Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The history of a True American Musical Art Form, The Blues

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In the history of music there has probably not been one musical style that has influenced “Popular Music” more than Blues. Blues also is unique in that it is truly an “American” musical art form. As we will discover, the roots of the musical styles of Jazz, Rock, Gospel and musical artists from BB King, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, all were heavily influenced by the Blues.

It is important to note that the term “Popular Music” as I have used it above is a bit misleading. Too often we mention Classical Music and Popular Music as too completely different musical expressions. I am not inferring that they are not very different from each other. What I am saying is that the word “Popular” actually only relates to the time period one lives in.

Let me explain. If we were living in Europe in 1786 when Mozart was 30 years old and in the height of his career (he died at age 36) his music would have been considered Popular, would it not? If there had been recording studios, radio stations, Mp3’s and iPods in 1786 would it be too naive and simplistic to conclude that one of his symphonies or piano concertos would have been a “Top-Ten Release?” And if so, would it not be considered “Popular Music?” I think you will admit that this is certainly an unconventional but truthful perspective.

Since Blues has been such a powerful influence, it is important to understand why. Following is a brief history.

The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Its heartfelt and passionate performances are deeply rooted in slavery and the African American culture. Early compositions were Field Hollers, Ballads, Church Spirituals and Rhythmic Dance tunes called Jump-Ups that showcased a singer who would engage in a call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. For many years, due to the lack of music education, multitudes of songs were recorded and passed on only by memory. Because of this fact, it is very possible that many a great song was “lost in translation.”

The Blues became the essence and hope of the African American laborer, whose spirit is wed to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm and Blues is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music. The Blues, with it's 12-bar, dissonant 7th chord progression and its bent-note melodies were the early anthems of an oppressed race, bonding themselves together through their soulful cries for freedom and equality. From its origins at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues eventually began to expand and headed north to Beale Street in Memphis.

The term "The Blues" refers to the "The Blue Devils", meaning melancholy and sadness. An early use of the term in this sense is found in George Coleman's one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). Though the use of the phrase in African American Music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912, when Hart Wands "Dallas Blues" became the first copyrighted blues composition.

The Blues form was first mainstreamed about 1911-14 by the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis Blues" (1914). Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze.

Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, 'Crazy Blues' in 1920. The Blues influence on jazz brought it into the mainstream and made possible the records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday.

In northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, and began scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire. It is also important to mention that the roots of Jazz began with the Blues. So, if there were no Blues, there would be no Jazz!

In the early nineteen-sixties, the urban bluesmen were "discovered" by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something the black blues artists had been unable to do in America except through the purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs.

Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals. Some rock guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While the originators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B.B. King--and their heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan, among many others, continued to make fantastic music in the blues tradition. The latest generation of blues players would be Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray.

Today there are many different shades of the blues. Forms include:

Traditional County Blues - A general term that describes the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural locales. 

Jump Blues - A danceable amalgam of swing and blues and a precursor to R&B. Jump blues was pioneered by Louis Jordan.

Boogie-Woogie - A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from barrelhouse and ragtime.

Chicago Blues - Delta blues electrified.

Cool Blues - A sophisticated piano-based form that owes much to jazz.

West Coast Blues - Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by the swing beat. 

The public’s affection for the Blues only seems to be increasing. In Dana Point California, the city next to mine, Doheny Beach now has a yearly Blues Festival that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Others can be found in Portland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and the list goes on.

As for me personally, Blues has always been a regular part of my life. When I play guitar and sing with other musicians, it is the easiest and most enjoyable form of popular music to “jamb” with. When I was growing up and my parents owned a music store and rock club called The Four Muses in San Clemente California from 1965 to 1975, we always had Blues groups performing. Most notable was the famous Blues Duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

My only personal problem with listening to a lot of Blues is that it can become very repetitious and not “fresh” sounding due to the consistent use of the standard 12 bar Blues Chord Progression. That said, I highly recommend that everyone make an attempt to listen to some live Blues this summer. The music and the crowd it attracts normally guarantee an enjoyable experience.

Thank you for reading!

Jonathan Morgan Jenkins


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Monday, April 13, 2009

Why do I need to Train My Voice for Singing, Public Speaking or Acting?

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The voice may be the most treasured physical asset that we possess inside this marvelous machine we call our Human Body. As a professional vocal coach for many years, there are two remarkable conclusions that I have made from my experiences.

1.) How easily we take the voice for granted and often fail to nurture it or, even worse, abuse it.
2.) As far as its performance applications as a musical instrument, we conclude that, “I either have a great instrument or I don’t.” (without training)

I will discuss conclusion number one in more detail.

How easily we take the voice for granted and often fail to nurture it, or even worse, abuse it. I would first ask you to Google images of Vocal Cords or the Larynx. You will find pictures of the two vocal cords that we use to accomplish two major goals.

1.) The cords are moved together by muscles and air is pushed between them from the lungs and abdominal muscle system. This makes them “buzz” and creates a fundamental sound. Just try “humming” and you will get the idea.

