My Moment at the Well

finding life

He startles me as I walk up to the well. I hadn’t seen him sitting there under the trees. I turn around to face him as he begins talking to me. He says he wants some water to drink. I think it strange that he is alone. We are in the middle of nowhere. In the heat of the day. He has no way of getting to the water. No jar and such a deep well. He’s obviously parched. What is he doing here all by himself?

 People come from all over to sit and drink where Jacob himself once watered his flocks. He and his sons had walked these surrounding fields. This place is holy to us even if it isn’t to the Jews.

I mess with him a little. “You’re asking me for a drink? A woman of Samaria?” I know Jews don’t want to have anything to do with us. With me. Yet here he is, needing my help because he’s worn out. Thirsty. He is depending on me. How funny.

He answers me, saying something about if I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for a drink of ‘living’ water. He seems a little crazy. Well, I’ll take the bait.

I say to him in my sweetest voice, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I’m smiling at him like I do when talking to a little kid who tells me that the stones he’s holding are real gold.

Who does he think he is, anyway? This well has been here for thousands of years and probably took months to dig. Out of nowhere he’s going to produce this so-called living water and I’m going to beg him for it? I don’t think so.

“You’ll never be thirsty again,” he is saying. If I drink the water he could give me, he says it will become in me a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Wow, that sounds fantastic. Water that just wells up in my body. Exactly what I need so I don’t have to come back again and again to this damned well just to stay alive and keep my dishes clean.

I’m so sick of trudging up and down this path alone with an old container that empties as fast as I fill it, with no kids to help, no man who cares to lift a finger for me, and flocks of women moving aside when they see me coming. Sure, fella, I’ll take some of that living water.

Of course now he tells me to go get my husband. Always turns out this way: women need a man to speak for them. A man to head the household. A man to stay around and do what he said he would do. I haven’t had any men like that in my life since my first husband died. After that, the others left or divorced me as soon as they realized they weren’t getting any sons and daughters out of me. Those liars are long gone.

“I have no husband,” I tell him.

“You’re right,” he says, “and the man you have now isn’t even your husband.”

His accusation is right. But how could he know that? He hasn’t been in town or hung around long enough to hear the gossip. And gossip they do, those heartless witches. No compassion- only judgment for a girl who tried to live by the rules but got stepped on and left behind by those rules instead.

He must be a prophet or something. This is getting interesting… and a little too personal. I wonder what he’ll say about those rules for living God’s way. If it is God’s way. So many rules that I can’t seem to keep to satisfy anyone around here.

“You Jews say we’re supposed to worship in Jerusalem even though our fathers worshiped God here on this mountain.” That’ll get him talking about what all men want to talk about: religion and politics.

He’s looking at me with a sweet smile on his face. “Woman, believe me…”

The way he called me ‘woman’ just now almost made me cry. Like I was someone he cared about. Someone he knew.

He’s saying that the time is coming and is even now happening- that it won’t matter where we worship God. He says true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. He’s even saying that the Father is looking for those kind of people.

I’ve never heard anyone talk religion like this! It feels like he’s just toppled over a rock wall inside of me. I’m tasting the dust of fear and freedom at the same time.

I mumble something I’ve heard all of my life, something about the messiah someday coming to tell us everything we need to know.

“That’s me,” he says. And I know he isn’t lying.

All of a sudden, some guys are coming up to him, looking shocked that he is talking to me.

I don’t care. My insides feel like churning water. My legs are weak as if I’m ripe wheat, just cut down and gathered up into the arms of God. Something in me wells up and I begin to run for joy. I float and fly into town. Suddenly I love everyone and want to hug them and tell them about the man who knows my story better than I do. The man who saw right through me. The man who saw ME and still smiled as if he loved me, cared about ME!


That day they all followed me back out of town and down to the well. I must’ve sounded like a crazy person. But I must’ve looked like a prophet because they followed me and for some reason, they believed me. Like I was somebody that had tasted something they were thirsty for.

