The Cream of the Nashville Background Singing Crop

imgallery-donna2Early in our careers in Nashville, Vicki Hampton and I were fortunate to sing a lot of backup sessions with Lea Jane Berinati, a numbers chart-writing, AFTRA-contracting DYNAMO! She would come in maybe an hour before the rest of us and write “charts” on notebook paper, assigning parts to us in the number system. She would always want to be on the bottom part, and Vicki and I would fight over which of us would take the top part. Some of the conflict was because, not having warmed up, the range of the notes would initially intimidate us. Most of the time we both just liked to sing that inner harmony, the middle note, that would hold the other parts fast and require the top singer to be on point and the bottom singer to keep great intonation, which Lea Jane definitely did.

There were others singers like the Cherry Sisters, whom I would sometimes sub for if one of them were double-booked. These women were the cream of the Nashville background-singing crop. Also, I cannot forget Yvonne Hodges, who always took the top part and was  on point about absolutely everything! She was punctual, charming, and fast to learn and memorize. She was also a fellow Fiskite, a classically trained soprano, and an inspiration; Yvonne showed me that I could use my classical training to sing in any genre I chose! These are a few of the great singers who got me to start seriously considering my own professional singing and musicianship.

Vicki and I were part of many singing groups in church and in school all our lives. Those early years of lots of musical experiences helped to develop lots of versatility, and gave us the ability to sing any part with any combination of singers! The prospect of continuing with this really fun activity as a job for life was not much more than big dreams of fame, fortune, and success in the minds of two young Kentucky girls. Little did we know, the dreams would become reality, and one day we’d be seasoned professional vocalists in the entertainment industry, touring, session singing, teaching, arranging, writing, being sought for our talent – yes, divas!

The Universe of Sound – Or How Perfect Pitch and the Numbers System Got Married and Had a Baby Called Solfege

imgallery-kingsteachingIn my days teaching at Berklee, being part of the famous YOTEAM, I irritated great arrangers. In the midst of the orchestra/big band rehearsal, I would hear a note played by an instrument in the mix of the performance of some chart and say to the player, “You should have an Ab on that chord, not A!” In the denseness of the chart, I would hear that one note.

Interestingly though, I would always have to ask what “Key” we were in. (Which is a whole ‘nother essay, and we ain’t got time!) If I knew what key the chart was in, I could go directly to that chord/note in my mind, identify it, and tell the player what to replace it with. It was a not-so-slight irritation to my co-workers, both student and faculty, but they grew to realize that I was right whenever I heard something “off” and decided I had better be heeded. It was through this ear training skill that I inadvertently also learned how to spell out chords.

I found that it was not enough just to know the note to correct. The note doesn’t sit there by itself. It has a role, or membership, or position in the harmonic structure of the song, therefore it has to be correctly spelled out in the harmonic arrangement of the chart. Sometimes I would say to the horn player, “that note is a G not G#.” Then my colleague Ken would spell the chord out for the player to reiterate the quality of the chord and, therefore, the importance of that note’s membership in it. Through listening to Ken and Tom and Richard and Winston and Alonzo and all the other faculty and student arrangers speak in the language of the harmonist, the mind of the arranger, I was able over the years to merge two concepts: the horizontality of the melody and the verticality of the chords written to compliment, even explain or enhance, the nature of the melody.

I have always hated graphs and charts, so when I see teachers at the blackboard “analyzing” the harmonic structures of exercises or assigning certain harmonic progressions to meet a theoretical format, my mind goes to another planet and has a margarita. Then a new amazing artist comes along – still today, and just like Bird or Waller – to toss out that theoretical bung and give us a new innovative concept of how to voice or express or utilize the same twelve half steps!

Sometimes people think I have perfect pitch, and I get a kick out of that. What I have, however, is a kind of relative pitch. I may or may not be able to tell exactly what a tone is, but once I know what it is, I can tell you anything else about it, i.e., its membership in the chord being played, or the interval between it and the note before and after it, and its number or solfege name, assuming there is a tonic reference implied in the piece.

So how I think about a song and its performances, whether live or recorded, has evolved to be a multi-dimensional holographic picture of it as a cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. Hey! That’s kinda Herbie Hancock-y! I gotta remember that! A multi-dimensional holographic picture. A cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. That’s kinda cool!

How I Got My Life Back

imgallery-berklees60thanniversaryconceIn 1981 I drove off a cliff. For the next several weeks I was in recovery in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. (Which I will not credit due to the treatment I received. Though I am grateful to be alive, it is not by the grace of any of these hospital employees, and if I were a vindictive soul, I would sue the hospital and the doctors and nurses who were not happy that a Black woman was in their midst, injured-angry-delirious from brain trauma and not easy to be kind to. But I digress . . .)

During that time I was lost and had no real concept of who I was until I was told I was a singer. Then when I heard myself sing – and I remember this moment – I was flooded with emotions and memories from my childhood that helped start the healing process in my brain. Even before I was born, I had listened in the womb to my mother’s beautiful voice and my family’s inimitable musical proclivity. It was my memory of being a musician and singer that propelled my recovery.

The effects of music on different regions of the brain was documented in a film I recently viewed with the students at the Global Jazz Institute sponsored by Berklee College and led/presented by Danilo Perez. The film featured Gabby Giffords, the U.S. Congresswoman shot in the head by that guy who was an angry cuss. (He won’t get his name in this article either.) In one segment of the film, a nurse tries to assist Gabby in saying the word “light,” but Gabby is unable to form the words in her throat. Then the nurse starts singing an old spiritual, “This Lil Light o’ Mine.” Gabby sings the song with the nurse with clarity of diction and no problem remembering how to form the words or sing the notes! I sat there in the mercifully lowered light of that room and wept, remembering how I got my life back singing simple songs that I had learned as a child and piecing my conscious mind back together. That film also added to the theory I have had all my life that the sound and the knowledge of it come first, then the method of expressing what that sound is.

I thank God in my recent years that I had no problem remembering those early days up to my adolescence. The smudge starts and my memories are obscured approximately one year before the accident. I’ve been sort of resigned to be grateful for the recollections I have been able to gather. To start to rebuild one’s life in the middle of it, having lived many years with countless little memories that comprise a life’s story, let’s just say, is not anything I would wish on my worst enemy.

Lately, I’m remembering “Super Fly,” “Where is the Love,” “In the Ghetto,” “In the Bottle,” “Across 110th St” . . . song after song of an era! One that I know I spent singing with great artists and shaped my dreams! I do not actually remember hearing them and embracing them in my mind and heart, but it’s strange how their effect is still evident on the soul even if not in the consciously stored memory. I guess that is what I call the evidence of tones in my heart and sounds in my spirit.

 

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:

 

  • STYLES
  • Rhythm & Blues
  • Gospel
  • Wedding
  • Jazz
  • Contemporary Christian
  • Classic Rock
  • Neo Soul
  • COMPOSERS
  • Beatles
  • Gershwin
  • Wonder
  • Ellington
  • Matthews
  • Warren
  • ARTISTS
  • 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:

Styles

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.

Composers

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!

Artists

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
INHALE………………HOLD……………….EXHALE

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!