Signs You’re in a Toxic Band: A Singer’s Cautionary Tale

I’ve been in quite a few bands over the years.

Right after college, I gigged as a solo original act in a cafe I worked in. Over the following decades, I sang and/or played keys in cover bands of all different sizes and makeups – from duos to a ten-piece wedding band with a horn section.

The predominant lesson I’ve learned from these experiences is that your relationships with bandmates are no different than your romantic relationships.

There are honeymoon periods, good and bad communicators, personality and lifestyle challenges, and conflicts of interests. But don’t worry, there is also Mr./Ms. Right Musical Project out there. Even if you have to create it yourself.

It’s important to think of potential bandmates in terms of a romantic relationship. That’s not because you’re going to be married to them, but because personalities, lifestyles, and end-goals need to be in sync if you want your project to be successful.

I recently joined a project that was not a good match for me.

Granted, I was on the rebound. Another project that I had had high hopes for didn’t work out. As we humans sometimes do after a breakup, I moved too quickly into another relationship. Signs of dysfunction were everywhere, but I was slow to acknowledge and act on them.

In the video below, I share a little about the experience. But before I leave you to check it out, allow me to reinforce what I hope you get from this post:

Things to consider if you’re looking to join or create a musical project:

  • Before you look for fellow musicians, be clear about what you are and are not willing to compromise on.
  • At an audition, remember YOU are auditioning the BAND. Ask questions and don’t commit until you’ve had time to think about it.
  • Know your strengths and what you’re willing to improve upon. Don’t let others decide your contribution or your goals.
  • Let a project go if there are signs it’s not going where you hoped. Try amicably first, but do it either way.

Here’s my tale about the toxic project I just left. Enjoy!

 

 

 

How to Sing High Notes (Video)

I see lots of YouTube videos with this title.

But this post isn’t going to be your typical quick-fix singing tip for hitting high notes. Quick fixes are bandaids. I want to help you attack the source of your high-note singing challenges.

What is the source of your high-note challenges? A lack of the appropriate muscle strength and motor habits.

The only real way to sing high notes on pitch, with more strength, and with greater ease is to work out your head voice, repeatedly, over time.

If you avoid singing high notes because you don’t like the sound of your voice “up there,” you will never improve your skills. The trick is to patiently repeat vocal exercises that work that part of your range, while remembering the foundational basics (strong core, relaxed tongue, etc…) of good singing.

It takes time to build the necessary muscles and motor habits. Doing sit-ups once won’t give you hard abs. But doing sit-ups, planks, and other core exercises 3-4 days a week for three months will.

You have to think of vocal exercises in the same way. It’s not about how you sound today. It’s about how you WILL sound after you build up your strength.

Check out this video below for a couple of basic vocal exercises to get your head-voice strengthening routine started. Let me know how it goes!

Understand and Conquer Performance Anxiety

The subject of performance anxiety often appears in my posts and videos. That’s because I had a severe case myself when I was younger, and it became paramount that I figure out how to move beyond it. I know I’m not alone. Most of us experience this kind of anxiety, at least to some degree.

But this isn’t a challenge exclusive to singers because pretty much everything we do is a performance. Job interviews. Running team meetings. Asking someone out on a date. If you struggle with public singing or speech-giving, there’s a good chance you struggle with these other types of everyday performances.

Overcoming performance anxiety is beneficial to everyone. The tools to improve your ability to get on a stage without completely losing your mind, are the same tools you can use to perform better and with less stress in other areas of your life.

I put together the following video presentation to answer three questions:

  1. How does performance anxiety manifest?
  2. Why does performance anxiety happen?
  3. How can I conquer performance anxiety?

The answers to these questions changed my performing life. I feel certain they will do the same for you. Let me know if you think I left anything out. Enjoy!

 

More great singer-related content: On YouTube and the OwJF website.

 

Sound Gear and the Newbie Performer

I spend a lot of time posting singing tips, vocal exercises, and other advice regarding being a singer, but I haven’t talked much about gear. So, let’s do that now.

This is for newbie (or wannabe) performers who have limited or no experience with stage gear.

