Becoming Whole, Healthy Artists

(Trigger Warning: depression, suicide)

2018 began with the death of an old friend by suicide.  It was particularly devastating because he was one of the brightest and funniest talents I knew.  He had so many things going for him, and was deeply loved by so many, but then depression came along and swallowed him up.  I felt especially saddened by the wish that I’d made more of an effort to stay in touch over the years.  Then we lost Kate Spate, and then Anthony Bourdain.  And just before them was Scott Hutchison of the band Frightened Rabbit, whose album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), had gotten me through some of my own darkest times.  I found myself listening to those songs again, tears pouring down my face, wondering why so many of the most brilliant minds are so tormented.  And, more importantly, wondering what I can do to make a difference.

I’ve been doing a lot of personal growth work for the last 10 years or so.  If you knew me in college, I was, to put it nicely, kind of a mess.  I was in a lot of emotional pain that I didn’t know how to process, and that pain had become part of my identity.  But then, in 2006, I discovered that yoga helped with my back pain and helped me reconnect to my body, and that sent me down a new path.  I was finally able to quiet my anxious mind and really connect to myself.

Another life-saver during those dark times of mine was Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  It started me down a path of self-care and personal development, which continues to be a priority for me.  I began to see that I would still be myself if I let go of all the darkness I’d been carrying around, and that I could make simple changes to help myself feel better, one step at a time.

I’ve also learned that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, which explained so many things that I thought were just weird quirks.  I’m just wired a little differently and my nervous system is more sensitive than most, so I get easily overwhelmed.  I am grateful to have found coping strategies that work for me, like meditation, yoga, and giving myself quiet time to decompress.  (I will be sharing more about these strategies in future posts– stay tuned!)

The more I have learned to take care of myself, the more I wish I’d learned these things sooner.  Why didn’t my fancy music school education teach me how to stay sane in the high-pressure life of a professional musician?  I certainly wasn’t the only one struggling under all the pressure.  Why are young singers still being told outdated and incorrect information about whether exercise is good for the voice?  Our bodies are our instruments, so why not learn how to properly care for them?  Fortunately, some schools are starting to include wellness skills as part of their music programs, but this is not yet the norm.

Everything I’ve been through has helped me find my true calling as a voice teacher: to help singers and other artists unlock their true selves and true voices.  I am creating an online community where singers at all levels can support and encourage each other on our paths to health and healing.  In the future, I also plan to offer retreats and workshops where the community can connect in-person and learn together.

I believe that it’s time for creatives to release the “tortured artist” ideal and start becoming whole, healthy performers.  I believe that we can create our best art when we choose a life full of purpose, joy, and creativity.

Fall 2018 Updates

I can’t believe the summer is almost over!  I just wanted to write a super-quick post with a few updates for the 2018-19 school year.

I am currently accepting new students in Oakland (Holy Names University Preparatory Music) and Vallejo.

I am a vendor with Visions in Education, and students may use their vouchers for lessons in voice, piano, or both (at my Vallejo location).  I may also be offering a group voice class for beginning singers (TBD – depends on number and ages of singers interested).

Please contact me if you are interested in lessons or would like more information!


I also have some exciting projects in the works!

Coming soon: online voice lessons, and more!

Expectations and Benefits of Voice Lessons for Kids

Singing is a complicated process involving many muscles, and training them to work together efficiently and effectively takes skill and practice.  Singing is muscle memory, and practice is key.  Sometimes results can be quick, and that’s great.  Sometimes it takes a while.

In kids’ voices, results depend on even more factors.  Kids’ bodies are smaller and more flexible than adults, which makes some things easier and others more difficult. Kids typically take longer than adults to get the hang of breathing for singing– expanding the belly on inhalation while keeping the shoulders relaxed.  This is a key piece of vocal technique, and just one example of something that kids take a little extra practice to master.  This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to learn it, it just means they’ll need to practice.

A kid’s voice will not naturally sound like an adult’s (there are some exceptions), and forcing an unnatural vocal tone adds tension and strain.  Kids’ voices can’t do what adults’ voices do, and we shouldn’t try to make them.  Learning healthy, age-appropriate singing technique can start students on a path of lifelong singing.  One of my main goals with young students is to undo any bad habits that might cause vocal strain or injury in the future.  Unfortunately, the vocal styles that are trendy in current pop music are not healthy to imitate, and singers who attempt without the proper technique can damage their vocal folds.

I also include solfege exercises in lessons to build musicianship skill. (Solfege, or Sol-Fa, or Solfeggio, are names for the syllables Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.  These syllables are hugely helpful once students become fluent with them, which takes time and repetition.  Learning melodies on the solfege syllables incorporates music theory into singing, and reinforces musicianship skill and ear-training.

