Conversations On Voice: Effortless?

The incomparable Nina Simone.

The incomparable Nina Simone.

A student came to my studio for a lesson about a month ago feeling a little down about the process. She had some questions after a week of practicing the new techniques I’d introduced her to the week before. She was a new student, and this was probably week four. After some discussion we got to the heart of it. This student was expecting her voice to “feel” a certain way and as a result of not feeling the way she expected she stopped her warm ups.

I asked her how she thought her voice was supposed to feel. Her response was “empowered, grounded and strong”. This raised the question as to whether she was comparing her voice now with her voice in the past, (as in how the techniques we are exploring feel different) or comparing her voice with other singers she admires. It was the latter.

I asked her how she believed those singers feel when they sing, what in her view is their experience? She responded…”effortless”. I smiled. Yes. Experience that years and years of singing along with many hours working on the voice brings, can lead the performer to a place that makes the process look effortless, but that doesn’t mean that it is. But, it can mean that the actual “effort” shifts.

Rock Star vocal coach Lis Lewis with her client Miguel

Rock Star vocal coach Lis Lewis with her client Miguel

This particular topic does not rear its head too often, especially with beginners. I believe at the beginning of any new endeavor it can be hard to see what you’re doing clearly….forest for the trees and all that. In many cases, that can be better as there is an element of faith in the process. Either way, I enjoyed this discussion so thoroughly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I decided to consult with two vocal gurus; Lis Lewis and Joanna Cazden, both of whom I admire and trust implicitly. I figured they would have pondered the same question at some point and if not, it was definitely worth picking their brains about.

After describing the above to both of them, here’s what was shared:

Joanna Cazden at work

Joanna Cazden at work

Joanna Cazden: I am reminded of the 12-step program adage: “Don’t judge your inside by someone else’s outside.” There’s a notion of expecting instant changes from something that’s a lifelong process of discovery. “Empowered and grounded” are whole-body sensations; not every vocal exercise will go near that, as most emphasize “local” changes. Do you talk about vocal goals from the outset?

ME: Yes…in fact, talking about goals and expectations is a big part of every introductory lesson and subsequent. The reason why this struck me as interesting is that I think it’s a concept that is easy to see from the other side, but harder to see from the beginning. I was surprised that this student was already able to articulate the idea of this sensation. Most students either think it’s me (as in NO magic wand ;-)), think it’s them (they’re not talented enough) or don’t think about it at all and just move forward with blind faith.
However, I am stuck on “empowered” as it can be psychological, physical, or any number of things that can be personal and/or universal. Oh the psychology!

LIS LEWIS: I don’t think I’ve worked with a single singer, no matter how talented or famous, who felt like their voice was

Adele, making everything look effortless.

Adele, making everything look effortless.

effortless. They may love their voices, love the sound and the way it makes them feel to sing, but they always know the amount of work and maintenance involved. They know the work it takes to move through the various ranges, tones or emotions. Just like an athlete, they work on the skill set until it becomes intuitive. There’s a conscious part and an emotive intuitive part. There’s the part you have to pay attention (to make sure you don’t fall off the stage) and the part that you throw yourself into.

JC: Well said!

ME: I completely concur. I guess the question that I still see is what does “effortless” mean? I mean for me personally, there are things that I know I can do effortlessly that some of my students cannot, yet. It doesn’t mean those things don’t take effort, but the amount of effort I am conscious of is minimal by comparison, because either the effort has already been “put in” or I was always able to do it. However, if I watch Rachelle Ferrell sing I am utterly intimidated by what she can do with her voice. It is doubtful that her process was anything less than hours and hours and hours of practice, study and experimentation.
So, what I see, is that the “effort” shifts. Thoughts?

Rachelle Ferrell, a complete vocal freak of nature.

Rachelle Ferrell, a complete vocal freak of nature.

LIS: Holy crap! I just watched Rachell Ferrell live at the Apollo singing “Open Arms”. She’s incredible! Have you seen that video of Lalah Hathaway with Snarky Puppy, who at one point sings four notes at once? Anyway…effortless is what you personally are good at, that comes easily to you and then there is what you have to work at. Then there is the grand scheme of things where you’re in comparison to everyone else. I mean Sarah MacLachlan compared to Janis Joplin, is not really a competition…right?

