Tips on Producing Vocals

During a vocal recording session I was producing for an album this evening several things came up that I thought might be good to address. Producing a vocal track can be a bit of a mystery in approach and there are many mistakes a producer can make in the process. Here’s my two cents worth of input for up and coming producers.

Producer’s Role on Producing Vocal Tracks

As I’ve said many times on my blog, a music producer’s role is to produce music. That means you produce a product. That means you produce a good vocal track. It is a non-issue how talented the vocalist is or how prepared they are or anything else, your job is to produce. Being a “good” music producer means drawing out the best product you can from your artist. There is NO excuse to drawing out the best you can. The more you do, hopefully the better you’ll get at it.

Getting the Artist to Hand You the Ball
As producer, you should have a repoire with the recording vocalist. If they have not yet handed you the artistic ball to run with the project, then you are not yet the producer. Before I start on any serious recording project (karaoke and throw away demos will be what they will) I make sure I have been given the artistic license from the artist and the flexibility to produce the track. If I’m going to be responsible for a track, I need the license to make changes and adjustments on the fly without having to explain every move. This is the most important aspect of recording in my opinion. Make sure you and the artist are on the same page about your role in the project. If for many varied reasons the artist will not hand you the ball to produce the project, then you are not the right person for this particular project. As much as it might hurt, do not accept the project as producer. Turn the project down or re-negotiate your role as simply an engineer, etc. “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup.”

Basic Things You Should Know About Vocal Production

These are basic things I assume every music producer knows, which probably means not everybody knows these things. 🙂

