Kenny G in concert

One of the highest selling artists of all time, Kenny G has single-handedly made the saxophone a hit amongst music lovers. Perhaps it is the raspy mid-tones of the saxophone that lend it an air of intimacy, or maybe it’s Read more

Splashy Fen is the ultimate Easter concert

It’s been going since 1990, and Easter 2015 will be the 26th year for the Splashy Fen music festival. I have yet to learn why the music event is called Splashy Fen, though I do believe that the farm it Read more

Oppikoppi, a whole series of concerts rolled into one

The small town of Northam in Limpopo Province comes to life every August. Technically it’s spring if you calculate that you are halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and you don’t factor in seasonal lag, but Read more

Richard Clayderman in concert

No doubt the mysterious Frenchman’s greatest gift to the world musically has been “Ballad for Adeline.” Composed by Paul de Senneville and Olivier Toussaint in 1976, the co-writers could never have imagined how big the song would become, because disco Read more

Albert Hammond in concert

This is not a name that rolls off the tongue like Madonna or Michael Jackson or Elvis, but Albert Hammond has had an amazing music career anyway. A native of the UK, he has done a considerable body of work Read more

Mamma Mia! heads back to Jozi in 2015

The smash hit musical based on the music of those 4 Swedes (well, actually 3 Swedes and a half-Norwegian) returns to the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg, for a limited season run from Tuesday 24 March 2015 to Sunday Read more

Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse is NOT too cool for school!

On 1 October the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City hosted Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse in concert. It’s been 30 years since his hit “Burnout” tore up the charts, and, according to the write-up for his show, 50 years since Read more

Of city feuds and music rivalries

Johannesburg versus Cape Town. New York versus Los Angeles. Sao Paulo versus Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo versus Osaka. Cities often come in pairs, and more often than not they are connected by air. But there is also often a rivalry between them, which may often manifest in a musical way.
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Meatloaf: he’d do anything for love, like a bat out of hell

One of my favorite scenes from a movie is one in Notting Hill, with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. She is a famous actress, he the ordinary English gent that she has inadvertently fallen in love with. Read more

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The science of singing, part 3: the ear

Following goals and the voice, we have the ear.

A lot of people sing the tune (pardon the pun) that they are tone deaf.

Now many people will disagree with me – but the ability to recognise sounds at a certain frequency is actually a function of the brain. If people were truly ‘tone deaf’ then they would not have the ability to recognise and enjoy songs. If you turn on the radio, your dog does not start dancing to the tune because s/he does not recognise the sounds as a song. Read more

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The science of singing, part 2: the voice

After goals, the next important thing is the voice.

The human voice is both a wind and a string instrument. For wind instruments (flutes, oboes, trumpets, saxophones), the amount of breath blown in the correct way is what makes the instrument work. In orchestras, wind (flute, sax) is separated from brass (trumpet) for the purpose of classification, but both are operated and activated using breath (which is the wind). For string instruments (piano, guitar, violin), the instrument is activated using the vibration of the strings. For piano, the key strikes the string and makes it vibrate. For violin, it is the bow made of horse’s hair. For guitar, it is the fingers that strike the strings. The thickness, tightness and length of the strings then affects the pitch that it rings out at. It was Pythagoras who determined, for example, that a string that is half the length of another string of the same thickness will vibrate at twice the speed and frequency, which then creates the octave.

But now the voice is both wind and string. The length and thickness of the vocal cords determines the pitch at which the voice sings. Up to a point, this is determined by the effects of testosterone – men have thicker and longer cords than women, which is why they speak lower. But the voice is the one amazing instrument where the length of the cords can be changed by muscles that control it. So the wind (breath) comes up from the lungs and vibrates the cords at a certain number of cycles per second. In the case of the note A, which is classified as the vibration of 440 megahertz, the cords are vibrating 440 times per second to create the sound. When the vibration is spend up to 462 MHz, the sound created is a C. We do this instinctively even when we talk, and talking uses exactly the same principles to create sound.

Read on in part 3 for more.

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The science of singing, part 1: goals

Okay, so now that we have established that singing is actually something that anyone can do, let’s see why I say that is the case. There are three elements that I want to discuss, which always relate to the way I assess voices when people start taking lessons with me. These three elements are goals, the voice, and the ear.

