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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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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Making Art in the Real World

Posted by on Dec 30 2015 | Songtaneous

Helping my niece decorate a gingerbread house.

Helping my niece decorate.

I got to spend some time with my 3-year-old niece this past week. (Yay!)  She is smart, funny and tidy. So when we took on the project of making a gingerbread house, we tried to be organized and orderly.

Strike one.

Pretty quickly, her mom and I realized that it would have been a good idea to do a little more prep. As soon as we opened the box and read all the instructions (okay 75% of the instructions), we realized that we should have assembled the house ahead of time because the two separate construction steps called for 10-15 minutes for the icing (i.e. mortar) to set. And, that 10 – 15 minutes really could have been 45 minutes to hour. Oops! (At least the gingerbread was already baked. *smile*)

So we assembled the four walls and set a timer to wait for 15 minutes. While we waited, we distributed the decorations into different bowls. With a plan to work on puzzles for the rest of the drying time, we were good to go.

Then we added the roof and waited — you guessed it — another 15 minutes of drying time. Back to do more puzzles and we were still having a pretty fun time.

(Still … ten to fifteen minutes is an eternity to a three-year-old, even a pretty patient three-year-old like my niece.)

Now let me just say that when completely dry, the icing  provided in our gingerbread kit became stronger than concrete, but while moist it was … um … shall we say …. pliable.

So it’s been 40 minutes or so, we’ve completed 4 or 5 puzzles and we (finally!) have the walls up and the roof attached. Time to decorate!

We put our little Virgo in her painter’s smock and bring our bowls of decorations to her work table. She begins to press candies onto our gingerbread house.

This is the moment that the art we expected to make becomes the art we are actually making.

Little Bit pushes a piece of candy firmly onto the roof which causes the entire structure to shift and lean to one side. (Uh oh, strike two.)

Then one side of the roof begins to slide off the house. There’s a small outcry of alarm (from all three of us) before we leap into action. It’s okay, there’s three of us. I hold the structure in place while Mommy and Niece continue to decorate (and take some pictures!)

Our gingerbread house continues to … er … settle. The walls tilt inward, the roof slides off. My niece – who is neat and orderly and perhaps not so excited about getting sticky in the first place — lets out another small whimper.

Fortunately, my sister-in-law is an art teacher and I’m an improviser. *smile*

“Look!’ I say, “Our gingerbread house is like a snowman, it’s melting!” My niece looks at me suspiciously, but the whimper stops.

“We’re making art,” says her mom, “Art isn’t always about the product, it’s about the process. This process is FUN!”

And, with that, we changed a potentially disastrous project into a fun and creative process. My niece kept working until she had emptied all of the bowls (she’s a finisher, just like her auntie) and then we counted to three, let go of the structure and celebrated as it “melted.”

After all, being creative is largely about the process, not the product.

Final Gingerbread House

The finished “product.”

Happy Holidays!

P.S. Our plan for any future gingerbread houses — since my niece doesn’t really like sweets — is to hot glue the structure together beforehand and save the frosting for the decorating. *smile*

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