One Take Wonder: Thoughts on Perfection

My friend Stephanie asked me to record a video performance of me singing any song of my choice for a virtual fall benefit program. I’m a mentor in her awesome organization, Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative (womensali.org), and I was honored she asked me to perform. 

I chose a song I’ve sung a lot in the past, “How Could I Ever Know” from THE SECRET GARDEN (a musical composed by two women, so it seemed fitting). The day Jordan and I were set to record the song (wow ya’ll, the perks of being married to a killer accompanist), I thoroughly warmed up and we rehearsed it a few times before hitting the record button. 

In the past, I’ve spent hours on a self-tape project like this. It’s so easy to be hyper-critical of every sound and expression and want to record take after take in hopes of reaching perfection!

In my experience- perfection is never reached. Instead, what you get is diminishing returns. After a few good takes, each one after that gets a little worse as your voice wears out and your energy wanes. 

In the case of my “How Could I Ever Know” self-tape- we ended up doing only two takes. And… we kept and submitted the first one

What a breeze!

Don’t get me wrong- this is largely because I’ve spent years training, practicing and performing– even performing this exact piece. Without that kind of experience, I may not have had such a confident go of it right out of the gate. 

But also – and here’s the point – I’ve learned to let go of my idea of perfection. 

Should we always strive to do our best? Yes!

Doing your best is not reaching perfection. It’s doing your best in this moment under these circumstances. It’s not worth it to play the comparison game, particularly when you’re comparing yourself to a standard that doesn’t exist. 

Here’s the final video if you’re interested in watching.

As a side note- I thought my performance was better in the second take, but the audio recording didn’t turn out as good. And to that I say, c’est la vie!

Spending and Saving: a Vocalist’s Guide to Thrifty Singing

You’ve arrived at the climax of the song- this is it! Here come the big, exciting notes everyone is waiting for! And…! You completely run out of steam, breath, or vocal stamina and you crack, gasp for air, or pass out (ok, hopefully not that last one).

Here’s a three-step process to give your best performance without blowing out your voice.

You have to learn the concept of saving and spending. This is an idea I teach to my professional (and aspiring professional!) singers, particularly those that are singing an athletic, acrobatic song.

You know, like “Chandelier” by SIA, “Defying Gravity” from WICKED, or anything sung by Brendon Urie, ever.

These kinds of songs require a singer to decide when to spend and when to save. Their voices, I mean.

Imagine that you are singing “Waving Through A Window” from DEAR EVAN HANSEN. You only have $1 of vocal energy to spend on that song, and once you’ve spent it- you’re done! You cannot keep singing!

First off, identify which notes are the “big spender” notes or phrases.

Probably that final “Waving! Waving! Whoa-oah!!” section is a 25 cent phrase, and that’s just the last 10 seconds of the song. What other notes or passages throughout the song require an extra dose of energy, power, stamina, or stylistic effort? Identify those passages right off the bat.

Second, be judicious on where you can save.

What are the penny notes or phrases? Not every word, phrase, or melody is equally important in your storytelling or your technical effort. So, find the places in the song where you can hold back a bit.

Lastly, sing through the whole piece and adjust your budget as necessary.

You may find that once you put the whole song together, your interpretation of the song requires certain phrases to be highlighted with more (or less) volume, power, or effort than you initially planned.

This concept also applies to entire roles you might play in a show, or your band set or concert tour.

If you are playing Evan in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, tell yourself you only have $10 to spend on the entire show! Which songs and scenes get allotted what amount of your total vocal energy?

As singers, there will always be songs, roles, or performances that require a LOT of our energy, and even for us to leave “vocal balance” for a time in order for our interpretation and stylistic choices to come through how we want. That’s ok! By allotting a vocal ‘budget’ to each song you perform, you can save your voice and stay stylistically true to the music.

2019: Chelsea’s Favorite Albums

Here we are again!

It was tough, but I chose 10 albums I love that defined my year. Take it all with a grain of salt- these are my (completely subjective) favorite albums of 2019.

