July 10 – September 11, 2013. $200 for 10 weeks, or $25 drop-in. You don't need to be able to read music! Wednesday evenings from 7-8:30 p.m.

June 21, 2013


One of the reasons the jaw can be tense is because we have set it against the people who have wronged us. Or we are clenching our teeth, trying not to say the thing we feel bitterly to be true, but we know shouldn't be said out loud.

When we go to loosen the jaw, for the first or the hundredth time, we run into the feelings that helped create the tension. They can be bigger than you might think. The jaw can be more resistant to loosening than seems rational.

Letting go of jaw tension often means letting go our ideas about who other people should be, what they should say, how they should act. It's true, we use our jaw muscles all day long, talking and eating, talking and eating. They will probably be tense even on the day we are enlightened masters. The more spiritual work we can do, though, the lighter the burden on our jaws will become.

The more we can trust that our singing is a good gift, to ourselves and the people around us, the easier it will be to open our mouths and let the sound out.

Singing well usually requires forgiving other people. It always requires we soften our relationship with ourselves.

June 20, 2013


Notice what you notice.

There's more going on in our heads than one might think.

It takes a while to wake up to the sensation of sound traveling through the body.

Notice what you notice. Is there a buzzing? a vibrating? a spinning? an I-don't-know-What?

Hum again, and see if it comes back.

It might. And you might also hear, "this is a waste of time!"

Notice what you notice.

Does the inner critic de-rail you? Do you stop singing and go do something else?

Can you notice the inner critic and also the sound you're making? Can you focus so fully on the sound that the critic drifts away?

Spending time with yourself is not a waste of time.

Spending time with ourselves is the only way to learn to sing. Even if you're in a chorus, you're there with you, noticing you singing.

Notice what you notice. And sing some more.

June 17, 2013

Dear Jon

When I was a kid, my dad spent a lot of time in our garden planting bulbs, weeding and picking berries. Sometimes he would carry a little transistor radio with him and listen to a baseball game. 

I had no idea what the announcers were talking about, but I loved how exciting it sounded – I loved hearing the crowd’s cheers bleed through the microphone. I think I must have first heard the voice of Jon Miller as I followed my dad around our garden. Years later, when I turned on KNBR to hear the San Francisco Giants wobble toward the World Series, my heart leapt in a way that I cannot explain. Jon’s voice to me sounds like home. 

If you’ll allow me a little love letter here... Jon, I love the way you pronounce everyone’s name as they would say it themselves. You honor their families, neighborhoods and countries, and you teach the rest of us to do that, too. I love hearing you describe the boats on the bay and whether the wind is whipping through the uniforms. You notice the moonrises. You find something happy to talk about when the Giants are losing. You have a lovely sense of humor and a love of history. I learn so much listening to you call a game that I’d rather be in my kitchen than at the ballpark. 

I say all of this in the context of singing/speaking/being because Jon Miller uses his voice as a singer does – it’s loose and free, ready to do whatever the game needs it to next. I’m sure it’s demanding work, and he makes it sound effortless and fun. It's music to my ears. I would love to talk with him about it sometime. 

Re: baseball and music, last year I got to hear Martin Ramey do their best with The Star-Spangled Banner. It was beautiful. I'm so glad someone put it on youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jshu2-hnt0 

Can you tell I've been playing the violin more than writing the last few days? 

June 14, 2013


Today, a quote from my teacher, mentor, colleague and friend, Dr. Bryan Baker: 

“The goal is not to give a perfect performance, because that is impossible. The goal is to practice as perfectly as possible, and that makes an excellent performance more likely.”

For me, this means that I should practice calmly, and with my emotions in full view. When I can sing or play alongside (not in spite of) my grief, my joy, my love, my longing, with composure in private, it's more likely that I can be that honest in front of an audience.

Which leads me to another quote, from another teacher, Donna Davis:

"Acting is about telling the truth."
And singing is about being naked.

There is so much more to say here. Coming soon. 

June 13, 2013

How to loosen your jaw

Singing requires a looser, more flexible jaw than most of us naturally have, and just like your hamstrings, it's good to spend some time everyday helping those muscles find freer ways to be. Two or three minutes can be enough. Here are some things that I have tried that work for me. They are in no particular order. If something doesn't feel good, don't do it. 

