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.

Thirteen Questions for Severina X Sol

Sev is a local treasure here in Seattle. Onstage she personifies the word “fierce” and is a hero to many fans who identify with her strength and passion. She has been making original music in different bands (including The Breakup and Cylab) for many years and shows no signs of stopping. These are her own words, so pay attention: here are 13 Questions for Severina X Sol:

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

For my live set up, I use:

Sennheiser E845 Evolution Series Supercardioid Vocal Mic

Shure Wireless In ear headphones

Digitech Vocal 300 fx unit

The Sennheiser mic is great. Its just a tad bit more in cost than your basic Shure SM58, yet really does a great job at capturing a broad range of colorful frequencies in the human voice. It sounds bright and full vs dull. Really cuts through the noise live. Singing live with the type of loud dark electronic style music I do, I need to be able to hear myself against the competing 50ish tracks of pre-recorded and live keyboards, drums and guitars. For this, I use the Shure Wireless headset system. It makes ALL the difference in the world to be able to hear my own voice for pitch, attack, volume and expression. In order to capture the same lush produced feel that is found on my vocal recordings, I greatly appreciate the Digitech Vocal 300. It’s affordable and can take a beating live, not to mention the fx are a lot of fun. My favorite recording mic is that one super expensive awesome one that “the producer” has! When it’s up to my own home recording studio devices, The BLUE Bottle microphones are my favorite these days.

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

For many years, I loved simply singing Teargarden’s: “In Search of My Rose”. More recently, I like slow warming with some mantra chanting and will then move into climbing eastern style scales.

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

I haven’t written them yet. Or the entire world would know, right?! Hehehe. But so far, I am most remembered, for:

The Broken Ones – Diva Destruction

Dented Halos – Cylab

Lightning – The Break Up

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

My mom raised me to believe in myself and to be proud of all what makes me who I am. Female, Filipino, Native American, English, bisexual, American, Human, Freak and so many characters in all the different stories I’ve adventured in this lifetime. I love sharing these facets of myself mirroring as reflections of the listener, society, the subconscious mind, the individual, the group mind etc. And then beyond that, I like to encourage others to find relationship, connection and pride within themselves and their own stories. To ask questions. To create answers. To spin their own worlds.

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

I do my best to drop the word “perform” and to rather ~play~ live! Be playful; enjoy the moment, the song, the sound, the feel. Take up ALL the room onstage, move around, fill the space, and breathe. Have fun!! For the longest time, I would simply let the audience and just everything fall away and then I would slip into my song, the created world of all that it is made of, and from there, I would sing. I would become the song. I still do this!

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

That would depend on if they cared or not. I mean, if they want an audience, maybe they could look at similar bands and see what the successful ones are doing to get their music received. Maybe they could hire someone to market them. With the right marketing, you can sell anything these days! That said, if they love making the music they make and there’s not much of an audience for it, the creator of the music is the most important audience when it comes to creating art. “If you build it, they will come” is the quote that comes to mind. It took Thomas Edison 200 times to make the light bulb. Keep it up and keep tweaking the idea. Eventually, you just might get there.

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

About once a year or so, I feel stubborn and want to quit! I’ve released nearly two decades of beautiful vocals and songwriting contributed to various bands I have worked with. Each year, I challenge myself to make the songs better, keep it real, authentic, original and yet have all the best elements that song lovers want. It can be hard and when the muse is taking its time, I get frustrated and want to quit. Or when the music industry constantly churns out shit auto tuned crap for music and the people buy it, I get frustrated, I want to quit. Or when I witness the schmoozing, ass kissing or political music games that people play, that I refuse to play, and yet those who do play get in the game… I get frustrated, I want to quit. BUT! The truth of it is; I can’t help myself, I LOVE music, I love the arte and crafte of creating songs. I love sharing and playing these songs live. When a fan does email me and tell how one song changed their world; it brings back perspective and makes it all worth it. And I’m still having fun. As long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep making music.

