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    What A Spontaneous Jam Session Can Teach Us About Improv

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    Sometimes the best music can happen inside a concert hall.

    And other times the best musical moments are unplanned.

    That’s what happened recently in Texas when an aspiring musician strumming his guitar outside a grocery store was joined by two strangers. A third stranger recorded their impromptu session and posted it on YouTube and Facebook. The rest is Internet history.

    The video is has since gone viral, boosting the popularity of the three men so much that they  were flown to Los Angeles to perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Not only were the three strangers reunited but they also were joined by rappers Trey Songz, Juicy J and Aloe Blacc.

    While the video is entertaining, it is also very educational. Improvisation appears deceptively simple but it is a very difficult skill because it requires music knowledge and creativity.

    Here are some basic improvisation tips we observed from the video:

     

    Wait: Notice how the singer in the blue jersey takes in the song before joining in. He may or may not consciously know it, but he’s listening to the song’s scale and the rhythms, figuring a way he can contribute.

     

    Simplify: You’ll notice that the guitarist’s song is more complicated in the beginning but when he is accompanied by other musicians, everyone works to simplify the song. Eventually, they all seem to agree on an ostinato – a brief, repeated pattern that is at the heart of improvisation. The ostinato the men create are the hooks: “I don’t know what you came to do” and “Tell them that I just don’t know.”

     

    Be Fearless: The creativity needed to improvise a song can be daunting. Musicians, however, need to be fearless and experiment with music-making. If your music education has been focused on scales and reading music, The Music Junction educators can work with you to enhance your improvisation skills.

     

    The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call us today to learn more.

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    Singing Her Heart Out In Kansas And Everybody Is Listening

    This week we were captivated by a viral video of a young woman doing a beautiful rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” She wowed us with her vocals and we were also in awe that she was able to provide the song’s instrumentation with her own voice through a looper station. It’s an impressive performance and certainly worth a listen.

    Her talent has been recognized by the Huffington Post, Slate and Esquire, among many other outlets. At this point, the only living creatures unimpressed with her talent are her small dogs who adorably sleep on her bed as she belts out Jackson’s classic hit.

    We did some more research and discovered that she goes by one name — Kawehi — and that she has become internationally known all while living in Kansas. She sings covers from Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead as well as her own original music. She has successfully launched several Kickstarter campaigns to support her music and her latest EP, Robot Heart. Her latest endeavor features song lyrics that are from the perspective of a robot.

    What’s not to love about Kawehi!

    The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call today to learn more.

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    How to Compliment a Child: “You’re a Hard Worker” versus “You’re Smart”

    Parents and Teachers all agree that they would like children to correlate their success at school to how much work they put in.  So that, for example, a child who fails a spelling test will think “I didn’t study hard enough, I’ll work harder next time.”

    But often when our children fail a test they think “I failed so I must be a bad speller.” or “I must be stupid.”

    You can see how important it can be to encourage children to value their effort, instead of feeling inherently smart (or not smart) regardless of their effort.  This was the basis of a study done by Carol S. Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

    In the experiment Dweck has conducted, two groups of children were asked to put together a relatively easy jigsaw puzzle.  After completing the puzzle, the two groups received different compliments. Every child in the first group was told: “You’re very smart, well-done”. The children in the second group were told something like: “You’ve put a lot of effort and thought into this, well-done”.  And then, they could choose another puzzle that was either harder or easier than the first. In the group that was complimented for smartness, 70% of the children chose the easy puzzle. In the other group, which was complimented for investment, 70% of the children chose the difficult puzzle, which, they were told, was also more interesting.

    Teachers at the Music Junction utilize this important tool when working with our students.  Students are rewarded for effort by logging their practices between lessons and receiving sticker rewards based on how many practices the student achieved that week.  We encourage our piano and voice students to achieve their full potential, instead of general benchmark goals that are the same for everyone, so that the focus is on doing your best.  Private piano lessons are particularly helpful to illustrate how hard work correlates to success.  The more time a student puts into learning a piece of music, the better they sound – and vice versa.

    At the Music Junction recitals, we reiterate to the student how their effort in preparation directly relates to their performance.   If the student is able to play their recital piece perfectly almost every time in the days leading up to the performance, they have a good shot at playing it perfectly at the recital.  If the student is always playing or singing their song with some mistakes in the days leading to their performance, they are about 100% guaranteed to have a mistake at the recital.  Of course, we created a nurturing environment at our bi-annual Music Junction recitals, where making a mistake should not feel like a tragedy.  But emphasizing the student’s control over how well they play in their performance by how prepared they were in advance is an important lesson to the child that when you work hard, you can achieve more.

