One of the biggest challenges that singers, actors, and other performing artists face is getting to the core of what’s real and honest so they can clearly communicate the message of a song or story, as they express its proper feel and phrasing.
As we get older we tend to put on layers of pretense and defense to protect ourselves so we don’t get hurt or so we can safely hide what we don’t want others to see. However, that approach actually cheapens or muddies the art of communication.
There was an exercise I was exposed to as an actor years ago in L.A. that was designed to help peel away those layers that we learn to wrap ourselves in for the sake of survival, fitting in, pleasing others, and self-protection. He wanted us to reconnect with that open, uncomplicated, childlike place we’d buried, where trust and make-believe were once not only accessible, but could always be readily engaged.
Take Off The Mask
The same challenge with peeling away the layers comes with singing. You can’t be uptight and fighting your vulnerability and then expect to communicate the message of your song and emotionally connect with your audience. You wind up with those masks or layers limiting the depth of your performance.
Many acting coaches actually use children’s games to get people to loosen up, be more vulnerable, imaginative, and expressive. This one coach also used lullabies to get actors back to the basics. So, we asked our Brett Manning Associates if something as simple and primal has any value as a coaching tool.
Soothing For Brett Manning
“I’ve sung lullabies to my children at the end of the night to give them a sense of peace and God’s presence, along with evening prayers, and have often found out that my own voice was helped to wind down and relax at the end of the day,” Brett said. “Simple melodies can be as effective as scales to warm up, though scales and vocal exercises will give a more precise and disciplined form to the vocal warm up.”
It came as no surprise that lullabies are a powerful resource tool for Deborah “Zuke” Smith of Brett Manning Vocal Method: East Coast, U.S.A. She shared her thoughts on the effectiveness of using lullabies to develop the full expressive potential of singers.
SSO: So, what is your take on coaches using lullabies to help their students develop?
ZUKE: This resonates with me so much! When I was very young, my mother gave me a book called Lullabies From Around the World. I use this book so often with my students; and not only does it give me wonderful memories of my parents, it’s a beautiful way to connect with my students on a comforting level.
SSO: Have you ever used a lullaby when working with an adult client?
ZUKE: A resounding yes! I use lullabies with nearly all of my students. Adults are quick to remember what was sung to them and many sing the same songs to their children. Their body language relaxes when they hum or sing their lullaby because they are engaging in a memory and not focusing on singing. The power of the memory is enough to relax them and I can hear their true voice. They often drift in their memories and laugh while they’re singing which sets up a very inviting lesson.
SSO: How are lullabies used with your younger students?
ZUKE: I ask my young students if their parents sing lullabies to them before bed. I’ve had students tell me everything from the traditional Brahms’ Lullaby to an obscure classic rock song. The very young have no hesitation when it comes to singing and are eager to share the lullabies their parents sing to them. I immediately can hear their level of confidence, range, ease of singing intervals, pitch, etc.
SSO: What are some of the ways a lullaby can be used as a resource or support tool for singers?
ZUKE: So many lullabies are such simple melodies they easily transition to patterns to use as warm up exercises. I think it’s a great bridge from scale patterns to full songs. Also, when students sing lullabies, they usually have no voice to emulate; so their true sound comes out. So many bad habits are formed by imitating singers rather than being true to your own voice. Just the word “lullaby” alone evokes a tender and relaxed feeling. Whenever our memories are stimulated, we naturally focus.
SSO: Since lullabies obviously reflect on connections with childhood, parenting, the life cycle, and nurturing, what value would there be for a coach or teacher in using lullabies?
ZUKE: You just said it, Randy! Singing lullabies stirs the imagination as well. When you read the lyrics to lullabies from around the world you learn about different cultures. What a great way this is to open the eyes and ears of children (and sometimes, adults).
SSO: What value would there be in using lullabies to help a student access or enhance such emotional connections?
ZUKE: Singing a lullaby to a baby is such a personal connection. As performers, we strive to have personal connections with our audience. Most times, the student’s first audience experience was with a lullaby and with many students, their first performance was singing to a baby.
SSO: How else could a lullaby be used?
ZUKE: I use them for so many different reasons. If a student is afraid of going to their head voice, I have them sing the Brahms’ Lullaby (aka Cradle Song) in the key of Eb. The song spans an octave and is perfect for the female or young boy’s voice. Those students who claim they have no head voice never fail to reach the notes in this particular lullaby.
Because of its simplistic melody, I use The Mocking Bird as a student’s first performance song. They may only be performing it to another student or to their parent, but it’s a great performance ice breaker for the very timid and shy student.