  1. Try more than one microphone on the vocalist and compare tracks blind for the best sound. I most often use a Neumann mic for vocal tracks, but always test with my AKG’s, CAD and other mics. AT LEAST try two different mics. You should brainwash yourself as a producer that you are not really producing unless you’ve compared at least two mics on the vocalist. Once in a blue moon you’ll find your main vocal mic has a broken diaphragm, was accidentally turned backwards (yes, it happens – I always check out of habit, even if I’ve used it a thousand times) – or you may find that this particular vocalist sounds best singing through your kick drum mic (Yes, I’ve had this happen too. I know a famous songwriter/singer from Texas that has recorded vocal tracks with an AKG D-112, normally a kick drum microphone).
  2. No contact with mic or cables. Make sure the vocalist is not in contact with the microphone stand, microphone itself, or any cables connected to the mic.
  3. Treat the wall behind the recording mic. If in a sound booth or closed environment, pay special attention to the wall behind the microphone. This is where your prominent reflections of sound bounce back and may cause comb filtering (frequency cancellation). Unless you are in a pro setting with designed treatments, go ahead and pad 50% of the wall behind the mic. Auralex foam blocks work fine. Pick up a kit at a pro music store. Cardboard egg crates? I don’t know who started that, but it’s silly. Cardboard doesn’t shape your sound well, it’s more of a visual thing to say “See, we have a studio”. I would rather use blankets from U-Haul as padding if you’re in a pinch.
  4. Experiment with microphone distance and slope. Try the mic at different distances from the vocalist as well as different angles. How does the sound change with the mic facing the vocalist’s eyes, then sloped down toward their mouth. Or under the vocalist angled up – or straight on. “Proximity effect” is the bass response you quickly lose as a vocalist is further away from the mic. For rap and spoken word recordings you may want the vocalist right on the mic to get that nice natural bass presence (For rap and spoken word you’d use a different microphone that would already be designed for very close vocals – the mic will normally look like a big long tube. Don’t want to mention specific models, but Howard Stern and most DJ’s use the same mic – that’s the one to use for rap and spoken word.) Sometimes you WANT the voice to be a little thinner, so you’d just back the vocalist from the mic a bit.
  5. Singers should not talk much between takes, if at all. Singer’s use different voice placement when talking than when singing. If they talk excessively between takes, they are ruining the vocal placement that the record producer (In the year 2600 I will still call us “record” producers) has worked to gently attain. Don’t undo the work. Be quite between takes.
  6. Warm up your tube gear. If using tube processing on vocals, which is HIGHLY recommended, be sure to warm up your gear ahead of the session so it’s ready to go when the vocalist shows up. You want the same sound from take to take for consistent composite tracks.
  7. Composite tracks. Few hits these days are recording from beginning to end in a single take. Have the vocalist record multiple takes of the lead vocal and keep them archived. From these the engineer/producer will take the best parts of each take to make a final composite vocal; the “perfect” vocal track. For this reason, it’s important to keep the sound consistent from take to take. This means monitoring that the vocalist is maintaining the same position and that gear has not changed settings. I use Pro Tools and will make notes on each track of the different equipments settings so I can setup the exact same environment anytime down the road. Keeping detailed notes is automatic for any good engineer, and it’s part of the studio producer’s job to make sure that’s happening. It will make your editing process much more enjoyable.
  8. Windscreen and Pops. Mic screens are to eliminate plosives – like “puh”, “foh”, etc. You usually should use a wind screen of light nylon material – I don’t dig using nylons for this; just buy one made for this purpose. I don’t use a windscreen if the vocalist doesn’t move a lot of air. If that’s the case I listen very closely for plosives during recording and make sure I have plenty of takes to choose from in case I missed a couple.
  9. Bad Day? Cancel the session. If you’re vocalist isn’t up to their par in the first thirty minutes of recording; cancel the session. They will usually be relieved. Let them know it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just not the right day. Vocalists do have “bad days” unlike many other instruments. I am a keyboard player – I don’t ever have “bad days” on keyboards. But vocals are a flesh and blood instrument. Let the vocalist know the reason you are doing it is because you want the best product possible for them. You should know the vocalist’s chops well enough to know when to make this call. If it’s because the truly can’t sing any better then it’s a bad call to do this. If I cancel a session in the best interest of the artist’s project it will usually be free of charge. I won’t charge them for the session. That way they know your motives are true and you are truly engaged in the outcome of their project. If they partied all night and you have to cancel because their voice is hoarse then that’s their problem. Charge them. If the vocalist says “Let’s try again, I know I can do better” – give them a couple shots. 99.9% of the time it still won’t be what you want. Reschedule the session.
  10. Tea time. Always have non-caffeine tea on hand for the vocalist. Never serve boiling hot, just warm. Many singers show up for sessions with the rush of the world still spinning their head around. If that fights your project, relax them with tea. Don’t start the session until they are in the proper mood for the style they are recording. If that means talking with them for 30 minutes about Philosophers of Ancient Greece – then that’s what you do. Have your gear ready so when they’re in the proper mindset you can hit the gates.
  11. BGV’s – Background Vocals. The best person to blend with the lead vocalist IS the lead vocalist. Once the composite track is done, have the recording artist record some of their own harmonies before you bring in other background vocalists. Let the artist have fun with it and experiment. Only keep what you think will work. Unless the lead singer is a studio artist, let them take the easy parts they hear first. Fill in the harmonies with your studio pros on the harder-to-hear harmonies. *NOTE* – Background vocals are often more breathy than the lead vocal. One little trick to getting a nice choral blend. If it works for your project’s sound, have the lead vocalist try singing breathier for BGV’s. Only if it’s fun and easy for them to do. If it’s gruelling work, save it for the studio singers.
  12. Pitch Correction – Once your composite vocal track is finished I would recommend doing a pass just listening for pitch errors. This all depends on the project. Some pitch errors are good in certain styles. To my ears on a standard pop vocal track, the lead vocal has a problem if it’s more than 10 cents off. A half-step has 100 cents in it, or 100 degrees between each half step. 15 cents is “yucky sharp” and 8 cents is “should I fix this?”. Yes, you probably should. I have not found any software that you can just set and let run for an entire track. You really need to do it by ear on a note by note basis.
  13. The Wizard of Oz. Do not let your vocalist be present when you edit and compile their lead vocal track. Vocalists will ask you to sit in because they are fascinated by the process and want to learn. Then within a short time they will think about quitting music altogether when they see how many edits you really do. Let the vocalist come back and hear your final composite with pitch corrections, eq and fx in the mix. Most of the time they will say “I don’t remember singing it that well.” Shut up and smile. That’s what they hired you for. Of course if they want a change in the composite vocal or want to re-sing something, by all means let them. But wait until they’ve heard your edited work first. One more time: DO NOT LET THE VOCALIST WATCH YOU EDIT THEIR TRACKS! I’ve had MANY vocalists say “I’ve tried other studios but I sing better with you.” Which actually means, “You are more precise in your editing and engineering approach.” 🙂
  14. No New Vocal Lessons During Project. Want to have your vocalist become a dog overnight? Then have them start with a new vocal coach in the middle of your project. The time for vocal lessons is BEFORE doing a recording project or AFTER recording. When taking voice lessons, artists will usually get worse before they get better. Due in part to the fact that they will have to unlearn bad habits to pick up new ones. This is a slow process. All that will happen is they will sound worse during your recordings. Vocal study is a lifelong effort. Not something to change people overnight. I have been through this so many times with artists that now I tell them to actually cancel new lessons if they haven’t already started. Please note: I’m talking about NEW voice lessons with a new instructor during the middle of a recording project. Continuing voice lessons is usually fine.
  15. Check Headphone Levels Yourself. Listen to the vocalist’s headphone level before you have them listen. Many vocalists don’t really know what levels they should have. It should be loud enough so they can get lost in the music but not uncomfortable.
  16. Check Vocalist Headphone Level. The vocalist should be louder in the headphone mix than they might be in the final mix. They should hear themselves well from the headphones so they have good control of pitch.
  17. Controlling Intonation with Headphone Level. If your vocalist is singing flat, lower their vocal level in the headphones. They are hearing themselves too much and not supporting their singing. If your vocalist is sharp, raise their vocal level in the headphones. They are not hearing themselves enough and are pushing to hard to create volume.
  18. Live Performance Microphones are Not Studio Microphones. That microphone you use to gig with your band. It’s not a recording mic. Get a dedicated studio vocal mic. Only use it in the studio. Don’t take it to gigs. That software that will make any mic sound like any other mic. Uh-huh, I’ve got that too. Buy a studio mic. Things have changed, you can get a decent studio mic now for under $300 as a starter mic. Alpha-Beta is a supermarket chain. If your recording studio vocal mic has any of those words in it’s name, it’s not a studio vocal mic in my opinion.


