Tone Deaf or Untrained?

A singer and choral director friend of mine observed on my last blog that people who think they are ‘tone deaf’ are often not.  She said, “They’re tone dumb”.  There is a medical condition that causes an inability to match pitch. That is called amusia, for those of you who would like to know.

Most of the singers that I have worked with who have come to me with a difficulty in matching pitch simply had not had the experience or training needed in order to match pitch correctly.  My father, who I never coached as a professional, used to get a sore rib when he’d sing next to me.  He’d sing some of the melody correctly, and other parts he’d wander off on his own.  I’d elbow him in the ribs.  Well, 15 years later, I went back to church with them on a visit, and wouldn’t you know that for one of the prayers they sang every week, he sang the whole thing on pitch.  And his voice was pretty good!

Another male singer came to me because he had a hole in his range.  He could sing accurately as a baritone, but when he went for the high notes it either flopped into falsetto or turned out a third off, like he was harmonizing with an inaudible melody. We started to work slowly into that zone with a simple humming exercise – building accuracy, strength, and stamina.  His range increased, his ability to hear improved, and his Karaoke performances become even more notable!  Sure enough after 4 months of vocal sessions with me, he auditioned for a lead role in the local community theater, and was cast!

This brings me to one of my most rewarding student/teacher experiences to date. The young man who came in to audition for the role of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors had an extensive theater resume. He was adorable, in that teen boy-becoming-man way.  He had the emotional feeling of Seymour down even at the audition, and the way he said, “Meatloaf and wahtah”, in his acquired Jersey accent, made me crack up.  We knew he was our Seymour.  But he didn’t list singing experience.  And he didn’t arrive with sheet music.  On call-backs, we asked him to sing “Grow for Me”.  His voice wasn’t sure that it wanted to sing in the same key that we were in.  He had the melody right; just a little off.

We thanked all of the hopeful performers, and sat down to cast the show.

“I think he’s our Seymour, but can you teach him to sing?”  The director asked.

I took a deep breath and centered myself.  Could I?  Would all the tools that I have at my disposal be enough to take him from where he was that night to where he’d need to be on opening?  What would it take?  What contribution could I be?  My inner wisdom was my guide. It said yes.

“Yes, if he’s willing to come for 2 coachings a week.”

The director made the call, and Seymour accepted the conditions that went with his being cast in the role. I later learned that Little Shop is one of his favorite musicals, and that he knows all the songs by heart. I started teasing him about doing a one-man-show version.

We started on Halloween, actually.  The day was magically symbolic – the death of this young man as someone who didn’t know how to sing, and the start of an amazing journey.

I coached the staff and cast members that I needed them to trust me, to suspend their disbelief, and be open to the possibility. They were all happy to do so.  Limitations, judgments, and negative thoughts were not allowed. I talked with his mother (who was, admittedly, nervous) and assured her that he was doing great, which opened her up to the possibilities.  That was one of the keys to our success; when she’d walk in to the studio at the end of his sessions, he’d fall back into the cage of his old habits.  After that conversation with mom, things opened up immensely for him.

The voice is a delicate thing. You can’t ask it to say what you would like if it has things to say on its own. His voice would get ‘stuck’ on a pitch…  we’d tone. Toning is an opportunity for the voice to be where it is, to be a little flat or ‘pitchy’, metallic or scratchy.  You do the physical thing – ask for the pitch, drop the jaw, engage the abdominal muscles, and surrender the outcome. I taught him to listen for the note, then slide up or down to match if he was off.  He’s incorporated that into his performance tools, when I’m not there to cue him to go up or down. His ability to listen and hear the note before he sings it has improved enormously.

Making the transition from using his throat to sing to using his whole instrument has been remarkable.  We incorporated the ‘yawn space’ – the lifted soft palette and cheeks – this rounded out his tone and took us from a square wave to a clear, open tone, even a little vibrato!  I gave him vocalise (the fancy word for vocal exercises) to do that would coordinate his making sound with using his abdominal and intercostal muscles.  He began warming up his voice on a near daily basis.  He began using his body to support the sound, not trying to get the little tiny vocal cords to produce it all.

I will always remember the first day that his tone opened up from the effort of concentration to floating on his body (what you might know as ‘support’.)  All the sudden there was this beautiful tone, this melodic line that brought tears up in my eyes.  Whoa!  Do that in the performances, kid, and you’ll have the audience in tears, too!  His co-star, Audrey, told me the same thing after the first run-thru (we’re 2 weeks from opening).  She’d never heard one of his ‘soliloquy’ sections before. And when he tenderly sang the words, she sat there in the house, jaw loose, teary eyed.  Sure, sometimes he’s a little bit inaccurate, but it goes with our skewed perspective set and our version of the role.  When he stays in that tender-hearted place that our Seymour comes from, he nails it.

