Podium Points

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    “Podium Points” is a collection of helpful and challenging thoughts about music in general & singing in particular from director Thomas DeBusk. Check out these topics:

Pink & Puzzled: A Coral Choral Parable

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An original parable by Thomas L. DeBusk.

Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

(But you’re welcome to link here as much as you like!)

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The sign said, "Mellow 'D'-Free Mocha". Flat-footed, one-note Johnny wobbled into the four-walled coffee shop. Inside, dressed in a pink warm-up suit, a rarely-seen, athletically dressed barista cranked out carefully measured cups of harsh black coffee at precisely paced intervals for customer after customer…except for Johnny. Spotting a hip-hop tag on her turned-up collar, Johnny stammered erratically: "why's a gal named Harmony in a lovely coral warm-up suit marking time for...for...in a suite-free zone like this if not to serve noted treats? Ignoring Johnny's impossibly irregular form, Harmony maintained her magically enchanting motions.

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Thoroughly frustrated, Johnny blurted off-beat, "what's a guy gotta do to get a free mellow mocha around here?" Johnny’s speech clashed with Harmony's peace. She pointed out, quite precisely, that mellow “D”-free mocha isn’t free mellow mocha. Johnny left without a beat—or a cocoa mocha. Sadly, he never realized the root of the problem: Harmony just doesn't work right without Mellow "D" a reliable interval away.

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What makes a good choral director?

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    Click here & check out this video. Consider the premise of the director’s teaching method. She doesn’t subscribe to the pervasive-but-debilitating notion that some people are born with good voices and everybody else just has to suffer a life of mediocrity or worse. She not only believes great voices can be made out of poor-to-average ones; she has a pocket full of various techniques for creating them. She’s awesome!

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    The woods are full of choral directors who walk into the practice room and say “pull out your music and start singing”. How unfortunate! That’s a great way to develop lousy voices and terrible-sounding choirs. Singing is a very different function than speaking. So people need help at the beginning of each rehearsal transitioning from their speaking voice to their singing voice. The world would be a different place if it were populated by choral directors like this middle school teacher, who actually believes you can (and should!) teach people how to sing.

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    That’s the sort of vocal guide you need if you want to study with a good vocal instructor or sing with a community chorus that will help you develop your voice.

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    And check out this video of the director of the Great Northern Union Chorus getting his singers ready for a rehearsal.

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    He’s using a funny children’s song to teach advanced vocal technique. If you listen to other videos of this group, you can hear astounding vocal quality throughout it. That’s not an accident. And the director didn’t squelch or brutalize any voices to achieve that tonal quality. Instead, he built it from the ground up, by laying a foundation of solid, healthy vocal production.

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    If your high school or church choir director doesn’t do these things to instill quality skills in your fellow singers, he/she is in the majority. Many choral directors come to the podium with strong instrumental skills, but minimal vocal training. They can’t pass on what they never developed and don’t have. Likewise, vocal teachers who got to where they are because they were serendipitously born using good technique don’t make the best teachers. The best vocal teachers started with bad habits themselves and learned how to overcome them. That’s the sort of teacher or choral director you need to find if you want to improve how you use your own instrument.

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Did you get defective parts when

your vocal equipment was installed?

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    Have you ever wondered why some people have better singing voices than others? Some people are just more gifted than others, right?

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    Well, yes, it’s obviously true that some people sing better than others. But it’s not necessarily true that the reason is because they have better “pipes”. Yes, there are gifted people who have exceptionally good vocal equipment. But how you use it is vastly more important than how good your physical equipment is.

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    Probably the majority of the pop stars you could name don’t have any better vocal equipment than the average person walking down the street. The difference between them and the average non-singer is how they use it.

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    We learn how to sing at such a young age that we aren’t aware of how we’re doing it. The vocal instrument can be very tricky to master. It can be fickle in the way it operates, even on the best day. It defies direct manipulation. You can’t just reach into your throat and make things behave.

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    But here’s a truth you can take to the bank: even if you haven’t arrived at today with a great singing voice, you can still develop one. Yep: you have all the necessary parts on board. You just need to learn how to use them better.

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    So stop pining for a “better” voice. You already have one. Go find a place to use and develop the one you have. Get moving and enjoy the journey!

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“I can’t sing”…not!

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    Can you speak? If you can, you can sing. It’s that simple. The act of singing requires that you learn how to control 2 sub-skills. The first is sustaining a word. Say the word “ouch” like you just smashed your toe with a rock. You didn’t sustain “ouch”. Now say “ow” slowly, like you have a throbbing pain that won’t go away. Or whine like a 5-year-old who isn’t getting his way. If you’ve performed the latter 2 vocal tasks, you’ve demonstrated the first basic singing skill: sustaining a vowel. That’s half the skills you need to sing.

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    The second skill is the ability to control pitch. (Notice, I did NOT say “match pitch”!) When you ask a question, what happens at the end of your sentence? Your voice goes up. You manipulate the pitch upward to draw attention to the fact that you’re asking a question. (Funny thing is, you learned to do that at such a young age, you don’t remember how you learned to do it. But that’s another issue.)

