Monday, September 10, 2012

What Is Soul?

I was recently speaking to someone about having "Soul" and the question came about: "What is Soul"? How do you really define that?

I guess when I think of soul I think of the singers who defined the Soul Era in music: Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Al Green, etc.

But what about Janice Joplin? She's got soul. Do country artists have soul? I think Loretta Lynn does, and Patsy Cline did too.

How about jazz artists - did Louis Armstrong have soul? You bet he did. Actually, he had so much soul that people don't seem to realize how important his contributions were to the field of jazz.

For me, I think soul is all about emotional connection. All of the above artists really connected with their heart in the way they delivered a song. They felt it at their deepest core, and expressed it. It wasn't about power or glory, and certainly not about money. I've heard too many contestants on reality singing competitions say the reason they wanted to win was so they could buy their mom a new house, or help their family out financially. Those are all noble reasons - but not the true reason to be a professional singer.

In my opinion, the most important reason to be a professional singer, and endure all the heartaches, ups and downs of this career, is to express oneself at the deepest level. When we sing from the heart, we express what is truly unique about us - the way we feel something. And only you can feel what you feel, so if you are truly expressing from your heart, your way will be unique. It's what makes you stand out in the crowd and what makes you special.

I think when someone sings from their heart and really connects emotionally to a song, other people can feel that too. And we all want to feel something - we are not robots living in this world. To truly live is to feel life at its deepest levels, not just on the surface. Sometimes this deep level is associated with pain - many of the artists who are soulful have had really painful lives. But I don't think pain is a requirement for being soulful. We've all had experiences that make us feel something deeply. It can be pleasure, pain, or whatever. The greatest joy in the world is as deep or deeper a feeling than pain (I guess this could be debated). My point is: FEEL IT AND SING IT!! If you're just focusing on vocal acrobatics or how beautiful your voice is, or your ego or fame or money, then how can you reach into your soul and bring out what is in there to express to others? That is what your job is - to help others to feel something....You've got to dig deep and get past all that superficial stuff and get down to the nitty gritty, the stuff way down in the pit of your gut - your Soul...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

You Are The Gift

I read a quote recently that goes like this:

"Music is an incredible gift...the gift of being able to learn to play music is an incredible gift. And you...are very special because you were chosen and given that gift. The day you were born the world became richer than it was because of your presence with that gift." (Rich Matheson)

The person who wrote that quote is a jazz tuba player - yeah, that's right! But does it matter if that quote is about jazz or being an instrumentalist, or being a singer? No, the message is what matters.

What struck me about this quote is that in the world we live in here in the U.S., vocal competitions on TV are everywhere! Everyone thinks they are a singer, and everyone wants to be famous and live the rest of their lives singing. And I think that's great - obviously I think singing is a wonderful expression of one's gift.

However, with all these competitions and all these singers, there's a lot of competition going on. And I don't mean just TV competition, I mean competition from one singer to another (Who does she think she is? She's not that good. Those judges don't know what they're talking about) and competition within ourselves (Am I good enough? I she better than me? I can't do that, so I must not be good.) Although these TV competitions have brought singing to the forefront and have allowed everyday people to succeed and acquire great careers that they might not otherwise have, they also bring out a lot of insecurities in young singers.

Just because someone can sing like this, and you sing like that, doesn't mean theirs is better or worse than yours. We each have our unique gift to share with the world, and it is valid the way it is. That doesn't mean you shouldn't refine it and make it the best it can be. What is does mean is embrace your unique style, the way you do things. Don't try to be someone else, don't copy someone else note for note - be YOU! Give it your unique stamp.

And don't go around speaking negatively about another singer, because really what that shows is a lack of confidence within yourself. If you felt really good about your unique gift, it wouldn't matter how someone else sings or the successes that they have achieved. Focus on your talent, your goal, your achievement, and your road to get there. Don't fall off that road by straying away to negativity, condemnation, jealousy, and catty talk. Be a professional, stay positive, trust in your gift, and give it to the world. We want to hear you.

And if someone is negative towards you and tells you you're not good enough, maybe just maybe you should listen for a moment and ask if they are right. Maybe they are! Maybe you need to work on our skills. Sometimes something painful can be just what we need to set us moving in the right direction. But if you truly think they are wrong, then just say "thank you" and move on down your road. You have to come from a place within your own heart, knowing you are valid and worthy. If this is what you truly want, then keep moving forward, inch by inch, day by day. That is how success is made. Rarely is it an "overnight" thing. It takes years of moving forward, moving forward. And you do it because it is yours to share - so share it and know that it is a gift!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Song Whisperer

Learn how to direct a song and be a "Song Whisperer"

I went to the blues jam a couple of nights ago and after I got through singing a customer of the bar came up to me and said, "I really enjoyed hearing you sing, but not only that, you are a great performer." He said, "I like how you take command of the stage and direct the band." I joked with him and asked him if he'd seen the TV show "The Dog Whisperer" and he laughed asking if I was the "Band Whisperer". I said not the band whisperer but the "Song Whisperer", meaning that I don't try to control people and their creative expression, but I take charge of the song. There is quite a difference.

