World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale

Bobby McFerrin is a genius! Every time I see or hear him I’m blown away by something… usually it’s his vocal prowess and the command of his vocal chords that he has fine tuned to make a wide range of sounds along with beautiful singing.

Here is a cool video that guitarists / vocalists will love – demonstrating the power of the Pentatonic scale and ease of vamping over top of it.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

AOH Gold Medal Performance

Ambassadors of Harmony blew the audience away with this contest winning performance at the International convention in Anaheim, CA.

Unfortunately, I was not there in person but watching the webcast performance I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!  I’m so glad to see they paid for the rights to post the video online.  This performance is incredible!

If you have the bandwidth, set to full screen, HD and turn up the speakers…

Entertain Your Audience… Don’t Fall In Love With Your ‘Plan’

You’ve seen it many times – and probably been part of it yourself.  You, your quartet, chorus or band work for weeks on a plan that you are sure will blow your audience away – only to hit the stage for your first performance or even during practice before a smattering of observers and notice that they are just not responding to your plan.

Many years ago I worked with a producer on a Christmas show.  It was back when powerpoint was new and we were combining  a bunch of screen backgrounds with a narrative.  He had spent weeks picking out the perfect photos to use (and actually had too many) and somehow had decided that 8 seconds was the perfect amount of time for each background to show on the screen for the audience to gain the full effect.  Unfortunately, during the first rehearsal it became painfully apparent that the long display times and the short narrative assigned to each created a disconnected storyline that was impossible to follow.  Being young and naive, I pulled him aside and mentioned that we really needed to cut some backgrounds or shorten the times.  I was immediately cut off and told "Do you realize how long my team spent picking those backgrounds…  we are going to show them all and for the full 8 seconds".  Nevermind the audience or entertainment value, we’re going to do this according to the plan.
I read Tom’s latest post at Owning The Stage today. The basic story line is how Dean & Jerry had to threw out their entire plan after their debut in Atlantic City because it just was not working.

Who knows how long they worked on their original plan but they were willing to do whatever it took to entertain the audience (and keep their job).  This meant ditching the entire plan and starting fresh.

Over the summer I took part in an informal quartet competition.  We made it through the first round and into the top 10.  Needless to say we were excited and took some time trying to come up with a fantastic plan that would wow the judges.  We weren’t into the 3rd phrase of the song and the Bass and I were just not syncing up correctly.  In my mind, I just gave up working so hard on the plan as I thought we had lost any chance at winning.  From that point on I just relaxed and started to interact w/the other quartet members and have fun.  The audience reacted immediately and we fed off their energy creating one of the best performances of the night.

We didn’t take first because it was a cumulative scoring of both rounds, but I did talk to one of the judges later and he said that our second performance was one of the strongest of the weekend.

When we have something that we’ve invested a large amount of time or resources in we tend to fall in love with it to the point of irrational behavior.  We’re unable to step back and get an objective view.  In fact, it’s often impossible to even tweak and perfect a flawed plan.   Sometimes it’s necessary to ditch the entire process and just go with something fresh.

Sometimes It Is Best Kept Off The Stage

I have a pet peeve (well actually a bunch of them but this one is first on my list).  My pet peeve is that as singers or performers we often think that what we think is entertaining or satisfying for us is what our audience would enjoy hearing.

Unfortunately, our human nature easily gets in the way.  Whether writers, singers, performers, presenters, enterainers, etc. it is not possible for us to step back from the moment far enough to actually see the forest for the trees.

I heard from a chorus member today (who shall remain nameless) who is not participating in their annual show – for the sole reason that…  it’s not entertaining for the audience – gasp!

How do we know this?  The show had no theme, purpose, quality criteria, time constraint, etc.  How can you propose to entertain an audience with this premise?

Here’s an example of no theme, purpose, quality criteria or anything else…

Our first criteria for any public performance should be to evaluate everything from the audience perspective.   Every note, nuance, lyric, segue, etc. is filtered through that criteria.

My contention is that we rarely if ever do that – not because we don’t care or don’t know better, but we are unable to and do not know that we’re unable to do it.

Quartet’s – you need the fifth ear…  Choruses, you need an outside influence – someone not in your genre to be honest and tell you that you need to step up the game.

And now to make everyone mad at me…  Church choirs are the worst at this (some of you are horrible – get off the stage), and close behind are a few Barbershop choruses I’ve witnessed (and sadly sang in).

Fire away…

Isn’t It Ironic…

OK, it has nothing to do with singing but I thought it was funny!

Speaking of Ironic – isn’t it ironic that Alanis Morissette’s "Isn’t It Ironic" contains no irony?  Well, almost none.

However, I did see a couple of singers yesterday that demonstrated irony.  Lyrics about the joy, peace and love they had in their lives while exhibiting pained, stoic or expressionless faces and no movement.  I wanted to yell, "Hey guys, make me believe – I want to believe!".

Maybe it was irony or maybe it was just being disingenuous and dishonest.  I certainly didn’t buy it.

What we have here is a failure to communicate…

How To Record a Multitrack Tag

I’m often asked how to record a Multitrack vocal – be it a song, tag, etc. I’ve tried a number of the cheaper video screen capture programs on the market at always less than acceptable results. Over the weekend I finally broke down and purchased Camtasia and have been playing with it ever since trying to learn the ropes.

Anyway, I thought this would be a fun little recording to do.