And last but certainly not least, music lessons build confidence.  Performing in front of peers and family builds confidence, and students may enjoy auditioning for other singing opportunities at school or in the community.  Voice lessons also help many students feel more poised and confident in public speaking.  One of my students was so shy in her first lesson that she would barely speak or make eye contact with me.  After only a few weeks, her parents had already noticed a difference in her confidence; now after 2 years she is a much more confident performer, and even had a large role in her school musical last year.

Finally, many young students choose to take lessons in both voice and piano.  This is a great option for motivated voice students and young beginners alike!  Piano skills are extremely useful for singers of all ages.

If you have questions about whether or not your child can benefit from music lessons, please ask!

Voice and Piano Lessons in Vallejo!

I am excited to announce that I now have a new home studio in Vallejo, CA!

I teach private voice and piano lessons for all ages and experience levels.

Beginning Voice: ages 6 and up; 30-45 minute weekly lessons for beginners (depending on age and level)

Intermediate/Advanced Voice: all ages; 45-60 minute weekly lessons, in classical or popular vocal technique.

Beginning Piano: ages 4 and up; 30 minute weekly lessons (or 15 minutes for very young beginners) for beginners.  I usually recommend increasing to 45 minute lessons once a student starts learning more challenging music (around level two of a method series).

Intermediate Piano: all ages; 45-60 minute weekly lessons.

Beginning Voice/Piano Combination: all ages; 45-min for beginners, increasing lesson length when needed.  This is a good way to get started reading music and singing, and is often a good choice for younger beginners.

A brief note about materials and repertoire: I will recommend specific books for use in lessons.  I generally use the Piano Adventures series for my piano students.  Voice students will be asked to purchase music as well, usually at least one songbook and one book of vocal exercises to build technique, which I will recommend based on skill level.

 

 

 

 

Memorization Tips

Hello, everyone!  I wanted to share a few of my favorite tricks and tips for memorization.  Memorizing songs is something that comes very easily to some, and not at all to others, but it is a skill that can be strengthened and developed.

Here are some of the things I do when I am working on memorizing something:

  1. Write out the lyrics.
  2. With a partner, speak through the lyrics together.  The way this works is your partner holds the music/lyrics and says the first word.  Then, you say the second word, your partner says the third, and so on.  It’s surprisingly tricky, and really helpful!
  3. Look at your music one phrase or section at a time, really look at it, then close your eyes and keep visualizing the music on the page, and sing it.  Work through the song this way, spending more time on the phrases that you have trouble remembering.
  4. Imagine yourself singing the song.  Really hear it in your head, in YOUR voice, the way you want to sing it.  This is great for when you want to practice without making noise, or if you want to keep working on a song without tiring out your voice.
  5. Working on the scene or story of a song can also help with memorization.  Spend some time creating the world of the song inside your head, and connect the lyrics to the emotions that your character is feeling.
  6. For more advanced musicians, harmonic analysis of the song can also be helpful.  This works especially well for more modern or challenging pieces.  Understanding where the points of harmonic tension and release occur, and how that relates to the vocal line, helps me remember the structure of the piece and what comes next.

That’s all I could think of so far.  I’d love to hear any other favorite memorization tips or tricks that work for you, so please share them in the comments!

Healthy Body, Healthy Voice

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything! I thought I’d write a little bit about what’s been on my mind a lot lately in my teaching as well as my own singing: the importance of good posture and body awareness for singers.

It’s easy for singers to focus on only what’s going on in the throat and mouth as we sing. After all, that’s where the sound is created and shaped. However, posture and tension in the rest of the body can also have a huge effect on our singing.

When I was in college, I was overweight and felt disconnected from my body. Over several years, I lost more than 50 pounds and began reconnecting with my body. (One of the things that started me on that journey to getting healthy was the two weeks I spent at the OperaWorks program, where we had an hour of yoga every day… and I could, and eventually will, write a whole post about how Ann Baltz and OperaWorks changed my life and my singing!) I’m not saying that simply losing weight made me a better singer. I’m not saying that being overweight is bad, or that anyone should be ashamed of their body. But as I got more comfortable in my own body, I was able to feel more connection and support while singing. And for me, personally, being healthier and stronger has made me a better singer. I also know singers who have had the opposite experience: after losing weight, it was harder to feel support from the abdominal muscles, and singing became more difficult. Everyone has their own unique experience, and mine has greatly influenced my growth as a singer and as a teacher.

Lately I’ve been amazed to discover how much the slightest tension in my body affects my singing!  If my shoulders are feeling particularly tight, that tightness will show up in my voice. Most of the time, if I am struggling with something vocally, I can fix it by finding and releasing tension in my body, and making sure the right muscles are working to support my sound. I’ve also recently been working on my core strength, which has had an amazing effect on my singing and helped me to discover a richer, fuller sound that I didn’t know I had.  As I continue to get healthier and stronger, so does my voice.