2019 favorite albums

Top Ten Albums of 2019 (in no particular order)

THANK U, NEXT, by Ariana Grande
My 2019 could pretty easily be summed up by Ariana from Jan-June and Taylor from July-Dec. Thanks for framing my year, ladies.

Truly, this album is a masterwork. Sure, Ari’s vocals were best showcased on her earlier albums and it’s looking like we’ll never get back to that prime diva era, but she’s making muuuuusic and she has things to SAY and I’m here for it. You know the hits, now try “NASA” (the best song on the album), “in my head,” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.”

FREE SPIRIT, by Khalid
At the start of the year the words “Who is Khalid? Is this DJ Khaled’s other moniker?” escaped my lips. I’m so embarrassed. Khalid’s Free Spirit bowled me over this year and was on near constant repeat. Sensual, warm, infectiously rhythmic with deep textures I cannot get enough of. You know “Talk” from the near endless radio play, so check out “Twenty One,” “Free Spirit,” “Outta My Head” featuring John Mayer, and “Right Back.”

GIRL, by Maren Morris
We got a lot of Maren this year, including her all-female collaboration The Highwomen (which is entirely different from this solo record and a really refreshing throwback to peak Parton-era country). As Spotify recently reminded me, Maren’s debut album HERO was my top in 2016, so I was highly anticipating this release. And it delivered! Despite her forays into top-40 pop (“The Middle”), Maren gives us a true country album here and she belts her way through it with gusto. The standouts are the title track “GIRL,” “The Feels,” “Make Out With Me,” and “The Bones.”

DEDICATED, by Carly Rae Jepson
I am a sucker for Carly Rae Jepson. She’s…. Everything. How does she craft such perfect pop confections? HOW DOES SHE DO IT? Toggling between lovesick and lovelorn, Carly gives us a slightly more mature look at infatuation and all its accompanying side-affects. The bops abound here. Check out “No Drug Like Me,” “Now That I’ve Found You,” (the song you’ve heard on all the Target commercials) “Want You In My Room,” and “The Sound.”

DRAX PROJECT, by Drax Project
I feel like this is the guilty pleasure item on my list this year, but I need to own it and proclaim my love for it. I saw Drax Project, a pop band consisting of four young Kiwis, play a small show at Soho House this summer, and I was hooked. That night they debuted a new song they hadn’t yet recorded called “All This Time” which included a bass thumping sax solo that had my jaw on the floor (I know this sounds ridiculous- just listen to it really loud and get back to me). This debut album is a lot of fun. Other faves are “Only Us,” and “Prefer.”

BETTY, by Betty Who
I saw Betty Who in concert twice this year- and the second time she pointed and smiled at me from the stage, so basically my life is complete. I’ve never been to a more FUN concert- you must see her live. And her dancers are hot (this is a relevant point to make). 90’s pop flavored, every track on this album will make you want to dance and smile and fall in love. Faves include “Old Me,” “Do With It,” “Between You and Me,” and the N’Sync lookalike “The One.”

SUCKER PUNCH, by Sigrid
The Elle Fanning movie “Teen Spirit” first introduced me to Sigrid (have you seen this movie? Worth the watch), the 23 year old Norwegian hybrid of Robyn and Carly Rae 😍. On a road trip to Arches National Park, my brother played the whole album and I was immediately SAD I had not LISTENED TO IT EARLIER. I’ve never heard an album that delivered straight infectious bops for the first five tracks. Like, DANCE PARTY amazing for the first five. How?! Picking faves is near impossible on this album but I’m narrowing my picks to “Mine Right Now,” “Don’t Feel Like Crying,” “Never Mine,” and the piano finale, “Dynamite.”

SATURN, by Nao
This is a late 2018 entry, but I’m going to claim some kind of outrageous Grammy deadlines for this one. This album got a lot of mileage in 2019, so it counts for me.

Dang. This is the smoothest, grooviest, best make-out album I can imagine. That’s all I have to say. Check out the aching “Another Lifetime,” haunting “Orbit,” and the final luscious track, “A Life Like This.”

