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Clearing The Cobwebs

This post is a preview from my upcoming book:S.I.N.G. A 4-Step Process For Finding Your Voice

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This is your wake-up call.

You need to make a decision right now. You’ve come this far. You’ve committed to getting this deep into the program. You’ve done more than most people ever will. You’d be amazed how many millions of books are bought each year as trophies to sit on a shelf, never to be opened.

You stand at a crossroads. When you start the next chapter, you’ll be singing every day. It won’t be a lot at the start, just a few minutes here and there, but you may feel very uncomfortable for a while. You are starting the journey to literally rewiring your brain in a number of ways.

First there is a part of your self-image that references your ability to sing. We’ve already talked about how you probably consider yourself a “non-singer” or just someone who “can’t sing very well” or “doesn’t sing”.

Exercise: Take out a piece of paper - a journal, a napkin, something! - and answer the following questions: “Am I a singer? Can I sing? Do I sing?”

Be completely honest, it’s okay to write “I’m not a singer, I can’t sing, I don’t sing.” You may feel some or all of those things right now. The following chapters will allow you the chance to retrain the part of your brain that says those things and open up some new options.

Now look at your answers and reflect: “Says who?”

Who is that voice that tells you singing just isn’t for you? Is it you? Is it a parent? A sibling? An old teacher? A childhood friend? Who told you you can never sing, you should never sing?

Once you’ve decided who says you can’t sing (even if it’s you!) there’s another question to ask: “What qualifications do they have?”

I’ve worked with thousands of singers for over a decade, including dozens who were what many would call “tone deaf”. I myself was a terrible singer all the way through high school, and if you heard me in those days you’d ask why someone would record a bunch of puppies being stepped on. I’ve worked with many vocal coaches and read countless books, studies, articles, and dissertations on the voice and singing. I’ve studied the CD and DVD singing programs and taken all I can from them. I have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours in my musical education. I’ve led singing with four year olds and ninety four year olds. I’ve stood in front of crowds of over a thousand people folding their arms and looking at me with that “I can’t sing” face, and I’ve won them over and had them singing together in glorious harmony.

I don’t say this to brag, (okay, maybe a little) but to ask you if I’m more or less qualified to judge your singing potential than the person who decided you can’t sing.

Ask yourself what (if anything) they knew about the human voice. Are they really qualified as an expert to judge whether or not you can gain this skill with years of study and practice? Are they psychic?

Without even hearing you once, I can tell you without doubt that you can learn to sing. You are the result of millions of years of human evolution, and your brain, body, ear, and voice are absolutely incredible devices capable of more than you ever imagined. There’s a 90% chance you are a better singer now than I was in middle school, and in a few short years I learned to sing quite well. If you’re in the 10%, I guarantee I’ve had a private student worse off than you are. I’ve had students take years to learn to match pitch. But they learned.

More importantly, I learned from them. After working with each “non-singer” who came to me, the next one learned a little quicker. You, my friend, are benefitting from the struggles of these “tone deaf” strugglers who took a leap of faith and asked for help. What took them years and months will take you weeks and days because you will have a clearer path.

Thank the voice in your head for its honest opinion, and let it know that you asked someone a little more qualified, and he said it’s worth a shot.

Can you sing, do you sing, are you a singer? The answers may take a long time to change, but there is another question you can control the answer to.

This is the last question to answer before you turn the page and commit to S.I.N.G.

Exercise: Write your answer, make sure to date and sign it: “Will I sing?”

When you find the strength to write “I will sing”, you are ready to read on.

I am proud of you, let’s learn.

What does S.I.N.G. stand for?

This post is a preview of content from my upcoming book:S.I.N.G. A 4-Step Process For Finding Your Voice

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What is S.I.N.G.?

S.I.N.G. is the acronym we’ll be using to give structure to the process and help you find your singing voice. I’ll give you a bird’s eye view (macro) then dive into the details (micro) and finally come back up and summarize all we’ve learned (macro again).

