Let Freedom Sing…

I haven’t written in awhile. Something has been bothering me, something important… crucial even… and I haven’t been able to find the right words until now. It is simply this: singing is a vital expression of FREEDOM.

Everything we do in our training and exploration of our voices, including countless hours spent drilling scales, deepening breath support, and exploring (and/or writing) various songs, is all supposed to render a distinct feeling of freedom when we sing. This feeling is both physical and emotional, and it is the very reason that we endeavor to raise our voices at all. From this powerful personal experience comes a revelation that is available to everyone.

Margaret Atwood, in her seminal novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, reminds us that there are two kinds of freedom: freedom from, and freedom to. In this case, when we sing, we are seeking freedom from vocal strain, tension, and breathlessness. We are also seeking the freedom to express ourselves in a deeply personal and satisfying way. Whether or not we impress others with our voice is irrelevant. The opinions and responses of an audience, though always a part of the performing arts, have no actual bearing on our personal experience of freedom when we sing (unless we let them!). But our job as singers is to move through any and all restraints, be they physical or emotional, and produce a sound that feels unencumbered and true to us, moment by moment, as we sing. This act is deeply personal, and even spiritual, but make no mistake: it is also political.

The world does not owe us anything. We are bound to this earth by mysterious forces of love and fire, the heat-shimmer of our cells’ friction rising up from our fragile bodies as we age, gravity’s mortal thunder booming louder with each passing day. Are we here, present in this miracle? Have we used our voices to the fullest extent? Have we protested injustice, asked for help, called for change? Have we asked after the health of our loved ones, and the state of their hopes and dreams? Have we sung our children to sleep?

Things are not yet as they should be, but we can sing the change we wish to see in the world. Each of us contains a voice -a musical instrument inside our body!- that is waiting to be set free. Once we have felt this freedom for ourselves it becomes unthinkable that anyone should go without it. When we sing, we stop everything and breathe. We are present in the moment, mindful, listening intently. We push out the sound that comes from deep within us, and hope it will travel as far as it can. This is our most human state of being, and it will connect us to each other, and sustain us through great adversity. So go ahead, do it now! Stand up, inhale, and let go.

The Singer’s Lifestyle: Your Voice Deserves It….

If you want to make a breakthrough in your singing, consider living the Singer’s Lifestyle. Your voice is a finely-tuned machine that responds to every aspect of your physical and emotional life. Every single thing that goes into your body, everything you eat and drink, affects your voice. Your posture, body alignment, and lung capacity are all part of the body’s singing mechanism. Your emotions can cause involuntary physical reactions that interfere with or enhance the natural action of your vocal cords and diaphragm. Taking stock of these factors can help bring about a powerful revolution in the way you sing. Below I will outline 6 principles that you can use as a lifestyle guide. Try it for 8 weeks and be amazed at your improvement:

Regular Vocal Exercise: strengthening the body requires regular weight-bearing exercise and daily stretching. Your vocal cords are not made of muscle tissue, but like your muscles they can get stronger and more flexible if you exercise them regularly. Take some voice lessons and learn good vocal warm-ups and breathing techniques that are tailor made for you by your teacher. Singing scales, interval exercises, and staccato jumps will work wonders on your pitch and breath control. Practice them daily, taking care not to push beyond your personal “strain threshold”. Never strain, always (breath) support: slow and steady wins the race.

Diet/Nutrition: We’ve all heard the expression, “you are what you eat”. A singer knows that “you sing what you eat”. If you are a regular consumer of dairy products, then you’re singing behind a curtain of phlegm that covers your vocal cords and interferes with their natural action (to relieve the phlegmy sensation you’ll clear your throat again and again, which scrapes your vocal cords together and irritates them). Eliminate dairy products completely and observe how much clearer and smoother your singing is. Other dietary factors that affect the vocal cords are foods (and drink) that promote excessive acid. Too much acidity upsets the delicate PH balance in your throat and can cause rasping, hoarseness, and loss of voice, especially if you experience heartburn. Keep your diet low in acidic foods and don’t drink more than 2 cups of coffee per day (try to keep it to one cup, or consider switching to oolong tea). Observe your body’s reaction to everything you consume, and pay particular attention to any changes in your voice after eating. Is your voice weaker, lower, or hoarse? Do you have to keep clearing your throat for the rest of the day? Eliminate from your diet what doesn’t feel right in your voice.

Exercise: just 30 minutes of focused daily cardio can work wonders on your lungs. Get outside (or on an elliptical) and walk, run, or climb until you’re sweaty and breathless. Your lungs will burn at first but they’ll quickly adjust. It may take a few weeks, but you’ll notice a deeper, more satisfying action when you take a breath to sing. Your connection to the all-important diaphragm muscle will also grow stronger, and you’ll be able to hold a note longer and with more control.

