The Zen of Singing - the Method
There are a lot of physical techniques that are easier to demonstrate than to write about--I'll cover these in class. But there are some things I'll say over and over, so I thought I would set them down here, so you can familiarize yourself with these important, core concepts.
Many of these techniques don't have to be understood--you can just do them as part of your practice, and they will transform you.
Practice is play. Noodle around. Improvise. Take solos. Make weird sounds. At first, practice alone. Later, practice alone and with others. With others, practice unison, parts, and improvisation.
Practice is musical, and interesting.
If you aren't interested when you play/practice, no one else will be when they listen to you perform.
If you aren't interested by practice, you won't do it.
Make everything you play be "musical." Even scales, even arpeggios. Nobody wants to watch you do calesthenics. By always playing like you are "on," you will get in the habit, and only play that way.
Practice SLOWLY. Break down what you play or sing at the slowest possible tempo.
Practice to a rhythm. Internalize that rhythm, even if it is just a slow sway.
Use devices to help internalize rhythms.
-- looping station: just record a rhythm loop, then record a line, and then loop those and try to match it. Practice adding more layers and matching what's there as well as harmonizing.
-- metronome: work on matching the metronome, even through phrases. Work on finding the pocket, even with the metronome driving. To do this, you'll need to also work on intentionally being slightly ahead of the beat (early) and behind the beat (late). Practice singing or playing ahead of the beat and behind the beat of the metronome enough so that your body knows when you are doing which, even with a full band going.
-- delays: set your delay to decay very little (like 99% recycle) and set its delay to a quarter note, eighth note, or sixteenth note. Make a sound. Listen and adjust the tempo. The main echo should come back right where you percieve the pulse of the song to be. This will usually work best with a quarter note delay, depending on how you set the tempo.
-- drum loops: use them like metronomes, but they have a more natural beat. Practice and listen to your relation to the drum. This is an exercise in listening, and training your muscle memory to keep to an even beat, one that is natural and not mechanistic like a metronome. For many, it is also an exercise in calming any inner nervousness or self-judgement, which usually makes our time mess up.
Loop over things to discover them. Break them down, try different tempos, try substitutions. Play, have fun.
Loop over things to learn them. Our bodies have a component in the nerve-muscle communication system called ganglia. Ganglia are not quite motor nerve cells, and not quite brain nerve cells. They store local memory, and process muscle signals. Musicians call this "muscle memory," where your body learns to do things without your conscious thought. When we loop, and when we play slowly, we train the muscle memory.
Loop correctly. Doing repetitions correctly but slowly is much better than doing more repetitions too quickly to do correctly. Every mistake we make trains the muscle memory, too. One way to train efficiently is to agree with yourself on a number of times to play something correctly, for example, ten times. Then play it ten times. If you get it, move on to the next phrase. If you play the phrase incorrectly, keep playing, but restart the count. Keep going until you get ten. Work through the whole piece this way. When you are done looping a phrase correctly ten times, play through into the next phrase. This will train you to be able to pick up anywhere in the song, which can happen in a live show in any number of ways. The trick is to be able to jumpstart a song comfortably. My mother, Joy Crocker, a sweet teacher who loved practice more than just about anything, taught a trick of practicing starting songs cold from logical break points. So if she ever had a complete melt-down or memory failure or any other problem, she could always seque to the next section and jump right in.
When you play something, don't stop. Don't stop because you forgot a lyric: just repeat the previous one, or skip to the next one, or modify one that comes to your head, or make up a new one. The audience will never know. If you practice this not-stopping when you are practicing, doing it live will come easily. And you will never appologize to an audience for "huh, huh, forgetting the words..." Remember, the audience will never know if you made the change accidentally, or on purpose, if you do it with confidence.