You see with controlling the band and letting them know who's boss and telling them what to play and how to play it; you cut off someone's identity, how they express themselves - and that's never a good thing. People have a right to express things how they want to express them. But with controlling the song, I'm really doing everyone, including myself, a great service.

Let me explain: since we all have our own expression, there are many ways to interpret a song. For example, the song "Chain of Fools" has probably been played about a kazillion times. But it still will sound different with different players playing it. (Yeah!) But even with this song, which really just vamps (repeats) over one chord, there are some punches and stops that must be directed, or it could wind up being a train wreck. I've been in musical train wrecks before, and let me tell you, they are not fun. Everyone, including the audience, is uncomfortable when there is a musical train-wreck onstage. So someone needs to be the director of the band and the song. If no one's in control, then it will be like a runaway train going where it will. So it's your job as, not only the singer, but also the director of the song, to direct people on the arrangement of the song.

Do you know the chords to the song (we call that the changes)? Do you know how to describe the rhythm or groove (or feel) of the song? Do you know where the stops are and the punches? If you put the direction of the song in someone else's hands, then you are at their mercy. That might be a good thing if they truly know the song, or if they are a super-talented musician who you've heard before and seen in action. But what if you are at a jam and don't know anyone? How will you know who knows what?

It's your job to be the "Song Whisperer". Tell the song, and the players, how you want it. Learn how to cue. Here's some examples:

- Count the song off very clearly and loud enough for everyone to hear at the tempo you want. Stick to it once you start and don't speed up or slow down. You can do this verbally and/or use your hand/arm to count the beats. They will never hear snaps, and conducting would probably only work in a classical situation.

- Hold your fist up when you want to signal the end of the song.

- Make a circle motion if you're at the "turnaround" of the song (i.e. the V-IV-I progression repeated).

- Make eye contact with the drummer when you want him to do some accents or stops to let him/her know something is coming. Then when the accents/stop arrive, punch into the air to let him/her know when to hit or not hit.

- If you know the basic chords of the song (which you should), you can motion when the IV or V chord comes. For example, I sang a 16-bar blues the other night. It stays on the I chord for 8 bars. Most blues musicians will naturally want to change chords after 4 bars, so I had to keep holding up my index finger (loud and clear) so everyone knew not to change until I motioned the IV chord by holding up four fingers.

- And probably the most important cue is eye contact with everyone. Looking at someone tells them something is coming, or that it's their turn to solo. You'd be amazed at how much can be communicated onstage just by making eye contact.

Study videos of local performers that you like. Big professionals usually have musical directors directing their bands, so they no longer need to use these cues. Besides, their shows are worked out to a T in advance, so stick to the locals or medium sized groups to learn from. Or take lessons from a coach (like me!!).

Keep on signing!

And check out my new book available at and other locations:
Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer


Saturday, July 7, 2012

R&B, Blues, and Jazz: Kissin' Cousins!

I'm writing this Note in response to a post yesterday I saw from a talented, professional musician who wrote negative comments about a Smooth Jazz artist, insinuating that this artist was not a "real" jazz musician because she played Blues-inspired licks in her soloing. I was trying to decide how to respond to this, since I myself am a Blues-inspired artist, currently learning about Jazz. I am also a lover of Smooth Jazz for the very reason the person was criticizing the other: it is a hybrid of Jazz, Blues-riffs, R&B, and Funk grooves - all the stuff I love! So I just have to defend the genre and the artist who was being criticized.

Let me start with a very, very brief history of Blues and Jazz.
Jazz and Blues both started around the turn of the century. Supposedly W.C. Handy discovered the Blues in 1903 and then wrote the first published Blues tune, "Memphis Blues" in 1912. Around the same time Jazz emerged in New Orleans around 1900. "In 1924 Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City, pushing the band in the direction of a hotter, more improvisatory style that helped to create the synthesis of jazz and ballroom dance music that would later be called swing. Although big bands relied heavily on arrangements of popular Tin Pan Alley songs, the blues—with its 12- bar structure, three-chord pattern, blue notes, and call-and-response patterns—also remained a mainstay of swing music. Of all the big bands, the one most closely associated with the blues tradition was led by the jazz pianist William “Count” Basie (1904–84)....

