Friday, May 12, 2006

American Idol is not the Super Bowl

There is an interesting article in the Washington Post by Robin Ghivan this morning entitled, "We Get the Idols We Deserve" that tries to make sense of a senseless circumstance. I agree completely with the analysis put forth by the author, but I ask myself the question, "How is it that people sensible enough to use i-pods, drive cars, and come in out of the rain, can get caught up in the mystery that this injustice can exist in a world smiled upon by a benevolent god?"

I find comfort in the findings of my unofficial, "man-on-the-street", poll in which I asked the probing question, "Who won American Idol last year?" The results of my poll were as revealing as the empty spaces in a high-school graduate's job application. Quite simply put, nobody really knew who won last year...and I even went so far as to load the poll by asking primarily those people who I felt should know.

My first ringer was the guy in the cage at the pawn shop with his eyes fixed to the wall-mounted tv and his ass glued to a barstool that once said "Budweiser." He lied and said he didn't care, but did ask about my watch. I asked the lady up the street with the permanent, plastic-wrapped hair-curlers as she stood in her fuming house coat draining the yappy little fucker she calls "Reuben". Nope. Go figure. I asked the grocery checker with the orange hair, purple nail polish and quarter-horse ass that you KNOW has got to be beating the shit out of her sofa at least five hours a night. No Dice. I had to capitulate however, when I approached a teen-aged skater-punker type as he rolled out of the corner convenience store sucking on a "Huge Gulp" and wearing, of all things, a black T-shirt with the day-glo "American Idol" logo screaming from his bony chest. His answer to my poll question was, "What's that?...hey...hey, um, sir, can you buy some candy so I can go to camp and don't get into a gang?"

And this brings me to the title of this entry, "American Idol is not the Super Bowl." Who won the Super Bowl? The Steelers, Right? Why did they win? They scored more damn points than the other team! Who was the other team? Get's a little harder now, doesn't it? Who did you vote for to win "American Super Bowl?" Oh, you didn't get to vote? You mean that they decide that thing on who is actually better? That's not it?

I don't mourn the unforeseen expulsion of Chris Daughtry from American Idol. I'm more than certain that he has plenty of viable prospects to sift through in the very near future. I don't know for sure if he is as real as he seems to be, but he does give the impression of having real talent and knowing who he wants to be. And that is a strong start.

Now the remaining three? This is all they are ever going to have so give them a break, okay? And if any of the three were my child, I'd be wearing a dumb-ass T-shirt, waving a hand-painted, glittery sign and jumping up and down in the audience with the rest of them. My heartless and reality-based predictions are that one of them will be a finalist in the new reality show, "America's Next Top Shoe Salesman", one will get a job selling plastic statues of Wayne Newton in Branson, Missouri between auditions, and one will be seen in a tv spot for men's hair darkening products muttering, "Well... I hope THIS shit works." I'm sure that they are all really nice and I wish them all the best, but Idol-hood is not in their future.

But Chris? ...Don't worry about Chris. He'll be fine. Now that he's loose he can resume chasing his dream armed with a load of video showing him a lot of things that didn't work, and some that did. If Chris is to win the REAL competition, it will be because he's better.

Remember. American Idol is not the Super Bowl.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Intuition and Repetition in Education

Experience has taught me that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Yin and Yang, plus and minus, hot and cold, whatever phrase best describes it to you, each requires the existence of the other for a meaningful exchange of information to occur. I associate learning with the process of correctly executing precise repetitions of a given exercise until muscle memory replaces conscious effort. I associate teaching with allowing my intuition to play a valid part in discovering or designing the most effective and most efficient exercises to be repeated.

Repetition requires a stubborn adherance to a sometimes painful regimen. Repetitive exercises may seem boring but a true student will work through this knowing that the skills he is seeking depend on following directions each step of the way. Allowing intuition a place in teaching requires the courage to admit that something I may think is brilliant has failed, and the imagination to look further and try something completely contrary to what I had thought to be most effective. Each student is unique and it is the teacher's responsibility to use every tool possible in providing the student the best opportunities for success.

