Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wine Tasting with Sellaband's Lone Pine

It takes 87 steps to get from my front door to the entrance of California Wine And Cheese. The "Wine tasting joint" as I call it is the campus where my nose and palate are currently taking classes in how to tell the difference between my ass and a hole in the ground. Until my matriculation and initiation, I had always tasted wine "by ear" but I am slowly learning to appreciate the hints of berries, chocolate and leather in the nose of certain bottles. I've even learned to spell "tannins" and think I know how they taste.

Fortunately, I don't use my nose and palate when I listen to music. I may have a tin ear when it comes to fine wine, but the finer nuances of well-crafted vintage rock music are very familiar to my senses. Tonight I logged on to the Sellaband web site and pulled the cork on a bottle of fine vintage wine bearing the label "Lone Pine" and handcrafted in Cardiff, Wales.

The music of these Sellaband newcomers is simple and easy to digest on first listen. But as I swirl the glass and let the fumes rise into my nostrils, a well seasoned complexity becomes evident. The song "Money and Faith" is a prime example of how simple ingredients can be combined to render unexpected results.

From the first note, the unmistakable glassy crunch of a Fender Telecaster sets the table. A compelling rhythm track is like the shiny watch waved by a hypnotist. Lone Pine takes a no nonsense approach in using their instruments to draw the listener into the meaning of their lyrics. This is a stroke of brilliant simplicity that eludes so many young artists.

The sonic palate of Lone Pine shows maturity and great attention to detail. These boys have done their homework. The pedigree of electric guitar is presented with a transparency that makes me want to hear more. There is a sonic thread beginning with Hank Marvin and passing through the hands of Buddy Holly, Roy Buchanan, Robbie Robertson, Mark Knopfler, Keith Richards and Chrissy Hind which Lone Pine has grabbed with both hands and woven into a soundscape that offers the listener no alternative but to pay attention.

As with the guitars, the bass and drums are nostalgic in timbre yet fresh in spirit. Lone Pine has tapped into the past to produce refreshing instrumental tracks that allow the song to be the star of the show. There are hints of early John Cougar, and The Pretenders in the jagged edges of the tracks, while some of the more sensitively played sections touch on the brilliant ensemble playing of The Band.

A few years ago, while managing Shangri La Studio (incidentally, the last home of The Band) I had the pleasure of acting as second engineer for John Hanlon as he produced the "Songs" album for Belgian rocker Admiral Freebie. John has a long time association with Neil Young and it was no surprise that, as he and the Admiral joined forces in that historic studio, both Neil Young and The Band made their presence felt. I don't know how Lone Pine tapped into this energy field, but the vocal sound, and delivery calls to mind Admiral Freebie's reckless abandon, combined with the innocence of early Neil Young and the depth of Levon Helm at the top of his game.

These are the images that Lone Pine evokes. But this is a young band and these comparisons represent potential, not accomplishment...yet. Consistent songwriting and relentless development will decide if Lone Pine will enjoy lasting success. From what they offer on their Sellaband profile, they are well on their way. Their music is a versatile brew. You can down it by the bottle...or you can swirl the glass, appreciate the nose, and then sip it slowly to enjoy every nuance.

Monday, July 30, 2007

On the Separation of Church and State

My subtitle for the coming rant is "Separation of Art and Mass Media." I am a true believer in a higher power...The Arts. My particular sect worships at the altar of the concert stage and in the tabernacle of the recording studio. The Arts... Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture etal are the only true religion in that they lift man's condition to heights not perceptible in the empty promises of the baser religions. Indeed, the so called "world religions" are nothing more than patrons of the arts...true religion's best customer as it were. To compare the base world religions to my true religion would be, to paraphrase Mark Twain, comparing a "lightning bug to the real article."

Something very disturbing occurred on American television this past week and every true artist should be alternately shaking in their boots and seething with indignation. Fox Network's "So You Think You Can Dance" brings the art of dance to a broad summer audience. This last Wednesday, Judge Mia Michaels appeared on the show wearing what appeared to be the dress uniform jacket of the United States Marine Corps. In addition to Ms Michaels' fashion statement, the show featured a dance combination in celebration of peace, love and brotherhood created by choreographer Wade Robson. That these two unrelated events would precipitate the ensuing shit rain of politically correct balderdash exceeds all understanding.