1.  Hum a simple song on an “ng” sound, and move your jaw up and down, in a chewing motion. “Ng” is made entirely with the back of the tongue, so the jaw is completely free to move. This may feel strange at first, because our speaking habits tell us that the jaw and the tongue must always move together, but this isn’t actually the case. Notice how tall you can open your mouth while singing on “ng.” To find the sound I mean, say the word “sing” and hold the last sound – that’s the nasal vowel “ng.” If you plug your nose, the sound should stop completely. Feel free to make any collection of pitches that entertain you. Notice what it's like when the jaw moves and the tongue doesn't.

2.  Place your fingers gently on either side of your face, near the jaw hinge, and open and close your mouth. Watch yourself in a mirror: is the motion smooth? does the jaw move straight up and down, or does it go to the side a little? can you freely move your lower jaw in a side-to-side circle, as a camel chews? in both directions? Go slowly. Notice how smoothly your jaw can move. The muscles might feel tired sooner than you think. Try to stop before that happens. Lightly massaging the jaw hinge might help it to loosen up. 

3.  Place one tennis ball in a tube sock and take it to bed with you. Lying on your side, without a pillow, find a comfortable place for the tennis ball to nestle near your jaw hinge, on the outside of your body. You’re lying on your side with a tennis ball inside a sock under your head, in a place where the gentle pressure of it encourages the jaw to loosen. Please don’t try this on the floor – the floor is too hard. First spend 30 seconds here, and notice what you notice. Switch to the other side. Is one side tighter than the other? can you relax around the tennis ball? 

The friend who told me about this starts every day this way. Before she even gets out of bed, she lies on a tennis ball. It’s made a huge difference in her quality of life.

4.  Put another tennis ball in that same sock and lie on your back, positioning the two balls on either side of your spine, at the base of your occiput (the bony part of your skull that starts where your spine ends). I like doing this on the floor, because it gives me a deeper release in the back of my neck. I find that loosening the back of my neck also brings more spaciousness to my jaw. Try it in bed and on the floor and see what works for you. It might help to tie a knot in the tube sock to keep the balls from slipping out. 

5.  Last, but not least, sing the opening line of "Deck the Hall" only on the syllable "vo." Freely open and close your mouth each time to make the consonant "v." You might need to sing the song slower than usual (the fa-la-la's are pretty challenging when they're sung as vo-vo-vo's). Expect your jaw to be more willing to move the more times you try this. Sing in a range that's comfortable for you. Let the jaw feel active, but not clenched. Aim for puppet-y floppy. What's it like?

June 12, 2013

Sing now, listen later

One of the reasons I think it can be easier to sing at our lessons than at home is because we’ve outsourced the need to judge how we sound. We’re coming to the lesson with the expectation that the teacher is going to tell us how we’re doing, and we can let our own critical mind rest for a bit. I emphasize a bit, because my own voice lessons are a combination of me singing/being and then asking questions about what just happened. I go back and forth between a little thinking and a lot of thinking. It seems to work for me.

When I first started taking voice lessons in my twenties, I would faithfully tape record them and never listen to the recordings. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now, that tape recorder no longer works, and I think all those tapes are warped anyway. Since the invention of the iPod, listening to myself singing has gotten easier, but not much. That has nothing to do with the iPod, but with me getting more comfortable in my own skin. Apple and I seem to be evolving together. 

I feel a bit like a phony for sharing an idea that I myself have never tried, but I do think this may be useful for someone out there... 

Since it’s hard to sing and listen to ourselves at the same time, let a recording device do the listening for you. Sing – freely, expressively, noticing what you feel in your head, while your phone or computer, mp3 device (or tape deck, if you still have one!) takes it all down. You’re not recording this for youtube, you’re recording this for you. Later, but not too much later, sit down with a comforting beverage and listen to what you sang, through headphones, if possible. Notice what you notice. Does it sound as free as it felt? Is there at least one moment where you can say, “wow! that was nice” ? If you’re like me, you may feel so repulsed/embarrassed/mortified that you cannot hear anything worth praising. It’s okay to push delete. Let me encourage you, though, to keep the recording if you can, at least until you have another one to compare it to. The more you listen to yourself, the less embarrassing it gets. I am living proof of that. 