Posture/Alignment: many of us have terrible posture from sitting too long, hunched over screens (and have you heard of “tech neck”?). When we sing we need to stand upright in a relaxed but perfectly aligned posture. Generally this means that our feet should be hips-width apart, our knees slightly bent, our pelvis tucked under a bit, and our sternum lifted. Our shoulders should be back a little, and our head should float up, lifting our neck slightly and elongating our entire body. Warning: don’t hold this posture in a rigid way or you’ll tire easily and end up aching. Think of your body alignment as a fluid motion that is constantly adjusting and re-adjusting to your body’s personal challenges. The whole purpose of this alignment is to create a nice feeling of space for the diaphragm muscle to contract and expand as you inhale and exhale, and to keep the head and neck free so that the vocal cords can operate without strain.

Mental Clarity: 21st century science has become fascinated with something called “mindfulness”. Turns out that the Buddha was right when he presented meditation practice as a gift to all humanity: meditation can put us in a miraculous brain state that tames the cortisol reflex, lowers cholesterol, and increases mental clarity and focus. Many of us carry around a belief that creativity arises out of chaos, but current science shows that it’s our “resting” phases (during which we are quiet, still, and focused, as in meditation) that enable our brains to make vital connections which later manifest as spontaneous bursts of creative genius. Singing is a creative act that deserves everything we’ve got. Harness the power of your mind and you’re halfway there.

Immunity: colds, flu, allergies, bronchitis, pneumonia… the list of vocal saboteurs is long (see my post about items that can help preserve and protect your vocal health). Any of these can wreak long-term havoc on your voice. Invest in prevention and you’ll avoid setbacks. Try boosting your immunity with 500mg Vitamin C per day, regular exercise, and a good sleep schedule. Stay well hydrated. Dress warmly when it’s cold outside, and always carry a hat and scarf with you during winter months. Scarves are a singer’s secret weapon.

Why Diamondwolf…

My new(ish) band Diamondwolf launched our Kickstarter campaign this month. I started the band in 2012 after re-connecting with Glen Cooper, a friend from way back in the day. The first time I heard him sing in 2000 I knew he was special. Although we were both solo artists at the time, we took note of each other and stayed in touch. Glen has a voice that smolders, and sparks fire when you least expect it. He’s also an accomplished songwriter. When we sing together I feel part of something greater than just the two of us, something wild and mysterious. Images of nature abound in our songs, I think because we both understand how the natural world evokes powerful metaphors for the human experience. We also write about poison, shootings, arson, and car crashes.

 

The formation of Diamondwolf grew out of a period of deep reflection. After my indie-rock band The Volcano Diary finished up our record in 2011 I began working on a new crop of songs that didn’t feel right for TVD’s musical vision. TVD’s songs all came out of specific incidents in my personal life, moments that made me stop and question everything I thought I knew about romantic love. My TVD partner, Gus Palaskas, is a skilled guitarist and sublime singer whose musicianship is integral to the band’s sound. Gus understood exactly what to do with the songs and made them ten times better. We were extremely lucky to have our fledgling record produced by the legendary Steve Fisk. Our record was a great collaboration (and I’m looking forward to the next one). But as time wore on I began to feel itchy, restrained, claustrophobic in my own songs.

 

I was working on a different kind of songwriting, one that dealt with life-and-death themes in a universal way. I wanted to be less specific and more universal, to say something true about the human condition. I wanted to write about the intersection of sex, death, love, and spirituality. How the people closest to us form the matrix of our spiritual practice, and how loving them makes us return to this moment, again and again. How our mortality is beautiful, and sacred. Once I figured out my new songwriting mandate I asked Glen to join me. The 10 songs we wrote for our record are the best I’ve ever worked on.

 

The core of the band is two voices and two acoustic guitars. Vox and guitar is the most honest day’s work you can do in the music business, but it’s also like walking around naked all the time. Although there are a few other background instruments on the record (Glen played all the bass and I played all the drums, and there are a few other fantastic guest musicians) you can basically see right into us, which means we have to pay careful attention to every detail of our music. The responsibility can be daunting (and sometimes we fall short). But we’re up for it. Every time we’re about to step onstage, we look at each other with a big, cheesy “YOLO” grin. I think that’s called synergy.

 

Our first full-length CD is called “Your Time Has Come”, which is what you say to a suitor who has been waiting patiently in the wings, or a criminal who is about to face judgement. But it’s also how Glen and I feel about you, the listener, all our myriad friends and fans who have encouraged us from the very beginning, and who have let us know that you believe in us. Thank you for waiting, now here it is: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1481074751/cd-release-your-time-has-come-0

Pencils for Everyone…..

Are you a woman and/or a person of color? Do you write songs with pencils? The Blackwing Pencil company thinks you don’t exist.

Blackwing is attempting to re-launch an item that is a cultural artifact of the 20th century. Their pencils arrived on the scene in America in the 30’s, and were embraced by musicians (and fine artists) for their high-quality materials and the “firm and smooth” line they produced. My father used Blackwing pencils when he was a student at Julliard in the 60’s. I remember seeing them around the house when I was growing up, resting on music stands and tucked into his music bag. They were popular, until the company shut down in the 90’s. In 2010 Blackwing started up again, and this time they are marketing agressively to musicians. Their own website states that the pencil “represents a lifestyle”, and that lifestyle is all about musical composition. The actual title of their website: MusicPencil.Com. So far, so good.