ME: Absolutely…to all of those points. Sarah and Janis, no…that’s an A vs B question for sure. I guess at the beginner stage, playing to your strengths depends on what you’re bringing to the table to begin with, in addition to your own awareness of what those strengths (and weaknesses) are. There is definitely a talent factor, in varying degrees. Some people can naturally sing in tune for instance and some have to work on it. At the beginner stage, supposing that you have to learn almost everything from scratch but have an idea of pitch that is fairly accurate, everything feels like an effort, probably because it is. And by the way, that video of Rachelle is an early one, here’s one of Rachell with Lalah at Catalina. The sound is not good, but you get the idea. That’s funny that you mentioned Lalah…Rachelle and Lalah sing together all the time! Who knew! ;-)

JC: I would just add that there might be two levels of meaning to “effortless.” When discussing laryngeal mechanics and throat sensation, things should feel fairly effortless. This use of the term contrasts to singing or even talking that feels locally like effort, such as when there’s a medical problem and/or really bad technique, and throat muscles are working so hard they get tired and

Thom York - effortless brilliance

Thom York – effortless brilliance

achy. “Effortless” here means that the cords are healthy and they meet smoothly; breath support and resonance placement and all the other technical factors are in place; and the singer says, “wow this suddenly got so much easier, I don’t feel my throat at all.” The vocal cords are riding on exactly the airflow they like, happily vibrating through wide ranges of pitch and intensity, and we don’t really feel them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and how it’s supposed to sound.

ME: I tend to describe this in terms of the mechanism(s) being unconscious, as they are designed to feel. If you’re feeling too much tension, or abrasive friction, something *ain’t* right!

Lalah Hathaway, singing more than one note at a time, and making it look easy.

Lalah Hathaway, singing more than one note at a time, and making it look easy.

JC: Yes, at the same time though, the singer is working very hard everywhere else: in their mind, in their core (ribs/abs/diaphragm), in their mouth and upper throat, in their diction, in their entire body posture, in their emotional connection to the song and the audience, and in their spiritual courage. Plus of course, they are coordinating with band mates, remembering choreography, playing an instrument at the same time, hitting marks for a video, or perhaps (in the case of P!nk) hanging from a trapeze so all the vocal mechanics are upside-down in relation to gravity. At the highest levels of performance, some of this is done “by heart” (from muscle memory and repeated mental habit), but one would be crazy or naive to think that it feels “effortless.”

ME: P!nk is crazy (In a good way)! That’s an extreme example, an outlier I guess, but still a good one. However, I don’t think it’s crazy to think it feels effortless, and this brings me back to the initial question. As you say Joanna, the repetition and muscle

P!NK hanging upside down in mid-air, singing the hell out of a song, and....a boob hanging out. P!NK = Bad Ass!

P!NK hanging upside down in mid-air, singing the hell out of a song, and….a boob hanging out. P!NK = Bad Ass!

memory can make it seem effortless and in some cases it feel that one to one person and not to another. For the sake of example, I can belt really easily with zero pain or throat tension. It still takes effort but working with students who are dying to be able to belt easily, it takes tremendous effort and stamina. I remember that feeling myself, many years ago…pushing, pushing, pushing. URGH!

JC: The core challenge, I believe, is to rehearse so diligently―working both hard and smart―that every conscious part of the mind + body + soul + communication does its job, freeing the semi-conscious vocal mechanism to do as little “work” as possible. Because the cords are so sensitive to all other areas of the body-mind, they will pick up the slack if they have to. Too little airflow or too much; too little stamina or too much anxiety, the cords reflexively adapt. We want to spare them that effort.

ME: I love that visual Joanna. It’s important to remember that. The body knows better than we do. Unconsciously. ☺ I’m going to add a link here to one of your articles that embellishes on this – Joanna Cazden The Instrument Inside Of You.

JC: Discipline is the key to freedom in most areas of life. Practicing all the other stuff is what allows the vocal cords to do the “spontaneous magic” that feels like no work at all.

Claudette Sutherland (center) in How To Succeed.

Claudette Sutherland (center) in How To Succeed.

ME: Absolutely. One of my favourite quotes from a friend, Claudette Sutherland, (who is a creative writing coach, but also a singer. She was the original “Smitty” in “How To Succeed In Business…” on Broadway) is “the work is more important than how you feel about it”, and that is sooooo true. Showing up, asking questions, but “doing” is paramount to how you may feel about it (of course this is all assuming you’re in good hands, with the right guidance).

