Today I had my first singing lesson. Wow! What an intense, scary, illuminating experience.
My teacher, whose ad I found in Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, is Susan M. Carr. Her website describes her as “a superior technical teacher,” and she’s worked with all sorts of artists I like—from Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), to Chris Ballew (The Presidents), to Jesse Sykes. My impression has been that most voice teachers are classically trained and classically inclined, and when I saw Susan’s list of clients, I thought, “Well, if she isn’t a fan of my kind of music, at least she’s used to it.” That, and “I wonder if Jesse Sykes is single. Could Susan hook us up?”
I’m looking for a singing teacher because I don’t like my voice. At my best, I’m shaky in an earnest, Isaac Brock kind of way. At my worst, I’m off-pitch, hesitant, and inaudible. I know there’s a rich, expressive voice in me, underneath all my layers of anxiety. Perhaps not a “Wow, he’s got a gorgeous voice” kind of voice, but definitely a “Now that guy really sang it like he meant it” kind of voice.
Susan asked me to start the lesson today with a song I’d written. I picked “Roadkill Serenade,” a twangy breakup song. I figured when my voice cracked Susan might think I was just doing a country yodel.
The song felt good—that is, my songs never feel great, but I performed it as best I could, trying to fill the house with my voice, remembering occasionally to pay attention to the meaning of the lyrics and let them inspire my delivery. Then Susan asked to hear one that brought me toward the top of my vocal range. I could only think of one song—“Hail! Thunder! Lightning!“—a song I’ve learned not to perform live. I love my recording of the song, but it took a dozen vocal takes to compile the final vocal track, and even then my favorite parts are guitar riffs and my friends shouting along during the final verse. When it’s just me and my guitar, “Hail! Thunder! Lightning!” is Fingernails! On! Chalkboard!
But I knew this was the time to screech away, so that’s what I did, pounding out the chords on my acoustic guitar, all the time wishing I could melt into a wash of distortion, heavy drums, and kooky cell-phone noises like I do in my recording. I did get my wish in one respect: Twenty seconds before the end of the song, right at the climax, my cell phone went off. The song fizzled to the sound of my suddenly grating “Wind Chime” ringtone.
Susan was attentive and responsive through my performances, smiling at a turn of phrase or dramatic pause, and while she didn’t praise my singing when I was done, she certainly didn’t look concerned. Instead, she had the same ease that I have with my nervous beginners, as if to say, “No, that wasn’t a beautiful performance, but don’t worry about it. This takes work.”
I got a glimpse of how much work this was going to take during the second half of the lesson, devoted to learning how to sing from the diaphragm. This is a concept that has always baffled me. I remember sitting in the back row of my high school theater during rehearsals of Guys and Dolls, waiting for my scene to come up while Mrs. Sablinski worked with Gretchen, the female lead. “Sing from your navel,” Mrs. Sablinski implored. As poor Gretchen (often the butt of jokes because of her big lips) belted out “If I Were a Bell” for the 10th time, a couple friends and I pulled up our shirts and lip-synced with our belly buttons.
Gretchen is probably starring in Rent now, and it’s only right that I should be paying $75/hour to yell “Key!” at a photo of Billie Holliday while pushing down on a pile of books stacked on a table. ‘Cause that’s how you learn to sing from your navel.
At the end of the lesson, Susan asked me sing a few lines of “Roadkill Seredade” again, using some of the techniques she taught me. What came out was a fuller, more commanding voice than I was used to. Instead of feeling liberated, though, I felt out of control. Where was this voice headed? And here’s another interesting thought…Who am I to presume to sing like that?
I drove home shaky but hopeful, testing my new voice. It sounded good.
Just wanted to drop you a line to say that I enjoy your site. I live in Weston-Super-Mare in England (not far from Wales) and have been playing guitar since Jan 2005. I’m not very good, I’m self taught, but I am enjoying it all the same.
Whenever I need inspiration, something to encourage me to stick with it, I watch Helena Kleins video. Any chance you could film and post an updated performance?
Good luck with the singing and best wishes,
Cool! I love that video of Helena too. Too bad she doesn’t take lessons any more. Maybe I can get her back at one of my Coffee Shop Jams for a reunion tour…
I don’t know how I came upon your site…but I absolutely love it. I just purchased my first guitar two weeks ago and I loved your list of beginner songs that you posted up awhile back. I would totally get lessons from you if I lived in Seattle.
I’m currently trying to learn “Across The Sea” by Weezer but… I don’t really know Bm. It would be awesome if you did the song..and I love how you show what fingers go where for each of the chords when you post up songs.
Best of luck with ur singing and anything else u have in store.
Thanks for your nice note. Perhaps one of my students will request “Across the Sea” soon. Weezer’s been really popular with my students lately.
Try this substitution for Bm:
It’s a Bm7—not the prettiest voicing, but it’s a lot easier than a Bm, which is a barre chord.
I don’t play guitar and my singing is supposed to suck (see madbeats.com). I came here from Bradsucks.net – he linked to another one of your articles, but I found myself reading this one.
My girlfriend, who is blessed with a wonderful voice and surprisingly has had no training up to now, took her first voice lesson this week. Her experience was quite different than yours but your article reminded me a lot of the way she felt about it. She was skeptical and exited at the same time.
Thanks for the good read and good luck with your future lessons.
I can empathize… but opposite. I can sing, but am still learning guitar. When I play with friends I feel shaky and anxious trying to get my fingers to cooperate, but sing easily. It is charming when my friends who play well (they make it look so easy)strain or hold back too much trying to sing. I guess it all comes down to that “practice” thing…. now if I can just nail that F chord……
I’m new in here and I love ur blog! Keep up the good job. Currently I m learning guitar too and your website really helps a lot. One day I hope to play in style
I was in the same boat as you, never could seem to be happy with the way I sounded; good but something missing. I finally broke down and bought a book, Seth Riggs, Singing for the Stars (See link below) http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0882845284/002-0805833-3741636?v=glance&n=283155
Best thing I ever did. His approach is simple you don’t try to sing you let yourself sing by relaxing the interfering muscles in the throat. Fixed me; what a joy to finally be able to sing.
Hey Rob, how are the singing lessons going? You sounded pretty good singing at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. I enjoyed reading your original post and would love to get an update on your experiences since then.
Good to hear from you! The lessons are going really well, except that I don’t practice nearly enough. I had found that singing along with my practice tapes while driving worked, but life’s so busy these days that when I get a quiet moment in my car, I just want to relax instead of working on my singing.
Still, I understand better what I should be doing with my body when I sing, and Susan’s really encouraging me to compose and perform mor original material, which is great.
Thanks for writing,