Seymour isn’t supposed to be an operatic tenor or a dulcet-toned crooner…  Rick Moranis played the bumbling florist’s assistant in the movie version, and I enjoyed hearing what he did with “Grow for Me”.  When “Suddenly Seymour” came along, I was really disappointed.  As a vocal professional, I can tell when they overdub a voice.   With a few months of lessons with a really excellent voice teacher, you can make great progress. Our Seymour carries the day on his own, from his own amazing dedication and effort – fueled by his desire.

“I’ve always wanted to sing like this,”  the young man tells me at his lessons.  His mother tells me that he’s constantly singing around the house.  I acknowledge her for supporting and encouraging him into the performing arts. He’s a talented comedic actor. He is now building his singing skills.

Bolstered by his success and the support of the cast and crew, he has a whole new avenue of expression ahead of him.  I encouraged him to join his school choir, so that he could gain more experience learning music and matching pitch.  We were talking the other day, sharing the experiences of shows that we’ve seen produced on Broadway or on tour.  I shared that I saw Les Miserables on Broadway in the 1980’s.  “Oh, I’d love to see Les Mis on Broadway!”  “How about being in it?” I gently asked.  His face changed. “Three months ago I never would have even thought of that.  Now…  YEAH!”

I was listening to the Original Broadway soundtrack in the car last weekend, and I kept thinking, “NO! That’s not Seymour’s voice!”  For now, this young Seymour’s my man.

Another musical director without these tools might have written him off.  They would have missed out on an amazing opportunity. But not me.  Not only have I learned more about how a developing voice works, I have gotten to know a dedicated, talented, richly endowed soul. Working with our Seymour has shown me just how powerful and effective my approach to coaching the whole singer are.  It has proven that someone who is willing to put in the time can learn to sing on pitch.  Having the right teacher, of course, makes all the difference!

So if you’ve bought the lie that you can’t sing, would you be willing to destroy that?  Thank you.  I invite you to consider the possibilities.  Click here to schedule a FREE discovery session with me.

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Singing Myths BUSTED!

Singing Myths BUSTED!

What’s a Singing Myth?  Well, it’s one of those lies that people who think they know tell. Or its something that you heard or interpreted along the way as you were learning to sing. It’s also a truth about singing that has a lie attached to it.  How did the myths get propagated?  Well intending people try to help.  I suppose that there are twisted individuals who want to break singers, either physically or spiritually, but that’s a different issue.

Why is this important to me?  Because there are a lot of misconceptions and bad techniques out there, being taught in schools, choirs, and shared among well-meaning people who think they know.  I would like to see truth brought back to singing.  I would like everyone to know that Truth, and be free to sing with their unique instrument in their own unique way.

Myth #1
You can’t “Smile” and Sing

Half-true.  While a true wide grin is going to create a ‘spread’ sound, which works for pop or Broadway, going all the way to a slack face will make you flat (in pitch) and deathly boring to watch.

Truth:  Lift your cheeks slightly.  It will raise your pitch, improve your tone, and make your face look more engaged, thus more interesting to watch.

Myth #2
You Must Sing From Your Diaphragm

False.  The Diaphragm is the UNCONSCIOUS muscle that controls inspiration and exhalation.  What does that mean?  An unconscious muscle is one that you can not consciously control.  It goes and does what it does on its own.  For example, the bicep is a conscious muscle. Go ahead, flex it now. Isolate it, and really give it a good squeeze.  Now try to isolate and flex your diaphragm, or your transverse arytenoid (a muscle of the larynx).  Can’t do it, can you?

Buying the lie that you can sing from an unconscious muscle makes it harder for your body to engage the muscles that actually do control airflow and sound production.  Would you be willing to destroy everything that you created from that, please?  Thank you.

From where do you sing?  That is a much, much deeper question.  Some say the Heart.  I say the Soul.

Myth #3
Only People with Natural Talent can Sing

FALSE. False false falsity false false.  Anyone can sing. Anyone can learn to use their bodies as an instrument, if they are willing to dedicate time and attention to it, just like learning a sport.  At the Embodied Singer, I train people to use their bodies to support effortless sound.  I recently trained a young man who had never really sung before to sing well enough to perform in about 4 months.  I am so pleased with his progress, and it is all because I am teaching him to use his body as his instrument.

If there is something you don’t like about your voice, chances are it’s a habit or a block that can be addressed and resolved.  You can have a voice that you never dreamed possible, if you find the right teacher.

Myth#4
I can’t sing through a phrase. I must have really small lung capacity.

FALSE.  Holding a note or singing a full phrase has nothing to do with lung capacity (unless you’ve got a lung dis-ease).

It is physics.  Air always seeks equilibrium.  If you blow up a balloon, and then open the mouth of it, the air will rush out.  Same goes for your lungs.  When you inhale, the air in your lungs is under pressure. Your job as a singer is to prevent that air from rushing back out.  How?  With your abdominal and intercostal muscles.  Make yourself into a jar.

I’m sure that you’ve heard lots of other falsities about singing…  Go ahead, lay them on me.  Let’s make this the longest singing myth-busting list on the web!

Want to learn more?  Call me and schedule a Complimentary Consultation.  We’ll see if you and I are a match!  360-460-1534.