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Effective Practice

(Some of the points I raise here may be more applicable to playing an instrument, some targeted at singers, so use your judgement when reading and apply what you find helpful to your own musical journey.)

A topic that frequently arises when tutoring students is the importance of sticking to a regular practice schedule. Perhaps because it is a reminder of schooldays homework, or because is in addition to younger students’ workload who are still at school or college, but some players who enjoy playing during class and melodic repertoire are loath to practice regularly (and effectively) at home.

Students who shirk practicing think tutors don’t know. We know! Trust me. I’ve used all the excuses in the book to get out of practicing. Tutors who have taught for years are also able to gage the rate at which you should be progressing with a good teacher and regular time set aside for practicing.

If you don’t commit, you are only cheating yourself.

This next sentence is the most important part of this blog entry, so please read and re-read it until it sinks in.

Regular practice is the most important thing you can do to improve as a player.

Let’s read it again.

Regular practice is the most important thing you can do to improve as a player.

Did you get that? Are you making best use of your practice sessions? If not, why not? Think about what changes you need to make in order to better the outcome of your rehearsal sessions.

Everyone who plays should practice and practice can often be fun. For me, as a perfectionist, my fun is in seeing the progress I make, regardless of study content, but students who need a little more motivation (particularly younger learners) may need to find fun material to work with (catchy melodies etc).

Rudimentary mechanics is the basis for all great performance, so take your medicine in the knowledge it will make you a better player. Most importantly, structuring your practice will help you maintain regular sessions.

Below are some ideas I have for you.

 

FOCUS ON THE FINISH LINE

What do you want to achieve from playing your instrument? Close your eyes and visualise it; see yourself doing whatever it is that you want to do, be it performing onstage at the BBC Proms or Carnegie Hall, touring with a live rock band, or teaching others. See yourself already doing it.

Inhale slowly through the nose and then exhale slowly through the mouth, all the while seeing your future self in your mind. Visualisation is half the journey and helps you accomplish your goals more quickly. It is done!

 

SET TIMES

Decide when you can best practice and stick to that slot daily. Maybe you prefer to play as soon as you get home from school or work, or maybe you’d rather have a rest first and then get to it. Whichever works best for you is fine.

Make sure to rehearse for at least half an hour every day. Longer is preferabl for intermediate and advanced students as the first portion of practice sessions merely warms up the fingers/larynx/lips etc and wakes up the mind; I find with busy students, this in itself can take up to an hour to accomplish – especially if practicing at the end of a stressful/busy day – so if time permits, spend another half hour or more actually playing the study pieces. Younger students and beginners can start with twenty minute sessions.

If you have been playing for longer but can only find twenty minutes in your day to practice, do it and do it daily! Don’t beat yourself up about having small amounts of time free to dedicate to your musicianship, just knuckle down and do it. Quieter times will come when you will be able to extend your sessions, but for now, it is better to be consistent and have daily practice than play for an hour or two one day and then do nothing for two or three days.

The mind and body needs repetition in order to make playing your instrument a habit. Think about when you learned to walk or tie your shoes. These activities are second nature now and need little to no thought, but initially, you would have had to concentrate in order to accomplish them. We want wonderful playing and singing to come as naturally to us.

One thing to note:

If you are overly tired, not concentrating, or unable to play/sing (cracked lips, sore throat, sore joints, stop. There’s no point in worsening your state or wasting time. If it is a matter or tiredness or concentration, go and do something that fires up your brain or relaxes you – whichever you need – and then come back to play.

 

FIND YOUR SPACE

There is no perfect space in which to practice. Some people prefer to work in noisy environments, others in quiet solitude.

Find the best place for you.

Set up your music stand, ensure your books are at hand, and try to leave your instrument there so it becomes a dedicated practice space. When not touring, I have one of my violins on a stand in plain view from anywhere in the room; seeing it reminds me to play and I practice more often than I would if it were locked away in a case.

