Welcome to the Songtaneous Blog

ProfileSongtaneous is where spontaneous singing happens. Once a month, singers (and other creative people) gather to share their voices and their selves while making beautiful, complex and fleeting music. I always learn something about singing and myself when I facilitate Songtaneous. In this blog, I'll share what I learn and experience while traveling in the intuitive, joyful, beautiful, expressive, challenging, abstract world of vocal improvisation.

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Summer School

Posted by on Jul 12 2016 | Songtaneous

Over the past few years, I have learned that my summer schedule is a bit more flexible than the rest of the “school year” – making it a great time to spend more time music-making.

And, not just performing, but practicing and studying.

In the last few weeks, I have gone down the Internet rabbit hole looking for vocal exercises and techniques to improve my students’ and my own singing, I have added (even more!) jazz tunes to my repertoire (including work on some of my own compositions) and I did a deep dive into my scat singing methods and practice (all in good time for last month’s SCAT OFF during the Twin Cities annual jazz festival).

Over the 4th, I traveled to Wisconsin to see my brother play a reunion show with musicians he’s known for over 20 years. In the 90s, Black Poet’s Society recorded some songs and became the go-to local act to open for national rappers who came through Madison. Watching my brother play with them reaffirmed that music is all about relationships. It was significant to see the relationships between them and to watch eight black men create in a space together and speak to the experience of being black men in the U.S. right now.

The eight members of Black Poet's Socieity in a line on stage

Black Poet’s Society. Photo by Hedi LaMarr.

I also got to spend a bit of time with my mentor and friend Rhiannon, who happened to be in Middleton for the 41st annual National Women’s Music Festival. Since Rhiannon now lives in Hawaii (when she’s not globetrotting to perform and teach), it’s been a number of years since we’ve been in a room together.

I sat in on one of her workshops and it was like a breath of fresh air and your favorite slippers all rolled together. The session was short and the participants had a range of experience singing (from none to other professionals like me), but the ground we covered was vast.

Listening to Rhiannon talk about the why of vocal improvisation was inspiring and rejuvenating. She talked about singing for the planet and for the many kinds of pain it seems that the world is in. At one point in speaking about improvising with the voice, she said, “This way of singing is really about self love.”

I agree. To improvise requires that you fundamentally believe and trust that what you have to sing has value and is worth sharing. Learning to sing is about more than breath support or vowel production or any of the things that go in to good technique.

It is about finding your voice and giving and expressing from that place within you that sings.

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The Sound of Her Own Voice

Posted by on Apr 08 2016 | Songtaneous

Ever notice how when something’s been on your mind, you start to bump into it everywhere?

Well, one of my students asked me an important (and gigantic) question a few weeks ago. She wanted to know – since singers learn by imitating and there are so many songs and singers to admire and emulate – how could she sound original?

In other words, how do you sound like … you?

Well … I have asked myself this question on and off again for over a decade and I have been really thinking about my “sound” for the last year or so. What do I want to sing? For whom? What am I trying to “accomplish” vocally? (BTW – I don’t mean accomplish in finger-wagging, critical way, but in a why do I do this? and what do I want to get out of it? kind of way.)

Something can happen when you start performing and marketing your singing and, by extension, yourself. You start trying to hit a “sweet spot” of sorts. You look for songs that your audiences will enjoy. Songs your audience can imagine you singing. You start thinking about who that audience is (or who you think that audience should be) and how you can appeal to them. If you’re honest (and want to keep working), you confront what you are and what you are not as a vocalist.

In short, the process of choosing what to sing can shift from inside yourself to outside yourself.

Last month, I was in Massachusetts with my mom for the birth of my niece. We were talking about my role curating the vocal nights at Jazz Central Studios and how it was requiring me to think about what jazz, particularly vocal jazz, is.

So my mom naturally asked me, “So, what is jazz?”

(cue crickets chirping)

Jazz is a style of music. It’s dance music. It’s American music. It’s a music in which harmony is as important as the melody. (Kind of.) It employs swung 8th notes (except when it doesn’t). It uses certain instrumentation (except when it doesn’t) It’s often instrumental (except when it’s not) …

I was bemused to find that I didn’t have a good answer. At all.

(To me, a good answer is an answer that you could give an eight-year-old and that eight-year-old would understand you *smile*).

So I went online and found a truly staggering (and frequently contrary) amount of information about what jazz music encompasses and the many styles and sub-genres it includes.

For me, jazz sits at an intersection of the sounds, history and feeling of its many, many icons crossed with the tones, stories and needs of present day makers and listeners. It is an African American art form in that the history, experiences and approaches of black Americans are embedded in its sounds and structures and its individualized interconnectedness. (Not quite a definition for our eight-year-old.)

