Today we’re joined by Jeremy Fisher, one of the co-founders of Vocal Process, one of the most impressive and useful websites for learning how to develop your singing voice and sing better. Through blog posts, live in-person training, online webinars, books and even an app, Vocal Process covers all the most in-demand topics for singers, ranging from how to get started and sing in tune, through extending your vocal range, through developing your singing style and even passing auditions.
Jeremy himself has had a fascinating career and one thing that made me particularly keen to have him on the show was that he was an instrumentalist first and foremost, and we think that’s given him a particular perspective on the musicality of singing that’s distinctive. The other component of that is definitely his focus on the science and analytical approach to how the human voice works and how to improve your singing.
There was a lot that we wanted to quiz Jeremy on and we had to hold ourselves back a bit so as not to produce an epic 5-hour podcast – but we still crammed a ton of interesting stuff in!
In this conversation we talk about:
- How his brain works as an expert sight-reader, and the process of learning to do the same thing yourself
- The “Trombone exercise” that can help you learn to sing the right notes and land on them in tune.
- And why wanting to help singers led to Jeremy discovering a love of having a camera stuck up his nose.
This is one of those episodes that packs a whole bunch of different subjects and a ton of expertise into a short conversation, so whether you’re an instrumentalist, a singer, or a bit of both, you’re going to take at least one – and probably several – really useful ideas or insights from this.
Listen to the episode:
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Jeremy: Hi this is Jeremy Fisher from Vocal Process and you’re listening to the Musicality podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Jeremy, thank you for joining us today.
Christopher: I would love to hear about your early experiences in music because you have become a very well respected and well established vocal coach with a range of fascinating projects but as I understand it, your early beginnings were not so much focused on the vocal side, is that right?
Jeremy: Not at all, yeah I started as a pianist and, so playing piano and it was a very odd way of me starting to play because I was in my primary school and the head mistress heard somebody in the corridor playing the chime bars with all the right rhythms and all the right notes and it was very important to me, it was me, very important to me that I got everything in the right order and everything was correct. And she came out, found who it was and, as it happened, we lived across the road. So, she came across the road to my parents and said, this boy must have piano lessons.
So my mother bought a piano that was incredibly cheap and very bad, it was six pounds at the time. It stayed with me all the way through to getting into music college, so I had a terrible piano to play on.
Christopher: I see, and what did that piano learning process look like for you? It sounds like you had a bit of a knack for it from the beginning.
Jeremy: I was an experimenter so even at six I was an experimenter so I used to just stand at it and pick tunes out and play notes and my mother wanted me to have piano lessons with the local teacher and we waited a year for him to have a vacancy for me, when she was getting rather upset about it because she didn’t want me to learn bad habits and I was playing quite a lot by then and I was playing everything by ear and I didn’t know anything about reading music.
So she went out one night and she said, I am not coming back until I have found you a piano teacher and so I started piano lessons properly at the age of seven, which for a professional pianist is quite late.
When I went for my first lesson, the music teacher said, well I normally do 40 minute lessons but because you are so young, I will just do 20 minutes and my mother said, I think you will find he will want to do the 40 minutes and I did and even now, I have a 40 minute attention span.
Christopher: Was that weekly lessons? How often were you studying?
Jeremy: There was weekly lessons and I devoured everything. And interestingly, people used to say, oh you must do lots of practice, I didn’t actually do practice in the usual sense of the word, I played all the time, I played as much as I could. It wasn’t particularly practicing, it was just sort of fooling around and trying things out and I did learn to read music, but I learned to read it very slowly. Mainly it was because I wanted to find out what other people did, how they wrote music, what the music was and I wanted to match what was on the page with what I thought it might be.
So I learnt to read fairly early on and then I just got as many music books out of the library as I could, just to practice reading, just to look at what was there and try and put it onto the piano and try things out.
So I was talented, I was playing Beethoven’s sonatas by the time I was 12, so I was a talented kid, but most of it was, I used to just sit and play and it never felt like work, it never felt like I now have to practice my scales, I am still not great at scales. It’s just that I really felt that I wanted to find out what was there and I loved doing it.
Christopher: And I found it interesting that you used the word experiment there to your process of learning, it sounds like it was very much ear based but it was trial and error, you were experimenting to find the right notes and to find the right way to play things, is that right?
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah and it was very interesting, when I actually finally got to music college, I was 17 and I almost had to undo all the fingering that I did because I just used any finger that came to hand, as long as it sounded good, it was fine.
Christopher: And your lessons, were they kind of traditional, classical, sheet music reading lessons that took you through to music college or?
Jeremy: Oh yes, very definitely. We didn’t do anything other than classical and because my teacher worked out fairly early on that I liked targets, so she put me in for every exam she could find. So it was always, here is the exam piece, here is the music, learn that, here’s the next piece, learn that, here’s the next piece, learn that, learn the scales, do all the aural tests, do all the sight reading.
So it was very much geared towards exams and targets and in a way, I didn’t do that at home, I did enough work to make the pieces work but mostly I would not play at home what I was supposed to be playing. I would just get other music and find out what it was.
Jeremy: So yeah when I started, it was very much playing by ear, it was very much improvising, it was very much trying out. By the time I got through to, at 13, when I was doing my exams, I had stopped most of the improvising and I actually was doing reading from then on, so really from then on, I became a reader. And I have still kept that going that I now do a lot of sight reading and sight understanding which is different.
Christopher: That’s something that I am definitely going to come back to and ask you more about.
Christopher: But for now, you have to continue with the story, you got as far as music college and presumably piano was your primary instrument?