First you will Sing daily, so you can see where you are and gauge progress as you develop. Second, you’ll Invest, Integrate, and Iterate, devoting time, effort, and money in coaching, classes, audio or video programs, and other resources that will not only accelerate progress, but hold you accountable while making singing a part of your life and improving over time. Third you will develop Natural technique, taking the best strategies from many sources and finding what works well for your individual voice and body. Finally, you will Grow steadily, maintaining the progress you’ve made so far and expanding on it in new ways. By focusing on small wins and getting just a little better each session, you will be amazed by how quickly you can see results.

First, you must Sing daily.

Now, it may seem a bit presumptuous for step one of a singing program to be “sing daily”, but take a moment to consider it. As much as we want to convince ourselves that singing is a magical gift from above, it is an action performed by our bodies. It is impossible to develop physical actions without performing the physical action and adjusting over time. Once you have begun the effort it’s easy to adjust and make improvements over time, refining your actions and getting better day by day. Without daily action, you have no chance at true improvement. The greatest danger in this program is not hurting yourself, embarrassing yourself in front of others, sounding bad, messing up, or being ridiculed. The greatest danger is that you will read and read and read and after having read, feel so much better with your nice pile of knowledge that you won’t feel the need to ACT. You will sit and recite vocabulary, spout off tips, and share insights with friends, but you will never open your mouth and actually sing. My biggest fear is that you will get halfway or even all the way through the process before starting to sing. This is in complete opposition to the philosophy and approach I promote, and if you are looking for all the answers before you have to do anything, you are looking in the wrong place. There is a big difference between knowing what to do and doing what you know, you may not know much right now, but you do know that you won’t get any better at singing by not singing.

Once you’ve established the daily singing habit and become mildly self-aware, it’s time to Invest, Integrate, and Iterate. By reading this post you’ve decided that singing is something worth investing your time in. When you invest your time, you are literally giving away a piece of your life. If this endeavor is worth giving away some of your life, let’s get the most out of it. Investing means giving time, energy, focus, and money to the goal of learning to sing. You’ve started this already by beginning to sing every day, and you may be spending a substantial amount of time, energy, and focus on it already. If not, you’ll learn later to take your singing time to a different level by investing full attention each time you sing and seeking out resources to help guide you to proper singing. There are many sources of knowledge and skill, from coaches and teachers to choirs and classes, to books and audio programs and video programs and more. The act of investing in this process, and any other resources you choose to pursue, will help motivate you to develop your skill. Humans love to gain things but we fear loss far more than we seek reward. When you’ve made a considerable investment of time, energy, focus, and cash in learning to sing well, you will have the added motivation of knowing that NOT learning to sing would mean LOSING that huge investment. At this stage it’s also worth making your commitment public. The reason that is terrifying is not because it’s embarrassing to admit you want to be able to sing and can’t do it yet (although that is part of it). No, the true terror comes from remembering how many New Year’s resolutions, new diets, job opportunities, new relationships, and other life changes we’ve tried to make happen, told our friends and family we were going to make happen, and then didn’t make happen. We remember the burning pain of that loss like it was yesterday, even if it was years ago, and it keeps us from wanting to commit fully to new ventures in the present. You are not the same person who failed before. You now have that experience to lean back on and learn from. Use your past to fuel your future and decide that in this relatively small thing, learning to sing, you’re willing to change the pattern and finish what you start. Invest yourself, invest a small piece of your life, and see how far you can go. In this section you’ll also learn how to integrate singing more into your normal life, and integrate the habits and practices of healthy singing into your non-singing time. Even professional singers spend very little time each day actually singing, compared with the time they spend not singing. However, you are using your voice almost all day, and the processes for speech are very similar for singing. If you can integrate your singing technique with your speaking voice, you’ll find yourself gaining hours of practice time each day, and your progress will explode. You;ll also learn to integrate all you’ve learned from the many singing sources you’ve invested in. You must take the best tips and strategies from each book, CD, video, class, lesson, coach you work with and put them together into a method that works for you. The final stage of integration is taking your newfound “singer” identity and integrating it with the rest of you. You’ll adopt singing as a part of your whole self and begin to welcome a new way of interacting with others and the world when it comes to singing. You’ll listen to music differently, attend concerts differently, and bring new insight into conversations about popular singers. Finally, Iteration will give you a way to get from where you are to where you want to be. Iteration is the process of refining repeated actions over time to improve results. You’ll take the daily singing habit you built in section one to the next level by introducing small changes and experiments in your singing, keeping what works while ditching what doesn’t. Iteration holds the key to combining all steps in this process and setting your voice free. You sing daily, integrating natural technique learned from your investment of time, energy, and money, and by iterating over and over, you grow steadily until you reach and surpass your goals.