The hard part. If you are producing a legit vocal track for a “singer singer” then nothing will do but the best they can do. It’s important to know how hard you can work them and what their limits are. Also important you understand about vocal anatomy. The best way to get that experience is to take lessons or watch lessons of an experienced vocal teacher.

DUMP YOUR INNER GEEK – If you are a modern producer chances are you’re also a geek. You know about computers, bit rates, time code, Midi, music theory and everything else geeky. Let’s say your vocalist is getting a thin grating sound on their high notes and you know it’s within their range to do better. It would be unproductive to say “Those high notes sound thin and grating, can you sing them better?”. That’s your Inner Geek talking. Knowing about vocal anatomy and using visualizations will help them more than technical data (unless they are a trained studio or pro singer, which often isn’t the case.)

THE CONCEPT – The idea here is not to instruct your vocalist directly with technical data. But to direct them indirectly with visualization. It’s highly effective in a studio setting.

Here are some examples of what’s happening and different responses as a guide.


  1. “Your voice sounds thin in the high register. Please change it” NO
  2. “Use your diaphragm to support more in the high register” NO
  3. “As you go higher in range, think down on the note, as if you’re looking at your toes” YES


  1. “Can you sing louder?” NO
  2. “Use more breath support” NO
  3. “Imagine you are singing through this wall and on to the other side” YES

(Sad song as example)

  1. “Can you sing with more emotion?” NO
  2. “Can you give it more?” NO
  3. “Have you ever thought of suicide? Think of that when you sing.” YES

(What? This is an example of shock factor to get the artist to personalize an experience that will affect their performance. You must make it personal for them – the example you choose would depend on the song subject and knowing your limits with the artist. I actually used this technique on a song, which happened to be about saving someone from suicide, so it was appropriate in that instance. FYI, almost everyone has thought of suicide at one point or another, so it’s a slightly risky trick to get an artist to pull from deep latent emotions. Just an example.)

(Song is about playing on beach)

  1. “Think of what this song is about” NO
  2. “Think about the words” NO
  3. “Remember the first time you built a sandcastle at the beach? Was it fun? Think of that” YES

(The thing here is to give the artist visualizations that can encourage the delivery of the text. The artist is limited by their small perception of their own song. Give them new imagery to use that is fresh for them. They’ve been living with the lyrics of their song for a while now and it’s getting stale to them – keep it new.)


In a final produced track it can be difficult for people’s ears to track more than three main elements at a time. In a mix you should figure out what those main elements are so you don’t have a mess of a mix. For instance, you might decide focus is snare, vocal and guitar. This is mixing within the “Rule of 3’s”.
Use the concept of “Rule of Threes” when giving instructions to vocalists. With vocalists, I limit my new instructions for them to three at a time. Once they are doing effortlessly what I’ve asked for in the first sets of instructions, then I can add more. Some vocalists will pick things up quick and others take more time. So really pick your first three goals carefully, there’s a chance you won’t get more than that. It’s your responsibility as producer to get what you want from the singer without clogging their mind with too much technical data. Explain what you want in the simplest terms possible – if it doesn’t work then explain it a new way.

CONCEPT – Vocalist should only have three concepts at a time they are trying to master during a recording session.

If you overload the recording artist with more instructions than they can process, they WILL lose confidence, they WILL start to falter and they WILL lose focus on the recording. In fact, you may never get that confidence back. Be very careful with your moves. Vocalists are human and often frail. It is because their voice is part of their human body, it’s VERY personal. Unlike any man-made instrument. Maneuver through this process with grace and you will have more sessions booked than you know what to do with. Hammer your vocalist into the ground and you’re out of work.


Many producers pre-produce their vocals right onto the track with eq and compression settings. With the exception of tube warmth from the preamp I don’t care to do this. Once it’s laid down it’s forever, so I recommend recording flat and doing all fx and contouring in post. (“Pre-production” or “pre” is fx going down on your main track, like if you went from your preamp into an eq/compressor then onto your track. Can’t change it later. “Post-production” or “post” is what you add after the main track is recorded.)