 

MAKE NOTES

I’m not just talking about the audible ones; write down what you do during your sessions. At the end of the week/month/year, you can see visually how much you have accomplished. If you do not have a teacher who provides goal sheets or keeps regular notes in your homework diary – perhaps you are teaching yourself or working with a friend – find your own way of metering your progress. Set goals for the next day and then mark off each goal as you achieve it. This could be a list of scales, a difficult passage in a piece, anything you decide.

 

ACTUALLY DOING IT

Don’t just idly play through your material, give each note or syllable full attention. Practice standing u, if you are able, and breathe regularly and in a relaxed fashion.

 

SWITCH IT UP

If you are practicing alone, play with a friend and vice versa. If you usually start with technical studies, begin with a piece from your repertoire and then play through your studies. Change when you play your scales, or if you start with major scales and arpeggios, start with the minor ones. Whilst the repetition of practice is essential for growth, making changes in how you practice help keep you on your toes. Join an ensemble and better your sight-reading and awareness.

 

START AT THE MIDDLE (OR END)

When playing longer pieces, especially if they are dificult, starting at the beginning can be a waste of time. You may find there is a point at which your mind switches off and you keep making the same mistakes, or there’s a tricky passage that always gets the better of you and so you play something else instead. Sometimes, simple boredom can throw you off.

Attack it.

Start with that section, regardless of page number. If it is tricky, slow down and play it at a pace you can manage. Maybe the bowing trips you up, or position changes. Focus on what makes the passage hard to play and go over it again and again. Repetition is key to muscle/mental memory.

 

HIGHLIGHT MISTAKES

It is tempting to skip past difficult passages that you consistently play in a sloppy manner. DON’T. Go back and try again, taking it SLOOOOOOOOOWLY. Take those few bars and play them until you’ve mastered them.

I will touch upon these points in more depth in a future article. For now, happy practicing!

 

Copyright © Emma L. M. Sweeney 2012. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may repost this article on your website or blog, providing the articles and author are not depicted in a negative manner, and you have linked back to this original page.

Microphone Basics

Eminem, showing how not to hold a microphone

Eminem, showing how not to hold a microphone

For the purposes of this article, the discussion will focus on live microphone technique, rather than studio performance, which I will write about in a later article.

 

Most singers start out learning their craft singing without amplification, e.g. in choirs, at a piano etcetera; some may discover their talent via karaoke nights at local bars. There will come a point when you begin using microphones more and more and it’s good to know your equipment.

 

MICROPHONE BASICS

One thing that is common among beginners, and sometimes with singers who have performed for years, is not holding the microphone properly or failing to utilise it in a way to get the best sonic results from the equipment.

 

Holding the mic round the shell may look cool but impedes sound quality and can create unpleasant feedback. And don’t blow, tap on or drop the microphone, and please please please do not swing it from the cable as this loosens the connecting parts in the end of the microphone (and can also damage the cable). Take note, rappers and cool kids!

 

Singing too close to the microphone creates ‘proximity effect’; a muffled sound which means your voice can get lost in the overall mix by producing lots of bass end. Experienced singers can use this to their advantage, in effect adjusting the tone of their voices while singing by varying the distance and angle of the microphone. If your voice is tired and you’re using an SM58 or similar, singing slightly to the side or above, rather than directly in front will cut out extra lower frequencies, making your voice sound a bit brighter.

 

TYPES OF MICROPHONES

Microphones pick up signals from different areas around the shell (and some in other regions), but it’s safe to say the best position to sing from is directly in front of the microphone shell.

 

Dynamic

If you’ve used a microphone as a beginner, or at karaoke, it’s probably a dynamic one. Designed with a mesh ball cover at one end, the dynamic microphone is used for nearly all live sound (and in the studio it can be used for recording drums, electric guitars and electric basses). Inexpensive and durable, they don’t need a battery or power supply to work (unless wireless models).