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    See the Vocal Cords in Action

    Even though we speak throughout every day, most of us aren’t aware of how our voice actually makes sound.  Knowing how vocal sound is created gives us a great insight into singing, and can be very useful to make sure we are creating sound healthfully.

    Our voice makes sound in the same way all sound is made – through vibration.  We have two vocal cords, also called vocal folds, that vibrate when the breath passes them during exhalation.  These two membranes can stretch out to become long and thin and make high sounds, or shrink to become short and thick and make low sounds.  They can relax and separate from each other to allow normal breathing, zip up against each other to vibrate and make a sound, and vibrate a little farther away from each other to create a sound with breathiness (think Norah Jones).

    Everyone interested in singing should know this in order to avoid certain vocal “traps” such as trying to engage additional muscles outside of the two vocal folds to make sound.  For example, you do not need to use the throat or tongue muscles to create sound, those muscles should be completely relaxed.  Only these two little vocal folds create sound, with the aid of the breath passing through them to make them vibrate, so any other muscles getting involved just creates unnecessary tension.

    This image lays out the location of the vocal cords in the body:

    Vocal cords

    Location of the vocal folds, also known as vocal cords, in the body.

     

    In the above video, Miriam van Mersbergen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University and a professionally trained singer, speaks with John Consalvi, MA, CEO of Lingua Health about the Vocal Cords.  Miriam shares a video of her Vocal Cords in action with John and discusses how the structures and movement of the cords affect the pitch and quality of the voice.

    At the Music Junction, we think it’s important to be transparent with students about what we are doing in their voice lessons.  We want voice students to understand the whole picture of how their voice works, and how it can be enhanced.  We explain not just the how, but the why, of the vocal exercises we recommend.  The Music Junction focus is on laying down a strong, thorough, vocal foundation with students, making sure they can access all the different abilities of the human voice.  As a voice student becomes more advanced, they can start to choose which sounds, resonances, and textures they want to combine to make their unique sound.  With our help developing a wide range of vocal possibilities, the student has a large palate to choose from.  Understanding what vocal folds are and how they work is one integral part of having a comprehensive understanding of your voice.

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    Try Out “StarMaker” – a fun Karaoke App from The Voice!

    Traditionally, we’ve gone out to our local Karaoke Night to do some singing with a group of friends, but lately, those with a Karaoke itch have been turning to their smart phones.  That’s why The Voice created StarMaker, a karaoke app for android and iphones, says its users have logged 2 billion minutes of singing time since launching in 2010 – around 23,000 hours per day – and has nearly half a million likes on Facebook.  You can choose to submit a recording from the app to The Voice for consideration to be a contestant on the show.

    According to The Voice, StarMaker has “all the stuff that lets you create high quality recordings…StarMaker is your license to sing again, to practice a song until you nail it, to learn how fun it is to sing a great song. We’ve added studio-quality voice effects to help you sound better, and you can share your recording anonymously to the StarMaker community to see what people think”

    One thing that is great about this app is that StarMaker actually shows you how long or short your notes are, and if you are moving higher or lower with each note, in a way that borrows from reading music notes on the staff.  It’s nice to have a visual guide to a song – even when you’ve heard a song on the radio a million times, it’s still hard to remember every little nuance in the piece when you’re singing it on your own.  Another fun feature is “auto tune,” which corrects pitch for out of tune notes.  The corrections end up sounding a little computerized – think Cher in her song “Believe,” – but it does the trick.

    Karaoke apps are a great way for a singer taking voice lessons to try out their new vocal skills and have fun doing it.  In StarMaker, you have the opportunity to listen back to your recording after you’re done singing.  This is a perfect opportunity to check in on how you sound and make an analysis of vocal aspects you’d like to improve.  Then, try singing through again and see if you can make those improvements!  Or, take those concerns in to your voice teacher to get personalized instruction.  Your voice teacher will be your personal guide, and StarMaker can be your workshop!  If you love how you are sounding, submit to The Voice and see if they feel the same way.

