Monday, May 17, 2010

The Art of Singing

Recently, Ghena Meirson, founder of, interviewed me about my book and practice. Hopefully you'll enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

What was the "aha!" moment that encouraged you to write the book? How many aha's did you have while writing it?

The book actually began as a series of emails. I traveled quite a bit when I started my practice, both as a coach and a singer, and would stay in touch with clients electronically while on the road. I noticed after a time that the same questions would come in, and that my answers seemed to be both unexpected and helpful. This- coupled with my growing belief that there had to be a healthier and more integrated way to both train the voice and educate the singer- led me to refashion my ongoing conversations into a manuscript.

There simply isn’t enough time in the day, much less the year, to share all of the ‘aha!’s I had while writing the book. Each page contains the result of so many of these moments; understandings born from revelations as a singer and/or in working with other singers that not only supported, but indeed created in many ways the foundation of my ideas and approach. And it is an evolving one; I believe that there is no certain wisdom any of us can possess… in singing, teaching, or in life. I’m fully aware that in a few years I’ll sit down to work on a second edition armed with completely new and possibly even contradictory experiences and insights.

Perhaps the biggest ‘aha!’ in the book writing process, if you’re up for a story, occurred about seven years before it was finally released in 2009. At that time, I’d just finished writing the manuscript, and went with my family to Italy for the summer… a vacation for them, and an opportunity to do a final edit of the book in style for me. So it was with great horror that not only was my laptop stolen when we first arrived in Rome, but that the files I’d left at home were corrupted. Meaning… that I had to write The Entire Book Over Again…

Having no other choice, I decided to do my best to recapture what I’d spent years meticulously and loving compiling. This proved to be a losing battle… and happily so. So much had happened to me and in my life since completing the first version of the book… as a woman, a singer, a student, and a teacher. My desire to prove myself in all of these areas in my early twenties had shifted into a passion to witness and humbly share, and I believe the current version of the book reflects that shift, and is vastly if not altogether improved for it.

Another revelation came from my decision about the cover art. Writing a book is a very personal process, and as you progress, it becomes more and more challenging to imagine releasing it to your editor, much less to the world. So it was a beautiful lesson for me to follow my instincts when they whispered that I should turn the cover completely and entirely over to my friend Randall Hasson. I literally handed him the manuscript one day, told him I loved and trusted him, and waited with bated breath for the result. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Randy poured himself into the project, and gave me such a gift with his beautiful work of art; I couldn’t have dreamed of anything more special or reflective of what I believe the spirit of the book to be.

All of this came into being for me- the book, the cover, the learning- from a series of grand ‘aha!’ moments in the area of ‘letting go’… of right and wrong, of good and bad, of perfection, of control, of ‘shoulds’ and ‘what if?’s. This release is, I believe, one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. It opens up the possibility of powerfully partnering with others and truly sharing ourselves with the world.

You talk about trusting one's instincts, unlearning bad habits and envisioning before creating. Please elaborate.

Much of our learning today is additive. Meaning, we’re constantly taking in information and trying to reconcile it with what we already know, rather than standing without prejudice or intent in the face of new ideas. Because of this, we continue building up the dam of ‘what we believe to be true’ that blocks, rather than allows, the freshness of wisdom to flow to us, through us, and change us.

In singing, as in other areas of our lives and learning, we need to deconstruct this dam that’s been built for us by society, and by us in our compliance with it, before we can properly survey the landscape and ascertain what structure is truly best. In the realm of singing, this means addressing our culture’s subtle and overt perceptions of singers and singing, as well as our understanding of the nature of our voices- and the bodies in which they’re housed- and what the use of our instruments means to us as people. While these ideas may seem simple, they in fact involve very complex relationships that transcend vocal production, including issues of fear, ego, control, expectation, perfection, personal value and worth.

In my experience, to properly begin the exploration of vocal training, the aforementioned issues must be addressed and resolved. Once they have, instincts and intuition step in... they’ve always been there, but are often hushed by the louder voices that plead for perfection, control, and notoriety. In the stillness, we can listen to ourselves and hear the whisperings of where we as people- and as singers- want to go… not because we should or need to in order to validate some personal or societal expectation, but because we dream and long to go there. When we are solid in this vision, its creation becomes a joy-filled journey.

