Q&A: Drummer Vs. Singer

Dear Lis,

My drummer plays so hard and loud that I can’t hear myself sing. I’ve asked him to tone it down but he tells me to sing harder.



Dear Johnny,

This is an age-old problem. Experienced musicians know that the sound of the whole band is more important than any one instrument, but often novices just like to hear themselves play. Whichever instrument is taking a solo should be the focus of attention. Everyone doesn’t solo at the same time. When you’re singing, you’re soloing. All the other instruments should be subordinate to that and create a bed that shows off the soloist. Also, through the course of a song there should be a build in the dynamics with the verses less intense than the choruses, and the final choruses being the biggest. That can’t happen if the drummer is playing his loudest right from the start.

Q&A: The Right Key

Dear Lis,

How do I choose the right key for my voice?



Dear Annette,

Adjust the key so that the melody fits your voice perfectly – there shouldn’t be any notes that are too high or too low. Experiment with different keys to explore the ways you use your voice: how does moving the melody affect your timbre, tone, volume, flexibility and intensity. You also choose keys to produce an effect. Do you want it low and sexy, high and intense, even higher and sweet sounding? Think of how different Beyoncé sounds on three songs, ”Single Ladies“, ”Listen“ &  “Halo”.  ”Single Ladies“ is mostly low to mid-range giving her voice warmth and a playful, effortless feel. ”Listen“ is higher in her range with more intensity and urgency. “Halo” is very high and much sweeter. Her choice of each of these keys is based on the effect she wants to achieve.

Changing keys is especially important if you are covering songs sung by other singers. You won’t always sing the song in the original key: the song “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera might be too high, so when you sing it you would lower the key. Or if you’re singing a song that was originally sung by a male singer you might want to raise the key. As an example of how each singer changes songs to suit their voices, Leonard Cohen recorded his song “Hallelujah” in the key of C but Justin Timberlake sang it in D. Jeff Buckley recorded it in C but sand it live in C#. k.d. lang sang it in E and Sheryl Crow in Ab. Listen to each of these to hear how the keys produced different effects for each singer.

There is no one right key for your voice. You will sing different songs in different keys depending on how the melody sits. One song in the key of E might be too high for you but another might fit perfectly depending on the melody.

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Q&A: Pitch Perfect

Dear Lis,

I want to work on my pitch but it’s hard to do by myself since I’m not sure when I’m in tune.



Dear George,

There is a wonderful, inexpensive program called ”Vocal Lab“ www.rustykat.com. Unfortunately it’s only made for the Mac. (If you find a good program for the PC please let me know at lis@thesingersworkshop.com) Click on a note in Vocal Lab and the computer will play it, showing you the note on a line on a graph. Then you sing it into your microphone and you’ll see your sung note on the graph. Is it too low? Does it slide into the line? Does it stay on the line? Start with the vowel ‘oo’ as in ‘tooth’. Then switch to ‘e’ as in ‘teeth’. The hardest for most people will be ‘ah’ as in ‘ma’. This little program does one thing and it does it well. It trains you to hear when the pitch is right because you can see it.

Q&A: Running With the Melody

Dear Lis,

What’s the best way to learn to do vocal runs like Mariah Carey does?


Dear Angela,

Vocal runs  or riffs are groups of notes that move fast. Because they are quick and light they are difficult to hit accurately. The most complicated runs are in R&B songs. Listen to Mariah Carey’s “Hero”. Some of the runs at the ends of lines early in the song are simpler. As the song progresses, the runs get longer and more intricate. I hear a lot of singers slur these notes and slide through them or even skip some of them but to do them well requires that you sing them all with accurate timing.

To start, take a rock song where the runs will be simpler.

Here is a line from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:


There are two simple runs in it: the first is on ‘say’ and the second on the second syllable of ‘dreamer’. In this sound bite, I’m singing the whole line at tempo and then slowing each part down so you can hear the individual notes. Practice with the slower ones until you hit all the notes. Be sure to keep the timing, even though it’s slowed down. The first note of ‘say’ is longer; the two middle ones are short and light the last one is long again. The second run on ‘dreamer’ is only three notes. Like the first run, the first note has the primary accent, the middle one is light and the last note is heavier. I’ve sung it slowly and then a little faster for you to work on.

When you sing through the whole song, you’ll notice that these two runs happen over and over. Once you recognize them in “Imagine” you’ll start to notice similar runs in other songs. When you listen to more complicated runs, like the ones used in R&B songs, you will start to hear that they are combinations of runs strung together.

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