So, there’s talent (what you bring to the table), finding the right guidance (look hard and question a lot!), practice (local isolated techniques and songs that tie everything together), awareness (analyzing what is happening, shifting etc) and knowing that there is a tremendous amount of unconscious work going on, stuff you will not be aware of….and if I can add one more thing (which I think I can…it’s my blog!)….LISTEN!!!!! Seriously. Record everything, listen back and keep files. You will hear your voice differently outside your person, especially after the practice. The best singers have a lot of experience listening back to themselves. Time consuming? You bet.

A wonderful discussion that I hope you found interesting. I think we’ll do this again. ;-)

Blast from my “Quantum Redshift” Past. (XPost-1)

20131020-112848.jpg I just received in the mail the “Curious George” DVD that I sang on called *Halloween Boo Fest*. It was produced by the wonderful Share Stallings and I intend to post more about it later once I have had a chance to watch it. I’m excited! It reminded me that many years ago I was hired to do a voice over spot for an XBox game called Quantum Redshift. In stepping back into the voice over world I was reminded of this prior credit and decided to do a little search. After I was recorded, I never heard hide nor hair of it again. Well…this morning I found it. Disclaimer alert. The director coaxed the broadest and most “Aussie” accent out of me as possible….it is funny to hear myself talk like that. Eh…..on ya’ mate! Anyway, happy Sunday and here it is on youtube: Quantum Redshift Kiri Foxton. I’ll post about the Curious George movie soon (which features Pat Monahan in addition to yours truly) and also my recent stint on X-Factor, (which will be XPost2). I am also working on some drafts about vocal technique. See you soon! 20131020-111032.jpg Oh BTW…here’s Kiri, blonde and all. So fun! ;-)

Locata – GPS World

Libby Lavella GPS Nunzio Gambale A while ago I wrote about my Uncle’s company Locata. Well, it’s on! They’re on the cover of GPS world and Nunz just gave a keynote presentation at the 2013 International Institute of Navigation Conference in Nashville. I realize this is REALLY off topic from my usual posts, but hey…I’m a proud niece!

Here is the VIDEO and here is the ARTICLE


Tea with Quincy Jones and Blush

This happened…. :-) Libby Lavella Quincy Jones Blush Mervyn Warren

I’ve been working with Asian Pop Super Group BLUSH for the past year. Very recently their manager, Jon called and asked me if I could write them a vocal arrangement of Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT for the agit8 protest song movement. I said, without hesitation…YES! Of course it had to be done yesterday in three days; written, learned, recorded, video shot and then sent to London for the agit8 launch at The Tate Modern. Long story short, we did it (“we” meaning; myself, Blush, Michael Perfitt, Tim Young, the wonderful Mervyn Warren, Jon and Stacey Niermann, DJ Quaye and Henson Recording Studios’ Faryal Ganjehei, Jaime Sickora, Bill Rahko & Derrick Stockwell). I’m quite proud of getting the word “RESPECT” in there in 4 of their languages for their core fans. I had to fight really sell it to the girls, but in the end, it really worked and I feel the fans will be pleased. Anyway…here it is – RESPECT VIDEO. The people cut out the cool vibey intro we did, which is a shame, but not surprising. We had a blast, very little sleep and in the middle of it all we all had tea with Quincy Jones at his house. Quincy’s currently their executive producer and he wanted to hear the arrangement. At this stage, I had only just written it and taught it to the girls so it wasn’t recorded yet. Therefore, we had to be presented live. (What are ya gonna do?) Quincy told me he “loved it!” and went on to say that he’d never heard that song done that way, which was nice. Before he’d heard the arrangement, Quincy had already enlisted the help of his long time collaborator Mervyn Warren. Quincy then insisted that Mervyn and I work together to fine tune. Mervyn was lovely, gracious and made some killer “fine-tuning” suggestions to the arrangement. All in all, it was wonderful.

Blush are such a sweet group of girls and soooo hard working, I love working with them. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the future. Here’s a pic of all of us at their show earlier this year in Chinatown for Chinese New Year. blush


the amber HOB The new project I’ve been talking about for what feels like FOREVER, is cooked, baked and basted. It’s called The Amber and it consists of yours truly, Florence Hartigan and Ryland Shelton. We’re a three part harmony driven group doing original material. I have dreamt of being part of a group like this for as long as I can remember, so it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway)…YYYYEEEEAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

We’ve done two offical shows, but also a random appearance at an Italian Cultural evening at Pasadena City College and a song or two at a house concert in Janurary. Other than that we’ve been in rehearsals and writing/recording mode. The three of us haven’t been together very long, only since last August or September, however Flo and I have been working on this project since 2011. A few singers have come and gone, a few recordings have been created and chucked out and many songs written and left on the cutting room floor. That said, we persevered, and the above is a shot from our first show at the House of Blues. It was a really great first show.