But Blackwing’s current roster of 8 featured musicians, the ones that represent said lifestyle, the ones they showcase on their website, whose music they regularly promote with Twitter, Facebook, and blog posts, are men. To put a fine point on it: white men.

This may have been the norm in the 1930’s, but it is unacceptable in 2014.

This is the time of Beyonce. Of Taylor Swift. Of Adele. Of Meshell Ndegeocello. Of Bettye LaVette. Of Tomo Nakayama. Of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. Of Norah Jones. Of Angel Haze. Of Bif Naked. Of Tanya Tagaq. Of Cober. Of Lorde. Of Celia Chavez. Of Bruno Mars. Of Nicki Minaj. Of Laura Jane Grace. Of Rie Daisies. Of Linda Perry. Of Kacey Musgraves. Of Donna Kay. Of Mary Lambert. Of Choklate. Of FKA Twigs. Of Tess Turbo. Of Willow. Of Jamie Coon. Of Joan As Police Woman. Of Frank Ocean. Of Rachel Yamagata. Of Emm Gryner. Of course, I could go on but there just isn’t room.

Are you with us here in the 21st century? Then I urge you to Tweet to Blackwing (and their parent company, Palomino) and make your voice heard.

If you are female and write songs, or a person of color who writes songs, or a white male ally, or are not a songwriter but would like to help, Tweet (don’t forget to use the period in front of the @ symbol, so we can all see your tweet):

.@blackwing .@palomino #womenwritesongsandusepencils #peopleofcolorwritesongsandusepencils

If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can contact them on Facebook, using the same hashtags: Facebook.com/palominoblackwing

Blackwing has responded to me a few times since I (and others) started tweeting to them on November 4th. In their first Tweet they stated that “everyone is welcome”, but clearly the lack of women and people of color on their site does not reflect that sentiment. Ideally Blackwing will make a statement acknowledging their error, for example: “In our excitement to bring you the greatest music pencil ever made, we neglected to take into account the wonderful diversity of today’s musical landscape, which includes incredible women and people of color, when we sought out muicians to feature on our site and in our advertising campaigns. We are working quickly to right this egregious error”, and then follow-up by actually doing so. As I asked them in one of my Tweets, “Are you going to include women and people of color? Not just one or two ‘tokens’ but as a real marketing strategy to everyone?”. We’ll see how they respond. Until then, Tweet Tweet Tweet!

Thirteen Questions for Celia Chavez…

Celia couldn’t come to the phone last week. She was onstage at Madison Square Garden, singing back-up vocals for Enrique Iglesias. You might have seen her on tour with Pink, or Melody Gardot, Julia Fordham, or any number of lesser-known artists and bands. But Celia is more than the “wind beneath the wings” of super-stars, she’s an accomplished original artist in her own right. And ask anyone: to know her is to love her! I’ve know her for over 10 years and our weekly calls include  news, gossip, obsessions and confessions. Though I was tempted to editorialize some of the text below, and spice it up with extra facts and gossip, I think you’ll find that her own words are more than enough to hold your attention. Here are 13 questions for my friend, Celia Chavez:

1) List your favorite gear for recording and gigging. Are you devoted to any particular items, and why?

For live performance, my guitar of choice is Ruby, my cherry red Epiphone Riviera. With Ruby I use either a ZT lunchbox amp or my Fender Pro Jr. I’ve recently been dirtying up my sound slightly with a Blues Driver pedal, and adding some delays with a Line 6 Echo Park pedal, which has lots of cool options for washiness and slaps etc., but I keep it pretty simple. I also just got a beautiful flame top parlor-size guitar, an Ami model with a great sounding cedar top made by Art & Lutherie, a Canadian subsidiary of Godin – and I LOVE my parlor girl. She fits easily in an airplane overhead compartment and she’s already been with me on tour to London and Malta. I had an LR Baggs Element undersaddle pickup installed and it sounds great plugged in. I also have a nylon string guitar, an 1970’s era Hohner Contessa, that acoustically I love. She sounds great mic’d but unfortunately doesn’t sound as great plugged in.

I am also in love with my Cordoba tenor ukulele, which I like to utilize more like a tiny four-string classical than the usual strummy uke style. Still learning my way around that little guy.

In the studio, I am not picky about gear (except for Ruby) as I have found that producers/engineers have different gear, mikes, guitars and plug-ins that they know how to get good sound out of. I am no engineer, and sometimes I may have an idea of some specific sounds I’d like to try, or the producer might, and we work with what we have handy. I kind of like that in-the-moment approach. My idea of a recording is that it’s a musical snapshot of your creative state at any given time, anyhow.

2) What is your preferred method of warming up before you perform?