On the following night, Mia Michaels made a statement on the show insuring the audience that she had not intended to offend anyone by wearing a military style jacket. WHAT?!! Who was offended and how much power must they have to cause Fox the expense of wasting precious airtime on this absurdity? By the humble delivery of the statement, one would think that Ms Michaels had had the words "Fuck America" tattooed on her forehead! We can assume that either the network received sufficient negative emails from every trailer park with wifi and folded under the pressure, or that the internal propagandists themselves were offended at the nerve of a choreographer wearing what she deemed a smart looking jacket without first clearing her wardrobe with the Oberleutnant of political fashion propaganda.

In the next moments, Nigel Lithgow was made to kiss the ring by way of his explanation of Wade Robson's intent, and apology for any offense taken by viewers, ostensibly watching huddled in fear from the same trailer courts. OUT-FUCKING-RAGIOUS! The inquisition is alive and well at the Fox network. There was not a shred of fairness afforded the supposed offenders of the dogma. They were declared guilty and made to confess in order to keep their place in the heaven of national television.

These are artists. Sensitive, thinking people who use their talent to communicate ideas to each individual according to their own powers of taste and perception. They owed neither apologies nor explanations. To think that wearing a military costume on the one hand, and portraying peace as being better than war on the other somehow offends our troops or gives aid and comfort to the enemy is horsecrap of most refined quality.

Contrary to the belief of these conservative jackals," love of country", "love of god" and "mindless regimentation" are not mutually interchangable terms. But just as the arts were co-opted by the church for the purpose of self-aggrandizement throughout history, these soul-less judges of what we are to believe have co-opted the arts today for the glory of their religion...the bottom line. And woe to the artist who dare foul the temple by expressing individuality or compassion.

In 1987 I appeared on the popular nationally syndicated dance show "Solid Gold." It was the Reagan Years. The original fashion theme of the artist with whom I appeared was of a military nature and I decided that a few military accessories might add a nostalgic touch to my wardrobe. I wore the insignia of U.S. Army Intelligence (excuse the unavoidable oxymoron) on one lapel and the insignia of the Soviet space program on the other. On one shoulder was a CIA emblem, on the other the designation for the First Air Cavalry. My Jacket was further decorated with patches of military organizations from numerous countries. And on my back I wore the Grateful Dead skull and lightening bolt. Was I making a statement? Fuck no. My criteria for each emblem's inclusion to the outfit was simple. Did it look cool.

Judging by the ordeal of Mia Michaels and Wade Robson, and the embarrassing drivel squeezed from the mouth but surely not the soul of Nigel Lithgow, The Fox network's gestapo would have impaled my head on a pole at the parking lot entrance. Somewhere in a storage locker, that jacket still exists. The style is out of date and all of the patches probably look corny by today's standards. But if there is ever a next time...that coat is coming out. And my only apology will be for giving the ass to anyone who is "offended" by it.

What will I do on next wednesday? Will I tune in? You bet! I support my fellow artists in their endeavors to touch their audience. But I will be taking notes of the products that put money into the greasy palms of the Fox fashion police. And whatever they're selling, I'm not buying. Not a big deal, I know. But when I go to services at my church, I'll have a conscience unencumbered with inane adherence to neo-con butt-twaddle.

The True Religion of the Arts may have to rent out rooms from time to time in order to survive...but it should never be for sale.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Healing Your Hearing...WHAT?

One of the first questions I ask a voice student is, "What is the first thing you do in order to sing a note?" The answers range from, "Breathe from my diaphragm" to "Stand up straight" and open my mouth." But I think that I've heard the right answer only once. The first thing a singer must do is to hear the note. Remember my second rule...you can find it in the sidebar. "It is always simpler than it seems."

This is not exclusive to singers. This first thing you do pertains to any and every musician. Before you make a sound, you have to hear the sound you are about to create. This is a mental tool that is valuable in conceptualizing that which you are attempting to create. But the importance of hearing brings me to my subject.

