Category Archives: Getting Started

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.”

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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….

A Non-Singer’s Report About Singing

My daughter doesn’t sing, she designs.

Nope she doesn’t sing — well, let’s be real.  She sings in the car, and when she feels like it, and when she’s listening to her ipod, and on the way to the car, and as she’s getting out of the car, and in the bathtub, but no, she says she doesn’t really sing. 

She sketches page after page of gowns, dresses, hot outfits, gorgeous creations.

Well, actually — furthermore — and by the way — she sings in her head all the time, every time she can’t sing out loud.  Does that count?

Yes.  I mean no.  She has declared she is not a singer.

Not a singer.

Except…

…she took a voice lesson recently, I don’t know what came over her.  She said she did it just for fun, just for the heck of it, with voice teacher Kimberly Harrison in Los Angeles, CA.

Yes, this might inspire some of you out there….

After the lesson, my daughter called me up on the phone and said, “Mom, I know why you sing.  Singing feels like flying and soaring, like being free beyond free.”

I thought to myself, “The singing secret is out…”  That’s it.  The whole world will start singing now.  Nothing else will happen.  No one will go to work.  They’ll all be singing ’cause it’s so much fun and now EVERYBODY will know.

I asked more questions.  Like what did you sing, did you swing out and try things?  Tell me everything!

She went on.  “Mom, I had never sung that loud.  I got loud just to see where the notes would go.  I didn’t try, I just let it out.  The less you try, the better and the more real it sounds.”

Whew.  So true.

“Anything else, dear?”  I asked her.

Apparently, because she continued….

“I tried closing my eyes, too, which was like ‘being gone’ but I could feel the sound vibrating.  It flowed upwards and outwards.  If I could have sprinkled fairy powder dust all over the sound, it would have been billowing and lifting like clouds, connected with bright strings of sound.”

Beautiful visual, huh?

There’s more.  See if you’ve ever felt this.

She said, “Sometimes I felt a hot air balloon – or something expanding! — inside me and I thought it might lift me right  off the ground.  The feeling was broad and wide and I felt like it could take me off on a magic carpet to a faraway place.  My chest cavity grew 7 sizes.  I felt bigger than myself and outside of myself.”

And finally, “I liked the feeling of sound vibrating through my whole body.  Each note had a vibration, and each note had its own spirit and personality.  As I sang it a note, I could feel the life force of that sound.  I sang it, and set it free to dance outside me in its own space.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sing a few notes today.  What the heck.  Anybody can do it.  It’ll make you smile and by so doing, you’ll automatically make the world a happier place.

How Do You Create a State of Bliss — Daily?

Buck Springs Overlook 8-19-09

Ah-h-h-h-h-h....

There is something you probably do for yourself that takes you out of mind jabber and into pure positive nothing-ness-everything-ness where all things wonderful are born.

In this beautiful space there is no thinking, no strategic planning, no mental arguing or defense, and no worry. There is no inner dialog recounting a past conversation repeatedly, until you get the conversation “right.”  In this expansive and creative space, there are no “couldas” and “shouldas.”  Only experimentation and acceptance followed by more joyful, all-out-no-holds-barred creativity.

There is no future and no past in this bliss space. Only now. You can’t think AND do this thing, whatever this thing is for you that creates blissful presence.

Do you know this space I’m talking about?

What is this bliss-producer for you? Do you know?

What are you doing when time disappears?  (And, NO, sleeping doesn’t count…. :–) What sends you straight to that open heart space where good things get created in your world?

Just being around music doesn’t necessarily do it for me, although I have experienced some rather amazing vocal concerts and heavenly musical events. Learning a song or voice technique doesn’t do it. Taking a hot bath doesn’t do it, even though a hot bath on a winter day is pretty much heaven.

Maybe the bliss-producing-time-erasing-negative-conversation-obliterating THING, in most cases, is something you DO, not something you enjoy that is coming to you from someone or somewhere else.  I don’t know.

I do know that one of my bliss-producing time erasers is improvisational singing in a resonant space. Pure and simple.  Add a few like-minded singers and the positive effect of the experience heightens exponentially.  It becomes totally indescribable.

drops of water Improvisational singing in a resonant space is where every sound OUT comes BACK around to anoint me with a happy barrage of good feelings — something like  a surprise shower of sun-filled, life-giving, sweet tasting, sparkling clear drops of water.