Give the vocalist a fighting chance with a little bit of colour in post of their lead track. Using ProTools I will assign one main track for actual recording. Then I’ll have several more blank tracks that I will copy the main vocal take into. On the main recording vocal track I’ll usually have very light compression (attack 3ms, 3:1 ratio and threshold to compress no more than 3db for normal singing. This also depends on the vocalist and style of music for how much breathing is needed in the sound.), light small reverb, light hall reverb (with a delay to offset the small reverb) and eq (very light at first, roll of lowest bass, boost mid-range presence and give sparkle around 10k – never more than 2db on boosts).

These settings will give the vocalist some shape to their sound. Note to keep your compressor settings light so the vocalist has some dynamic control during recording. It can throw them off to not hear their dynamics as their used to.

Work hard. Study. Be nice. Produce that music well.

If readers have any more tips or insights please post them as comments here. Thanks!

Skagit Valley Vocal Instructors

If you want to improve as a vocalist it’s important you take private lessons. Voice is not like other instruments. It sounds different in your head than it does to other people. A good voice teacher will help you to visualize and master your own vocal production anatomy, which is a difficult task. You can’t see the muscles that control your voice like you can watch your own fingers on other instruments. That’s why you really need a trained ear to guide you.

I’m often asked to recommend a vocal coach, but sadly it’s rare that people actually follow through. They seem to feel their voice is ok and getting better on it’s own. With few exceptions that’s just not going to happen. You can slide by in alternative recordings and live bands, but if you’re serious about musical theater a trained voice is needed. Please get a personalized coach.

In the Mount Vernon, WA area, Camano Island, Stanwood – here are some voice teachers I recommend. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list – just people I know personally that do excellent work (their students are top notch singers). If your name isn’t on the list or you want to leave contact info – please add a comment to this post so vocalists can use this as a resource for getting lessons from a good vocal coach.

Recommended Voice Teachers (Alphabetical)

Dianne Johnson (Skagit College)
Kathleen Kournihan (Camano Island)
Brenda Mueller (Camano Island)
Sharyn Peterson (Mount Vernon)
Another good resource is to contact Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.

If you are a voice instructor in Washington State located from Seattle to Anacortes to Bellingham, please leave a comment with your contact info as a resource to students. Thanks!

Music Games for Piano Players and Kids

I am a vocal instructor for the META Performing Arts summer theater camp. I teach two age groups: Teens and 8-12. I couldn’t find much online for live excercises with kids that would teach vocal technique and be entertaining. Here are some things I came up with that you might find helpful.

Kids 8-12 Age Group
Children in this age group keep their attention well if they’re interacting with each other. So I try to tailor all excercises in a way that they interact and perform for each other. If they are just singing for me it’s hard to keep their attention. Think of yourself as a referee that gives guidelines and then let them run the show.


Jazz Scat – Pianist plays a 12 bar blues progression in swing style. Start with a call and response – give the kids a scat line and have them repeat it as a group. Then go down the line and have each one sing individually. At first they will probably be very shy. If you keep at them, as soon as one jumps out and performs the scat with energy, the others will follow suite. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. If your first performer does a lame performance, the rest will follow suite. If the first person really goes for it, the rest will also step up to the plate. Start with a strong lead. At first just have them do four bar phrases. When they are comfortable with that keep increasing the scat time up to a full 12 bar phrase. Have the kids clap after the full performances to encourage the best in all.

Scat Tag – Kids have to scat with the piano 12 bar groove until they tag another person, then that person has to take it over. This is a good way for the hams in the group to scat for a while, and those that are still shy can tag someone quickly. They have control and they are interacting with each other – good results on this one.

Act the Mood – Piano player plays different moods on the piano and the kids have to act it out. Play circus music, melodrama chase music, Linus and Lucy theme – any music that has a definite and quickly recognizable mood. There is no right or wrong on the child’s interpretation. It gives them a chance to listen for what the music is expressing in mood to them.

Vocal Improv Weakest Link – Selling It – Have kids make a circle and choose a referee in the center. Children have to improvise singing to the piano while “selling the song”. Whatever they need to do with energy to make the referee “buy” that they are performing on the big stage. Audiences often listen with their eyes and this is a good way to encourage children to perform their songs visually and to really jump out with their vocal courage. This is another one where it takes a while for the kids to catch on and really perform. If the referee doesn’t feel the vocalist is selling the song, they are eliminated. I make it a point to talk to the first round eliminations afterwards and help them individually on selling it stronger. Then I tell them, “I don’t want to see you get eliminated in the first round this time.” So far, they don’t. They really do perform better (also helps to have a referree that understands this and doesn’t eliminate them first round). It is scary for some at first, but if you get them to improve quickly it’s a good confidence builder. You can use jazz scat for this too. Do this one after they’re very comfortable with the jazz scatting.