I don’t know what life is gonna be like around here now that Jesus has come through. He only stayed a couple of days. That was long enough to make believers out of a lot of people in this place. They said they know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.

Everybody’s talking about him. They feel the way I felt.

But I met him first. I got to talk to him alone when no one else even knew how awesome he was.

Now, every time I go to that well, Jacob’s well, I remember the man who gave me a taste of living water. Sometimes that visit seems more like a dream than a memory. But I know it’s real. I remember how he told me about my crazy history. How he said that he was the Christ. How he looked at me and loved me.

I don’t worry now that I can’t get to Jerusalem to worship. I don’t just hope that the Father knows I want to worship him the right way, because He already knows. Because even though I’m way out here in no man’s land, He came through once, looking for me.

Read next: Everyday The Dust Comes Back 

 

“Animal House”: A chapter from my book, Lifelines

lifelines tell your story

“Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and Song  “

I recently published a book for those wanting to know more of my story and the story behind some of my songs! These stories trace the lifelines of God’s healing and grace in my life.

Here is an excerpt:

Animal HouseAmish farmer and mules pulling plow

I grew up in a house on Horseshoe Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the midst of Amish and Mennonite farms, that drafty rental formed the backdrop of my playing days.

An Amish family, the Kings, lived across the road, and their kids sometimes invited us to run around in the barn or whisper through the house. I’ll never forget the smell of that natural-gas-heated kitchen or the smooth, simple surfaces in that dimly lit Amish home. Or the fact that the cats and kittens lived in the barn and were only there for the mice and rats.

It made me wonder and worry at the practicality of their lives. The horses’ main purpose was pulling their black buggies. The dog that hung around the gravel lane was less a pet and more a second thought. The scraggly cat with the oozing eye would never see a veterinarian for her ills. Even the mules seemed to be just tools for fieldwork.

Dogs and Cats and Mice, Oh My!

In my house, the animals were everything. They formed the basis of love in my early years. My cats and dogs were there for touching and hugging. Had I a mule, I’d have coddled him and kept him in my room. What would the Kings have thought if they knew I had a mouse in a cage in my house? I can’t remember her name, but I can still picture her fresh litter of wriggling pink babies.

My hamsters were a staple and scores must have scurried through my childhood. Added to their naturally short lifespan came the playful but deadly tosses from cats and kids alike. I remember coming home one evening to a dark bedroom where Spooky, my Siamese, was batting something around on the bed. I flicked the light to find my Sophie mostly dead beneath his playful paw. I have no idea how the poor thing got out of her cage.

The Birds and the Bugs            

Many damaged birds found their way into my living room infirmary. There was a sparrow with a tumor that would have died peacefully had Spooky not followed his feline instincts when no one was watching.

I even had a pet praying mantis named Herman. Each day I fed him freshly whacked flies. With lovely circumspection, he’d examine the squashed insect I dangled before him, then, swift as a whip, those spiky forearms grabbed that fly from my fingertips. Herman ate with relish and refinement, keeping those black-dotted orbs on his dinner and me simultaneously.

A few weeks later I discovered that he was a she, as I found my lovely green friend dead in the jar with an egg sack snugly glued to her twig. Her babies by the hundreds eventually hatched, and, like Wilbur keeping his piggy promise to Charlotte, I set Herman’s brood free to carry on her legacy.

Spooky

Spooky the Siamese catSpooky was my best cat and had stayed on with me through my high school years. He made the move with us when my parents split up and we left the house on Horseshoe Road. After a few years in a mobile home, we moved again twice, and he came along. Osteoarthritis and old age had hobbled him by the time my turn for college arrived. I had to put my childhood constant to sleep and bury him in the yard a few days before saying good-bye.

I still dream about Spooky and some of my other cats. Something about the way they smelled and felt in my young, unsteady world. I could count on their warmth, their love and acceptance.

They needed me, and I needed them. 

Puppy, Puppy, Puppy

Of all the pets we had, the family dogs were beyond compare. My sister Ginny and brother David and I had three dogs across the years that we named “Puppy.”