 

Dynamic microphones do not pick up high frequencies well and so are rarely used for recording studio vocals. However, they have a warm tone sympathetic to most voices in a live setting and are most effective when working with loud sound sources (so ideal if singing on a small stage in front of a loud drummer).

 

Capacitor/Condenser

Capacitor/condenser microphones are much more sensitive than dynamic microphones, with a wider range of frequencies picked up. Capacitors produce only a small electrical signal (48v) and so require a built-in pre-amp to bring the signal up to a useable level (a factor that makes them more expensive than dynamic microphones).

 

Most mixing desks have a phantom power supply (which boosts the signal by 48v). Because of their relative fragility compared to dynamics and pick-up range, capacitor microphones are not commonly used for live performances (other than lead singers).

 

Capacitor microphones are offered in a variety of pickup patterns (see the diagram below). For a more in-depth discussion about microphones, please visit Sound On Sound.

 

MICROPHONE POLAR PATTERNS

Microphone Polar Patterns

The image above shows the various pick-up patterns of microphones. Most dynamic microphones have Cardioid/Hypercardioid (a unidirectional pick-up), which is ideal for live performance.

 

CHOOSING A BRAND FOR YOUR VOICE

This is all down to personal preference. The two most popular live brands among singers I have worked with are Shure and Sennheiser. I personally prefer Shure microphones for my voice, as Sennheiser tend to make me sound a little hissy and don’t always work well with my natural frequencies (higher spec models aside), but some other singers I know with a clearer tone prefer Sennheiser microphones.

 

When you go to purchase a mic, the store will usually have PA equipment set up for you to try out a few. The Shure SM58, a basic all-rounder is a good place to start, in my opinion. I was also pleased with my Beyer microphone, but found it irrepairable after dropping at a gig, so my experience is that they are more delicate than the SM58.

 

 

In a later article, I will write about EQ on the mixer and how to utilise it to achieve your best vocal sound. We will also discuss the varying mic techniques employed by lead and backing vocalists.

 

Copyright © Emma L. M. Sweeney 2010. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may repost this article on your website or blog, providing the articles and author are not depicted in a negative manner, and you have linked back to this original page.

Image sources:

Beyonce http://musicinterest101.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/possible-beyonce-300-milli-deal-in-vegas/
Eminem http://www.eminem.net/tracks/lose_yourself/
SM58 http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/SM58/

Introduction to Songwriting

What is a Song?

· A song is a story set to music.
· A strong song has a simple, catchy melody, great lyrics, and well-plotted chord progressions
· Two or three main themes are all that is needed in a song
· The trick to writing great lyrics is to write what you know AND what the listener can relate to. It is also wise to carefully choose the words used

Song Structure

While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creativity, in order to write professionally for a commercial market, certain rules are commonly followed. Songwriting structures can be amended to accommodate writer preference and song duration, e.g. a 12” mix of a song will have a longer audio space to fill, and therefore sections may be repeated more often than in the Radio Edit.

*The Radio Edit is between 3 minutes and 3min30s.

Typical song structures include:
1. VERSE – CHORUS – VERSE – CHORUS – MIDDLE 8 – VERSE – CHORUS
2. VERSE – PRE-CHORUS – CHORUS – VERSE – PRE-CHORUS – CHORUS – BRIDGE – CHORUS

*Some people choose to call the Pre-Chorus a Bridge, and the Bridge a Middle 8. When collaborating with a co-writer, make sure you clarify terminology used!

What is the Chorus? What does it do?

· It is the catchiest part of the song
· It often includes the song title
· It may repeat one or two simple lyrics
· It is the part the listener remembers.
· It rarely changes, if at all.*
· It is usually around 8 bars long

We should aim to keep the chorus simple. This is the part of the song listeners easily recognise and like to sing along to. ‘Bad’ songwriting includes making a chorus too complicated in melody, pitch, or lyrical content for the listener to participate.