Vocal Story Improv – Play a simple pop progression on the piano with a nice laid back groove (I use V-vi-IV-I in key of Bb, C or D). Play it in straight eights for a change from the jazz feel. Start with call and response – then have them improv on their own twice around the progression each. Now have them also improvise lyrics to create a song (yes, they can do this if encouraged). Last step – the lyrics improvised have to be built on the person before them to create a fluent idea for the song. This is similiar to the story game where each person says a sentence in turn. I find it much more engaging when they are singing. And because there’s a tempo to stick to, they really say what’s on the top of their head without lagging. I have seen many lightbulb’s go on in people’s heads with this one. Keep doing it and you will see very creative moments, and children realizing how much they can really do that they hadn’t thought of before.

If you have an extended time with the kids and have access to recording gear, you could have them each sing lines of lyrics in turn – then edit them into a finished song. Might be a good idea to give them a set chorus to begin with and they can improvise the verses.

If you have other music games that have gone well for you in the past, please post them here so we can all use and learn from them. Thanks!

Battle Hymn of the Republic


Words: Ju­lia W. Howe, 1861, alt.

This hymn was born dur­ing the Amer­i­can ci­vil war, when Howe vis­it­ed a Un­ion Ar­my camp on the Po­to­mac Riv­er near Wash­ing­ton, D. C. She heard the sol­diers sing­ing the song “John Brown’s Body,” and was tak­en with the strong march­ing beat. She wrote the words the next day:

I awoke in the grey of the morn­ing, and as I lay wait­ing for dawn, the long lines of the de­sired po­em be­gan to en­twine them­selves in my mind, and I said to my­self, “I must get up and write these vers­es, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dim­ness found an old stump of a pen, which I re­mem­bered us­ing the day be­fore. I scrawled the vers­es al­most with­out look­ing at the p­aper.

The hymn ap­peared in the At­lant­ic Month­ly in 1862. It was sung at the fun­er­als of Brit­ish states­man Win­ston Church­ill, Amer­i­can sen­at­or Ro­bert Ken­ne­dy, and Am­er­i­can pre­si­dents Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ri­chard Nix­on.

Music: John Brown’s Bo­dy, poss­i­bly by John Will­iam Steffe. John Brown was an Amer­i­can abo­li­tion­ist who led a short lived in­­sur­­rect­­ion to free the slaves.




Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free;
[originally …let us die to make men free]
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.




The tune was written, around 1855, by South Carolinian William Steffe. The lyrics at that time were alternately called “Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Brothers, Will You Meet Me?” and the song was sung as a campfire spiritual. The tune spread across the United States, taking on many sets of new lyrics.

A man from Vermont named Thomas Bishop joined the Massachusetts Infantry before the outbreak of war and wrote a popular set of lyrics, circa 1860, titled “John Brown’s Body” which became one of his unit’s walking songs. According to writer Irwin Silber (who has written a book about Civil War folksongs), the song was not about John Brown, the famed abolitionist, but a Scotsman of the same name who was a member of the 12th Massachusetts Regiment. An article by writer Mark Steyn explains that the men of John Brown’s unit had made up a song poking fun at him, and sang it widely.

Bishop’s battalion was dispatched to Washington, D.C. early in the Civil War, and Julia Ward Howe heard this song during a public review of the troops in Washington. As with many others, she assumed it was about John Brown the abolitionist. Her companion at the review, the Reverend James Clarke, suggested to Howe that she write new words for the fighting men’s song, and the current version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was born.

Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was first published on the front page of The Atlantic Monthly of February 1862. The sixth verse written by Howe, which is less commonly sung, was not published at that time. The song was also published as a broadside in 1863 by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia.

Julia Ward Howe was the wife of Samuel Gridley Howe, the famed scholar in education of the blind. Samuel and Julia were also active leaders in anti-slavery politics and strong supporters of the Union. Julia was visiting a Union camp when she heard the soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body” and was inspired to write the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Northwest Boychoir


Visit the Northwest Boychoir website at

I was a soprano in the Northwest Boychoir from 1976-1980 under directors George Fiore and Steve Stevens. It is still the most formative musical experience I have ever had. It was intense, disciplined and grueling. I cannot even imagine what music would be to me if I had not had that training. If any boys in the Seattle area have a passion for singing I strongly recommend you check out the Northwest Boychoirs.

With the NWBC I started out in their training choir with the single minded goal of making their top touring choir. For those in the training choir it was our biggest dream. The day I made it into the touring choir was one of the proudest of my life. In the last year I was with them they started a “Choirboy of the Year” award and I won it the first year. I was very proud of that. Actually, I still am.

The NWBC opened doors for me to sing with Seattle Opera. I got to sing in the selected boys’ chorus with Seattle Opera at the Opera House in Carmen, Boris Gudunov and Tosca. Archie Drake, longtime bass with Seattle Opera, would always take us under his wing. And at one point the Seattle Symphony conductor’s son was in our choir as well.

