A Practice of Thankfulness

Here's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Sometimes singers start to get their heads all in a funk. Nervousness starts to take over - sometimes before a performance, or sometimes even in a lesson or when trying to practice at home. So here's just a little idea that could help change this around if this is you...

Try introducing a practice of gratefulness into your singing. There's a whole lot of research already out there about how gratitude can help you through the hard times. Even Oprah has endorsed the idea of using a gratitude journal daily as a way of keeping your mindset positive. After all, it's difficult to feel fear when you're doggedly focusing on what you're grateful for.

So the next time you start getting nervous while singing, say or think to yourself:

 prayer and singing

It is not about me.

I am singing today in service to this song.

This song is wonderful. Its flowing melody and harmony take me to another place.

I'm so grateful for this melody. It is such an honour to be able to replicate this beautiful melody that I love to hear. Thank you.

If you are religious or spiritual, you could incorporate this into your gratefulness practice. Or you could leave it as is, and just mindfully be aware of any feeling welling up inside you; being kind to yourself the whole time. And see if, for a little while, you can JUST focus on the undulations of the melody - and perhaps the lyrics if there are certain lyrics that give you an enjoyable emotional reaction. Sing through the melody slowly and with focus - explore the highs and lows with interest and enthusiasm for where the song can take you. Just ride that wave and think of nothing else. Don't think about whether your voice sounds "pretty" or "breathy" or "strong" or "soft"; don't think of "quality" or of "getting it right", or even "what would my teacher say right now?"; don't think of performance. Just take a deep breath, close your eyes and trace in your mind's eye the beautiful patterns in the melody you're singing.

I'd love to know if any of you have tried something like this and if it helps. This may be something that other people haven written about, but it's something I've come to in my own experience. Feel free to comment below with any feedback you may have!

Working on your chops vs. selling out

When I studied Music Industry in London (all the way back in 2010), one of my favourite subjects was called The Business of Music Performance and it was taught by a rad guy called Chris Banks. The subject was based around Chris' experiences as a fairly successful session musician (playing keyboard for the Sugababes around that time if I remember correctly), and the insights and skills garnered from his significant experience in this industry. We learned how to write resumes for session work, how to do invoices and do our own accounting, how to find performance-based work, and a heap of other practical stuff.

Despite all the practical skills gained from completing assignments and so on, there were two ideas that he communicated that really stuck in my mind. The first was:

"If you really want to be a musician, make sure you find a day-job that works on your chops." (Note: If you're unfamiliar with the word "chops", in the music world it just means "your technical abilities on your instrument")

Many musicians shy away from doing corporate/function band work because they see it as "selling out". But Chris told us about how when he and some friends were young, they got a job playing at a ski resort for the high season, and played the same kind of crowd pleasing music day in, day out. It wasn't the genre of choice for any of the band members, but once you've played the standard pop hits enough times, you get so bored that you HAVE to find ways to improvise musical parts, or to engage the crowd more, to pass the time. And if you find yourself doing this, chances are you're getting WAY better at your craft, whether you realise it or not. 

In fact, this is kind of what the Beatles did when THEY started out. In 1960 when they were really just starting out as a band they discovered that they could get a regular "gig" if they moved to Hamburg, Germany. So they all up and left and earned £2.50 per day, playing covers, for absurdly long hours. Each day they'd play 4 sets between 8pm and 2am on weeknights, 5 sets from 7pm to 3am on Saturdays and from 5pm to 1.30am on Sundays. “In Liverpool, we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones at every gig,” John Lennon said in Anthology. “In Hamburg, we would play for eight hours, so we really had to find new ways of playing. […] We got better and got more confidence, playing all night long. It was handy, them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.” 

The second thing that Chris always said in our course was this:

"It's not the virtuosos that get the jobs. It's the people who follow through on their commitments, and are nice, reliable, and respectful that get the jobs."

Whether it's work in a live or recorded setting, many producers or artists would of course say they'd like to work with "the best drummer" or "the best violin player". But it just so happens that often the people who are the best at something, often have the biggest fees, and sometimes the biggest egos. And from a producer's perspective this combination could mean a waste of both money and time. Instead what they really want is someone who's good enough to play the style of music with a level of confidence, someone who shows up when they say they're going to, and someone who's nice and amicable when working with everyone else. This is the magic combination of skills that get the job done, every time. And as a musician, they make you super employable.

This advice is valid for people doing original work too! Some artists get tied up thinking they need to constantly upskill themselves before they can "make it". Like "if only I could play that riff, then I'd be good enough". Although getting better at your instrument will generate confidence, at a certain point it becomes not necessarily about your proficiency alone. The crowd want to see an engaging performance. The venue booker or promoter wants to see that you load in on time and that you know your way around invoices and APRA forms. The sound engineer wants you to remember their name, and not make life difficult for them where possible. And that's it. 