Let’s start with goals. As I understand it, it was Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who survived the concentration camps, who said that if the ‘why’ is big enough, we can endure almost any ‘how’ – so if the inspiration for wanting to sing is great enough, then the motivation to do so will be in place, and then the goal to become a better singer is there.

This has a lot to do with the 10,000 hour rule – the general rule of thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become excellent at something. In the case of the voice, this relates mostly to getting the muscles to work in the right way so that enough breath is generated, because the simple truth of the matter is that it is unimpeded breath that is one of the key secrets to creating a great voice.

This in turn also has a lot to do with epigenetics and neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain and the nerves myelinate themselves in a certain way to strengthen the muscles and neurons, to enable you to become a great singer. This is what is so amazing about the human body. If you want to be a great singer, then the body actually facilitates that and strengthens the right muscles and the right parts of the brain, to ensure that your body is best equipped to get you to your goal. That is also one of the reasons why the human mind is such a powerful weapon, and can cause you to live a great life, or a life that can be hideously self-destructive.

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Yes, actually you CAN sing!

I have been singing for over 40 years. I have studied music and singing for over 30 years, 10 of them with a brilliant teacher who turned me into a singer. I have taught singing for 10 years. So you might say I have some experience in this area. My amazing teacher of 10 years, Norma Biagi, knew how serious I was about learning how to become a great singer, so she told me, “If you want to master the technique, teach it.” It reminds me of another great mentor in my life, John Demartini, who says, “When you teach, you learn,” so to this day I still teach students, and they remind me what I have to do to maintain the voice.

Singing is like running – anybody can do it. The difference between a pro and an amateur is the amount of work that they do. I believe it was one of the Greek philosophers (Aristotle or Plato) who said that it is by our actions that we are recognised. So, painters paint, accountants account, managers manage, and singers sing.

And believe it or not, you are not simply born with the talent – singing is more science than art. If you use the muscles and the body in the proper way, then your voice will automatically improve. The only thing that you cannot actually change is the timbre of the voice, which is the only part where pure ability (i.e. talent) plays a role.

So yes, you can actually sing. The question is, do you really want to? If the answer is no, then you won’t be a great singer. It’s like being a doctor – I really believe that anybody has the ability to become a doctor – but not everybody wants to. That’s when we have fields of specialization, and that’s why everyone has their place in the world.

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Whitney Houston

Ah, this is one of music’s truly tragic stories. Related to gospel singer Cissy Houston (her mother) and Dion Warwick, who had a slew of hits in the 60s, Whitney Houston was privileged enough to grow up in a very musical family, and that no doubt influenced her career. I wonder sometimes if she was formally trained, but when you hang out in churches and grow up singing, the voice finds its own way, and stumbles upon the right technique in a manner of speaking.

The fairytale goes that she was discovered by Clive Davis, the record mogul who put his people to work in creating a bunch of radio-friendly crowd pleaser hits that would then be sung by a great vocalist, who had a great bod and a pretty face. I often say it didn’t take much acting ability to play the spoilt diva in The Bodyguard, which of course spawned the über hit I Will Always Love You, penned by Dolly Parton and produced by David Foster (with so many album sales, the soundtrack is still one of the best-selling of all time, and has helped make Dolly a very rich woman).

Her song Didn’t We Almost Have It All is most appropriate, as in Whitney’s case, she did. But then she went and lost it. Her relationship with Bobby Brown was rocky and drug-filled, and she took a beautiful voice and amazing career and went and tossed it. I remember her interview on Oprah – how the mighty had fallen. But she was humble, more real, more open, more of a human. Of course by then the voice was gone. She still had a minor hit, but she was a shadow of her former self.

And of course, sadly, she never managed to truly kick the drug habit that had haunted her for so many years. She died at age 48, and joins other fallen stars Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson in a weird musical tradition (in some cases) – you have to die in order to truly live, and become immortal.

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Gaga is niegagganie

I just had to throw in an Afrikaans title for a change. Love her or hate her, Stefani Germanotta has done wonders with her music career over the past few years. A native New Yorker, she was privileged to grow up in an environment where her parents encouraged hard work and discipline, and she was surrounded by like-minded talents when she attended Tisch School of the Arts, and other artsy institutions that would have helped her hone her craft.