And now that I think of it, recording yourself when you practice could be something like writing morning pages: writing three pages every day regardless of how you feel, in one sitting, on whatever comes out. Morning pages for me happen irregularly, and I am a happier person when I write them. When I re-read my them, I’m not so much interested in judging them as I am in finding out what’s been on my mind. I read with the eye of an explorer. “So that’s what I was thinking about? That’s a great sentence! Boy, I was really upset about that and it seems like nothing now. I wonder what that was supposed to mean? That could be a country western song” etc. It’s a great practice. I learn a lot about what moves me. I learn a lot about where I might be headed next. 

Maybe I could listen to recordings of myself practicing with the same explorer’s eye. Ear. “Attention K-mart shoppers, it’s now Thinking-Free Singing Time. Go have fun! Turn on that recorder and pretend it isn’t there. We’re just going to make some noises and process them later. Ready, set....”

Maybe I could. 

June 11, 2013

But I sound worse!

A student recently shared,
“I’ve been trying to do what you’ve asked. You know, listening to myself hum and noticing what it feels like. I’m listening to more songs on the radio and singing along to them, and I think my singing has actually gotten worse!”
Oy. This happens. And it may actually be true that the singing now is not so good. 
Three things to consider:
1.  When we’re listening closely to the sounds in our head and thinking about our singing, the singing might very well sound, and actually be worse, especially if we’re doing more than humming. This is because thinking and letting the breath sail through and out of us don’t go together. If you’re singing vowels or actual words, it really is better to let the opposite wall tell you what it sounds like. Notice what you feel, but listen to the wall. You need to let the breath go in order for the voice to find it’s “sweet spot." 
When you’re listening to yourself, make sure you’re listening for the lightest possible hum (m, n, ng) you can make, and letting it float or spin freely in your head. If you do that, chances are it will sound pretty good.
2.  Another consequence of studying singing is that our ears get more critical. Ultimately, that’s what we want: critical ears and a bushel of technique so that our voices can be as free, open, beautifully powerful as they can be. And, at the beginning, when the ears are more critical than the bushel is full, we can get discouraged. 

Return to a hum. Throw a ball and whoop. Sing the silliest song you know: Ay lay tay ate ate ate, aypples aynd baynaynays, ay lay tay ate ate ate apples aynd baynaynays... Retreat into play and trust everything will be all right. It will be. Keep studying and your bushel will fill before you know it. 

3.  “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” – Cindy Crawford 

The singers we hear on the radio have had their singing recorded, mixed, remixed, sometimes auto-tuned, compressed and who knows what else in order to turn it into a salable product. They would not sound that way in our living room, singing a cappella, without a microphone or sound engineer in tow. We cannot expect ourselves to sound like them. It’s not physically possible. 

And... Breathy voices are sexy and seductive and sweet and often stunningly beautiful. If you have a microphone, that can be an effective way to sing a sexy, seductive, sweet, stunningly beautiful song. If you try to sing along to a recording of such a song don’t be surprised if you’re disappointed in yourself. Breathy voices are hard to tune to. You will have trouble blending your voice with the recorded one, because there’s not much “there” there in the recording. 

Think of it this way: I’m encouraging you to find the smallest, most beautiful golden thread of a tone you can make. That’s what all this lip trilling and humming is about – to find that golden thread, to find your simplest, most fundamental beauty.

When you open that tone to a vowel, the thread becomes something more like worsted-weight wool, something you could knit a sweater with, not just a beautiful lace shawl. The breathy voice on the radio is the knitting equivalent of roving, at best, and dryer lint at worst. Plying worsted-weight and roving together will give you a pretty funky-looking yarn. You might knit with it, but it will be full of contrast. 

Singing along to a breathy voice on the radio will always be full of contrast. Do not expect your voice to blend. It might be physically possible, but to accomplish it requires giving up so much of yourself, so much of what’s authentically you, that I would say it’s not worth it. 

That’s not the you I want the world to hear. We need you to be you. And you do, too. 

The good news is that when my student sang in her lesson, and I asked, "So, how does that sound to you?" She answered, "That sounds good!" I whole-heartedly agreed. More on why singing at your lesson can be so different than singing at home is coming soon, in another post.

June 10, 2013

To learn something difficult, start with the end

I don’t remember who taught me this, but I was young and studying the violin: try starting at the end and working your way backwards.