2.) Once a fundamental sound is produced, other muscle systems stretch the two cords in a perfectly coordinated manner to produce varied pitch. This can be compared to tightening or loosening a guitar string while plucking it.

Most of us can perform these basic operations without training as we must learn to speak and “hum a tune” at a young age. This is a marvelous or even miraculous process that must not be taken for granted. The pictures you have found during your Google search may make the Larynx appear rather large but it is actually about the size or smaller than your thumb. Now that you have viewed this delicate little instrument, imagine what it must endure when you go the Ball Game or Rock Concert and yell and scream. Or maybe you are a vocal performer of any given style and because you have little or no formal training about how to properly deliver controlled levels or air pressure to your larynx, you are constantly vocalizing with a lot of strain and tension in your throat. Under these stressful conditions, your delicate little instrument often endures a lot of abuse. This is one of the reasons why you get a “hoarse voice.” What is happening is that your tender vocal cords actually become swollen from straining and banging into each other.

Try beating your hand on the wall for a while and you will also swell up. With the vocal cords, this constant abuse may develop vocal nodes, which might be simply thought of as calluses on the vocal cords. I am also a guitar instructor and I get calluses on my fingertips from pressing down the metal strings to make musical chords. Great pop singers like Elton John, Ian Anderson, Julie Andrews, Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Justin Timberlake, Victor Wills, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion and many others have all endured surgery from vocal nodes. This result means that they abused their voices to some extent, not intentionally of course.

Another example of serious vocal abuse can be found in some of our young performers who “scream” the lyrics intentionally in a vocal style called “Screaming.” I have already had one of these young people in my studio for vocal rehabilitation following surgery for vocal nodes. We all must realize that this is serious business and if we want our voice to last us a lifetime, we must never abuse it. Further we must submit ourselves to professional training and not be so na├»ve that our voice does not require this to operate to its potential.

I will now discuss conclusion number two in more detail.

As far as its performance applications as a musical instrument, we may conclude that “We either have a great instrument or we don’t.” (without training)

Let me ask you this question:

Why, when we consider studying the voice, is there such a lack of considering a practical educational approach?

Here is what I mean by this?

Imagine the normal process for a beginning student learning how to play the clarinet. A common approach might include the following strategies:

1.) Observe and understand how the instrument works mechanically.
2.) Learn basic fingering positions.

3.) Learn proper embouchure, or how we position our mouth on the mouthpiece.
4.) Learn proper posture, breath control, and phrasing.

Where I find the approach to vocal instruction fall short of these basic goals is mainly in the mechanical part of instruction.

I have never had one student start with me with any prior experience that had any grasp of how the entire body works as one team to produce sound. I mean never!

This issue is discussed in depth in Chapter 3, “The Vocal Power Team,” in my popular ebook, “Singing and Speaking on the Edge of a Grunt.”

How do I make this conclusion? My first consultation is always an in-depth inquiry regarding what students understand about this information. Sadly, not much.

We must be honest and ask why this is the case. In my observation it results from a disconnect about the necessary process of learning how to properly vocalize when compared to other musical instruments or professional life skills like sports. We approach the voice like no other learned skill most of the time. If we were learning to play the guitar, even just to play the simplest of songs, we would conclude that we must at least buy a lesson book to begin studies. In other words, we would not just pick up a guitar, put it in our lap and expect to be able to play. This may sound rediculous, and it is, but this is often how we approach using our voice to Sing, Public Speak or Act. We may conclude that the fundamental sound and quality of our vocal instrument is the best it can get and there is little or no room for improvement. It is hard to imagine anyone approaching any other learned skill in this manner.

If we approach vocal instruction in this manner then we are being ignorant of the potential of our incredible instrument. My studio is filled with many a beginning vocalist who have been told by their peers that they were “tone deaf’ and should never sing again. The truth is that, although and untrained voice may have some difficulty in singing in pitch initially, this can be quickly fixed with most people. I have only encountered two people in 26 years that were clinically tone deaf.

So, we must conclude that our approach to learning how to properly vocalize must be no different that any other instrument or life skill. It must be trained properly so that it will be operated in a responsible and powerful manner ones entire life.

The following issues are also very important for any aspiring vocalist to consider.

In case someone forgot to notify you, singing is work! One of the largest obstacles to progress I have found is that some students apparently never take into account that learning to sing or speak correctly will take a lot of practice and hard work. Of course, there is the gifted crowd who think they are so naturally talented they do not need to work hard. This attitude breeds failure no matter what you are trying to accomplish in life. Many people do not equate learning proper singing or speaking with work.

The fact is that when I sing or speak correctly for a long period of time, I actually break a sweat. My whole body is involved. Your whole body is your instrument! Just like any sport, part of the learning curve involves learning which muscles to use in the right way and then using those muscles in a similar or repetitive motion to develop consistency and muscle tone.