To be honest (students please move on to the next question!), I don’t have a super-disciplined regimen for warming up. I feel my way around my voice throughout the day, every day, humming, doing easy singing with best placement, running a slidey note up and down my range, and doing mild breathing exercises just anytime during the day. I will say that I think it’s good to experiment with your range outside of your comfort zone – on both the high and low ends of your range, and at different volume levels – every day. Also, I’ll test out different tones to sing a phrase or a song – once darker, then more nasally, again in full voice then introduce more breath in the tone. And singing with overexaggerated enunciation, extending the holds on vowels and using consonants as sonic launch pads to focus placement and tone. Everyone’s voice is different, but for me, if I move my voice around every day, I’m fine with some simple lip trills, scales, breathing exercises and test runs of any challenging sections as warmup on performance day.

Often times I am learning tunes – either my own, or covers, or another artist’s – and simply being mindful of your placement, vowel/consonant formation and breath as you’re woodshedding – maybe even changing keys to test out how the same song sounds in different parts of your voice – can be good daily warmup.

3) What are the three songs that you want to be remembered for writing or performing?

My song “Flood”, my arrangement of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” and whenever I sing something by AC/DC or Led Zeppelin on a lark.

4) Anything to say about how your race, class, sexuality, and gender affects the music you make or the way you make it?

You know earlier this year, Rita Moreno was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by SAG. When I was a little girl and I saw West Side Story for the first time – nothing against Natalie Wood, who performed beautifully – but if it weren’t for Marni Nixon’s voice and a pile of bronzer, she would not have been able to carry that role. And to a little brown girl like me, Rita Moreno was a revelation. Earthy, powerful, sexy, funny, and a triple threat actor-singer-dancer — she stole the damn movie and displayed a range in both her acting and singing that few performers of any ethnicity could match. I thought to myself, “I wanna be HER when I grow up.”

I’m not exactly sure how my ethnicity impacts my music. I’m full-on Filipina, both parents, and my music is currently rock/americana singer-songwriter. My musical training was classical with a little jazz, and I sang a lot of choral music in church and school. I’m a working class girl who was lucky to have a good education on scholarship and a lifelong affinity for reading. I hope my songs are intelligent yet grounded as a result. You tell me!

As far as gender, I know that it makes me concerned about ageism, which is why I will take live/touring singing gigs as long as I can and as long as my face and body hold out, but I’m anticipating a shift towards more writing for other artists or for film & TV, and working on my own artist career. It has been fun to discover I am actually a decent co-writer and I enjoy the challenge of assignment writing and also singing in character that’s not necessarily my own artist voice. This coming year will see the release of a series of EP’s – extended play recordings of maybe 5 or 6 songs each – to just get my backlog of songs out into the world and getting heard, I hope.

5) What advice would you give someone who is about to perform onstage for the very first time?

Have fun!!

6) What would you say to someone who has been making music for 20 years and never found an audience for it?

I wrote a blog post a few years back comparing life as a working musician to being a gambling addict. That’s how it feels to me much of the time – I am always super grateful for the work I get, and the fans that find me somehow from all over the world. I’ve been really lucky – but there’s always that bug in my brain that makes me brace for involuntary unpaid time off between projects, or, as an artist, that sense that your work is falling on deaf ears, like seeds on the sidewalk.

I think I’m lucky to have been given a peek at rock stardom from the sidelines. There is a reason people become major artists with number one hits (besides strong financial backing from somewhere) – the major artists I’ve sung with are driven like mofos. They hire coaches to help with whatever skills are weak, they write and write and record a lot, they seek out skilled and compatible collaborators, they take care of their health and fitness and finances, and they project a public persona that has mass appeal. They also definitely sacrifice some years of their personal life to establishing their career. They never stop working and striving for growth.

These artists in your question who are still going after 20 years even with the lack of an audience – I would ask them what originally motivated them to choose this path, and are they still motivated by that now even after years of struggle?

If they want to make their living as a performing songwriter, the real truth is that for the most part you do have to work really, really hard and it can take a long time as you hone your craft and style. So you had better love it. And maybe you need to be open to changing the way you write, if your goal is for your songs to be more accessible to a greater audience. Some artists don’t find their fans until they’re past 40 – Sharon Jones didn’t break until she was around 50, I believe – and by the time I put in my time in P!nk’s band, she had been working at it 15 years or more. These artists write and perform regularly, they put in the hard work, constantly strive for growth – sometimes while simultaneously raising families and holding down other jobs. Or, working to support another artist’s work, which is what I currently do as a member of a touring band. And then it’s a challenge to maintain your own artist voice when being a musical chameleon is your job.

