Liquid Courage

It happens several times a night in every Karaoke bar across the nation. Someone staggers up on stage, primed to the gills with liquid courage, and can barely speak let alone sing. His or her friends are having a good laugh over it but it brings up a scientific question: If one drink helps to shake off the nervous butterflies and perform a little better, will ten drinks make you an amazing singer? (answer at bottom)

I offer the question to illustrate how diluted our thinking can be regarding alcohol and singing. Can alcohol ruin your voice? Yes. Can alcohol improve your singing? Yes, if used sparingly. Don’t get me wrong, to some people alcohol is poison and must be avoided. Most of us, though, are not alcoholics. Still, we tend to divide into two camps — heavy drinkers or non-drinkers. This all-or-nothing attitude misses the point of what makes someone a compelling singer. Excessive drinking will not make you the next Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. The bottle did not make them; it brought them down.

On the other hand, non-drinkers are not necessarily more productive or better performers. I’ve been in many situations (studio, rehearsal or stage) where the tension between four or five very sober musicians squashed any potential for creativity. A short drink is not the only way to reduce tension (meditation, fist fights), but sometimes it’s the quickest way to get past the petty stuff and get on with making music. In the studio, when all efforts have failed to relax a rigid singer, I’ve been known to suggest a cocktail break. The puzzled singer often asks, “Won’t alcohol hurt my voice?” To which I reply, “I’m talking one drink, and nothing would hurt you more than releasing this track with the vocal as it stands now.”

As always, make your own decisions regarding what goes into your body. So let’s go over the facts. Alcohol is a drying agent. The vapors evaporate some of the mucous which lines your throat. Tension, either from poor technique or nerves, restricts saliva ducts causing a similar dry condition. One drink is not enough to strip your throat, but may release muscles/attitude enough to re-hydrate. As with all foods, be aware of negative reactions. Besides the alcohol, wines contain tannic acid, which can dry your throat. Beers contain fungus and grains that may stuff your nose. Bourbons and whiskeys may be too harsh, causing more harm than good. Alcohol is not a cure-all, nor is it something to fear. Unlike other vices such as coffee, soda, cigarettes, marijuana or cocaine, it’s also a fact that a moderate amount of alcohol is good for you.

Things change dramatically, though, if you attempt to dowse your fears with binge drinking. Becoming drunk means your blood is toxic. This is never good for singing. Your body sacrifices fluids in order to flush out, leaving your vocal folds dry. If your system rejects all that courage (translation: vomits), stomach acids burn the folds and throat muscles. It takes more than 24 hours for your system to rebalance after a binge, which means the rest of your weekend is shot. On the performance side, you are lowered to the dulled reflexes and skewed judgment of a drunk driver. You may think you’re singing great, but a cell phone video of your rendition of “Margaritaville” might be harder to endure than the hangover. Which leads to the answer of the opening question: Yes, ten drinks will make you an amazing singer — to anyone who’s had eleven!

Singing With a Wave of Emotion


Master Class – Why We Sing

Why Practice?

Wearing The Song

Everybody has a favorite pair of jeans, just the right cut and perfectly broken in. We reach for them when we want to be comfortable. Singers need to create a wardrobe full of songs that fit as naturally as those jeans. Forcing and squeezing yourself into the current vocal trend is the surest way to highlight your weaknesses. Not surprisingly, with every new singing style, vocal therapists like me see an emergence of new complaints.   Often, the problem is not the singers, but the songs.

Two important aspects need to fall into place before singer and song become one. The first and most obvious is range. When singing cover songs, this requires finding the best key. Be prepared for some heated arguments when searching. Guitarists will fight to the death to play chords with open strings. Adjustments should always be made in favor of the vocals. (Tip: leave this article out where your band will read it.)   It won’t matter how well the guitar is resonating; if the singer is struggling, the band will be passed over.

To find the best key, sing the song a cappella for a few days. Without a musical reference, you’ll naturally adjust. Before settling on a new key, factor in performance adrenaline. If you’re too comfortable, you’ll miss the physical connection on stage. To find the right key in a hurry, isolate the highest and lowest notes of the song. The general range between the two is called the tessitura. Sing the phrase with the highest pitches several times in a row. If you’re fatiguing after two or three repetitions, drop down a half step and try again. Don’t forget about the lowest pitches. Are they difficult to project? If a compromise can’t be found, drop the song. Remember, singing covers is like wearing someone else’s clothes. They won’t all fit perfectly.