I think this may be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, but it’s counter-intuitive enough that I can forget to take it. More often than not, when I have a new piece of music to learn, I’ll start at the beginning, go as far as I can at whatever level of effort I’m up for at that moment, and then come to a screeching halt at the first rough spot. Then I might go slowly through the rough spot, and pick up momentum again when I’m through it, or (more likely) I might just go back to the beginning and play the part that made sense one more time. 

If I keep doing this, I will build a screeching halt into the music I’m trying to learn, because that’s how I’ve always played it. I don’t think this is exactly what Aristotle meant when he said “We are what we repeatedly do,” but he was right. The body learns through repetition. If we repeatedly (more than 3 or 4 times) slow down when we get to measure 10 because it confuses us, we will have to unlearn that slowing down even after we know what measure 10 is supposed to sound like. And if we repeatedly start to feel anxious somewhere in measure 7 or 8 because we know that measure 10 is coming up, we will have to unlearn that later, too. 

Unlearning a panic attack is always harder than learning the notes. Therefore, endeavor to practice as calmly as possible. 

And consider starting from the end. I mean, literally: play or sing the last measure of music as beautifully as you can, then back up one bar and play or sing to the end. Back up another bar, etc. Going measure by measure might not makes sense for the piece of music you’re working on. Phrase by phrase might be better, or note by note. If I’m looking at three or four measures of sixteenth notes, I’ll go one beat or half beat at a time, starting from the end. 

Starting from the end minimizes the chances I’ll practice crashing and burning half-way through the run, because I really know where I’m going... and I know who’s going with me. I know who I love, and the dear know’s who I’ll marry... 

I digress. Everything has an end, including measure 10. Start with the first note of measure 11 and work backwards, one bit at a time. See if it helps. 

Hitchy-bits aside, singing a song from back to front at least once is a very good thing to do, because we always sing the first page more times than the last, and it’s good to shake things up. I guess I’m suggesting that we can know songs backwards and forwards. I think it’s fun to try. 

June 9, 2013

Why listening to yourself is a bad idea

One of the things that makes your voice unlike anyone else’s is the shape of your head. When you sing or speak, you produce the sound in your throat, and then it travels through and out your body however it can. The path it takes determines what it sounds like, and there are many paths to choose from. 

One of my jobs as a voice teacher is to help you make a map of your head, to teach you to track the sound as it moves through your body and to sing by sensation, rather than by listening to yourself. 

Listening to yourself is a bad idea because no one hears you the way you do. Our brains register the sounds we make as soon as we make them, through our bones and tissues. The sound comes in our ears last of all. Our friends hear us only through their ears, and they probably think your voicemail messages sound just fine. If you think you sound funny on an answering machine, it’s because you do. When you’re listening to a recording, you’re hearing yourself entirely through your ears, and you never hear yourself that way ordinarily. You are still the same person, though, with the same voice.

Herein lies the fundamental strangeness, I would say the spiritual discipline, of studying and teaching singing: the singer will never know what she sounds like to the teacher; the teacher will never know what it feels like to be the singer; neither the singer nor the teacher can see or touch all of the instrument they’re trying to train, and the instrument is central to the singer’s identity. 

A fine kettle of fish!

Still, the best way to improve our singing and to make an even more beautiful mark on the world is to place ourselves in the hands of caring, competent, compassionate teachers and walk with them, one step at a time. 

What if I’m really not any good and I’ll never be any good?
But what if it never amounts to anything?

I honestly don’t know what any good means. 

I do know that waiting until next year to learn to sing/play the saxophone/write the novel probably won’t make it any easier, and if you start now, you’ll be giving yourself more time to amount to whatever you want to amount to. You’re the only one who’s keeping score on that account. 

I do know that your voice is one of a kind and I want you to be using it well your whole life long. If you love to sing, and you are open to singing differently, you will get better at it. You will find your way with it, and the world will be better for it. 

It is a huge leap of faith to work with a teacher. The best of them change our lives forever. When you’re ready to look for someone to study with, imagine you’ve been working with them for five years. Write down everything you have to thank them for. How have you changed? 

I finally understand ...
I am no longer afraid to ...
When the going got rough, you said/did/offered _______ and that helped me stick with it.

When you can thank them for changing you, you’re ready to be changed. 