At this point in our overview we’re about halfway through the system and still haven’t really talked about how to sing. An odd choice? Maybe, but let me explain. Singing, like any other complex skill, is made up of countless smaller skills which must be mastered together to make a fluid whole. Think of learning to ride a bike or drive a car. Where do your feet go, what does each foot do, what do your hands do, where do they go when you want to turn, where should you be looking, what do you need to check and do before you even start moving? If you try to think of all of these at once, you’ll go mad. Working on skills slowly and individually lets you stay relaxed and improve steadily. On the flipside, singing is an art as well. Like any art, there are an infinite number of correct ways to do it. At the end of the day, if you are expressing what you intended to express it is good (if not healthy) singing. In private teaching I shy away from too much technique at the outset. Most students find it impossible to remember everything, but will try anyway and end up stressing themselves out. For too many, comprehensive technique too soon leads to less enjoyment when singing, and singing should be something you enjoy every step of the way. I offer my suggestions on technique knowing that there are many other ways of doing things correctly. I hope you’ll try out my suggestions and keep the ones that work for you, letting go of the others in favor of better strategies you may learn from other teachers or from experimenting on your own. At its core this process is not “how to sing well”, but “how to see yourself as the type of person who sings”. I’d rather have you skim through the posts and start to feel more comfortable singing badly with the radio in your car than have you finish the process and know everything there is to know about singing technique (you’d have to learn it elsewhere, since I certainly don’t know everything) but never open your mouth for fear of doing something wrong. Let go of the idea of right and wrong and give yourself permission to experiment, fail, and have fun as you learn.

In the third phase we move to Natural technique. This is a name I’ve given to some core concepts in singing that I’ve found to be mostly universal. You’ll learn a bit about how your body works. You’ll begin to see how your brain, ears, lungs, and vocal folds (we’ll talk about why ‘vocal cords’ is a misnomer) work together to produce healthy singing. I won’t propose to teach a particular style or type of singing, instead focusing on what works for opera, rock, country, musical theatre, punk, and pop singers alike. Whatever style of music you enjoy singing, the basic natural techniques in this section will serve you well. The primary concern here is health. I want to make sure you can sing comfortably until the day you die. I’d rather have you become the kind of grandparents who sing lullabies when you babysit than become a pop star. By the time you reach this part of the process you’ll have invested time and resources into your singing and you’ll have integrated singing into your daily life. At this point you’re ready to tackle the elements of natural singing technique one at a time, carefully paying attention to the results you get and adjusting along the way. I teach a continuum of technique moving from body to breath to ear to voice. With simple strategies for approaching progress in each of these four areas, you’ll be able to take your singing to a new level while staying healthy.

The final phase of the S.I.N.G. process is Growing steadily. You’ll take the habits, skills, and knowledge you’ve gained along the way and develop a plan for consistent improvement until you surpass your goals. We live in a culture that reveres rapid changes and overnight success, but the true champions in all fields know that lasting success is never achieved overnight. You will feel much better about yourself and see far greater progress if you commit to getting 1% better every day, instead of waiting to get 500% better ‘someday’. Author and behavioral psychology expert Ramit Sethi tells a story about a woman who emailed him saying she’d like to run three times a week. He asked why she didn’t run once a week. She said she didn’t see the point in running only once a week. Sethi says it’s ridiculous that she’d rather dream about running three times a week than actually run once a week and see some results! This is the way our brains function as human beings. We are entranced by dreams and lofty goals: losing a hundred pounds; running a marathon; writing a novel; starring in a movie; finding our one true love; becoming a singing superstar. These dreams make us feel better than the small actions that will truly help us accomplish them. What if we were to try: eating a little better today; running a mile today; writing 1,000 words today; doing one audition today; going on a date today; singing at the karaoke party today. Commit to small improvements every day. If you were to grow by 1% every day, you might think at the end of a year you’d have gotten three times as good (365%), but as Einstein said, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world”. When you improve 1% on the second day, you are also getting 1% of that 1% you gained on the first day. This seemingly insignificant increase compounds over time and by the end of a year you end up with an increase of over 3700%, that’s 37 times where you started! Do you believe you could get 1% better than you are right now? If that’s true now, what stops it being true tomorrow? There’s nothing stopping you from getting just a little bit better each day, and that progress compounds because you bring to each new day the cumulative growth of the days before. Invest a little every day and see your results skyrocket.

