Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Are You Good Enough?

One of my singers auditioned for The Voice last week, and did an amazing job. She sang her heart out and felt fantastic about herself and her performance, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Before she went, however, she was filled with doubt and emailed to ask whether she should go through with it. Was she good enough? Was she better than those who’ve been on the show? Was it all worth it? What if she didn’t make it; what if she ‘failed’? 

We all ask these questions of ourselves… are we worthy?  Will we hit the mark we’ve been aiming for?  Should we bother? 

Here’s what I wrote back to Sabrina. And I hope it will help you as much as it encouraged her to give up the doubt and hop on the plane!

Sabrina, do you have any idea how hard you’ve worked and how far you’ve come?  How incredible you sound and how much you’ve gained as a singer and an artist and a performer these past few months?  I couldn't be more thrilled for or proud of you.

We can always find people we think are better than us. Even the greatest singers in the world can find someone against whom they don’t think they compare. Should they then stop singing?  Is that the point… to be ‘the best’?  What does that even mean!? 

You have to ask yourself… why am I auditioning, and more… why do I sing?  Why did you make your CD?  Why are you going to Nashville to audition for The Voice?  Is it to be ‘the best’ or ‘to win’?  If so, you might find yourself frustrated even if you succeed, because these are standards against which none of us can ever measure up.

If, on the other hand, you’re auditioning– and singing and making music in general– because you want to challenge yourself to be your best, then not only will you enjoy the ride, but you'll continue to grow, including beyond where you once thought possible. And if you frame winning as accomplishing your goals and dreams with grace, persistence, and an open mind and humble heart, you will always be successful.  

When you doubt yourself– and we all do from time to time– go ahead and listen to ‘that voice’. Sometimes it has wisdom for us… have we practiced enough? Are we working hard enough, caring for ourselves enough, and challenging ourselves in the right ways? Take that wisdom in and apply it, and then get back to getting ready for a wonderful adventure, both in terms of this audition and all along your musical journey!

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Emotions, Vocal Freedom, and Technical Issues

Yet another wonderful series of questions from one of my great singers. I hope that you find our conversation helpful! 

I’m finding as I’m doing the vocal exercises and becoming more aware of my body (and as I move toward the audition) I can get emotional.  I guess it’s a combination of letting go and putting myself out there.  Is this a common experience or just my own?  

Very common.  Often when we 'learn to sing' it becomes an out of body, disconnected-from-our-body experience. When we sing as we're meant to- connected in our bodies and therefore, with all of who we are physically and personally, the breath and vibrations and connectedness can call up emotions that we've pushed away and/or ignored.  It's a great thing... an opportunity to reconnect.  

As I’m practicing, should I be staying in my “head” voice throughout the songs or allow my voice to move from my chest to my head and just practice the transition exercise to smooth it out? 

I say play with it!  Try things in your head voice, and then in your chest voice, and then choose to move back and forth between the two with a spirit of playfulness, rather than trying to get it 'right'.  Then most importantly, make creative choices about how you want to sound and learn to ALLOW the voice to follow your decisions. It's tempting to try and physically will the voice to shift from head to chest and back again, but this tends to result in throat tension and a holding of breath. When we allow the voice to take the lead, and take our hands off of the proverbial reins, it's incredible how effortless these shifts- and singing in general- become.  

I’ve been told in the past to open my mouth more as I sing and that’s been a challenge for me - is that something for me to let go of for now, or should I pay attention to that in front of a mirror?  

I've never liked that advice... like 'supporting', 'breathing', and 'placing', these verbal commands and instructions often don't make sense or help when it comes to practical implementation.  Sometimes opening your mouth a bit more- ALLOWING it to open- can help, but it really has little to do with whether you're creating sound correctly in the body in terms of support and connection and engagement, and whether the voice is traveling healthily through the vocal tract.  If the sound is created correctly, allowing your mouth to open a bit is relatively easy.  If you're tight, disconnected, or crimped in any way though, it will be a struggle to do so. The same is true when people ask you to manipulate the tongue in order to help production.  If production is correct, the tongue is easy to manipulate.  If not, it just adds tension upon tension. 

