Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Remembering Marty Robbins: He Sings "Beyond the Reef"

Marty Robbins would be in my top five of all time favorite male singers.  He had a magnificent voice, great tone and range.  In this video clip, Marty sings one of my favorite Hawaiian ballads, "Beyond the Reef."  He is accompanied by the great Jerry Byrd on the steel guitar.  Marty had a very strong, clear and beautiful voice, and for those learning to sing, he is an example of what a great singer can be.

A Plan for Learning to Sing With the Band

Being a good musician isn't enough if you want to have a steady source of gigs.  You have to sing.  You don't have to be the lead singer, but you must contribute vocally.  That raises considerably your value as a band member.

Here are some ways to go about it.

1.  Buy a book about singing and learn what it is all about:  the different kinds of voices, the myths and the facts about singing, common problems and solutions, posture, breathing and vocal exercises.  Any good book on singing will come with a CD of vocal exercises.  You can't learn to sing by reading about it, but reading about it will help you form an effective practice plan.  I recommend Singing For Dummies by Pamelia Phillips and Set Your Voice Free by Roger Love.

2.  Avail yourself of free online resources, like eHow's series on singing, to learn about singing.  Watch this while waiting for your books to arrive from Amazon.  (The series instructor has some great tips on things to do and to look out for.)

3. Choose the vocal exercises from the CD's that you want to practice on a daily basis.  I used iTunes to store copies of all of the exercises, then segregated out those that I intend to practice daily.  I made a CD of just these exercises for practicing while driving.  When not driving, I just play the iTunes playlist from my laptop and sing along with them at home.

4.  Keep a practice log, to keep track of what you have done and to plan for what you want to do.  I just use Word in my computer to do this.  Writing down accomplishments and goals keeps them in your subconscious which targets those goals like a heat-seeking missile.

5.  Practice singing to karaoke recordings.  To do this, you need karaoke files, and you can buy them from many different sites on the net (see sidebar for some links).  These files are usually mp3 or mp4 files, and readily play in Windows.  The best karaoke files are those that scroll the lyrics while the music plays, highlighting the lyrics to sing at any given moment (these are mp4 files).  Other karaoke files (mp3 files) merely provide the backing instrumentals and backing vocals, and the lyrics are all up to you.

You can get a lot of free karaoke files off of YouTube.  Search for "karaoke" and a lot of them will queue up. You can download these as MP4 files using keepvid.com.  (Copy and paste the YouTube URL into keepvid and it will download the videos onto your own computer.)

6.  Record yourself singing along to the karoake files, for playback and analysis.  While singing along to the karaoke files, you can simultaneously record your voice using free recording software from the net.  The best of these is probably Audacity.  Once you've recorded your singing with Audacity, you can export it to an mp3 file.  An mp3 file (if you don't know) is a music file that plays once you click on it.  You can save it to disk or even email it to other band members for comments, criticism and suggestions.

You can even embed mp3 files into a website, as I have done previously in this blog, using a third party website that hosts these files.

Although it is shocking the first time you hear yourself singing, don't be discouraged.  Everyone feels that way.  They hear their own voice and say "Ugh!"  However, keep at it and the recordings will improve over time.  These recordings help you to know when you're ready to sing before an audience.

More About Learning to Sing

I left my band in San Jose to join one in my own home town of Hollister, exchanging an hour commute for one less than ten minutes.  This new band wants all members to contribute vocally, so I have been studying books and CD's on singing and practicing daily.  I have never sung before, except some minor backing vocals.  I am having fun with it.  My former band was very weak vocally, but the new band is quite strong with beautiful singing voices. My goal is to provide excellent backing vocals for the band, and sing a few songs as lead.

I have been scouring the net for song material:  chords and lyrics, karaoke files with which to practice singing, and trying to get my audio mixer to work with my laptop for better recording.  It looks like I will have to get a Sound Blaster soundcard, to allow simultaneous recording and playback from the soundcard (as opposed to recording from the speakers and picking up background noise, computer hum, etc).

I have been gathering my favorite songs of all time, and have found it to be an emotional experience.  Listening to these old songs brings many memories to life:  lost loves, lost youth, the time I courted my wife and the songs that helped me propose, and of course, a feeling of sorrow for great musical performers who have since died, like Elvis, Kui Lee and Vince Guaraldi.  Singing some cherished ballads is almost a spiritual experience, and puts me in a meditative mood, pondering the questions of life and death.