A few years before her breakthrough success (yes, even Gaga had to pay her dues, and she has a past), she played in Miami at a music festival. She was sporting mousybrown short hair, and was standing behind the keyboard like a bit of a wallflower.

So it took some major theatrics to bring her to the front of the stage. Some people say that this is all hype and no substance, that unlike other truly gifted artists she has to rely on flash and weird to make her mark in the world. Be that as it may, the world has responded in kind, and has taken notice of the woman. The wigs, the theatrical make-up, the costumes, the props on set – these have all created a strong music brand – or at least one that people cannot ignore.

And it’s brought out the nasty in others – Christina Aguilera once asked if ‘it’ was a man or a woman – and it seems as if that is just a case of sour grapes, because Gaga’s career has been a much more illustrious one of late. Admittedly, her last album seemed to be a bit of a disappointment to the world at large, and maybe some of her fans, but it’s hard work churning out song after song, hoping and praying that they will become hits.

Let’s see what she does 50 years from now, because the true test of an artist is their longevity.

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Adele: good girl gone fat

I love Adele. What a voice, what a songwriter! When I first heard Chasing Pavements, I instantly fell in love with her. She is young, and yet drinks so deeply of the well of life, sharing her poetry and her mellifluous sounds with the world.

As a fellow porker myself, I also like the fact that the woman keeps it real with her buxom bod. Rumour has it (ha ha, pardon the pun) that when she bumped into Jennfier Hudson, she was none too impressed when the latter started extolling the virtues of weight loss programmes to her. I can just imagine how, in that typically nonchalant British way, she told her to buzz off.

Adele gives me hope for the music industry. Yes, I guess I could go on an eating programme and lose 30 kilograms, but unlike modelling, being ‘large’ in music is less of an issue. Look at the inimitable Cee-Lo Green. It’s all about the song, and the message that it conveys. I mean, I don’t think Rod Stewart has an award-winning voice (ditto Willie Nelson), but these are people who have been very successful in the music industry, with careers spanning decades, and that is hugely admirable. The way the singer communicates subconsciously with an audience is important, and Adele seems to do that really well.

Her success over the past few years has been astounding. In a downturned music industry with rife downloading and dropping sales, Adele has sold millions from her two albums, 19 and 21. And I am amazed how someone so young has managed to capture the world with her songwriting and her voice, much of which she attributes to a ‘rubbish’ relationship she had with a previous boyfriend.

Yeah, the Brits still seem to churn out great music that finds a home on either side of the Atlantic – and elsewhere in the world. Question is, when can we expect the new Adele album? I am sure she is furiously working on it as I write…

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The link between classical music & heavy metal

Are Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Händel, Haydn and all the others just irrelevant dead old white men? Or does classical music still have a place in the modern world? Well, supporters of Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland would say yes. But many would argue that this art form is becoming less relevant in the modern age. The Three Tenors did a lot to popularise classical music after the FIFA World Cup in 1990 in Italy.

There has always been a clash of cultures between so-called ‘high art’ (perceived as a pursuit of the haughty) and ‘low art’ (popular music that often takes the world by storm and defines cultural periods). But surely there is a link between the two? Has the one not led to the other?

Interestingly, classical music is actually a misnomer. The music that has come about as a result of the ‘classical’ period does not encompass all the music that is loosely defined as classical today. Also, many an artist has studied the classics, in order to perfect the contemporary. Pianists and guitarists study classical composers and techniques, to be able to perfect their own modern sounds. Even modern painting and modern literature have been modeled on what has past. We cannot escape our history, and it has defined our present and our future – but in a good way.

A judge at a popular battle of the bands contest stated, for example, that heavy metal has some of its roots in classical music, particularly Wagnerian opera. This makes perfect sense, if you listen to the drama of the heavy metal, with power chords, huge sounds, and climaxes that screech through the music. The head-banging and long-hair swaying of the guitar soloists and thelead singers would match that of any diva singing her dying aria.

Some people have suggested that life imitates art. In the case of music, that seems to be true. Like it or hate it, Mozart and Van Halen, and Beethoven and Bieber, have more in common than we often care to admit. It’s all music, after all, whatever taste tickles your fancy.

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