Speaking of confidence, I have found when improvising, that I can sing avoid notes if I do it with confidence, determination, and resolution. The Resolution needs to be artful. Resolution may mean letting the note ring, it may mean resolving harmonically to the next note in the mode. But the point is to mean the note when you open your mouth and stick to your guns until you know what is next. When I asked him what to do when I sing a "clam," Bobby McFerrin told me that the best way out was to ignore the past (which includes the choice to sing the current note), and look to the very near future, right ahead of the "now," to the upcoming note, the one that feels right, and to just go there, and make it awesome. I believe that the best music is made on the bleeding edge of "now." It all comes together in the moment. The body knows what to do and feel because you have practiced. But in performing and creating, practice is in the past. If you try to access the past, you lose your edge in the now, and risk replaying something practiced and staid. If you look too far in the future, you can lose focus in the now, and seem sloppy and disconnected. To be in the now, you have to shut the monkey mind down and channel from your innermost spirit, and then get the hell out of the way. When you do this, your voice will float. Naturally, purely, and in a way that draws people in and connects you to them.
If breathing is the basis for vocal production, then we should become skilled at breathing. I read that Thic Nhat Han said that for meditation, we should allow the breath its own course and rhythm. This is wonderful for meditation, and also for developing a sense of what your breath naturally does.
For singing, we also must practice breathing in a more intentional way. The first way is to lie down and observe the breath as we did in meditation, but now breathe in and out very slowly. As slowly as possible without having to gasp occasionally. Easy and slowly in, easy and slowly out. Second is to sit errect and relaxed, and breathe in, letting the air slide down the throat, visualizing it sliding down the spine, and filling up the belly with air, from the bottom up. Do this without expanding the ribs intentionally. Breathe out by squeezing the belly in and up, again from the bottom. It feels like the game you may have played as a kid to gross out/amaze your friends: pushing your belly out all the way, and then sucking it in all the way, with your T-shirt up.
Next is to get that belly full of air, but breath out slowly with a lot of pressure by pushing your tounge against the roof of your mouth to make a snake-like "ssss" sound. You generate the pressure by pulling your belly in and tightening your belly muscles simultaneously. If you do this without the "sss," and your mouth wide open, you should be able to empty your lungs in less than a second with only a slightly audible "huh."
The next excercise is to make tiny "T" sounds by providing a little push with the belly and forming the "T" with the tounge and teeth. Make about 30 of these in one out breath. The belly should relax a bit and air flow should stop between "T" sounds. If you aren't breathing with your belly, this will run you out of air in about 5 "T" sounds. Next, is the real gut-buster. Breath in using 5 inward sniffs. Make sure you are full to capacity after the fifth. If not, on the next round, breath more deeply on each sniff. After inhaling, exhale with 5 snorts, that is, all air going smoothly out the nose. If you've done Prana Yama yoga, you'll recognize this exercise. You should feel the isolation working on your belly muscles.
The next excercise is the same, but work to make the number 10, then finally up to 15. The higher numbers require more muscle control, to make the breaths short, sharp, and small, and more muscle strength and endurance to fill up and empty. When you can get to 15 short, sharp breaths in and out, you will have the good breathing strength and endurance to get through a musical phrase with enough air to produce good tone throughout.
Raz Kennedy told me that "Breath is the flipside of a phrase." This means that, as Thic Nhat Han wrote, that the breath is naturally coming and going. This means that the in-breath is just as musical as the out breath. Some people breath in rhythmically and let that sound be heard. It's a very funky sound when done right. Others do their in-breath in a noise-less way, but time it to be staccatto on the upbeat, or syncopation beat, or other musically hip time to help with the next phrase. Sometimes it will be hipper to breath in as slowly with the mood of the song. Most good singers time their breaths at planned moments between phrases. Doing it with rhythm, either fast or slow, helps keep you in the pocket while breathing.
Raz was also saying that the in-breath and the tone are really part of the same circle, and being continuous with in and out breaths brings a wonderful fluidity to the singing. It also reminds us that singing is just breathing. Like our meditation, eventually we are not conscious of breathing intentionally for singing, and we simply breath naturally with the phrases. If you relax and speak naturally, but observe the breath like a zen monk, you'll see that the breath comes in concert with the speaking. The breaks are natural and musical, and the voice is not strained towards the end of the phrase.