My first formal teaching experience occured during my third year in college. I had no business teaching private voice at the community college level but there I was, at the piano, and there they were, looking to me for the key that would unlock the secret door of stardom, or in some cases, just matching pitch. As the only teacher on staff without credentials, I was assigned the most beginning of students. In retrospect, it was a blessing. Any auto mechanic can make any car run better just by changing spark plugs. My intuition told me to think along those lines and I learned quickly that too many wrenches under the hood will screw up the finest car, especially if all that it needed was spark plugs.

So I taught...and I learned. And what I learned was that most students are not in any way inspired to PRACTICE! Now, I don't care how much a teacher knows, there will be no inmprovement in technique if the student is not inspired to practice...and with a purpose. I knew that repetition had to come into play in a big way for my students to succeed. And all the impressive bullshit I could spew about "inter-costal diaphramatic breathing" and "glottal strokes" or "the arc of the soft palate" would not get them interested enough to reserve a practice room on their own. And so I resolved to find some way for each student, in each and every lesson, to achieve some breakthrough, no matter how large or small. I decided to take it upon myself to leave no stone unturned, to get to know every detail about each of the forty odd students thrust upon me by the learning mill, with the express idea of making tangible progress at some point during each lesson. And THAT...took intuition.

One student in particular comes to mind as a prime example of the interaction between intuition and repetition. "Mary" came into her first lesson with the score of the Italian art song "Tu Lo Sai" in her hands. She would be required to perform this song in her voice class in six week's time. Mary had a pretty soprano voice and the range of the song suited her very nicely. But mary had a problem...when she tried to pronounce "Tu lo sai", it came out as "too low thigh" and that's a problem better attended to with repetitive use of a stairmaster. My intuition told me that this was not a new issue with Mary, I was certain she was aware of her extremely pronounced lisp. So I very tactfully said to her, "Jesus Christ, Silvester, did you thaw a puddy tat?"

Well, that broke the ice and we went to work. Mary didn't come from money so she didn't have the benefit of a Beverly Hills speech therapist camping out in her house as a child. She did have some limited experience working with therapists but as she told the story, the work they did with her was not inspirational enough for her to work at it on her own so she just "got youth to it."I knew nothing at all about speech impediments but i was determined that we could do something if we could get past her resignation.

Every sound we make is the result of one or more pieces of meat in some way interacting with one or more other pieces of meat. I brought a mirror into the room and made an esss for Mary and asked her to observe, in the mirror, what parts of my mouth were involved in making that sound. She discovered that the esss was produced when air was released between the tip of the tongue and the roof of the mouth just above the teeth. Then I had Mary look in the mirror and think...just think at first, and then methodically and without making a sound, put the tip of her tongue just above the tooth line against the roof of her mouth. Then I asked her to let her tongue relax right where it was and gently exhale through her mouth. And out came the first esss Mary ever made!

After intuition helped us to identify the cause and the remedy of the impediment, Mary and I invented a series of repetitive exercises which isolated and trained her muscles to remember what to do. It was a real victory for both of us when she sang "Tu Lo Sai" flawlessly in her voice class.

Intuition and repetition, no matter how the coin lands, you win every time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

My Favorite Guitar

My favorite guitar is a Fender Mark Knopfler Signature Stratocaster. I love this guitar for two reasons. For starters, she is just a fantastic guitar not only to play but to look at and admire, and I'll get into that in a moment. But what makes her so very special to me is that she was placed into my care by Mark as a "thank you" for the small part I played in support of the SHANGRI LA album.

Electric bass is my weapon of accomplishment but I've always had a few guitars around for writing and teaching. On a more sensual level, there are some guitars which pay their way just by being beautiful to look at and touch in ways that result in wonderful noises. This is what my '62 P-bass and my first girlfriend once had in common. After forty-some years, the bass is sexy as ever and still makes wonderful noises when I touch her just right. I can't say with any certainty, but I'd hazard a guess that the old girlfriend hasn't aged as well.

Everyone has a favorite "the one that got away" story. My stories tend to fall more into the "Pete, you are a friggin' idiot" category. I once bought a "63 strat for $75.00 and decided it was ugly, so I sold it and made fifty bucks! Now this was in the early seventies and fifty bucks kept me alive for a week so it was cool...I thought. It was ugly to me because of the color. I found out later that Inca Silver is a rare color and had I put that rare bastard into the the case and under the bed, would be worth two or three of my cars now. Everytime I think about it I imagine a big pie hitting me in the face.