The reality is everyone can’t “make it” and the lifestyle, even if you do, isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging to your health, your relationships, and your bank account. So you’d better really love what it means to live as a musician/artist, love being that creative soldier, and be able to sustain a fair amount of faith. You have to be willing to adopt a lifestyle based around practice, and that takes time, focus and solitude. Much of this life is tedious, underappreciated, dirty, cheap work for a looooong time. And a ton of it is luck. Some people just win over the right people who are well connected and positioned to be an effective champion and cheerleader. But if you love the process, feel the big picture, believe in what you’re creating, are not afraid to continually push to be better, are able to find your true, honest voice as an artist – then there will be an audience for you, a segment of the population who connect with your work. You just gotta be prepared to accept that you do not know when it will happen or what size that audience will be. And, with the current state of the industry, it may not fully pay your rent and bills. It’s how it is for everyone, even established artists. However, there are plenty of artists out there touring to reach a moderately sized audience and making a modest career out of playing to small houses full of devoted fans who still buy their music and merch. If you can’t be OK with that then maybe it might just be a matter of realigning your musical goals with who you are now. It’s cool . Everyone changes in 20 years.

You know, you have this gift, this love, this ability to create music from nothing, that you can pass on to those around you, that you can affect at least a few people (that is still no mean feat!) with your music and even pass on the love of creation and performance on to generations that follow you. That’s something wonderful you have that no one can take away from you, something you have until the day you leave this earth.

7) Have you ever thought about giving up music? What changed your mind?

As a livelihood, pretty regularly! Haha. It’s incredibly impractical these days. It is so, so hard to make a living with one’s music now, and every single avenue for music income has been gutted by a glut of free music and the audience’s lack of desire to pay for what we create. What stops me is that the music doesn’t stop in my head. I tried to give it up in the past or ignore it, but the result was a period of crippling depression. Definitely don’t wish to relive that. And, truth be told, I am paid better for my music work than anything else I have ever done. The challenge is just stringing the gigs together tightly enough that the money stays consistent. But that’s the job part.
I am grateful that I can write well with others, that others still seem to want to make music with me, and that I actually enjoy creating music on assignment – or not! I just love making and performing music. I’ll do it forever regardless. Hopefully it will continue to bring in paychecks!

8) What if any figures from childhood who inspired you to make music and why?

My mom, who played piano and sang around the house and had an eclectic record collection. She made piano lessons mandatory but I am ever grateful to her for making sure my brother and I learned that vocabulary and got the notes in our ears. Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Exene Cervenka were all women that were just so beautiful in their confidence and lady swagger, and they made good songs to boot!
Also, Dusty Springfield’s singing style really affected my idea of a powerful vocal delivery and dynamics. She is SO powerful when she undersings. Real feminine strength.

9) What other genres of art do you turn to for inspiration and why?

Literature, film, photography, painting. All these excite a different part of my brain and have inspired songs. I think it’s the different approach to imagery – in words without music, moving images and light… With photography – a captured moment that needed to be plucked out of the stream of time by an expert eye – it’s by nature a concise art form, and I’ve always thought photos are like short stories, poems, or a song for the eye. But what made the artist choose that moment, why is it a keeper out of presumably hundreds of shots? Painting: why those colors, the weight of the stroke…

Part of it is that I can see the full commitment to the finished work. Like when I see a good film, I can’t believe how many people it takes to complete it. The credits roll by and I think wow, that producer, that director, that huge team of animators… They have to creatively commit completely to that two hour bite of suspended reality to shepherd all the cast & crew to the finish line. And somehow it turns out human, beautiful, moving. You don’t see the backlot machinations. Then I think, by comparison, if I can’t finish a good 3 minute song, I’m a weenie and a half! Haha.

But seriously, I’ve based songs on TV and film characters, and characters in books, short stories… One of my earliest songs was about Frank in “Blue Velvet” – and my recent song “Praise My Destroyer” was partly inspired by Sgt. Brody’s experience on “Homeland” in the first season as a tortured and brainwashed soldier.

10) What song or album by another artist do you wish you had written and why?

Beck. Morning Phase. It’s so beautiful, sonically just gorgeous, dynamic and organic… it just transports me, and the arc of the album feels like a two-sided vinyl record to me.

12) Name one song or album that is a guilty pleasure?

Song: “I Just Wanna Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb.
Album: “This Is Darin” by Bobby Darin. Super cheesy, but he is soooo dreamy.

13) What is the best record to have sex to?
Actually, none! I start analyzing the arrangement, writing and performance…distracting! I would much rather be focused on my partner during that time and enjoying the experience. That said, Led Zeppelin II side 1 is pretty hot, and “Thank You” seems to kick in at just the right moment if you’re lucky. Know what I mean?!

 

6 Must-Haves For Your Vocal Health…

I get asked all the time if there is anything that can bring back a “missing” voice. The answer is complicated. Once the voice has gone completely missing it’s likely a victim of laryngitis, which typically takes 3 days to heal and return. But hoarseness of voice can be managed and healed in a shorter time. The secret in both cases begins with complete vocal rest, meaning no speaking, singing, whispering, or any movement of the vocal cords. If you’re a chatty person this can be a challenge. Your best bet is to read a good novel, or binge-watch some good TV. Naps also work wonders for a broken voice (but be careful not to get dehydrated after a long sleep… always wake up with a tall glass of H20).

