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!

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.

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!

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.