One of my students requested this physical warm up in video form, so I thought I'd share with all of you. This is just a quick check in and physical prep you can do before you sing. One of my teachers explained the vocal warm up practice as a way to send enzymes to the parts of your body you work with when you sing. I start with a little shifting, walking, or stepping in place to activate the pelvic floor, which stays turned on and engaged to support the diaphragmatic muscles while singing. Then I move to shoulder rolls to relax the shoulders, but more importantly to open the ribcage which houses the lungs. Half circles of the neck relaxes the throat and frees the vocal chords, and a little tapping of the cheekbones and third eye, or center of the forehead, prepares for tonal focus and resonance.
This is the fourth attempt at a video of a song I wrote a few years ago, "Chemical". This evening I headed out to the barn to set up a spot to play with making videos. Videos are tough. It's scary to see yourself there, so exposed. The ego tends to run away when you watch yourself on the screen. I think it's safe to say that it has a way of bringing up any physical insecurity you might have- at least, it does for me.
BUT. I am determined to share more with you this year. I am recovering my love of writing and creating, and working on integrating education and performance. I would like to share something from this process EVERY DAY. Maybe it's crazy, or unrealistic. But it feels so good to commit to exploring my thoughts and feelings and articulating them at a level I can share with my community on a daily basis. It's the same propulsion that drives my songwriting, and I'm excited to explore and broaden the ways in which I express.
So- here it is. This song usually calls to me when I head up to the "music barn" on my family property, because I wrote it there a few years ago. I was losing the light- as you'll see in the video- and the pressure kept getting to me, distracting me and causing me to forget the lyrics. I often tell students that making a recording of your song- even a voice memo on your phone- is a good way to start the process of confronting fear and nervousness about sharing your voice. How do I know? Because I struggle with that fear, and nerves, every time. Like we all do. But- the sharing is more important than the fear, because it provides opportunities for healing, for strong relationships, connecting with community, bringing together people in a collective experience, for exploring the shadow self, and bringing the darkness out into the light to be acknowledged and transformed. So we don't feel so alone. So we can feel joy in connection. And that's more important than insecurity. So- here you are.
By Alison Harris
(I learned this technique for writing lyrics from songwriter Tim Bluhm, who shared that he checks the integrity of lyrics by writing them out in prose form, with punctuation. It's an interesting way to test out the structure of what you are trying to say)
"You flew away, freeing my heart. I finally know- it isn't the start of something beautiful. Oh what a love, oh what a day! Baby to think I was willing to give it all away. We'll meet again, high as the stars. When you're fighting to win, the need for a victory is Chemical. I fought for your heart, I fell down with ease. Scraped up my elbows and tore up my knees. Oh what a love- oh what a night! If you're trying to find me, I'll be in the last dream on the right. Someday you'll say- Give me the key. When the lock has been rusted away, and your heart gives in to Gravity. I don't know what it is about you, I just can't get enough of the view! Fell so hard- I've got proof in the scars. This love is adrenaline, it's Chemical." - Alison Harris, 2015
It was a year of transformation. A year of healing. When the fires happened, my family and I were lucky enough to stay safe in West Sebastopol. Things didn't feel right, but as friends who had lost their home came to seek shelter with us and we processed what had happened together, as we came together as a community- well, those kind of connections got our county through. It's a small start and the recovery is FAR from over, especially for those who lost their homes. But- connection, music, collective processing and healing- it helps. It makes it bearable, sometimes. As the fires continued to rage and everything was shut down, I wrote this song about healing and finding hope. It's called "Charts of Healing", and I hope it brings some your way.
So, I just had an exchange with a student and good friend who is a visual artist. She sent me a picture of a detailed portion of the painting she's working on, and commented (well. . . texted. Let's just pretend it's the 90s and we were actually talking to each other)- "My version of singing Bach."
She knows that I sang Bach for years, from age 15 to 24 every week without pause. Singing Bach's complex choral melodies (in German) for first soprano taught me how to master control of my resonance, vowels, and vocal flexibility. It's ironic, because there is NOTHING flexible about singing first Soprano Bach parts in a choir. It's probably some of the most rigid singing you can imagine. Still, working on those difficult passages demanded that I develop flexibility in my voice, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to execute the passage. And trust me- when you are singing up to a high "A"- it really shows when you f**k up ; ) (Side note- I am dreaming of starting a series of vocal warm ups for vocal flexibility all based on Bach Melismas).
A melisma is basically *a lot of notes very fast* in a sequential pattern that moves up and down for a few bars. Here's the definition that popped up when I searched just now: "a group of notes sung to one syllable of text". So there you go- vowels, tone, and movement.
After my friend compared painting in intricate detail to singing Bach, I said- "I can totally appreciate the comparison". To which she replied,
"I can too now, I had no idea the voice was work. I thought you had it or not."
At this point, I saw a combination of lightbulbs and a sea of red. Because the more I teach, and the more I sing, the more I believe passionately that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is a natural vocalist. Using our voice is pretty much the VERY FIRST thing we do. We cry. We babble. We make lots of different expressive sounds. We talk. And most of us listen avidly, passionately, frequently to music.
Music is how we are designed, it helps us process our inner and outer worlds. So how come some people can sing, and some people "can't"?
It's just work.
Oh, and the desire/willingness/conviction to bare your soul in front of everyone. That too.
We all have an incredible natural musicality inside of us. It takes a huge amount of dedication to physical technique, fine motor development, neural connections, and strange abstract concepts (like engaging your diaphragm while you completely relax your tongue) to realize and strengthen your voice. It also requires a huge amount of vulnerability. Because when you sing you reveal your own unique sound, tone, and interpretation. We tend to want to sing about things that are close to our hearts and souls. Very close. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve.
It's been shown that, on average, people fear public speaking more than they fear death. So- imagine what happens when you ask people to try public SINGING!?!
If you are afraid of sharing your voice, here is something to think about. Something I know to be true, because I've been doing it for 20 years. Because, quite honestly, it was the only way I could express certain thoughts and feelings that had to be expressed or they would make me implode. Can you relate?
Having the courage to express yourself with integrity and authenticity will touch those around you and create ripples of healing from the inside out.
If you'd like to find out more about the song circle and vocal expression program I'm starting for women in February, CLICK HERE.
Thanks to my friend for the food for thought. I'm leaving you with The B Minor Mass and a Bach Melisma. To find the right one to share, I just looked through my old Bach scores and looked for the most dog-eared page. Sweet Dreams.
Alison is a Musician, Writer, Teacher and Mother. She lives in rural Sonoma County with her daughter, Ella.