A Laboratory Developing Storytellers of Sound

by | Oct 2, 2021

The Laboratory Developing Storytellers of Sound
Here’s Where All The Magic Happens

A Happy Scientist in the Laboratory

I have had many practice rooms in the past. Some have been nicer than others. One room had roaches and no heat or air conditioning. Another was so small I had to leave my case outside. Often I had a mobile practice room that could be on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or at the beach. If I had to build my perfect studio the one I’m in now is close to perfect. I think of my studio as a laboratory for research and development in music-making. I’m not a mad scientist, I’m a happy one and I only use my research and experiments for good. I produce storytellers of sound here and each person that comes to my lab is a chance to discover something new. Students get observed as they learn and discover the language of music. We collect these observations of our experiences to help ourselves and others, like you.

A Team Working Together

My fellow students and I want to discover what goes on when a human sings or plays an instrument. That’s right I’m not just an observer, I do research and experiments on myself. Together with my team of students, we strive to achieve our goal to excel and grow musically. My colleagues in this endeavor range from age four to seventy-four playing many different instruments and singing. Teaching private weekly lessons, I get to know each student and how their mind works. I see how they learn, and what drives them and keeps them interested.

Happy Accidents Lead to New Methods 

Teaching many different types of music lessons has led to new methods I’d never have found teaching college students the horn. With students of voice, piano, brass, some woodwinds, and guitar, I get to see the same things happen in many ways and I don’t just have students for a four-year plan, I often have them for much longer. I feel like an old-time school teacher in a small town. I teach the same kids many different subjects until they go off to make it in the world. With no set curriculum, I can be fluid and adapt. Each student is a new adventure and a chance for me to discover more about what’s going on when we perform music.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in the lab was discovering a cure for the tone-deaf students I was teaching. I am so thankful for John, Jonathan, and the other tone-deaf brass players that made up my Wednesday afternoons once upon a time. Together we learned that being tone-deaf didn’t have to be a permanent condition. A few happy accidents happened simultaneously to show me this cure.

The “Tone-Deaf” Wednesday Brass

Once upon a time, my Wednesday afternoons started at four o’clock with six brass players that couldn’t match a pitch with the voice. Labeled incorrectly by me as tone-deaf, I’d still make sure they’d learn to play more than just the radio. They came to me to learn and get better so we got to work. We would sing together to activate the storytelling idea, but none of them could sing the correct note. When they were in storytelling mode they played better so I kept them singing and occasionally they’d even match a note but for the most part they’d sing dull pitchless sounds. I was determined to get them to play anyway and enjoy the band.

A Tone Deaf Singer Searching for a Cure

One fine Wednesday at three o’clock a sharply dressed, 29-year-old gentleman came into the studio. John confessed right from the start, “I might be tone-deaf.” He had always been told he was tone-deaf and that he couldn’t sing by his friends and family. At family get-togethers, they’d sing and he felt left out. He gave me two hundred dollars and asked if I could help. To start, I played a note on the piano, then sang it and asked him to sing that note with me. He couldn’t. I asked if he’d ever sung Karaoke. He said yes and picked out a song and sang it for me. His performance led me to believe he was indeed tone-deaf. John had paid for eight lessons and I had the same determination to help him enjoy singing with his family that I had with the Wednesday brass. 

One song in English was enough and we switched to a song in Italian. Singing in Italian would keep John from thinking about any meanings associated with words. Italian words had no meaning to him. They were just sounds. Singing something he didn’t know would keep him from looking to his memory for songs and finding past experiences of singing and failing. I wanted him to get over the thoughts of being a bad singer. This would allow him to think more about the sounds he wanted to make. We’d forget the past and learn something new.

Falsetto, an Italian Word

We’d work on pronunciation in a call and response, then we’d sing. He was learning the words and how the song went but he wasn’t singing any notes with me. It was the same experience I was having with the tone-deaf Wednesday brass. All soft-spoken students sing dull pitchless sounds.

Then in a serendipitous turn, I sang in an extremely high falsetto voice and John sang the note in falsetto right back at me! With a falsetto “mickey mouse” voice, he could match my pitch. When he did it something clicked and his body finally knew what we were trying to get it to do. I made him do it again and again until I knew it wasn’t a fluke. Then we did it some more until he got used to the feeling of matching a pitch. When we tried in a normal range, he’d lose the ability to match. He could only do it in falsetto but that was a start. It wasn’t the Ah-Ha moment but we were on to something.

An Eagle Wake Up Call from a Baritone

After John was Jonathon. He was a tall freshman, beaming with excitement and passion about playing. He had been playing the baritone for a few years and he loved the band. Shy and soft-spoken, when he sang it sounded like he’d never used his voice to sing before. Sometimes he had a harsh tone and it seemed to hurt his voice but we persisted. He played better in storytelling mode so we’d sing. I’d talk very little about his voice. He’d listen as I sang it, imagining it was him singing, and then he’d sing it with me.

On this Wednesday, while he was trying to sing along a bizarre eagle-like squawk came out. Shocking as the sound was, we usually went straight from the voice to the horn quickly so without comment on the squawk he played his baritone. When the same eagle call in the same exact pitch came out of the baritone, we couldn’t help but stop and laugh. I was shocked. Imagine how powerful the idea of sound must be to translate such an amazing sound to the instrument. I was excited and a new plan formed.

M I C K E Y, I Can Match A Pitch

First, I had to try to get Jonathon and the rest of the “tone-deaf” Wednesday brass to match my pitch in a “mickey mouse” falsetto voice like John had. They were shy at first and most likely thought I was crazy. John and I met for a month before we had our breakthrough and it took time with the brass. For each lesson, we’d spend time matching sounds in falsetto. I’d keep it light and short, always making them believe they were getting better.