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New Book Promo and Press!

What a wonderful weekend!  I was just in New York City, doing interviews with Hal Leonard Publishing for my new book, The Art of Singing Onstage and in the Studio. We had some great conversations about the psychology, technology, and relationships in performing and recording, as well as performance anxiety, finding your creative niche, and discovering and developing your true voice. I also had the chance to visit Drama Books for a meet and greet, as well as to roam around Central Park with my family.

And of course... I did some singing as well.   :)

Looking forward to sharing these interviews with you... coming soon!

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Friday, September 2, 2016

The Art of Improvising

A few weeks back, I received an article asking about IMPROVISING... how to do those riffs and runs, and in general, how to find and confidently lock into new ways of playing with melodies. Here's what I wrote back... hope it's helpful!

"Improvising... when we next talk, let's explore a bit more what you mean specifically. Riffs? Runs? More jazz lines? Basic melody shifts / slight variations?
Regardless, there are some approaches that work with all of them. And in my mind, the most important is, mentally, cultivating the willingness to let go of control, which then translates into a release of the physical tension.
A couple great ways to release in this way are: a) listening and singing along with music in the car / shower... anywhere you're 'distracted' and not fixated on singing well. Harmonize, play, goof around. The more you do it, the less your brain can maintain such a stringent focus. And the more you'll be wowed by 'what you just did' in terms of improvising.
Another critical and much overlooked tool is LISTENING. Listen to people that improvise well and let your mind and body learn what is going on. Through hearing, let your vocal vocabulary expand, and your body start to sense- without singing a note- what is possible. This same tool is imperative when it comes to physically carving out the runs you want to hear. Yes, some things can be off the cuff, and certainly the more you improvise, the more willing you'll be to take risks (aka: letting go of control) and see what the voice comes up with.
In the interim, however, HEARING what you want to create- whether you want to imitate what someone else has done, or are imagining it in your mind- is imperative before CREATING it in the world, with your voice. Imagine a run you'd like to do in one of your own songs. Hear it in your mind. Most likely, you'll come up against, 'I can't hear it... I'm not sure what it sounds like, what I would want to do.' And that's OK... that's why you haven't been able to do it! Start imagining what you would like to hear. Hear the notes, and more importantly, how your voice sails around them. Hear the pace, hear the run faster, then slower. Feel your body start to 'sing along' with them, engaging slightly in places... again, without opening your mouth. When you really hear and feel- clearly- what you want, let the body create what it now understands and knows. Once your ear has 'carved out' the run, your voice will follow.
Lastly, most of our warm ups in the vocal world are walk-ups and downs, thirds and fifths in the major scale. As such, our bodies- and minds- aren't used to really hearing and playing with 7ths and 9ths, seconds and tritones, as well as the minor scale. The same goes for vocal flutters (Arabic and Indian music) and other interesting grace notes and rhythms. Play around with these things, experiment. Be zany and willing to sound hilarious in your search for the edge and beyond of what sounds and feels 'normal' and familiar. Make the odd and interesting a part of your vocal vernacular, and you'll be amazed at how effortlessly these things will appear on command when improvising in your own songs.
Hope that helps!"

Check out my new book: The Art of Singing Onstage and in the Studio!  

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Finding Fulfillment

This past weekend in New York, I had the chance to work with a number of wonderful performers. We sang, we laughed, and had some great conversations. Thank you Cristian for recording our time together, and for sharing this piece that was meaningful for you in your search to discover ‘who you are’ and ‘what you want to do’. And for your willingness to share it with others in the hopes it inspires them as well.