Jazz is a dynamic genre, incorporating improvisation and exploration. And, while there is music that is certainly part of what I would call a jazz canon, jazz isn’t static and I don’t think my own jazz music can or will be found sitting safely inside what others have already created. (Darn.)

Which goes right back to my student’s question. How do we take all this input, all these influences, all these singers and their sounds and stay/become ourselves? How do I even sing jazz originally, let alone create it? (In fact, I am singing a show next week in which I search for some musical answers to this very question.) How does my student sound like herself?

I am not sure I have good answers, but here are some thoughts:

the sound of her own voice show poster

  • Sing. A lot.
  • Sing a lot a cappella. I have been thinking a lot about tone.
  • Listen to everybody and everything. Most of this art-making/music-making thing is about ideas and inspiration.
  • Read and write. I am learning that learning stuff and what you think about the stuff you are learning is a huge part of art-/music-making
  • Experiment. You have to try on clothes to see if they fit; try on different songs and styles to see what suits you (and what doesn’t).

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Out of My Head (My 2016 Keyword)

Posted by on Jan 25 2016 | Songtaneous

Wow. I struggled with picking a word for 2016. The whole process felt slippery and unsettled.

A lot of that had to do with the fact that I didn’t feel like I finished with last year’s word — RELEASE. (And we know how I like to finish things. *smile*)

2015 is over and I didn’t shred my old files or mail all my extra books to Africa or even get rid of the old futon I never use. And I didn’t release any kind of recording project (which apparently was a secret wish for last year’s keyword.)

I did complete a clothes “tidying” project and I had to release my kitty, Zoey. (She passed away right before Thanksgiving.)

cat zoey sitting in a box

I also began trying to get clear on how I wanted to focus the finite amounts of time and energy I have in the upcoming year.

All that is to say that I felt a bit out of sorts at the end of 2015 and not quite willing to let go of last year’s word. In fact, I seriously considered choosing the word again for this year (Release 2.0!).

But then I realized that was kind of the opposite of what having a word like RELEASE was all about. *rueful grin* So I practiced releasing a final time and committed to find a new keyword for this year.

….

As always, I look for a word to push guide me and help me focus on my goals/work/art for the entire year (all while acting from afar, of course!), but I found that I was having trouble picking words that felt like they’d be relevant in a week, let alone by December of 2016.

That’s not unusual. It can take me a few weeks to come to the word. Usually, when I discover my word for the year, however, I experience a sense of knowing. (And sometimes a teensy bit of dread.) I intuitively know it’s the word for me. That it will likely make me stretch and it will help me grow, often into a new area.

Far more words than usual (i.e. fit, resonance, voice, health, clarity and find, to name just a few) crossed my not-so-short list for this year. I had plenty of my own ideas and received other good ideas from family and friends.

But none of them were resonating.

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps I didn’t need a keyword anymore, but this process of choosing a word has always provided a useful and informative chance to reflect on my goals and narrative from the past year as well as to discover what a new word could bring to the year ahead. I didn’t feel finished with that.

And, I noticed that I was feeling called to pick words that felt more personal or feel-y, but that I was also resisting being more vulnerable, especially in front of an “audience.” (It’s not you, dear Reader, it’s me.)

During my visit over the holidays, my mom and I talked over my many candidates for this year’s keyword, including what I liked about them and what I didn’t.

My mom is a pretty smart lady (and she’s known me for a long time *smile*) and she knows that I am a head first kind of gal. I like to think about things and know what I think about things. She reflected that I seemed to be having a lot of feelings with which my intellect hadn’t quite caught up yet.

And then a week or so ago, I read this article about “16 Uncomfortable Feelings …” and confirmed that I was (am) feeling on edge and at the start of things. Itchy, and at times cranky and out of sorts – kind of like the cooldown, without any particular thing from which I’m cooling down.

I also realized that I had been rejecting active and structured words like energy or focus (or act or structure *smile*). This supported the idea that I am trying to get out of my head. Intuitively, I knew I could not choose a word that I would have to “live up to” or “work toward.”

Not to say that words that challenge us are wrong. I have picked a number of such words in the past – 2009: discipline, 2011: embody, 2014: start – but this year, it felt like those kinds of words would be an excuse to stay busy rather than do the work I’m meant to do in the upcoming year.

So I’m slightly surprised, a bit disconcerted, but (mostly) convinced that my keyword for 2016 is HEART.

It shouldn’t be surprising that I can’t really articulate why (it’s a feeling, more than a knowing *grin*), but I think/feel that HEART has to do with getting to and working at the center of things, acting on what I truly believe and increasing the joy and satisfaction that I get out of the year.

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