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Speaking of Crack

Iyanla Vanzant wrote the bestseller Yesterday I Cried. 

I am hard at work on my own book: Today I Cracked. 

Practicing for an upcoming house concert of Richard Strauss and Stephen Sondheim, my friend Crack was right there with me. He’s never far away.

I happened to capture this magic moment in my trusty phone, and now I can share it with you.

(This is one practice technique that works well for me. Once I get to a certain stage of learning with a song, I’ll video myself to give myself a sort of observer. I’ll then go back and listen through the recording with my editor’s ear and mark my music accordingly, slow down and practice the sections that need more attention.)

Here’s the breakdown:

This is “Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten” from Strauss Opus 19, Lieder aus Lotusblätter.

:07 the crack happens on the text, “durch die Natur.”

:10-:20 you can see my 10-year-old OCD start-over-again impulse, then decision to work it out.

Then follows various elements with my own psyche and cell phone camera that you can diagnose for yourself.

Here’s what happened technically. You can spot some of these things from yesterday’s crack treatise.

  • “Natur” is pronounced [na-tʊr] 
    • [ʊ] is like the sound in book. I spot some oo-vowel trouble. That’s what happened. The vowel was too closed when I sang it, more like [u] (oo) than [ʊ].
    • I’m in an overdrive mode here, so [u]/oo no likee. It yodeled into neutral
  • The other factor for me was the [r] at the end of the syllable. Knowing what voiced consonant we’re heading toward can sometimes influence the current vowel we’re singing. In this case, the [r] idea brought the back of my tongue up as if I were going to say an American ‘r’ sound, and that disrupted the space in my vocal tract.

So then you can see me clarifying the vowel for myself and then doing whatever that is I’m doing communicating again with my cell phone.

But those two factors cleared it up.

And here’s a commitment to remembering this when I’m singing it in front of people on Feb 21.

I also missed a spot shaving.

In case you’re curious, here’s the text and a translation:

Wenn zwei in Liebe sich gefunden,
Geht Jubel hin durch die Natur,
In längern wonnevollen Stunden
Legt sich der Tag auf Wald und Flur.
When two souls have fallen in love,
Nature’s filled with exultation,
And daylight lingers on wood and meadow
In longer hours of rapture.


It’s what we fear more than anything as singers. Okay, maybe not anything, but it can really make a performance go in an unwanted direction.

My voice has cracked in audition rooms and in front of paying audiences.

I was fortunate enough to read some online commentary about it thereafter. People can be mean, y’all.*

*(This is one reason why I have a hard time with the schadenfreude-fest some people have with youtube singer fail videos. Singing is hard, and as fellow singers, we need to understand that and give each other a break.)

Cracking is frustrating, and many times we’re mystified as to why it’s happening.

So, here’s some help so that you can sort out what may be going on.

  • Abrupt or static support.
    • Sometimes we engage the abdominals too quickly and rigidly when we sing. This basically punches the closed vocal folds that then respond by adding tension. Depending on the pitch we’re singing, a release of certain muscles is needed, and we’re yodeling. See here for a brief description of dynamic support.
  • Trying to directly control the larynx position. Let the larynx suspend and hang out and just respond to the air coming through. Trying to focus on it or keep it in a certain location leads to brittle, crackable, and inflexible sounds.
  • Uncontrolled constriction or vocal tract shape.
    • The other thing that’s hard to learn is to let the constrictor muscles relax while we move a lot of vocal energy through our head. This takes practice. Also, the way we shape the vocal tract (the space from the folds to your lips) has a huge impact on this–too many variables here to describe.
  • Choice of vowel.
    • Not all vowels are singable in every mode or gear of the voice. For example, it’s not really possible to sing a pure [u] (oo) vowel in overdrive or edge (what some might call belting or a calling voice). That’s why we hear a lot of singers switch to an [o] (oh) vowel when they’re stuck in overdrive.
      • “I love yoooohhhh!”
    • Same thing with [i] (ee). It has to move toward an [ɪ] (ih like sit) in edge in order to sound like (ee) as in “me” or “see.”
      • “It’s gonna be may.”
      • “You’re gonna looo-o-o-o-o-oooooo-o-o-o-o-vah, (gasp inhale), maaaaaaaayyyyyy.”
    • If we insist on singing the vowel as we say it and it doesn’t agree with the mode or gear, we’re going to yodel because the vowel itself wants to tend toward it’s home base. [u] will be neutral or curbed, for example.
  • Time to grow. Your voice is part of you and needs time to coordinate and grow. Singing in certain modes requires oppositional muscles in the larynx to coordinate and cooperate. This takes time to coalesce and for your body–neurons, muscles, mind, understanding– to make the connections. Work with a knowledgable teacher, and commit to practicing and staying in the game.



