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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Practice Tips for Beginning Singers

How to Practice Singing

Step 1: Always Warm Up!

Loosen up your body with some stretches, shoulder rolls, and deep breaths

Start singing gently, with some of the warm up exercises you’ve learned in your lessons

It’s usually best to start each exercise in the middle of your range, and then move by half steps up or down to stretch your range.  Don’t push your voice to extreme high or low notes, instead you should stay within the range that is comfortable for you.

Once your voice has had a chance to warm up with simple exercises, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes singing some of the more challenging scales that we have worked on in your lessons.  This is the most effective way to build technique and strengthen your voice.

Step 2: Practicing Songs

When learning a new song, it’s best to practice the words and the melody separately at first:

  1. Speak the words as if they were lines in a play, so that you can feel connected to the meaning of the song.
  2. Speak the words in rhythm.  Do this slowly at first to make sure your rhythms are accurate.
  3. Learn the melody without the words, on a neutral syllable like “ah” or “oo”
  4. When you are ready, put the words and melody together.

Try not to rely on listening to recordings to learn new songs.  It’s important to come up with your own interpretation, rather than imitating another singer’s performance.

Rather than singing through the whole song over and over, try focusing on the sections that are most difficult first.  You can try singing these passages on an open vowel “ah” or “oh,” or on a lip trill to help relax the tone.  Pay attention to which sounds are most comfortable, and use those to help relax your voice when you have trouble.

Step 3: Learning to Read Music

I encourage all of my students to develop their music reading skills and learn the basics of music theory.  This will improve your overall performance, improve pitch and tuning, and make learning new songs much easier.  I use several sets of exercises that focus on developing basic music reading skills using Solfege (or Solfeggio) Syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.  I will try to work through at least one of these exercises during each lesson, but it is very beneficial to practice them regularly at home.

When learning a song, try to get as much information as you can from the printed music, rather than learning by ear.  Which direction are the notes moving?  Are the pitches close together or far apart?  How many beats does each note get?  Are they loud or soft?  Asking yourself these types of questions about the music will help you become more skilled at interpreting the symbols of music notation.

Step 4: Follow Up

I recommend keeping track of your practice sessions, and writing down any questions or concerns that come up so that they can be addressed in your next lesson.  I’d like to hear about improvements you notice as well as difficulties you might have during the week.  If something is not working for you, we can try another approach.

If you are not sure what to practice, please ask!  Remember that the goal of practice is to reinforce the new skills introduced in your lesson, so that is usually a good place to start.  Also remember that consistent practice at home will help you learn songs faster, which allows us to focus on more advanced (and more fun!) concepts in lessons, instead of spending our time learning the notes and rhythms.  Also keep in mind that taking time to learn new music carefully and accurately will save the time you’d spend re-learning music learned incorrectly or undoing bad habits.

Additional Tips

I’d recommend using some kind of system to keep track of your progress.  You could try keeping a singing journal, where you write thoughts and reactions to lessons, practice sessions, and performances.  A journal is also a great way to keep track of goals and your progress toward them.  Or you can track of your practice time in a calendar or planner.  I use my Google Calendar to schedule practice time, because it helps me make sure I stay on track and practice as often as I’d like to.

Set a timer while you’re practicing so that you can stay focused.  I’m much less distracted if I know I need to keep going until the timer goes off, rather than constantly checking the clock.

Even if you’re busy and it seems like you have no time to practice, 15 minutes of practice is better than nothing.  It’s better to practice a little every day than for an hour at a time only once or twice a week.

If you are struggling with something and can’t seem to make progress, take a break and work on something else for a while.  Doing the same thing over and over unsuccessfully is not productive and will only make you frustrated.

Practicing in front of a mirror can help in two ways: first, it will let you keep track of your facial expressions and help develop your acting skills.  Secondly, it lets you see when you are doing something that will get in the way of your singing, like tightening your jaw or lifting your shoulders.

When you do listen to recordings of other singers, try to analyze what they are doing and find things that you specifically like or don’t like about their performance.  For example, is the tone breathy or bright?  Is the singer using head voice, chest voice, or a mix of both?  Where does the singer change the tone, and why do you think he/she does that?  Asking these questions will improve your listening skills and make you a more analytical singer.

Happy Practicing!

Practice Makes Perfect

One of the biggest challenges I face with my students is getting them to practice regularly.  Consistent, focused practice is a necessary part of developing good vocal (or any other instrument) technique.   Students with good practice habits progress much more rapidly than those who only practice occasionally or not at all.

The goal is not to practice for hours every day, but instead to practice carefully and deliberately, reinforcing what was learned in your lesson and practicing those skills so that they become comfortable.   Pay close attention to what you are doing, how you are singing, and how it feels.  Focus your attention on practicing difficult sections and trouble spots.  Don’t just sing through the same song over and over and expect the problems to fix themselves.

For more on how to practice effectively, see this excellent post on Bulletproof Musician: How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

Finding time to practice regularly is something I struggle with myself as well.  Besides teaching, I work an office job, and I don’t have a lot of free time.  I also live in an apartment building with thin walls, so I try to be considerate of my neighbors by not practicing too early or too late.  I’ve been trying different methods of scheduling my practice sessions, and have yet to find the perfect solution.  I usually do some basic warm-ups and vocalizes during my 20-minute morning commute, but it’s pretty much impossible to accomplish any productive practice while driving.

One thing that has helped for me is finding small chunks of time for practice, and setting a timer so I am not distracted by the clock or all the other things on my To-Do list.  Fifteen minutes is a good place to start when it seems like there is no time for practice.  Even with a crazy schedule, you can always find 15 minutes for singing, and you might be surprised how much you can accomplish in that short amount of time.  If I have a little more time, I’ll sing scales and exercises for 15 minutes, then work on a song for 15 more.  I am often more productive during these short practice sessions than I am when I have more time.

As a coloratura soprano, a lot of the repertoire I sing is very vocally demanding.  Repeatedly singing through some of these arias is tiring, and not the most effective way to practice.  This is where mental practice comes in– a technique I first learned about at the OperaWorks summer intensive program.    Especially with difficult coloratura passages, being able to hear the notes in your head (sung in your voice, the way you want it to sound) is crucial.  While mental practice is not the same as physical practice, really visualizing yourself singing (or playing) the way that you want to sound can be very helpful.  For more on mental practice, see this post, also from Bulletproof Musician: Does Mental Practice Work? 

For many musicians, keeping a practice journal also helps.  I’ve found that writing down goals (repertoire to learn, technical concepts to focus on, etc) can really help me focus my practice time.  Also, keeping a record of what was accomplished can help me track my progress toward those goals.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!