"Coming full circle to what I was saying about being older than you and the 'wisdom' that comes with it… it’s funny when I look back on myself when I was 20, like you, I feel like I was the exact same person as I am today.  Any differences are less about being smarter or better, and more about simply having had more years on the planet and the perspective that comes from that. So I’ll just offer this perspective to you.

People have an idea of what a career is supposed to look like.  For example, if you say you want to be a performer, it’s as if you should do that one thing until you’re 60. But you grow and change, we want different things. I was a professional singer for years, I teach, I write books, I’m a mom, I want to work with orphans and foster kids, I want to do millions of things. 

Rather than following what you feel, and the journey of life and it’s winding roads, I think that the world tries to say that who you are, your identity, is That One Label: a singer, a performer.  A lawyer, a doctor, a scientist.  

For me, what I’ve learned is that it’s not what you’re ‘called’ or ‘what you do’ that matters, whether it’s one thing or many throughout your life. It’s what you bring. 

If I bring all of who I am and my passion and heart as a singer and teacher, if I bring that to being a mom, to working with orphans, to being a wife and a friend, and a writer, then I am fulfilled. It doesn’t matter what ‘the thing I’m doing’ is or is called. I could mop floors and be fulfilled. If I am loving the people who live in that house, if I am making a difference for them, if I am giving all I have to serving, then I am at peace and fulfilled. I’m fully alive in that moment. 

There are people I know and have worked with, famous singers, who miss this entirely.  Not only can they not imagine being fulfilled doing anything but singing and being successful, they don’t enjoy even that. One bad review, one wrong note, and they lose it… their composure, their power, their peace. 

They’re missing it. They’re missing it. The opportunity to be alive in this and every moment.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be intelligent, or self-reflective… I can look at a book I’ve written or a performance I've given and think, I’ll do better next time. It also doesn't mean that you shouldn't follow your dreams and passions. Of course you should. 

Rather, it means that fundamentally, existentially, it doesn't matter what you do or what you call yourself. In order to disappear your fears and concerns so that you can be fully alive, you have to be willing to be present in the moment and serve, whatever it is that you are doing.  You have to take away the meaning of what society says is important, including about yourself, in order to do anything with joy and peace. And by taking away that meaning, you find meaning in your work, in your life, in yourself."

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tips For Singers

I was recently jotting some post-session notes for one of my classical singers and thought you all might benefit from them too. Great things to remember, whatever your genre or voice type:

A reminder of things to focus on: 

- In general, use more energy. Not in terms of 'pushing air' or being louder necessarily, but by using diction. Not only will your singing and performances seem more energized- at whatever volume- doing so will help you to connect more powerfully with your support.

- Pay attention to your speaking voice- healthy and lovely- which is in your chest voice. Vocalize now and again in the lower regions of your voice to keep everything limber and used. Remember, the chest voice isn't wrong, and it doesn't have to be belting or strenuous.

- Watch out for 'preparing your breath' and lifting. Preparing to breathe and engage is fine. You just don't want to 'lock in' to a fixed place. Instead, you want to create a relaxed and ready space where your body can optimally engage in a way that's appropriate for each note, phrase and song.

- Re. low energy / tension on runs: use a consonant at the beginning of every note to help you connect and stay connected with your support. For many people, 'D' seems to be a good one. Start with every note, "Da, da, da, da, da" and then start to stretch out the space between: "Da-a, da-a, da-a" and then to every three, and so on.

- Lastly, remember: you are your own best teacher. You know your voice better than anyone. That doesn't mean other people can't help you immensely, or see things you don't. It means to be confident and to trust yourself. And when something doesn't make sense or feel right, speak up!

Happy practicing!

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Pre-nodules, Acid Reflux and Vocal Care, Part 2

A number of years ago, I wrote an article on vocal polyps, hemorrhages, nodules, and reflux. Since then, I’ve received many great emails, particularly about acid reflux. Here are my answers to your questions, as well as seven tips to help you deal with and heal this all too common problem.