With my beginning piano students, I talk about using the larger muscles of the arm to play, instead of making the little finger muscles do all the work. With singing, I feel that it works the same way: really supporting your voice with good posture and active (but not rigid) muscles in the torso and abdomen reduces tension in the larynx. (Of course it’s important to experiment with these ideas under the careful guidance of a voice teacher, because using the abdominal muscles to push too much air through the vocal folds can cause vocal fatigue and lead to damage!) I’d really like to write more about the concept of support, and some of the varying opinions on it, but I will have to save that for my next post.

I’ve been finding ways to incorporate these concepts into voice lessons, but it seems especially difficult with young students who have not developed good body awareness yet. With young students, props like rubber balls or resistance bands are especially helpful because they keep the students’ hands busy and cut down on extraneous movement and wiggling, while encouraging more stable posture without becoming stiff and rigid.

Teachers and singers, what are some of your favorite ways to engage the body while singing? How do you develop body awareness and good posture in young singers? I’d love to hear what is working or not working for you!

Everyone else is doing it…

I feel bad for Katy Perry today, as embarrassing footage of her lip sync fail has gone viral.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all over the internet, here’s one post on Gawker)   And then there’s this clip of a terrible performance on X Factor UK.  Everyone wants to talk about how awful she is, how disappointing, etc.  How her “real voice” is so much worse than what we hear in her recordings.

The thing is, most pop stars’ actual singing voices do not sound the same as the processed final product that we hear on the radio.  Autotune seems to be a requirement these days, even if the singer doesn’t really need it.  Most pop singers are so heavily processed in their recordings that the voice sounds like a machine to me, not like a real singer.  REAL VOICES DON’T SOUND LIKE THAT.  I have to explain this to my pop-singing students all the time: you can’t make your voice sound like that recording, because the voice in that recording has had all kinds of digital effects and processing done.  That’s not a real person’s voice, it’s an effect.  There are only a handful of pop singers whose real voices sound like their recordings (Beyoncé and Emeli Sandé are the first to come to mind), because, unfortunately, the majority of consumers don’t care about the singing.  They care about the image.

And the other thing is, almost every pop star lip syncs for at least some performances.  That’s just the way it is.  When you’re singing with in-ear monitors to hear yourself and your band, it’s hard to hear anything clearly.  If the mix isn’t right, you may not be able to find your pitch.  If it’s a particularly large venue where getting the right sound balance will be tricky, if the focus is on elaborate choreography and putting on a spectacular show, live singing is not the point.  It’s by no means impossible to pull off a good live performance under these circumstances, and there are singers that can do it, but many can’t.  And it unfortunately comes down to the fact that sometimes live singing is too hard and would take away from the “performance.”  It’s about the spectacle.  It’s about the image, about putting on an amazing show, about special effects and costumes and lights and dancers.  It’s rarely about the singing.

People get all worked up when a malfunction like this draws are attention to the fact that our beloved pop stars are not the greatest singers.  The truth is, talent doesn’t sell the way that a carefully crafted image does.  There are some really great singers out there who are truly talented and whose finished recordings sound like their natural voice, but those great musicians rarely become mega-stars.  In fact, I think that valuing your music and your voice is not very compatible with having a career as a pop star.  You either choose to be a great musician or you let yourself be made into a celebrity.

And another thing: pop singers are often on rigorous and very demanding tour schedules.  Heavy pop belting can be really tiring on the voice, especially if it’s not done carefully.  Yet the singer is rarely in a position to say, “wait a second, I need a day off in between shows so that I can rest,” because the singer is rarely the one making the decisions.  So, do you sing even though maybe your voice is thrashed and you know it won’t be your best performance, or do you take a night off and lip sync?

I’m not saying that I agree with the way things are, I’m just saying that it’s a complex situation and I’m more surprised when I discover a pop star who can actually sing well then when I find out that one is not as great as they appear.  If you look at other Katy Perry performances where she is clearly singing live (the minor pitch problems are the giveaway), they are not nearly as bad as the ones that have surfaced in the past few days.  She’s not a terrible singer, she’s just clearly had a bad couple of shows.  She obviously doesn’t sound the same live as she does in her recordings, but very few mainstream pop singers do.

Maybe someday the focus will be on the music instead of the spectacle, and singers will be able to concentrate on giving awesome live performances without all the dancing and special effects and nonsense.  But until then, mainstream audiences will continue to expect unrealistic levels of showmanship and excitement (and then turn vicious when their pop idols reveal that they are, in fact, only humans), and singers will continue having to compromise in one way or another to deliver what’s expected of them.