WASTELAND, BABY! by Hozier
I was not a huge Hozier fan before this album, but this crooning collection of rumbly baritone folk-rock (folk-rock? What is genre is this?) had me swooning. The first half of the album is the best, in my opinion. The strongest recommendation I can make to you is this: close your eyes in a quiet place and listen to “Movement” as loudly as possible. If you don’t have a physical reaction at minute 2:46, you might be dead inside. Next tracks: “Almost (Sweet Music)” and “To Noise Making (Sing).”

LOVER, by Taylor Swift
Am I a millennial white cis woman in America? Of course this album made this list. Reputation grew to be a favorite album of mine, and I was unsure if a return to sugar coated pop was something I wanted from Taylor at this point. Thankfully, I was delighted to discover Lover as nuanced, layered, beautiful, and mature. Also, I have definitely cried actual tears on more than one occasion listening to the title track. You know the radio hits, now listen to “Cruel Summer,” “The Man,” “I Think He Knows,” and “Death by A Thousand Cuts.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS- songs I cannot get enough of.

“Gone,” Charlie XCX and Christine and the Queens.
When we got to the bridge- I was sure I knew where this track was headed BUT I WAS SO WRONG!

“Call My Name,” I’m With Her
Best listened to on continuous loop.

“How Do You Sleep,” Sam Smith
The video really did me in.

“Dancing with a Stranger” Sam Smith, Normani, CHEAT CODES remix.
Will a Sam Smith 2020 album make my list next year? Yes.

Chelsea’s Favorite Albums of 2018

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Listen to my favorite tracks from my favorite albums here:

Charlie Puth, Voicenotes. You heard it here (definitely not) first. Charlie Puth is this year’s King of Pop. My Fave tracks include “Boy,” “Empty Cups.”

Punch Brothers, All Ashore. Punch Brothers make an album =  it makes my best-of list. Fave tracks include “Just Look at This Mess,” and “It’s All Part of the Plan.”

Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes. If Charlie is the king, then maybe Shawn is the prince. As my friend Renee put it, Shawn is my age inappropriate crush. Fave tracks include “Lost in Japan,” “Where Were You in the Morning.”

Third Story, Cold Heart. Three-part male harmony and expertly crafted songs that makes me weak in the knees. Soulful, folk-y, pop rock, these guys don’t bother with playing the genre game and instead showcase their killer songwriting and breathtaking vocals. Fave tracks include “Searching for a Feeling,” “Still In Love,” “Only Love.”

I’m With Her, See You Around. These three insanely talented solo artists came together for this female supergroup. Three-part harmonies (do you sense a theme here?) and stringed instruments make for endless combinations of bluegrass bliss. Fave tracks include “See You Around,” “Pangea” “Game to Lose.”

Tori Kelly, Hiding Place. The gospel album the world needed. I got to see her play Riverside Church this fall and the SPIRIT WAS FELT! Fave tracks include “Psalm 42,” and “Never Alone.”

Mumford and Sons, Delta. A late in the year release and a surprising favorite. I feel like Mumford is back in the musical zeitgeist with the arena pop/rock production on this album. Fave tracks include “42,” “Guiding Light,” “Rose of Sharon.”

Panic! At The Disco, Pray For The Wicked. Been belting it out with Brendan Urie since 2005 and I’m not going to quit now. Fave tracks include “High Hopes,” “Hey Look Ma I Made It,” “Dying in LA.”

Jess Glynne, Always in Between. A boppy pop fest with (IMO) some questionable feminist messages (looking at you, “No One.”) Overall Jess brings her funky soul vibe to pick-me-up positive Brit-Pop and I am here for it. Fave tracks include “Never Let Me Go.” “All I Am,” “I’ll Be There.”

Robyn, Honey. Long awaited and really worth it. The first time I heard the title track, I cried. Pathetic? Perhaps. Fave tracks include “Honey,” “Missing U,” “Ever Again.”

What were your favorite albums of 2018? Happy listening in the new year!

Just Give it Time (+ Practice + Dedication + Lessons + Practice + Dedic…)

I guarantee you all of your favorite singers worked for years to get the voice they have today. Whether it was formal training with a teacher, or practicing along to Whitney’s riffs and runs in their bedroom for years on end, no one just #wokeuplikethis.