I could write all day and into the night...into many nights, about my knuckleheadedness but let me get back to my favorite guitar. MK arrived at Shangri La the evening before we were to load in the instruments and digital recording gear. Some days before, I had taken delivery of the fourteen guitars which he planned to use for the album. We spent the evening unpacking his guitars to get them aclimatized to the Malibu air. Mark proved to be a true guitar junkie and we spent a most enjoyable evening fawning over each of the instruments as we set them free of the flight cases and let them run loose in what would be their home for the next five weeks.

One of the guitars that Mark is known for is a "frankenstrat" which, to my knowledge, is a '59 red Fender Stratocaster with a '61 neck with a rosewood fretboard. This guitar, with the middle and bridge position pick ups out of phase, was the sound heard on "Sultans Of Swing." Fender now markets The Mark Knopfler Signature Strat and I was surprised to find that both Mark and Richard Bennett play these guitars on stage and in the studio just as they come from the factory. I admired the guitar and told Mark that it seemed like an instrument worth having and that I would look into getting one for the studio.

The weeks spent recording the album are another story but it must be said that a good time was had by all concerned. About a week after the circus left town, a guitar was delivered, addressed to Mark, in care of Shangri La Studio. I emailed Mark's tech in London and asked what was to be done with it and when the answer came, so did I. The guitar was no longer an anonymous "it" but a "she"...and she belonged to me!

In describing the manufacture of the guitar, Mark had told me that he thought Fender had done an excellent job of reproducing his original Strat. As I had played both Richard's and Mark's guitars, I had to agree but these guitars were in the hands of world-class musicians and I suspected that they were handmade at the factory especially for them. I was surprised to find that this was not the case at all and that my new Strat was a spectacular instrument right out of the box. The first thing that impressed me was the finish which is a bright, hot-rod red nitrocellulose lacquer and absolutely flawless. The use of nitrocellulose insures that the guitar will age beautifully and actually sound better as the years pass. Her first impression simply knocks your eyes out. The neck is also finished in the old school lacquer with a beautiful, aged amber tint. The grain of the rosewood fretboard is vey straght and runs the length of the neck with no run-out. This is not only visually attractive but will contribute to years of stability.

I always judge the musical voice of an electric guitar un-plugged. When I play a guitar without amplification, I can hear and feel how the wood reacts to string vibration. Some guitars "speak" more clearly than others and there was an unmistakable similarity between the Signature Strats used on the session and my newly arrived beauty. There was a pronounced consistancy in these instruments that speaks very highly of Fender's quality control. But what impresses me is that when I have this girl in my hands, all the techno talk melts away and I'm left with a guitar that feels like she was handmade only for me.

Mark once said to me, "A beautiful guitar will be a friend to you for a lifetime." I am in love with this guitar. It is a Mark Knopfler Signature Stratocaster.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

I Said "Fuck" to a Nun

As promised, here is the story of how I said "fuck" to a nun...when I was six years old. If you had an opportunity to read my previous entry, you will know all about my foreign background and the difficulties which I faced fitting into my new life in America as a non-English speaking youngster.

I attended first grade at St. Procop Catholic School in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. I will never forget the first day of school when my father held my hand and walked me to the yellow brick penitentary on Clark Ave. When we arrived at my new classroon, he delivered me to Sister Bonaventura and told he that if I became in any way troublesome, they could treat me as their own and give me a good beating. NICE! This was still in the days of what some people describe as flowing robes and pure, white habits. To a six year old, what the nuns wore was fucking scary. Long, black robes that smelled of incense and old lady butt! With a menacing cross hanging on a rope belt that I was certain was intended to inflict exquisite pain in the right hands. And the white thing around the face? Well imagine the expression on Dick the Bruiser's face if BoBo Brazil had him in a headlock and you'll understand why the nuns scared the shit out of me.