Alone among his many distinguished Tin Pan Alley contemporaries, Gershwin sought and achieved success in the world of concert music (“Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris”) as well as popular music. Together with his brother the lyricist Ira Gershwin, George composed scores of Tin Pan Alley classics, including standards like “I Got Rhythm,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!”
Both Gershwin’s popular songs and his “classical” works demonstrate a sophisticated incorporation of stylistic devices derived from African-American sources — such as syncopated rhythms and blue notes — that far surpasses the rather superficial use of such devices in most other white American music of the time. Gershwin’s greatest composition, Porgy and Bess (1935), which he called an “American folk opera,” represents his most thoroughgoing synthesis of European classical, mainstream popular, and African- American stylistic influences — a synthesis that remains his own but that also celebrates the wide diversity of American culture. Tin Pan Alley and the singing style known as crooning were important (if often unrecognized) influences on rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll during the 1950s and 1960s." (excerpts from American Popular Music by Waterman and Starr).

Thus, many Jazz artists and composer were influenced by the Blues.

I also read that in the early 20s, musicians were playing both Blues and Jazz - there was no dividing line. It was all in one big melting pot. From The Blues, the Martin Scorsese film and accompanying book: "No musician of note back then considered himself only a "blues" artist. This was the Jazz Age, after all, and the boundaries that historians would use later on to separate blues from jazz didn't exist in the 1920s. Nightclubs in black sections o northern cities like New York's Harlem featured jazz bands and blues singers on the same bill."

So my point is - we're all the same - kissing cousins so to speak - Jazz and Blues. Of course, over time, these genres have developed into individualized sub-genres: Bebop, Cool Jazz, Swing - Country Blues, Electric Blues, Texas Blues, Chicago Blues; and Blues and Jazz together created R&B when Big Band down-sized to create Jump Bands, that further evolved into Doo-Wop and then Rock and Roll. And R&B has its own sub-genres - Classic R&B, Funk, Soul, Smooth Jazz, and now Rap. It just keeps going.

I think every musician I know, including myself has had some hard times - even in Mezz Mezzrow's book Really The Blues he describes working in a nightclub that is raided and shut down - so the band is paid, not in cash, but in DUCKS that were meant to be on the restaurant's menu.
I myself worked at a club in LA, that after a grueling 5 hour gig with standing room only, was told I wouldn't be receiving the whole $250 because the owner had to pay taxes on the drinks that were sold and those taxes would be coming out of the band's pay. I'm sure there are many, many more horror stories of how musicians have been treated like second-class citizens - even though some of us have college-educations and/or have worked just as hard as those in other careers...

Today there are so many artists that blend many styles: Dinah Washington was a Jazz and Blues singer, Billie Holiday as well, Anita Baker is an R&B artist who sings Jazz, Karryn Allison is a Jazz singer who sings Blues, and what about artists that do it all: George Benson, Boz Scaggs - how about Robben Ford - master of all guitar styles. Chaka Khan can sing some mean R&B and Jazz. Yes, I'm partial to Blues/R&B sounds, but even I don't like it all. I'm not crazy about super-traditional Blues like Memphis Minnie, I don't care for some Hip-Hop. But I'm certainly not going to go around criticizing another individual's personal expression of his or her art form. It's all a matter of taste - we all deserve praise for what we bring to the table, not criticism. If you don't like it, change the channel on the radio!

Just my take....
Terri, lover of all music!

Friday, July 6, 2012

R&B Melismas (runs, riffs)

OK, a lot of R&B singers get a lot of flak about using too many notes in their singing. I've heard the term "over-souling" which implies "too much." Haha!

I do believe sometimes it is too much, especially if it over-shadows the melody. I guess it seems that some singers are more interested in showing off their voices than concentrating on the melody of the song or focusing on the lyrics of a song. And these elements are important to conveying the emotion and/or beauty of the song. But really melismatic singing is not such a new concept, and R&B singers are not the first to "show off" their chops.

Let me first define "melisma" - it really means to sing multiple notes over a single syllable. There are other terms used, such as riffing or runs. Either way, it's a bunch of notes!

Actually some of the earliest recorded examples we have of melismas are from monks in the church singing Gregorian chant, back in the Middle Ages (yeah, it's pretty old)!!
There was also plenty of melismatic singing going on back in the 1800s as well with "Bel Canto" singing, which was opera in which the singers would singing long "cadenzas" (melismas) to literally show off their "beautiful singing," which is the definition of "Bel Canto".

I think the earliest version of what we think of as melismas in today's R&B would be the fabulous singer and performer Jackie Wilson. Listen to his song "Lonely Teardrops" from 1958. I always had thought Stevie Wonder was the first to sing melismas, but after listening to Jackie Wilson, I hear some (not a lot) beginnings of multiple-note words being sung. I will keep researching and listening until I know for sure!