Guy Babusek said it well in a recent blog post:

“Some students will only book lessons when they have auditions or important gigs coming up. When there are no performances on the horizon, I never see them. This is not a wise way of working with a voice teacher at all. In these cases, there is no time to actually build a solid technique. These singers are trying to cram in years of training into small spurts sporadically. While this is better than no training at all, it is a very ineffective way of working. Solid singing technique is built over time, by taking weekly lessons and vocalizing daily in a systematic manner.”

I can’t agree with Guy more! The best time to start your vocal training was three years ago, but the second best time is NOW. Right this minute! Don’t wait until your dream role audition comes up, or you go into record your debut album next week. A great voice takes REAL time to train.

If you want to be a professional singer, or even just a good amateur singer, take RESPONSIBILITY for the time and effort it takes to accomplish something worthwhile. Recognize you won’t get their on your own. If you value something, give it the time, energy, and even money it deserves. In the case of your voice- book regular lessons and practice every day.

 

Chord or Cord? Which is Witch?

Here’s your essential grammar lesson from me, ‘Chord’ or ‘Cord’? Which word describes the two little vibrating masses in your throat?

Your vocal CORDS are two tiny lengths of tissue whose edges vibrate in the air stream to produce the voice. In fact, to be a bit more anatomically correct, a lot of us vocal professionals refer to them as vocal FOLDS.

Are my vocal cords muscles? Kinda, but actually no. There are teeny tiny muscles within your vocal cords, but the part of the fold that vibrates against each other to create sound is a thin layer of jelly-like tissue. This tissue is incredibly fragile and needs to be treated with care! Why else do you think good vocal technique is so important?

In order to sing well, we can learn to control some of the larger (but still super small!) muscles in our larynx (aka ‘voice box’) and somewhat indirectly the teeny tiny muscles in our vocal cords.

And just to clarify, a CHORD is a group of notes (usually three or more) that form the basis of harmony. We strum chords on the guitar, play chords on the piano, and we sing chords in group vocal arrangements.

And now you know!

Musicianship and the Singer

MusicianshipWhen I was a junior in college, I gave a concert in my hometown as part of an ongoing Christmas concert series at a beautiful and esteemed venue downtown. It was a one night event put on by me; I chose the program, and asked a few friends to duet with me on two numbers. I was rushed in my preparation- final exams and performances at school kept me occupied until what was probably just a week or two before this concert I was going to give. But at the time, I thought, “No big deal! I’m a music major, I can pull this off. Most of the songs I’m singing I know already.” That was in fact the case, or so I thought. You know when you’ve heard a song so many times, you just assume you ‘know’ it?

I asked a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a tremendous singer and voice teacher himself, to duet with me on “The Prayer,” an epic ballad with a passage in Italian I was pretty sure I could just breeze through. He’d sung it many times and in our one rehearsal before the actual performance, he coached me on the pronunciation and rhythm of the section. On top of that, the melody was tricky and I was unsure of what was correct versus what I thought I had heard Celine sing on the recording. I started to feel a little nervous at this point. “But! I’m a musical theatre major! And I’ve been studying singing all my life! I’ll wow them with charisma and personality, there’s no doubt I can just wing it,” I continued to tell myself.

The concert came. There were a few great moments, there were many decent moments, and then “The Prayer” came and it all went to hell. I’m sure my mother has video footage of this that I could share here, but I won’t because honestly it would be so embarrassing.

The point is, there is no substitute for preparation. There is no substitute for time spent rehearsing something so many times, there’s no other option but to do it right. You may be a great singer, but a great voice won’t disguise wrong notes, off-kilter rhythm, and Italian that just totally sucks. 

The fact is, I’m still working on becoming an excellent musician. As I’ve studied, listened, and learned more, I realize my very favorite singers are equally talented musicians- dedicated to their songwriting, or arrangements, or musical storytelling. The very best aren’t lazy in their preparation, nor do they rely on their natural talent or pretty voice to get them through a song. They know they are one piece of a larger musical ensemble- whether they have an orchestra of 50 or a single piano accompanying them. I’ve learned through personal failures and triumphs of preparation that the only vocalist worth being is one who is a musician as well.

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