Sister Bonaventura was the prototypical scary nun with her chafed, red jowl meat bursting out of the sides of that habit and the wooden ruler stuck into her rope belt the way kids wear toy swords when they play pirate. If we fucked up in any of a hundred ways, she would make us hold our hand up with our finger tips together and smack the goddamn fingerprints right off. Ah...Sister Bonaventura...I hate that bitch like it was yesterday...but back to the point.

By the time I started first grade, my English was beginning to come around. Although we spoke only German at home, I had made some friends and was doing well enough in school to stay in class with my own age group.My older brother was in the fourth grade and was helping me to learn some of phrases that would be more useful in interacting with my new playmates. Many of these phrases find their way into my vocabulary even now.

My latest linguistic accomplishment had been the pronounciation of the word "fuck", as in "fuck you" or used as an adjective to modify a word with particular emphasis, as in "Jesus, just take a whiff of that fucking nun!" You get the idea. We practiced secretly at night in our shared bedroom. He even made an attempt at explaining the meaning of the word by describing some sort of ritual consisting of a man peeing in a lady's butt.

While rough-housing on the asphalt playground one afternoon during recess, a second-grader named Joey was bullying the first-graders mercilessly and I decided to put him in his place after he had made me his target. I gathered myself and in my very best English, I told him to "keep his fucking hands off me!" He stopped dead in his tracks, pointed his finger at me and said "ooooooh, you said a bad word." Second-graders are not known for snappy comebacks, so I came back with "fuck you Joey!" This was starting to draw a crowd and may have actually been the beginning of my career in public as well as my career as a filthy talker. Joey told everyone that I had said a dirty word and vowed to tell Sister Bonaventura. To which I replied, "go ahead and tell Sister Bonaventura...fucker." He did.

A minute later the hag stomped over to me in those scary, black, big-heeled shoes and with that smell, dragging Joey by the upper arm and asked me to repeat what I had said to Joey. Proud as i was of my English, I did just that...and got the back of her hand, with the wedding ring of our mercifull Lord, smack across my face. Then she asked me if I knew what that word meant. Not aware that this may be a trick question, and still thinking that I could redeem whatever transgression I had commited by answering promptly and in English, I recounted the "man peeing in the lady's butt" explanation which my brother had furnished. Wham! Turn the other cheek my ass!

By the time I got home from school, the hag had called my mom who, still being afraid to speak on the phone, had promised to have my dad call her when he got home from work. My dad, fresh from a 10 hour shift working at a metal lathe, dialed the phone, listened for a moment, then asked me to tell him what I had said to Joey at school. I did and...whack! Another backhand heard from. My mom had no idea what the fuck was going on but when my dad explained the whole thing she went red, then white, then red again and then she went...whack! I was beginning to wonder if it was worth learning English after all. After things settled down a bit, they got me to tell them where i had learned these words. At least my brother knew what the whacks were for. Now, if you remember, my brother and I shared a room so you know what happened next.

So, the moral of the story is, if you have a little brother, teach him how to say "fuck" and you may get smacked, but he'll get his first and it'll be fun. Oh, and the other moral is, I don't know about now, because I won't go near one. But when I was a kid and nuns walked the earth in full regalia...they didn't smell good.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Immigrant Childhood Trauma

My family came to the United States from europe when I was three-and-a-half years old. My father had seen enough. He had survived service on a German u-boat, spent six momths in a British P.O.W. camp, started a family in the midst of the socio-economic turmoil that was post-war Austria, and something told him that we might be better off in the country that had just kicked everyone's ass. And so, with a wife, two boys and fifty dollars in his pocket, we set off on an adventure entailing a train ride to Bremerhaven, twelve days on a converted troop carrier and a bus trip from New York to Cleveland.

Second and third generation immigrants can be quite judgemental when newly arrived immigrants speak their mother tongue, cook the food to which they are accustomed, wear strange clothes and join church congregations or social clubs made up of ethnically familiar faces. Relocating in a strange country is not magic. You don't get off the boat speaking flawless english, holding a box of Hamburger Helper in one hand, an Eddie Bauer catalogue in the other, and asking around for the nearest Rotarian's meeting. Blending in can be traumatic...and good for some laughs as well.