Have you ever performed or attended a concert and experienced ringing ears afterwards? You leave the venue, get on a plane or go to your room and the ringing is more than annoying. You feel as if it will never stop. So you turn off the TV, shut off the iPod, anything to hear only silence. But the quieter it is, the more pronounced the ringing becomes. It is time to heal your hearing.

First, here is the fast lane explanation of how your ear works. Sound waves enter the ear canal, striking the ear drum, setting into vibration the attached stirrup which passes the vibrations along to a bone-like structure called the anvil after which the vibrations are processed by thousands of little hairs, each attached to a nerve which tells the brain what to think of it all. When the sound pressure is too high, those little hairs call it quits and your brain gets less information. So what do you do? You turn it up, of course. Causing more of the little hairs to take a powder, so you...turn it up!

Now, those little hairs are frequency specific and if the sound pressure level stays elevated long enough, they will lay down and stay down...forever. That's why drummers often lose hearing in the high frequency range. Good god, hitting a snare drum all night long is worse than passing out targets at the firing range.

Alright, that's the problem, now what is the cure? Don't ask me, I'm no doctor. I guess that the ultimate solution would be to stop making all that racket and stop going places where they are making a racket. But you gotta work. You know how to rock and roll. Here is something that might help you to rock and hear.

Let's get a little anthropomorphic here and think of all those little hairs as tsunami survivors. Once the racket stops, they are all clinging to each other in fear of the next wave. After the initial look around for survivors, they start to talk to each other. "Did you hear that shit?" "Yeah man, it was LOUD!" "Boy, it sure is quiet now.' " Yeah, I wonder what's next." Did you hear anything?" "No, you?" "Anybody seen Bob?" "He's down for the count." and so on. Now, these little guys are tiny and they have little tiny voices. But when enough of them start calling out to each other, we hear it as a ringing in the ears.

Having taught in the classroom, I can tell you that the best way to get the attention of a noisy class is to speak quietly. Standing in silence just makes you a target for paper airplanes. But a whisper will always get the attention of a crowd. So here is how I get the little guys in my inner ear to shut up and go back to work.

Put on a pair of good quality headphones. Now play a string quartet or maybe the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Sonatas. And turn the volume down to the point where you have to struggle to hear the music. Very low. Inside your ear, the little hairs' conversation starts to dwindle and finally die down. When the music hits the inner ear, you can imagine them saying to each other, "Did you hear something?" "Shh! What was that?" "I think it's a violin." Shut up man, It sounds nice." "Hey, let go of me, I can stand up on my own." "Will you guys shut up already, I want to hear this."

And soon, the little hairs stop talking and are back up and dancing. When you make them seek out something to do, something to hear, they work very efficiently. The ringing will go away, and you can finally get some much needed rest. Try it. A little classical music never hurt anybody and your ears will be full of happy little hairs for years to come.

Heal your hearing.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mixing an Effective Demo

Mixing an effective demo recording can be as simple...or as complicated as you want it to be. In the not so long ago days of four track cassette recorders, the limitations of the equipment left fewer options for consideration. The home recordist of today however, has more toys at his command than the well stocked studio of even twenty years ago. But in spite of this, many demos still sound like shit. The reason? No matter how many compressors, equalizers, multiband mastering tools, phasers, flangers and fuck-with-the-sound toys there are in the box, you gotta have ears...and the brains to use them.

I can't tell you how many times I've listened to a home-recorded mix where the young genius pulls up a frequency analyzer and says, "Look at that curve, ain't it just perfect?" The problem is that you can't "look" at a mix, you have to listen to it. and if the song is fighting to get out of the speakers, you have a problem.

I listen to a lot of new demo mixes on the Sellaband web site. There are over 4500 artists currently showing their wares on Sellaband so there is no shortage of listening material. The quality ranges from simple guitar and voice writing demos and Garageband sequences right up to studio quality recordings. I'm going to address this to a typical 4 or 5 piece band with some sort of computer recording rig and the hopes of catching the ear of a big time A&R exec.

