“One Weird Trick” by Liz Jackson Hearns with Patrick Maddigan

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Subtitle: A User’s Guide to Transgender Voice

Recommended to me by: a trans client

“The goal of One Weird Trick is to help you find a voice that is natural and authentic and allows you to move through the world with confidence and ease.” The first thing the book admits is that there is no one trick, weird or otherwise, but instead a lot of understanding, awareness, and practice to change vocal habits. I would love to see this useful book issued under a title that does it justice rather than one that sounds like clickbait.

The book starts with the anatomy of vocal production and breathing. While it’s helpful to understand the anatomy, the level of detail and the small size of the anatomical drawings makes it feel arcane and overwhelming, even for someone who has looked at vocal anatomy before.

The rest of the book is much easier to follow, with a kind, matter-of-fact, thorough approach to changing one’s voice to express one’s desired gender presentation. The author is a singing teacher and relies on basic familiarity with western musical notation and concepts. There are brief explanations in the text.

Changing speaking pitch is covered in depth, as well as other factors that affect perceived gender of a voice: varying pitch or volume for emphasis, resonance and vocal placement, tongue placement for articulation, and body language and emotional expressivity.

There are detailed exercises and tips throughout the book, and then more exercises gathered at the end in “One Weird Workbook.”

If you want to change how you express gender through your voice and body language, this book is a great guide. It compresses a lot of useful material into a short book and has a list of references at the end for further study.

Available at Amazon.

“The Structures and Movement of Breathing” by Barbara Conable

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Subtitle: A Primer for Choirs and Choruses

Recommended to me by: reading Conable’s previous book What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body

A brief book (45 pages) with lively, pithy anatomical details about breathing for singing. Illustrations show breathing anatomy from lips to pelvic floor, including where are lungs are (from slightly above the collarbones to the bottom of the sternum, and filling the space front to back) and aren’t (no lung whatsoever below the diaphragm doming up from the bottom ribs).

Reminders for singers include

  • How are your ribs moving as you sing?
  • Remember to organize around your spine like an apple around a core.
  • When you take air in, your psine gathers, like a cat preparing to spring.
  • When you are using air to sing, your spine lengthens, like a cat springing.
  • Your diaphragm works on inhalation. Leave the area along to dome back up on exhalation.

Highly recommended for singers and anyone else interested in the anatomy of breathing.

Available at Amazon.

“Unintentional Music” by Lane Arye

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Subtitle: Releasing Your Deepest Creativity

Recommended to me by: a friend

This is a wonderful introduction to Process Work via making music.

There is the primary signal – the music we want to make – and the secondary signals – all the mistakes, hesitations, and imperfections that pop up despite our best efforts. Lane Arye recommends emphasizing a secondary signal and seeing what happens. Probably, another secondary signal will emerge.

Following the chain of secondary signals can lead directly to core issues and allow them to change. It can lead organically to more effective technique. It can connect us to what our spirit wants to express.

Highly recommended if you make music or art or want to learn about Process Work in a playful way.

The introduction and first chapter are available on Lane Arye’s website.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers as seen by Matt James

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“Northwest Passage” on youtube Go listen!

Stan Rogers was a Canadian folk music luminary, writing and performing songs with wonderful lyrics and harmonies. Sadly, he died back in 1983 in a airplane fire. He got out, but died of smoke inhalation when he went back in to help others. I remember the collective grief at a folk festival when the news first went around.

When I saw a post about a large-format children’s book that illustrates Stan Rogers’ song, I immediately requested it at the library. The colorful, detailed, dramatic paintings illustrate the song line by line.

The book also includes a detailed history of John Franklin’s doomed expedition searching for the Northwest Passage through Arctic waters to the Pacific. The explorers died of an unusually cold winter, and of hubris in thinking they did not need the help of local First Nations people. Instead of foraging locally, they carried canned food brought from England which turned out to have a lot of lead in the cans.

The last page has sheet music for the song, and a fourth verse that was never recorded.

And it will be I’ll come again to loved ones left at home,
Place the journals on the mantel, bake the frost out of my bones,
Leaving memories far behind me, only memories after all,
And hardships then, the hardest to recall

Rest in peace, Stan Rogers. You are not forgotten!

Stan Rogers website with information about his albums and another book about the same song.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Mass” by Leonard Bernstein

I heard Bernstein’s Mass on the radio as a kid and was hooked by both the words and the music. I bought the double CD set at some point, but hadn’t listened to it for years. I got it out recently, thinking about interfaith. It’s a theater piece of a full Latin mass, interspersed with more modern songs and commentary, written by a Jewish man. It still grabs me, and to my amazement large parts of it are stored in my head.

The odd rhythms struck me, and I looked on Multnomah County library’s website. Lo and behold, they have sheet music for the entire Mass (3 copies), including stage directions. The part that I thought was in 7/8 was in 5/8, and other parts are written in combination 3/4 and 3/8, or 12/8 with a few measures of 6/8 interspersed. I can imagine what the singers and musicians thought as they were learning their parts!

The library has a CD of the music too.

“Imperfect Harmony” by Stacy Horn

Subtitle: Finding Happiness Singing with Others

This book answered exactly the question I had.  What is it about singing that is so compelling for me?  Do other people have the same experience?

Stacy Horn expertly blends personal experience, choir history, music history, and contemporary events into a compelling narrative about her membership in the all-volunteer Choral Society of Grace Church in New York. Each chapter focuses on a musical piece, which I thought would be dull, but she brings carefully researched music history to sparkling life, woven together with the other themes.

She forthrightly acknowledges sexism in choir membership and racism in the Chatham Street Chapel Riot, where a white choir chased out a Black assembly to celebrate Emancipation Day – and then four Black men were arrested. She doesn’t point out that all the composers she highlights are men (except Britlin Losee), and the choir leadership is all men, but she does include women’s voices talking about what singing means to them. Despite being affiliated with Grace Church and performing religious music for Christmas concerts, the choir members have a mix of religions and beliefs.