I had my share of "what's wrong with that immigrant kid" experiences. Before I started attending school, my life was exactly as it had been before the move. I played with the same toys and looked at the same picture books, and aside from a bit of teasing from the neighborhood kids who ran the alley behind the house, I was fine. Then I started Kindergarten and it all

My biggest problem was that I didn't speak English. This deficit made itself painfully apparent during my first week at Sackett Ave. Elementary school. Twice a day we were led, single file, to the rest room. I learned by observation that this was where they kept the toilets. One morning, my oatmeal was in a particular hurry, but class hadn't started yet and my teacher wasn't there to lead us, single file, to that porcelain oasis. I went on my own and stood outside the green door of salvation, my bowels in advanced cramps, and waiting the patient wait of a scared little kid accustomed to mindless regimentation. I didn't dare go through that door unless I was led to it, single file, by my teacher, Miss Curtain. So...i stood there,,,and shit my new school pants!

Well, I'll never know how they found out, but they called my mother on the telephone which was an instrument of horror in her mind as she spoke less english than I, having just learned from my classmates that "pee-yoo" is English for "who shit their pants?" They told my mom that "Peter soiled himself" so she thought I had dirtied my clothes (which was the case to a degree). When she got to school and learned what had happened, she was mortified. SHE was embarassed! I was standing in a brand new pair of shit-filled school pants, in an office full of strangers, and SHE was embarassed. The long walk home was my private death march. I couldn't help walking stiff-legged and with my feet as far apart as I could manage. But my mom insisted that I walk as normally as possible. She didn't want to be known as that foreign lady with the foreign kid that shits his pants. At one point, I was striding wide and she forgot herself and smacked me on the ass. That was extra nice for both of us. Right then and there I promised myself that I would never shit my pants in school again. And I kept that promise clear into college...

The point is, Being a non-English speaking five year old with a pantload of former oatmeal in a strange land can be traumatic when you're trying to make a good impression. And if you think that was tough, tomorrow I'll tell you about the time I said "fuck" to a first grade.

I Don't Believe In The Supernatural

I don't believe in the supernatural. I don't believe in ghosts and spirits, good or evil. I think readers of minds, palms, tarot cards and tea leaves should be licenced with the Better Business Bureau after they've proven their skills at the race track, the Big Spin or the New York Stock Exchange. I spent the better part of the summer between second and third grade obediently following the instructions of Sister Veronica of St. Ambrose Catholic School in Cleveland, Ohio, praying for roller skates to no avail. To say that whatever "faith" I have is based solely on empirical evidence is a vast understatement of the facts.

Having said all of this, I had an experience the intensity of which would have convinced a weaker soul than mine of the likelihood that supernatural or paranormal forces are at work in our lives. In the summer of 1976 I had a dream of such vivid character that I remember every detail even now, many years later. That dream came back to me, in all its vividness as to colors, textures, sights, smells and sounds at what may well have been a critical moment four years later.

In 1980 I was playing around Southern California in a club/dance band. I had traded an old Rambler wagon for a '68 Olds Cutlass that looked like hell but went really fast. One of my band-mates and I switched off driving to the club. This particular night, it was my turn to drive, and after the gig my band-mate, Ivan and I were packing up and making our way to the door. Just as I was walking away from the building, Ivan called out to me from the doorway and asked if we could give a lift to a guy that had been at the bar most of the night. He lived in North Hollywood, which was on our way, so I told him to have the guy meet us at the car and it wouln't be a problem. As I opened the trunk lid, Ivan and our passenger rounded the rear fender of the car. I couldn't put my finger on it but something about this guy made me feel as if someone had dropped an ice-cube down the back of my pants. We shook hands and made small talk while we loaded up our instruments and as we were opening the car doors, the guy asked if it wouldn't be to much trouble to give his friend a ride as well. I nodded okay, and his friend came out of the darkness between the buildings toward the car. The moment I saw this "friend", a shudder of absolute fear shot through me the likes of which I had never experienced...EVER. I shouted to Ivan to get in the car, NOW, and screamed out of the parking lot in a cloud of blue burning rubber, leaving our two riders to fend for themselves.

