Tip of the Month

February 2008

“ I know you have a beautiful voice but ... what are you saying?”

Those words from my new coach stunned me! Carlos Noble was the brilliant pianist at The Horn,  a night club in Santa Monica, where I had been “discovered” ... which resulted in my being hired by the Sacramento Music Circus for my first professional job, two days later. We had been cutting an audition tape for the Lawrence Welk show and I was just doing what I thought I had learned from listening to Robert Merrill’s recordings, singing full and strong.
“You won’t be able to fully appreciate what I am about to tell you, for about five years but ...” and he began to unload the overly “vocal” aspects of my singing and take out some of the “weight” I was making by an excessively involved throat.
The effect of his patient and insightful prodding was that I began to think of a song as part of a conversation, sustained speech on pitch ... just talking to my audience, nay, communicating with the audience. I began to enjoy singing in thoughts, instead of just singing words at my audience, or (gasp) over its head. I listened anew to Sinatra and Gordon McCrea, both of whom sang effortlessly, and began to hear what Carlos was asking of me, in them. (You might visit the Audio/Video page and listen to “Spring is here” on The Tonight Show ...”)
It took a while to learn the technique, but it has also served me well in all the other music I sing, from Grand Opera to folk tunes ...

Some Tips:

In general: Buy a flat tape recorder from Radio Shack–$40–it has a three-inch speaker, all the better with which to hear yourself. Tape everything you sing! When just doing vocal work, stop after each phrase and play it back, several times. Are the vowels all in the same spot, spinning upandforward in the honk? Did all of the Ah’s, Aw’s and Oh’s fall out of line? That happens when the tongue drops ... don’t do that!
Oh, what a world we live in ... now. Not so, when I was learning all of this stuff.
Norelco came out with the first cassette tape recorder, around 1963 ... and I could tape every rehearsal I did. The first taping was the beginning of Act One, of La Bohème, which I sang and direct for Duluth Opera. I was astounded at how the tenor nearly blew me off the stage. It made me begin to really open my throat, for the first time, after having already sung leading roles at the NYCO ... for three years.
Before that ... it was an event to be taped ... since we didn’t the luxury of being able to work on the voice, with the true sound that came back. (Remember the first time you heard yourself on a tape recorder? “That’s not me! I don’t sound like that!” Well ... yes you do ... to your audience!)
Tape yourself ... you will immediately begin to sing better. Smooth it out, sing through the line on an Aw vowel, no words, keep the sound going. When it sounds better on the tape, now softly add the words, without disturbing the flow of the line, connecting vowel to vowel, easily, no sharp corners ... keep the sound moving through, way over there ...

1. Be generous with your time in front of the mirror! The tendency is to look at yourself, admiringly, then ... the moment you start singing ... your eyes drop like a rock, out of focus, in the direction of the parquet, as you mentally go inside, to listen to yourself. Learn to listen to the real sound YOU ARE MAKING, WAY OVER THERE, IN THE MIRROR! Then check it on the tape recorder. Is that the sound you thought you made as you sang that phrase? Wottayamean ... it doesn’t sound as good? Welcome to how to work on your technique at home ... in a productive way!

2. Really look at yourself ... and see! See, for instance, that frown on your wrinkledbrow–put a piece of scotch tape on it and it won’t do that. Do you see the wild distortions your mouth makes, as you are “pronouncing your words?”
A quiet, slightly long and narrow mouth, gives better focus and keeps the sound uniform. Watch how you maybe trying to sell a song ... by “smiling,” even though, quite often the lyrics don’t support the smile.
(Andy Williams said, “I realized that all of these years, I was smiling, and I didn’t have to!)
Look at, seeeeee how you tighten your jaw and close your mouth, every time you sing a closed vowel, trying to raise the tongue where it mush be, to sing the E, Ih or A. You will be amazed at what you will sometimes find yourself doing.

3. In particular, watch your mouth ... the words are essentially made inside the mouth, the tongue making the vowels and the bulk of the consonants and the lips being used to color and keep the tone focused, while the vowel spins in the “honk!”

4. Learn to instantaneously–crisply–center the pitch, of the vowel of the first word, of every sentence, as you lift and grow through each phrase–by raising your chest, a bit. The lifting and growing draws the support up and forward–upandforward–as you move somewhat aggressively, flexibly through each phrase, lifting every high note ... and the last note of every phrase. (Lift grow ... pop rest!)
The lifting keeps the breath flexible and alive ... and you’ll rarely find yourself running out of air!
Re: previous Tips on breathing/support.

5. Learn to grow on the important vowels in a phrase, making them just a tad longer than written, then making up the slight time to the next important vowel etc. The vowels, of these signature words, are the signposts, that establish, identify each key word to the audiences’ ears–they hear more clearly–rather than having a sentence essentially sung, in one dynamic, void of individual characteristics, that delineate the meaning of the phrase–out of the monotonous drone. 
For example, try:
“The hiiiils are aliiiiive, with the sooooound of muuuuusic ...
With sooooongs they have suuuuug, for a thooooousand yeeeeears ...” Lifting and growing each vowel as indicated ...
I hope you get my drift ... Lis-ten to my  “Cabin scene,” with marvelous Ruta Lee, from the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “The Girl that I Marry,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” on the bottom of the Audio/Video page.”
See ya next month ... unless you call or send me an Email. RF.