Thursday, November 24, 2011

Notes On "The Warm Up"

Our goal as performing artists is much like that of a top athlete or dancer, to be completely relaxed at the same time as being ready for anything. To be energized, (like an athlete or dancer), we need preparation. Being this "available" to the moment entails warming up properly.
For singers with stage fright or less than strong technique a quick vocal warm up before soundcheck isn't enough to contract the underlying panic and ensuing physical tension. We need a more comprehensive approach that includes a really solid vocal warm up, so there are no lingering doubts about our ability to perform the material.
A vocal warm up not only prepared the voice for the demands we are about to place upon it, but can also create a psychological calm knowing we are truly ready for the job at hand. I also highly recommend a good physical warm up made up of relaxing exercises that will help focus both the mind and body to be present and ready for anything that might come our way on stage.


For a singer this warm up always starts and ends with the breath. The breath is the first place that stage fright will manifest. Fear makes us freeze up so that our breathing becomes shallow. Sometimes our diaphragm will stiffen leaving us unable to create sound in a relaxed and liberated way. Taking the time to breath through a warm up will help remind us to breath during the show and plant the idea in our heads that we can only do "the best we can" under the circumstances.
I have found the single most important way to counteract perfectionism
and the ensuing anxiety singers experience before studio or live dates is to use a vocal and physical warm up that is calming at a core level. It is important that the warm up builds in the idea of just "doing our best" and let go of the pressure to achieve the "perfect" performance.

And if we find ourselves losing control, straining for notes, losing pitch or running out of air? The best rescue for a song going wrong is always big deep breath. All the useful oxygen floods our brain, and the motor of the car is suddenly flush with gas. Your pitch will start to correct and suddenly you will be able to hold notes again. Try it! You'll be glad you did!
It takes years to develop the pre show warm up that works best for you but once you start preparing for shows in this way you will start to feel an increased sense of liberation and ease in performance knowing you've done everything in your power to make the experience easier.

Happy Singing!
Micah Barnes
(PS DEC 4TH SINGERS PLAYGROUND Performance workshop at the beautiful Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto is filling up get in touch if you are interested in jumping in. We do cover a proper warm up in class!
Details at

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dances With Coaches pt 2: Choosing A Coach

Lets take a moment to talk about how to choose the voice coach thats right for you shall we?
A lot of times we hear that a coach has done wonders for someone's voice, or has an excellent reputation and so we eagerly sign up for sessions with that coach hoping that miracles will occur for us, sometimes without really looking into how the coach works or what their actual experience is.
For example classical coaches often have no experience with other forms of music or voice production and sometimes actively discourage ways of producing sound that are outside the specifics of classical technique. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you are looking to work in classical music of course, HOWEVER, sometimes a singer is working with a classical coach from a very early age and later discovers an interest in pop songwriting or musical theatre and is actively discouraged from "ruining their voices" with other styles. Yes. Happens ALL the time.
Likewise, a coach who works as a Musical Theatre coach will understand how to prepare us for auditions, support our working up repertoire and a specific style of performance skills, but could be ill- suited to helping us work with jazz or pop material.

Jazz and Pop coaches tend to be attractive and powerful personalities,"self taught" in some instances, and although potentially very useful in the short run for helping us understand ourselves as artists, sometimes their lack of technical understanding shows up in our lack of foundation as we move out into our careers and stumble on our own bad habits.
Not all coaches have YOUR best interests at heart!

Many coaches may have a decent skill set but are in fact frustrated singers, demanding of your respect and obedience without offering a respectful and supportive environment for you to grow in. You'll know it because you will feel like you are never "good enough", and you're working to "please the teacher" rather than understanding the technique for yourself and growing into a "self coaching" professional singer!

SO…Not all coaches are good for all things. I always suggest a singer INTERVIEW THE POTENTIAL COACH FIRST in person or on the phone. Most pro coaches will have a short "meet and greet" moment with a perspective client. Take advantage of that and ask as many questions as you can about their background and experience, client base and working methods!