For starters, when it comes to any persistent vocal issue, your best first step is to visit an Otolaryngologist, or ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor). Beyond discussing your symptoms, he or she will be able to use a strobe– or small camera– to view your vocal cords and ascertain exactly what is going on. In the case of reflux, what your doctor is looking for is redness and irritation in the larynx and on the vocal folds.

While acid reflux presents with real physical symptoms, in my experience, stress– and our inability to manage it effectively– is the number one cause of reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Food and drink, genetic and physiological issues, tight clothing, intensive exercise, poor sleep habits, and other factors can certainly create problems, and can sometimes even be sole culprits. Yet I find that these issues tend to exacerbate symptoms rather than trigger the reflux itself.

One little known such biological cause of reflux is birth control pills, the hormones in which cause the loosening of the esophageal sphincter, and as a result, allow stomach acids to regurgitate into the larynx. An overabundance of yeast– often resulting from a course of antibiotics or a high sugar, refined carbohydrate diet– can also trigger reflux, which probiotics can help to manage. Determining whether these issues are present is my first step when a client comes in with a GERD diagnosis. If they are, my advice– when possible– is to stop the medication and dietary triggers for a few weeks, and see whether symptoms subside.

I also inquire about what may have changed in your life or lifestyle recently, particularly when reflux seems to come out of the blue. Have you moved? Taken on a new personal, professional, or performance opportunity? Even a seemingly small transition in your life– music related or otherwise– can have an impact. These questions also pertain to the development of pre-nodules; while they tend to be more voice-use related, stress and reflux can certainly help to exacerbate, and even cause, irritation and lesions on the cords.

It also doesn’t have to be a real, ‘in the world’ change for the body to react. Our thoughts and emotions can be­ just as powerful in creating reflux as travel, issues in our personal lives, and impending performances. While we may be aware of the difference between thoughts and reality, our bodies aren’t. 

Tip #1:
It’s therefore critical to recognize and deal with whatever stress you may be under. A healthy, balanced schedule, plenty of sleep and rest, time in the sun and nature, nutritious food, clean water, and nourishing relationships are all imperative. If your schedule is particularly hectic, you’re grappling with challenging personal or professional issues, or you tend toward the stressed out, learning to find peace through acceptance, responsibility, and forgiveness will help you relate to your circumstances and yourself more powerfully. Click on the links above if you’d like to read articles that might help you in these areas.

Tip #2
:  If you have reflux, and even if you don’t, it’s important to drink a good amount of room temperature water. Water not only helps to keep your organs hydrated, flushed, and more healthy and efficient, it helps to thin and drain the mucous in your nose and throat, which becomes particularly thick after the onset of reflux. The thinner the mucous, the less inclined we are to clear our throats and cough– two habits that are a good idea to break, as they often cause irritation and additional vocal cord swelling.

Tip #3
: When it comes to singing with reflux, my favorite expression is: No Compensating! Your voice may feel thick, slow, and rigid, but resist all temptation to push through and ‘fix’ these sensations.

Imagine you have a knot in your shoulder. Banging on it won’t help matters; slow, repeated massage will help to loosen its grip. The same is true when dealing with reflux. Be gentle, and be patient. Begin to speak and gently use your singing voice as soon as you wake up, and plan for a much longer warm up prior to a performance, rehearsal, or training session.

While your throat is indeed red and irritated where the acid has come back up through the vocal tract, save for few exceptions, it is safe to sing with reflux so long as you don’t push. It’s akin to being a bit tight after a particularly hard workout the day before; you just need to take extra care stretching and easing into the next workout to prevent injury. If you’re patient and hydrated, your voice will come around and you should be able to sing– and sound– as you usually do.

Tip #4
:  On a similar note, when you have reflux it’s also critical to stop focusing on how you sound. This can be a challenge indeed, but the only way to get your voice to sound normal is to stop fixating on trying to make it so. Just as when your voice is healthy, first focusing on the sensations of engagement will allow you to understand and master the physicality of how your body produces sound, as well as how to rely on that physicality in any sonic situation.