When I was young, I completely neglected the concept of gear. My thoughts and energy (and projected fears) centered around learning lyrics and just generally hoping to not stink at singing during my performance. In my twenties, I did some cafe gigs – just my keyboard and myself singing originals. I plugged directly into an old practice guitar amp using a crappy mic some relative had gifted me that, if memory serves, had no brand name.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I started gigging with more experienced musicians that it occurred to me to reconsider my gear. And now, I regularly meet aspiring singers who also forget to consider such things.

Think about it…

I spent countless hours and other resources honing my singing and playing chops only to send my voice through crappy sounding gear. I didn’t even use reverb! Mission defeated.

Don’t do what I did.

I was reminded of my gear-neglected past last Saturday when my new duo, Uptown Boogie gigged at a Greek restaurant in Naples. We used standard stage mics and went through a Mackie mixer with onboard FX and into a couple of Peavy speakers. This isn’t a super high-end setup, but it’s a solid system, unlike the cheap mic and practice amp of my twenties. With this system, all the work I did preparing for the gig was worth it.

We did lack in one area, though. The small space we had in the corner of this restaurant made setting up a monitor nearly impossible. A monitor (for those of you who don’t know) is a speaker (or ear bud) that you use to hear the music and yourself as you perform. Because of where we had to fit it, we had to keep the volume down to avoid feedback. This made it almost useless.

As is often the case when a singer can’t hear herself, I started the gig by over-singing. This is never good, not for your voice and not for your show. But I caught on early and whenever I needed to hear myself better, I stepped forward so I could hear one of the main speakers. Not ideal. And kind of a rookie mistake not planning our monitor situation better.

Just as I did back in my twenties, I had been so caught up in making sure we were prepared musically that I didn’t put enough thought into how we’d use a monitor in that small space.

I share this with you now, not because I enjoy admitting it, but to try to be helpful. After all, we are all human. Annoying as that sometimes is…

So, if you’re a newbie (or wannabe) performer, you want to understand what a singer needs to perform her or his best. Here are the four basic necessities you want to be sure you cover as you plan:

  • Quality Microphone
  • PA (the speaker system)
  • Monitor (to hear yourself)
  • Reverb (or other vocal effects)

Before you can choose gear that’s right for you, there are a few things to ask yourself:

  • What size rooms will I be gigging in? Smaller rooms are easier to fill with sound. Big rooms with loud dance music will need a more powerful system.
  • What kind of volume do I expect to create? Again, how much power do you need in your PA?
  • How many instruments will be going into the system? If you’re starting with just you on guitar and singing, do you hope to add musicians over time? If so, look for a system that has the number of inputs (for each instrument and mic) that you’ll need. A quality PA system will be your biggest expense. You want to try to find one that will fit your needs for some time.

Examples…

Below, I give you some examples of gear that might work for you. But I’m not a gear-head (and you don’t need to be one either), so I encourage you to explore other options. Read lots of reviews and get feedback from people who know about gear before making purchases.

The mic is probably the easiest purchase.

You can get a decent stage mic for a minimal investment. The industry standard in stage mic’s is the Shure SM58. They run about $100 and are good for small or big/loud shows.

If you’re planning to stick with acoustic or quieter gigs and you want to go higher-end with your vocals, the Neumann KMS 105 is my favorite mic ever. But it comes at a relatively hefty $700 cost (and it requires something called phantom power in your PA). Just sharing in case you have a wealthy benefactor…

The PA is your biggest investment.

In a nutshell, a PA consists of a board/mixer you plug instruments and mics into, and the speakers the sound comes out of. An extremely popular system that many acoustic singers use is the Bose L1 ($1000). Performers set it up behind themselves to use it both as the main speaker and a monitor. It has two instrument inputs (1 mic, 1 guitar/keys) and doesn’t have built in reverb.