There of course was a lot going on between Gregorian chant, Bel Canto, and modern R&B. This is just "in a nutshell" so to speak. More to discover!

Keep Singing!

Friday, June 15, 2012

R&B - so much to learn!

I've been studying R&B lately - everything from looking through old Billboard charts, seeing the changes in R&B and vocal style from the 1940s, watching videos from the 40s, 50s and 60s, watching some of my favorite artists like Stevie Wonder, reading scholarly material such as Dr. Richard Ripani's study on R&B (which was originally published as his doctoral dissertation - not to be taken lightly!) The New Blue Music 1950-1999. I'm also reading simultaneously Dr. Craig Werner's study of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield in his book Higher Ground. Needless to say, my head is spinning!! But it's so weird, because I haven't been this excited about music in so long, to the point I want to stay up and read at night. And even weirder is the fact that Ripani's book is very theory-based - he studies the blues scale, its history, the blues form - in depth. He traces it back to its African roots and even explains heavier concepts, like Pythagoras' musical theories, and the way our Western ears hear scales in current times, as opposed to how they heard them in the Middle Ages, or even in the Baroque, for example. Things changed when the keyboard instrument became "well-tempered," which means it was divided evenly into twelve equally-spaced notes. (Bet you didn't know that it wasn't always that way!) I am truly blown away by these wonderful scholars' works. Wow!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

R&B Singing, Competitions, and TV Shows

R&B Singing, Competitions, and TV Shows

There has been an abundance of singing competitions on TV ever since the advent of "American Idol" over a decade ago. And I think it's just great! Singing is a source of joy - even non-singers love to sing in the shower, sing in church and with family. No wonder those TV shows are so popular. And who doesn't love to hear a great singer sing a heart-felt song?

I guess that takes us to the question of "What is a great singer?" I suppose this is a question similar to "What is beautiful"? There of course are very many differences of opinion. Consider this: In the Middle Ages, a great singer certainly wouldn't be what you or I consider to be great today. Times change and opinions change. And some people never change - our parents think great singers are the singers from their generation, and might just think that your favorite singers can't sing worth a hoot! Right?

Well, just as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," great singing can be in the ear of the listener - ha!

But I have to say it's more than just an opinion. There are some qualities that can be defined as "great" especially as we define it today (not like the monks would define it in the Middle Ages, or your parents for that matter). Here are a few things that we can put on the list:

- Technique - that is, studying with a teacher, learning the in's and out's of the voice and how it works, learning to use your instrument (and yes, the voice is an instrument) to the best of its capabilities, practicing to strengthen your voice, striving to reach new heights (and lows) vocally, stretching your abilities. If you can't study with a professional vocal coach, learn from books and CDs - there are plenty of books and CDs on vocal instruction (such as mine), and although it may not be quite as beneficial as one-on-one private instruction, there is much you can learn from reading and listening and applying technique offered in books and CDs.

- Emotional Expression - putting your heart and soul into your singing. No one wants to hear a bland, emotionless singer - boring!! I've sometimes wondered why certain singers have made it big, when they weren't great singers to begin with. Take Janice Joplin for instance - she's not a technically great singer, but she just oozed emotional expression. She put her heart into her singing 100% - in every single note! She held nothing back, which really is like exposing one's inner self. To be emotional in your singing, you must truly be connected to the song and FEEL it. If you can't feel it, then pick a different song! If you're bored, then the audience will be too...

- Listening - yes, your ears are just as important as your voice (there I said it!) If a singer gets on stage and over-sings (or as I like to call her - a "melismaniac"), then it seems that she is just singing for her own benefit, to hear herself sing, which is really very selfish! Remember, it is your job as the singer to help people to connect to the music, to feel what you're feeling, to get drawn in to the power of the song. It's really not about YOU...Keeping that in mind, if you use your ears, you learn to listen, to learn to give-and-take, to work with the band, to let others shine, to allow SILENCE in a song. Do you realize that silence can be the greatest emotional expression in a song? Listen to Aretha Franklin sing "Dr. Feelgood." She allows a TON of space, which creates emotional tension and release. It's not all just in your face. We all like the suspense of "what is she going to do now?" Singers who over-sing and use too many riffs and fill every hole in the music get boring, there's no suspense because we as listeners know exactly what's coming: more notes! Learn to be a giver to the song, nurture the song - it wants to be coddled and treated with love and affection - not trampled on by a thousand notes!

These are just a few of the basics of what makes a singer "great." But of course, tomorrow there could be a whole new set of things - it constantly changes!

I guess the most important thing is to sing from your heart, love it, and put your passion into it.