I didn't say a word until I had reached the freeway on ramp. Ivan's eyes went from the white knuckles on my steering wheel to the road speeding by and back again, wondering just what he hell had just happened. by the time we were half the way home, I told Ivan the story of the dream I had four years earlier.

In my dream, I was driving the long stretch of highway which follows the Platte river across the state of Nebraska. I saw a hitch-hiker at the side of the road and pulled over to give him a ride and to have some company. He was of medium size and very fit, wearing engineer boots, jeans, and a white T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled into one of his shirt sleeves. Across his other arm he was carrying a brown leather bomber jacket. As I rolled down the passenger window to ask him how far he was going, he looked into the car and smiled crookedly. I noticed that he had the kind of brown teeth you only find in a Midwest tobacco-chewing farmboy type. He started to open the car door and, pointing past my head, he asked if we could also give his buddy a lift. I turned toward my left and saw an older, white-haired and unshaven guy in jeans and a sweaty undershirt grinning at me and holding a shotgun to my chest from outside my car window. I stepped into the gas pedal and sped off, waking from my dream in a sweat.

As I told my dream to Ivan, describing every detail in the appearance of the two hitchhikers, it became clear to him that I was also describing the two guys we were going to take to North Hollywood earlier, because they were dead-ringers right to the stained shirts and teeth. My heart was still pounding when I finally pulled into my driveway.

I have no rational explanation for the events of that night. All that I do know is that it happened... and it scared the shit out of me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

My First Band

My first band was called "The Blue Bathtub." At least this was the first band I was in that made money. I was in the eighth grade and had played around the neighborhood with all the guys that had electric guitars, garages and parents who were either deaf or on the back patio, looking for solutions to the world's problems in the bottom of a rocks glass. I played bass on a Teisco Del Rey copy of a 335 with heavy, flatwound strings tuned down as far as they would go. My pal, Don, got to play lead guitar because he had a Kalamazoo amp...with REVERB! I remember walking into his garage one day, it was a week before Christmas, and he was sitting on the top rung of a paint ladder with his guitar cord disappearing into a gift-wrapped box hidden in the rafters where his parents had stashed it. He grinned and whispered, "Reverb!"

There was a high school kid who lived up the street called Dave. He had a sister that let us...oops, wrong story...he had a blond Fender Bassman and an Old Kraftsman short-scale bass and that shit changed everything. Dave wasn't a dropout, he just didn't like to go to school. I would go to his house after basketball practice and he would be sitting next to the radio, playing along with everything. I mean everything, every song, every commercial, every news bump...everything. When I think about all the phrase samplers and tempo slower-downers you can get now to help you learn solos, and all old Dave used was his ears. What a concept.

Every once in a while, Dave would let me borrow his amp and bass for band practice. I would take my skateboard to his house and with the bass slung over my shoulder, I'd put the amp on the skateboard and try to get to Don's house without dumping everything into someones ivy. Don's mom worked late as a waitress at an all night coffee shop and she slept into the late afternoon, which is why we couldn't practice in Don's garage but which also made it perfectly plausible for us to think that his mom really would let us use her car if she were awake for us to ask. Don was just fourteen but had the keys and the balls to use them. So we would load up his Kalamazoo, the Bassman, and Fat Mitch with his drums. Fat Mitch couldn't play that well, but he was the only guy on the block with a real drum-kit, which was enough to pass the audition.

The car was a powder blue Ford Falcon station wagon and we would drive up to Harrison Elementary school, pass the amps over the 10 foot high chain-link fence, plug in and practice on the outdoor lunch area until dark.We played "We Gotta Get Outta This Place", "Shapes Of Things", "House of the Rising Sun" and about five other songs. After practice, we'd boost the gear back over the fence, load up and get the car back before Don's mom had to leave for work. Every once in awhile that crazy bastard would have a hair up his ass and would cut across the grass ball-field spinning dough-nuts in that old Falcon, gear sliding around in the back and all of us laughing our asses off.

At some point, Don and I discovered the Blues scale and we became a Blues band. It was so much easier than learning all those songs. Fat Mitch learned how to play a shuffle, and we just played a twelve bar, sang some bullshit we made up on the spot, and thought we were heavy enough to have a name. That was the birth of "The Blue Bathtub."