Puppy #1 actually was a puppy that never lived to see her doggy days. I remember the accident like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning and David and I were playing in mud puddles in a low strip of grass that bordered Horseshoe Road.

Our backs to the macadam, we hadn’t thought to leash our wandering Puppy. Duh-blunk. I heard the thud of what could have been a brown paper grocery bag run over by a car. I straightened and spun to look. There was my puppy on the road and a shock-faced woman coming from the side of her car.

I ran screaming into the house where my dad rushed downstairs from deep sleep. He met the apologetic driver at the door in his underwear, so afraid it was one of his kids who had been hit. Realizing what had happened, Dad left to dress. A minute later, I followed as he went to see what was left of our Puppy. She was alive for a few more moments as we cried there in the middle of Horseshoe Road. My eyes still fill up when I retell the story.

Puppy #2 was the love of my life when I was 9 years old. He sang for joy every time the family returned to the house, always ecstatic that we had come back. His acceptance and availability was exactly what we all needed.  I was crushed when we had to give him away because my parents separated and we weren’t allowed to have a big dog in the trailer. Losing him seemed the saddest part of my parents’ leaving each other. 

small dog in the grass
Puppy #3

Puppy #3 came from the shelter and was small enough to fit with us in the mobile home. She lived with our family for 14 years. We walked many roads together. She also went boating, swimming, river-rafting and jogging—wherever her people were! She died long after we three kids had grown and gone away to college.

Signposts and Symbols of Healing and Grace

Who can account for the impact of these pets? Their lives seem to be signposts and symbols of a sort.

My first Puppy died early, as did my innocence, marking a time of loss and death that probably prepared me for some losses ahead.

My second Puppy could be a symbol of grief and heartache that eventually healed.

And my last Puppy lived to tell of life’s longevity, normality, and dependability even when it begins in disruption and confusion.

Spooky, like the dogs, showed me unconditional love for all of his years by my side.

Maybe I am reading too much into it. But maybe not.

Whether insects and rodents or cats and dogs, these wonderful creatures mark the cycles of life and death on a small scale, which were, for a little girl like me, exactly what I needed.

If you want to read more, find Lifelines on Amazon or an autographed copy at my store.

More like this: I Wanted My Dog Dead, Making Pretend

 

Making Pretend

making pretend

I grew up pretending and performing.

As a little girl, I made pretend by trying on my grandmother’s old dresses. These garments from her younger days made me feel older and beautiful. Even though most of the fabric draped disproportionately on my frame and settled in piles on the floor, I would still stand on tiptoe admiring myself in the mirror, hoping to someday grow into her clothes.

In high school, I overcame adolescent insecurity by trying out for all sorts of roles too big for me: cheerleading, plays, talent shows, marching band, and other popularity contests. I got good at exuding confidence 3 sizes bigger than I felt. Making pretend on many stages, I began to grow into the parts I played.

I arrived at music college largely self-assured and full of ambition. My singing and performing talents increased with the training and the experience that came with the classes and the shows we put on.

For my new acquaintances, I also played the good little girl from Small Town, USA, who’d had a great childhood and didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t know I was kidding myself. Thankfully, my act did not fool everyone and some new friends began to tug at the loose threads of my story.

Making Believe

I call it coming out of denial.

The costumes I had grown into began to fray in my twenties. I was bearing false witness against myself, refusing to look deep and admit to the small and broken parts of my character. For sure, the story I lived in high school was the one that kept me tethered in my fragmented family life. My dad’s alcoholism and my parents’ divorce had been a devastating part of my growing up.

New college friends helped me to recognize this as they began questioning my happy narrative. The “me” I wore on my sleeve was actually a plastic jacket everyone could see right through. Other hard truths and feelings about childhood and about myself began emerging.  I started to shed some of the dress-up and become more grown-up than I had ever been.

Keeping Up Appearances

I have been a singer, songwriter and performer for several decades and have learned to put on the person I want to be when I take the stage. There is a lot to be said for keeping up appearances when putting on a show. The audience expects competence and engagement so I make eye-contact even when my self-confidence is flagging and my voice feels weak. Sometimes the best advice is  ‘fake it ’til you make it.’