This singing is my “thing that I do.”

I don’t know if this kind of singing is nirvana to you, but from presenting it to groups lately, it seems to have appeal to a certain section of the human population, perhaps to those of us for whom sound is serenely soothing.

And for those of us who stop thinking altogether when we sing.

Roses at Farmer's Market in Paris

Roses at Farmer's Market in Paris

Singing in this way does it all for me. It’s like going on vacation to Europe, seeing a field of flowers in bloom, walking through a farmer’s market full of color and goodness from the earth, looking out over the Great Smokey Mountains, eating a gourmet meal, having great sex and hearing 1,000 angels — simultaneously!

You can see that singing is pretty high on my list of favorites!

Would love to know what your bliss producer is… Thoughts, questions and discussion welcome.

Alone in the Rain with No Transportation

This is actually a favorite kind of day for me….

… And NO, I’m not stranded outdoors with a broken down car.

I’m home alone, no meals to fix, and nobody to tend to except already contented animals. Nothing I’m up to requires a car and I’m all cozy and warm, slippers on, with plenty of time to write, create and brainstorm. The golden beeswax candles are lit right next to me, soft lights brighten up the cloudy day and surround-sound music bathes me in my favorite rainy day albums.beeswaxcandles

The longer I’m here on this beautiful earth, the more I appreciate this kind of time. Being busy is highly over-rated. Being home writing, with a hot cup of French Roast and great music on the Bose Music System to keep me company is, well, pretty much my idea of heaven.

Sure, there is a rather hefty stack of paper staring at me that needs sorting and filing. But am I doing that?

Nope.

Today is for me and my whims. When I am alone, my creative muses talk to me the most about music and making joyful sounds.

Want to know what they said today?

One of the best ways to get started with improvisational singing is to “practice it” when no one is around. You can experiment in ANY way. Go ahead. Have a wild and woolly practice session.

And here’s the thing. It doesn’t mean you necessarily practice improvisational singing. Case in point — today I chose an Opera piece that is (let’s be honest) a musical train wreck for me.
OperaCartoon
Il mio bel foco (My Joyful Ardor) by Benedetto Marcello.

It’s not an easy piece and on top of that the version of the accompaniment that came with my music book moves like lightning. Nobody who sings it well has this speed-demon accompaniment. Oh, and for strike three, it’s in Italian of course.

To listen to it, go to Youtube. Here’s a link. Spare yourself and don’t listen to the folks who sing it in their garage or for their recital. Trust me, it’s not that helpful. Listen to a singer who can actually give it a go.

If you want to get better at improvisational singing, practice something difficult for you — anything. I chose Opera today, but you could opt for a mountain bike, a skateboard, roller blades or a trampoline!! Pad yourself properly and then play like a kid. You could go play basketball, play catch with your grand daughter or find a game of beach volleyball. Why not have a dance lesson, or get up the courage to build a do-it-yourself website (argh), or make soup broth from scratch. Get in the car and drive somewhere without planning where you’re going.

Do something you’ve never done before or something that is predictably difficult for you — AND, this is important — you actually have an attraction to doing it. You want to do it.

If you practice something you’re not adept at doing, and go at it with a big dose of joy and reckless abandon, you learn about who you are — very important in improvisational singing!

You need to know YOU if you’re going to sing without a map. (More on that in a future post.)

During this “reckless abandon” project, pay attention to improvements only. Forget the “mistakes.” They mean nothing. Look for what you’re doing well and concentrate on that. Notice everything you do well and let yourself smile about it.

This is fabulous training for improvisational singing. And for life, too, for that matter.

To do anything well, it helps to be comfortable with everything about it, including mistakes and screw-ups. Make mistakes. Relax about them. Welcome them with open arms.

Long ago, I knew a Utah ski instructor who taught beginners. We’re talking newbies who somehow got railroaded into that ski vacation with friends or family. And here they were with their skis and poles and their brand new ski outfit all dressed up and scared to death.

And do you know what he taught them first and foremost on that bunny slope where we all begin?

He taught them how to fall.

I've Fallen And I Can't Get Up!

I've Fallen And I Can't Get Up!

After the falling lesson, where everybody ended up covered with snow and laughing, his students had great fun learning to ski because the worst part — the part that everyone was trying NOT to do — was over! Now they could get on with the standing up part of skiing.