First of all, as I've preached before, It is all about the song. No song, no dice. Period. Assuming that there is a song to record, every aspect and every detail of that demo must have a reason for existence. This is where it is so easy to go wrong. No one will be impressed with effects. All the filtering and modulation effects are in those rigs for fun. And if you get caught up in that world to the point that the song depends on a flanging effect, that is what you will be playing for...fun. Keep it simple and let the song dictate what is needed. Effects and imaging are the herbs and spices of a mix, not the main course.

So how do you image a song demo effectively? Using our 5 piece rock band as an example, the first consideration when attempting to draw attention to the song is the vocal. A track can sound fabulous and then, when you drop in the vocal, there just isn't room left in the center of the stereo image. Here are some practical suggestions for making sure the vocal is the focal point of the mix.

1. It will probably make life easier if you record the parts to mono tracks. Yeah, I know, you just got a new stereo what-the-fuck box and when you play bass by yourself it's amazing. Forget it! You're asking for trouble.

2. Kick drum, bass and snare should be panned to the center. And here's a tip, Introduce yourself to the phase button. It's just a button, go ahead. Push it. Sometimes putting the kick or the bass out of phase can give the impression of more low end focus without affecting the overall volume.

3. Rhythm guitars, organs, pianos and most keyboard pads should be panned off center. These instruments can soak up much of the frequencies you will need for the vocal. Use your stage plot as an example. If the organ is on the right, pan it that way. And try to balance the instruments from right to left as they would be on a stage, sort of like picking teams for softball. One big guy for you, one for me. One girl on each team, and so on.

4. EQ adds amplitude(loudness) as well as frequencies(tone). Pulling certain frequencies out can be more effective that piling them on.

5. Watch that you don't put up a killer mix and then bury the detail with delay and reverb. Try the old school mono reverb trick. Pan a rhythm guitar hard right. Now put it through a mono delay or reverb and pan the effect hard left. Then pan the organ hard left and pan its effect hard right. This will give the mix size and will leave room in the center for the vocal and any solos. Remember that reverbs and delays are based on the concept of sound reflecting off of surfaces. Keep that in mind as you image the effects. Reverbs and most delay effects should be like faint halos around the edges of the mix.

And 6. The vocal. It all comes down to this. No matter how rockin' or complex the track is, you must be able to hear every nuance, every breath and every word of the lead vocal. If you listen to the dry vocal in the mix, and this isn't happening, keep the vocal playing as you solo the instruments one by one and find the culprit. If the vocal sits nicely in the center, it's time for a little reverb. If you have the toys, try this. Put up two mono reverb channels. Pre delay one of them by 20 ms and pan it hard right. Pre delay the other by 40 ms and pan it hard left. Now send the Vocal to each reverb. The vocal will be charging up the center channel and have plenty of size as well. The panned reverbs will insure that the details will be heard.

An effectively mixed song demo doesn't have to be extravagant. Your band may play great music, have amazing chops, and you can have cool outfits, But nobody will ever know how cool you are if they can't hear the song. So get that shit out of the way and let em hear the vocal.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vocal Fatigue...Part 3

First things first. Before jumping into a series of vocal exercises that could easily harm more than help a singer experiencing fatigue, it is important to root out the cause of the problem. Again, keep in mind that every singer is different, with a unique instrument, and with a unique set of demands to be made on that instrument. Applying the generalized principles of "correct" vocal production can result in more problems than solutions.

Rather than write a boring litany of all the possible cause and effect formulae, let me illustrate by creating a hypothetical scenario. Sven the Viking is the lead singer of a metal band specializing in "Nordic Pillage Rock." Sven's band is preparing for a six month world tour and although he is gifted with massive physical presence, the stentorian tone which is his trademark is losing torque with every rehearsal. He wants two things. 1. The strength to sing a show without losing his voice, and 2. the prospect of beginning every show from square one rather then with vocal fatigue held over from the previous show.

Lets summarize what is before us:

Sven is a screamer...If we change that, his fans will pelt him with bottles.
Sven smokes...good luck changing that one, Sven just got out of drug/booze rehab and is clinging to his last known vice.
Sven is a hard worker and has reached his level of success by storming through whatever obstacles were in his path.
Sven has reached the point of saying, "It can't get any worse, I'll try anything." He is receptive to my suggestions and "believes" that what I say will help him.