The process: Sing daily; Invest, Integrate, and Iterate; learn Natural technique; Grow steadily. You may feel a temptation to skip to the meat of the process now, or even just skip ahead to the technique section thinking that’s all you really need anyway. Resist this temptation. This is the voice of fear that has kept you from fulfilling your desire to sing all these years. It feels safer to get right to the “how to”, try it once, then throw up your hands saying it won’t work. Your fear loves an excuse and an easy scapegoat.

I don’t want to be your scapegoat, so we’re going to spend a little more time clearing out the cobwebs of your mind before diving into actual singing. Here we go!

"I Can't Sing", "I Don't Sing" and "I Won't Sing"

This post is a preview of content from my upcoming book:S.I.N.G. A 4-Step Process For Finding Your Voice

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Do you sing?

We live in a culture filled with “non-singers”, people who claim they don’t sing, or hate singing, or can’t sing, or just won’t sing. In my years as a professional singer, choir director, and vocal coach I have run into thousands of people who make these claims the second they hear what I do. I once introduced myself at a PTO meeting in a new school district and was immediately greeted with three parents saying, “You won’t make us sing, right? You’re not going to make us sing. Just so you know, I can’t sing.” While most of the others shared similar fears in hushed tones.

How interesting that singing is at once a joy and relaxation for many, and a terror for others. We can hardly make it ten feet or ten minutes in the modern world without hearing song, whether on the radio, television commercials, youtube, iPods, elevator music, or any of the dozens of popular shows featuring singers from Glee to American Idol to America’s Got Talent. We hear singing all day long, we teach it in schools, we used to do it in church every Sunday, we did it around the campfire as kids and on the bus on the way to summer camp. What happened?

I don’t believe in people who can’t sing. I believe there are people who can’t sing yet, but I’ve never met someone who had tried the books, audio programs, choir, classes, and lessons for a few years only to still have no ability whatsoever. I have met people who can’t ride a bicycle yet. I have never met a healthy person who has been taught for weeks, months, or years how to ride a bike, slowly shifting from tricycle to training wheels to the big time, who still fell every time.

I’m more likely to believe in people who don’t sing than people who can’t sing. However, I’m suspicious of these as well. Let me tell you the story of my brother, a first rate army medic and a classic bro.

Tim loved racing fast cars, snowboarding, dirt-biking, getting into fights and hitting on girls. He still does. He wanted to be a firefighter for a while, eventually deciding to enter the army, and is now the top medic in his squad. He went from almost flunking out of high school to actually flunking out of college to earning top scores on his medical exams and being recommended to the West Point Academy.

Tim was the man’s man (and a bit of a ladies’ man too). I was polar opposite. To this day we look nothing alike, sound nothing alike, and act nothing alike. If our mom didn’t insist on showing the pictures to anyone who will look, I wouldn’t believe we were born of the same woman.

He loved sports, I loved drama and music. He struggled with math and spelling, I had near perfect SAT scores, perfect AP scores, and qualified for MENSA. He went to all the parties and was the popular kid, I was mostly home playing video games or memorizing lines. He was in shape, I was 300lbs (luckily that changed).

All this is to say we could not be more polar opposite. My singing was always demonized by him, he hated music, thought anyone who sung was a disgrace. I never heard him sing a note through our entire time living together. He was the classic “non-singer”.

Then one day we were driving across the state together, talking about pretty girls (the only topic we share an appreciation of) and listening to the radio, and I notice something odd. As some popular songs come on, there’s this monotone drone coming from the driver’s seat. I asked cautiously, without any judgement, and found to my surprise that he admitted he would sing along with the radio sometimes, and when he’d party his friends would all belt out the chorus like crazy.

