Singing Tips — #1


Breath energy is your power.  When you sing, know that there is plenty of air available for you — it’s all around you — and having confidence and comfort about your intake makes all the difference in singing.

Take a breath, use it all up and get another one.  Never worry about running out of air in a song.  You can fix it later.  It is easier to relax if you know that you can always get more air when you need it, and if you know that you have plenty of time to figure it all out.

So, when you practice a new song, if you need another breath, just take one,  even if you “shouldn’t”  and make a mental note about that phrase.  Notice (and/or mark) the places where you tend to run out of breath in the song, so you can go back and figure out the best places to breathe.  Use check marks on your music to indicate where it works to take a breath.  As you practice and get more comfortable with the song, you may notice that your breathing patterns change.  So go with the flow.

William Hanrahan, my dear voice teacher in Los Angeles, and his partner Paul Baker (accompanist extraordinaire, singer, harpist) always gave us the following hint.  At the end of many songs, there is a “money note”  meaning the big finish note.  Do professional singers sing the whole final phrase on one breath?  Nope.  They usually take a breath before that last note or last few notes.  After a pause for emphasis, take a breath and then hold the money note for as long as you please.


Diana Krall

Diana Krall

What’s not to like? Smokey voice, great piano, easy listening all day long, especially on a cold, gray day, by the fire with a cup of tea.

Diana Krall was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia on November 16, 1964. She began with classical piano studies at age four, followed by jazz in high school. To say that she grew up in a musical household would be quite the  understatement.  In her upbringing, there was music everywhere and it was a family affair.  On Sundays the family made music and sang together.  Both her father and mother played piano, and Diana says some of her fondest childhood memories are singing and playing piano with her grandmother.

Her first gig (age 15) was playing piano three nights a week at a local hometown restaurant called NHL — a very nice hockey bar.  How perfect for a Canadian girl to begin with hockey!

Then in 1981, Diana won a Vancouver Jazz Festival scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  After studying for a year and a half, she returned home.  Renowned bassist Ray Brown heard her playing one night and was so impressed by what he heard that he took her under his wing. Ray convinced Diana move to Los Angeles where she obtained a Canadian Arts Council grant to study with Jimmy Rowles.  Jimmy encouraged Diana to explore her vocals to supplement her already blossoming piano skills.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  After a few years in Los Angeles and Toronto, she moved to New York in 1990.  Her very first album, “Stepping Out” debuted in 1993, followed by “Only Trust Your Heart” in 1995.

Elvis Costello

After a couple more interim albums, “When I Look in Your Eyes” arrived in 1999 and her success  exploded. The album became an international best-seller and earned her a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. It also was the first jazz album to be nominated for Album of the Year in 25 years.

More personally speaking, she married the British musician Elvis Costello in 2003 on Elton Johns’ estate.  They have twin sons, born in December of 2003 in New York City.

So when it’s snowing outside, put a few of her albums on, and cuddle up with something good to read.  For your reference, here is a partial list of her albums.

  • 1993: Stepping Out
  • 1995: Only Trust Your Heart
  • 1996: All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio
  • 1997: Love Scenes
  • 1999: When I Look in Your Eyes
  • 2001: The Look of Love
  • 2004: The Girl in the Other Room
  • 2005: Christmas Songs
  • 2006: From This Moment On
  • 2009: Quiet Nights

David Roth — Where Song, Spirit and Speaking Meet

David Roth

There’s just something about David Roth.  He saunters onto the stage and begins telling stories in song and in no time at all, we feel like we’ve known him forever.

He’s honest.  Open.  Candid. He’s also fall down funny.  He calls one on himself at every opportunity, all from a place of confidence in the human spirit, quietly implanting the idea in our hearts and souls that surely (and why not start now) — there’s more of us that can come out to play.

I walked away from David’s concert a better person.  Corny?  For sure.  Still, it’s true.  I became a better person — more myself, more able, more true to who I am — all by listening to David Roth sing and tell stories.

All evening, he simply shared himself, song after song.  How simple is that?

His confidence with the guitar and piano came over us like a soft, happy wave washing out our long day, the cares and worries we may have brought with us, the struggles or tiredness we may have carried into the room.

His instruments are clearly long-time friends and partners.  He often “warms up” on the guitar as he is introducing a song.  I’m not sure why I love that part so much, but I pretty much melted any time he was strumming, tuning and finding chords as he was speaking.  He has a deliciously gentle way of inviting us into his stories.