We start by listening, and watching Sven sing a song. Sven has no problem with support. But as I look at his upper chest and neck, I can see the muscles working overtime. Sven is trying to squeeze 10 pounds of sound through a 5 pound opening. He sings with his chin up and opens his mouth wide by raising his head. All wrong! But the sound and delivery are exactly the same as on Sven's records.

Simply put, we need to find the range where Sven's voice is most relaxed. I start by having Sven lay on his back. Now his head is in the proper posture for singing. (For a full explanation of this, see my entry Vocal Architecture.)

I have Sven hoot like an owl, very lightly and in his falsetto, or head voice. I find that there are 5 or 6 notes that he can "hoot" so we exercise just those notes, first by singing "Hoooo" in a light breathy tone as if blowing across a bottle. Remember, the idea is not to make a great sound, but to get the vocal machinery operating in its most relaxed state. I'm looking for free and easy vibration without the tension present when Sven does his act.

Next, I use the syllable "Voo" and exercise the same notes. I start with the "Hoo" in order to begin the tone with air. This allows the vocal cords to engage in a non-violent way with a minimum of tension applied by the surrounding muscles. (See my essay on this principle here) Using the "Voo" brings the initiation of the tone, forward as the lips form the "Vee" consonant, also allowing the tone to ride on a column of air. Repetition of these relaxed exercises will manipulate the mechanism and allow the vocal cords to vibrate freely thereby providing much needed therapy much as an athlete would have sore muscles worked on by a physiotherapist.

After the upper register feels free, I look for the most relaxed range of the lower voice. This is usually in the normal speaking range. The same principles apply, find the easiest notes and exercise them by beginning the tone on a column of air. The "oo" vowel is very helpful because when produced properly, it is not a loud vowel. I ask Sven to sing "Hoo" and "Voo" as if he were imitating very low level feedback.

Depending on the individual, various other vowel sounds are brought into the exercise regimen. Normally, "oo" and "oh" feel the most relaxed while the open "ah" will tend to expose problem areas. I will move through the vowels from "oo" to "ah" with an effort to letting the "ah" vowel be influenced by the habits of free vibration being learned from the "oo."

This would be the very beginning. If Sven were not able to see me every day, I would record a regimen of exercises as he sings them and hope that he repeats these at least once a day. Progress is absolutely inevitable, IF the work is done. When Sven goes on tour, he will find that he is still screaming his guts out, his fans are loving it, and by sticking to a regimen of daily vocalization, his vocal mechanism will be able to survive.

Of course this scenario doesn't represent the way it's supposed to be according to every teacher I've learned from over the years. But what does Sven care about "Bel Canto" technique? Sven lives in the real world and only a real world approach will get him to the end of the tour.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The "17 Steps" of the Vegas Dragons

There is a series of wicked turns on the lower end of the Pasadena freeway just as you leave downtown Los Angeles, heading north. At 3:00 AM, when traffic is at a minimum, this stretch can be thrilling. You can take it up to 75 or 80 MPH but all the curves are blind and you never really know what you'll face as you round the bend in the road. If one car ahead fucks up, you'll be sideways in the guard-rail for sure.

One early morning, after a club date, I found myself with this little bit of roadway all to myself. Thrills being thrills and boys being boys, I decided to punch it up a notch and whip through the blind esses. I guess I hadn't been to Disneyland in a while and needed an adrenalin rush to make it home. Clearing the first turn, my pulse raced with excitement. No tail lights ahead! I bore down on the accelerator and braced myself for the next turn into the first tunnel...and there in front of me was a wall of tail lights! I barely controlled the car and found myself on the shoulder at a dead standstill. There was no clue as to why the traffic had stopped...no emergency lights or equipment, no police or ambulance. Just four lanes of stopped cars seemingly staring into the gaping maw of the tunnel leading to the Dodger Stadium exit.

