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!

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?

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.

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.

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.