Jeremy: It wasn’t. My primary instrument at music college was oboe.
Christopher: Gosh that came out of nowhere. When did the oboe start?
Jeremy: When I was doing O-Level music, when I was 14, 15, the music teacher said, okay, so you play the piano but you need an orchestral instrument and I said, brilliant, I would like to play the flute and they said, we don’t have a flute, we’ve got and oboe, play that.
So I learnt the oboe and I learnt it really quickly because I already had the theory knowledge, I already knew what the notes were and I knew how to read music so it was just a question of learning the techniques of the instrument.
And I got into music college as a first study oboist and I went to a college where they would let me do piano as well as a sort of high second study. And within two years, I thought, no, I am bored with the oboe, let’s go onto the piano instead. So I changed instruments onto the piano course which is very unusual mostly you don’t change on to the piano course, most of the piano course is so hard that you change off it.
But I carried on with that and then very early on, I started playing for people, so I started working with people and being a collaborative pianist and I loved that, I loved working with other people and I loved making music with other people. So I ended up studying that full time and when I left college, I had graduated as a collaborative pianist.
Christopher: I love that term, and I have been corrected on it before and you were very polite when we were talking before starting recording when I referred to your career as an accompanist, but tell us a bit about why we should say collaborative pianist rather than just accompanist.
Jeremy: Sometimes it’s a word thing, when you think about an accompanist, you think about somebody who follows, so somebody who is with and subservient to, somebody who is trotting behind the soloist, supporting them.
The thing about a collaborative pianist, when you are doing the work, I don’t often accompany people I actually, sometimes I lead, sometimes I support, sometimes I pull them back so it’s very much a give and take thing and it’s very much a duo or a trio or a quartet, I am playing in a quartet concert in a couple of weeks time.
And so there is something about collaboration where you are equal to, sometimes you take the lead, sometimes you accompany, sometimes you just go with. And I think the fascinating thing about being a collaborative pianist is quite often you have to work out what your partner is going to be doing before they do it so there is sort of extrapolation that you are doing, you get the shape of something that they are doing in your mind, oh right, they are doing that shape so they are going to go here or they are going to make that pause or they are going to pull this up and I can feel what they are going to do, before they do it and if I can do that, I can do it with them.
This is the thing about an accompanist, if you can’t feel it before it’s going to happen, you are going to be late. So it’s a very different skill from pretty much anything else I think. And the thing about a collaborative pianist is that repertoire that you do, the choice of music that you do is vast because even if I am just playing for singers, and I play for instrumentalists as well, if I am working with singers, then I am working with opera singers and I am working with concert singers, musical theater singers, pop singers, R and B, I mean I am working with a lot of different genres all the time so you have to be a musician who understands style and genre and then also can tune into people and what they are going to be doing. I love the job.
Christopher: Yeah fascinating, I think that really paints a vivid picture of why you need such a good ear to be a good collaborative pianist.
Christopher: I think some people make the mistake of thinking, if the guy in the corner is playing piano while I sing, he is kind of just a backing track and I will switch him on and he will do his thing.
Christopher: But as you describe it, it can and it should be a real collaboration and a real joint musical creation.
Christopher: And so how much does your co-collaborator need to also have a good ear and if you are say, helping someone with an audition and they haven’t worked with someone who really understands that collaborative nature of things and they think they can just stand up and sing and go and pay no attention to you, does that work? Do they need to be tuned into that same spirit of collaboration?
Jeremy: Ideally yes. I have worked on a lot of auditions, I have worked on thousands of them and when somebody does do just exactly what you have just described which is, they walk in, here is my version, I am not listening to you, I am just going to stand there and perform and walk off again. And my heart sinks and I just go, okay, it’s the job, that’s fine. I will play the notes underneath you, thank you, bye.
When you really get excited and things get interesting is when the person that you are working with comes in with some strong ideas, they know what they want to do but they are listening to what you do and they pick up on what you do and then you can start to work together and you can start to get a flow going. And this for me is when music really works, is when you get a flow going.
And sometimes you really don’t know what is going to come out and things happen that you don’t expect and you go, hey that was good and that’s when you are really in the flow, and flow is very important for me, I do lots of coaching on flow and how you get there.
Christopher: So just briefly describe for anyone listening who hasn’t come across the concept of flow, can you explain what you mean by that?
Jeremy: Yeah well wish I could because if I could I would write a book on it. Flow is, okay a whole load of things, it’s when the performance feels easy, it’s when the music is working, it’s when what you are doing is working and it’s very interesting because a lot of the, and there is more to it. When I am coaching singers in particular, what you often get is people going, oh well that note is really difficult or I’ve got a bad phrase here and they come out of what they are doing and they start worrying about technique.
For me, technique is the work that you do behind the scenes, the work that you do off stage, the work that you do at home and in a performance, for me it is 95% flow performance and 5% technique and what often happens is that people do have a phrase that they go, I am a bit worried about this, that’s when you switch your technique brain on, when you are coming up to that phrase and you go what is it that I need to remember to get this note out or to do this particular bit of tuning? And you do that, you get it and then you can go back into your performance flow. And for me, that’s fine, it doesn’t have to be 100% flow and it doesn’t have to be 100% technique, it can be a mix and match.
