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


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