When warming up, it’s therefore a good idea to initially avoid ‘singing-sounding’ and vocally challenging exercises (runs, riffs, and normally tight and tricky areas of the voice), which will help to reduce the intellectual and ego temptation to push in order to sound good. Lots of easy slides through your range and registers will help to get your voice moving and healthily warmed up, at which point you can bring your attention back to sound and performance specifics. Also, consider hopping into the shower; not only will the steam further help to loosen things up and get the juices flowing, you’ll likely find it easier to ignore that initial mucous rattle.

Tip #5
: Whether or not we sing, everyone has opinion about what we should and shouldn’t eat. Obviously food is a personal choice and you need to find what works for you. That said, when it comes to treating and preventing reflux, I recommend limiting or cutting out sugar, wheat, pasta, and other processed carbs (fruits, veggies, and sprouted or ancient grains like quinoa are OK), which tend to quickly raise blood sugar levels and increase inflammation, as well as generate yeast. Many people find that removing dairy and caffeine help too, though I’ve consumed both without issue.

It’s also a good idea to limit your liquid intake right around and during mealtimes, so that the stomach acids can process the food more effectively, without dilution. The same goes for just before performances; the powerful engagement of your support can often encourage a full belly– of water or food– to reflux. Consider giving up carbonated beverages as well, and if you smoke, please stop. In general, moderation is a great tool, yet I’ve only ever seen these two cause problems.

Finally, try eating smaller meals more frequently, and when you do, eat slowly and chew your foodMindfulness– in eating and in all areas of life– helps to calm down our thinking as well as our bodies.  I’ve seen this tip alone halt reflux after years of suffering in a number of my singers.

Tip #6:
 Use medications sparingly. I know they can help, and sometimes they’re necessary to prevent damage. But in the long run, you have to find and deal with the cause of the reflux, not just treat the symptoms. This is critical because reliance on reflux medications will eventually backfire; in time, they all stop working as the body finds ways to create the potent acid it needs to digest the food you eat. I'm reminded of what Benjamin Franklin once said: "he is the best physician that knows the worthlessness of most medicines."

Another important point is that the diagnosis of reflux has become so common, that it is almost a default starting point when a singer comes presenting with issues. Often a course of reflux medication will be prescribed as a trial, just to see if indeed reflux is the problem, before actually doing a thorough analysis and physical exam of the patient. Not only does this mean you may be taking medications your body doesn't need, but that the real cause of your vocal irritation– environmental or seasonal allergies, a virus, or whatever– is not being properly explored.

Tip #7:
 Also, beware of surgeries purporting to solve the reflux problem. In my early 20s, after having used every reflux medication on the market, I had surgery to tighten my lower esophageal sphincter to prevent acid from refluxing into my throat and damaging my vocal folds. Physiologically, the surgery was successful, but wouldn’t you know, six months later as I prepared to return to my singing engagements, the reflux was back!

When you’re stressed out, medication– and even surgery– won’t stop the body from reacting. Sure enough, once I learned to manage my stress, the reflux subsided, never to return again. Therefore, no matter what vocal challenges you may be dealing with, and particularly when reflux is diagnosed or suspected, be sure to take a holistic look at issues in your singing and personal life. Many of the clues to resolving the former can be found in the latter.

I hope you find these tips helpful. If you have more questions about reflux and other issues regarding vocal health, please send them in and we’ll continue the conversation!

JENNIFER HAMADY is a voice coach and board-certified therapist specializing in technical and emotional issues that interfere with self-expression. Her new book, The Art of Singing Onstage and in the Studio explores the technology and relationships in performing and recording. Her first book The Art of Singing: Discovering and Developing Your True Voice has been heralded as a breakthrough in the psychology of musical and personal performance and remains a top seller in the field.

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