One of my favorite moments was when Seattle Opera came to a NWBC rehearsal to audition boys for their production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. The choir director, Steve Stevens, called out several boys from the rehearsal to go audition in the other room with Seattle Opera. I watched them all go, very sad because he had not picked me. Then he said, “Ok, if any one else feels they want to audition they can go try.” I still remember being embarrassed as I stood up to give it a try, and getting “the look” – the look of “Oh man, you’re not serious are you?”.

Well the good part of the story is I got the role for Amahl that year. I split performances with another boy soprano named Brice York. The day the Seattle Times did their reviews on the show was the day Brice performed, so I didn’t get a write up. But I got to work with Archie Drake and Shirley Harman (Seattle area icons in Opera) and that was AWESOME.

I always remember that too. What if I hadn’t walked up and given it a try? I’m thankful Steve Stevens opened it up for anyone to try. I would have never entered the audition if he hadn’t opened it up. My voice started to change at the end of the Amahl run – it was my last heyday of being a boy soprano. The last time I would ever have that full control of my voice that had been so keenly honed with NWBC. The voice change was a slow and tramautic experience – a deep loss that every boychoir singer goes through.

My Mom still plays the recording of my Amahl performance. We went to see a production of Amahl together last year and I prepped her beforehand saying “You know, we have great memories of me doing the show, but times change and this boy will probably humble my performance.” After seeing the show I feel really good about my work back then. For almost 30 years I’ve felt I could have done better. And now I know that I really kicked butt back then. 🙂

With NWBC I also got the chance to tour with them in Europe and sing A Capella sacred music at Westminster Chapel, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Cathedral of Chartres and the Llangollen Music Festival in Wales. I’m on their first pop album they recorded and think that I hold the distinction of being the only boy in the choir that didn’t get a solo bit on the album. Kind of funny.

You get teased mercilessly when you’re a boy soprano. Especially when I would return to school and still had some makeup left on from a Seattle Opera performance. Kids are mean. If you want to see me go from Happy to a Raging Monster in two seconds, try making fun of a boy soprano when both of us are in the room. Me and my home boys stick together.

I remember being in college at a party and running into one my boychoir mates Stephen Shelver. He was the top dog when I was in the choir – the one that would get all the full solos when we sang with the Seattle Symphony, et al. He was so glad to see me and we talked for hours about the boychoir experience. It is so unique. I have never talked to him since then, over twenty years ago, and wonder if he still feels that strongly about what it taught us. I know I do.

ATTENTION RICH PEOPLE: If you have a ton of money and don’t know what to do with it, please consider giving some to the Northwest Boychoir. They are a top notch group.


Pacific Northwest’s Premier Choir for Young Singers

The Northwest Boychoir’s musical sophistication and rich tonal quality have established its reputation as one of the nation’s premier boychoirs. Its 45 members, ages 10 to 14, come from all corners of the Greater Seattle area representing 26 diverse public and private schools. Northwest Boychoir members are skilled musicians with a passion for the musical arts, and a unique ability to perform great choral literature and contemporary works at the highest professional levels.

In its 33 years, the Northwest Boychoir has trained thousands of young singers, and more significantly, shaped the lives of its members by instilling important lessons in personal commitment, and the value of teamwork and diligence. Led by Joseph Crnko, now in his 23rd year as music director, Northwest Boychoir members are skilled musicians who read music fluently and perform professionally with confidence.

Officially designated the “Singing Ambassadors” of Washington State by Governor Christine Gregoire, the Northwest Boychoir has performed around the world and throughout the United States. International tours have taken the Boychoir to France, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. National tours have led the boys throughout the US, with performances in St. John the Divine in New York, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. In July 2007, the Northwest Boychoir will undertake a concert tour of the West Coast of the United States.

The Northwest Boychoir is an essential part of the cultural fabric of the Puget Sound community. The Seattle Symphony leads a long list of professional arts groups that rely on the talents of the Boychoir. In June 2007, the Boychoir will join the Seattle Symphony to present Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Then in July 2007, the Boychoir again will take the stage with the Seattle Symphony to present the renowned choral masterpiece Carmina Burana.

A highly successful 2006 performance season was highlighted by the Boychoir’s participation in Music of Remembrance’s highly-praised production of Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibár. In addition, the Boychoir celebrated Mozart’s 250th year with a March 2006 performance of Mozart’s Missa Brevis at the annual convention of the American Choral Director’s Association in Portland, Oregon.

When soundtrack composers need the unique boychoir sound, they often turn to the Northwest Boychoir whose professional talents are featured on films such as the acclaimed Millions. The choir is featured prominently on the soundtrack for Sea World Florida’s spectacular show, Blue Horizons. Among its accomplishments is the Choir’s selection by renowned Sound Designer Nick Phoenix to be recorded for his Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs sample library. The voices of the Northwest Boychoir are now used by film composers and sound designers worldwide.