However, the pretense can get out of hand and we can lose our true selves by hiding behind ‘false selves,’ projections of what we want others to believe about us. We also grow out of some of our roles and can confidently let them go. I am now 53 years old and recognize that I must let go at last some of my personae from the past. There’s a thrill and a qualm in moving on.

Making Metaphors

My story might go something like this:

In the afternoon of my life, I decided to disband my circle of loyal ladies. I was in no rush, wanting to slowly let go of my cadre of steady companions. But go they must.

So I stood to face each one in turn. I thanked Competence for her good service, shook her hand and let her go, surprised by the weakness I felt without her by my side.

Control was the next one to step forward. She’d kept me in a lovely blind spot for many good years. But now her veil was lifted and must list to the wind, leaving me quite vulnerable. Goodbye, my dear friend.

Her closest kin, Self-control, came out of the shadows and reminded me that she was more a phantom than a friend over the years. We waved as she slipped down the road behind me.

I looked ahead, greeting Beauty and Talent, my leading ladies. They’d always preceded me on the road and now they too must say goodbye. I thanked them for their good service and moved past them, grieving the journey ahead without them. Who else is here, I asked, that I must bid farewell?

Miss Good Health and Mrs. Good Mother have been quite faithful friends. Yet even they must take their place in the line behind me. They kissed my hands with tears in their eyes and bowed into the background.

The path ahead looks desolate. A lonely place. Space has been made for a Truer Companion. I stand on tiptoe to see who might be strolling down the road towards me.

 

I have been making music with my husband Scott since we met at Berklee College of Music in 1985. Known as Out of the Grey, we spent many years in the studio and on the road, making music and raising our 3 children. Read more of my story in my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and Song.

Hear our latest CD, A Little Light Left

Follow me on MEDIUM.com / Christine Dente

5 New Songs: Closer to Free!

finding freedom change

New Music Means Room to Grow

I am always so excited to be in the process of recording new music. Unrecorded songs seem small and shapeless in their infancy. When I handed these 5 new songs of mine, just tiny demo recordings on my phone, to my producer, I recalled ttall treehis process from years gone by.

Every record that Scott and I worked on together, whether as Out of the Grey or my solo projects, began in this way. Baby songs ready to be born and begin to grow up. What fun when players and producers and engineers join the mix. It was exciting to see what my babies would grow up to be. They just need some extra love and attention to make them grow.

Perils of Vulnerability and Creativity

Songwriting is fraught with the perils of vulnerability and creativity. The hardest part of the process is the initial sharing what I’ve done with others. Others who have their opinions and judgements and their own creative ideas. In song meetings with the record labels, I felt like I was lining up my children for scrutiny. Do you like this one? Isn’t this other one amazing? No, you want to move on to the next one already? The producer would then have his say on how best to dress the chosen ones before launching them into the world. It was exciting and exhausting too. I have a chapter in my book Lifelines all about the recording process.

New Music With a New Producer

This time the situation is a bit different. I do not have a record label. What I do have is a new producer with lots of new ideas.
I know him as Julian Dente.

julian dente YOUTHHe is my firstborn and he grew up in the studio, on the road, and at home making music. These days he’s a young man recording his own new songs and adding brilliant touches of creativity to the world.

I decided to hire him before he gets too busy to work with me. He co-wrote and produced 3 songs on the most recent Out of the Grey recording called A Little Light Left. I love his sonic style and I think you will too. The tracks are done and the music is exclusively digital. You can download them here or find all 5 on Spotify and Google music.

~Christine

 

P.S. Julian definitely has his opinions and judgements and suggestions for making my songs better. How can I stop being Mom and let him tell me what to do for once? This is getting a bit tricky!