Simple, yet brilliant.

This is what we’re talking about: Doing something “really wrong” or sloppily and getting it over with is liberating.

So strap on your whatevers and go attempt something ridiculously new and a tiny bit dangerous for you — and then write me and tell me all about it. I’ll be waiting with great anticipation for your report.

How To Find Your Authentic Sound

HillcreekHouse1

The short answer? Relax your body.  Your relaxed body and mind allow you to make the purest sound of you.

Is it a bath that does it for you?  A vase of flowers on your desk while you work?  A cat that reminds you how to enjoy yourself?  A physical workout?  All of the above?

What does it for you?

If you’re relaxed, you’re not trying to get rid of  “the inner uglies”,  worries and stresses, or the day’s low points.  You are not attempting to balance yourself, heal yourself or send your personal list of “the most un-wanteds” out of yourself through sound.

(But if you do have a “get rid of list”, go for it.  Make any sound that is sure to empty the inner junk tank.)

If you sing from a relaxed place, you can feel what is inside you.  You can express the beautiful you.  Your sound reflects this  “at-home-with-yourself” vibration and you’ll be able to meet yourself, feel yourself, know yourself and hear who you are.

To sing your true sound, it helps to live where you want to and how you want to.  If you like green around you, and breathing room, then by all means, orchestrate your life so you have green in abundance. If you like the city, find one that suits you and live right smack in the middle of it, so you can be fed by the energy of the city or whatever is attractive to you about the city.

If you know what makes you happy and you don’t have it, write down your vision, find pictures and post them where you can see them.  Spend a little time each day — even walking from your bedroom to the kitchen — imagining and feeling yourself in this new environment.  Imagine and feel.  Bring your favorite environment into your sound when you sing.  Sing from there.  Your new space will come running into your arms.

Mine did.  Ahhhhhh.

Got a story like this?  Or questions?  Do tell.

Sunflowers1

What Does Your Freedom Sound Like?

There is a lot NOT to do when you sing, and a lot to forget about.

Very little TO  DO.

In fact, drop most of your rules about singing — heck drop all of them.  It will make things easier. You can have rules back any time you want them.  Herein lies the beauty of improvisational singing and the introduction to freedom that it offers.Path In Forest

First, get quiet.  Stand there for a while and do nothing.  Clear your mind for a minute.  Just stand there and be.  Imagine you know you are going somewhere beautiful, you just don’t know where.

Then take a deep breath, open your mouth and make a sound — a long, slow, easy-going note.  Your note is strong and it has substance,singleNote2 but no brothers and sisters yet.  No family of sounds.

It’s just one beautiful note standing all by itself.  Ok, it’s a little lonely, but that will change.

Repeat. Forget about melodies.  Feel a note coming and go there.

At first,  singing single notes gets your sound feet on the ground.  This is the point and it’s important.  This is a first step to singing in a way that will help you find your inner bell of freedom.  And what a beautiful sound that is!

Most people do not sing freely, not even close.  This is not exactly a stunning surprise, because we sing the way we live and the way we give speeches (and how we make love — but that’s another story!!!).  We’d have to.  Who we are in one place shows up all over the place — how efficient!

So, if we are a planner, a worrier, a strategist, or an agonizer,  do you think this will show up during singing?  Yep, it will, and this is a very good thing.  And if you don’t KNOW that you’re a “I won’t take a step unless I know where I’m going” person (or whatever), and it shows up in spades during singing, can you embrace that?  Absolutely. And can you embrace how amazing and skilled and beautiful you are?  Absolutely….. well, I don’t know…..sometimes that’s even harder.  (More on that subject another time.)

And yes, there are “natural” speakers who can tell a great story, but they know the story.  They know how it starts, they know the middle and they know the end. They know exactly how to get to the punchline and they know the audience will laugh.  This is a beautiful thing, and a great skill.  However, this is not what I’m talking about here.  Quite the opposite.

LittleGirlPeekingGentle Warning: the strangest sides of us can come up during singing!  This is one of the beauties of singing in this way.  So, my singing friend, prepare to meet your other selves that have been hiding in dark and comfortable places.  Invite them all out into the daylight.  Come  one, come all.  All the uncomfortable, afraid and very in control sides of you are welcome here in the land of free singing.

It’s the open road, baby!  You’ve got powerful transportation.  Step on the gas and see where this voice of yours takes you.