Some people speak with lots of tension in their voices, and also have starts that are too forced, and finishes that run out of air. If you perceive that you do this, do your breathing exercises, then speak thusly. Breath in, relax, and then sigh. Try to sigh without any sound, then sigh with a very light, descending tone, hum, or murmur. Next try to sigh lower in pitch, then lower still. At the bottom, you should hear a low rumbling in your voicebox that is smooth. When you get to a nice, relaxed tone for your voice, say a single word on your out breath. Work on it until about half of your air is expended in producing that word. A little breath leaking out before the word to get the vocal chords ready, then the word, then whatever air is left simply let out easily after the word.
This is how to speak naturally. You lead with the breath, then the vocal cords start producing sound, then you ride that buzz until you are ready for the end of sound between phrases or words. If there is a full break in sound between words, but you haven't finished the phrase, you will have air left to finish the phrase. Once you can relax and speak naturally, then spoken word is often your best guide for how a lyric should be projected, with correct diction, declamation, and emphasis. All we are doing with singing, is chosing the tones more carefully, possibly extending the time and openness somewhat, and perhaps producing sounds with more support and fullness. My favorite singers often appear to be simply speaking when they sing, for example, Frank Sinatra (in later years he really did simply speak some songs, but it still worked), Big Joe Williams, Bing Crosby. Yes these singers would also blow when they wanted to, but the easy, resonant, speach-level singing is what really drives the swing pocket, and sets the stage for a fortissimo note.
Resonance happens. You don't really make it happen. You set the right conditions and it happens. You can train your muscle memory to produce the right conditions faithfully. When resonance happens, you'll feel the vibration double or tripple, and the tone will get louder and purer, while requiring less effort. Pushing is usually the opposite of resonance. Pushing involves tightening the throat and jaw, which have a terrible effect on the tone, and almost guarantee to shut down resonance and vibrato.
Vibrato is not created by willfully moving the pitch control up and down. It is created when you relax your voice so much, and allow the resonance to happen, that the natural quivers of the diaphragm muscle and the vibrations of the vocal chords set up standing waves that are rhythmic and stable. It takes great focus and relaxation to sustain true vibrato through pitch shift. If you can stay focused and relaxed, then you can keep your voice in the zone through pitch shift. Until then, practice getting back into the relaxed focused zone and letting the vibrato build back in right away. This is called a "quickening vibrato." You can also dampen the vibrato by un-relaxing and thinking about pitch, but this is a style trick, and should be used sparingly.
Spend time during every practice to work on tone. This means varying the sound you make by deliberately trying to change technique, often in ways you don't usually do. Work to produce more beautiful sounds at different attacks. Smooth attacks with resonant, lush tone and subtle pitch control. Hard attacks with open, stacatto vowels. On guitar this might be changing how much pressure you use in your chord hand, or how much attack you use in your rhythm hand. In voice, this means changing the shape of your body, such as varying mouth shape while singing the same vowel.
Tone in the voice is most often affected by "placement," which is a term that encompases many muscles, but one perceivable sensation. When you "place" the voice in the sinuses, you can feel the most resonance, vibration and sound in that area. Similarly, by changing the position of the tounge, jaw, soft palate, libs, and nostrils, you can place the voice higher or lower, from head all the way down to chest voice. If you can find resonance at any of these placements, and what they feel like, you can also eventually learn how to provide enough air to run all these placements at once, and you can resonate with a deep chest voice while also providing lots of upper partials (harmonics) and plenty of buzz, tone and sibillance.
To get all this working also requires shaping the tone and overtones with the lips and forming a correct trumpet shape to project the sound. Singing with too wide of a smile, or closed lips or slack lips can leak high frequency sounds to the side, away from audience or microphones. Forming trumpet shapes with the lips focuses the sound and projects the upper-mid and high frequencies. It brings out the mid-range sounds, and can make you sound like you are singing through a tin can. (The Paul McCartney telephone effect.) Unless you want this particular sound, this is your cue to open your jaw and drop or un-curl your tounge, while keeping a tight ombusure with the lips. The lower the jaw, the longer the oval made by your lips, and the area of the oval is bigger. This means you need to blow more air. You change vowel sounds by fanning your lips sideways, but not cracking the trumpet with a smile. For this kind of singing, you smile with your eyes, and that transmits just the right amount of brightness into the mouth shape automatically.
