Archive for the 'Songtaneous' Category

My Keyword 2017

Posted by on Jan 13 2017 | Inspirational, Songtaneous

This will be the ninth time I have picked a keyword for the year. I began choosing keywords back in 2009 and I have come to rely on this process as an invitation to review the past year and ponder and dream about the year ahead. Focusing on choosing a word allows me to “plan” in a more high-level, dreamy way (rather than a detailed, list-making, this needs to happen first way).

As we know, I am a thinker and I can get stuck in the details of an undertaking. And I admit that I have been a little stuck in the process of picking a word for 2017. Looking back at my words, it seems I have more trouble picking a word when I know I have a large goal or project on the horizon. This year was no exception.


In November, I learned that I earned the opportunity to write and record an album this year. (Thank you, state arts board!) Since I couldn’t start work on the project until January, however, I was able to daydream about the project for the rest of 2016. And, it was kind of fun to think about how I would approach the project and the songwriting methods I would get to try, the musicians with whom I might collaborate and the songs I would write.

That changed new year’s day. It was like an alarm went off and I had overslept; I felt instantly behind. My friend and Sistet member Aimee said to me, “Panic is part of the process.” (She’s right and I’m thinking about having t-shirts made. *wink*). I could tell this panic was affecting my keyword candidates for 2017. My list filled up with goal-oriented, action words – clarity, skill, artistic, act, decide, etc. In other words, things I should do or become.

But in nine years, I have learned that the keyword can’t feel like an assignment. It has to guide, not push and I don’t necessarily have to know how the word is going to work.


Take last year’s word — HEART — for example. I still cannot articulate exactly why I picked it, but, as frequently happens, heart kept turning up. Often, literally, as in February when my grandmother had a heart attack; in April, when a co-worker’s husband died from an aortic rupture and my grandmother also died; and in October when another friend’s father died from post surgery, heart-related issues.

I also felt HEART guiding me as I worked on my album funding proposal and as I processed the events before and after November’s election. Finally, working with HEART, I realized once again that I had to get out of my head about this year’s word.

2017 will be a year for growth, possibly even unruly and unpredictable growth. And while that may fill me with some nervous energy, I’m going to try to learn from and revel in it.

My keyword for 2017 is FLOURISH.

flourish v. — to be in a vigorous state; to grow luxuriantly, or thrive in growth; to sound a trumpet call or fanfare; a condition or period of thriving

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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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