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

ABBA, Donna Summer, Joan Jett, Blondie, Billy Joel, Journey and later childhood was Duran Duran. Mom and Dad played these bands from as early as I can remember as a child. I have fond memories of singing and dancing all over the living room with my family. These musical pop artists all sounded different from each other with colorful depths of expression and emotion that was also fun to dance to! Today, this is some of my favorite kinds of music to make.

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

I love movies and really good series created on television based in fantasy or science fiction. I think its amazing what worlds can be created through story, acting and computer graphic art. These moving pictures inspire me to create worlds with sound and voice equally as mesmerizing and enchanting!

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

Shane, my bandmate from The Break Up and I always threaten to write an album called, “Mom and Dad”. It would have cover songs from Janice Joplin, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, etc. We also want to do a double album of just all our favorite 80’s songs! I wouldn’t look at any of this like ‘I wish I had done that’ because the truth is that I still can.

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

Blew my mind. Hmm. Honestly, that hasn’t happened since the 90’s. Bands like Jane’s Addiction, The Cure, Sinead O’Connor come to mind. More recently, works by IAMX, The Knife, Cage the Elephant and Soriah with Ashkelon Sain come to mind.

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

Katy Perry – Extraterrestrial! I really am not a Katy Perry fan, but she really got me with that song. haha

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

 This Morn Omina ~ Le Serpent Rogue, Le Serpent Blanc. Primal hotness!!

Come On In and Color Me…

Something is stirring in the tall green grass. The verdant color rises up and undulates in shimmering waves before softly draining down into the reeds. Apple-sized rubies glitter in the grass and begin the whole sequence over again. This is how I experience the music of indie rock band The National. When I listen to many of their songs this image appears before me as clear as you’re reading these words. I did not know until recently that there is a word for this experience, or that many people are under its mysterious influence.

How do we perceive the world around us? Through our unreliable senses? Through ever-rusting filters of memory and prejudice? Are we “one” with everything, or are we, rather, “in the world but not of it”?

The human brain is an extraordinary machine. Everything we thought we knew about it in the 20th century now looks like a child’s book of dreams. Current advances in the field of neuroscience have revealed an entity so complex in its perfection that we may well take the rest of this century to unravel its secrets.

Synesthesia is a term used to describe a neurological condition whereby stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (in other words, one part of the brain gets tickled and another part laughs). This action leads to a range of sensory “extras” that can include visual, auditory, and even tactile responses. It is no wonder that many artists are synesthetes.

Sound (especially music) and colored images have always blended together in my perception. As a child I thought this was the way sounds traveled through the world; in vivid Technicolor waves. I was 8 years old the first time a friend put a pair of earphones on my head. The song was some  muscular 80′s  metal anthem, whirling with silvery-orange pinwheels and tiny red sparks. I said “Wow! Can you see that?” The look on my friend’s face said I was deranged, or possibly just slow. I ripped off the headphones and walked away, and I’ve kept largely silent about my synesthesia till now.

Many people have asked why, given the extensive classical music pedigree of my parents (father with a Masters from Julliard, mother an Eastman grad) I didn’t follow in their footsteps. The easiest way to explain is that their music was way too synesthetic. Typically, a piece of classical music contains 3 distinct “movements”, sections of music divided by brief pauses. Each movement contains myriad changes in melody, rhythm, and tone and is incredibly dynamic. The whole thing is performed by a 100-person orchestra playing 25 different instruments. As a child I was rendered limp and exhausted after watching my parents’ concerts. I couldn’t imagine having to struggle through such a cacophonous landscape for the rest of my life.

Pop songs were a cleaner, more direct expression of the musical/ visual energy that took over my body and mind. The earliest songs contained the loudest colors, so any 80′s mix tape is like a bowl of Starburst: the neon peach ripples of Cyndi Lauper, the rose-red blooms of The Bangles, the silvery-pink explosions of Van Halen, and the great, glowing sky-blue of The Police.