Discuss learning how to learn, becoming one's own best teacher, and breaking away from negative conditioning.

The third chapter is dedicated to the realm of learning, and in my opinion, is one of the most important parts of the book. After all, the answer to the question of what we learn follows, rather than precedes, how it is that we will learn.

Many of us had less than optimal experiences in school, where the memorization and regurgitation of facts trumped the process of learning and its enjoyment. We may have believed that we were passive and second-class receivers of information rather than co-creators of relationships with curiosity, experience, and eventually, wisdom.

I have found that in all learning, particularly in singing, we must bring to the table a sense of equality and confidence as students if we want to participate optimally. That doesn’t mean that other people don’t hold incredible amounts of wisdom for us to absorb. It simply means that the process of empowered learning is in the context of relationship, with the specific information being the byproduct rather than the goal of the dance. When this respectful balance is achieved, new wisdoms easily and powerfully replace previously held ideas, stereotypes, and illusions- both mental and physical- because we had both a say and a role in creating them.

Your chapter on fear covers a range of issues. Talk about managing fear.

These are such great questions… all with answers that could fill an entire book if addressed comprehensively. Perhaps the best way to briefly summarize my view is that I believe fear to be a positive, rather than a negative force. Our fears are, in my opinion and experience, calls to action that encourage us to move into new areas and experiences.

Unfortunately, many of us hear this call to action as a cry to retreat. We resist fears when they come, dismissing the pull to somewhere new in an effort to remain still, safe, and often, stuck. Our pride and egos compound the issue, frantically insisting that any effort to stretch out of our comfort zones will necessitate risking personal annihilation. And so we remain, longing for a great adventure while floundering in mere survival. We’re alive, but we’re not thriving.

In reality (my reality, anyway...) ‘failure’ is a myth. It’s an illusion. One look at nature will demonstrate this point. There is no wrong or right in the birth to death cycle. There is no judgment upon how a flower or a tree sprouts, blossoms and reaches for the light. Things simply are. It is we human beings that decide to create and impose the illusions of good and bad on what is simply an experience of and participation in the passing of time… an imposition which keeps us from really enjoying and being present in life. Look at young children… do they fear failure? Do they fear rejection? Do they worry about how it will look if they fall when learning to walk? Hardly. It is time we unlearn these illusions and remember the truth.

Interestingly, many singers are drawn to the profession in order to work through and reconcile these issues of fear and failure. Often, they have become convinced- incorrectly- that in an otherwise ‘unsuccessful’ life, their talent is the thing that will make them valid and worthy. Yet when this theory needs to be tested upon the metaphorical and literal stage, the fear that created this bizarre agreement rears its head and insists on neither trying to succeed (for fear or failure) nor giving up and pursuing something else (for pride and fear of ‘looking bad’). It’s a painful dance to both experience and witness. Fortunately, this very struggle, if approached with care, can result in its eventual resolution, and thus, personal and vocal freedom.

Define a healthy voice.

In my opinion, a healthy voice entails three equally important things: a healthy vocal instrument (larynx, vocal folds, strong and connected support mechanism, etc.,), a healthy body (physical health and somatic wellness), and a healthy mind (lack of stress, a sense of humility and confidence, and trust and faith in one’s place in the world). They are wildly and fascinatingly interrelated; without one, there will be a struggle in the long, if not the short term.

Recording sessions have their challenges. How do you achieve a sense of live performance in the studio?

In my opinion- and experience- the biggest piece of ‘technology’ that gets in the way in the studio is the mind. Certainly there are audio variables that in both their newness and foreignness to the natural singing process can cause problems (see below). But generally, it is concerns regarding the experience that singers bring to a recording session that exacerbate, if not cause, a less than optimal performance.

This is largely due to the inherent nature of a recording session. In a way it is a performance, but in another way not, as it will be immediately revisited, checked, tweaked, tuned, overdubbed, and ‘fixed’. It is hard therefore to be in the creative moment- which necessarily involves releasing the moment and performance- when we know that in one minute or less, we’re going to clinically analyze and even alter what we just created.

I therefore suggest to singers that they treat their recording sessions as live performances. I find that it’s best to walk into the booth and sing a song straight through, without thought, without listening back, and without thinking too much about headphone levels and mix and such. Just go for it. Afterwards, you can put your analytical thinking cap and intellectual listening ears back on to critique and, if necessary, correct what you’ve done.