Comments? Questions? Leave me a note in the forums.

5 Secrets to Building your Singing and Stage Confidence

I’ve become a big fan of Tom Metzger’s ‘Owning The Stage ‘ articles and have really begun a quest to study and improve this area of my singing and you should too. Technical proficiency really is an element that will only get you to a certain point. Until you can truly connect with the audience your performances will be lackluster at best.

The beauty of the internet is that you can find a myriad of examples to study. This is not A Cappella but is indeed a great performance as she has the audience wrapped around her every note. I love the confidence with which she commands the stage.

Here are 5 ways you can improve your singing and stage confidence.

1. Get your chops up to speed. You’ll notice the voice is not perfect, but technically she is very proficient. She has obviously worked at her craft and is at a point where it does not detract from the performance. Pitch is accurate, inflections do not detract from the sound and she knows how to use the power of her voice without oversinging. If you’re going to be a singer you need to be working at your craft – if you’re not willing to do that get into another performance art.

2. Lose the self-conciousness. If you’re worried about the way you look, feel, sound while you’re on the stage the audience will pick up on it and become nervious about your nerviousness. The time to fix that stuff is in the practice room weeks before. Let it all go before you hit the stage.

3. Develop a scene for the song. I’m not sure if she did it herself or had help developing it but you can hear her building the scene behind the song as it progresses. This is not an accident and must continually be a part of your practice and ownership of the song. It’s not words and notes you are communicating, it’s a story that you are asking the audience to walk through with you.

4. It’s all about the audience. Notice how her face engages the audience from the time she steps onto the stage and addresses the judges. It is truly all about them. Much like being a good conversationalist requires you to truly be interested in the other person and what they are saying – from the time you take the stage your face, body and countenance needs to be saying "Come along with me, there’s a story that I can’t wait to share with you".

5. Leave it all on the stage. The worst feeling (and we’ve all done it) is walking off the stage and thinking later that we had more to give and just didn’t do it. Develop a pre-show routine that gets you to the point where you can put it all out there, your best hit, give it all and walk away knowing that was the best you had. No regrets.

6. ? you tell me – what are your favorite confidence tips?

What Makes Comedy Funny?

I’ve enjoyed the recent discussion about comedy in relation to competition choruses and quartets on the barbershop yahoo discussion group and offshoots on various forums. I’m not even going to begin to touch on the competition scene and scoring since I don’t even pretend to know all the intricacies of judging.

One thing I do know is that some excellent comedic elements can push raise the entertainment value in the eyes of your audience take your ‘score’ in their eyes from just an average performance to one they rave to their friends about.

One of my recent quartets sang at a 60′s level (just above the ‘Kiwanis cutoff’) but was able to create raving fans and community groups would have us back year after year because our Bass was just a naturally funny guy, had a good sense of timing and the rest of us would find ways to play off that and integrate our own comedic elements into the performance. This happened to be an existing quartet that I was invited to join so my first performance with them was quite an eye opener, my first time being on stage and seeing the audience reaction to humor, falling in love with it and trying to analyze ever since that time – what makes something funny…

Alternatively, we’ve all been in the audience of a performance where they try to integrate comedy that just doesn’t work at all. It is a most painful experience and can soon make you wish for less as opposed to wanting to see more.

So what is it that makes something funny? Do you have to be born funny or is it something that can be learned? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is a science that you can prescribe a formula and crank out comedy at will. It’s also quite subjective (you either love the 3 stooges or hate them) but there are certain common elements that we can identify.

One comedic element that everyone seems to relate to is taking the obvious and drilling into it to point out and exaggerate the minutia so that we see every individual element and recognize what we can’t see from the ‘big picture’ perspective. Seinfeld is a genius at doing this – like looking at the individual frames of a film and seeing the humor in each of the still pictures – he takes the ‘film of our lives’ and points out the goofy expressions or gestures in the individual slices.

Here’s a classic video of FRED doing the same thing in a quartet performance. There are a number of comedic elements at work here but I love the dichotomy of deadpan faces singing ‘I’m so excited’, exaggerated slow motion hand raise and the play off ‘I’ve got rhythm’ that’s one frame off – in rhythm but out of sync.

There’s enough in here you’ll want to watch it several times to identify them all.

What do you think? What are some ways you’ve used slice of life humor in a performance to create a comedic element? What makes something funny?

Become A Better Singer – Fast

Several months ago I heard a business coach give the following advice – "Make your mistakes in a hurry" – the basic premise being that there is time value in our actions much like the time value of money.

Many of our best laid plans fall by the wayside because we stay in the planning and calculating stages way too long. Although I don’t advocate being like Microsoft and releasing operating systems long before they are actually ready for use, I would say that if you have a great idea go ahead and start to implement it. Don’t be afraid of failure. You’ll figure out the 99 wrong ways to do something but you’ll also eventually get to the 1 fantastically efficient way to do it also.

Much the same with learning to sing. If you’re afraid of making a mistake you’ll be so tentative that it’ll take you forever to become accomplished. Make your mistakes fast and confidently :) Try different mental pictures to help your breathing technique until you find something that works for you. Play around with your vocal placement to explore all your resonators to find your best sound or have different match options when singing with other voices. Don’t be afraid to ask for coaching from great singers and when they give you a great tip practice it ruthlessly.

Check out the video for an interesting idea – I’m not sure that I can agree as I think you need time to implement and make permanent your coaching.

What do you think?