So flow is when, people sometimes get flow completely without any training and without anything and you know when you hear someone performing and you go, that’s amazing, I don’t know how she is doing it, but it’s amazing. I don’t even know how she can do it twice, but it’s amazing. And the thing about flow for me is, if you know why you are there, what you want to communicate and what you love about what you are doing, that goes a long way to getting you into the flow state.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative) interesting. Well I think we will circle back to this a bit later in the conversation, I definitely want to get your perspective and expertise on your style as a singing performer in particular and how you can develop the way you present a song or a performance.
Christopher: But before we move onto that, I want to come back to something we were talking about in terms of collaborative pianist expertise and we talked about how you need a good ear but the other part of it I suppose, is what most people I think would think of which is, you need to be able to sight read what ever is put in front of you. And you mentioned you converted to a sheet music reader in your teenage years and must have become quite expert in it. How do you think about sight reading or how did you learn to do it at such an expert level?
Jeremy: I think for me, it is not about reading all the notes, and that’s really important, it’s actually about looking for patterns. And the thing is, the more you play, and the more you just play around, the more you start noticing patterns. The more you play patterns, the more you practice patterns and when you are reading music, I really am not reading the notes, I am looking at the patterns and I am going, is that a pattern that I recognize? Is that pattern in my catalog? Can I just glance at something and go, oh that is a pattern I have played before, okay now I know what it is.
And it is as fast as that, and that means that you are not reading a set of 12 notes, what you are reading is a riff shape and a riff shape or a run shape that I have done before and I go, oh okay, I know what that one is, so I don’t need to focus on it.
One of the reasons that I read well is I just look at a page and I go, recognize it, recognize it, recognize it, recognize it, that’s different. And so my whole focus, my whole attention goes onto the bit that I don’t recognize and it means that I can read all the rest of it much faster, so that I can sharpen my attention on the bit that I have not seen before, work that out, do it and then move onto the next shape, and so much music is about shape.
Christopher: Wow, so I guess there is a little bit of an analogy in terms of what you were describing in terms of flow where you need two modes, one where everything is easy and smooth and natural and the other way you have to flip into thinking a bit more carefully and pay attention to how you are doing what you are doing.
Jeremy: Very much.
Christopher: Could you give a few examples of patterns you would be clicking into and saying, yep, I know that.
Jeremy: Sure. If you think about gospel music, then you are thinking about five note scales or eight note scales. So you have got haaaaa, haaaaa is a five note up and down, and if see that, then I know what it is and I know where it is and I know how it works. If you are in, again, in classical and you are looking at ricine runs, then you have got haaa, haaaa, haaaaa, I know that, because I have done it before.
If you are looking in pop and you are looking at riffs, they aren’t based on five note scales, five note scales don’t really exist in pop so you have got haaaa, haaaa, haaaa, there’s a note missing. So if I am doing C, D, I don’t play the E at all, I don’t sing the E, I do the F instead. I know that riff is based on the pentatonic scale. I have done it before, I have seen it, so I see a riff like that and it goes, haaaa, haaaa, haaaa, I know that shape, I don’t need to look at it, I don’t need to sit and work out every note.
One of the things that I think is so interesting and this is very good ear training by the way is when you hear a singer doing an incredible riff and you go, what on Earth is she singing? What on Earth are those notes? And you slow it down and I actually do run riffs occasionally through a slow down app, just an app of some kind and you start to work out what the patterns are and every riff is in groups.
So even if the singer is singing a 32 note riff, it will be groups of four or groups of six and you take each group by itself and you go, but I recognize that group, I have done that group before. In fact, I did a coaching session last week with somebody who said, I never sing this song because I cannot get the opening riff and I went, okay, play me the recording, right okay, it’s five sections, each section has four notes. The first and the third section are the same but the second one is different and that’s the one you are having trouble with.
So you break it down into little component parts and what you normally find is those component parts are things you already know, because any time you play stuff, you are doing patterns.
Christopher: Very cool. So I think we can imagine how your brain is working when you look at complex piano sheet music and you are scanning it, you are spotting the patterns, you have seen them before, there is a few that maybe you need to pay attention to. How do you go from zero to that? Is it purely, you know, spending all day everyday sight reading? Is it a conscious process of thinking oh, I will add that pattern to my tool box? How do you develop that ear or eye?
Jeremy: That is such a great question. Okay, to start with, honestly it is playing as much as you can, it’s just playing, it is not even analyzing, it is just playing. So playing stuff by ear, playing stuff from music, however you want to do, listening to radio, trying to pick out what the riffs are, if you are a guitarist, trying to pick out what the chord changes are, so you are experimenting.
And the more you do that, the more you start to notice that certain composers have certain styles, certain singers have certain riffs that they do, certain guitarists have shapes that they always use. And they may mix and match the shapes, but they will still use the same shapes and you almost do it unconsciously, you start to pick out patterns that people are using.
And it is really interesting because you can then take those patterns to somebody else and go, oh they are using the same pattern as well. And if you think about patterns, for me they are little units of three, four and five notes, they are no bigger than that and any runs, any phrases, any music has those patterns in them and they are just sort of mixed around after all, there aren’t that many combinations we can do, you know, music has been written for centuries so we have probably done most of the combinations by now.
And the same with chords as well, if you are a guitarist or if you are a keyboard player, it is the same with chords, there are certain chords that appear in music styles. So classical music, C, E, G, C, absolutely standard tonic chord, that appears a lot and you just play around with changing one of the notes in the middle to see what difference that makes and you start to hear and tune in to sounds and styles and tones and timbres.
And for me, that is a great way to build a catalog, you can do it consciously but I actually think doing it unconsciously like that is much better and more fun.
Christopher: Super cool. So you were developing this particular expertise as a collaborative pianist and expert sight reader, at some point you made the bridge into the world of focusing on singing, how did that happen?