Around the same price point is the Fender Passport Venue. This system has built-in reverb, six instrument inputs (4 mic, 2 guitar/keys), and phantom power (for condenser mics like the Neumann I mentioned above). I have an older version of the Passport and my built-in reverb isn’t the greatest I’ve heard, but it is waaaaaay better than no reverb. There is a less powerful version of the Passport called Event, with 5 inputs (4 mic, 1 guitar/keys), reverb, and no phantom power. That one runs about $700. Any Passport system will require mic stands.

If you want to keep it simple and more budget-friendly, you can try a system like the Behringer Europort ($400). This has six channels and built-in reverb. It also has an mp3 player if you use backing tracks or want mood music for between sets.

You don’t have to buy a prepackaged system. Uptown Boogie uses a Mackie PROFX8V2 mixer (with built-in effects, like reverb. $200) and a couple of Peavey powered speakers. Speakers like ours can run from $300 to $600 for a pair. If you do your research, you can combine a good quality mixer and speakers for less than the cost of the Bose L1 or Fender Passport. But keep in mind, you’ll be humping a lot of gear. One of the perks of the other two systems is their ease of portability. Especially the Bose.

Monitors.

Many solo and duo acts use systems like the Fender Passport with one speaker facing the audience and the other facing inward, acting as monitor. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that works for you.

If you want both speakers facing the audience then a personal monitor is super important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (some instrumentalists just don’t get it!). You need to hear yourself, preferably WITH reverb. In-ear monitors are great, but expensive (can be between $400 and $1200). If you’re on a budget, save the big purchase for your PA and try a more affordable monitor option, something like the Nady PM-200A Powered Personal Stage Monitor. It’s small, effective, and you can get an adapter to attach it to a mic stand.

Reverb.

Many mixers and PA systems come with reverb built in. If not, you’ll want something like the TC-Helicon Mic Mechanic ($150). You plug your mic into it, and then plug it into your mixer/PA.

Keep in mind that setup and breakdown times are best kept short. The more separate components you have, the longer it will take. That’s why a lot of folks choose a portable PA system with reverb and simply turn one speaker toward themselves. But I encourage you to do more research to find what’s right for you, and read lots of reviews to see what other users have experienced.

The most important thing I want to impress upon you in this post is that Sound Matters almost as much as honing your craft matters. That means your mic matters, your speakers matter, reverb matters, and being able to hear yourself matters.

Good luck in your research, and let me know how it goes!

 

More great singer-related content: On YouTube, on Patreon, the OwJF website.

Four Common Newbie Singer Mistakes

There are all kinds of misconceptions surrounding the art of singing. In this video, I discuss four common ones that I encounter pretty regularly as a vocal coach. I also offer a new and better perspective regarding each one.

Let me know what you think!

 

More great singer-related content: On YouTube, on Patreon, the OwJF website.

A Great All-Purpose Vocal Exercise

Now and then, I like to put together a targeted workout routine for singers who are striving for a particular goal with their voices (other workouts available on my YouTube channel). This time, I thought I’d go ahead and do an all-purpose workout routine. This one is particularly good for newer singers. Check it out, and let me know what you think!

Please Stop Telling Me You Can’t Remember Lyrics…

Well, yeah. I got a little sarcastic with the intro and outro of the following video. But I’ve reached the point where I just don’t want to hear it anymore. So, I’m asking you (very nicely and with the utmost respect) to please stop telling me you can’t remember lyrics.

Because you can.

There are three primary tenets to lyrics memorization. The last of those three involve the actual memorizing of words. The first two are much more important and often overlooked. Take a few minutes and join me as I walk you through a fail-safe process for lyric memorization. You can do this!

 

More great singer-related content: On YouTube, on Patreon, the OwJF website.

Truth! How to be a Great Singer

There is a plethora of posts and videos out there offering tips and methods for improving your voice. While the occasional suggestion for how to breathe, or pronounce a word, etc… can help with a particular application (I make these kinds of suggestions all the time), there is only one rule to follow to become a great singer. In the video below, I tell you what that is. Enjoy!

Love Your Head Voice!

Yes. You can learn to love your head voice. If you come from a choral background, you may already love it. But a lot of singers who start from a popular music background don’t.