I've sung myself hoarse from yesterday's practicing, so I will give my vocal chords a day off today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Singing "Big River" (an Old Johnny Cash Tune)

Many years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, a friend of ours, one Jim Miller, loaned us a few Sun label records of Johnny Cash.  One of the songs was "Big River."

Funny how almost every song I hear reminds me of some woman or girl.  This one reminded me of Marcia Willis, a little blonde from Oklahoma who had a southern accent, and Johnny Cash's experience with a similar female (as told on "Big River") closely mirrored my own, at least in emotion.

So my song for today is "Big River."  I sang from my middle voice in order to avoid a nasal sound.  Here it is:

I notice that I am just a little sharp on the low notes that come at the end of a lyric, e.g. "I'm gonna sit right here until I die," with "die" being the low note.  I can easily hit that low note in my chest voice, but I am singing the song in my middle voice.  Transitioning smoothly from one voice to another is a skill acquired through practice.  I should be able to instantly transition from middle voice to chest voice in order to hit that note.  My vocal exercises cover this skill.  Now that I am aware of it I can work on it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Begin Singing Practice

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I decided earlier this week to begin practicing some of the singing exercises in "Singing for Dummies," a book that comes with a CD.  I didn't want to start at the beginning, so I chose two chapters with the most potential for improving my vocals.  They are Chapter 11, "Developing the Parts of Your Singing Voice" and Chapter 12, "Expanding Your Flexibility and Range."  I found the tracks on the CD that cover these two chapters and burned them to a CD using iTunes.

Today I had an hour's drive to San Jose to have lunch with a friend.  A car is a great place to practice singing exercises, because no one else can hear you.  So I sang Tracks 15-48, covering both chapters above.  I sang them as well as I could with sincere effort, even repeating some that I didn't quite get on the first time through.

I paid attention to how the exercises sounded and how they made me feel.  I became more conscious of my head voice, middle voice and chest voice, all of which are exercised by these recordings.

By the time I arrived at the restaurant in San Jose, I had finished all of the tracks and my voice was feeling a bit tired, like a muscle that has been exercised.  That's a good thing.

I now have a singing practice routine.  Knowing what to do is half the battle.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stogie Sings "It's Now or Never" (Eat Your Heart Out, Elvis)

My efforts to learn how to sing continue.  In an effort to make sure no one ever, at any time, visits this blog, I have embedded my latest effort below.  It is "Now or Never," made popular by the great Elvis Presley.

One of the biggest challenges to this song is that it is in a relatively high key, and the singer must go to his head voice or higher register.  In spite of this, I think I managed to stay on key throughout.

Here it is:

Bro Sings "Scotch and Soda" and I Do Too

Bro, my older brother, tried his chops on "Scotch and Soda" and it sounds quite nice.  Here it is:

I noticed that Bro's voice is much better balanced with the instrumental portion, and his added touch of echo gives it a professional feel.  I don't have the software and equipment yet to match that, but I did re-record the song and used a somewhat softer voice.  I think it is an improvement over my first attempt:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tom Shaw Trio: Class in Tuxedos

I like this trio.  They are what I aspire to be.  Well, actually, I don't aspire to be a trio, just a bass player in a jazz trio or quartet.

Setting Your Goals for Music

It's always a good idea to write down your goals.  Writing them down helps you to understand what those goals are and gives your subconscious a target to aim at.  You should also identify the time period in which the goals are to be achieved.  Having open-ended goals means that they won't be achieved.

My goals (right now) over the next year (to the end of 20120 are these:

1.  To know my string bass neck thoroughly by feel, and to be able to play every major and minor scale and major and minor arpeggio instantly and accurately, including modes.  This will develop my ear and muscle memory to a fine point.  To do this, I must practice for an hour or more every day and make it a regular "must do," like brushing my teeth.

2.  To become much more adept at reading sheet music and charts, so as to learn and play new songs more quickly and accurately.

3.  To play my string bass in practice and gigs; not to replace my bass guitar, but to augment my musical effort.  To do this I must practice my string bass more and learn the best way to amplify it for gigs.

4.  To understand and apply voice leading techniques to bass playing.  This means dissecting the chords in all blues keys and standards that I know, and arranging the arpeggios to produce smooth bass lines.