After a few minutes, I got out of the car to investigate. I have few regrets in my life, but leaving my car that night is in the top five. As I made my way to the front of the snarl-up, my eyes followed the beams of the leading car's headlights and there, in the garish light of early Los Angeles morning was a motorcycle...well, there were parts resembling what could once have been a motorcycle...accompanied by parts of what was most likely the late motorcyclist! There were, as yet no signs of help and there was the cold, icy chill of recent events suspended in the air as if afraid to settle and lend legitimacy to the surreal tableau at my feet. In the siren-less vacuum and in light absent of emergency strobes, I looked down and saw half a face, the missing half now a 75 foot long smear in the pavement. There was no movement, but the massive wound had just moments before given up a volume of blood that seemed still alive as it continued to flow across the pavement, finally pooling as it found a dip in the asphalt. The moment is forever and indelibly etched into my memory.

Brian Taylor and the Vegas Dragons are a rock band to be found on the Sellaband web site. If they were not a band, they could do well as designers of amusement park thrill rides. Their latest offering is called "17 Steps" and is best heard with headphones cranked and with the same receptive attitude one has when ascending the first long climb of a wicked rollercoaster. You get the feeling that something exciting is just around the corner, but the full impact of the excitement is still in the future and remains unknown.

"17 Steps" opens with a soundscape I can only describe as a midievil violi da gambi duet transported to a windswept Saharan dune. Enter the drums with a pulse that is almost a heartbeat but with a sinister pathological hitch. The next layer is a guitar straight from a Sergio Leone film. Before Brian utters a word, the track has already required the listener to suspend reality. Black is white, up is down and answers become questions.

The song inexorably plows its way through the blind curves of the Pasadena freeway and as the frenzied peak is approached, as the adrenalin starts to ooze through the temples and stain the headphone pads...the listener rushes down the last precipitous drop of the rollercoaster. But instead of the exhilaratingly misty ending of "Tom Sawyers Log Ride" he finds himself staring down at pain...memories and pain. Everybody has their own most painful moment...that one memory that makes the bones inside your elbows ache in horror. In my case, it was an oozing half head at 3:00 AM on the Pasadena freeway. I think Brian Taylor and the Vegas Dragons are asking the question, "What's yours...what are your 17 steps?"

Now, to get back to the real world for a moment, I would be doing the band a grave injustice not to draw some attention to areas that could be better executed. As recorded, the vocal does not sit most effectively in the mix. I get the feeling that what is wanted here is a vocal that gnaws at the brain like a nagging conscience. The little devil perched on your shoulder reassuring you in hushed tones that it's alright to burn down the orphanage. The voices that no one but the afflicted can hear. The deafening whisper of ultimate insanity. Placing a vocal with those characteristics into a track of such cinematic breadth is daunting...but production chops and proper tools can, and hopefully will make it happen.

"17 steps" is not the sort of music that will result in many backseat conceptions. But there are already plenty of songs filling that particular bill. "17 Steps" is a ride inside. After repeated listenings, I found myself happy to have made it out again, but in some twisted way, unable to resist revisiting the scene of the crime.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Vocal Fatigue Part 2

So...to continue a discussion of vocal fatigue. There is a good possibility that I may go off on a bit of a rant but I'll try to stay on point long enough to give some advice on conquering fatigue and rehabilitating the vocal mechanism. I find it important, however, to take a quick left turn and provide some background for my method.

I spend a lot of time in my lessons discussing what I call "vocal mechanics." The human voice is produced by a machine made up of levers, tubes, reservoirs, intake manifolds, exhaust systems, tone generators, resonators, springs...Jesus, it sounds complicated, doesn't it? The truth is, yes, it is extremely complicated. The good news is that most of these systems operate involuntarily and with utmost efficiency with every beat of your heart.

Singing can be a very simple process, and I try to keep technique as simple it can be. But vocal fatigue is a symptom of one or more of the many components of the mechanism being operated in a manner that causes other components to be overworked. At that point it becomes important to carefully analyze the singer's technique with a mechanic's eye toward detail and efficiency of operation.

Most singers suffering from fatigue experience discomfort or pain in the throat, hoarseness and inflexibility in the upper register. This indicates that the vocal cords are being misused. Now, try to move your vocal cords. Go ahead, move just the left one, now move the right one. Can't do it, can you? So how can you expect to correct the abuse of the vocal cords without ascertaining precisely which component of the mechanism is not doing its job and causing the vocal cords to work overtime?

