A Path To Better Singing
It happened recently that two performance dates came up on the same weekend. I helped organize a showcase with the Singspiration Singers and was asked to be the Gift of Music for a local church service, something of an honour and surprise given what I will describe in this article.
The main challenge was that I had my heart set on performing Amos Lee's "Flower" at both events. It was less than a month out and I had really not progressed beyond singing along with the recording. I had not learned the words, had only found a tab online that I was not sure was correct, had some doubts about being able to learn to play the guitar parts well enough and be able to sing and play effectively. The song was a huge stretch for my range and vocal styling as the lyrics float in and around the beat in a gospel kind of feel that does not come natural to me coming from a long history of drumming.
Singing in pitch and hitting the right notes are also not my strong points. Ten years ago I could barely hear myself sing, let alone match pitches accurately. Pulling the right note out of the air was also a challenge, though I have made it to the point where I can sing my own songs in key unless I am nervous.
To top it off, someone recently launched a surprisingly harsh critique that I should not sing "Flower" in public, was not really a singer, and perhaps should never really ever sing solo in public. I was crushed and if not already so heavily invested and committed to performing at the two events, I might have walked away from the performance, the choir, music completely, and make a point of staying away from the side of bridges for a few days (incidentally, one of the motivations for Amos Lee to write "Flower" in the first place - check this out). It was not so much the suggestion was that I was not ready that day (true, though the opinion was given BEFORE hearing progress I had made on the song) that was so soul destroying, but that I had no potential for the future!
I used the fact that two separate choir directors at different times at the United Church had invited me to be the Gift of Music after hearing me sing my original songs as a basis for hope. I also once had a Juno award winning singer and guitarist join me on my songs during an open mic who prompted me to play everything I had. Far from suggesting I get off the stage!
Here is what I did to get past it and prepare for performance.
Brett Manning's Singing Success 360
I had purchased Brett Manning's Singing Success 360 a week earlier. Although I had subscribed to Singing Success TV on and off (and never really applied myself to using it) and was promoting the program on my website, I had not taken the leap and purchased the program. I wish I had purchased it long ago! The program provides the equivalent of something like 15 CDs, with the content downloadable or streamed on computer or mobile device. The approach and objectives are very clearly laid out with clear introductions to each exercise with the purpose and objectives clearly stated. There is a sample of Brett or professional singers doing each exercise, then it is your turn.
The first exercises start you on the road to erasing the breaks in your voice as you sing in a range much beyond what you might think your range is. Each lesson focuses on something different, with later lessons helping with vocal style. I saw immediate improvement after the first few exercises and can only imagine where my voice will be in a year as I make my way through the program.
Private Lessons and Workshop with Julie Blue
Singspiration founder Julie Blue suggested I take two private lessons with her and attend a Saturday workshop designed to prepare singers for the upcoming showcase. Although I had sent Julie a link to Amos Lee performing "Flower" and she really liked the song, we did not have a chart and I had not yet really got a handle on singing it, so we worked on Billy Joel's "Piano Man" instead. It gave me a chance to step away from the drums and the guitar and just sing with a great pianist.
We went into the first lesson specifically to tackle pitch issues. Julie was a little surprised that the pitch issues were minor compared to what she had heard from me over the years. Starting Singing Success 360 and also that I have been working on playing piano and singing "Piano Man" for a long time contributed to that.
Julie's gift is getting through the emotional and habitual issues that get in the way of performance so that you can focus on delivering the song. I think it is an effective combination to use Singing Success to improve the capability of your voice, and work with Julie Blue to refine the performance in private lessons and workshops.
Julie Blue created two backing tracks for "Piano Man" for me to work with. The first track included an instrument voice playing the vocal lines to match and the second track was just the piano part.
Custom Chart with Target Notes
Guitarist Harry was able to play the guitar part for "Flower" after hearing it for the first time. I immediately realized that I did not need to learn the guitar part for the performances and could just focus on singing the song. After deciding to drop the song a little from the key of A to G, he prepared two charts for me. The first one had all of the guitar chords and the second one had the target singing notes written as letters above the words, with highlighting to indicate the downbeats of some very tricky phrasing.
The sheet music would have achieved this as well, but as far as I could determine the sheet music is not available for purchase anywhere. You can do the highlighting yourself and possibly identifying the targets note by matching pitch along with a recording and checking with some kind of tuning device like a guitar tuner if you do not have a Harry to help you.
It became immediately obvious that I was not thinking about the song correctly. I had been aiming for a G for the high target notes when I really should have been aiming for a B! Identifying pitch is not a skill I have mastered yet and we mostly sing harmony notes in the bass section of Singspiration.
Using a Tuner or an App Like Sing-In-Tuna to Check Pitch
Armed with this chart, I could use a guitar tuner or a mobile app like Sing-In-Tuna to see if what was coming out of my mouth was actually the notes I should be aiming for. This is something of a humbling experience for many singers.
Harry also created a backing track with the guitar parts and a few announcements of where verses ended. The song really just plays the same chord pattern over and over again and the variety is provided by the vocal delivery and the instrumental expression. Pretty easy to lose track when you are just playing the same chords over and over again!
He also gave me a number of tips, including avoiding the "rrr" sound in words like "heart" and instead sing an open vowel like a Bostonian "haaaaat" and "powaa". Although not a vocal coach, Harry had made a suggestion some professional vocal coaches would give. In a flash of genius he also suggested that I speak or rap the wordy chorus rather than sing it. That helped a lot, mostly in a psychological way. It is also one of the foundations of Singing Success to approach singing with a speech-like delivery. The goal is effortless mastery.
Singing in the Car and Parks
I spent a lot of time singing while in the car and while walking. One day I drove from Parkgate to Horseshoe Bay just to do one of the Singing Success exercises, then hang out in the beautiful bay. Much of my progress as a singer has been due to taking long trips and singing in the car. I needed to drive to Colorado before I could start hearing my own voice many years ago! I sometimes put a song or backing track on repeat and sing it over and over again when walking or driving.
So How Did It Work Out?
I ended up playing drums and singing "Flower" at the Singspiration Showcase and during the United Church service. Although neither performance would get me on The Voice, I got the words across, the minister danced to the song once it got going, and people sang along. Both times were a little rough out of the gate until I relaxed and settled in. My pitch improved as this happened. Every time I perform it gets better.
"Piano Man" went very well at the showcase. I stepped out and interacted with the crowd very well, delivered the song in a connected and interactive way, and had few pitch issues once I settled in. Many people came to tell me that they were impressed.
My vocal journey continues. As Brett Manning said in the introduction to Singing Success 360:
"It will take you three days to find your voice and thirty years to master it."
I hope that some of the tips provided here can help with your musical journey.
– Greg Dixon