I am not saying there are no tone-deaf humans out there but every one of the Wednesday brass matched my pitch eventually. Once they could match a pitch, those brass players started to enjoy the idea of singing. The next step was obvious.

The Vaccai Project

I arranged the first ten Vaccai for the brass and “The Vaccai Project” was born. I loved the idea of having instrumentalists sing Italian songs with the voice and then play them on the horn. If they could imagine the Italian lyrics in their minds as they played their instruments they couldn’t help but think the same way singing while playing the instrument. We’d also buzz these tunes on the mouthpiece while singing the Italian in our imagination. They’d think musically while playing, not about the instrument in their hands, allowing for clear signals to the body so it could do its thing efficiently. It worked great!

Now that they could sing they got better quickly. Sounds came out with ease. The Wednesday brass had an expanded range and vastly improved quality of sound. Double tonguing was easy to teach them. If they could sing it they could play it. The Wednesday brass players lost the tone-deaf status and started making honor bands and coming out of their shells. By the end of Jonathan’s high school career, this shy guy was a leader in his band.

Jonathan, receiving the Director's Award.
Jonathan, receiving the Director’s Award.

Preconceived Notions, Limited Possibilities

A very large obstacle that John had overcome was his self-doubt. He didn’t believe he’d be able to sing. Once he did, it got easier. The body jolted as he matched a pitch for the first time. The thought that he had always carried that he couldn’t sing was blown up with that jolt. John had no confidence in his musical ability because he had never had any success singing. Everyone told him he couldn’t sing. It was the first thing he told me when he walked into the studio. Even as a baby, we are often told to be quiet! With a little success, John’s belief grew and he started to believe he could sing. It was the four-minute mile syndrome and he’d broken the barrier.

The Four Minute Mile

Before 1954 most scientists agreed that a human couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. That is until it was done by Roger Bannister. Now it is the standard for professional runners. Over 1400 athletes have broken this barrier in competitions. If you think you can’t, you won’t. With some success, we start to believe we can, and then we can.

Why not just start off thinking this way? Begin everything we try with the belief that we can do anything we put our minds to and stop limiting what’s possible before we start. If we fail, we’ve tried without any thoughts of failure. The “little engine” taught me when I was very young that, “I think I can, I think I can”, is a great motto. I believe we’ve got a much better chance for success with the “I think I can” attitude.

Fuzzy Inner Hearing Gets Clearer With Use

Doubt and past failures were not the only things hindering the singing. John and the Wednesday brass didn’t have a clear inner hearing. Your inner hearing is like a muscle and I have learned ways to strengthen it. I would have them imagine the song, in silence, going through it from beginning to end. We would also try to hear a note after it had stopped, then play it on the horn. These tricks help your inner hearing grow.

As you begin to sing in your imagination, your inner hearing is muddy. John was soft-spoken, as were all the tone-deaf brass players. Maybe their actual hearing wasn’t great. This process was truly transforming for these guys. Singing helped them get comfortable with their voices while their inner hearing expanded. Tone and phrasing improved while singing and transferred to their instruments.

John says Ah Ha

Once John knew what it meant to match a pitch, it didn’t take long for him to do it in a normal range and he started singing the Italian songs on the correct pitches. Soon we sang in different styles and he got more and more in tune. We even sang in English. It took a year before John finally had a true “Ah-Ha moment” and he heard the note he was going to sing in his head before he sang it. His body reacted and his high note sailed out easily. His phrase died after that because he had to stop to tell me about his inner experience. “I know what you mean when you say you hear things that aren’t there”, he said. “I heard the note before I sang it.” The high note he sang was beautiful, and it came with little effort. John’s singing took off and soon he was crooning “Sintra” style. For three years John came in each week to sing. After he had his last lesson he said he was happy he could sing. He looks happy! I know he is set to rock some Karaoke now! I hope he is still singing.

Singing in the Laboratory
John, ready to sing.

John taught me a very important lesson. Tone-deafness doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Every single student who I thought was tone-deaf learned to match pitches and sing on key with me. When your aural imagination grows and you can hear the sounds you want to make in your imagination the body will make the sounds you’re hearing. The body will imitate any sound you can imagine, even sounds not meant to come out of it or an instrument. 

The Science Behind The Method

The average human brain contains over 86 billion nerve cells. These are the building blocks of your brain. These nerve cells or neurons communicate with each other by sending chemical and electrical signals. The brain’s frontal lobe is thought to control the voice box muscles that are responsible for vocal pitch. Located in the frontal lobe, the motor cortex sends the signals that tell the muscles of your face, mouth, tongue, lips, and throat how to move to form speech.

The lips and tongue and vocal cords get their signal from the same part of the brain as the voice box. Whether telling a story or playing or singing a scale, the same part of the brain is working the body’s many muscles and systems needed to perform. If we think the same way we think when we sing while we play, then our brain will send clear and efficient signals to the body.

Be a Storyteller of Sound

Try this in your lab. Sing and pay attention to how you are thinking while you are singing. Then think the same way when you are playing your instrument. Scientists will never stop finding out more in their never-ending search to know how the brain works. They’ve shown me enough to understand why this singing method works. The more we know the more there is to know. All of this knowledge can mask the big picture for a person trying to play a musical instrument. I’ll continue the work in my lab. Helping each student find their inner voice and observing discoveries in the workings of the brain and body in action. I’ll keep reporting my research for your consideration with the hope to help my fellow seekers become better students and teachers. I’m here to help, always.

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