Christopher: Good honest answer.
Jeremy: When I was at music college, I was playing a lot for people and I was playing for their exams and I was coaching the singers just really because I could and I used to say to them, I couldn’t believe that they couldn’t understand how their music worked. So I’d get really quite cross with them and I would go, oh for heaven’s sake, it’s like this, just sing it like that and do this pattern and there you go. And there were like oh, thank you, that’s brilliant, that works really well. And I thought, oh, I have just insulted you and you like it, there must be a career in that.
I love working with singers and I started working with singers as a music coach, as a vocal coach and I think there is a difference between a vocal coach and a singing teacher, technician. So I started working as a music coach and I was coaching them in music and shapes and understanding and performance stuff and I got more and more involved and more and more working with singers but because I was an instrumentalist to start with, and I had an oboe and I could take it all apart and I could undo the springs on it, and my mother came out one day and I had the whole oboe out on the patio on the porch at the front and she was horrified because it was all in bits and I went, no it’s fine, I can put this all back together.
I couldn’t understand why singers didn’t know how their instrument worked and of course, it’s obvious because it’s inside. First of all, you can’t see it and secondly, you can’t take it back to the shop and change it. And the thing about singing is how it feels to you as well as how it sounds and sometimes how things feel to you are not necessarily how other people hear them.
So there is a sort of filter that has to go in to go, this is how it feels when it’s correct or this is how it feels when it is in the right context. I know it feels odd but this is what people are telling me from outside is working.
So I was acting partly as a, yes that is working, no that isn’t and partly as a, this is what actually you are doing physically and that is working or it isn’t so let’s change it and find out what is going on.
And then I started studying much more and I started studying vocal anatomy and physiology and went into the voice clinics and started watching, and I love having a camera up my nose, love it, it is one of my absolute hobbies, get me in the voice clinic with a camera up my nose and I am happy.
So you could see inside and then I could see it, I could feel it, I could hear it, I could record it and film it and then I started using computer voice analysis so I could start to see on computer what was going on and it’s all to do with how repeatable can you make whatever it is that you are doing, because repeatable means comfortable and repeatable means confident. If you know what is going to come out when you open your mouth, you are confident.
Christopher: Fascinating. I would love to know if you can think of some things you have learned through having a camera up your nose and doing the computer analysis that would have been totally opaque to you without those tools at your disposal.
Jeremy: Yes, loads. Okay with the camera up my nose, one of the things, and it’s a really interesting one because it’s the difference between what you believe and what you have been told and then what you actually see happen.
So in fact on Vocal Process YouTube channel, I’ve got a two octave slide that I do with a camera up my nose. So you can actually see my vocal folds moving, you can see my larynx changing shape, changing height, doing all sorts of things. And I was always told that you should for instance, keep your larynx very low for high notes and then I did the two octave slide and I watched my larynx come up towards the camera and I thought, oh, I didn’t think that was supposed to happen, but it just did, and actually it sounded fine and I was in control, so I thought, that’s interesting.
And there was another one where I was told that when I flip into falsetto, there was a particular movement that must happen, so I did and it didn’t and I went oh, so what I am being told isn’t necessarily what is going on and I’d much rather go with what is going on and what I see and then translate it back into what I feel.
So some of it was about undoing myths, the things that I have been told happen that actually don’t. And with the computer voice training, one of the fascinating things about doing stuff on computer, on screen is that you get instant feedback because it is analyzing the audio signal. So you can see it the moment you have done it.
So I was doing things like, how you start and finish a sound which for singers is a big thing. With piano, you press the note and that’s it and you let it go and that’s it. Yes of course there are subtle variations of how much energy you use and how you press it and how loose your arm is, nevertheless, you can still see yourself pressing the note down.
With singers, you actually have to produce the whole note yourself, you make the whole thing, it is a combination of vocal fold vibration and air flow and you have to coordinate it. So I started doing different ways of starting a sound. So we had got the glottal onset ahhh, ahhh, ahhh which starts with quite a sudden, it’s not an explosion exactly but it’s very clear and very precise. And then I did the breath onset haaaa, haaaa, haaaa, which has breath before it so that’s a completely different feel. And then I did the glide onset, aaahh, aaahh, aaahh, which is a sort of little gentle glide up.
And then I started doing all the other stuff like the yodel, h-aaa, h-aaaa, h-aaaa, which is huge fun and used a lot in country and western. I started doing the creek onset which is used a lot in pop, argh-aaa, argh-aaa, and all of these can be seen on the computer screen and it was so interesting to match them up. So using the computer stuff, I got really precise in what I was doing because I could always see what I had just done, it was great.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative), very cool. So you moved into vocal coaching and you had this expertise in sight reading so I can’t miss the opportunity to ask you specifically about sight singing because it is a very different skill I think to sight reading as an instrumentalist. How do you approach that or how do you help singers to approach that?
Jeremy: It is absolutely a different skill yes. The thing about singing as I have just said is that you can’t see the instrument, so you can’t put your finger on something, you can’t hit the right fret or you can’t hit the right note, you have to create the whole thing and what I often do with people who are having problems when they are singing is tap into another skill they might have. So my sort of basic skill is as a pianist, so I will finger the notes on my leg while I am singing them, I will actually, it’s almost like I am playing the piano on my leg.
And it is just the physical aspect of getting the note out of your head and out of your voice and into another part of your body, that really helps. With some people, I will actually move them up and down the room so that a higher note goes further forward and lower note goes further back.