When I began to write and sing my own music I hid from the colors. I wanted to be guided by emotion, undistracted from the therapeutic aspect of expressing myself. But I can feel the colors when I perform. Lately the colors have been working their way into the lyrics I’ve been writing for my new band Diamondwolf. Our song “Cool Blue Fire” came directly from synesthetic experience.

I have lost a ton of synesthetic ability in the past 20 years. Life has interfered. I’ve learned to turn down the magic, so I can stay in the present moment. I’m no longer taken hostage by colors unless I want to be.

Recently I got to see a legendary 80′s band perform live at the Austin City Limits music festival. Of all the gorgeous purples in the world, there is no greater magenta then the music of The Cure (magenta with gold and black sparkles, like glittering sequins). I had never seen them play before, so I was particularly excited to be there.

The band’s set, performed on a giant outdoor stage under the starry Texas sky, featured a huge colored light show. Each song had its own accompanying light theme, which made things difficult to enjoy at first, between my synesthesia and the band’s own color choices.

But when they started the long, prolonged intro to “Pictures of You”, a strange miracle happened. The giant screen behind them seemed to shiver, then burst into lush, thrumming purples, with deep magenta beams shooting out into the air. I felt as if something in my chest that had lived all its life in a vacuum suddenly got released into the world.

The Cure concert, especially that song, helped me understand some things: that time moves upward in a spiral, threaded with vibrant colors to fend off the darkness. That songs trigger memories and we study them like maps, searching for clues to the future. This time around, “Pictures Of You” revealed that the past used to weigh heavy on me, but I “finally found all my courage/ to let it all go”.

Don’t Panic! Your Child Wants to Be an Artist…

I’ve been teaching music (singing, songwriting, and guitar) to kids and teenagers for over 15 years. The kids are fantastic; talented, energetic, enthusiastic and brave. Their parents, on the other hand, are living in fear. They know that one day soon their child is likely going to turn to them and say, “I want to be an artist when I grow up”. That’s inevitably when an email appears in my inbox with the subject line “HELP!”.

I know why parents are concerned. The cold, hard truth is that it’s brutal out there for artists, now more so than in the last 20 years. But artists have survived war, famine, plague, and genocide. Artists prevail, and art does too. In fact, history shows that in times of greatest hardship artists actually create their best work.

I have been working on a guide book for parents of children who want to become professional artists. It contains all the knowledge, experience, and wisdom I’ve accumulated throughout my life in the arts. Below is a short excerpt from the book. There is a great deal to say on the subject but I have kept it short for the purposes of this blog.

Parents, if your child is determined to be an artist, there are some core values you can teach them to help ensure their success. Remember this acronym:

                                                               DRAFI

D-dependability

R-resourcefulness

A-advocacy

F-frugality

I-inspiration

Dependability is crucial to an artist’s life and work. They must always honor their obligations. An artist must know that time is valuable, and be able to abide by the schedules of others. History is littered with talented artists who didn’t set their alarm in the morning and slept through a fantastic (and prearranged) opportunity. Don’t rely on your phone to tell time! Buy a watch and wear it every day. Whether you are due to show up for your day-job, meet a potential buyer for your art, or hang out with friends, arrive on time and come prepared. Never make a promise that you can’t keep: your word should be as good as gold.

Resourcefulness is the ability to make the best of what is in front of you using whatever skills, talents, and connections you may have. Artists often go for long periods without cash when day-job pay-checks don’t stretch far enough. How will you eat tonight with only 3 carrots and some chicken broth in the fridge? Combine ingredients with a friend and make soup for both of you. Make a joint list of all the people you know who support your art. Can you help them out with chores in exchange for dinner, or art supplies? Do you speak another language and can converse fluently with someone who might want to practice? Cultivate skills that can be traded for goods and services you may need. Keep track of the closest people in your life. Give them regular face-time and be present with them. Value these relationships and they will become life-long supporters of your work.