June 8, 2013

The Lip Trill Doodle

When I was in college and learning Russian, I spent hours in the language lab. Later, with a cup of coffee, I wrote words and sentences down, again and again, in great lists that took up pages of paper. I needed to physicalize words in order to learn them. Hearing them wasn’t enough. Pronouncing them wasn’t enough. Just seeing them on flashcards wasn’t enough. I needed to feel the words move through my arm and hand, out of me, into graphite, for them to become real, for my mind to hold onto them. 

When I tell people that I studied Russian, and actually worked as a translator/bi-lingual human for a while in my 20’s, they often say, “Russian is so hard, you must be so smart!” 

Maybe. I may be really smart. But I learned Russian because I worked hard at it, because I loved it. I found a way for it to move through my body. I got it out of my head.

This might have been my first step toward discovering that drawing and singing at the same time can be really helpful. This is sort of like the ball-playing exercise, only with a pencil line in place of the ball. Draw a swoop on a piece of paper. Whoop the swoop: make the sound “whooooooop,” following the direction of the line you drew. Try drawing another swoop, maybe a little differently. Whoop the swoop. If you’re feeling self-conscious, a hum works just as well: “mmm” or “nnn” or a lip trill. Let the sound be flowing and continuous, maybe a little schmaltzy. 

This is not about singing the right pitch at the right time. Rather, sing to the end of the line. Take a breath as you draw another one. 

And then, try drawing and humming at the same time. Imagine your voice is powering the pen. Let yourself be surprised by what you hear and what you draw. If the line on the paper goes up and your voice goes down, that’s just fine. The point is to make a picture of your voice and to make a song of your picture.

The point is to let the breath flow through you and away from you without regard for right or wrong. 

In fancy, music-teacher language, this is called graphical notation – representing a musical idea on paper without using traditional music notation. I like to think of it as vocal finger-painting. When I assign it as homework, I call it a Lip Trill Doodle. 

It can be a useful way to get your voice out of your head. If you try it, tell me what you found. 

June 7, 2013

Just sing, dear

So it’s Day Seven of the blogathon and for the first time I feel like I’m not going to get a post in, I can’t put two sentences together, I can’t think straight. 

This would be a perfect frame of mind to practice singing in, except that I have to get this post done. 

I mean to say that good singing and thinking really don’t go together. Someone (? needs attribution!) has done functional MRIs or scans or something of people while they’re singing and has discovered that the cognitive area of the brain is, for the most part, not engaged

But even without that non-attributed, perhaps completely made up, “scientific fact,” I can tell you from experience that I think a lot when I talk, and I sing well when I don't. 

I’ve come to feel that singing is much more like weight-lifting than it is reciting a poem with notes. Songs turn out better when I stay in my body, when I notice how the song physically feels as it’s happening. Turning on the thinking brain seems to turn off the instrument. 

Put another way, the audience doesn't need my Deep Thinking, they need me to give them something to listen to. They need me to breathe in, deep and low, and then make an efficient, beautiful tone. Breath in, tone out, stay out of the way. As attached as I am to my thoughts and reflections, at the moment of singing, they're the last thing that's needed. 

It has taken me years to learn this. 

June 6, 2013

Embracing the Weird, Part 2

Lie on the floor with a book on your belly. 

Many remarkable things happen to us between the time we’re born and the time we get to kindergarten, but the one that blows my mind is how we un-learn how to breathe. 

If you have the joyous opportunity to watch an infant breathe, you’ll notice that the chest moves freely, the shoulders are relaxed, the belly expands and then softens, expands and softens. Calmly. Simply. Beautifully.

If you ask a kindergartner to take a deep breath, though, they do exactly the opposite: they suck in their belly, raise their shoulders, arch their back, lift their chest, and look like they’re going to explode as they hold their Deep Breath for you. This Deep Breath in reality is about as shallow as they come. Sucking in the belly, arching the back, raising the shoulders, all of this decreases the amount of available space in the lungs for air. We feel like we’re accomplishing Something Important, but in reality, we’ve just made doing anything with that breath countless times harder. 

This can be a hard pattern to unlearn. For one thing, our culture highly values the puffed-out chest and the tiny waist – what I call the Superhero Stance – which is basically useless for singing. Many of us have held our bellies in for so long that it’s actually effort to release them. This is when it can be useful to lie on the floor with a book on your belly. 