And then there is David’s “presence factor.”  He’s just there, playing and singing and talking, weaving intricate stories about life, rambling on about an event from his past, and finally catching us with a surprise curve ball as the musical story is falling effortlessly from his fingers.  When he throws a strike (and he’s a very good pitcher), you can hear the funny bones in the room crack open, hearts melting, minds saying “hmmmm….”.

David Roth

The audience last night was palpably awake.   Personally speaking, miracle of miracles, my mind never wandered.  That’s quite a service to humanity in itself — to give us a mental vacation from all we’ve been doing and thinking and feeling — and visit the creative world of David Roth for a little while.  It wasn’t the kind of music where you say to yourself, “Gee, that’s pretty, that’s beautiful, what a nice performance” — while yawning a bit inside, and thinking about tomorrow.

Last night when David sang, we paid attention.  We hung on every word.  We wondered what the next line would be — couldn’t wait to hear it.  And where could he could possibly be going with this story of his?

The best part of all?  When we “got there,” the journey was more than worth it.  Thanks, David.  Like you said, “practice makes progress.”

The Brilliant k.d. lang

The Brilliant k.d. lang

There are more than a few extraordinary voices in the world, and one of them is k. d. lang. She can take any song and make it a prayer, a calling to the heart — heck, a reason to live on a very bad day.  She could sing a nursery rhyme and I’d listen.

k.d. lang

What gives k.d. lang her compelling vocal quality?

She has honest sound, and it is connected to her — entirely.

Every note.

She has unadorned sound.  No vocal shenanigans, so stylizing, no extras.  She just sings and you have to listen with all your heart the moment she opens her mouth.

She has sung with Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett, among many others.

And not surprisingly,  Tony Bennett has very kind things to say about her:

“I can tell if someone has got it, or hasn’t got it, and k.d. has a gift. She’s just a very beautiful, natural singer, and there aren’t many of them around. Every note (of hers) has great feeling and honesty. I can’t ask for a more pleasant thing to listen to than to listen to k.d. sing.”

This is what Leonard Cohen (who wrote “Halleluyah”) and his partner, singer Anjani Thomas had to say about KD’s version of “Halleluyah” sung at Cohen’s induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame:

“After hearing k.d. lang perform that song at the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006 we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection.'”

True.  Good thinking.

Here’s the link for the song by k.d. lang “Halleluyah.”  Enjoy.

Letting Go of That…And That…

OK, good for you.

You’ve had a busy day, an active day, a productive day.  And on top of that,  you got up early to get it all going.  It’s now about 9 or 10 pm and you think to yourself, “Wow, it’s about time to slow down and head for the bedroom, get relaxed, read a little maybe, and get a good night’s sleep.”

What a good and wise thought.

You begin to work your way in that direction, but you forgot about the cat litter that needs emptying and, yes, the dishwasher finished a couple hours ago.  It would be better to empty it now, wouldn’t it?

So you do.

And then there’s that email you forgot about until this very minute and you promised to send the information today.  Back to the computer for just a few minutes, right?  No big deal.  I’ll only take a moment.  But while you’re there, you take care of a couple other emails.  One takes longer than you thought.

Back to the kitchen to get the sliced peaches and big fat blueberries out of the freezer for tomorrow.  You congratulate yourself for remembering.

Are we done yet?

Not quite.  Brush teeth, take out the contact lenses, wash your face, jammies on.

Into blessed bed.

The clock says 11:15 pm.  My how time flies.  So onto the pillow goes your head and you think, “Ahhhh.  Sleep.  This is gonna be a piece of cake.  This is gonna be so easy.  I’m so tired.”

And then the unthinkable begins….

Nodding off effortlessly into dreamland — it’s not happening!  Where did it go?  It was here just a minute ago.   Your good friend “Sleepy Head” slipped away into some other dimension and sent its (very) distant cousin  “Busy Mind” to visit.

What an unwelcome exchange….

You’ve heard that what you resists only gets worse, what you think about manifests, and where your attention flows your energy goes.

(Yeah, yeah.  Just let me sleep, please…)

So good and well-meaning human that you are, you resolve to welcome the unwelcome visitor, and not resist.  You get what you resist, right?  Yes.  You resolve to relax.  Let go of it all.  Chill out.  Tune out the word-thought-idea party going on in your head.