Original material is different because you can, and should, custom tailor the melody to your abilities. The most common mistake is the “bedroom voice.”   (Translation: Singing softly while writing a song late at night only to find that, next day with the band, you can’t reach the same pitches.) The solution doesn’t have to disturb your neighbors. The best way to learn about your instrument is to sing gibberish while your band is jamming. Once you get past the silliness of it, you’ll find notes slipping out which are usually strained. This will break down restrictive psychological barriers and allow you to discover what pitches, and which vowels, sound best from you.

The second most important factor in custom fitting a song is the lyrics. All too often, singers fail to dig deep enough when putting pen to paper. I’m not talking about changing the world with a chorus line, but inspiring yourself. Pitch and projection are muscle related aspects of singing; emotion is the all-important third dimension. The physical challenge of singing a song is not enough to sustain 1,000 memorable performances. (How many times has Mick Jagger sung, “Satisfaction?”) The lyrics have got to stir something inside you.

Screaming is no substitute for a potent lyric. The combination, however, of a heartfelt sentiment sung at the threshold of physical ability is too powerful to ignore. So, if there are songs in your set list that you either fear their tessitura or must oversell the emotion, get yourself in rewrite mode. To access the full potential of your voice, your songs have got to like your favorite pair of jeans.

What Does True Vocal Control Feel Like?

Singing Like Sushi

Want To Be Famous?

The Difference Between “What’s So” and “So What!”

From parents to peers to People Magazine, the moment you open your mouth to sing the critics start lining up to offer their opinions. How you process their comments will play a great role in your future as an artist. In his autobiography, Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, observes that most stars are either super-smart or super-dumb. The super-smart are too intelligent to let negative criticisms get to them and the super-dumb, well, they don’t know they’ve been insulted. So where does that leave the rest of us singers of average intellect? Often, we are overly sensitive to criticism about our voices. That’s a shame because some observations can be very beneficial for developing skills and honing an artist vision. To separate the constructive from the destructive, think of each comment thrown your way as a letter. Then, just as you sort your mail at home, start separating the important stuff from the junk.

Create two mailbags in your mind and label them, “What’s So,” and “So What.” “What’s So” is a place to put the truth. Use this bag to hold the comments regarding any current reality. Your range, for example, may be something you felt needed expanding and so you began a program of vocal exercises. Any comments concerning range, therefore, can be helpful in monitoring your progress. It’s like getting a bill in the mail; even though you can’t pay the whole balance you acknowledge the situation and keep working. What hurts, though, is when someone exposes something you have yet to address. If you have always wanted a higher range but haven’t done anything about it, comments regarding your lack of high notes will sting. Don’t shoot the messenger, get off your duff and start practicing. The only criticisms that can hurt you are the ones you agree with.

The “So What” bag is where you put all the junk mail. Any comment that does not directly help you should be stuffed in here and dealt with at your leisure. Every day I hear sad stories from people who were told long ago by teachers, friends or parents that they couldn’t sing. Decades have past and these comments are still haunting them. The only response that I can possibly offer is, “So what?” It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that I can’t change the past. At some point all the items in this bag will have to be acknowledged, but many will not require a response. Noting the source of a comment is important. You certainly don’t need to dwell on a remark from someone who doesn’t support your goals. Understanding the sender’s perspective may also help turn a destructive comment into a constructive one. Ironically, most negative criticisms from parents are just awkward attempts to keep you from getting hurt. Also, plenty of people interchange the words “voice” and “music,” so clarify whether it is your singing or the song that’s being criticized. If, after all this scrutiny a comment is still bothering you, it’s time to admit that you agree with the observation and take some action. Even if all you do is switch the mental bag the comment is stored in, at least you know it’s now a work in progress.

Starting today, get in the habit of sorting your mail quickly. Un-filed criticisms tend to float around in our hearts and eat at our confidence. Avoid the automatic defensive retort as well. Emotions make us say unfortunate things, especially to ourselves. In truth, there’s no need to respond to any comment other than to acknowledge you heard the person. Singing requires you find yourself, which can take some people a lifetime. Never mind what others are saying about you, the value of a criticism is observing your reaction. What matters will continue to bother you until you address it and what doesn’t matter is quickly forgotten. It takes time and practice to empty those mailbags, but in a year you should arrive at a mental state where you are not concerned with how others judge you. And that, my friends, is when you really begin to sing.

Jaw Tension Taking Over?