Before the New York City budget cuts, my public high school had the best music classes ever:
beginning guitar, piano, woodwinds, brass and both a jazz and pop/rock ensemble.
In Pop/Rock class, 40-plus kids (guitars, drums, bass, percussion, keys, brass, winds and singers) would play tunes by Van Morrison, The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Chicago, etc.!
It was h-e-a-v-e-n. We even had a Folk Club, in which dozen or so of us would learn songs by the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, and more.
We’d throw on our guitars and entertain folks in nursing homes and at our local mental institution (yep, there’s another article for ya).
- Singing at the Sea – Bray Gospel Choir
- Taking Rehearsal Home – Love2sing Choirs
- What Makes Singing Unforgettable?
Every June, we’d give a concert in our auditorium, which, since our school had thousands of students, was huuuuge.
My Joni Mitchell Risk
I was asked to do a song by myself (gulp) and brazenly (or stupidly) picked ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell.
If you don’t know it, here you go (she begins at 1:00 but listen to her speak about it; she’s simply riveting):
I was barely 15, barefoot, wearing an East-Indian print hippie dress I bought in Greenwich Village.
I was playing it on guitar; my hands were slick and shaky, so I had that going for me.
For the first time in my life, thousands of eyes landed upon me in that spotlight on that stage, and to this day, I only remember singing and playing the first few words, and then being shocked out of my trance by applause.
I don’t mean this to sound like a cliché, but after that, my life was never the same, and it’s all thanks to Joni Mitchell.
Joni Freaking Mitchell, an artist to her core and clearly one of the most gifted singer/songwriters this galaxy has ever known.
We mortals can only aspire to her greatness, but what can we take away?
1. Learn (a) chordal instrument(s) to finesse your pitch, rhythm and theory chops
If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times: singers who study singing are better singers than those who don’t, and singers who study singing and play instruments that make chords are better than all the rest.
Joni Mitchell played many: dulcimer, guitar, piano, and flute, even ukulele as a child.
When singers vocally recreate the relationships they’ve heard many, many times on a fixed-pitched, chordal instrument like piano or a well-tuned guitar (orchestral string or flute players, I’m not talking to you), that’s an amazing dose of extra-special ear/muscle memory training, especially when their hands are the ones making the chords. Those external muscle memories hook on to your internal pitch center…and, as they say, boom.
Plus, the more your ears hear chord progressions and harmonies, the more you and your ears will get plugged into the song on every level: pitch, ad-libs, interpretation, performance, etc.
Chordal instruments also help singers improve their rhythm, which is a critical and often overlooked singer-skill.
Check out Joni’s impeccable rhythm on Appalachian dulcimer here on this version of “A Case Of You”:
Now that’s what you want!
2. Learn to use all the parts of your voice
All of them: Chest, mix, head, falsetto…make friends with everyone and let them work for you and coexist in peace and harmony.
Not to get off track here, but just as important as your technique is this: there’s something to be said for unequivocally being yourself at any given point in your life, physically, emotionally and vocally.
True artists change over time: Picasso, Bob Dylan (how many religions did he embrace?) and…Joni.
The great thing about getting older is that we gradually stop caring about what other people think of us and move back toward that childlike state of unapologetically being the ‘real’ us we used to be as kids before adults started imprinting things onto us.
(Hopefully, we do this with more kindness, intelligence and compassion than when we were little, but there are no guarantees!).
Singers take heed: the more honest you are in all aspects of your life, the more honest a singer you will be.
What’s that you’re whispering? Freddie Mercury?
True, one of the greatest singers of all time was a gay man living in the closet but, look..the band was called Queen so anyone could certainly extrapolate.
Nevertheless, his sexual orientation was no one’s business, and he certainly lived every single minute of his life as his own unique man – with a voice any singer would kill for.
Joni’s voice was husky, sweet, high and bell-like, sometimes all at once.
She made leaping up to her head voice a high art…and it wasn’t perfect, but boy, it was absolutely her.
So…get that voice in shape. Take some lessons. Reach far and high. Find your truth. And understand that your truth may change with time.
Listen to Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now” live in 1970:
Now, check out the same song delivered live 30 years later:
My oh my, how musical/creative meaning and interpretation changes with age, wisdom and experience.
Which leads me to my final point:
3. Live out loud. Love hard.
Compose a full, brightly colored life. Give yourself plenty to sing (and./or write) about.
Joni Mitchell sure did. So many of the songs of hers that we love were written about personal experiences: “Little Green” is a heartbreaking song about the daughter she gave up for adoption, and countless other songs were written about lovers and relationships with Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, Jaco Pastorius, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.
Here’s a recent photo and article about meeting up with James after one of his shows:
Sadly, Joni smoked an awful lot for an awful lot of years.
She’s also suffered from a horrible condition called Morgellons disease and in March of 2015 suffered a brain aneurysm which has since compromised her health and lifestyle. Nonetheless, her voice, words and melodies live on as an inspiration to us all.
Visit www.jonimitchell.com for lyrics, chords, proper Joni tunings (!) and stories.