If you have ever trained with weights, you know what I mean. The only way you make progress is to build and tone your muscles with consistent effort. Just like you can’t go to the gym one day a week and expect to compete for Mr. America, you can’t sing or speak correctly once a week and expect to become Lucianno Pavarotti. You must be focused, disciplined, and work hard.

I truly hope this information has been helpful. I hope that you will seek out a competent voice coach before you begin your journey to become a serious vocalist.
I would highly recommend that you buy my ebook for only 9.95 at my website where I thoroughly explain how to use your voice properly.

Best of luck to all!

Jonathan Morgan Jenkins

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Powerful Performace Interpretation techniques for Singers, Actors and Public Speakers

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Artistic Interpretation - The Icing on the cake!

Weather you are singing a song, making a public speech or acting a monologue, how you interpret your performance is critical to your success. Further, it is ultimately the only thing that will separate you and your performance from that of your peers. For instance, if we were to chose a recording of Handels Messiah, we would usually make our choice based on the conductor. This is because each conductor “interprets” the same piece of music differently. The decisions about tempo, volume, phrasing, balance, etc are all the prerogative of the director.

Here is a personal example. One of my favorite instrumental orchestral recordings is The Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe. The piece is a musical interpretation of the visual components of one of the worlds greatest wonders. I am a fan of the former great conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. A few years back, I had an old, worn out vinyl recording and was looking for a CD or at least a cassette recording to purchase. Not finding one, I settled for a recording by a different director. Big Mistake! The piece was interpreted so different, and badly, that it was hard to recognize that it was the same piece of music.

Ultimately, interpretation is the most important aspect of any vocal performance. It is where the performer, after mastering their fundamental skills, can create their own performance version of any song, speech, poem, or monologue. The process of interpretation is supposed to be an experience whereby the performer and the listener have the freedom to draw their own conclusions about the success or failure of any creative process. The positive aspect of this freedom of artistic expression is that the performer is free to interpret a song or character that may have been performed many times in a similar fashion and interpret it in a fresh and innovative way.

The risk of this freedom is discovered when ten critics attend the same concert, play, or speech and form ten very different conclusions regarding how successful the performance was. Some may like it, and some may not. The reasons for their conclusions may be realistic or fallacious. Unfortunately, many critics may have the power to affect your career, even if their opinion is completely wrong.

One important goal to possess as a performer is to always create such a strong performance that even your worst critics have to concede to your success. This occurs because your interpretation was so effective that even the critics understood it on some level. One, though, must be very suspect of the opinions of critics.

Here are a few important reasons:
  1. There may be only a few present to judge any performance, and as any political pollster would tell you, the more opinions you can get on any subject, the more valid the conclusions are.
  2. Professional critics may be politically or financially connected, and their professional opinion may be highly suspect as to the truthfulness of their conclusions. This conclusion is easily confirmed by the yearly results we see in the Academy Awards. Considering the recent films that are chosen each year for the highest awards, it is obvious to those in the real world, the ticket-buying public, that many members of the Academy are highly politically correct and too connected to Hollywood to have an unbiased opinion. The sharp television viewer ratings downturn for the Academy Awards in the last few years reveals that the public has become their critic and has judged them harshly.
  3. Performers rely on their often uneducated family and friends to be their critics. I can’t count the number of singers I have had to reprogram after they were told by a friend or family member that they were tone deaf when, in fact, they were not.
  4. Critics are often not even performers themselves. These are the worst kind of critics. The truth is, if they are so knowledgeable about the correct way to perform, they would be up on that stage showing everyone how it is done instead of flapping their jaw about your performance successes or failures
  5. The best critic of what you are accomplishing is you. Ultimately, every performer must be secure enough in how they are currently performing and in their performance goals. A sailing ship must have a sail and rudder to move forward with confidence, and you must have yours. When you have the self- confidence in your own abilities, or lack thereof, you will be able to graciously receive all opinions about your work without taking them as a personal attack. You will be able to sift through all the opinions of the critics, forsake the false ones, and embrace the truthful ones, using them as a solid foundation on which to build your future performance goals with confidence.
The Importance of planning how you will communicate your Lyric, Speech or Dialogue is very important. Try this exercise with every work you will perform.

Read out loud your entire song lyric, speech, or acting part exactly how you would perform it in character.

When you are done, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the main theme of the story, lyric, or speech?
2. To whom am I singing or speaking?

3. What is the visual location of my performance?
4. What mood is portrayed in the words?

5. If music, what mood is conveyed in the harmony?

6. Why was this lyric, speech, or script written?

7. What result am I trying to accomplish in my audience?
8. What do I want the audience to remember about my performance?
9. What movements, mannerisms, etc. do I need to rehearse to convey my message?

10. How should I dress to perform?

11. If I am a character other than myself, who am I, and how will I effectively imitate that person?

12. Create your own questions!

Write out the answers to these questions about every character, speech, or song you perform. I am sure you will be able to think of more relevant questions. The clearer you are about what you are trying to accomplish in any performance, the more effective you will be.

I hope you have enjoyed this important discussion. Pass it along to a friend!