February 21, 2017

FTV: Voice Lessons


    My mother has always loved to sing and even at age 93, she is unhappy when her Troubadour singing group fails to meet.  The Troubadours are a group at her residence (Brookridge Heights in Marquette) that gather on Sundays to sing and on the occasions when they don’t meet, she is always disappointed.  It isn’t a big surprise to me that I have also liked to sing since I can remember.  If my mother wasn’t singing in the church choir at St. Mark’s she was singing along with records around the house.  With constant exposure to music, I was never shy about singing in elementary school programs or at Sunday school.

    Even in seventh grade, I would sing along loudly during the semester long music class we took from the long time Messiah Lutheran Church choir director (and JH music teacher) Hildegarde Johnson.  Mrs. Johnson was well on in her years when I had her for seventh grade music in 1965-66 (she passed away on August 8, 2000 and her obituary showed that she held degrees from Northern Normal School dated 1920 and 1951), but she managed to get a bunch of squirrely seventh graders to sit and sing.  We actually alternated with art so one semester it was a two and three day split and the next semester a three and two day split between art and music, but it still added up to a semester of music.  The first day of class, we had to sing the Do-Re-Mi scale for her at which point she would say ‘first soprano’ or ‘alto’ to indicate which section we would be sitting in.  It was comical watching pre-voice change seventh grade boys trying to sing as low as they could so they could sit with the other guys in the more low voiced (which I assumed to them meant ‘more manly’) section.  She never fell for that.  I did my thing and got assigned to the ‘second soprano’ section which was split about half and half between girls and boys like me with higher pitched voices.  Ironically, even with my dad having a voice that registered at a pretty low scale, mine never did get much lower as I grew.  I am not sure I was holding out for the sonorous James Earl Jones type of range, but I didn’t expect to remain at the Brad Delp (of Boston fame) end of the musical spectrum.

    Being lucky enough to have a lot of opportunities to sing throughout my public school years, I went for it whenever we were asked to sing.  It never dawned on me that perhaps I didn’t have the greatest voice.  Oh, I was loud enough, but I can only assume that I could also carry a tune.  As they say, everyone sounds good in their own head (or in the shower for that matter), and no one ever took me aside and said, “Ah hey, we like your enthusiasm, but could you tone it down a little so we can hear the other kids?”  When I look back now, I can certainly see that there is a big difference between someone who sings and someone who has been trained how to sing.

    This thought came to me after my wife and I saw Judy Collins perform at the Calumet Theater a couple of years ago.  Even in her seventies, Collin’s voice is a remarkable instrument.  She pointed out that she had been a singer for a long time before she sought out a voice teacher to help her make better use of her voice.  These lessons gave her the tools to preserve her voice at an age when many singers can no longer hit those pesky high notes.  Not only can she still hit the high notes, she can do it without straining and with no wavering tones evident in her delivery.

    I know that I sometimes confused having a big voice (ie:  a loud voice) with being a good singer.  From the time I first started playing drums along with records in my quest to become a rock and roll drummer (also during my seventh grade year in school), I sang along.  I found that it helped me remember the arrangements and the stops, starts and turn arounds that happen in a song. By the time I was playing regularly with other musicians, I had been singing steadily for many years.  By the time I had stopped playing regularly in bands, I had been at it full time for over twenty years so my vocal cords and lungs were in sound shape.   Looking back at how many mornings I woke up with a hoarse voice from the previous night’s gig is a pretty good indication that I was not using proper techniques in my singing.  If I was courting a cold, I woke up some mornings with no voice at all.  Having strong vocal cords is great, but if you don’t have the right technique, one can tax their voice to do some major, even permanent, damage.

    Age is not a singer’s best friend.  Perhaps if I had learned how to sing properly, I would be able survive warbling a few hymns on Sunday morning without my cords aching.  Rehearsing with the crew for the Easy Money Band’s 40th Anniversary show (held at the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts a couple of years ago), I discovered I could no longer sing the Steve Miller Band songs any more.  I croaked my way through a couple of passes of “Rockin’ Me” and my voice was gone.  It is always a big disappointment to find out that one can’t hit the high notes anymore.  As much as it pains me, I decided that my occasional fill in gigs with Easy Money would be drummer only gigs because my voice just won’t hold up these days.

    Even though I sang in all of my bands, I never thought of myself as a lead singer.  I was a drummer who happened to sing.  Along the way, it was nice a nice compliment to be introduced as “our lead singer” but it never made me want to put the drum sticks down and step out front.  There are a lot of famous singers who started out as drummers and the short list would include Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Steve Perry, and even Steven Tyler, but I never had such illusions.  This does not mean I didn’t like to show off my vocal chops, untrained or not.

    We played a lot of Grand Funk Railroad tunes in The Twig and I liked them all.  One of our show piece songs was Closer to Home/I’m Your Captain.  There are a couple of tempo changes in this song and the last bridge that brings the tempo back up to speed happens before the iconic chorus and flute fade out.  There is a simple ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ vocal that plays out over the top as the band picks up speed.   The more we played it, the longer I found myself holding out the last ‘Yeah’.  At some point, Mike the bass player would hold out his arm and look down at his watch as in “Really?  Are you done yet?” and if I really held on a long time, his eyebrows would arch up like he thought my head would explode.  

    The greatest compliment I ever got was from my mother.  In that she got to hear every band I was in save Easy Money rehearse in our basement, she certainly heard us a lot.  Yes, she was probably a little biased, but she told me on several occasions that I should just sing all of the songs.  While it was flattering, it didn’t compute because back then, I was still a drummer who sang, not a lead singer.  Today, I am content to be a drummer who used to sing.

    One final note before I am accused of spelling “vocal cord” incorrectly:  some people erroneously write about “vocal chords” but  “chord” refers to the sounding of three or more notes as one hears them from a guitar, piano, or a vocal group like the Pentatonix.  My sources tell me that “cord” is the correct spelling in regard to discussing one’s voice

Top Piece Video:  The rocking GFR performance of I’m Your Captain / Closer to Home from their fabled Shea Stadium concert – not the shaking of the bleachers – this would not have made me feel secure about the old stadium!