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    So if you can draw attention to the fact that you’re asking a question by raising your pitch at the end of a sentence, or add emphasis to a statement by dropping your pitch at the end of it, then you can control your pitch. And that’s the second essential skill you need for singing.

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    Congratulations! If you can do those 2 things, you can sing. That’s all you need to be able to do! And pretty much all of the population who can successfully speak English have already mastered these 2 skills.

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    Finally, let me be very clear here: this does not address whether your singing is good or not. It’s very clear that there are plenty of people who sing poorly. They can be taught to sound better, but I’m not talking about those people in this little blurb. This is only about people who have convinced themselves that they “can’t sing” at all. And the point is that if they can speak English, they’re wrong: they can sing!

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    Now, if you’re ready to acknowledge that you really can sing, but the real situation is that when you do try to sing, it just sounds terrible, then that’s a different issue. If that’s you, join the club. The woods are full of many who aren’t satisfied with how well we sing. We can do better. And we want to. So if that’s you—you can sing, but if you just want to sing better, that’s a question for another entry. Stay tuned!

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“My voice cracks & fatigues too quickly.”

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    Picture your vocal cords as a delicate spider web spanning heavy scaffolding. When the wind blows (your breath), the web vibrates. As the scaffolding shifts under moving workers, the tension on the web changes. Too much shifting and stretching and the web breaks.

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    Now let’s switch up the metaphor. When you shoot an arrow, you notch it, pull the string, and let it fly. The more you pull back the string, the farther the arrow flies.  The whole mechanism is visible, easy to see, understand, and operate.

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    The singing mechanism is much more like the web and scaffold than the bow and arrow. For one thing, the vocal cords, the heart of the singing mechanism, are pretty much invisible. You can’t see how they operate. Most importantly, it’s impossible to control them directly, through what you can see and touch, like you can a bow and arrow.

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    No, the vocal cords respond only secondarily to efforts to control them. In fact, direct efforts to control the cords are likely to end in frustration. That’s because vocal cords don’t do well under excessive tension.

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    They’re a delicate set of muscles (like the web), surrounded by and suspended from a vastly stronger superstructure of muscles that breathe, chew, and swallow (the scaffold). Properly used, they need to vibrate very fast. They balk and rebel if they’re loaded down with too much tension. The result is cracking, missed pitches, and fatigue. More on how to fix that in another post.

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Practice singing wrong to sing better.

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For people who sing poorly, singing correctly feels wrong. Re-read that, slowly, because there’s a whole lot of wisdom packed into that counterintuitive statement.

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When you sing, you rely on a set of subliminal mental instructions that operate your vocal equipment. For many people, those instructions contain flaws. It’s like having an operator’s manual where the paragraphs have been scrambled out of order. If you follow the manual, the machine won’t work right, not because it’s defective, but because the instructions are.

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For most people who sing poorly, it’s not because their mechanism is defective. It’s because their internal instruction set is garbled. Singing well under those circumstances doesn’t feel right because—well—you’ve been following the same manual your whole life. But habits aren’t correct just because we’ve practiced them for a long time.

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So, if you sing poorly, and you want to learn to sing better, you need to experiment by singing in ways that feel unnatural or uncomfortable (but not painful or damaging). Through trial-and-error, (and perhaps with external assistance from a skillful guide) you can eventually revise your defective vocal operations manual into one that’s more consistent with how your mechanism actually works. Then you will discover the beautiful vocal instrument you actually have, not the squeaky, unattractive one you think you have.

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Why You Can’t Sing

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People who acquire a second language as an adult typically speak with an accent that sounds like their native language. Why?

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Babies learn to speak by babbling. At first, they’re able to make every sound possible. But eventually they learn that people around them respond to some sounds, and not others. So they gradually quit making the unused sounds. By adulthood, both the memory of ever having made them and the ability to make them is long gone. (Many get re-discovered by beatboxers performing contemporary a capella music—but that’s a different subject.)

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You see, there’s no such thing as an English or Japanese voice box.  There’s no physical reason why an adult English speaker uses English vowels with ease, but has trouble pronouncing Japanese sounds, other than habit. With careful practice, any person can master the sounds of a second language as well as any native speaker of that language. Presto, accent’s gone!

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People acquire singing skills the same way—and at the same time—as they acquire speaking skills. By adulthood, singing habits have become “set”—and we can’t even remember how we acquired them. Upgrading poor singing skills can be difficult because it requires experimentation that feels “unnatural”. But difficult ≠ impossible.

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Successful voice students share at least two common traits, neither of which are how bad they sound initially. The first is that they experiment aggressively, bravely exploring their vocal mechanism in unfamiliar ways. Through persistent, fearless trial-and-error they stumble onto better ways to use their vocal mechanism much faster than timid students who tepidly cling to familiar—but bad—singing habits.

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The second trait is they are able to replace the erroneous belief that they sing poorly because they have a bad mechanism (“I can’t sing”) with the truth that they have perfectly good equipment that they just need to learn how to use more effectively. After that, the sky’s the limit.

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The Giles County Community Chorus is an independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Copyright © 2017 by the Giles County Community Chorus. All rights reserved.