You breathe deeply.  Ahhhh.  The dance of words slows a bit.

I must be doing something right,”  you think to yourself.

But the inside-your-head-talking-party doesn’t actually stop.   There are a couple of noisy and determined characters who keep bringing up new topics for discussion.  Not important topics, just random, free range comment threads that don’t matter at all at this hour, or probably ever.

But there they are, these word children, yacking away.

What can you do with them?

“Hush,” you say to the noisiest ones.  You pretend they are restless children who have been playing outside all day and just can’t settle down.  You give them an pillow and blanket and tell them to lay their sweet heads down, down, down.  And you tell them oh-so-patiently, “It’s late, darlings.  Morning will be coming soon. Go to sleep.”

You even read them a story.

And the “word children” settle down for a minute.  The bedtime story is good, but sooner or later, one of them asks for a drink of water.

You get the drink and sink back into the land of hopeful sleep.


The last child, the noisiest one is still awake.

So now what?

“Well, what if I sing him a lullabye?”

You hum silently.  It’s all in your imagination.  “Hey, this feels good,” you think to yourself.   You keep humming.  You notice you’re breathing more deeply.


More About Practicing Vocal Improv

A great way to practice improvisational singing is to invite at least one other person to sing with you or “work out” with you. This is one of the most efficient ways to expand your abilities, think outside your own sound box, and experiment with vocal patterns and musical ideas in addition to your own.

Adding another voice to your improv session changes the game completely.  It’s an automatic challenge.  For starters, you have to include another person vocally speaking, and you must sing with them.  For it to work, responses to whatever you sing to each other are a resounding “yes.”

You go with it….

Whatever the other person sings, you find your way into it, around it, under it, or through it and you sing notes that match or accentuate or support the “incoming” sound in some way.  You accompany, you follow.  And pretty soon you’re “leading”, but who is to know, really….and who cares.  The two of you are creating an unfolding vocal experience, an ebb and flow, an ever-moving river of sound.

As you sing, you will likely find yourself trusting the improvisational process more and more, and still you may falter.  You may hesitate.  But if you listen and breathe, you will probably find a new sound, sound pattern or expression you didn’t know you had.  What a gift from your partner in song.

When your partner moves into a vocal tangent you don’t understand, just wait a moment until you can feel what is being sung, what is being communicated, or where she is headed.  Then add to the mix in some way.

Be patient.  Simple is good.  In fact, simple is often the most beautiful.

You will probably begin to understand the other person (not to mention yourself) in a deep and unspoken way.  You might feel the voice-being next to you as if you were dancing together, moving as one, all while going forward into the sound of the two of you.

And then there’s another matter.  Since there are two of you and you are looking out for each other in this vocal improv game, you sing not as a soloist, but as a duo.  This means making space in your singing for another person.  If you’re in the lead, you have to give the other singer room to join you.

Easier said than done.  Perhaps a new awareness…

It’s a bit like driving.  You know where you are going, you know your destination, but in order to arrive,  it is a good and useful thing to be in cooperation with the other drivers.  As you drive, you’re in a movin’, groovin’, lane-changing, speeding up and slowing down, there’s my exit, and maybe even “wow, I guess I missed my off-ramp” kind of  dance with other vehicles, intentions, driving styles, levels of awareness, emotional states, and destinations.

You’ve got to pay attention.  Adjust.  Step on the brake occasionally.  Re-evaluate. Speed up.  Slow down.

For another comparison, in a partnership or intimate relationship, freedom of expression is a good thing, a necessary thing, vital and life-enhancing even — but if one person in a couple only has “individual awareness” and doesn’t realize or know how to be a member of a team of two, things don’t work as smoothly.

So, as you vocalize, be free and self-expressive AND look to see if you are including the other person.

When I have an event coming up, I practice in every way I can — by myself and with others.  Aloud and to myself.  Just before sleep and when I wake up.  Here and there during the day.  I just sing for a little while. I tune in, try things in my head or out loud, and play a bit.  Then back to work as usual.

Kaleo Wheeler

And yesterday, I asked a new friend of mine, Kaleo Wheeler, to come sing with me.  I had never sung with her before, but it seemed like we could probably make a good go of it.

By the way, Kaleo has an album out, called Ulana, The Way of the Heart, a beautiful CD of her Hawaiian music.

