The human voice is a marvelous instrument. It is sound made by the vocal folds in combination with the lips, the tongue, the lower jaw, and breath support. The physiology of this instrument is something a singer should be as keenly aware of as a guitarist is aware of the parts of a guitar. It is used for talking, crying, screaming, laughing and singing. If properly trained, it limitless in its range of expression. In singing, it can be used to attain the high "Cs" in an Italian aria such as Luciana Pavarotti was noted for, or duplicate a wide range of musical instruments as have Bobby McFerrin, or "old school" hip-hop artists. Or it can be used in dynamic speaking such as politicians, clergy, or teachers do. If properly cared for it will last the owner a life time.
No one likely understands all this better than classically trained coloratura soprano Nicole Hart (of the NRG band). Singing since the doctor took her out of her mama and spanked her for air..."that was my first high note!" jokes Hart. Her father was an opera singer and she was interested in singing and in music since she was a toddler.
Hart studied voice at the university level. This plus the subsequent training that she has received since completing school, and the innumerable vocalists with whom she has worked has made her that much more aware of how people sing. She was the first Caucasian Shirelle by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Shirley Alston, with whom she toured for close to a year.. She recorded a live video with Billy Joel; shared the stage with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley; has also worked with Harry Belafonte and Michael Monroe; and she worked on a soundtrack for director Jonathan Demme.
In the blues, too many vocalists, to imitate the blues with which they are familiar, affect a "blues growl" that risks permanently damaging the vocal chords by overloading the larynx and creating polyps, nodes and other conditions that could ultimately diminish an individual's ability to talk, let alone sing. .
Considering this risk, why do it? What alternatives are there to doing this? How do you properly care for your voice? For the answers to these questions, AAJ contributor and Cross Harp Chronicles website publisher David King spoke with Hart, who has done it all. Today, as well as leading a top notch band, she teaches voice.
It would do you well, if you sing for any band, to heed the advice given. If you don't, the price you pay may be that marvelous instrument called your "voice.
All About Jazz: Here is one that may seem obvious, but for those on whom clever initials are missed, what do the initials for your band name NRG mean?
Nicole Hart: Actually, they are a pun, if you will...we were trying to decide an appropriate name for the band...my name was an obvious choice, but the fellas in the band are such stellar musicians that we also wanted to include the band as an entity. NRG is a play on the word, "energy, as that one word can really sum up our stage show. People are always asking me where I get all my energy...Clean Living and Red Bull, hence the name, "Nicole Hart and the NRG Band.
AAJ: You have had an interesting career. According to your bio you have performed with some real legends of the modern recording industry. In fact, you were a regular part of a group that many of us recognize. I am talking about the Shirelles. How did this come to be?
NH: I was hand-chosen to become the first Caucasian Shirelle by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Shirley Alston, the original lead singer who performed all the hits, such as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. I responded to an ad in the New York City paper, The Village Voice, for a black vocalist. I ran through my qualifications for the musical director over the phone. When he invited me to come down, "Just one thing, I said, "I'm not black. Pause. "Well, come down anyway, he said. I sang for Shirley and she hired me on the spot.
AAJ: How long did you perform with them?
NH: I gave it close to a year...we traveled all throughout America and Canada, visiting Tahoe, Vancouver, Montreal, and Quebec, as well as one hundred other cities in the US.
AAJ: Now an opportunity such as this is not one someone just falls out of bed one morning thinking, "I am going to apply for and be accepted as one of the Shirelles." You had prepared for this moment since you were quite young. How did you get started in music?
NH: Honestly, I have been singing since the doctor took me out of my mama and spanked me for air...that was my first high note! My father was an opera singer, and I was interested in singing and in music since I was a toddler. My mother was also an artist who worked with paint, charcoal and pencil. I had to be in second grade in elementary school to try out for the church choir, because that was the rule. I bit my nails the entire year I was in first grade sitting in church every Sunday; I couldn't wait to get into choir. I worked hard to memorize all the hymns before I got into second grade.