Singing brings connection. When we sing the same sounds, our brains are in sync. When people sing different parts near each other, their voices mingle in the air and reach warmly back to the singers. Interviewed singers repeatedly speak of choir membership as a balm for loneliness and a source of community. Singing enlivens the body and spirit with joy even with sorrowful songs

Highly recommended if you sing, or if you just want to learn a little more about singing, or music history, or the Grace Church Choral Society.

Book excerpt: Science says singing makes us happier

Book excerpt: What singing in a choir teaches us about teamwork

Youtube videos of all the musical pieces in the book

Available at Powell’s Books.

“How to Learn the Alexander Technique” by Barbara Conable

Subtitle: A Manual for Students

Recommended to me by: reading Conable’s previous book, What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body

This book is less playful and more dense than What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body, but it is not at all the dry instruction manual I thought it would be. It is full of lucid explanations about how the body really works, along with common errors in how we map our bodies. I think the subtitle should be, “A Manual for Humans.” I long for the freedom of movement and buoyant support she claims is possible for everyone.

There is a section titled “If You Have Suffered Abuse or Violence” which is sensitive, compassionate, and accurate (like the rest of the book).

“Persons who are healing learn to become very skillful inhibitors [an important Alexander Technique concept], not in the sense that they do nothing, but in the sense that they say no to habituated self destruction and wait for the more constructive response that was blocked by the habitual.”

I keep saying that the Alexander teachers I’ve tried don’t acknowledge the work I’ve already done, and I think this is why. Years of practice in stopping and waiting.

Some insights:

  • The weight-bearing part of the spine is inside the body, deep to the knobs we feel along our backs.
  • The pelvis is the lower part of the upper body, part of the torso. There is no internal anatomical structure at the waist.
  • The top of the sacrum transfers the weight of the upper body to the pelvis. The rest of the triangular sacrum and tailbone float free of weight.
  • Flexibility can be increased by putting all the joints gently through their range of motion once a day. The whole routine takes 5 minutes.
  • Give yourself permission to be a “flapdoodle” at night – to move freely in your sleep like a child.

Here is a brief interview with Barbara Conable with a pointed comment about “inhibiting” at the end.

Here’s her page at bodymap.org.

Highly, highly recommended for all humans with an interest in how to move comfortably and well. I got a marked-up used version at Powell’s, but they’re currently out of stock. It does seem to be available at Amazon.

“What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body” by Malde, Allen, Zeller

Authors: Melissa Malde, MaryJean Allen, Kurt-Alexander Zeller

I read this as a followup to What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body, since I’m a singer, not a musician. I expected it to be similarly playful and filled with illustrations more than words. I also expected it to cover very similar material.

I was wrong on both counts. In careful detail, this book covers the anatomy and mechanics of breathing, phonation (making sound with the vocal cords), articulation (forming words with the mouth and tongue), and stage presence. Even the general material on the body is covered in more detail than in the Musician book.

Did you know that your tongue is rooted far below your teeth, extends to the back of your throat, and is much larger than that part you can see? It’s made up of many muscle fibers that can act independently of each other.

Did you know that if a letter sounds different in another language, it is made with different movements of the tongue and mouth? It makes sense, but I had never thought about it. The American English ‘T’ sound is made with the tongue touching the upper teeth. In Spanish (and other Romance languages), ‘T’ is made with the tongue touching farther back on the hard palate. I speak both languages, and had never been aware of that.

Did you know that your ribs are attached in back at your spine, and in front at your sternum, and move up and out as you breathe in, like bucket handles? I had heard that many times, but hadn’t felt the movement clearly.

Did you know that your ankle is in front of your heel, not right over it? Your heel forms part of a triangle that supports your weight, and your leg bones come down inside the triangle, not on the back point. Check your own foot and see. I’ve worked on a lot of feet, and never consciously noticed that.

This book is amazing. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand their body better from the inside and improve their singing along the way.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body” by Barbara Conable

Subtitle: The Practical Application of Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique to Making Music

Recommended to me by: Rosi Goldsmith

This book is filled with detailed illustrations of the body’s structure and how the parts work together, presented in a playful, declarative way. “If you already have a very free neck, Celebrate!”

I was frustrated by admonitions like, “Freeing your neck is the key to freeing the whole of you!” without accompanying instructions on how to accomplish that. I’ve been working on freeing my neck for years.

Then I got to the page that begins, “Imagine your legs feeling as free and mobile as your arms.” In a paragraph about the similarities about arms and legs, I read, “Arms and legs are out at our sides.” Oh! Suddenly I could feel the joint between my femurs and pelvis from the inside. I’ve been looking for it for years, but I didn’t have the right mental image to find it.

That epiphany alone more than repays my investment in the book. I imagine that someday an accumulation of epiphanies will free my neck as well.

Recommended for anyone, musician or not, who wants to learn more about how the human body works and doesn’t mind some whimsy along the way.

Available from GIA Publications.

“99 Georgian Songs” by Edisher Garakanidze

Subtitle: A collection of traditional folk, church and urban songs from Georgia

Recommended to me by: Jen Morris

This is primarily a book of sheet music, so I have not read it cover to cover, but it contains a lot of background material on Georgian music, as well as useful nuggets of information with each song and the occasional photograph. I have paged through it looking for songs I recognize, and listened to recordings of included songs to find new ones I like.

Each song is transcribed in 3-part harmony with transliterated Georgian words and English translations.

This is a wonderful source of information for those interested in Georgian singing and Georgian singers. Highly recommended.

Available from the Centre for Performance Research.