The best way to deal with loss of voice is to prevent it from happening. First, identify the reason for your hoarseness. Have you recently been shouting at a sports game or rock show? Have you been up all night in the studio, working on new songs? Were the monitors broken at your band’s last gig, forcing you to over-sing? Or is there some health concern that needs your attention? A tired voice can be a symptom of low immunity. Sustained periods of coughing can imflamme the tiny capillaries that line your throat (the sound of coughing is your vocal cords bashing together!). Acid reflux can creep up the esophogus while you sleep and pool in your throat, burning the delicate tissue near your vocal cords. Allergies of all kinds can cause painful symptoms in the nose, which move down into the throat and bronchial tubes. Environmental factors such as woodsmoke, chemical fumes, and even icy weather can wreak havoc on your lungs and throat. Even chronic, low-grade dehydration can take a toll on your voice. It goes without saying that heavy drinking, cocaine and/or meth use, and some kinds of prescription drugs (which can cause side effects including dry mouth and throat, dry cough, and bronchial inflammation) can destroy vocal health permanently.

Once you’ve determined the source of the problem, take a period of vocal rest and determine a course of action. Make it your mission to prevent laryngitis and come back stronger than ever. Consult your doctor for help with the issues listed above. Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in the longevity, health, and wellness of your voice.

Here are 6 items to keep in your Vocal Health Kit (you do have one, don’t you?):

1) Your voice teacher’s and doctor’s numbers. Communicate with your teacher and let her know that your voice is down. She will be able to help guide you through the healing process, and assess what you need to focus on once your hoarseness has retreated. You might need a few weeks of vocal re-training, to prevent bad habits from returning as you work your voice back to full strength. Your doctor can examine your throat and determine if you need medication or a visit to a specialist.

2) Vitmin C. 1,000mg in the morning with breakfast can boost your immunity and prevent a cold from coming on. Ibuprofen can reduce inflammation, but don’t over-do it.

3) A scarf. If your throat feels raw and sore, wrap a soft scarf around your neck and bunch it up in the front, down across your chest. Keeping this area warm can help with circulation and remind you to take it easy with your voice during the day.

4) RoxaliaThis is a homeopathic remedy that can bring back a hoarse voice completely. In my years of teaching I’ve used it on children, teens, and adults with fantastic success. NOTE: the remedy will not work if your voice is already gone. It ONLY works at the first signs of hoarseness, and you’ll have to take the entire dose, which takes 2 to consume. Use that time for complete vocal rest until the remedy has done it job. Be gentle once your voice has returned. Do a light vocal warm-up for 20 minutes before any other vocal work. Call your voice teacher. I’ve tried every drop on the market, but this one wins out again and again. It has the perfect combination of soothing herbs and a nice slippery feel in the throat. One drop usually does the trick for small irritations of the throat, particularly after extended periods of speaking or singing.

5) Ricola throat drops. I’ve tried every drop on the market, but this one wins out again and again. It has the perfect combination of soothing herbs and a nice slippery feel in the throat. One drop usually does the trick for small irritations of the throat, particularly after extended periods of speaking or singing.

6) Throat Spray. Satori Vocal Rescue and Herb Pharm Soothing Throat Spray are the only ones I recommend. Again, I’ve tried them all, and most are a scam. Satori is a good all-around refresher. It clears away the cobwebs and can help thin out excess mucus. It has a slight vegetal/ floral taste, with a note of peppermint. HPSTS’ herbal formula is heavy-duty, combining propolis, which bees use to lubricate the hive, and echinacea, which has been shown to boost immunity. The taste is much stronger, thanks to a base of grain alcohol. This one is better after a period of sustained inflammation, like coughing. I use it a lot with my students in winter, when the air is dry and cold. It leaves a nice soft coating on the throat and is intensely soothing.

Hope you find this helpful! Your questions and comments are welcome.

3 Ways to Improve Your Vocal Recordings…

Look, we’re all very busy so I’ll just cut to the chase: you’re not ready to record. Not even close. There’s ready, and then there’s ready, and you, my friend, are neither. Nope. Sorry. I heart you, but no.

Don’t get me wrong… you’re a good singer! But you haven’t taken enough time to prepare for the recording process. Looks like the world is going to be robbed (yet again) of your best. Isn’t it time to make a change?

Singing live and singing in the recording studio are two related but separate things. Live singing is about passion, enthusiasm, spell-casting, and connecting with the crowd. Studio singing is about your legacy, the precise way in which you want to be remembered and enjoyed as a singer. Both are equally important, but should never be confused.

I’ve been coaching vocalists for over 15 years and have had the opportunity to observe singers in a wide variety of genres. I’ve been a live performer and studio singer since I was a child, and I’ve seen every kind of performance venue and recording studio. I’ve sung on over 50 commercial recordings, including gigs in advertising, internet media, industry demos, as a session singer on other peoples’ records, and on a bunch of my own (I’m about to release my 7th record, this time with my band Diamondwolf). Along the way I occasionally made the grave mistake of being unprepared. I want to spare you this egregious error!