Lie on the floor with a book on your belly – a good book, hardback, kind of heavy. I like Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. It’s a good read, too. 

But I get ahead of myself. 

Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Let your arms rest at your sides, or gently outstretched, comfortably. 

Lie there for a moment and notice that the earth is holding you up. For at least the next moment or two, there is no where to go, nothing to do except breathe, and notice that the earth is holding you up. Let your shoulders rest on the floor. Let your back rest on the floor. Notice your head, your neck, your chest. Let them all sense their relationship to the floor, to the earth. Let the earth hold you up. 

Now, place the book on your belly. 
Breathe in, let the book go up.
Breathe out, let the book come down. 

Notice whether your chest rises first. Try to let the belly rise first. It might feel like pushing the book up with your abs. Breathe in, book up. Breathe out, book down. 

Notice whether your shoulders are trying to help (they can’t actually). 
Notice whether you’re arching your back (no need for that, really). 

If you feel like you’ve got the hang of breathe in, book up; breathe out, book down, try it without the book. 

Breathe in, belly up. Breathe out, belly down.

Do this for as long as you like. Notice what you notice. 

Work toward a silent breath in, an easy breath out, and maximum ease everywhere else. If it's easier with the book, use the book.

Let this kind of breathing become second nature to you. It will take practice, but five minutes at a time, once or twice a week will teach the body quickly. Then, you can try it standing up. 
Quick recap: Lie on the floor with a book on your belly. Breathe in, the book goes up. Breathe out, the book goes down. Let the earth hold you up. There’s nowhere to be but here. 

June 5, 2013

How young is too young?

I’ve had a two or three emails lately from parents looking for private singing lessons for a 5 or 6 year old. The child loves to sing and would like to get better at it. In America, when we think about getting better at something, we think about taking lessons, getting a tutor, hiring an expert, bringing in a consultant. 

That’s not a wholly bad strategy, and private lessons are rarely the best idea for a 5 to 10-year-old.

We mostly get better at singing by singing with people who are good at singing. We pick up on their good habits, we imitate their sound, we find new and more comfortable ways to hold ourselves, we learn by imitation. This is easier when the people we’re imitating already sort of sound like we do, and nobody sounds like elementary school kids, except elementary school kids. 

We also get better at singing when it’s a relationship-building activity, when we’re with people we already sort of understand and/or like. We can relax and have fun. We can hear that it matters that we’re there. We can feel at home in community. Singing is so much easier when we’re happy to be right here, now.

Would that every family could sing together in a way that felt good! And thank goodness for children’s choruses. With caring and competent direction, kids can learn to sing well, and become amazing musicians, well before middle school. 

None of this is to say that lessons for young kids are never a good idea, after all, I teach them. When to try private lessons for a young child is a good question, to be answered soon! 

June 4, 2013

We need rooms to make noise in.

For some of my students, the only room they have to be loud in is mine. Why? Well, their walls are thin. Their neighbor works from home. The baby is finally asleep. The singer loves show tunes and the partner can’t stand them. 

We don’t want to bother anybody. 
We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. 
We are tender, human souls. 
We need our privacy. 


And we need at least one room to make noise in. If this can be in your own home, Glory, Halleluja! If it can’t be, how about a friend’s house? On a hike? At the beach? In your car? This is important: whatever it takes, find a room you can be loud in and fifteen minutes to spend there as often as you can. 

Please don’t expect the first sounds out of your mouth to be your best – experience shows they probably won’t be. Keep making them, though. Keep humming, keep whooping. Keep making free and easy sounds until you can’t help but sing a song. Sing whatever comes to mind. If you don’t remember the words, make up new ones. “La La La” is A-OK. 

Warming up is easier when we know we’re not bothering anybody. Give yourself some privacy, and marvel at what happens next.

On a side note: the best assignment I ever got from a piano teacher was to make a binder of all the songs I could play. “You mean the pieces I’m working on right now?” “No,” she said, “All the pieces you can play that you also really like. Start your practice time with that binder and play until you’re ready to work on something hard, but PLAY first.” I made the binder. I learned that warming up could feel good.

How do you help your practice (any practice, not just music) feel good? How much privacy do you need? 

June 3, 2013

I throw things at my students.