 

 

“The Only Moment”: The Story Behind the Song

Out of the Grey CD cover

Muggy Mid-July State of Mind

Oh, my muggy mid-July state of mind!  Can’t seem to focus my thoughts on anything productive. The air is heavy on my shoulders and drapes itself in a shiny layer onto my skin. I feel stuck and can’t find the energy to make a move. My musings take a turn for the worse as my wondering and worrying settle in.  To be sure, I do like the moist warmth of summer with my bare feet on a mossy lawn, wearing shorts and t-shirts all day long. But this mid-summer ennui muddles my head. I am not bored exactly.  “Bored” is a four-letter word in our house. I am just at a still point in my experience of time and meaning. It reminds me of a another July from years gone by:

 

Was wishing my head was as clear as this midnight sky

Spread across my muggy mid-July state of mind

Was wanting my heart to be free like this summer breeze

Singing through your fingers on the guitar strings…

 

Under the Weather

In my family, we often blame bodily afflictions and bad moods on the weather patterns. Feeling head-achey today? Could be a low-pressure system coming in. Feeling lethargic or sad? Maybe all of this rain is getting to you, stirring up mildew and mold allergies. Honestlythe seasons affect the way I see the world. I would not be surprised if the sultry atmosphere literally clouds my vision and clogs up my body and soul.  Maybe mid-July is a natural time for looking back over my shoulder, wondering where spring has gone and for stretching my neck ahead, worrying about fall coming on:

 

But I’m looking back, wondering where the time we spent went

I’m looking ahead, worrying about time that hasn’t been yet

 

The Only Moment

I wrote this lyric many a mid-summer’s night ago. Like a dream, 27 years have passed since that moment in my life. Before kids and current concerns, I was young and wrestling with my experience of time and meaning. Some things never change.  Scott and I were sitting on that tiny slab of patio behind our one-bedroom apartment in Nashville. We were newlyweds and newly-moved, wondering what was to come as we worked on our music together. I remember that particular July night in which Scott was relaxed and playing his guitar while I was anxious and struggling to be in the moment.  We were about to record our first CD and make our way in the music world. As usual, my heart was off kilter, tilting backwards in wonder at the time gone by and also leaning forward in worry about what was to come.  However, I knew where I wanted my head and heart to be:

 

The only moment I can see is here as clear as your love for me

The only moment I should be living is this one we’re in, this one

 

Back-Patio Peace

In this moment in 2017, another summer swelters and Scott and I sit on the back patio of our home with so much to be grateful for. The kids and the music have come and gone in sweet succession.  I can look back and ahead with lots of evidence against speculation and fretting. Some things do change and I realize I am saturated in back-patio peace. In spite of the weather, my head and heart are clear. As I revel in the pleasure of where we are, I can treasure the time–this time– and let the music and the days take my heart where they will. I can’t live the moments all at once. The only moment in which I can live is this one we’re in, this one.

If you’d like to hear the song and the rest of the lyric, it’s on the Out of the Grey CD in iTunes. For more stories behind the songs, check out my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and song.

Bubble Girl: The Story Behind the Song

Story Behind the Song

The “Bubble Girl” song is from the latest Out of the Grey album titled, A Little Light Left, by Christine and Scott Dente.

Click here to see the lyrics or view them at the bottom of this page.

Bubble Girl #1

This girl is an amalgam of sorts. Parts of our 2 daughters and our 6 nieces combine to form the lead character of this song. Chloe, our youngest, was the first inspiration for this idea. When our oldest daughter, Carina, was 16 years old and thinking about college, she, Chloe and I visited a few universities within driving distance of our home in Nashville, Tennessee. One of these was a small Christian college only 100 miles away.

The lovely campus impressed us as did the friendly professors and students. But something was bothering Chloe, then only 14. Something about the atmosphere of the place. “It feels like a bubble,” she said. She was referring to the monochromatic buildings and rooms which seemed a bit stuffy and a little too perfect. Also, the combination of the isolated campus and the compulsory chapel attendance added to the constricted atmosphere.