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    Watch Jimmy Fallon, Idina Menzel and The Roots Sing “Let It Go” with Classroom Instruments

    Idina Menzel stops by the Tonight Show Music Room to perform the Oscar-winning song “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.”  The unique thing about this performance is that the song has a new accompaniment – composed from music instruments that you would find in a classroom.  Jimmy Fallon and The Roots created an impressive re-imagining of this Oscar-winning song.  My favorite part is the instrumental breakdown leading up to the bridge.  It’s at that moment that you realize how hard those basic childhood educational instruments can be worked!  The instrument choices make the accompaniment sound simple, but don’t let that fool you – it takes very skilled musicians to be able to turn those simple instruments into a full-fledged arrangement.  This is a fun rework of “Let it Go.”

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    Watch Axis of Symetry perform 4 Chords: One chord progression, 36 songs

    The Axis of Awesome’s song “4 Chords”, a medley of 36 pop songs that all contain the same basic chord structure, received airplay on BBC Radio 1.[3] This airplay drove listeners to the internet and “4 Chords” went viral, receiving millions of hits on YouTube.  The musicians in Axis of Awesome not only have an interesting concept for this song, but they also have excellent voices for it – demonstrating lots of vocal range and style to stay true to the individual songs that are all mashed up together in this video.

    What Axis of Awesome is pointing to, is a basic chord progression based on the first, then fifth, then sixth, then fourth tones of the scale of the song, written as: I V vi IV.  Namely, in C: C major, F major, G major, and A minor chords.  These four chords happen to be the most popular chords used in pop music. There are not many different orders you can play 4 chords in, considering that you usually want to start on the I chord, so the likelihood of using this particular combination of chords in a song is high.

    If you are a beginning pianist or guitarist who would like to be able to play something you can sing along to, it may be a good project to learn these 4 chords and try out the songs that go along to them.  There is an even longer list of songs using the I, V, vi, & IV chords (not always in the same order) here.

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    “Let it Go” performer Idina Menzel – Rushing & Voice cracking at the Oscars

    Idina Menzel – or “Adele Dazeem” according to John Travolta’s botched introduction – gave a riveting performance of “Let it Go” at the 2014 Oscars this past Sunday.  But perhaps it was John Travolta’s mispronunciation stealing the media focus away from Idina’s performance, or perhaps the problems that came up were too subtle for an untrained ear to pick up on, but for whatever reason, few seemed to notice some of the tempo and vocal problems in Idina’s performance (which she sold like a pro, to her credit).

    Idina’s fantastic voice was a show stopper in her role as Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked, which won her a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.  Then there was her recurring role on Glee as the birth mom of Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) who happened to conveniently have a spectacular voice for endless duets with Lea.  Now she is gaining rising acclaim with her performance of the Oscar winning “Let it Go.”

    So what happened at the “Let it Go” Oscar performance?  Idina took off like a race horse from the start, rushing through the first verse until she was a full beat ahead.  She had to hold off on starting into the next section to get back on track, but then there was still more rushing throughout.  It seemed like Menzel was nervous – which would just go to show that even a Tony award-winning performer, who sang on stage live for 8 performances a week for 2 years with Wicked, can still sometimes get nervous!  But to be fair, this problem can also happen if there is an issue with the monitors.  Since sound waves take time to travel, being too far away from the orchestra (or speakers if they used a per-recorded track) and then not having good ear monitors to rely on instead of the live sound, can throw a performer out of sync very fast.  If this was the situation, there would be nothing Menzel could do – you can’t tell the orchestra “hold it, stop everything, I’m having trouble hearing you right” in the middle of the Oscars.

    Secondly, Idina virtually screamed her last high not (“the storm raged oooon“).  She totally committed to it with plenty of breath support and luckily, the pitch didn’t change, but the tone broke into an airy crackling sound, then turned back into a clear tone for a moment with a little nice vibrato, but then just cracked and broke off completely at the end so that the note came to an involuntary halt.  (You can see this progression at the end of the video above.)  You could tell Idina Menzel felt a little insecure about that when she closed her mouth, but of course the audience was already so impressed by her at that point that she could do no wrong.  She jazzed up the last moment of “the cold never bothered me anyway” with a little riff to pull focus from the rough note, and of course she totally sold the song regardless.  But from a vocalists point of view on this performance, it sounded like Idina’s voice was a little worn out – which could be caused by different stressors like a little cold, too much singing, or not enough sleep.