This paired with my “non-singer” mom and grandmother singing their hearts out at a concert I put on, showed me that people who say they don’t sing often mean they won’t sing.

It’s not that they can’t sing, it’s that they can’t sing yet.

It’s not that they don’t sing, it’s that they don’t sing in public.

It’s that they won’t sing unless it’s totally safe (i.e. In private, at a loud club where they can’t be overheard, or when they’re drunk enough not to be held accountable).

In the last several decades I’ve worked with dozens of people who call themselves “tone-deaf” or some variation. There is some truth to it, some people have more experience and ability with matching pitch than others. If you are one of those people who “can’t carry a tune in a bucket”, rest assured, I have never found a person who couldn’t learn to sing decently in a matter of months or at most a year. If you are free from severe physical or mental disabilities, know that you can’t sing yet, but you can sing.

And if you say you don’t sing, I’m not sure I believe you. Never? Not even once? Not in the shower, or the car, or the club, or happy birthday for your son? Not even when the whole crowd screams the “ba ba ba’s” of Sweet Caroline?

You do sing, you just don’t sing in public or on your own… yet.

If you won’t sing, that I believe. I have seen the crossed arms, pursed lips, angry expressions, and “just try to make me open my mouth” eyes on children, teens and adults when they find out what I do. If you won’t sing, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that I understand your apprehension, and that you can slowly break out of the shell and find your voice again.

Why won’t you sing?

Every “non-singer” has a story, it might be one moment, or a series of comments that led up to the decision to never sing again. We all sang as kids, children of all cultures are observed to make up their own songs while playing and often just sing things to themselves during the day. These children’s songs share a lot of interesting similarities which are starting to be explained by advances in the science of music and acoustics as well as study of neuroscience and how the brain processes sound. Suffice it to say, kids are musical, and chances are good you where humming and mumbling tunes before you were speaking.

When did that change? For many it was before school even started. An exhausted parent shouting at you to keep your mouth shut. A brother or sister telling you to cut that awful noise. A friend laughing when your voice cracked or didn’t sound right. For many it came later, most boys never sing again once their voices start to change and they lose control of the sound. Many girls get very shy in the adolescent years and refuse to risk embarrassing themselves in front of peers (or worse, in front of boys). Some of us were told by the music teacher to “just mouth the words in the concert, you’re not a singer, honey”. Some auditioned for the choir or the musical and didn’t get in. Some forgot the words on stage once and never sang again.

What was your moment? When did you decide singing was a thing other kids did but not you? When did singing become something to listen to but never do?

Gordon McKenzie worked for Hallmark Cards, and his story is often told but worth repeating.

He’d often visit schools to talk about being an artist. After introducing himself, he’d ask the students, “How many of you are artists?”

In kindergarten almost every hand shot up immediately. A few less in first grade. About three-quarters in second grade. In third grade there were a few hesitant hands barely lifted from the desk with eyes on the floor.

By the time he got to sixth graders, the story goes, not one of them raised a hand. Being an artist had become “uncool”, art was a thing to look at, not do.

I’ve replicated this experiment with singers, and the results are much the same. You still get the occasional kid in the choir, the star of the musical, or the one who’s been taking lessons since before they were born. The vast majority, though, decide by middle school that singing isn’t for them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t want it though.

Earn a person’s trust, and ask in confidence if they would say no to a magic genie who could make them sing well in an instant. You’ll never get a no.

The hitch is that our culture believes there are “singers” and “non-singers” and that it is mostly genetics and luck. The media perpetuates this by showing us the top 1% of amazing singers and the bottom 1% of absolute embarrassments (Often decent singers deliberately sounding terrible to get on TV). If all you see are the top 1% and the bottom 1%, over and over again, for years and years, it doesn’t take long to forget about the 98% in the middle, where most of us (you included) lie.

I know you are a 98%er. You must be. If you were a top 1%er you’d be out touring with Beyoncé and Pink. If you were a bottom 1%er you’d have had your moment of fame on the American Idol blooper reels by now.