5.  To play at least 50 top jazz standards well on string bass.  (If I learn one new standard a week, this won't be difficult.)

6.  To develop my singing voice well enough to support the band's vocal efforts, and to be able to sing without fear or shame because I will actually sound good!  This means I must practice singing every day as well as practicing bass, and must devise a practice plan for doing so.

7.  To gig weekly for pay, using my string bass, my bass guitar, and my singing voice.

Well those are my goals for right now.  What are yours?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My First Vocal Efforts: "Scotch and Soda" and "All of Me"

I have been reading about learning to sing, and one of the first things you must do is lose your fear and your shyness. Let it all hang out, baby. Putting a recording of your own amateur singing voice on the web is like mooning a band of mad Apaches...with bows and arrows!

Nevertheless, here's my first effort, recorded after many unrecorded trial runs, using only my laptop's built in microphone to record it...but enough excuses, have a listen.

Here's "Scotch and Soda":

The balance isn't great -- my voice is too loud compared to the instrumentals.  I will work on getting a better balance.

Here's "All of Me":

My feeling is that it's a start, but only a start to build on.  I need better recording equipment and software.  My voice is too loud in these recordings and seems blaring and harsh.  I'd love to turn my own volume down a bit and add a touch of bass.    Anyone know of any good and not too expensive solutions to these problems?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Scotch and Soda: Kingston Trio, One of My All-Time Favorites

I have loved this song since I first heard it fifty years ago.  It was recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1958.  They were amazing.  I was in love with a girl and it wasn't going anywhere, and this song always gave me solace without actually needing a drink.  The song is now listed as part of the jazz genre.  I purchased a karaoke version of the song and will use it to practice singing this week.

Rattle Snake Ridge Band Kickin' Butt, Menlo Park, July 4th, 2011

My friend Jeff Perez and his group, The Rattlesnake Ridge Band, in a live performance. They played at the Veterans Administration facility on July 4th, in Menlo Park, California. My former band, Legends in Their Own Minds played as well.

I have often stated that the Legends are weak vocally, and the RR boys really outshined us in singing on that day. Have a listen.

Can I Learn to Sing?

One thing I like about the Shiloh Band, with whom I am currently practicing, is that they want a lot.  I feel challenged and I like that.  They more or less expect everyone in the band to contribute to the singing effort.  Up to now, I have only sang backup.

I sang some songs to Karaoke music yesterday and recorded it, and I am definitely not ready for prime time.  I can stay on key most of the time, but in the higher registers my voice sounds strained.

Today I started watching the free voice training videos on eHow (see sidebar for links under "Singing, etc").

The voice training instructor there says you can strengthen your voice and extend your range by practicing arpeggios with your voice, i.e. singing the separate notes of chords, ascending at half steps.  For example, sing C - E - G -C - G - E - C.    (The last C is the octave of the first).  You are singing major chords here, the first, third, fifth and the octave of the scale, up and then down again (see the C chord above as an example).  Then sing the next chord a half step up, i.e., C# - F - G# - C# - G# - F - C#, and so on.  You go as high up the scale as you can without straining your voice, and over time you will be able to go higher as your voice strengthens.

There's more to it than that, of course, and the instructor explains techniques and practice points.

This week I added singing exercises and practice to my regular practice time.  Now I not only practice bass, but singing as well.  For me, practice includes actually playing and singing, but also studying the theory behind it all.  That means reading, and you can find a lot on the web about your instrument and your voice.

I am interested in buying a software program to help me develop my singing.  Some of these, the ones that appear highest rated by users, are also the most expensive.  You get what you pay for.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Alvin the Chipmunk as Front Man for the Band

Great singing is a must for bands.  If you can sing on key, that's half the battle, but it isn't good enough.   Alvin the Chipmunk sings on key, but you wouldn't want him for a front man.  Ditto for Pee Wee Herman, Minnie the Mouse or the late Tiny Tim.

A great voice needs passion, warmth, what they call "soul."  It also needs strength.  I heard one of my new associates sing "Mustang Sally" at our last practice, and it was really good.  It was as if he had bass speakers in his throat.  He had volume and power.  He knew how to "belt."

I read something about singing recently, that said there needs to be a lot of vibration in your nose, vocal chords, lips, etc.  There are lots of tones and undertones and nuances that have to be there.