Think about some songs you know with catchy, simple choruses. What is similar about them? How many melodies do they use in the chorus? How many lines of lyrics do they have? Do they repeat the melody and/or lyrical content at all?

*On the last repeat of a song, the chord progression in the chorus may be altered slightly to take the song to the outro, or a single lyric may be modified. Backing vocal lyrics may also be altered, and in terms of production, different instruments omitted or added as the song progresses etc.

What is the Verse? What does it do?

· It pushes the story along
· The lyrics change in each verse, and the verses give details about the overall topic
· The verse has the second most memorable melody in the song
· While the lyrics change, they have to fit the same melody as in the previous verse

*Exceptions
Certain types of music don’t always follow these rules, .e.g dance/house music tracks, ambient music etc. A good house track may have a catchy hook that serves as a chorus, and little else by way of lyrical content. Some songs may have verse lyrics, and nothing other than syllabic sounds as a chorus hook.

For example, the most memorable sections of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’, and Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)’ are the hooks ‘la la la’ and ‘la da dee, la doo dow’.

In one of my own songs, ‘Waiting’, I chose to insert the title motif in each verse instead of using it in the Chorus:

“I feel like a mannequin
All dressed up in my underwear
WAITING for you, aching for you
Breaking for you, and you’re never there.”
’Waiting’ – Queen Tantrum

Chorus Examples

The chorus in ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga repeats the same lines twice, with no change to the melody. The song title is mentioned twice.

“Can’t read my, can’t read my
No, he can’t read my POKER FACE
She’s got to love nobody
“Can’t read my, can’t read my
No, he can’t read my POKER FACE
She’s got to love nobody…”
’Poker Face’ – Lady Gaga

The chorus in ‘Help’ by the Beatles repeats the song title at the beginning of the first and third line, and again at the end of Line 4. Lines 1, 2 & 3 rhyme and the motif in Line 4 ties the lyrical content of the Chorus up.

“HELP me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
HELP me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please HELP me?”
’Help’ – The Beatles

The chorus in ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean repeats the song title once, but each line rhymes.

“Bye, bye, Miss AMERICAN PIE
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singing: This’ll be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die…”
’American Pie’ – Don McLean

Writing Lyrics

· The trick to writing great lyrics is to write what you know AND what the listener can relate to. It is also wise to carefully choose the words used.
· Lyrics (the words) can take a linear direction through the composition from beginning to end, or they can focus on a central thought
· Lyrics can be written poetically or in a conversational style. Grammatical rules of language need not apply when writing to music, especially when the importance of rhyme takes priority over grammatical correctness

So far, we have focused on the structural side of writing popular music. We will pay attention to choosing chords and melodies for our songs in Part 2.

Copyright © Emma L. M. Sweeney 2010. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may repost this article on your website or blog, providing the articles and author are not depicted in a negative manner, and you have linked back to this original page. Originally posted on my WordPress blogs emmadiva.wordpress.com and lansburymethod.wordpress.com.

Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.
The Beatles – ‘Help’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
The Beatles – ‘Help’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.
Don McLean – ‘American Pie’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
Don McLean – ‘American Pie’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.

Write Hit Songs

Vocal Training: Melisma

Melisma, in music, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note. (Wiki)

Whitney Houston will be remembered as a master of “melisma”. But what is it and why did it influence a generation of singers and talent show aspirants?

The vocal technique traces its roots back to Gregorian chants and the ragas of Indian classical music.

In the modern era singers such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke are credited with bringing melisma from the choirs of churches to mainstream audiences.

Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love was a notable use. But it was Houston who popularised it and stretched the standards by attaching complicated strings of notes to single syllables.

But the term “melisma” is still relatively obscure within the pop music industry, with the effect often described simply as “ad libbing” or “riffing”.

Read full article here at the BBC.

 

 

Copyright © Emma L. M. Sweeney 2012. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may repost this article on your website or blog, providing the articles and author are not depicted in a negative manner, and you have linked back to this original page.