    Even for someone who has a top notch belt, a singer is at the mercy of their vocal health.  That’s why professional singers have to be extra careful all the time about taking care of themselves, especially if they need to have regular access to the best version of their voice for constant performances.  That means they have to keep their immune system strong and find a way to never be sick!  A professional working vocalist has to do things like go to bed early, eat healthy, avoid foods that can create mucus or acid reflux, avoid caffeine or alcohol that could dry them out – basically live the life of a Saint – if they want to guarantee that they will always have the perfect version of their voice to conjure up at a moment’s notice.

    So it’s understandable why both the rushing and voice cracking can happen even to an expert like Idina Menzel, and luckily she still made the song come to life like the pro she is.  The aesthetics of her gorgeous dress and the twinkling ice mountain-shaped curtain light display set the scene.  The amazing versatility of Idina’s voice created dynamic, emotion, and contrast.  And her acting talent brought life to the lyrics.  When it comes to musical theatre (and Frozen could fairly be called an animated musical), the emotion and acting of a song takes precedence over tone quality and vocal perfection.  Adele Dazeem, er, uh, we mean, Idina Menzel, is still a singing goddess.

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    Watch Disney Frozen “Let it Go.” One song, 25 different languages!

    When Frozen was dubbed into 41 languages, it meant that 41 singers had to be selected for the popular favorite “Let it Go.”  Hear 25 of the vocalists in 25 different languages.  It is really amazing to listen to one take of the song, with 25 different voices & languages all patched together.  Even though these are 25 vocalists, their voices meld into one.

    According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Let it Go” composer Robert Lopez is grateful that the animated hit’s 41 foreign-language versions are not his problem, but that of Disney Character Voices International senior vp creative Rick Dempsey, responsible for translating Disney’s films. “We were floored when we heard the compilation of ‘Let It Go’ in all those different languages,” says Lopez. “It sounded practically like Idina Menzel singing the whole thing,” says wife and co-composer, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who notes that it’s actually dozens of foreign voices dubbed for each language. “That’s why you want to work with Disney, because no one else has that touch all over the world.”

    Idina Menzel does have a spectacular voice, and finding 41 international singers who could equal her sound is impressive.  One amazing quality of Idina Menzel’s voice is her ability to sing higher range notes in an uber-focused sound placement.  Her high notes sound compressed to a sharp clarity that build effortlessly into the climatic moments of “Let it Go”.

    One great way to get that clarity of sound is through “vocal fry” exercises.  Vocal fry is the sound that is made by the vocal folds vibrating slow enough that instead of creating sound we just hear a “buzzing” noise.   It’s the sound you make when you’re tired and just waking up in the morning, or at the end of a long sigh or yawn – most of us know it as a “sleepy” sound.  But vocal fry is much more than that, it exercises and strengthens the vocal folds to create a focused, clear sound.  Vocal fry also aids in creating a “mix” sound on high notes, so that a singer can sing high with a sound quality that is more similar to their lower notes than, say, an opera singer’s high note sound quality.

    If you want to try to sharpen your sound, combat breathiness, and build killer high notes, try doing a little vocal fry every day.  The standard exercise is to move up and down a 5-note scale, increasing by a half-step after every repetition.  You should be able to hear a tiny bit of sound that is following the note changes, but mostly a full vibrating “fry” sound dominates.  After doing this for 5 minutes, try singing and enjoy how much easier it feels.  For a more advanced exercise, try starting on a vocal fry sound, and then transitioning into a gentle pure sound in the same breath.  The sound should come out very focused sounding, with a little buzz on it, almost the way a mosquito sounds in your ear.  With commitment and time, you could start hearing those Idina Menzel high notes in your own voice!

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    Voice & Piano Lessons Increase Kids’ IQ!

    As reported by PBS.org

    “A study by E. Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, as published in a 2004 issue of Psychological Science, found a small increase in the IQs of six-year-olds who were given weekly voice and piano lessons. Schellenberg provided nine months of piano and voice lessons to a dozen six-year-olds, drama lessons (to see if exposure to arts in general versus just music had an effect) to a second group of six-year-olds, and no lessons to a third group. The children’s IQs were tested before entering the first grade, then again before entering the second grade.

    Surprisingly, the children who were given music lessons over the school year tested on average three IQ points higher than the other groups. The drama group didn’t have the same increase in IQ, but did experience increased social behavior benefits not seen in the music-only group.”

    “With music lessons, because there are so many different facets involved–such as memorizing, expressing emotion, learning about musical interval and chords–the multidimensional nature of the experience may be motivating the [IQ] effect,” said study author E. Glenn Schellenberg. – Forbes Magazine

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