Realize that your view of singing is warped by the singers that you’ve been exposed to. If you haven’t regularly sung in choirs, musical theatre, garage bands, or other informal gatherings, you’ve likely only heard the polished studio recordings, the live concert professionals, and the absolute train-wreck national anthem performances on YouTube. You have yet to be exposed to a singer like you. One who hasn’t sung much but who can learn with a bit of practice and guidance.

I can’t provide the practice, you have to be willing to put that in, but I can provide the guidance.

S.I.N.G. is a strategy for bringing you from never singing, rarely singing, or poorly singing to the level of a decent amateur. I’m not making claims to make you the next pop sensation, get you a record deal, or even give you the ability to win the next karaoke contest.

If you follow the S.I.N.G. process, though, I can promise you will feel more comfortable singing on your own, have a new fun hobby, and probably gain the confidence along the way to branch out and sing with others. People watch movies without becoming film critics, cook meals without becoming chefs, play flag football without getting signed by the NFL. You can sing without worrying about being a star, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than the stars do.

Record Yourself To Improve As A Musician

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A recurring theme in my teaching is the concept of "leverage points".

Leverage points are actions that give you a big bang for your buck, a high return for the amount of energy you put into them, and there is usually a major reason why they work:

Most people don't do them.

I'll cover more leverage points in the coming weeks, today, I want to share how a really simple tool that you already possess can make you a much better musician almost immediately.

If you are reading this post, you are doing so on a computer or a smartphone, either of which likely has a built in microphone and camera. In an ideal world we'd have studio quality sound and HD video but let's bootstrap it and get started with what we have.

You're thinking "Record myself? I sound/look awful on tape, and I hate listening to it, this is stupid and it probably won't help at all"

Everyone thinks this.

That's why it's a leverage point.

When you pay for coaching or lessons, what you're really paying for is a body of knowledge attached to an objective set of ears/eyes. The sound you hear in your head when you sing, and the way you think you look when you conduct, and the way you think you sound while you're playing is not the way your audience perceives you. This is why a coach is so invaluable, they can see what you can't, and provide guidance in correctly glaring errors and improving performance.

The problem is that, for most artists, you have 1-2 hours a week of objective observing happening, and you aren't even in control of it!

Have you ever had a relative or a friend hear their own answering machine message, or a random video of themselves and say "I don't sound like that!"

You know that they really do sound like that.

So do you, when you listen to a recording of yourself.

I know it's painful, I know it's hard, I know you cringe and want to convince yourself it's not that useful to do anyway.

And that's why no one does it.

And that's why if you do, you'll have a huge advantage in your field and grow far quicker than you would otherwise.

Recordings allow you to freeze time, analyze deeply, listen objectively, and really hone in on your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a coach, you can look for the concepts you work on in lessons "Is my vowel shape correct? Am I breathing properly? How's my posture? Was that left-hand cue as clear as I thought it was? How's my eye contact? Am I really that breathy on my top notes? Why is my left hand half a second behind my right hand when playing chords?"

This sort of self-analysis is the key to sustained growth in music. Over time you will learn to get better at doing it without a recording, but if you want to shave a few years off the path, invest a few minutes a week in reviewing videos of yourself. This time pays off in so many ways, and as much as it will continue to hurt (I've been doing it for a decade and it doesn't get any easier) it will give you a huge advantage in music.

Now that doesn't mean you need to make these videos public, no one needs to see them except for you. However, one day you may have a really good performance and just happen to have captured it so you can put it out in the world, through your website, youtube page, resumé, or some other channel. Now when a big audition comes along, you can look back and boost your confidence by comparing how you used to perform to how you're doing now, and remind yourself of your most common errors. And you may get lucky and have a great recording you can use for promotion and applications for years to come.

Check out www.youtube.com/user/ChristopherGKeene for several dozen videos of my conducting from many angles and many years and many different choirs. I can list 100 errors in each video (even the 2 minute ones) and watching every one has made me such a better conductor. I know that watching them after the concerts has also made each member of my choirs a better musician.

Facing objective feedback isn't easy, but if you have the bravery to take on the task, you can leverage your effort and accelerate your growth as a musician.