My bluegrass singing journey
I’ve been a sleep-deprived wreck lately, but for a good reason. I think I mentioned in a previous post that I signed up for the bluegrass vocal school at ArtistWorks where I’m also learning the guitar, and recently I also started a second bluegrass singing workshop, with the same teacher. This workshop takes place on Zoom, and with the teacher in New York, lessons happen in the middle of the night if you’re in Europe. I thought I would easily recover from missing sleep one night a week, but… nooo. Apparently, I’m too old to mess with my sleep! But I regret nothing – I’m really enjoying the workshop and I’m learning a lot.
This is a long rambling post about my singing journey. Feel free to grab a cup of coffee and join me!
Singing, bluegrass, and me
I’ve been around bluegrass music for many years, and I started solo singing “for real” around 2003. I’ve also tried singing Irish (and Scottish & English) ballads, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at it – I’ll try again later.
I’ve never really worked on my singing skills until now. I’ve admired good bluegrass singers, but never tried to do what they do. I’ve tried to sing certain versions of songs but many times I’ve needed to simplify melodic details that I was (or thought I was) unable to do, such as ornamented notes – using multiple notes on one vowel, and other techniques that you’ll hear accomplished singers do. I didn’t think I could do it and avoided many songs because of this. I’m a bit sad now that I had such low thoughts of myself that I didn’t even try! But despite this, my singing has still been what’s given me the most self-confidence in music.
Singing lessons? No thanks!
My husband has asked me now and then if I wouldn’t want to take some singing lessons to develop my singing skills further, and I’ve always said no. This was only because I’ve associated singing lessons with a classically trained teacher sitting at a piano, playing scales and forcing you to do exercises that make you feel like an eejit, and training every student to sound like all other classically trained singers. Have I seen too many old movies? 😂
After starting the guitar workshop at ArtistWorks I saw there was a bluegrass singing school there, taught by Michael Daves. But with a male teacher, I didn’t think it would be much adapted to female singers, and I didn’t look at it any further. For a while, I was interested in the country singing school with Lari White instead but didn’t have the motivation to sign up.
Singing lessons? Yes please!
During the late summer, I started having a sore throat, for seemingly no reason. The Covid test was negative. My sore throat came and went and then came back. One day, after feeling good for a couple of days, it came back after I sang a couple of songs, and I started thinking that maybe my sore throat had to do with tension and that proper singing technique could help.
I decided to check out the demo content on the bluegrass singing school. I really liked what I saw there, some very interesting content – both general vocal technique as well as bluegrass specific singing, a very hands-on teaching of songs, and a very pleasant and inspiring teacher. And, I was wrong – this course is very much suitable for all vocal ranges. I signed up, and even if I was unable to do much during the first few weeks because of my throat problem, I really enjoyed looking through the first lessons.
The ”thing” with ArtistWorks is the video exchange learning – you send a video of yourself playing, or in this case, singing, and the teacher will make a video with feedback and advice on what to work on. When I had a good day, I sent an intro video and received some very useful advice on how to use my voice in a more relaxed manner. Doing this helped a lot, and singing became like a relaxation exercise!
My throat got better eventually – the problem likely was a mix between stress/tension (I’ve been an anxious mess this year because of the Covid situation) and a physical problem. Shortly after I recovered, my husband saw information on Instagram that the same teacher, Michael Daves, was going to have this workshop on Zoom, that would cover the history and development of bluegrass music and singing, as well as singing technique, theory, and classic songs. How could I not sign up for that?
In many ways, the course is quite similar to that on ArtistWorks, since it’s the same teacher and topic. But this workshop is more in-depth, more intense, and I love that we also get to learn some bluegrass history – I already knew quite a lot about it but wanted to learn more. Actually, the history part was what attracted me the most.
When I signed up for the singing school at ArtistWorks, I was very much in and out of being able to sing, so I’ve been very slow to dig into the study material there. The Zoom workshop has given me a kick in the **** to get started, and to seriously work on the songs and exercises. Every week we get 3-4 new songs, so I have plenty to work on.
Time to fight the challenges
I’m finally overcoming some singing challenges. I’m working on the singing techniques I previously thought I couldn’t do, and I’m doing quite ok with them! Now I’m ready to go back to songs I’ve previously put aside because thought I couldn’t sing them – they seemed too technically challenging. Then there’s another category of songs I haven’t been able to sing, for a completely different reason.
I mentioned in a previous post that the pandemic has made me dislike many songs about death and drama. This isn’t the whole story though. There are quite a few songs that I do want to sing but haven’t been able to, because they are so emotionally overwhelming. Some because of nostalgia (like a Swedish song that describes the region where I grew up), others because they tell about terrible or sad events and I engage too much with the story and the people in it. Some Irish rebel songs (especially Dear old Skibbereen) are like this, and also many Irish emigrant songs (for example Isle of Inisfree). Then there are songs that are too easy to identify with, especially now with the pandemic. Songs about death and loss fall into this category. But all these are such good songs! It’s a shame to not sing them.
For the 4th lesson of the singing workshop on Zoom, the time had come to study the era of the folk revival – the 60s and early 70s. I suspected Doc Watson would be involved and was curious about which of his songs we would be learning. And there it was… one of the saddest song ever written and one I can barely listen to without bawling. Your long journey (also known as Your lone journey). It’s written by Doc Watson’s wife Rosa Lee and it tells about the feelings of a person who is about to lose their spouse. I didn’t really take notice of the words of this song until this year when I started looking for new songs to sing, but during the pandemic, the song has been unbearable because of the increased risk of losing the people you love.
Two other songs were our main homework, but Your long journey lingered on my mind – I thought it would be a good challenge to learn to sing it and to maybe get over this crying over songs thing. Maybe it’s possible to find a balance between singing with engagement, and being overwhelmed?
So I sat down to learn to sing Your long journey… and I’m doing quite well with it. I have some work to do on the guitar, but still… I can sing it! I feel proud of myself, although that feels kind of silly.
This is Doc Watson’s solo version of the song, which is what I’m learning at the moment:
However, this duet version is much more common.
There are many other, very good versions of this song. Emmylou Harris, Tim & Mollie O’Brien, David Grisman to name a few. Through the workshop, I came across a recording by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and I found it on YouTube today. While I prefer Doc Watson’s version, or that by Tim & Mollie O’Brien, this video blew me away – and had me bawling again. It’s the most beautiful, and sad, but beautiful, video I’ve seen in a long, long time.
I feel hopeful that my singing will continue to develop. We study exact versions of songs, including phrasing, use of ornamentation, choice of harmonisation and more. Doing this, you learn to be aware of melodic and stylistic details, and I now find that I notice new details in songs I listen to and think like “Oh, I must try that!”. This means that I can take inspiration from singers just like I do from guitar players. This will give a nice variety to my singing!
After this Zoom course, I’ll continue working on the ArtistWorks course, and I’m looking forward to that. I hope to do some more videos of my own singing soon too.