Here are 3 steps you can take to prepare for recording your vocals:

1) Take some voice lessons. Weekly, hour-long lessons, for a minimum of 6 weeks. That’s if you have plenty of time to work on your tracks (the vocal part you’ll be recording) in between lessons. NOTE: the optimal amount of preparation time is 3 months of lessons. Whatever you record echoes through eternity. This. Is. Your. Legacy! Get yourself to the highest level of your singing, and refuse to give any less than that. Take it seriously and you’ll be amazed how well your songs and records will stand the test of time.

2) Listen and learn songs that you love. Who are your very favorite singers, and which are your favorite songs? Listen carefully to the vocal performance, how the singer breathes…. Is it shallow or deep? Does the singer employ vibrato? How much and when? Does the performance sound alive, like the singer is right beside you, trusting you with their innermost self? Or does it sound stifled, two-dimensional, overly sculpted into something not human anymore? Put yourself inside the singer’s  voice… Does it feel small and confined, or free and open? You need to seek out the latter and avoid the former. In your voice lessons, try learning a few cover songs that challenge you, songs that you think are out of your reach. Listening to the vocal phrasing, and singing the songs of other artists will lead you back to your own voice, as long as you refrain from imitation and concentrate on the physicality of your voice (see step #3).  Feel how much bigger and clearer it is? Great! Now stop listening to others’ voices and concentrate on your own. Purge all other songs except the ones you’re going to record.

3) Run through a complete performance of your vocal part a minimum of 50 times (do this with your voice teacher, and also on your own). Sing it through until you hear it in your sleep and start to hate it, then keep going until you love it again. You need to be intimately familiar with the physical feeling of singing the song. It does not feel the same to sing up in your high range as it does down below, and it does not feel the same to sing loud as it does to sing soft. Put your mind inside your body and get physical! The emotional part of your performance will emerge from this process. Think of it like this: your emotions are a powerful current of energy that needs to be grounded by a strong body. Connect the two and you’re golden. 

I hope you find this helpful! Please feel free to contact me with comments and questions.

Love What You (Secretly) Love… And Crank It Up!

Lately I have become fascinated with a corner of the musical landscape I never noticed before: the guilty pleasure. It throbs with mystery, hinting at our secret selves, threatening to expose us to the world. We are slaves to its power, and there is no escape. But how can something so bad feel so good?

We need pop(ular) music to help us form and maintain our identity. We project idealized versions of ourselves onto the bands and artists we adore. Their songs meet us right where we are. They ready us for battle, see us through darkness and grief, comfort us when we feel alone, and generally form the soundtrack of our personal history, one that we can hopefully be proud of. We hold songs up like mirrors, gazing into our reflection, measuring what we see. We are enmeshed with this process. In fact, we take it completely for granted.

Unfortunately, in a capitalist system there is very little “authentic” expression of self. We are bombarded by cultural, advertising, and media images that dictate how we’re supposed to live and who we’re supposed to be. All of our choices in the material world, everything we consume and produce, is supposed to reflect these mandates (which are always the newest manifestation of “coolness”). The absorption process begins early in life and continues indefinitely. It takes a long time to sort through the mess, and then only if we want to. With all the 21st century pressures, who has time? Mostly we like what we like, and it is what it is. Yet somewhere, under all the determined layers of the mighty psyche, there is a secret river of freedom. This is where our guilty pleasures flow hot and fast.

When it comes to freedom of personal expression, shame is the oppressor. If we’re ashamed for any reason, we cannot fully share ourselves with the world. We can’t let ourselves be truly known for fear of finding out that we’re as bad as we secretly believe. The guilty pleasure (artist, song, and/ or album) is often something that we got exposed and attached to early on in our development, in the pre-shame era before the strict boundaries of cool(ness), and the full measure of our identity, began to form.

In my (unscientific, largely anecdotal) research, I’ve found that when it comes to music, most people will enthusiastically divulge even their guiltiest of pleasures. In fact, not only will we celebrate them openly but we’ll also defend them to the death, no matter how bad (unfashionable, unbecoming, or just unremarkable) they may be. We need this “forbidden playlist” to remind us of a time when we first experienced pure, unadulterated joy, the joy of feeling our inner selves come crashing into the world without restraint, which is how we, as young (music) lovers, began. When we hear these songs we experience a moment of desperately-needed psychological freedom that is unavailable from almost any other source.

The guilty pleasure should be celebrated as a manifestation of a healthy psychological profile. Its presence in our lives indicates that we are not completely ruled by our unconscious conditioning, that we are capable of bursting through the walls of our own making at any moment. The more we indulge our guilty pleasures, the freer we are. So go ahead, crank it up!

Five Ways to Improve Your Singing Right Now….

Wherever I go people ask me how they can improve their singing. I’ve been teaching so long that I’ve heard every variation on this question, but the answer is always the same: PRACTICE! That said, there are some simple actions you can take that will bring about good improvement if you add them to the one above.