Music is always play for you.
Practice taking solos on one scale tone, using only rhythm and expression as modulation. Then two tones, and so on.
Ensemble singing: Loop phrases, and have everyone go through all the parts, in unison (except for octve differences as needed). From bottom to top, sing, together the bass parts, the barritones, the tenors, then the altos and sopranos. Everyone hears all the parts, and feels doing them, but doesn't need to memorize them because the leader runs the loop at a length that can be mimicked easily, and runs it a few times before moving on to the next part. After this excercise, the leader tells everyone to chose a part and stick with it, and then goes through all the parts, only one loop per part, until everyone has chosen a line, and then the loop is run repeatedly, with the leader on one line, and each person practicing the line that they selected. This way, the body has a sense of what the other lines feel like, even if it hasn't memorized all the parts.
Microtuning is a word that I use to mean willfully raising and lowering the pitch until it is in tune. Fretless string players do this continually. Use microtuning to slowly move your vocal pitch while singing a long note, smoothly above and below some reference pitch played on an instrument. At first, try to sweep smoothly up a half-step, say from C to C#, over about 2 seconds, then back to C in 2 seconds, then down to B then back to C, then breathe. Eventually, you should be able to control a quarter-tone drop smoothly in 4 seconds, and then back to center again. And finally, you can will your voice to change just the color of the pitch in realtime, that is, without anyone in the audience noticing you were ever measurably sharp or flat. For more advanced work, do this with a partner, tuning unison, and then intervals using microtuning. Best to first practice unison, octave, perfect fourth and fifth. After that, work on thirds, sevenths, sixths, and seconds. My partner and I practice singing in parallel tritones (diminished fifth/augmented fourth) on road trips. If you can hold your own in tritones, then major sevenths and the rest of the intervals are easy, and three-part and four-part harmony are just gravy.
The Suzuki Method.
I never studied the Suzuki Method, or learned much about it, although my mother was a proponent, but I saw and heard the results: 3 and 4 year olds playing Bach on the violin. My understanding of it is contained in these rules:
1. Practice what you are actually going to play, and don't worry about scales or arpeggios.
2. Play phrases repeatedly until you know these building blocks, before you assemble the song.
3. Play with feeling, paying attention to tuning and tone production.
4. Be really cute and wear a nice suit.
I heartily endorse the spirit of this method, and incorporate it into my work.
It turns out there are not that many notes in any given piece, so you don't need to practice all possible notes and transitions, just the ones you'll actually be playing. You might think of this as rote memorization, but it need not be. First of all, if you learn enough songs, you'll pick up the idioms as you go, more thoroughly and more subtly, because you'll learn them in context. But also, to learn a line, you should play with it, have fun with it, noodle around, improvise. This keeps you in the fun zone, which is where we are creative, and producing dopamine neurochemicals and where we learn about 10 times faster than in the non-fun zone (e.g. scales). Now if the phrase we are practicing has a scale, then by breaking it down, finding the pocket, improvising, looping, and slowing, we can have fun with even a scale. This kind of practice, and also Mimi Fox's "one note solo" technique, help to focus our ability to meditate with music. Once you break through boredom and find something groovy in a simple note or phrase, you have found the pocket of the song. At this point, no one listening will be bored, because you aren't bored--even if you are playing something repetative--you have found something interesting and groovy.
Find your space. Brenda Boykin taught me about her "circle." She said that on the cab ride to a gig, she'd begin to meditate and relax, and that process would culminate in her coming on stage and establishing a circle around herself, a safety zone. Sometimes she could use the spotlight to help visuallize this. Then, in her mind, she'd open the circle to invite everyone into this space of music. In practical terms, this sometimes means taking a few extra seconds before begining to make sound. This is really good, because it focuses you, relaxes you, and helps you be open, and helps you find the right tempo for the song. If you are nervous, you will rush the tempo. And so much of being a performer is about simultaneously projecting confidence and openness.