The vocal cords, or "vocal folds" as they are sometimes called, can more precisely be described as a valve. This valve's primary function is to act as the last line of defense in protecting the breathing mechanism from foreign objects. When you swallow, the epiglottis closes over the airway to cap the opening. Below this cap, the vocal cords close across the airway just in case anything gets past the epiglottis. The vocal cords, or "valve" is closed when swallowing. Hum. Now try to swallow while humming. Impossible.

The function of the vocal cords as the "tone generator" of the vocal mechanism is secondary to survival, but primary for communication. It's the architecture of the human mouth with it's ability to form words that separates humans from the non-speaking species. The process by which tone is produced by the vocal cords is discussed in detail in my post from May, 2006 entitled, "Bernoulli, Doppler and Natural Vibrato'" found in the archives.

To illustrate how the abuse of the cords results in fatigue, hold your hands in a praying position with palms flat and together. Pull your hands three inches apart and put them together again twice per second lightly, so they just touch. Repeat this for the length of a short song...say, two minutes. This is a simulation of the action of the vocal cords when singing. Now repeat the process, only this time clap your hands firmly together, again, twice per second. Do this for two minutes. How do your hands feel? They hurt, don't they? If you put your palm against your face, you'll feel how hot they have become. This is precisely what happens to the vocal cords when you scream, yell or sing with crap technique. And as small and delicate as the vocal cords are, it's no surprise at all that an ounce of abuse can require a pound of rehabilitation.

If you slap your hands together for an extended period, callouses will form at the points of most violent contact. When these irregularities form on the leading edge of the vocal cords, the surface of the cords are not able to come to a complete closure and some air flows through the opening(glottis). The resultant tone is breathy or hoarse, and there is a build up of heat and pain from slapping the cords together. Voila...Vocal Fatigue.

Okay, so I took a wide left, but let me get back on the road and suggest the first step in alleviating vocal fatigue. Step one? Stop talking! Don't say another word. When you speak with a worn out voice, you just aggravate the cords. Step two, if you can afford to, don't sing. It hurts and you sound like shit anyway, so just stop it. You're doing something wrong and until you discover what that is, you'll just continue to cause damage. Usually the fault lies in two areas. These are Breathing and Support, and Vocal Architecture, also covered in the archives. Step three, deep breathing exercises. There is no short cut. It all starts with breathing and it doesn't have to be complicated.

In a future post, I will go into more detail as to the exercises that may be helpful in rehabilitating abused vocal cords. In the meantime, If you suffer from vocal fatigue, SHUT UP, DON'T SING, and BREATH DEEP.

Monday, July 09, 2007

It's All About the Song...Sellaband's Francis Rodino

There are two things I enjoy most about teaching, whether it has to do with voice, guitar or bass. The first is what I call the "Aha moment." This is the instant that a brick falls out of the sky and smacks a student squarely on the head with a thud of revelation. I shoot for one such moment per lesson. The second thing is more delicious, but like most treats, is fleeting in nature and only happens once per student. And that is the moment during the very first lesson when I say "Okay, sing me your best song, give me your best shot. Let me see how I can help you."

A new voice student came to me this week and after engaging him in some "Tell me a little about yourself" conversation, I dropped the hammer and asked him to sing a song for me. He accompanied himself on the guitar and sang a song of his own composition...nervously. I couldn't help but think that he felt more comfortable playing the guitar than singing because instead of singing with any sort of passion and accompanying his voice with the guitar, he played with a great deal of concentration and his voice, along with the song, took a back seat.

You can ask any successful producer or A&R person, and they'll all say the same thing...It's all about the song. The reject pile is full of great performances by great musicians. Why are they in the reject pile? Crap songs...simple. The best records, the ones that define our personal moments, are recordings of great songs. This is not a genre-specific concept. Marvin Gaye sang his ass off...Jimi Hendrix played his ass off. But it's their songs that made them immortal. Great songs seduce great performers into stellar performances.

Which brings me to my subject. Francis Rodino is a rising artist in the Sellaband web-based music community. I should give proper respect and refer to the act as the Francis Rodino Band because the band looms large in the impression made by these recordings. As with all my Sellaband reviews, and in the interest of impartiality, I listen only to the mp3 files posted on the Sellaband profile page of each artist.