How do you get all of this?  If I knew that, I'd be a lead singer.

Leaving the Legends

I have begun practicing with a local Hollister band and by mutual agreement, have left the band "Legends in Their Own Minds."  There are many videos of the Legends practicing and gigging, embedded in this blog.  Scroll down to prior postings to find them.

I was with the Legends for one year and seven months, and it was a beneficial association for me.  Practicing twice a week, and gigging occasionally, developed my skills.  As a result, I am now the best bass player I have ever been.   Thanks for that, Legends, and good luck in the future.

I want to go in a different direction now.  I am interested in playing jazz swing and jazz standards, with some classic rock and country thrown in.  An avenue opened for me and I had to take it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Is The Optimal Number of Band Members?

If you want to get gigs, you need to reduce the number of band members as low as possible.

Six member bands may sound great, but a lot fewer gigs can afford them.  So what is the optimal number?

For a full, rock sound, I think you need three minimum:  guitar, bass and drums. For a jazz trio, keys, bass and drums.  Now if you can keep it to three band members and everyone can sing, that is the best alternative.

If you are going to play only instrumentals, the lack of a lead singer isn't a problem.  However, if you are going to play rock, standards, country and numerous other genres, you have to have a lead singer.  You can then recruit a great singer and add a fourth member to the band.  If this is necessary, look for a singer who also plays an instrument, perhaps rhythm guitar.  A rhythm guitar isn't strictly necessary, but it does give a band a richer sound.  If the rhythm guitar player can also double on harmonica, all the better.

Once you have developed a reputation, a following and are getting gigs, then you can think about adding a keyboard player, a saxophonist or other musician.

In most bands, however, the singing is the key to success.  You have to have a good lead singer.  Without one, you won't get as many gigs or playing opportunities.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How I Learn New Songs: a Roadmap for Bassists

I am learning a lot of new songs in preparation for a band performance.  I follow a predictable pattern in learning new songs.

1.  Buy a copy of the songs off of Amazon.com (or Napster or other sites) or record them off of YouTube videos.  The quality of the latter is good enough to practice with, but if you want to listen to these tunes in your car, it's better to buy a quality copy.

2.  Listen to the recorded songs from #1 above, particularly if you aren't familiar with the songs.  Listen for the bass part and mentally note any "signature riffs."  Signature riffs are bass runs that the audience will expect to hear if the performance is to be credible.  An example might be the bass part to Creedence's "Down on the Corner" or Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."  You have to play these riffs.

3.  Create a song list (I use Excel for its editing and sorting abilities) of all the songs.  For my current project, I have listed the songs by set, sequence number and key (the key used by the band, not the original performer necessarily).

4.  Download chords and lyrics for each song in the list.  You can do this at chordie.com or other sites (see links in the left sidebar).  Print out the songs and put them in order.  If you can't find the chord tabs in the desired key, you can convert the chord notations using a chord chart converter.  I will prepare one and post in a subsequent post; meanwhile, google "music chord converter" or some such and you will no doubt find one on the web.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Successful Band MUST Have Excellent Singing Voices

On Thursday evening last, I practiced with a local band here in Hollister, the Shiloh Band.  Actually, I only practiced with the two lead singers just to get acquainted, and I may begin playing with them on a regular basis, if the rest of the band likes me (and I like them).

One thing that impressed me was the quality of singing voices in Noelle and Steve Sladon.  You can't play and sing the Eagles' "Love Will Keep Us Alive" without really excellent voices.  You may get by in a pinch with a mediocre voice, belting out rough and guttural rock songs, but that isn't going to take you far enough.  The voices are the steak, the instrumentation merely the condiments.

I don't believe the band I am currently in will go very far with our current vocal abilities.  However, I don't contribute much to our vocal effort, so it's easy for me to say.  One thing is certain, however, I must sing more and I must improve my singing voice through training and practice. I must contribute a lot more than I am now doing, because problems don't fix themselves and merely griping about a problem won't fix it.

As a bass player, it is difficult to sing lead and play bass riffs at the same time.  It can be done, as Paul McCartney has proved, but I am yet to do that.  I will start including singing as part of my practice routine, recording it and striving to improve it.  In the vocals department, every member of the band must contribute.  Simply playing an instrument is not enough.

I will look into voice training and lessons as well, and let you know what I find out.