The Northwest Boychoir has produced four holiday recordings, the most recent ‘Tis the Season. In addition to its own recordings, the Boychoir is featured with members of the Seattle Symphony on the new 2006 recording of Brundibár (Naxos) and on international opera star Carl Tanner’s 2006 holiday recording, Hear the Angels Sing (Sony Classical).

Spoken Accents for Theater

What makes an accent real, and what makes it phony? What is really a Southern accent in the United States and what is someone doing a vocal caricature. What is a true cockney accent and what mistakes do Americans typically make with English accents on stage?

I have no idea. But here is a variety of information on accents for you to investigate further. Listen particularly to rhythm, intensity and articulation.


Example of a Scottish Accent:

Listen to accents from all over the world to compare spoken word accents. What a great tool for studying speech. These recordings are real people, not stereotypes. A great reference for real world speech accents. On this website, each recording is someone from a different part of the world saying the following paragraph:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.


Listen in to the diverse voices of the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man – from Shetland to Penzance. Eavesdrop on Rotarians in Pitlochry and Travellers in Belfast. Drop in on skateboarders in Milton Keynes. Overhear pigeon fanciers in Durham.

The clips are drawn from the Voices recordings – which capture 1,200 people in conversation. Some of the clips are people talking about language – slang, dialect, taboo words, accents. Other clips cover all sorts of subjects and simply offer a flavour of how we talk today.

“I think the US has always had a more of an emphasis on mobility which is why there hasn’t been a core of accent speakers to build a distict accent. Regional accents are changing in the UK now and in the south most of the old accents are dying out.”


Ever been baffled by the bard? Vexed by his verse? Or perplexed by his puns? London’s Globe theatre thinks it has the answer: perform Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s dialect.

The Globe, London (pic Donald Cooper)
The Globe will stage Troilus and Cressida for six weeks

In August the theatre will stage an “original production” of Troilus and Cressida, with the actors performing the lines as closely as possibly to the play’s first performance – in 1604.

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended. They say their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire – yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

For example, the word “voice” is pronounced the same as “vice”, “reason” as “raisin”, “room” as “Rome”, “one” as “own” – breathing new life into Shakespeare’s rhyming and punning.

Why are the accents a particular place like they are?

Separate development accounts for some accent variation. But sometimes we need to talk about the first generation of speakers of a particular language brought up in a new place. The first children to grow up in a new place are very important. The children who grow up together are a ‘peer group’. They want to speak the same as each other to express their group identity. The accent they develop as they go through their childhood will become the basis for the accents of the new place. So where does their accent come from?

The first generation of children will draw on the accents of the adults around them, and will create something new. If people move to a new place in groups (as English speakers did to America, Australia and New Zealand) that group usually brings several different accents with them. The children will draw on the mixture of accents they hear and create their own accent out of what they hear. The modern accents of Australia are more similar to London accents of English than to any other accent from England — this is probably because the founder generation (in the eighteenth century) had a large component drawn from the poor of London, who were transported to Australia as convicts. The accents of New Zealand are similar to Australian accents because a large proportion of the early English-speaking settlers of New Zealand came from Australia.

The mix found in the speech of the settlers of a new place establishes the kind of accent that their children will develop.
I’ve always wondered about accents and why we (North Americans) don’t sound like our British or (Insert country of origin) ancestors? When people moved over here from Europe they would have sounded British or whatever to start with, but obviously today they don’t.There are many different accents within the British Isles, and it’s likely that they have changed over the last centuries. Remember also that not all the ancestors of North Americans came from Europe.

I’ve always wondered about accents and why we (North Americans) don’t sound like our British or (Insert country of origin) ancestors? When people moved over here from Europe they would have sounded British or whatever to start with, but obviously today they don’t. How long does this process of dialect/losing or gaining accent take? And why does it happen? I suppose it has to do with language evolving and regional influences. It’s odd but people from the South Shore of Nova Scotia sound to me like they could be from Maine…..very similar accent…I love accents.

A Scottish accent reading Robert Burns poem “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose”

Con Anima Vocal Group – St. Petersburg, Russia

con-anima5.jpgCon Anima is a small ensemble of operatic vocalists from St. Petersburg, Russia. Small in number, but by no means small in sound or passion. They performed recently at my church, Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. I could not find reviews of them online so I wanted to let you know what they are like as you consider going to one of their concerts or having them perform at your church. (Short read: They are fantastic!)

I knew that they were from St. Petersburg, that they had all graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and that they were Russian Orthodox. My guess was that this was going to be very heavy, intense music – very dark and compelling to Western US ears. And it was exactly that. Con Anima has a sound that takes you on a ride through the centuries, a timeless sound.