Relax. It's your performance, and it has to be natural, and come when it is ready. If you are calling time, then you can find the pocket of the song, or the pocket of the fastest or most difficult or most rhythmic phrase, and feel for the tempo in your head and body before calling time. Practice this each time you run the song at normal tempo, so that you know what the song feels like before the sound starts. Incidentally, you should also do this when practicing the song slowly. Getting a song to swing and be funky at half speed or quarter speed will scale up when you run at tempo. With this technique, complicated phrases can still be funky, because your muscle memory will remember the funky beat relations even at different speeds. You have to really slow down the phrase exactly, though, and not introduce some other sub-division.
The voice should be free and floating, even if you are doing percussive singing. When we lean on the throat to change pitch, it either becomes unstable, or unresponsive. When the voice floats, independently of throat muscles, merely thinking of the pitch moves the vocal cords, and the rest of the body stays the same. This is much more efficient, stable, and managable. Also, it is much quicker: it is the only way to correctly do a glissando.
A performance is being naked in front of others. If you can do this, the audience responds to the honesty, the vulnerability, the openness. For some performers, this will actually mean being buck naked. For others, this will mean some aspect of themselves will be naked, but they will be fully clothed. For singers, this means singing with your authentic voice, in your natural accent, dialect, and intonation, and singing with emotional honesty. As long as technique doesn't obscure these honest emotions, this nakedness of self through the voice, then technique is good. For many, the task is as simple as learning how to sing as well as we speak. For others, the task will be two-fold: to learn to speak naturally, and then to sing as we speak. Most people speak in their natural register. When we are very relaxed, or very passionate in talking, our best tones, resonance, and diction come out. It is because our head is not driving the voice at these moments, the self is. When we try to speak a certain way, at a podium, for example, or when we sing, we suddenly become conscious of the voice, and attempt to manipulate it. The audience hears this manipulation and generally interprets it as faceticiouness. Our brains appear to be wired at a very low level with the ability to detect fraud in the voice. My favorite pop star right now is Vitus, a Russian superstar. Vitus is a man who has the ability to sing in whistle register, a trick usually only perfected by female singers. (Many female sopranos and 4 year old girls have at least experimented with whistle register.) Vitus also has a stunningly clear falsetto: as clear as most female divas, but with the power and overtones of a male. His trick is his ability, through voice and facial expression, to appear to be being decietful, to be using some trick, and the listener's brain skips a few clicks trying to determine gender and authenticity. But his greatest trick, is that he is actually authentic. He has trained his voice to do counter-tenor, and has developed his whistle register. These feats take a lot of practice, and a nice, high set of pipes. But they sound comical and ugly if they are not authentic. When Vitus sings, there is nothing in the way of his voice--it comes out purely, and honestly, and beautifully.
This is what we have to work at: to get stuff out of the way of the self using the voice. The great performance artist Sherry Glaser captivated me once by pulling her top off during a monologue. It wasn't her bossom that captivated me. It was the fiery light that shown from her face, her whole body, when she performed, exposed. I told her after the show that I had experienced total performance that night. Later that year, I opened some shows for her with a set of my music, and her show consisted of a male character she inhabits (along with other characters) who tries to find his authentic self through a mystic. The character learns about his chakras and how they each block his path, until it is clear. When he gets to the throat chakra, the character needs to speak at a union rally, and can't. He must find his passion, his heart, and bust the psychological blockage in his throat to let it through. For singing, I understood this play to be about finding the energy, the thrust, down in the root chakra, and bringing it up through the belly, through the breath, up without blockage through the throat, and ultimately, through the third eye and the chakras over the head.
More about Vocal Production and Resonance
Even if you don't like this Eastern model of the body's energy, there is accuracy in how this model applies to the body singing. We physically need to provide air for the vocal chords, and the natural breathing muscles begin at the lowest extremes of the abdominal wall. Try this: lie in what is called "Child Pose" : tops of your feet, shins, and knees on the floor, knees bent under you, touching your chest, thighs folded between calves and belly, and forehead on the floor. Now place your arms at your sides, so that your palms can lie atop your low back and the top of your buttocks, right next to your sacrum, the bony area at the base of your spine that feels like a plate. Now inhale deeply and exhale deeply. Repeat. You should be able to feel your low back expand and contract. If not, breath deeper. A good fill of air expands all the way to the bottom of the spine, and involves the whole belly and rib cage.