A quick interview will help you determine if the relationship will feel good to you and allow you to be supported while you grow!
Find out how they trained, who they coach, how they work and what their expectations are before diving in and becoming either financially or emotionally committed!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dances with Coaches part 1

This weeks "Basics of Singing"clip #7 is about the "trill" or the rolled "R". This simple exercise isn't easy for everybody, but it's the fastest route to increasing head resonance. In fact it's been a common exercise covered by every single coach I have ever worked with as a singer.
Lois Pearson, who was an excellent first voice coach to have, taught me the basics of breathing and how to vocalize safely after I lost my voice touring my rock n roll band as a teenager. Although we sang Frank Sinatra songs in class which was awkward for me at the time, her knowledge of how to coach breathing technique is something I still use in my work today.
The trill was part of how she started me vocalizing without pushing and squeezing on my chords to produce sound. Loy Coutts with whom I studied voice for stage used the Linkletter approach which also utilized the trill to bring the skull resonance into focus.
Jose Hernandez, (who now coaching the Canadian Opera Company), was coaching singers I respected like Jane Siberry and I could hear the changes in their sound, so while I was performing regularly with my band on Queen Street I would visit his studio and learn the deeper and more powerful breathing techniques of Classical singers. Jose's work with me helped broaden my range and allowed for a kind of comfort and ease, he used the trill along with other exercises to create a more resonant sound.
It was when I joined the Nylons that my need for a coach became essential. Producer arranger Peter Mann helped me focus my Baritone voice but the arrangements also asked me to reach up (dependably!) into falsetto and occasionally down into the bass range, (something I never really mastered truth be told). Bill Vincent had been helping Nylons frontman Marc Conners achieve a vocal freedom and precision that I was very impressed by. Bill was a taskmaster who demanded a rigorous attention to detail and a deep focus. Under his tutelage I gained a freedom and ease that allowed me access to ALL of my range night after night as we toured and played concerts around the world. His extensive warm-up exercises set my technique for life…..and relied heavily on the trill!
When I worked with Seth Riggs while in California, (he basically checked the technique I had learned with Bill), his "speech level singing" approach used "less energy for larger results", perfect for his high level clients whose demanding schedules ask them to be in good shape vocally at all times. And trilling was one of the arsenal of techniques Seth used with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

Next week: Dances With Coaches part two: Choosing A Coach

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

BREATH IS CONFIDENCE "The Basics of Singing" 6: The Belt

When I hit stage, whether it's a new situation (under rehearsed with a new song, working with unfamiliar musicians or performing in a new venue) the one thing I have unshakable confidence in is my breath. I feel like there's nothing that you could throw at me that I couldn't do because of having a flexible, worked and accessible diaphragm. That kind of breath control lets me be calm and peaceful in situations that could be stressful and scary. It gives me room to create a relationship with the audience, or sink down into the emotional lie of my material instead of worrying about whether my air will last to the end of the phrase!
Our goal should be feeling we have enough breath to do anything!
That kind of confidence is something our audience can feel in our presence and our fellow musicians can feel it in our approach to the job. We're easier to work with because we're less scared and more relaxed as performers! We find ourselves much less given to stage fright and performance anxiety when we know that our bodies are working at peak to help us do the job at hand. It does, however take lots and lots of practice to build the diaphragm into a working muscle! I am able to get a whole lot of air into my body quickly because of the hard work I did with classical coach Jose Hernandez back in the day. Jose went on to coach the Canadian Opera Company but at the time his clients were artists like Jane Sibery, Taborah Johnson and Rebecca Jenkins. We all grew immeasurably under his guidance. I learned the "belt" technique from him. The new clip demonstrates using a belt to help build the diaphragm as a muscle, It's best used in tandem with the mental image of our diaphragm as an inner tube that we are expanding. An inner tube that is wrapping all around our torso and that we are consciously filling with air, working against the belt to build the muscle up and get it activated. Now of course it's actually our lungs that are filling with air BUT the use of a visual image of our filling and emptying an inner tube is useful to expanding lung capacity. The more our "inner tube" or diaphragm expands the more air can fill the bottom part of our lungs (which is where they are largest, the lungs are actually pear shaped!). The belt offers resistance for the muscle to work against and that helps us develop the muscle tone needed get the most amount of air into our bodies!