The Children’s Prayer is a great introduction to the art world as it is the famous aria from Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel. The pride and wonder I see in a young girl’s eyes when I tell her she is performing a song from a famous opera is pure joy. One student of mine sang this when she was 11; and her parents loved the idea so much, they took her to NYC to see the opera. How cool is that!
SSO: What are some other lullabies that work for you and your students?
ZUKE: Nani, Nani is a Greek lullaby using sixteenth and grace notes and mini cadenzas. It’s perfect for learning note delineation, phrasing and long tone endurance. Rock-A-Bye Baby – unless a student was born and raised in another country, everyone knows this lullaby! I have the student sing through this song in different accents or styles: country, operatic, edgy mix, and so on.
I’ve also had some students work out alternate chord arrangements for some lullabies and turn them into a pop song. I’ve had others write their own lullabies.
SSO: How has working with lullabies inspired you?
ZUKE: Hmmm…can you tell I love this subject? I wrote a lullaby for my daughter, Nikki, called My Angel One I used to play it on piano and sing it when she was falling asleep. To this day she loves the song. Is there any more successful performance than that?
Forces Of Resources
So, obviously, Zuke is sold on the concept. But, what if you’re like me, a little cynical; plus your parents never sang lullabies. Where do you go to hear some and possibly connect?
There are a number of wonderful collections available through sites such as Amazon and cd universe. In the mid-1990’s Sony released a collection called ‘Til Their Eyes Shine. It features Cash, Emmylou Harris, Maura O’Connell, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Laura Nyro, Gloria Estefan, Deniece Williams, Carole King, Brenda Russell, Dionne Warwick, and Mary-Chapin Carpenter.
Around the same time, the Music For Little People label, released Lullaby: A Collection. Lullabies were offered from Sweden, Japan, and Africa, along with Celtic and Native American pieces. The singers included Take Six, Sweet Honey In The Rock. Bobby McFerrin, Loreena McKennitt, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Judy Collins.
In 1997, a lullaby project called On A Starry Night was made available on the Windham Hill label. The collection features seventeen songs from the Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Ireland, Congo, Ghana, Cuba, Iceland, Israel, England, Russia, Germany, and the U.S.
In 2004, Denon Records pulled together a collection of lullabies from classical composers such as Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Manfredini. The project’s title is The Most Soothing Lullabies In The Universe.
Putumayo World Music offers a wonderful gathering of lullabies from Africa, Europe, North & South America, Australia, and Asia. The title of the award-winning project is Dreamland: World Lullabies & Soothing Songs. It features a roster of international singers that includes Angelique Kidjo with Carlos Santana, Zulya, Beatriz Pichi Malen, Claudia Martinez, and Fortuna.
For actors, a lullaby can be a useful tool in helping to reclaim that simpler self because it’s a primal, spiritual coo and cry from childhood.
Close your eyes, and begin to hum a familiar lullaby slowly, gently, with as little force or thought as possible. Just gently hum your way through, over and over, without editorializing or judging, just simple humming. Then, let the words cut in as you feel them until you are singing the lullaby.
You can add laughing your way through or pouting your way, if you find yourself reluctant or outright resistant to engaging the lullaby. Keep going until you’re gently humming your way through, with your eyes closed. Then, let the words work their way in naturally. If they don’t take over completely, that’s fine. If you don’t get beyond the humming, that’s fine, too.
See + Feel
What’s amazing are the feelings and images that wrap around you or come knocking, asking you out to play. You might start rocking or swaying a bit, or even becoming a little impatient. You may find yourself remembering your mom, grandfather, or possibly some goofy video or children’s TV show.
Images of childhood will likely rise up, as will emotions. You might suddenly feel fussy or irritated. You could get giddy or giggly or even a little sleepy. You might feel silly or find yourself wondering what singing a lullaby has to do with taking your singing or coaching career seriously.
Grow Into Your Success
We invite you to explore a lullaby or a favorite song from childhood to help you focus, relax, and help you enjoy the simple pleasures that will come as you grow into your full potential. Use a lullaby as a support tool for our Singing Success and Mastering Mix programs!
Deborah “Zuke” Smith is a renowned music copyist, piano teacher, songwriter, vocal coach, and self-proclaimed “East coast chick,” who credits Brett Manning’s Singing Success with not only saving her life but forever changing it for the very best it can be. In 2000 Zuke was diagnosed with breast cancer and braved the brutal battery of tests, surgeries, chemotherapy, post chemo drug regimen and physical therapy. She believes that Brett Manning’s programs and method are absolutely essential to bringing out the full potential in any voice. You can find her on Facebook listed as Brett Manning Vocal Method: East Coast, U.S.A.