One Good Way to Learn and Memorize a Song

Here’s a good way to learn and memorize a song.–in a few days or a few hours if you have to.

Start as early as you can–there’s no substitute for sleep time when it comes to memorization.

This feels like a slow process when we want to dive in and learn all the elements at once, but it ends up being faster and creating a sturdier structure in your memory.

1. Start with text. Spend more time with the text than you want to. Read it. Say it. Pay attention to the punctuation. Give your imagination time to paste images to the words.

“If” — do I really? — “I loved” — what does that mean to me?  — “you” — who am I singing to? What does he/she look like, smell like, their expression, their emotional state, — “time and again” — what times, when, where, how? What locations? When would I try?  — “I would try to say” —  What does my voice sound like, feel like? Would I be able to say anything? — “All I’d want you to know.”  –All??? What do I want you to know?  What’s the deepest most intimate thing I’d love to share with you, and knowing you knew that, accepted that, meant that you truly loved and knew and embraced me?

That’s just the first line.

2. Now you know what your text is about and something of what it means to you. Now learn your notes and rhythms.

Take your time with the melody, note values, and rests without the text. Hum, sing on different syllables, mark it vocally. Table any choices about how you’re going to sing it yet. Let the melody seep in. Look for dynamic markings, expression marks,

3. Speak the text in rhythm while deepening the images and questions you asked about the text before. Let your subconscious bring up all kinds of associations to the lyric, doesn’t have to make sense.

4. Put the text and melody/rhythms together. Sing gently, letting your imagination and instinct play with possible choices you’ll make vocally.

Now you’re at a new beginning point to grow with the song.

There’ll be times it’ll be helpful to go back and repeat/mix up some of these steps, like just being with the text again.

We form opinions and habits we’re not aware of. This is a good way to loosen up our perspective and see new possibilities.


Manure for the Garden

Ironically, I’ve been procrastinating this post by looking up quotes and thinking about what I’m going to write rather than writing, and the thing I want to write about is allowing ourselves a shitty first draft.

An SFD as one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, wrote about in her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird.

I can’t find the quote now, but I think Stephen Sondheim once said that you do yourself a favor as a writer by letting your stream of consciousness flow and getting it all out on to the paper. He’s not the only one who’s said this, but he’s Stephen Sondheim.

When we do this, then we have some clay to mold.

What are the reasons that we stop the stream?

Perfection(ism) represents different things to each individual.

To some it was/is the way we learned to get love. For others it may be rooted in fear of rejection or looking like a fool. They’re the same thing

It’s rooted in our real need for acceptance.

So that has to be step one in order to let yourself write or sing or act or dance or cook or paint a shitty first draft: acceptance.

And the job is ours, this robust act of saying, “Self, I accept you, and you can write down this thing that your brain is telling you is stupid and will never work. You can sing this phrase that your brain tells you sounds terrible and will never be beautiful, etc.”

What’s the worst thing that can happen? You cut the line. You try another direction for the story. You break down the phrase and figure out how to sing it better or realize it may be a year before you can. You take the script to a good coach. You try the recipe again.

But the ground has to be sown with acceptance.

Maybe all those shitty first drafts are manure that fertilizes the creative seeds we plant every day and helps it turn into a beautiful, cultivated garden.

And the thing is, the garden is always going to need  periodic fertilizing.

People Want to Help You Out

I’ve been finding out again that you figure things out by doing the next thing and talking to folks about what you’re up to.

The house concert I am doing in February, for example. I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I started to talk about it to friends and colleagues.

They responded to my ideas, and that helped me to pare down the eclectic circus of schemes I had in my head.

Then I started reaching out to places here in town that would be good for an intimate, informal evening. I didn’t hear back.

I talked to friends. Someone said, “Wait, I know. You should talk to the woman who owns the amazing restored house behind our house.”

I talked to her. The house was available.

We'll turn this room into a little concert hall

We’ll turn this beautiful room into a lil concert hall

But we needed a piano.

I went all the customary routes in pricing piano rentals.

Then the home owner was helping a friend who introduced her to someone who was moving a piano into storage and preferred to give it to her where it could have another life.

I paid for the moving costs (which was much less than a rental). Now we have a piano.

