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Category: Music

Breathing Exercises: Lung Expansion

Here is a great breathing exercise I learned back in my drum corps days that really helps increase your lung capacity. Just remember to not lock your knees – we don’t want anyone passing out! (seriously) Also, I’m not a doctor. If something hurts while doing this exercise, stop doing it. That goes for everything else on this website, too.

That out of the way, here we go!

  • Set a metronome for 60 beats per minute (or just think of everything in seconds).
  • Lock your fingers behind your head and pull your elbows back, opening your chest cavity.
  • Breathe in for 4 counts – feel your lungs expand downward, to your sides, and in your back.
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Sip more air in for 4 counts – one sip per count – really force more air in there
  • Hold for 4 more counts
  • Release for 8 counts – when you release, create some resistance for the air by hissing through your teeth, controlling the rate of air movement with your diaphragm. Release ALL of your air in the allotted time.
  • Next time through, release for 12 counts. Then 16. Then 20. Then 24…

Pro level – the last 4 counts of release, really force it out hard to the very end – don’t quit early!

Keep it up, and you’ll soon find your lung capacity growing and your vocal power increasing. Let me know how it goes in the comments.

-Josh

Sit Up Straight

Okay, I’m going to channel my best inner-mom when I tell you this… “Sit up straight!” In addition to not looking like a slouch, good posture helps your singing and speaking tremendously. Lining up your vocal apparatus and activating your core is damn near everything you are trying to accomplish with voice lessons, and good posture is the end-all, be-all, holy grail of setting it all up for you. Activating your core has more benefits, too. It sets you up to be a physically stronger person. Strength comes from your core, and by keeping it active, you are essentially always working out. Last, but entirely not least, sitting, standing, and walking with good posture makes you feel better, stronger, and more confident, and when you’re feeling better, stronger, and more confident, you are going to feel happier. Good posture will literally improve your life, so let’s get on it.

When I remind myself to check my standing posture, I always imagine there is a string attached to the crown of my head, pulling me up like a marionette and stretching my spine. A couple side to side stretches and a deep breath later, I’m in power town, and I’m feeling more limber. If I’m sitting down, I sit so that I feel ready to stand up at any time. It keeps me super energized and ready to sing and play with energy and vigor. Try it yourself and see if you feel better and more energized. If you’ve been slouching for years, a lot of these muscles will put up a little fight when you start activating them for the first time, but keep it up, and you’ll eventually train good posture as your default. Until that happens, try to make occasional posture checks into a habit. Set a reminder on your phone or ask a friend or significant other to remind you from time to time.

Keep thinking positive, keep smiling, and get after that good posture. Your body and soul will thank you for it.

-Josh

Learning New Songs on a Deadline

We play a lot of wedding receptions with Piano Fondue, and as a result, I often have to learn some new songs for first dances and the like. I’d like to share some tips and tricks I use for learning new songs quickly. This is for learning by ear – if you have the sheet music in front of you it’s kind of unnecessary. I usually just have a lyric sheet in front of me for this type of performance. [bonus tip – for memorizing lyrics, write them down a couple times]

  • First, don’t cram the day of. It’s very hard to keep a song solidly in your head from only one impression – even if it’s a few times through. Unless you are certain that you’ll have the chance to listen to the song immediately before performing it, this is risky. Any tune you hear between listening and performing will start to contaminate the memory. If some sort of emergency crops up, and you only get one day, then try to take breaks between listenings – an hour is good, making sure to listen to other songs in between to really solidify the song.
  • Ideally, I like taking five days to a week to really get a song solid. I don’t know the brain science behind it, but I find that if I don’t listen to the song every day, but take a day or two off in between, the second listening is much more effective – must be some sort of long-term vs. short-term memory thing.
  • Pay close attention to the bridge and try to learn it first. The bridge is usually the toughest part to get solidly since it typically only happens once in the song. Try to remember how it goes while listening to the first couple verses.
  • If you can play an instrument, play along with the song. It will help solidify any weird changes in the tune.
  • Try to sing the song by yourself between listenings. Singing along with the recording isn’t usually as helpful – you may start relying on cues that won’t be there when you perform it live.

Good luck. If there is one tip that I would recommend above the others, it’s putting space between listenings. It does wonders. Keep singing!

-Josh

Do you have any tips for learning music quickly? Share them below!

Vocal Exercises – the Messa di Voce

A wonderful tool for developing your voice is the messa di voce. Italian for “placing the voice,” this technique involves sustaining a pitch with a gradual crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer). This is a great exercise for warming up, increasing your range, increasing your dynamic power, and increasing your control. The thing to remember is that you want to make the crescendo and decrescendo as smooth as possible.