1) Take a voice lesson. Remember the first time you walked into a gym? Remember how daunting it was, all that equipment, all those hard bodies, all that sweat? Sure, maybe you figured out the elliptical and ran on it for a few months, but how good were the results? Now remember your first session with a personal trainer? If you want to maximize what your body is capable of you need an expert to show you which exercises are best for you personally. The same goes for your voice. A good teacher can assess your strengths and weaknesses, steer you away from bad habits, and help you form good ones that will last for the rest of your life. ‘Nuff said.

2) Eliminate dairy products from your diet. That’s right, completely. Dairy increases mucus (snot) production in your nose, throat, and lungs and can interfere with the production of clear vocal tone. Get rid of DP’s for 6 weeks and see what a difference it makes. Experiment with milks, cheeses, yoghurts, and spreads made from alternate ingredients. My favorite is Rice Dream products.

3) Increase your H2o intake. Water is magical. It can flush out mucus, energize your body, and boost the tiny capillaries that feed your vocal cords. Aim for 2 liters per day. I like Fiji water but Seattle tap water is perfectly fine.

4) Boost your immunity. Rough, edgy hoarseness in your voice can be the result of a compromised immune system. Add an extra hour of sleep, take some Vitamin C (I like Ester C 1000mg), and get some exercise. Reduce sugar intake and try a dish made with garlic and spices. De-stress yourself and renew your voice.

5) Hum a lot. (I’m humming as I write this). Humming is a light, easy way to keep your voice warm and engaged. In addition to your regular vocal practice (40 minutes of focused exercises three times a week, plus your regular voice lesson) hum along daily to a favorite mix tape. I like 60’s and 70’s Motown and Stax soul songs for this purpose. They contain great melodies and a harmonies that work my range and keep me inspired when I get hired to sing back-up on other people’s records.

Hope you find this helpful! I welcome your comments and questions.

Thirteen Questions for Sheila Bommakanti (aka Cober)….

A word about confidence (in case you didn’t know): most of us are completely faking it. But once in awhile, if you’re lucky, you meet someone who is genuinely strong, right down to the core. Sheila taught me three things about life: how to stand up to injustice, how to call bullshit on someone, and how to call bullshit on yourself. Her one-woman band Cober is the stuff of legend, and if you don’t know her music you are woefully out of touch with greatness. Ever seen someone wield a double-neck SG like it was a feather? I’ve been begging her to release another record, but like everyone else I have to wait until she’s good and ready. True confidence does not heed the whims of time. Take note: here are thirteen questions for Sheila Bommakanti:

1) List your favorite gear for recording and gigging. Are you devoted to any particular items, and why?

Amplification for recording and live shows: my Marshall JCM 900 100 Watt Dual Reverb head through a 4×12 Marshall cab (celestion speakers). I use only the clean channel on my Marshall. It has a nice, warm, darker tone. Clean, but not too clean. Perfect for me.

 For live shows, my Epiphone G-1275 (double neck SG). I also use that guitar in the studio, as well as my Martin D12-1 and Gibson Les Paul Classic.

2) What is your preferred method of warming up before you perform?

I don’t really warm up for vox or guitar playing.

3) What are the three songs that you want to be remembered for writing or performing?

‘Unbroken’ from the album Eulogy. ‘(Breaking with) Tradition’ from the album The Western Cutter. ‘Crashpilot’ from the album Crashpilot.

4) Anything to say about how your race, class, sexuality, and gender affects the music you make or the way you make it?

I guess I’d say those issues are a reminder to push outside of the box. One person’s (or a group of people’s) views are not going to dictate the decisions I make in life. Musically or otherwise.

5) What advice would you give someone who is about to perform onstage for the very first time?

Realize that if you feel music is your life, the stage is where you should be.  You are in your element. So get out there, and feel what life is really all about. And don’t sweat making mistakes. We all make them, just keep on playing as if it never happened.

6) What would you say to someone who has been making music for 20 years and never found an audience for it?

Try to get your music in places it hasn’t been. Push yourself to improve your songwriting/performing.

 Or, if you want a change in your life, too, move. Where you live can really make all the difference in the world. But only consider this as on option if it won’t screw up your life. You don’t want to end up broke and homeless.

7) Have you ever thought about giving up music? What changed your mind?
About as often as I think about giving up breathing.

8) What if any figures from childhood who inspired you to make music and why?

9) What other genres of art do you turn to for inspiration and why?

All sorts. Whatever happens to be around. I really appreciate how older architecture can create a vibe. Same thing with fiction/poetry, 2-D art forms, and other genres.

10) What song or album by another artist do you wish you had written and why?

Hmmm…..You know how there is always some instrumental song getting played at football games, baseball games, etc. I wish I wrote a song like that. Why? I wouldn’t need a day job with all of the royalties coming in! Then I could just spend my time with the musical projects I care about.

11) What is the last record you heard that blew your mind?

Fever Ray. I need to get my mind blown again, so feel free to make suggestions.

12) Name one song or album that is a guilty pleasure?

I take the 5th!

13) What is the best record to have sex to?

Really depends on who you’re with.