All of this is happening just because I have been doing things and talking to people about it. People generally want to help you do your thing.

So I encourage you. Go. Do. Talk about it. See what happens!


Constriction Fiction: a Real Affliction

The title is clearly to be sung to the tune of “Conjunction Junction.”

And I’m here to tell you that constriction is no fiction. In fact, it is the fourth wall of the singing house: managed constriction.

CVI calls it controlled constriction.

This is what we’re talking about:

Wrapping around our pharynx are three constrictor muscles that help us to swallow. Thanks constrictors. (Image from CVI)constrictors

They protect the vocal folds in times of strain (lifting something heavy) or in intense expressions of emotion or fear.

Constrictors also help us to shape the pharynx/vocal tract into myriad shapes that create all kinds of sound colors.

They can also completely screw our singing when we don’t know how to manage them.

I believe the feeling of the relaxed constrictor muscles is the “open throat” sensation that many bel canto teachers describe.

This image/sensation is a wonderful help to many singers, but it can also lead to other problems like lack of twang or added rigidity when singers try to muscularly open the throat.

You can’t really open it, you can only relax it/keep it from constricting.

When constriction is unmanaged, the vocal folds attempt to stretch longer in order to vibrate a higher frequency, but the attempted stretch is squeezed by the swallow-muscles.

Folds are trying to stretch here

And here is what’s super tricky about this. Like I said above, constrictors naturally engage when we express intense emotion; think crying or yelling from fright.

When we sing, we are moving a lot of emotional energy through the throat. It is counterintuitive to let the muscles there relax.

Imagine being brought to the point of ugly-cry but completely relaxing the pharynx muscles. Feels weird.

Singing freely feels this way, and when you habituate the feeling it becomes familiar.

It’s strange to have the dynamic support athletically moving all of this breath and vibration through a relaxed throat.

It’s kind of like your throat is pretending it had botox and is saying, “I’m so angry, but my forehead isn’t even participating. ”



The Twang Thang

The third part of building the singing house‘s strong foundation after dynamic support and how to open the jaw is our friend twang. Necessary twang to be exact.

First of all, twang is not:

  • manipulated or forced by extrinsic muscles. It should create freedom and never tension or uncontrolled constriction.
  • nasality. Nasality is produced when the soft palate drops allowing air and vibration to move through the nose.

Twang is an incredibly useful tool when we know how to leverage it.

We create it when the epiglottis and the arytenoid cartilages move closer to one another making a kind of funnel. (Image from CVI) (The front of your neck is to the left in the image.)

epiglottic funnel

As you can see, the space directly above the vibrating vocal folds gets smaller, so the sound waves bounce around a whole lot more in that smaller space and voilà, amplification.

I often liken the event to this video that none of my students seem to have seen, but it resonates with me deeply and illustrates the point:

Harley understands twang profoundly and is executing it using the orange resonance boosting receptacle.

If you’d like to learn more about twang, I’ll point you to Complete Vocal Institute’s research site:

And here are some videos showing the epiglottic funnel and the employment of twang.



How Plane Snoozing Can Help Your Singing

Okay now that our breathing is perfect, we’re ready to talk about the jaw.

This is a simple principle: your jaw should always open naturally down and back.

One habit so many of us develop in singing is protruding the jaw forward.

This is for a couple of reasons in my opinion.

1. The voice is coming out of our mouth which is on the front of our head, so our brain logically wants to put effort in a forward direction to help the voice out. This is why a lot of novice singers jut the whole head forward, reach up for hight notes, etc.

2. Jutting the jaw forward moves the mandible closer to the eardrum, and we hear more bone conductivity from that internally. It creates an ear-lusion that we’re singing with more resonance.

A couple of ways to think about it:

1. Imagine falling asleep on a plane or bus and you’re doing the attractive open-mouth snooze. That’s the feeling.

2. For more metallic vocal modes, you’ll execute more of a wide lizard overbite look.

If we protrude the jaw (and/or tighten the lips), it causes uncontrolled constriction in the vocal tract, and that makes singing harder.

Another way to practice this: Do what the picture shows when you practice. The loose jaw is for a neutral vocal mode while the bite happens in edgier and more metallic singing. (Image is from Complete Vocal Technique’s literature).14889848_10154796809368694_2128714944074084179_o-2.png-2

If You’re Breathing, You’re Moving (Principle 1)

I am going to explain very simply something that confused me for years and years.

All singers hear the word “support” from the time we start singing. And it takes on all kinds of interpretations both helpful and unhelpful.