So again, it’s the physicality of getting you out of your voice and into your body and putting it somewhere else. If you are a guitarist, I will get you to think of the fret, imaginary fret, you are playing air guitar while you are singing. I really helps, it is bizarre because you are moving something in a way that you can’t do when you are singer.
Christopher: And is that about giving people an inner calibration for where pictures are in the scale or why does that work so well?
Jeremy: I think it is, although you have just hit a very interesting topic which is, what is pitching and what is tuning and we can definitely go there. But I think it is, I think it is getting people to physicalize something. I have a favorite exercise with tuning or even pitching which is the trombone exercise.
I have got to set this one up, if you think about a piano and you think about going higher and lower notes on a piano you are going right to go higher and left to go lower because the keyboard is in front of you. If you are thinking about playing a wind instrument, the higher notes get closer to you as you raise the fingers and the lower notes get further away from you as you lower the fingers. If you are thinking about a violin, the higher notes get closer to you as you go up the string and the lower notes get further away from you as you go down the string. If you are thinking about a cello, the lower notes get nearer your ear and the higher notes get nearer your chest.
So we are looking at different directions for pitch. The voice is a sliding instrument which I know is quite a strong statement to make but because in a voice what you are doing is increasing the speed of your vocal fold vibration. Whenever we sing the middle C, middle C on the piano, your vocal chords are vibrating at 262 times a second, anything that plays middle C is 262 times a second, anything, ruler on the end of the desk, violin string, guitar string, anything.
I order to go to a higher pitch, you have to speed up those vibrations, when you have got vocal folds` clapping together, you have to speed those vocal folds up. So actually you have to run through every single note in order to get there. Now either you slide or you jump, but you still have to speed everything up. The voice really is a sliding instrument, that is what it is designed to do, it’s designed to slide around and when we want distinct pitches, we just stop a sound or we slide really fast, so you the listener don’t really hear the slide in between, unless you want to feature the slide, which a lot of music styles do.
So you are looking at sliding around and the best instrument for that is the trombone. So I work with people to sing while they are miming playing the trombone, so the lower notes are further away from you, and then you bring the slide up as you go higher, so the higher notes get closer to you and that works really well for a lot of people, because again, it’s physicalizing what pitch is outside of what you are doing. Very occasionally it doesn’t work, so we reverse the slide, low pitches at the top, high pitches further away from you and sometimes that works.
To be honest, I don’t care which direction you think pitch goes and if you think up and down, that’s fine if you think left to right that is fine, I have done diagonally, I have done behind me and in front of me, whatever works for you is fine. But pitch really is such an interesting concept because in theory it’s about, I sing this number of vibrations and I am in tune but it’s so much more complex than that because if you think about where the vocal folds are, they are in your larynx, or your voice box and they are at the bottom of your throat basically.
They can be vibrating at 262 times a second but if you are holding the wrong shape in your mouth, you can make them sound flat. If your shape is too big, it’s going to boost all the dark harmonics in the sound and it will sound flat. You are not singing flat, you are just making the wrong shape.
This is the other thing about a voice and it’s different from every other instrument, a voice can change its shape and size while it is making the sound and that’s astounding. So, so much of what you are doing is about finding the shape that is right for the sound, right for the pitch, right for where you are in your range, right for the music and there are lots of things. That’s why, in a way, pitch is contextual, it has got a context.
For instance, an F sharp in D major is a third of the chord, it’s got a particular tuning but you play or sing that F sharp in G major and it is the leading note and it’s got a different feel, it’s a different context, it is a different feeling. It is actually different tuning.
As a singer, if you are singing in opera, that F sharp will have a particular tuning in G major, but if you are in barber shop, it is flatter because barber shop has a completely different tuning system to classical western music, and so on and so on and that is when it gets really interesting.
So the moral of the tale is, you may not be in tune, you just maybe singing the wrong genre.
Christopher: I like that way of looking at it. I have to hold back from nerding out with you here because my Master’s dissertation was on automatic transcription of vocal melodies and a big part of that was, how do you pick apart the voice from a pop song when you have got all the instruments in the mix, how do you tell which one is the voice when you are a computer program.
Christopher: And I was very much about what you just described that the human voice compared to any other instrument is pretty much never on pitch in a scientific sense, it is always sliding up or sliding down or wobbling up and down or it’s a bit below where it should be.
Christopher: Whereas even an instrument that is out of tune typically will be systematically out of tune, the human voice is so unpredictable and yet it turned out that, that was the most distinctive thing when you are trying to pick out, what is the voice doing.
Jeremy: But I think that is really interesting because funnily enough, I think I read an article on this and one of the things about singers being distinctive is all the things that go wrong apparently and I am using wrong in inverted commas. It’s the things that stand out, it’s the things that don’t quite work, it’s the flattening, it’s the strange shapes, it is the strange sounds, that is one of the things that makes singers so distinctive. So I don’t really see them as problems unless they really aren’t working in that particular context.
Christopher: So before we move on and talk a little bit about singing in tune in general, I do just want to push you for a little more detail on a fascinating thing you said there which was that the tuning can depend on the genre. We had an episode recently with Ben Parry who directs the National Youth Choir or is musical director with the National Youth Choir and he made this point that trying to get a choir to tune to a piano is a little bit nonsensical because really, the human voice should be tuning to the human voice. And so in acapella for example, he was saying your harmony tuning is very different than it would be with the equal temperament of a piano. Is that the kind of thing you are referring to when you say a barber shop would be tuned differently to classical music?