So... (TL;DR)

1. Don't worry about "selling out". Just go work on your chops.

2. Remember (for instrumentalists and vocalists alike) it's not JUST your technical skills that matter. Having plenty of performances under your belt is also time to demonstrate being a great performer and a generally nice, reliable human. These are all skills that will take you forward.


This article was inspired by a good friend of mine back in the UK, Matthew Rusk, who is doing awesome work at the moment with music teachers across the UK and Ireland.

What Taoism can teach us about learning how to sing.

 Lion-mindset singing.

I've been thinking through this idea for a while now. It all started with the idea of efficiency. When we're singing our best, it's when we're at our most efficient. No extra energy is being wasted, no fretting, no overthinking. Just pure and simple. I like to think of it as a lion vs. a yappy dog. The yappy dog runs around desperate for something, using up all its pent up energy any way it can, while the lion is about pure power; getting things done with only what effort is necessary. Sounds impressive, right?

But of course we don't start out like this. When ever we start out with a new skill, we tend to be all uncoordinated and unbalanced. Subtleties are difficult to grasp at the start, so movements start out bigger, more exaggerated, and more effortful than they need to be.

This poses a question of how do we get from A to B? Often the way we learn things in school is that we're taught that if we just TRY HARDER it will all get better. And often it does. After a bit of persistence that maths problem will make more sense, and that spelling will be more ingrained. But trying harder means exerting more effort, more energy - which might be taking you further away from the spontaneous, natural efficiency you want to have at the end (lion-mode).

And then, while studying the basics of Taoism for some light weekend reading (as you do), I came across this (chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi):


Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

cook Ting and the ox

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now - now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

"A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room - more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

"However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until - flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away." 

"Excellent!" said Lord Wen-hui. "I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!"


What I LOVE about this passage is the idea that difficulty can be overcome by allowing the spirit to be spontaneous! And technicalities are able to be overcome by following the true nature of things. The way I'm able to interpret this as a singer, is that, although at the start we must make mistakes and push on through, the most beautiful skills come out when we are just following what our souls and bodies want us to do. The aim of vocal technique should not be to go against nature; it should be to set free the body and soul to express itself in the most authentic way possible. At some point a skill must stop being a skill and start being pure expression.

Like Cook Ting sizing up the difficult part of the ox, we shouldn't be discouraged when challenges come our way, but take our time and pay attention. When you are attempting to master efficiency in a certain skill, struggling and blindly working hard may not help you achieve what you're hoping. It's the quiet, mindful attention that comes from following what is natural that will show you the way.

Why your voice is not "BAD"...

I've been wanting to write this post for a while as I've been mulling over a few ideas. At the moment I'm mid way through the amazing course "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who feels at all creatively blocked... or even those of you who don't. 

Anyway, my new mission is for all singers (fledgling, experienced, absolute beginner, "tone deaf", whatever), to vow NEVER to say "my voice is bad" (you can replace bad with an expletive if that's more your style).

But why? And what about those of you who truly believe your voice isn't "good enough"? Here's a few facts/ideas:

1. Specificity leads to improvement. "Bad" is a way too general term. It sounds like a cop-out. I'm not saying you're not allowed to think there are things about your voice that could do with improvement. But I think there are good things about each person's voice too - to say there are no good points is just plain incorrect. So, whenever you feel yourself going to say "that was bad", or "my voice isn't good enough", try replacing the words "bad" and "good enough" with words that are more specific. What specifically made you feel that way? Saying "that was a little shaky", or "my voice doesn't feel powerful enough" for example, are totally legitimate replacements. If you feel your voice IS, shaky or lacking power, then recognising those feelings will help you along your vocal journey, because you're figuring out what it is that you want out of your instrument, and those new goals ARE achievable. "Bad" doesn't send you along your journey. "Bad" just gets you blocked.

2. Coaxing leads to improvement. I know this sounds like a weird one. There's this idea in our society that says that "if you work hard enough you'll be the best". And then the logical conclusion is that we get on our own backs and never feel like we're working quite hard enough to "make it" or "be good enough". This kind of self-pressured thinking (although it means well) is totally unhelpful. It's the voice in our own heads that is basically like a script from that film "Whiplash".
WARNING there's some serious swearing in this one:

 
 

And the problem with this is that we think that by bullying ourselves we'll work harder. In reality this attitude can only lead to two things: a) you DO work harder but then the whole process feels like HARD WORK and in the frustration we loose sight of the joy that brought us to singing in the first place b) You don't work harder because beating yourself up constantly makes you feel like you CAN'T do it, and the cycle of procrastination/avoidance begins. The fact is that we're actually more likely to do things, and do them WELL, and with FOCUS and ENTHUSIASM, when we do it with a sense of joy, and when we are encouraged. Think of the bosses or teachers you might have had throughout your life. Did you do the best when you were encouraged or when you were abused? Most of us would say the former, and yet act in a way that's much closer to the latter when it comes to our own vocal development. But that can stop RIGHT NOW, by CHOOSING to be nurturing yourself. Be your own encouraging best friend- I promise your voice will come along in leaps and bounds