Why are so many of us comfortable in our chest voices and not in our head voices? That’s easy. You practice your chest voice every day, when you speak. And because developing your voice is about muscle building and motor memory, your chest voice (or at least your speaking range) is worked out daily.

What exactly is your head voice? It’s the upper part of your range (where you experience a greater vibration in your head). In my version of laymen’s terms, it’s the part of your range where you have to change the way you sing or you can’t hit the notes. For a lot of singers, this part of their range is thinner, breathier and weak. But it doesn’t have to be.

So, how can you develop your head voice? By working it out!

In the video below, I selected vocal exercises from the Singer-Athlete Workout Series to create a basic warmup/workout routine with a focus on your head voice. Here are a couple of things to remember as you try the workout:

  • Sing with an easy-going volume. Pushing for too much volume can create unnecessary tension. An easy-going volume will help you focus on maintaining relaxed shoulders, neck and jaw.
  • Don’t try to create vibrato. Prettying up the sound by forcing vibrato is another way to create unnecessary tension. If vibrato happens naturally, fine. But don’t try to make it happen. Which leads me to…
  • Don’t care about how you sound. This is a workout routine, not a performance. How you sound is irrelevant. How you create your sound is all that matters.
  • Repetition is key. Do the workout multiple times (on multiple days) to get the full benefit. Again this is about building muscles. If you want to maintain strong abs, you have to keep doing ab exercises. If you want to maintain a strong head voice, you have to keep doing head voice exercises. (When you get tired of this routine, there are others HERE).

Enjoy the routine, and feel free to reach out to me with questions! 

Why Does My Voice Crack?

We vocal coaches get this question a lot. A lot. There’s a simple answer: Tension.

Okay. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it and…

KIDDING!

Simple answers and easy solutions aren’t the same thing. Once you recognize that tension is the culprit, you have to figure out the source of the tension and then retrain yourself to sing without it. Since I can’t hear or watch you sing to give you first-hand feedback, I’ll discuss the common causes of singing with tension. Then, in the video below, I show you a couple of ways to work out the tension that’s interrupting your song delivery.

Some common causes of vocal tension:

Mistaking Passion for Volume: When singers reach the most passionate portion of a song, they often attempt to express the intensity of emotion with volume. Passion can increase volume, but they are not the same thing. Instead of getting louder, intensify your story-telling by feeling the emotion of the words, and let the volume happen naturally – if it’s going to happen.

Frustration/Impatience: It seems that newer singers often feel good singers always sing great. Even on a first try of a new song. It’s just not true. Because of this mistaken belief, singers who don’t immediately nail a song can get frustrated, sometimes berating themselves and thinking things like, I’ll never be a singer! This negative self-talk alone will tense a body, but add the sometimes maniacal insistence to “make the song work” in one practice session and you get more and more tension, leading to a worse and worse performance. If you do this, STOP.  Take a break. Not only is singing a journey, but each song you work on is a journey, too. Don’t be a jerk to yourself and let the progress unfold.

Tilting your head back: Just about every singer at some point tilted his/her head back while singing higher notes. It’s some kind of human impulse. When you do that, the muscles at the front of your neck have to engage to keep your head from falling backward. I’ve been able to help some students immediately release tension in their singing just by having them lower their chins. Try it!

Consonants: I don’t mean to sound judgey but consonants are troublemakers. It’s easy to sing open vowel sounds all day long but then words like “ground,” and “quick,” and “watching” come along and ruin it all with those throat-closing, airflow-stopping consonants. If consonants are getting in your way and contributing to voice-cracking tension, you’re going to have to find ways to alter your pronunciation of them unnoticeably to keep a more open position in your mouth. Or you may just need to jump off of them faster and stay on the vowel sounds longer before getting to the consonants at the ends of words. Experiment with it.

A Weak Practice Routine: Yup. I said it. If your voice frequently cracks or shows other signs of tension (gets fatigued easily, for example), there’s a good chance that you have either no vocal workout routine, not a strong enough workout routine, or not a consistent enough workout routine. You may be sick of hearing me say it, but singing is a sport. You have to work out your voice if you want your best athletic performance. End of story.  Enough said.