Francis Rodino is a rare breed... he sings with a passion that resonates on a very fundamental level. And, more importantly, he knows how to write the kind of songs that seduce musicians into memorable performances. Rodino's songs and Rodino's voice are made for each other. These songs aren't "heard" so much as "felt" and every note on these cuts seems to be performed with the express intent of framing the underlying idea of the song.

From top to bottom, the band provides a near perfect foundation for the delivery of these songs. Drummer Matt George and bassist Allan Burls play together as one instrument. One thing I really appreciate is the bass tone which melts perfectly into the kick drum, providing a warm, low end pulse reminiscent of old school analog recordings. The band plays with excellent dynamics allowing Rodino's thoughts to build with a relentless intensity. A good measure of self control combined with passionate musicality results in emotionally compelling tracks.

Rodino's acoustic guitar and Nik Hollis on electric provide a firm bed of well-played rhythm guitars. I have only one quibble and it's a matter of my own taste. I would like to hear the guitar solo sections take on more of the character and color of the vocals. Make no mistake, Hollis is a fine player, but the guitar solos could sound thicker and be more thematic in choice of notes. As tight as the band is, I think that if Rodino and Hollis developed more of a "tag-team" approach to the featured sections, what is now very competent could become very special indeed. But...as always, I could be full of shit.

The bottom line from the Bottom End is this. The Francis Rodino Band is ready. When the time comes for them to take these songs into the studio, there is no question that they'll know what to do. And I have no doubt that their audience will listen and be touched. Why? Because it's all about the song.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

"Why is it Important to Know This Stuff?"

I had an interesting voice lesson recently. While I was running off at the mouth (as I often do) on the subject of voiced and unvoiced consonants, My student asked a very astute question...a question that frequently goes unasked.

"Why is it important to know this stuff?" she asked me. My very first reaction was to respond as my father would have..."Because I said so!" But her question made me think...how could I answer that question honestly and in a way that would make it clear that it is, in fact, very important to "know this stuff."

Look at the patch bay in the picture. Now picture a recording engineer following signal flow through that maze "by ear" to use a well worn phrase offered as an alternative to education by the ignorant.

In my experience, singers are BY FAR the most uninformed of all the performing artists. Yes, there are exceptions, and I suppose I'll get a ton of damning emails from the brilliant cogniscenti of the singing trade...but my opinion is built on solid ground

The fact is that anyone can sing. There are singers with natural gifts and others that have worked hard to master gifts of lesser proportions. Singers, more than other performers, have a tendency to be lazy because there are no toys involved. There is no external instrument to master, clean or maintain. There is nothing to praise and nothing to blame save for that which resides internally.

Every endeavor is enriched by fundamental knowledge of the technical skills required to carry out that endeavor. At the time this question came up, I had a repair man working on my air conditioning unit. I didn't wonder if the repairman knew his craft. He didn't show up with paint brushes or carpenters tools, he showed up with the right stuff and my house is cool again. I can't imagine a car mechanic doing a computer analysis of my electronic ignition system "by ear."

And yet, that is the attitude many singers have. Of course, ears are important. That isn't the point. Information is power. Knowledge of the instrument and vocal mechanics will never interfere with natural abilities or style. A singer's individuality is defined by much more than just knowledge alone.

Years ago, I made friends with a prominent magician, perhaps better said, an "illusionist." He was of a democratic mind set and had no qualms about showing me how nearly every illusion actually was executed. I knew how the ring trick worked, where the duck was hidden, and why the girl in the basket wasn't stabbed to death two shows per night. He showed me how the most amazing card tricks are broken down. You see, for him, there was no magic...his art was in executing the technical skills he had learned and repetitiously practiced for hours, weeks, months and years in order to allow the audience to believe that he had done the impossible. I could go through the motions he showed me, but without practice, I could never fool a soul.

So why is it important to "know this stuff?" Well, to go back to my magician friend, if he did his tricks "by ear" there would be blood in the basket...two shows per night.

Don't be lazy...learn you shit and practice!