3. Music is communication. Singing is not (linguistically) defined by a specific view of success. If you're attempting to fly but you're falling, then it would be said that you're definitively no longer flying. In singing, as soon as you open your mouth to sing and make any kind of sound, you are definitively doing the act of "singing". This means you can ALREADY sing. Why? Because singing is something to be communicated with rather than judged. Remember this performance from Anne Hathaway in the Les Mis movie? Anne isn't a trained singer. Her singing probably could be technically improved in some way. But the reason people raved about her performance was not that she got everything note for note. The reason that performance was so good was because she was really communicating.

 
 

In all singing, there is a message to be transmitted. It might be a specific story, like something from folk or musical theatre. Or it maybe something more grungy and emotion-based. Either way, if you're going through a song and you're feeling like it's not "good enough", maybe the problem is that it's just not "real enough". Sometimes a lot of vocal issues can be solved just by getting lost in the story line and really going for it with your whole heart and soul. After all, why else do we sing?

 


I'm going to write another blog soon specifically about tone deafness and for those who believe they might be (or have ever been called) tone deaf. But the rules above should apply to EVERYONE. So break down those barriers and get singing!

If you're in Melbourne and are interested in getting your sing on, breaking some barriers, or improving your technique, sign up to my singing course on Tuesday nights in Elsternwick, starting August 25th. Absolute beginners right through to advanced students are all welcome, and singing will be done in a relaxing group environment, so don't worry about singing solos if you're not there yet. Contact me for more info or click here.

 

When Identifying your Heroes is Helpful.

 Ella Fitzgerald - Picture by Helmut Montag

Ella Fitzgerald - Picture by Helmut Montag

I wanted to write this post for a while because I think one of the most important things in the development of your voice is to be inspired by other artists. However, sometimes these artists have bad habits too, and it's important to distinguish between what we like about their voice and anything that might be unhelpful about it. Here's a worksheet of steps you might like to use.

STEP 1:
Listen to a WHOLE LOT of music. Listen to singers inside AND outside your genre. If you're used to singing pop, maybe listen to some jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. If you're used to rock music, then turn on the radio and listen to some Top 40 or see if you can find the soundtrack to a musical. It's important to start thinking about voices rather than just genres or styles.

STEP 2:
Remember that the aim of the exercise is not to sound like a carbon copy of that singer, but to identify exactly what it is that you like about this voice, so that you can use it in your own singing. Maybe it's their power, or their ease in reaching those high notes. Maybe it's their rich tone or vibrato? Maybe it's the conviction and authenticity with which they communicate their lyrics? Maybe it's the confidence that they're able to carry. See if you can figure out what it is that you like. Would you like to achieve these things in your voice too? You can bring this intention into your practise sessions and discuss it with your teacher. Also take a moment to think about any aspects of this voice that may be unhealthy. This won't apply to all voices, but if it sounds like the voice you're listening to is struggling or straining, it probably is. Take note that it's important to find a healthy and easy way to create the sound you want, and make a mental note of any things that you DON'T want to learn from this singer.

STEP 3:
Learn to imitate healthily. The first part of this is just to get into the mindset of the artist you're imitating. What do you think it would feel like to be them in a performance? Are you feeling relaxed and confident? Start cluing into what your body is doing and see if there's any anxiety you might be holding onto. Now you can sing along to a track, or sing a of a song of theirs in a different key. What are the things you're doing well, and what are the things that might sound easy but are actually really difficult? If this is all feeling way too difficult, don't be too hard on yourself! Sometimes it's helpful to take a step back and think how are they achieving that? Often it has a lot to do with the vowel sounds they're using, so you could even try to lip-sync along with the singer, trying to imitate their vowel sounds.

SOME IMPORTANT NOTES:
- If part of the thing you love about this singer involves and abrasive or strained sound, then hold your horses! It may be that you love the authenticity and power of this sound, rather than the actual abrasiveness. See if you can think about ways of showing this conviction WITHOUT straining yourself.
- Realise that even the stars can have bad habits and might injure themselves. Even if their voices seem flawless, every singer started off with their own crutches. Try to avoid imitating these.
- If you feel like your voice is getting tired, then take a break! There's no need to do this exercise for too long. Maybe you might need to listen to that singer a little more - find some more of their music and just listen to it in the car! Keep imagining yourself making the sounds that you want and think about the personality behind those sounds. Even just some simple reflection on this can encourage a marvellous change in your voice and the way you think about singing.