Jeremy: Very much and I want to unpack that statement because there is lots of great stuff in there. First of all, tuning a voice to a piano is really difficult because, and also by the way, when you are learning to sing, trying to teach from a piano is also not a terribly good idea because the harmonic set up of a piano doesn’t match the voice.
So often in singing lessons when the teacher is playing the note on the piano and the singer cannot get it, it’s because they are hearing harmonics instead of the fundamental. So they are trying to tune to something that is the harmonic part of the chord instead of the pitch, and they can’t find it. So, the whole business of teaching singing from a piano is dodgy to start with.
What is also interesting is when you start changing genres, okay, let’s deal with choral music first, I think it is absolutely spot on that singers tune with singers. What you often find is if you then go and play the piano, if they get to the end of the song and it sounds great and you go and play the piano and you go, okay, guys you have gone down in semi tone, it’s fine. It also depends on, it’s the complexity of the harmonic series that, that choir is producing.
So for instance, Welsh male voice choirs which are very base heavy will pull the tuning downwards, so rare that you actually find a Welsh male voice choir that will stay bang in tune on the piano because they love that dark, rich sonorous sound, likewise Russian choirs, same thing.
When you are talking barber shop, they are very geared to sevenths so a lot of barber shop harmony has sevenths in it and then they hit chords that will ring. Oh, and by the way, a chord ringing is where you have got four singers but you hear a fifth note, it’s extraordinary when you hear it and you go, what on Earth is that? So it’s when the four singers lock in tune so well the you hear extra notes, so you hear five and sometimes six notes.
I used to work with an opera company who had a soprano and mezzo who had sung together for years and they were so experienced at this, they could lock voices instantly and they used to sing the Flower Song from Lakme, which was used as the British Airways advert for years and they locked so well that they kept getting third notes in it which is quite extraordinary, and you think hang on, this is not a trio. And I turned to the audience at the time with my mouth closed just to demonstrate that I wasn’t singing the top soprano line.
So yeah and if you go to rock, so much of rock, particularly in the high notes, and they are going to hate me for this, the rock singers but some rock notes are sung flat deliberately because what you want is you want to give the audience the experience that you are working so hard that you can’t quite get to the note, it’s like weight lifting to get to the high notes and that seems to be a feature of some of the rock and the heavy metal stuff.
So I think it is also interesting when you hear singers crossing genres. So you get a country and western singer singing pop stuff and sometimes you go, it doesn’t quite work, that doesn’t quite sound right and often it is because they are used to a particular tuning set up to their genre and when you cross genres, it’s different.
Christopher: That is fascinating. And just to come back and clarify to make sure everyone is following, when you were talking about a certain number of singers producing extra notes, that’s because each singer has multiple harmonics in the note they are producing and the combination of harmonics creates extra perceived fundamentals, it sounds like there is an extra note buried in there somewhere, is that right?
Jeremy: Yes, sort of. Every voice has fundamental and harmonics in it so every time you produce a note you are producing a fundamental which is the pitch we hear and then there is a whole load of harmonics above and that is part of what gives you tone.
What happens when you lock a chord is that, it depends on the way that you build the chord, who is louder, who is softer and also, who is in tune, who is really spot on with what is going on underneath. Then, all the harmonics lock and they boost other harmonics so other harmonics get louder and therefore as a group, you can hear, perceive more high stuff than, you know, you get more notes than there are voices.
Christopher: Amazing well let’s step back from this fairly advanced coverage of pitch and tuning and talk about something that is a hot topic. I know a lot of our listeners will be instrument players and not consider themselves singers or maybe they are in the shoes of someone like myself who has a young child or two and is thinking about their music education and so I would love to talk about just singing in tune from the beginning, like if you are starting out thinking I can’t sing or you are a little kid learning to sing, what is your perspective on that? How do we go from not being able to produce the pitches we intend to reliably standing up on stage and performing in perfect, accurate tune?
Jeremy: Just before we go there, I want to talk about different, there are four stages of pitch matching that children go through and we wrote about this in the Singing Express series which was specifically music for kids singing music for kids.
Okay phase one is the words, the words are the interest. The melody is often sung like a chant, it’s a restricted pitch range, there is not many note changes going on but they get the words.
Phase two, they are starting to be a bit more conscious of pitch, so they can follow the general shape of the melody, but it is still not very accurate and they can maybe stay in tune for one phrase and then the next phrase is in a completely different tune and you hear that a lot.
Then stage three is you get more accurate but they can still change key so you might get two or three phrases that roughly stay in the key that they start in and they start the next phrase and it is somewhere completely different.
And by stage four, you have got mainly accurate, no errors particularly and you are basically in the right key.
And what I think is so interesting about this is that there are adults who have not gone through all four stages, they have got stuck somewhere. So often, sometimes they have been told when they were kids, they can’t sing, so they don’t develop any further, very, very rare that you can’t hear differences in pitch but hearing them and singing them are two different things, it is two different skills.
So, we develop something for Singing Express which was gliding and landing. Because we think the voice is a sliding instrument, gliding, sliding between the notes is very useful because you can start to teach your voice where the notes live. You cannot see them, you can’t feel them necessarily, you have to learn where they are.
And funnily enough, I don’t know when this interview is going out but I am literally about to publish an e-book next week which includes singing legato and it includes an exercise that does exactly this. So there is a focus on a song called My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean and the tune is, my Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea, there is an octave there already.