Advocacy is the strength to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference in your community. It also means advocating for your basic health. Health insurance used to be a huge issue for artists and other low-income people, but things are changing thanks to Obamacare. Are you aware of the registration process in your state? Find out everything you can about the issues that directly affect you. Is gay marriage legal in your state yet? Are developers planning to rip down a historic music venue in your town, where your band often plays? Is your city’s police force acting against your community? Find out who your local lawmakers are and meet with them. Stage a protest on the steps of your city hall. Make friends with a young reporter at your local TV station and keep them informed. Volunteer with a local organization that supports your values. ACT on your own behalf, and that of your community. And keep them posted as you make progress with your cause. Don’t stop until you can see and feel real change.

Frugality is the ability to live within your means. Are you deep in debt to credit cards, or is your student loan your only source of debt? Do you know how much you owe? Your credit score? Do you know where your money goes every month? Try sites like Mint.Com to help you track spending. Use automatic monthly deductions from your paycheck to help you save. Buy the best quality items that you can afford. Give up cheap rubber flip-flops for leather sandals that will last for years. Get used to sitting still when you want to spend recklessly. Make art with your current resources until the desire passes.

Inspiration is crucial to an artist’s livelihood and well-being. An inspired artist is a happy artist. It is important to know what is currently going on in your artistic world, be it painting, writing, dance, or sculpture, but it is equally important to seek inspiration from other disciplines. Inspiration can come from anywhere, at anytime, and an artist must always be open to it. Schedule regular blocks of time to explore the many artistic offerings your city provides. Search the internet for the works of historic and up-and-coming stars. Follow your favorite artists’ blogs and their Twitter and Instagram accounts. Keep track of the things that move you the most.

Feel free to write me with questions and comments. I hope you find this helpful!

Your Temple is Waiting….

Anything can happen in rock clubs. They are the stuff of legend. People go there to express just how depraved they can be. I’ve seen five-alarm fights break out of thin air. I’ve watched women drag each other across the floor by their bangs, trailing cocaine from battered handbags. In fact I’ve seen every kind of grown-up on every kind of drug, and some kids too. Once in a famous LA club I came out of the bathroom to find a 16-year-old junkie passed out on the floor with a needle still in his arm, blood pouring from the mouth of his dark vein. People were dancing to a hard-rock cover band, slipping and sliding around in the blood in their open-toed shoes. I heard later it took weeks to clean up the mess.

It took a long time before I felt comfortable in rock venues. I’ve played in many of them over the years, but the stage is actually the safest place in the room. The narcotic power of the crowd, packed so tightly and urgently and sweatily together, is unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. The clubs are usually male-dominated spaces, which can be intimidating and hostile toward women (I feel safer with a male companion in that environment, having been groped by strangers one too many times). I stayed out of the crowd, watching and learning from the stage until I was good and ready.

My parents were classical musicians. They played in a symphony orchestra in Vancouver that performed 4 nights a week in the same beautiful, bejeweled theater. My father did that for 40 years. It’s the most stable, predictable job in the music business, (unless the symphony runs out of money, which happened to the VSO a few times). But tradition and routine is what keeps the classical machine running.

Classical music concerts follow a very particular protocol, and every classical music fan knows how it goes. The desired effect is one of stately elegance, and respect for the art form’s centuries-old history. The audience applauds only twice during the entire concert: once at the beginning and once at the end. There is no clapping between movements (or sections) of a classical concert. Ideally there is no coughing, shuffling, or breathing either.

As a child I felt stifled by this rigid code, sitting on the scratchy red horsehair seats with my feet dangling over the edge. I longed to leap up and cry out, to punch the air with my fists and cheer my parents’ efforts, but I stayed silent like everyone else. I learned to turn my attention inward and fall through the music, into the lush and endless kaleidoscopic melodies. But the urge to jump and scream remained.

The first time I heard the power of a rock club audience I was 18, underage in a dive bar in New York City called The Nightingale. It was in the lower-east side, a fixture in the local music scene, and a complete culture shock. I was singing back-up in a mediocre but passionate rock band. Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, and Joan Osborne all played The Nightingale around that time, so the band was excited to share the same stage. Our excitement must have been infectious, because at my first gig the (very drunk) audience of 30 people roared mightily between every song.

