounds?!?!”

As you train the upper region the lower notes will be less accessible, so you kinda have to (at FIRST) do a bit of a trade-off!!!

Do you want your upper range back? Do you want to raise the keys of songs you’ve been singing in lower (male)keys because you felt intimidated by how, say,  Stevie went into his last verse? Then you gotta work the head voice and leave the lower voice alone, which will make it less available. Till you work on merging the two with chromatic scales across the “break”. Don’t rush!!!

SING once you’ve warmed up!! In every key! Every song you learn! All the hard songs. and the easy ones. Re-design the melodic implementation to fit the interpretation that develops from your new flexibility. Forget about the record!!! The Run, the lick, the  interpretation of the original artist are just fertilizer for a creative singer. Learn the SONG! Then transposition comes next.

Transposition of a melody has always been simple for me. Once I have learned a melody I can sing it in ANY key, essentially because I learned the intervalic relationship of notes in the melody.  It may sound complicated, but knowing how to sing/play anything in any key is the same thing we ask the accompanists and band members to do, so we gotta learn it too!

Let’s get rid of, “I don’t know what key(I sing this sing in), just start playing!”

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.