While I’ve learned over the years to embrace and enjoy the process of performing in the studio, certain sessions still present challenges for me. I recently did a gig, for example, where in my headphones I was singing powerfully and perfectly in tune to the track, only to hear after stepping out of the booth that I was a quarter-tone flat throughout the whole line.

It is in this moment that the quality of a session is determined… it is in this moment that a singer has a choice: to get frustrated, embarrassed, angry, and critical of others, or to remain practical and curious about the cause of and solution to the discrepancy. Nine times out of ten, lowering the volume of my voice and/or the overall track in my headphones, or removing one headphone will correct my aural perception and therefore, pitch and performance accuracy. This seems to be true for most of my clients and colleagues as well.

Therefore, remain calm and committed to doing your best rather than to perfection. The former you can control, the latter you cannot. Any attempts at the converse will inevitably weaken your performance, as well as your experience.

You provide an example of how The Washington Post critic dismissed Andrea Bocelli's operatic skills while the audience was enthralled with his passion. What value did the critic bring to his readers?

I think the critic shared quite a bit of value regarding standards in and ideas about classical vocal technique. My issue was not necessarily with the content of his commentary, but rather, the lack of context, which included a moving and powerful presentation that left people in tears and cheering. I felt that this omission did a disservice to an accurate encapsulation of the performance and experience.

My intention in including the review was to provoke a conversation about this very issue… how in our desire to measure ‘quality’ of technique and levels of talent- in all forms of art- we often relegate to the background the effort and passion that leads artists to step onto the stage in the first place. In my mind, this passion is as valid an art form as the ‘technique’ itself. I loved this example because the reviewer’s staunch dislike of Bocelli’s performance was in such sharp contrast to the audience’s reaction. As singers, we are familiar with this conversation… whether it involves a debate of classical versus commercial technique, or training versus inherent ability, there often seems to be very little middle ground. I wanted to open that space up, and encourage us all to spend some time breathing and dancing in much larger ideas of ability and success…

How do you advise your clients to remain centered and unaffected by negative reviews?

I love the Tao Te Ching, and reference it often. It, along with the tenants of Buddhism and other eastern philosophies, discuss the nature of duality, and how a lack of attachment is the first step on the path to peace. I agree with these views, and feel readings in these areas would benefit all artists, and indeed, all people.

One of the most foreign and challenging of these concepts for us Westerners involves releasing attachment to both the negative and the positive. We must not only let go of the bad reviews. We too, while appreciating them, must also let go of the good ones. If we’re attached to either, we’re attached to both. Once we are able to achieve this full release, the process of singing and being in the present moment open up with a thrill that far surpasses any external or internal validation.

It is tempting to dismiss these ideas as spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but before you do, consider those performances and performers that you feel to be top-notch. Those you remember and think of as truly transformational. I’d bet that for most of us, it is those artists that from the moment they step on stage powerfully draw us into their worlds and experiences. We are attracted not to their ‘perfection’ but to their sincerity… to the permission they give us through their own vulnerability to bring forth a similar honesty within ourselves…

Certainly we all need critics, and I suggest that clients welcome reviews and constructive criticism as opportunities to see themselves through new eyes, to stretch, and to grow. But while on stage, let prior, future, and even current opinions fade- including your own. They no longer and do not yet exist. All that is present is the moment. Do your best, open your soul, and share your song.

You were a lead singer in Cirque du Soleil's DELIRIUM, touring in 16 countries. What was it like to perform for over 1 million people?

Mind blowing. Breathtaking. Frustrating. Humbling. Surreal. Awe-inspiring. Spiritual. Like a beginning. Like coming home.

I remember when we walked into the arena in Budapest… the largest we played on tour- something like 20,000 seats- we all stood there for a moment before sound check and just listened to the stillness… the quiet. The space was filled with expectation for what was to come… for what we would deliver to That Many People. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. Thank you for allowing me to re-experience that.

And thanks to you & your readers for sharing this wonderful conversation with me. Always a pleasure.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 7, 2010

Capturing The Magic In Your Rough Recordings

Originally published as a guest blog for Cliff Goldmacher's Music Production Newsletter.

Songwriting, for most of us, is a tremendously intimate experience. The magical inklings of lyrics and melodies spring to life in our minds, getting polished and reworked until they're ready to be shared with the world.