I was shocked by the volume of their appreciation, and so delighted that I screamed back at them into the microphone. I almost got fired from the band after that. Fortunately the guitarist, a recent Israeli immigrant familiar with cultural gaffes, kindly explained my mistake: “No cheerleaders in rock bands. Only lead singer screams. Be still and exude rock”. I’ve picked up a few more things from standing in the crowd at so many shows. I’ve even figured out how to scream my head off without losing my voice (a singer’s worst nightmare). BTW, I wear ear plugs at rock shows now, and I wish I’d started earlier!

In all the world, there is no greater temple of passion and rapture than a rock club. “Rock” meaning music that is played loudly, with electric guitars and a full drum kit, and “club” meaning a small- to mid-size performance venue with a PA system and a bar. “Temple” meaning place of worship. If you’re going to see a rock band, see them in a rock club. See them before they disappear, or before they move up to theaters, or (god forbid) stadiums. Arrive early, get a drink and be done with it before the music starts. Hang back during the opening band’s set (unless you like them, in which case make your appreciation known between songs), and keep an eye on the time. Move closer to the stage after about 45 minutes. Stake your spot and wait patiently, until the lights go down again and your band appears. Roar for them: your time has come.

PS: My two favorite rock venues in Seattle are the Neptune and the Showbox, and also the Sunset. What are yours?

Your Mirror’s Cracked (An Open Letter to Justin Timberlake)…

Hi, Justin. We’ve never met, but I’ve been your fan for a long time. It is a truth universally acknowledged that you are a human entertainment machine, and I’ve enjoyed watching you act dance, and sing with unimpeachable skill. I’ve also cited you as an example of excellent vocal control to many of my young students. We should all strive to be as musically confident and creative as you are.

Recently you released a new record that is currently zooming up the charts. The great music critic Sasha Frere Jones called it a “misstep”, but for once I don’t agree with him. I think you’ve kept your musical powers alive and in excellent order, and very few current working musicians have your skills in the studio. The record sounds gorgeous in my speakers and I enjoy dancing to it as much as any of your others.

Yet there is one song that always gives me pause. Listen man, I know you are madly in love with your fiancé. I’m sure the two of you dig each other deeply and are huge fans of each others’ work (otherwise why take the chance of commiting to her for life?). And while I’m sure she loves your song about her, I gotta call you out on some shit.

Justin, you are a fantastic pop songwriter with a string of hits to your name. You know how to craft catchy hooks and weave them into lyrics that are often playful and (delightfully) nasty, but can also carry enough emotional gravitas to see us through brutal heartbreak and loss. I also think you have a solid grasp on simile and metaphor, an important skill that is increasingly rare in today’s musical landscape. More importantly, I believe you’re not a misogynist or blatant sexist, aside from the usual amount of internalized sexism that we all have.

So what the hell is up with “Mirrors”?

First of all, how exactly is it a compliment to call your partner “your mirror”? Is she not unique, individual, separate from you? Your chorus states that you “couldn’t get any bigger with anyone else beside of you”. Are you only able to relate to her as an object of your own ego projection? In verse two you say she’s “an original”, but a few lines later you say she “reflects you” and you “love that about her”. Seriously?

Maybe you’ve noticed that recently women’s equality, as it relates to social justice (see: Lily Ledbetter Act, Sotomajor and Kagen, Steubenville, Planned Parenthood, Wendy Davis, Hilary on Twitter) has been making headlines in the news again. This happens periodically whenever our larger news media decides that they’re having a slow day with so-called “hard news”. Compared to have far we still have to go to achieve true equality in America, these events, while encouraging, are distressingly underwhelming. The larger political forces at work are intensely invested in preventing us from attaining what is rightfully ours (see: Rick Perry).