There was this rich girl in our school who lived up on the hill above our neighborhood (isn't there always). Her dad was letting her throw a barbeque birthday party. We were loud, somewhat avant garde and poor. Just what she was looking for to piss off her dad, so we got the gig. At the end of the party, she gave each of us a five dollar bill. Man, I was hooked for life! In one night we became professional musicians in every sense of the word. We played music, ate their food, tried to make out with the rich girls... and got paid.

Later in the year Fat Mitch thought it would be smart to stick his head in a bag of airplane glue fumes. His shoes disappearing into the back of the ambulance were the last I saw of him. Don got into motorcycles and the Kalamazoo went back up into the rafters. I started to think I had a shot at playing some real hoops, and that was the end of my first band. But everytime I see the the black and white photos that Astrid Kirscher shot of the young Beatles in Hamburg, it hits me that no matter how much fun it gets to be, it's never as much fun as the first time.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Bernoulli, Doppler and Natural Vibrato

A number of students have asked me to teach them how to "belt". Apparently, belting is a term having to do with singing musical theater songs in keys that are just high enough to make listening painfully impossible to avoid at any distance. I call it by it's true name, "yelling" and explain that the range of a voice is measured in octaves and intervals and not in yards. The singers who attempt this sort of material without the proper background usually have a mistaken concept about volume, and horrifying breathing technique not unlike the forced wheeze of an old accordian...well hell, a new accordian for that matter. I'm not bad-rapping accordians, but they aren't a good mechanical example on which to model any sort of vocal technique. But the one vocal characteristic which forces me to make damn sure the dairy products are properly stowed in the refrigerator before the "belting" begins is the vibrato. It is too wide, too slow, too fast, flat or sharp. It is always conspicuous but never pleasing, It is a widely misunderstood thing, this vibrato, and it will turn a three minute song into an hour at the metal shop if it isn't atended to.

True vibrato is a shimmer, a patina on the voice, nothing more. True, a vibrato can be manipulated for effect, but this should be a matter of choice and not a lack of technique. Skeptic that I am, and trusting my instinct, I've come to believe that true, natural vibrato is the result of the Bernoulli effect and the Doppler effect as they occur within the singer's throat. Yeah, this may get real boring, but this is the shit that keeps me up at night when TNT runs out of "Law and Order" re-runs.

Now, the Bernoulli effect is what keeps airplanes in the air. Very simply, if you blow air across a surface, the surface will be pulled toward the flow of air. You can demonstrate this by holding a small piece of paper as if you were going to give yourself a paper cut across your lower lip. Now blow. the paper will rise and be pulled into the air flow. Think of your vocal cords as two pieces of paper facing each other. When an air flow is passed through the gap, the cords are pulled into the flow and toward each other. the natural tension on these opposing membranes pulls them back, away from the flow. This is called "Phonation" and when this cycle of events occurs 440 times per second, the note "A" is produced.

The Doppler effect is best illustrated as that thing that happens when a train goes by and the "ding ding ding" get's higher in pitch as the train approaches and lower in pitch as the train gets farther away. If Phonation occurs in a relaxed throat, with no undue tension , the Doppler effect will come into play and cause the vibrato, or shimmer. The vocal cords, being pulled toward each other into the airflow, are also being pushed by the flow ever so slightly up, toward the mouth. Being the delicate membranes that they are, and being under tension, they fight that tension and relax back, away from the mouth. This tension and relaxation cycle shifts the point of phonation closer then further from the mouth and again, given a relaxed throat, this shift back and forth creates a regular, almost imperceptible modulation in pitch and intesity which we know as the vibrato.

A masterful singer can manipulate the tension to make the vibrato more pronounced or disappear completely. Check out Joni Mitchell on the "Miles of Aisles" album. At the end of "Love or Money" she slowly takes the vibrato out of the last note to match Tom Scott's saxophone...brilliant detail.

Well, that's my rant of the day, Sometime soon, I'll try to explain the whole inter-costal, diaphramatic breathing thing. In the meantime, ask a lot of questions, and remember that it's always simpler than it seems. Cheers.