Well, we throw things back and forth

One of the things humans worry about is Getting it Right – singing the right notes, being Perfect. An unintended consequence of worrying about whether we’re Getting it Right is that we sometimes try to sing without actually letting any sound come out of our bodies. We sing to a point that’s only just beyond our nose so that we can judge whether or not the sound is any good before someone else hears it.

But it’s too late for that. The sound’s already been made. We have to give up on the idea that we can make a sound and then decide whether to share it. We have to let the sound sail out of our bodies, and land where it will. Lucky for us, no one will get hurt. A great image – and activity – for this is in throwing a light, easy ball, or a small stuffed animal as you vocalize. Whoop! Whee! AHHH! 

Often in private lessons, a student and I will spend some time tossing soft things back and forth: pillows that look like soccer balls, a stuffed bear, bunny, or a duck. Whoop! Whoa! Whaa? We make some bad throws, some bad catches. No one gets hurt. Our voices loosen up, and we learn how to let the sound move away from us and into the room. 

This is part of what I mean when I say, if it’s not play, it’s not working. 
Play ball.

June 2, 2013

Sing Alleluia, Alleluia!

Most Sundays at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, I lead the Singing Praise. The congregation is standing, having just joined in the Call to Worship, and a member comes forward to light the chalice. At that moment, I sing something, and the congregation sings it back. There’s nothing to read or hold on to, but if you’re looking up, and your ears are open, success is pretty much guaranteed.  Why would that be a good thing? Because not everyone in the congregation can read. Because folks come to church seeking connection, and standing together, singing together, being awake and responding together connects us to one another faster than anything else I know. Kids can do it, grownups can do it, and over the last eight or nine years of all of us doing it, I’ve noticed that we all sing more confidently.

If you’re in the bay area, come by and sing it sometime. Summer worship starts at 10 a.m.

And if you’re wondering what Unitarian Universalist means, check this out.

June 1, 2013

Embracing the Weird

Singing and speaking use the same muscles, the same breath, but very differently. Singing well, by which I mean, singing with a solid tone that sounds sweetly effortless, requires that we teach our body new habits just for singing. I say just for singing because, for the most part, these are not behaviors that are welcome on the telephone, talking to the loan officer, having that heart-to-heart with your beloved. I notice that when I ask my students to try them out, they almost universally report, “that was weird.” 
Singing better means embracing the weird. 
We have been using our voices since birth. No one taught us how to utter that first cry, it just came out, and it probably meant, “I’m cold, scared, and hungry.” After a time we learned to coo and laugh. Then, mama, more, why? We learned to form words and to make ourselves understood. We copied the people around us and kept doing what worked, and stopped doing what didn’t. We figured it out, this talking thing. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re pretty good at it. 
Perhaps it goes without saying that if we had needed to learn to scream, we all would have starved. This is part of the fundamental weirdness of studying singing. We don’t have active control over all of the muscles we’re trying to train. 
We can control some of them, though, and that’s where the fun begins. 
Broadly speaking, good singing happens when the jaw is relaxed and open, the tongue is relaxed and forward, the shoulders are relaxed and broad, the chest is lifted and wide, the breath is easy and low.
One place to start, to learn a new habit, is to place the tip of your tongue on your bottom teeth and say, “Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are!” You may sound to yourself like you’re now between the ages of three and five. As you do this, let your jaw relax, so that your mouth moves freely, sort of like a puppet, and elongate the vowels, as you would if you were singing. You might let your fingers rest gently on either side of your face, encouraging your cheeks to relax, too.  It may feel like effort to let your mouth open this much, but with repetition, the jaw does learn to loosen and singing with a taller mouth gets easier. 
Try saying something else. “Could we please refinance our mortgage with no points?” “Do you carry any Australian Pinot Noir?” “Do you think your brother’s family could host your mom’s birthday this year? I’m really tired of doing all the work myself.” 
Do you hear what I mean about new habits just for singing? And, it is great fun to read the paper, recite nursery rhymes, carry on a conversation with a good-humored friend in exactly this way. You will crack yourself up, and over time, your speech will get clearer, as your tongue learns to move differently. 
If you know the tune to “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” try singing it in this way. Tip of the tongue on the bottom teeth. Jaw relaxed and moving freely. Hands reminding your cheeks not to smile. 
What’s that like? Tell me about it!