Visit their website at and you listen to a Con Anima Vocal Sample. Their sound is even more compelling when heard live. This is a group that I don’t think any recording will ever do it justice – It’s a visual and auditory combination that will lift your mind to new heights and inspire the depths of your sould.


For our performance we only used a mic for song introductions – no sound reinforcement is really needed for this group if you have a good acoustic environment. The bass vocalist alone has more vocal power than most entire church choirs. They are accustomed to filling opera stages with sound and when you get five of them toghther, well, It’s Big!


They gave a one hour concert with a combination of Russian sacred favorites, and also a mix of Russian “gospel” and classical music. The first half was a capella and the second half a refreshing mix of piano accompaniament, solos and duets.

Con Anima does well at presenting a faith-based concert that would be equally comfortable for any denomination to experience. The power of their delivery speaks for itself with obvious dedication to the spiritual drive behind their music.


If you like early music, chamber music, Russian music or music with conviction – you will love Con Anima. In all honesty, unless you were born under a rock you will absolutely love Con Anima.

Con Anima Russian Choir


St.Petersburg, Russia – Con Anima is a vocal ensemble of Saint Petersburg. Visit the Con Anima Russian Choir website.

Read a review of a Con Anima Church Concert.

All singers in the group are graduates of Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Conservatory in Russia is a higher musical educational establishment. Term of training – 5 years. Conservatory diploma has the same rank as that of a university.

We build our repertoire of religious music, Russian chamber and opera music of the 19th and 20th century, including compositions by P.Tchaikovsky, S.Rakhmaninov, S.Taneev, N.Rimsky-Korsakov, P.Chesnokov and other.

Russian Choir Singing Psalm 103 – MP3

We try to arrange our concert programmes to deliver to audience the depth and spiritual wealth of Russian orthodox culture. We consider our activities as a part of ecumenical links among Christian confessions, thus besides its concerts Con Anima takes part in divine service in various Christian churches.


Anton Malakhovsky, baritone
Olga Dudchenko, mezzosoprano
Andrey Gavrin, tenor
Natalia Savchenko, soprano
Vladimir Feliauer, bass
Ekaterina Arhangelskaya, soprano


Bringing Vocals Forward

The challenging part of vocal coaching is getting singers to understand the feeling of vocal placement for their particular voice. It’s common at some point to show a vocalist an actual anatomy picture of the throat and muscles involved in vocal production. After that, it’s a mind game to have them understand the nuance of their own instrument.

One way to have singers bring the sound forward is to have them push out with their hands slowly while they are singing. It will look something like water aerobics – a bit silly looking and awkward. But I’ve heard this work well with individuals and especially in larger vocal ensembles. Just in bringing the hands forward I would estimate a 30% increase in overall volume without degradation of tone.

With a vocalist recently we tried this excercise but it wasn’t producing the desired effect. So I had them actually walk forward slowly while singing several phrases. For this particular vocalist it did the trick. The lightbulb went off in their head and they were very excited to feel the difference in bringing the sound forward.

Often I have heard a vocalist who is singing individual notes, but not driving through the end of a phrase. It’s as if they are sitting complacently on each note. The hand and walking excersises prove useful in getting a vocalist to visualize the forward motion of a phrase.

When a vocal phrase is “given up on” before it’s completion, it’s not very interesting to listen to. Why should the listener be engaged if the vocalist is not interested in the phrase? By singing through with intent to the very last note of a phrase, the listener is engaged in what is happening.

The walking forward is nothing I have ever read about – but came about because of a related idea I keep in mind. If you are instructing someone and they are not fully grasping the thought then you have two basic approaches: you can keep repeating the same information until they get it, or you can find a new way to explain the concept. I have found that finding a new analogy or explanation is infinitely more productive. I’ve slowly made it a habit. The reward is seeing the lightbulb shine in someone’s eyes; yes, they’ve got it!

And the thought that drives the creation of different examples is this: Know the final outcome you want. Chances are there are many varied roads to get there. Just pick one.

Definition of Tessitura

Literally, “tessitura” is the Italian for “texture.” So it isn’t just the range of pitches that is included in the concept of “tessitura”, but also their arrangement. Examples of differences in tessitura include: does the piece have mostly sudden or gradual rises and falls in pitch; the relative number of very high or low notes, not just the total range; whether lines and phrases of music in the piece tend to rise or fall – the muscular tendencies of a singer may be more suited to one or the other direction. Speed of the changes in pitch is also a factor.

The ability to sing pieces with fast or slow note-changes is related to the muscular tendencies of a singer. This difference may be similar to, or identical to, the distinction made in sports medicine between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscular abilities. Singers who can change pitch easily and gracefully may have difficulty singing long, sustained passages, and vice versa. Young singers need to learn this and until they do, may choose pieces which they can’t sing well — the tessitura needs to be considered.