By the time I was in third grade, my father had become the choir director and, I hope it wasn't nepotism, but I was given my first solo. From there I went onto study madrigal and a capella singing in school, moving into all state, all region and national choir groups singing Handel and Copland in up to eight-part harmony. I loved it! It threw down in a different way from the popular music that I also loved.
AAJ: Were you not also classically trained as a singer?
NH: Yes, I went to university as a coloratura soprano.
AAJ: What are several of the key things you learn in such training? Can you share your learning experience, the techniques used to teach you to sing?
NH: Absolutely. I learned how to phonate properly, that is, to produce sound in a healthy way which has been serving me in good stead when I have many gigs in a row (which has been often lately!). It prepared me for presenting and communicating lyrics to the audience and, I'm sure, helped me to develop my stage presence. But I have also learned a lot by studying privately with more pop- and R&B- oriented teachers.
I have also learned a lot about how to care for the voice from study on my own, as wellI've done a lot of research and a lot of trial and error. I drink at least a gallon of water the day before and the day of a show (and usually, every day anywaythis keeps you lubricated from the inside out!), as well as incorporate a lot of herbs into my diet. The voice is a physical instrument, as well as being spiritual and cerebral. As such, it needs more care than, say, a guitar or keyboard or an amplifier, just by nature of its physiology and it being a part of the human body subject to everyday living. For instance, if I don't get a good night's rest, I think that shows up in the vocal chords faster than it does with an instrumentalist (i.e. it can limit range and flexibility, and make the voice hoarse much more quickly.)
AAJ: Did this experience make you any more aware as to how others sing?
NH: Of course. I would liken it to the way a movie director watches movies or an actor watches others act. I have such a deep appreciation for all kinds of vocalists in all genres...some I probably wouldn't know how to appreciate if I didn't understand the mechanics of vocalization. However, having said that, I think communication comes first...for instance, someone such as Bob Dylan or even [The Pretenders'] Chrissie Hynde may not be considered a great vocalist per se, but they understand implicitly how to use their voices to communicate the emotion behind their material. This is a real gift, the real "x factor.
AAJ: What are some of the biggest mistakes others make in singing?
NH: Oh, God. Well, smoking I think is just a sin, and I know from personal experience because I used to do it years ago. When I finally snapped out of it, which was relatively quickly, thankfully, my voice went up two whole steps in range immediately. It has only gotten stronger from there.
Also, I learned never to drink when I sing. This is something I think a lot of singers learn the hard way. Classically trained vocalists know this, as their genre is very, very demanding and really, you can't get away with much as an opera singer. However, popular singers who make their living gigging in night clubs or on the road know that alcohol is inherent to the environment. I love singing too much to limit my ability at a performance by drinking alcohol. Technically, vocalists really shouldn't drink at all, but I don't see that happening among many of my peers. You know, you gotta live a little. I'm no saint, but when it comes to singing, I'm pretty well-behaved.
AAJ: Considering how so many vocalists torture their voices in the blues, understanding that you define your music as blues/funk/soul, what drew you to perform this kind of music?
NH: I made my living for many years being a chameleon. The more genres of music I could aptly perform, the more work that was potentially available to me as a professional vocalist. I was a singer for hire, both in live performance as well as in the studio. However, I made a decision about six years ago that if a song didn't mean something to me, I wouldn't perform it. For instance, I was contracted to record a disco song for a French label, and half way through the session I just said to the engineer, "I'm sorry, I can't do this, and walked out. I just couldn't get behind the song, or see myself living with having recorded it and it being played on radio. I didn't respect what I was singing.
I have been a happier human being and artist since that day. It is a fascinating and never-ending journey to get to know myself as an artist; much more satisfying than just making a buck by singing. Now I make a buck and it means something to me. And I just find myself always drawn to anything that is really soulful, be it blues, fnk, R&B or soul music. It's what moves me.
AAJ: Are there any vocalists in the blues today whose style you admire? If you were to point out what they are doing correctly, what would that be?