Justin, I’m not trying to lay all this on your shoulders. You’re an artist, not a social activist, law-maker or politician. You don’t owe the world anything but your own vision of it, written and performed in your own unique way. But you are a public figure with almost universal appeal, and therefore you have considerable cultural impact. Your place at the top of the music business means that your songs are broadcast to every corner of this country, and presumably the world at large. Your songs, your message, have an impact on us. They inform the way we live our lives. I know you know this. It’s why you got into this game in the first place.

You’ve written some amazing love songs in your time, but “Mirrors” is ridiculous. It comes across as the selfish, sexist, needy cri-de-coeur of an ego maniac. You sound like a man who only values a woman’s ability to make you feel good about yourself. Right now more than ever, this country needs cultural touchstones (like pop songs) that celebrate true equality between the sexes and reflect the truth: that women are unique and powerful beings unto themselves. You have utterly failed at the task.

So I challenge you to write something new: a song that celebrates the formidable power of women. Avoid gender stereotypes, hetero-normalcy, and don’t sexualize us. Find a way to express a woman’s worth as being separate from how she relates to you. I short, write a song that can honor and uplift any woman, anywhere.

Justin Timberlake, I double-dare you! Once you’ve written your killer new song, release it as a single and send the proceeds to Planned Parenthood, and organization that TRULY supports women every single day in America.

Sincerely,

-Alicia Dara

PS If you chose not to accept the dare, then I challenge you to donate $50,000 to Planned Parenthood in lieu of a song. Donate here.

 

MIRRORS

by Justin Timberlake

 

Aren’t you somethin’ to admire?

‘Cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror

And I can’t help but notice

You reflect in this heart of mine

If you ever feel alone and

The glare makes me hard to find

Just know that I’m always

Parallel on the other side

 

‘Cause with your hand in my hand and a pocket full of soul

I can tell you there’s no place we couldn’t go

Just put your hand on the glass

I’ll be tryin’ to pull you through

You just gotta be strong

 

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now

I’m lookin’ right at the other half of me

The vacancy that sat in my heart

Is a space that now you hold

Show me how to fight for now

And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy

Comin’ back here to you once I figured it out

You were right here all along

 

It’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me

I couldn’t get any bigger

With anyone else beside of me

And now it’s clear as this promise

That we’re making two reflections into one

‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

 

Aren’t you somethin’, an original

‘Cause it doesn’t seem merely a sample

And I can’t help but stare, ’cause

I see truth somewhere in your eyes

I can’t ever change without you

You reflect me, I love that about you

And if I could, I would look at us all the time

 

‘Cause with your hand in my hand and a pocket full of soul

I can tell you there’s no place we couldn’t go

Just put your hand on the glass

I’ll be tryin’ to pull you through

You just gotta be strong

 

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now

I’m lookin’ right at the other half of me

The vacancy that sat in my heart

Is a space that now you hold

Show me how to fight for now

And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy

Comin’ back here to you once I figured it out

You were right here all along

 

It’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me

I couldn’t get any bigger

With anyone else beside of me

And now it’s clear as this promise

That we’re making two reflections into one

‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

 

Yesterday is history

Tomorrow’s a mystery

I can see you lookin’ back at me

Keep your eyes on me

Baby, keep your eyes on me

 

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now

I’m lookin’ right at the other half of me

The vacancy that sat in my heart

Is a space that now you hold

Show me how to fight for now (please show me, baby)

I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy

Comin’ back here to you once I figured it out

You were right here all along

 

It’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me

I couldn’t get any bigger

With anyone else beside of me

And now it’s clear as this promise

That we’re making two reflections into one

‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror

My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

 

You are, you are the love of my life [x10]

 

Now you’re the inspiration for this precious song

And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on

So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone

And I can’t wait wait wait wait wait to get you home

Just to let you know, you are

 

You are, you are the love of my life [x8]

 

Girl you’re my reflection, all I see is you

My reflection, in everything I do

You’re my reflection and all I see is you

My reflection, in everything I do

 

You are, you are the love of my life [x16]