January 2nd, 2011 | by Joey Elkins

Sing Outside of the Box


Release yourself from confining musical boundaries – urges Joey Elkins.

Happy New Year! If you’re like me, you may be considering what you might do this year to push your musical boundaries and break into new territory.

Every time I’m stuck musically, I recall an incredible experience back in music school.

A Boring Theory Class

While studying music at University in Australia, we had this boring theory class; the usual teacher was monotonous in tone and you could literally see students fighting the urge to sleep.

Anyway, for some reason they had decided to do a teacher swap for two weeks. We were to have Melbourne’s Brian Brown, a highly original and experimental musician.

Picture a class full of vocalists, drummers, sax players, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists – you name it…

Now imagine the reactions when Brian announces that for this lesson we would all be playing the piano and not reading music nor even thinking in terms of notes at all, but playing to a picture in our minds of a little birdie hopping along!

Naturally, we all thought he was stark raving mad; from which insane asylum had this guy come?

Still… we were being marked and so somehow had to excel in this particular activity. (Note: most of us barely ever touched the piano and even then it was just to play “chopsticks” for a joke.)

Brian told us, “You’ve just received a call from a filmmaker wanting some musical backing composed. Are you going to say no and miss out on the bread? Or, are you going to do it?”

Piano Abuse

He continued, “I want you to use the piano in any way that you want”, as he picked up a large set of keys and dropped them on top of the delicate strings inside the grand piano!

We all gasped, knowing that our usual teacher would be aghast at the precious grand piano being treated in such a way….

Drummers began to play the piano keys with their drumsticks, occasionally reaching inside the grand piano and giving the strings inside a good whack too.

Many of us were uncomfortable to be witnessing this physical abuse of this grand piano… Was this real? Was this actually happening?!! Yes it was…

Strangely, music was coming from that piano that actually sounded like what you might hear behind a nature documentary film score – sometimes the picture of the bird in the person’s mind was being eaten by another animal and the music became tense, loud crunching chords as random notes were hit together.

I was hearing people who had never touched the piano in a serious sense before sound like pros!

Courage To Try Something New

This experience epitomizes for me what thinking outside the box is all about: having the courage to step outside what you know, putting all fears aside and trying something new.

It’s about employing ideas that seem absolutely crazy and treating them seriously –at least for a minute.

As vocalists, it’s easy to lose an emotional edge to our performances or to get stuck in our songwriting; we can get confined by musical (and non-musical) boundaries we’ve set for ourselves and habits and patterns that are convenient and safe but don’t push us ahead.

Next week I am going to summarize the top ideas for refreshing vocal performances and then we’ll look at ways forward for songwriting.

Here’s what I’d like you to try this week…

Identify a song that you perform regularly that feels like it wants some “new life” breathed into it and try some crazy ideas of your own.

Whether it be hanging upside down while you sing it, or creating your own image in your mind’s eye to work with.

Whatever you choose, it must be something that you consider totally outside your own box.

Let us know what you tried and if it gave your chosen song a new lease on life!

Every now and then when I’m stuck… my mind wanders to that birdie hopping along… and it works!

London based vocalist, Joey Elkins, is gaining attention as a jazz, funk, soul and contemporary singer. As a child in Adelaide, Australia, she delighted her jazz musician parents and friends with her high register, a range close to six octaves and a commanding style. Joey’s first jazz recording attracted the interest of some of Australia’s finest jazz musicians and before leaving for London, Joey was already a respected and regular performer in some of Australia’s top jazz venues. Being a natural improviser and composer enables Joey to own a variety of styles. Joey is currently recording and composing original music which will be released as a CD within the coming year. Joey’s Music and Website

Useful Sites

The Look of Silence

The Singer Who Dares to Listen

Joey’s Music

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