The most important thing to understand about this potentially misleading term is that it is dynamic,  it is moving.

I often tell my students, “If you’re breathing, you’re moving.” We never hold a note, we move a note, we flow it.

I want to break down how I understand dynamic support in the way that is the most straightforward and usable to me.

Inhale: After you exhale, gently lower your jaw, let your vocal folds open, and as your diaphragm descends and your rib cage expands, the thoracic cavity gets bigger, so air rushes in. Thanks physics.

Exhaling for singing: After a nice gentle (and silent) inhale, you want your ribs to remain nice and open. This is technically a function of keeping your external rib muscles engaged (the ones used for inhaling that pull your ribs up and out).

I like to think of the image of my rib cage continuing to float. While that’s going on, you want to use your abdominal muscles (mainly transverse and obliques) to slowly move the air out of your lungs.

Basically, you’re letting your ribs stay in the state of inhale-expansion while the abdominal muscles harness the upward movement of the diaphragm.

The simple way to trace this is to focus on the slow, continuous inward movement of the navel toward the spine while the ribs and solar plexus remain out.

One way to practice this coordination is to inhale, let the ribs and abdominal cavity easily expand (all around, front sides and back). Then on your exhale, keep the ribs expanded while you let your abdominals contract to move the air out. This is the coordination without the resistance from closed, vibrating vocal folds.

Then when we sing, we can tune back in to this coordination and then determine just how much dynamic support we need phrase by phrase.

What I have found to be true most of the time: we usually need gentler muscular energy from the abdominals than we initially think.

Cushions (i.e. Italian Bread)

I wonder what makes me want to eat Italian bread toast with a lot of butter for breakfast (or French toast or blueberry pancakes or poached eggs on grits with sausage) rather than (or even in addition to) a tasty smoothie I can make in the fancy Aunt Sherri-donated Vitamix that has about twenty five fruits and veg in it that makes me feel really rejuvenated and full of energy.

That’s kinder to my body. But why does butter and white flour feel kinder when it’s going in my mouth? I guess it’s the same question for the smoker or the drinker (two things I also feel the appeal of).

Makes you want a coffee and a smoke.When I visited Copenhagen last spring, I had a nearly- overwhelming urge to throw down some Kroner for a pack of cigs and walk around the streets in the cold, Scandi-grey air feeling moody and Danish (though the Danes do top world happiness lists year after year). I played it (the tobacco purchase) forward in my head to the moment when I took the first imaginary drag (probably coughed) and thought to myself, “oh, that’s it.”

Not the sameThen back in real life I decided to spend my cash on a gin and tonic at a bar recommended by a student of mine. I drank it alone, so while it was a good drink, that’s not what having a drink is about. I sent a pic to my wife.

But I do wonder what the food thing is about, my drug of choice. That’s a lie. I don’t wonder. I know. I remember talking to an analyst in my early twenties about how I worried a little about how much cereal I ate at night. (I still eat cereal at night.) I told him, “Well, it’s not like I’m eating cake.” Dr. Krasnow said, “It’s exactly like eating cake. The carbohydrates do the same thing for you.”

And ouchy he was right, is right. The food, the wine, the Netflix, the Amazon Prime, the British crime drama du semaine, the fill-in-the-blank, it makes a cushion for me.

I was going to say it cushions me from the world, but it’s also a cushion from my internal world: old hurts that I filed away, ambiguous feelings that are thus far un-nameable, (so where do you FILE those alphabetically, anyway?), general low-grade discomfort that I’d rather mute than allow it to voice itself.

I learned recently studying the Enneagram that I am a 9, the Peacemaker: seeking to quell any and all conflicts that arise or MAY arise externally or internally. While this is a wonderful trait when it comes to empathizing and understanding several points of view, it makes for a lot of work when it comes to managing so much potential unease.

So, back to Italian bread. It’s delicious. And there’s a big-ass loaf of it that you can buy at Aldi right next to some equally delicious brioche. But you know what else? I’m going to make that smoothie too. And I’m going to rehearse the Strauss songs I’m performing in February, and I’ll probably put Noah in the Ergo and go for a little hike. Greensboro has readily available woods. Thanks Greensboro.

Maybe it’s about adding things that are loving, good, and move us in the direction of what lights us up, and therefore gives something beautiful to those connected to us.

I’ll still keep my cushions, I just know I will.

But the plan is to fill up my life space with the life-giving things so that at least the cushions get squished a little flatter.

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