Many times, I’ll use the technique if there is a particular note in a phrase that I’m having trouble with. This is often because of a challenging vowel sound on the pitch. Try it yourself. First, sing through the phrase using a lip trill (check out my post on the lip trill). Then do it again, except this time pause on the trouble spot and add the messa di voce. Feel the amount of support you’ll need to pull it off. Now sing it through with the words this time, pausing at the trouble spot and holding the respective vowel. Try to keep the vowel consistent as you crescendo and decrescendo. It can take a couple times through before you find the right feel (a lot of times we call this feeling the placement – it can feel like the sound is physically coming from different locations in your vocal apparatus).

When I use the messa di voce in my warm-up regimen, I add it to the top of scales as I sing through them. This can greatly increase your comfort in your upper register. I will also use it at the breaks in my voice (a break is what we call the spot where the voice transitions from one register to the next – e.g. the spot between your regular voice and falsetto or between your chest voice and head voice). The messa di voce can help smooth out those breaks more quickly.

Practicing this technique, you will notice not only an increase in your dynamic range, but an increase of control at the extremes – the very louds and the very softs. Control is what we want to cultivate as we develop the voice, and the messa di voce is possibly the best exercise for working on it.

Just as versatile as the lip trill, the messa di voce is an essential part of any vocalist’s toolkit. Use it often.

-Josh

They Just Won’t Pay Attention

I was playing a show the other night. It was a corporate holiday party – nametags and everything – and I just could not get the people to engage with my show at all. I was still getting requests, so I had a good set to do, but the crowd was hanging away by the bar and gabbing. What to do?

This type of thing can easily happen at any event where networking or catching up is the focus (think class reunion). It’s easy to get discouraged, but don’t! Try getting them involved for a few songs (I tried for a good twenty minutes). If they’re not biting, then just play for you. Eventually they’ll come around. Just think – after they get to the small talk portion of their conversations, you’ll be their savior!

Keep playing, and make sure you’re enjoying it.

-Josh

Vocal Warm-ups – the Lip Trill

If you are a vocal performer, your voice is your greatest asset. It can be a fragile instrument. You have to take care of it. One important aspect of this is a solid vocal warm-up regimen. A good warm-up starts well in advance of your performance. A good place to start is in your morning shower. You probably already sing in there, so why not throw in some focused exercises?

Before we get into specific exercises, let’s start with a great vocal health technique – the lip trill.

With the lip trill technique, you’ll be exhaling air through your lips, causing them to flap against each other. This can be difficult for some folks to master. Just make sure your cheeks aren’t flapping too – only your lips.

  1. purse your lips like you are stretching them outward to kiss someone.
  2. Slowly start relaxing them until the point where you can flap them with your finger.
  3. Now try getting them to continue flapping by exhaling air through them – it takes a good bit of air (that’s the point).
  4. Once you’ve got them going, start humming – that’s it! That’s a lip trill.
  5. Now that you have the feel for it, try skipping straight to the humming part.

[edit – I’ve recorded a video showing how to do a lip trill]

The thinking behind doing vocal exercises with a lip trill is that, in order to keep the lip trill going, you will be moving enough air to be singing with proper support. We don’t want these exercises to be hurting your voice. The lip trill is a safeguard.

Pretty much anything you try humming with a lip trill will be beneficial. When I have a challenging part in a song, whether it’s very high or very complicated, humming with a lip trill first ALWAYS makes it easier to sing the next time through.

Good luck and keep singing!

-Josh

Having success with the lip trill technique? Questions about it? Drop a comment below.

Vocal Techniques

I know many of you reading this are musicians. Having been a professional singer myself for fifteen years, I thought this would be a good forum for sharing some tips and tricks for healthy singing. I will be putting all of these posts in a new category called “Vocal Techniques,” and they can all be accessed by clicking on that label.

The first few posts in this category will be about various warm-up and cool-down exercises that I have found to be beneficial. The first one will be going up later this week.

A quick note – you don’t have to be a professional musician to benefit from the techniques I’ll be sharing with you. Public speakers will find many of these exercises quite helpful, as well. Plus, it is all about getting to know your own body a little better.

Keep singing!

-Josh

The Test Kitchen

I have a regular show at the Ivory Room Piano Bar in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a solo show every Tuesday night. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s always a great crowd. I like thinking of the show at the Ivory Room as my “test kitchen” – a space where I am free to experiment. I try new bits, play new songs, goof off, and have fun. Here’s the thing to keep in mind when playing most nightclub shows – the crowd is there to have fun with you (as opposed to most corporate clients who want to be entertained by you or most wedding clients who want something high-energy to dance to).