Libby Lavella the amber Big Horn Festival Shortly after HOB we played a show at the top of Mt Baldy for a set of teaser shows to help promote The Big Horn Music Festival that’s happening up there early September, (we’ll be a part of that too!). This was a lot of fun, we met some lovely people and played alongside some amazing talent. For the first time in my career I rode a chair lift to the gig. It was majestic! All our gear was taken by truck at the foot of the mountain and then, all musicians rode to the top to play. It was so nice to have 30 mins, after dealing with LA traffic to sit on a moving chair whilst taking in the mountain air, only to disembark and then play music. I may not say it enough, but I LOVE MY JOB!

As someone who willing spends the majority of their day supporting the careers of other artists, it’s very nice to be back in the saddle myself. It feels good. If you’d like, you can hear a sample of what we’re cooking up here – THE AMBER and please, like us on Facebook. We have a show coming up in downtown LA July 28th with my good friend George Sarah, and then there will be the Big Horn Festival in Mt Baldy, plus a few dates in Palm Springs…more details on all that to come. Until then, thank you so much for your time and support!

Book with Kuk Harrell – coming soon

I’ve been trying to keep quiet about this, but I can’t any longer. I’ve been hard at work on a book for the past year with Kuk Harrell and it’s almost finished. I can’t get into the nitty gritty, but let’s just say if you’re a vocalist who has any interest in singing in the studio, you’ll want to read it. That’s all I’ll say for now. (Here’s a selfie from one of our writing/brainstorming sessions.) Who’s Kuk Harrell you ask? Read more here: Kuk Harrell

WriteGirl 2013 Disney Hall Downtown

Today I’ll be taking part in the annual WriteGirl Songwriting mentor series downtown at The Disney Hall, and I am proud! Can’t wait. I’ll blog about it later today…but here’s the info if you’re interested, see here.

Here are some pics from last year too!

Nina Gordan in mid-flight, meaning she was making up a song on the spot….oh yeah! ;-) Yours truly and Heidi Rojas and Kyler England from The Rescues to my right….amazing songwriters.

Here is the whole gang of female songwriters who gave their time as mentors.

Mark Webber’s – The End of Love

You may or may not remember me blowing up Mark Webber’s spot when we worked together on his voice for Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Mark had to learn to sing in 5 mins (well not literally, but in the world of learning to master an instrument and knowing how long that actually takes, that’s pretty much what it boiled down to) and…well, he did! He has a new film called The End Of Love, which he not only stars in, but wrote and directed. As someone who recently became a mother and struggled with the adjustment of balancing life in a new way I can say it’s poignant, raw and expertly created. Mark is not only a first class actor, but he is a craftsman…a true creative, (he’s also a sweetheart of a guy!). You can see the trailer here…THE END OF LOVE. I’d love you to go and see it. Please support this artist! Buy it here on iTunes.

Beyonce – National Anthem – Presidential Inauguration 2013


Beyonce blows my mind. Did you see her sing the US National Anthem at the Presidential Inauguration? Amazing. Now, I believe singers, especially R&B singers of her calibre, tend overdo the anthem and sing all over it. But no, she restrained herself and demonstrated solid technique, passion and true professionalism. Watch it here

Notice how she used mostly head voice and held out notes. It’s more of a classical approach than she usually brings, because she can completely belt in that range in her chest voice. I only caught a few runs and they were tastefully done. I like it when I see varying degrees of style and taste in singers, especially when they have the clout to do whatever they want. It’s cool.

I read something about her lip-synching the anthem, here. I don’t believe it. I might believe she sang to herself for support, singers do that all the time, but you can see her throat and her jaw responding to the vibrato, you can’t fake that! Let me just say, there is no way! That was live. She’s an amazing singer. Wonderful.

Congratulations President Obama and well done Beyonce!

Side note: Jason Wu needs FULL METAL props for dressing The First Lady. She looked amazing! I love the jacket she wore with the leather gloves. It reminded me of a demure Trinity from The Matrix. Completely bad ass.

1/25/13 addendum: After the week long assault of press pertaining to whether or not Beyonce lip-synched….seriously? I mean…seriously? You can hear and see the connection with her voice to the mic. At the beginning, where it is hard to hear her, you can hear her voice in the distance. It’s a live sound echo thing….big space, outdoors…etc. Listen for where she says “stripes” and kind of trips on the “p” then takes a breath. It’s live. Now can we move on with our lives….please.