The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 2

Shirley, Marla’s supervisor, was quite pleasant when she welcomed Marla into the office for “a little conference,” she said. It was never a good thing to have the “boss” call you in for a one-on-one!

Marla wondered which of the spoiled little brats had ratted on her. She could just imagine Shirley saying, “I didn’t make the rules! I’m just following the syllabus distributed in the school’s registration manual!Marla imagined herself replying, “In that case, change the requirements to read, ‘Effective contingent upon the students’ desire to follow through,’ unless the catalogue’s not going to have any legitimacy.”

“Hi, Shirley,” said Marla. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Marla,” said Shirley. “Hope you’re doing fine! I wanted to mention to you a currently un-official complaint lodged by one of your Private Instruction Students. Like I said, it’s not official, but the student just wanted to make me aware of your actions in her lessons. She said you spend a lot of time talking about yourself and your career and all the songs you know and all the stars you’ve sung with. She says every lesson she comes to is another session reminding her of your resumé. She said you make her feel like she will never get anywhere or be successful at anything, because you seem to have ‘done it all!’”

“I wonder, Shirley, is this one of the students who brings in their assignment? Did they mention that they didn’t get to sing their assigned songs? Or did they say I was talking about my experiences since they had not brought in their assigned songs to sing to me!”

Marla did have an anecdotal style, especially when the student came in with no music, sat in the chair next to Marla’s desk, and didn’t have any of the “stuff” she’d given them to work on in their previous lesson in their bag. Perhaps it was unfair, but Marla knew her career experiences were substantially more interesting that anything these young people could dream of to talk about, so the only other option was to allow them to talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends or enemies or bands they liked to “stalk” on the internet. When she talked about her actual experiences on the road, sessions and the artists she’d sung backup for, the tour life she’d led, the things she’d learned as she’d packed and unpacked over the years, Marla tried to stay positive and joyful about her career, always finding the most hilarious or sarcastically humorous way to narrate her stories. And there was definitely no shortage of stories!

I oughta write a book, Marla often thought. At least a written account of her experiences would be a guide for a novice singer to compare notes. Then she could cash in on her autobiographical saga by assigning passages to be read and discussed in the next class period. That was how the instructors used to do it, Marla remembered, only they were called teachers when she was in school. They were actually hired to teach back then, instead of babysit. That’s what it seemed the occupation had evolved to, a baby-sitting job, watching young people grow up and decide what they wanted to do with their lives and careers. Nice, except that this was college, and Marla had always thought that college was for developing and training for the career that had already been chosen, not an incubator for waking up the minds of the brain-dead.

She was always thinking, “Come on, you people! Don’t you have any idea what you want your life to look like? By the time I was your age, I had already won my fourth Grammy in my mind! Of course, I didn’t have a clue how to get it, but I at least knew I wanted to win them!”

It seemed these young people didn’t have any idea what kind of music they wanted to sing, let alone what paths to take to get to the Grammys’ stage and accept the highly-revered sculpture. They just wanted to sit at the piano slumped over, play those same three chords over and over, riff and run, then go to the “caf” and hang out, happy to be back with their friends again, in the company of fellow disciples of dereliction. Somehow, and often when she thought of standards and all the melodies she knew, she longed to compose her own anthem of laziness, call it, “I Do Nothin’, and I Do It Good!” She’d only have two notes, ti and doe; that would be all the singer would have to memorize, to make learning and singing the song as easy as possible.

Now here was another one who was only interested in herself and didn’t want any input from the instructor, just wanted to arrive and be praised for doing nothing and then leave and return to the world of “Me.” Seemed she hadn’t gotten to talk about her boyfriend or the fabulous time she’d had in New York city the previous week. But no music had been memorized and no choices had been made of selections she was going to sing in her final proficiency examination. The thirty-minute lesson that her folks had paid so much for her to blow off was essentially only important in the registration process; as in, “I got Marla Callahan!”

Marla was so unmoved by the hype. She knew that the moment she told the student, “Come in,” he or she would be recording everything she said, soaking in all her wisdom like a sponge, totally expecting the marvelous miracle of her wisdom to fall on them like alpine honey. Yeah, but if you don’t believe in yourself without me, how are you going to make it? thought Marla. What’s your four-year plan, your career goal, your personal destiny? How are you going to take what I say to you and in ten years still be interested in being a professional musician? She had asked this so many times to a myriad of students, some of whom now would “hit her up on Facebook” and thank her for the “heads-up.”

“I learned everything I am, I do, I teach from you, Mothah!” She’d read it just the other day. Luanna, her student organizer back in the day when Marla had been a rooky on the PROTEAM, the group of faculty who helped to put on all the semi-professional shows at the school, had written her to play a vocal production idea she’d sung all the tracks to for a new artist she was producing. It was actually incredible, and Marla heard traces of her own extensive career as a backup arranger coming through as she listened to this sweet intoxicating arrangement.

Luanna had written, “I learned it all from you, Mothah!”

Marla was proud to say the least. But more than just proud, she knew her griot style of teaching, word-of-mouth, experientially, credibly, was fading, and that her steadfast commitment to this form of spreading of the musical “gospel” had to continue through her students. The ones who listened anyway. Marla knew without a doubt that even a student like Arianne would write to her one day with the request she’d once had for Mrs. Jörgenson: “Tell me, what was that you said about lower-body support?”

Marla would have the pleasure of repeating it again for the millionth time to Arianne one day, if instinct served her, just as Mrs Jörgenson had to Marla! Lives and priorities changed, but physiology and pedagogy did not. Ever.

 

© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy pixabay.com)

 

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.

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.

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.

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!