Unfortunately, the delivery is often a painful one. The way we imagine our musical creations rarely seems to translate quite right to our rough recordings. Often something gets lost or altogether altered. This is all the more true when we ask other people- session players and certainly singers- to give voice to our work.

Are these 'mistranslations' inevitable? What is the best way to get our songs out there in the world as we feel them in our hearts and hear them in our heads?

The first part of the answer lies in how you initially express and share your song. This is generally in the form of a rough demo, the recording of which is often a traumatic experience for most non-singing songwriters I know. Desperate to just get it down, they shift out of the inspired mindset in which they created the song and- apologizing all the way- clinically eek out each note and phrase.

While this may seem like the right approach to capturing and conveying accuracy, it's one of the worst things you can do. The lyrics and melody are, after all, only one aspect of the song. And contrary to popular opinion, they're in fact the easiest to teach and learn. The magic, on the other hand- that intangible, inexplicable 'feel'- is not.

As both background and explanation, let's look at how a song is aurally learned. Consciously, the mind- via the prefrontal cortex- attempts to intellectually organize and memorize lyrics, melody, and rhythm. Unconsciously, the mirror neuron system- what allows us to imitate, among other things- processes the subtleties and nuance of the way the singer is breathing and singing. Finally, if the performance is perceived as a moving one, it engages and registers in the basal ganglia and amygdala- the emotion centers of our brain. Put together, the result is technical accuracy, internalized inflection, and emotional conviction.

Unfortunately, if you sing your scratch demo as perfectly as possible, neglecting the passion and emotion, your demo singer will likely miss them too. In spite of what he or she might otherwise choose to do, the mind and muscle memory will inevitably record and reproduce your sterile version of the song.

The good news is that 'demo lock' can be as positive as it can negative. It is therefore your job as the songwriter, no matter how well or badly you think you sing, to do your best to get your and the song's soul core onto your rough recording. Doing so will ensure that the singer's emotional memory is activated to capture and repeat it. The intellect can then be called upon as needed to make any conscious alterations to notes, lyrics, timing, or phrasing.

Consider Johnny Cashs "American IV: The Man Comes Around" or Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". With the feel in their later years trumping 'correct' and technically enviable singing, the mind and body of the listener can focus on the heart of these songs. Have singers learn "A Case of You' or 'Hurt' from these records as opposed to the originals, and you'll be blown away by the difference in not only their interpretation, but their musical and technical accuracy as well.

It also helps, when possible, to have the scratch vocal performed by someone of the opposite sex of your demo singer, or at least, someone with a very different kind of voice. This will further prevent the conscious mind from trying to technically and tonally 'match' the sound of the singer's voice, shifting the focus to the embodiment of the song's essence and message.

I'd also like to address the structure of the demo session itself. Most of us on both the singer and songwriter sides of the aisle are used to a 2-3 hour, one-shot deal. The song is played, a key is picked, the tune is learned and performed. That's a lot of work- on a lot of levels- for a couple of hours. The pros can definitely do it, but I think there's a way to make the process even more relaxed and effective for everyone involved.

To begin, I recommend that songwriters provide singers with their scratch demos a few days or a week before the session. This gives them a chance to learn the song in their own safe space. Without the pressure to immediately perform, the intellect and body tend to relax, helping to ensure a better initial learning. If you're uncomfortable with such a hands-off approach, a quick phone check-in will ensure that your singer's on the right track.

Another trick I use- albeit perhaps unconventional- is to recommend initially learning in silence. Generally, singers start 'faking through' a song as soon as they hear it. The problem with this approach is that muscle memory is unable to tell the difference between 'learning' and 'singing'. Two or three times of half-singing through a piece, and the voice and body are well on their way to making unsupported associations that are difficult to overcome when it's performance time, even for the pros.

By learning the song through listening however, both the emotional and technical cues can be processed and memorized, ensuring an optimal initial physical engagement. You may have to pay your singers a bit more for this 'advance work', but I assure you that the investment will be well worth it. Not only will you have a more confident and relaxed vocalist in the booth, your session will likely go much faster and more smoothly.

Just as your songs come from the heart, so from there should they be initially expressed, learned, and recorded. Stay connected and committed to your emotional conviction at all times, and the soul of your songs will always come through.

Labels: ,