Vocal production occurs in the larynx, which is below most of what we experience as "throat." Air has to flow around the vocal cords in the larynx, and the stability and strength of the tone has to do with the even-ness and strength of this flow. Singers call this "support." One can experience it in the diaphragm or in the walls of the belly as strengh and tightness of those muscles. I feel these, and I use these muscles, but I don't associate them with support. I now feel support as a balancing point, a vibrating column of air at the base of my bronchial tube somewhere near the bottom of my sternum, the plate that connects the ribs in front, in the center of my chest. When I make a note, and feel the vibration here, I balance it with this column of air, and push up on that column slightly. That may have little to do with the reality inside, but it's close: we do resonate the entire inner cavity down into the bronchial tubes, and all the way through the throat, sinuses, and cranial cavity and out through the top of the head. When you are really generating overtones with lots of support, and an open throat, and sinuses, you can place your hands on your head and feel it vibrating sound out. If you can get an opera singer to hum, mouth closed, at full volume, you can also hear the sound coming right out of the top of the singer's head. Just like dolphins. That is the kind of power we need to generate as singers. Even when singing quietly, that intensity can be there. It comes from giving lots of support, through all the muscles of the abdominal cavity, vibrating the vocal chords with openness and ease, relaxing the throat, developing resonance from chest to head by shaping the mouth, jaw, teeth, tounge, and palate to open the sound of the chest, and focus the sound into the upper resonators (sinuses, cranium), and also out the mouth and nose. So it matches pretty clearly the story of moving the expression of self through the chakras.
Either way, resonance and openness lead to beautifull voices. From there, we need to get out of the way. Since vowels and consonants require different shapes in the mouth and throat, we need to learn how to make these shapes in ways that reinforce the fundimental, and amplify overtones. We need to make these shapes so that air flow is not impeded, and resonance is not damped by the incorrect resonant volume for each pitch. Some vowels require the jaw to be all the way down, but in all positions, the throat is open, and the pallate is open.
You can view this best by using a flashlight and a mirror. It looks funny, and may feel funny, so be in the room by yourself. Stand in front of the mirror, shine the flashlight into your open mouth and manouvre so you can see your tounge, and throat. Keep your mouth wide open so you can see. Now breath in and out through the mouth. Watch what opens and closes. Talk. Watch. Now sing a note, and watch. Now try these vowel transitions and watch. Say these phonetically, and slowly: manga, hurrah. As you come off the "ng" in manga, and your throat opens to propel the "a" after "ng," you should see your soft palate raise up, and the tounge drop down. The soft pallete is the soft part on the roof of your mouth, behind the hard palate (the hard part in the roof of your mouth, between your upper molars). If you still have an epiglotus (the punching bag in your throat), you should see it raise. If you don't, try to isolate these muscles by trying different sounds, different spoken vowel-consonant combinations, until you see movement, then repeat until you can feel what is happening, and thus begin to be able to willfully move these muscles. Sometimes the soft palate lifts with a big, wide inhale. With "hurrah," as you come off the "rr" sound, and into the open "ah" sound, you should see the tounge drop, and the throat open. For singing, we generally want the soft palate and epiglotus up, and the back of the tounge down, thus leaving the throat open. Practice this with the flashlight 5 minutes a day until you can lower/raise your soft palate and raise/lower the tounge which closes/opens the throat, without having to look.
It's one thing to sing with these techniques, but why is it zen?
To me zen is like a path, a way to understand something. So this method is zen because it is a path to understanding music through understanding yourself, your relation to reality, your existence and non-existence, your perception of reality, your compassion for your self and for others, your thinking and feeling, and your oneness with everything around you. Music promises and requires these understandings. In these ways, I'm very influenced by many philosophies, but none as clearly as Zen Buddhism.
These, then, are items that my Zen of Singing embodies, and that overlap with Zen Buddhism as I understand it.
I hope this inspires you to practice and sing out! Please drop me a line with any questions. And if you are in the East Bay, come on down to one of my singing classes: Zen of Singing homepage