So if you slide around in roughly, without even singing the notes necessarily, ahh, ahh, ahh, I was literally smearing my way through that whole phrase. And if I do it slowly enough, my voice goes okay, so you need to go here and you need to go here and you start to find and feel where they are, that is the gliding bit. Then you do the gliding and landing, haaa, ahhhh, ahhhh, haaaa, ahhh, oh. So you are still sliding but you are just hovering on roughly where you think the note is, that is the gliding and landing thing. Then, you start to speed it up, so you glide a little faster, only then can you jump because you know where you are jumping to. Does that make sense?
Christopher: Yes, as I listen to you glide your way into each note, I could feel my old choir director cringing at me and you are so right, that is such a valuable exercise. And having said earlier that trying to match pitch with a piano can be challenging, what are people listening for? What is going to tell them that they have glid, what is the past tense of glide? That they have glided to the right note.
Jeremy: That’s a really good question. Well ironically apps like yours and I think what is so interesting is that if you are aiming for a B, the note B, because this is in G major, just to have that app set up to go okay, I am aiming for this note and you slide around it and glide around it until the app says, that is a B, that is the note that you are going for. And you have got a line on yours that tells you whether you are underneath or above it, I know because I have been playing with it.
And it is really interesting because again you have got a visual representation of something that you are producing and it is in real time. So you can see and the interesting thing for me is if you can see that visual feedback and then you go back inside and go what does it feel like? What does it sound like? How am I doing this? What sensations do I have? You can start to match up what you see outside, what you are hearing outside and inside and what you are feeling.
And I do just want to talk about hearing because as a singer, you are probably the only instrument that has internal hearing as well as external hearing because you are producing the sound deep in the throat, that is where the vocal chords are, your ears, the other end of the eustachian tube actually comes out of the back of your mouth, so you genuinely have some sound that goes up the eustachian tube and onto the other side of your ear drum.
So you have got internal hearing and external hearing. I am wearing headphones at the moment so I am very reliant on my internal hearing, I have no idea how loud I am talking. I am just aware that I am producing some volume but I am really relying on my internal hearing because both my ears are covered.
So you are having to match up internal and external hearing and it is often why when people hear their singing voices recorded for the first time that they go, but that sounds nothing like me because they are so used to the internal hearing. And internal hearing tends to boost the lower harmonics and not the brighter ones.
Christopher: So let’s touch on that because it has come up a couple of times on the podcast before. I think first of all when we had Gerald Klickstein on the show, the author of The Musician’s Way, he was talking about the value of recording yourself and how that can help you improve so much faster.
The catch is, if you are a singer, it can be incredibly, what is the word? You can be incredibly self conscious about it when you hear your voice recorded. And I think that goes even for speaking too, I have a vivid memory of when I was a child, the first time I heard my spoken voice recorded and it horrified me.
Can you talk a bit about speaking voice and singing voice and how we can get past this visceral dislike of hearing our own voice on a recording?
Jeremy: I think you are so used to hearing your own voice from inside that you have a very clear idea of how it is and how you come across and your speaking voice in particular, your singing voice as well but your speaking voice in particular is so tied up with your own personality and your understanding of your own personality, your belief in your own personality, so that when you hear something that you know is you but it doesn’t sound anything like you, it’s very weird.
And honestly my advice is, get over yourself because it is so useful when you are recorded and you have recorded, genuinely, the first two or three times when you go, that’s terrible, I hate it, I can’t do this, it’s horrible, it’s really upsetting and I go, yeah get over yourself, because it is really important that you get that type of feedback from outside.
As a vocal coach, I give that type of feedback to the people that I work with and that’s fine but there is nothing faster than actually hearing a recording and I think one of the things that people don’t do when they are using recordings of lessons for instance or recordings of rehearsals or recordings of practice sessions, they don’t know what to listen for, so they listen to the whole thing and they go, I hate that sound, it’s horrible and I can’t sing and it is terrible.
But then, they are listening to the whole performance rather than something specific, so if you have just practiced something and you have recorded it and you play the recording back, decide that you are going to listen for one thing, like, do I hit the center of the note each time? And if I don’t hit the center of the note each time, just mentally, put a cross on that note and go, that’s the jump that I need to do, because the other thing about music and singing is that it is movement between notes. There isn’t a single song that I can think of that stays on one note, in fact, there isn’t a single piece of music that I can think of that stays on one note.
So you are always moving and therefore you are always jumping or gliding or sliding, you are always actually accessing something away from where you started and if you like, something that you can focus on is, did I make that jump successfully? Did I move far enough to get that note? Did I do the slide slowly enough? Fast enough? Did I hit the center of that note? That’s something very specific to focus on and it is when you do that type of focus that you learn really quickly, really fast. It is almost like a shortcut to learning because you are not trying to take in, you don’t have so many focuses, you are not trying to take in something that you couldn’t possibly deal with because there are 15 things wrong with it.
That’s not the way you learn, that is just the way you get depressed. The way that you learn is to focus on one thing and work it and just going right back to what we were talking about earlier about being a sight reader, one of the things that, when I am learning new pieces and I am learning a lot of complicated stuff at the moment, I don’t focus on, I need to be able to play all the chords and I need to be able to do this, I don’t do that, there are certain specific things that I do and it makes me an expert practicer.
So I will do one run at super slow speed, much, much slower than you would normally play it, but my focus is not to stop. So I will get through that piece really, really slowly but I will not stop anywhere and if I do stop or I stumble, I just make a mental note of, that’s the place I need to work and if it is a note, I’ll go to that note and I will go two back from it and practice that so I will go two notes back and then two notes past it, so I am working five notes and then I will go five notes back.