Kaleo and I sang together for more than an hour, and I’m here to report that this process re-arranged our brain cells in such a good way.  Making room for another singer inside my own vocal abilities, patterns, habits and sounds is uplifting, a good exercise and just plain fun.  At the end of the session, we spontaneously expressed to each other the delight we both felt.

After singing, as we drove away a big-winged black and yellow butterfly lead us much of the way down the steep road.   In order to avoid crushing him, I had to keep stopping the car.  At one point, I got out of the car to shoo him off the road.  He didn’t fly away, but instead continued to fly down the road about twenty feet at a time.  We wondered if he was injured, but part way down the long and winding road, he flew off into the forest just as nimble and healthy as can be. Apparently, he had successfully delivered his message of transformation and support, which we interpreted as a “thumbs up” from the singing Gods.

A butterfly “leading” a big ol’ piece of moving metal is a striking visual, and inspired continued reflection about our experience together.  We so enjoyed the exploration, leading each other into unknown territory, following, mixing it up, cracking up, exploring dissonance, stopping to smell the roses, and enjoying the profound silence between sounds.

We found the “new” in ourselves and we didn’t even quite know what to call it, we just felt happy.

…which reminds me of a quote I love about improv by Miles Davis.  He said ” I’ll play it first and tell you what it’s called later.”

How Do You “Learn” Improvisational Singing?

Learning anything improvisational is almost a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?  If the singing isn’t planned, and there is no road map, then how do you practice improvisational singing?

There are a number of ways, and we’ll address a few options here, and more ways later.

You might begin by exploring your voice so that you get to know it — can you say you really know your voice?  I’ve been singing for years, and I’m still getting to know my voice.

Pretend you and your voice really don’t know each other.  Schedule a date to meet and greet. Ask questions, explore, and find out what you can about this “new” friend of yours.

Maybe, just for starters, ask yourself these questions and write out the answers.

  1. What my voice can do?  Include ideas about vocal range, strength or lack thereof that you feel or experience when you sing, clarity of your voice, vocal stamina, etc.  Write down what’s true right now about your voice.  Just ramble about it a bit.  What’s in your awareness about your voice?  Don’t bother editing.  It’s helpful to see where your attention goes when you think about your voice, ’cause you can tell what’s on the “top of the stack.”
  2. How comfortable am I with singing? Can I and/or do I sing just for myself or do I sing for others?
  3. How do I sound?  Describe it factually (without opinion or judgment).  Example:  I think of my voice as soft.  I don’t know how high or low I can sing.  My voice sounds breathy to me, like it has a lot of air in the sound.  It’s not clear like a bell, it’s more like the sound of a soft breeze.  OR — I have one of those boisterous voices.  Loud, kind of brash and bold and out there.  Not quiet or apologetic, really the opposite of that.  I have a confident voice. When I sing, it just sounds loud to me.  I don’t really know if I sing in tune.  I just sing when I sing, without thinking much about how it sounds.
  4. Do I enjoy singing?  Under what circumstances?
  5. What would I like my voice to do that I don’t think it can do at this moment in time?

During your day, when you get up from your desk, put your child down for a blessed nap, walk outside or down the hall for a lunch break or errand, try making a little sound.  I don’t mean a squeak or a tiny sound, I mean sing a little bit.  Hum a little. Sing a song out loud that you’ve been singing in your head.  Make up a song.   Make a wavy sound with your voice.  Sing tra-la-la a couple of different ways.  Sing a sentence instead of speaking it.

Pry open the “exploring your voice”  treasure box by being vocal in a new way — not speaking — but singing.  Widen your speaking range and turn it into a song-sound.

Yes!  Sing a little…

If you can find a place to sing and experiment that’s private, great.  If not, walking along a busy street or going to a park, or sitting in your car for a few minutes can work, too.

Start small and work from there.  Start with humming three notes, heck — one note.  This gets your brain, body, and your being acclimated to a wider range of sound expression.

Later, if you are so inclined, you can develop your voice, so it can do what you want it to do.  Your voice becomes your full partner, a well-prepared tool.  It becomes the paint brush that can splash any color right where you want it.  If you want to sing a low note, or a high note, and you can.  If you need to hold a note forever, or practically forever, you can.  Otherwise, it’s like being a painter with an incomplete palette  — you’re missing some important colors, or the paintbrush itself.

But for now, sing people!  Sing anything. Sing here.  Sing there. Get to know your sound, your vibration, your up notes and your down notes.

It’s where to start.

Oh, and have fun….