The test kitchen is where I can make mistakes (plus, the audience usually loves the screwups!). I experiment with new tools to use at the big show, and I sharpen them. It’s my chance to get things perfect, polished, and performance-ready.

Where is your test kitchen? Musicians – is there a regular show where you can relax a bit and have fun? If not, maybe look into hosting an open mic somewhere or just regularly participate in one. The key to a test kitchen is a low-pressure environment where you can feel free to fail. Non-musicians – is there a forum (maybe a cocktail hour group or online community) where you can connect with empathetic peers to bounce new weird ideas about widgets or formulas (or whatever you people talk about!)?

The bottom line is if you have the opportunity to fail without consequences – take it! What we can learn from our failures outweighs what we can learn from our successes by a wide margin. The ROI is immense!

-Josh

Getting the Crowd to Sing Along

While playing on stage, whether solo or with Piano Fondue, I often want to let the crowd sing certain parts of the tunes. This can be difficult to accomplish unless you’re super comfortable with it. I have a couple tips and tricks I’ve gathered through the years to help out. Keep in mind – you are going to be asking people to step out of their comfort zone, so you’ll be walking a tightrope between pushing their discomfort and reinforcing their confidence. It’s an art, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

1) Make sure you know the song pretty cold. At least well enough to be thinking significantly ahead of where you are currently singing. If you seem unconfident, they won’t be willing to step up.

2) Make sure it’s a song they know pretty well – at least the part they need to sing. Whatever part you’re super comfortable with is probably the part that they’re super comfortable with, so give that line to them.

3) It can be helpful to let them know before you start the song that you’ll be asking them to sing along. Something to the effect of “I’ll be needing your help on this one” can clue them in to paying attention.

4) Cue the crowd a good beat or two ahead of time, either with a “sing it!” or a gesture their way. It also can be clever and effective to come up with a question to ask on the mic that the line they are to sing would answer.

5) Cutting the music short right before they’re supposed to come in gives them an aural space to fill. (Pro tip – don’t cut on the beat. Cut it on the half or another unusual spot to jar them into paying attention.)

These final tips are really important.

6) Don’t try to sing along with them. If they see you singing, they’ll stop to listen. You want them to sing. Let them.

7) If they don’t come in right away, don’t try to fill in the space. They’re feeling the awkwardness too, and most of the time will step up to fill it for you. And if they don’t, make a joke about it. “Well, that didn’t work” or something to that effect lightens the mood, and makes everyone feel a little more confident to sing the next time through.

At the end of it all, sometimes a crowd just doesn’t want to sing along. They’d rather just sit back and enjoy the show. That’s fine. Maybe toss a couple tries at them throughout the show, but don’t push it. Remember, they are there to have a good time. Let them!

-Josh

Musicians – are there any tricks you use to get a crowd to sing along? Music lovers – have you seen someone who was particularly good at getting the crowd involved? Share it in the comments.

Onstage Energy

Is this familiar? You are lying in bed or sitting on the couch or driving to work and you just don’t feel like “bringing it” today. You’d rather lay low and fire up the Netflix. Are you ready to have your mind blown? I’ve had that feeling too. Yes, seriously! I know!!!! We have so much in common!

It doesn’t matter if you’re heading into the office or walking onto the stage, sometimes you’re just not feeling it. There’s a mantra for that. “Fake it til you make it.” Get up there, smile, and lie through your goddamned teeth. Throw yourself at the moment. Then the next, and then the next. Hell, tell yourself that you’re having fun. Believe me – our brains are pretty dumb when it comes to this kind of thing.

Here’s an exercise for you to try the next time you are feeling just plain neutral – not down, not up. Straighten up either sitting or standing, take a healthy breath (from down low in your gut), and hold a smile for ten seconds. I know you feel stupid. Shut up. As the ten seconds progress, I want you to take that weak-ass smile (oh I can see you) and gradually extend it first to your eyes (good – it’s getting more believable) then finally to your ears (just do it – you’ll feel what I mean when you try). See! You feel better already! You don’t? Well it works for me sometimes. Just fake it til you make it!

Do you have any tricks to get yourself going when you’re not feeling it?

-Josh

[Side note (or is this a footnote?) – after writing this post and going through the exercise as I wrote the steps, I went back to the top to start reading it back. That’s when I added the silly “yeah, I know” bit with all the exclamation points. My energy had actually been lifted by doing the exercise while writing this! Crazy, right‽]

-I am not saying that this trick can take you from sad to happy, nor is it any kind of treatment for any depression. It is simply a way to give yourself a little bump – a little pump priming to get you over that first hill. Chances are you’ll get rolling from there, but there are always bigger hills, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt to talk to a professional therapist or counselor if you need to.