So I am always working that note but I am working across the period, I am working across the phrase, so I am not just practicing the note, I am practicing the approach and the release.
And if you do that, genuinely that takes minutes, it doesn’t take years, it takes minutes and then you know what you are doing, you know where it is, you have got a good idea of the repetition and you know how it works, and I am all for knowing how things work, that’s what I do.
Christopher: That is a really fabulous description of the power of focused and intentional practice and really thinking about what you should be listening out for and paying attention to.
Given that your voice is such a personal thing to you and we need to get past that emotional aspect of hearing ourselves on a recording, how much value is there in unpacking the speaking voice from the singing voice and treating them separately or addressing the different aspects of each?
Jeremy: It’s a great question because you use your speaking voice far more in the day than you use your singing voice, that tends to be where your habits are formed. And again it depends what style you are singing, if you listen to lots of the pop, R and B, gospel, some of the more contemporary styles, certainly contemporary musical theater, the aim really is to sound like you speak. And there is a lot of singers who, they sing something and then you hear them in interviews and they sound exactly the same.
Jessy J, a great example, my goodness she can hit some high notes and of course she has just won the competition in China which is amazing and good for her. When you hear her speaking voice, that speaking voice is very high so it’s high right, it’s quite strong and then you hear her sing and you go, yep, that absolutely matches.
So speaking voice becomes the fundamental area to work with when you are singing. If there is a problem with your speaking voice, it’s likely to carry over into your singing.
It is actually one of the reasons we created the one minute voice warm up app and this specific app is on speaking voice and it is getting your speaking voice as clear and easy and comfortable and efficient as possible to make the singing easier. We are going to be doing in the future, a singing voice app, but we wanted to do the speaking voice one first because you use it so much more.
Christopher: Fantastic well I have really enjoyed playing around with that app and I think there are few apps which so quickly present you with such useful material, you really cut to the heart of it and I think any singer, or indeed someone who does public speaking or needs to give a presentation, will immediately appreciate the usefulness of this.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Christopher: You touched on an area there that I really wanted to get your perspective on I am conscious we are coming up on time her so I should be respectful and let you go, but before we do, maybe we could talk, just briefly about the question of style in singing and in the context of the way your app picks apart the speaking voice and its different aspects and how to refine and as you put it, make more efficient your process of speaking or singing.
How does a singer go about adapting to a new genre or developing the way they sing in a particular genre?
Jeremy: Okay, how many days have you got?
Christopher: A few.
Jeremy: It’s such a big topic.
Christopher: Maybe what would be effective is if you could give a brief overview and we will definitely link to several things in the show notes for people to learn more because this is definitely an expertise for you.
Jeremy: Yep. I wrote a blog called, Seven ways to change your style, and in fact we have a webinar as well called, How to change your style without losing your sound, and actually, for singers, that’s really important because so many singers have or want a signature sound that is identifiable and it is certainly in the commercial world, that is absolutely vital that you can instantly recognize the singer the moment they open their mouth.
So when they are changing style, there is a whole thing as well about do you change the sound that you make or do you just change the way you move between the notes? And I wrote a whole article on different ways to move between the notes. So whether you slide or glide or jump, I just demonstrated some of the onsets that you can do, glottal, breath, glide, creak, flip, there are also note approaches that you can do.
So if I was going to do Amazing Grace, if you were going to do smooth, amazing grace, it’s very smooth, it is very even, I am moving quite cleanly between the notes.
If I want to change style, amazing grace, I’ve got a lot of extra things put in, so I am not moving cleanly, I am not matching volume, I actually put a breath in the middle of the word amazing, that is very close to the LeAnn Rimes version of Amazing Grace where she genuinely puts a breath in the middle of the word amazing, it’s like, it is the first word you sing and you still put a breath in, because she can.
So a lot of the rules change when you start changing style. So line changes, whether you join things together or whether you cut them, the way you pronounce the words changes, that’s really important because lots of genres have pronunciation styles and they are recognizable.
So if you sang a classical aria in the way that you pronounce an R and B song, that would sound really weird and the other way around as well.
So pronunciation, line, attack, onsets, there is all sorts of things that you can play with and actually, in the article, I list them and in the webinar, we go through them, so there is lots of exercises that we do to get people to experiment with what we are doing and actually, I am a great experimenter, I think it is really important that you experiment and that you play.
One of the things that you can do is find an artist that you don’t normally like and listen to them going, what is it that they are doing? How are they starting their notes? how are they finishing their notes? Are they singing smoothly or is it jagged? Is the volume the same all the way through? And okay, sometimes this is done in the recording studio but are they on the front foot as in, in your face or do they take some time to step back and does that happen in the phrase or is it just the general feel? Something that is heavy metal is going sound completely different to something that is trance for obvious reasons, it’s got a completely different purpose.
So there is lots and lots of style things that I could go into for hours.
Christopher: Terrific well we will definitely link into the show notes to that blog post you mentioned as well as your webinars page where people can check that out. I think we will also link to your book, This is a voice, which I think has the most exciting table of contents of any book I have looked at recently and it is very much, as it says in the subtitle, 99 exercises, it’s really a tool box for you to experiment with.
Jeremy: Very much.
Christopher: In a lot of different ways with your voice, so I think if anyone is curious about this and wants to explore what their voice can do, that book is a tremendous resource as well as the webinars we mentioned.
Cool, well I think all that remains to say is just a big thank you, it’s been a fascinating conversation, and I’ve so enjoyed having the chance to pick your brains a little bit. Thank you again, Jeremy, for joining us on the show today.
Jeremy: That’s my pleasure.