Later, while driving home, Chloe added that the student body did not look very diverse. She did not think this college would give Carina a chance to interact with a variety of people. I was surprised at how much she had absorbed in such a short visit. Yet Chloe did and does have an acute sensitivity to such things. Carina ended up at a different Christian college after graduation and Chloe, two years later, went to a medium-sized state university. Even there she felt the “bubble” at times and often left campus to meet her need for diversity by interacting with little kids and older people.

Bubble Girl #2

girl with purple hair blowing bubbles falling downward in a blue water drop as her hair swoops up
painting by Magdalena Youmans

My second inspiration to write this song came from a painting by my niece, Maggie. She is my sister’s youngest daughter and her painting, as you can see on the right, depicts a beautiful girl encased in a blue drop of water. Her hair is sweeping upward as she sinks downward, blowing bubbles as she goes.

When I first saw this watercolor, I tried to imagine how teenage girls must feel at times. The girl in the painting evoked isolation and loneliness, like someone cut off from the bigger world. To me, she was a young girl wondering what life held for her. Like a drop in the pond or a frog on a frond, this girl in the teardrop, blowing bubbles with her eyes closed, might be imagining a bigger world.

Maggie’s painting was a poignant image for me although I may have read more into it than she intended. In fact, “Bubble Girl” is my title, not hers.

Bubble Girl #3

Some of my other nieces seemed to be in a hurry to grow up, graduate and get out of the house. I remember myself as a teenager, always looking for what was next instead of enjoying the here and now of being a kid.

It seemed to me these young ladies wanted to leave home before knowing what was on the other side of the gate. I saw a rocky place ahead. Did they see a sweet escape instead?

I wanted to slow them down, tell them that growing up comes soon enough. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have ears to hear beyond the moment in which we are living. Especially teenagers. How can she know what she don’t know? She’s gonna find what she’s gonna find.

Bubble Girl #4

Another perspective for the song came from the fact that all of these girls were mostly educated at home. Homeschooling parents often operate from a protective and — dare I say — controlling nature. I will speak for myself: I didn’t want my kids to grow up too quickly and get stained by the world any sooner than necessary. Like most parents, homeschooler or otherwise, I wanted to keep them safe and delay the inevitable crashing on the rocks. (Also, I think education is about so much more than most schools are offering these days but that’s another story.)

On the other hand, the stigma of being different has affected my kids and my sister’s and brother’s kids in some negative ways. In writing Bubble Girl, I attempted to see the many dimensions of the bubble beyond my limited perspective. Those girls are mostly grown up now and are making their splashes in the world on many different shores. If I had to live it all again with them, I would definitely change a few things. If I could cure loneliness and alienation and help in the search for significance and connection, I would do it! I But at the end of the day, I would still be saying, “take your time, take your time.”

Bubble Girl by Christine and Scott Dente

Bubble girl doesn’t want to be here no more
Wants to make her splash on a distant shore
Like a drop in the pond
Just a frog on a frond
Bubble Girl wants a bigger world

 

And what she don’t know, she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me to take her time, take her time

 

Such a girl can’t hear what we have to say
Got water in her ears, eyes a dreamy haze
like a tear on her cheek
Lonely stone in the creek
Bubble Girl wants to break away

 

What she don’t know, she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me to take her time, take her time

 

we see a sweet cocoon
she sees herself marooned
we see a rocky place ahead
she sees a sweet escape instead

 

She don’t know what she don’t know
She’s gonna find what she’s gonna find
tell her for me

 

What she don’t know, cos she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me, ask her for me
to take her time, take her time

The Voice: You Are Your Instrument!


graphic of singer music notes coming out of her mouth

I will never forget that ONE concert in college where I sang that ONE song with that ONE unforgettable note!

No, not the thrilling Whitney Houston/Carrie Underwood/Beyoncé kind of note:

as high as the heavens, long as the day and loud as a train.

 No, this note–my note–was quite the opposite.

The VOICE: the Instrument

It took me a long time to realize that as a singer, I really am my own instrument. It can be a help or a hindrance to contain in our bodies the means of the music. We singers possess a lot of intimate control and awareness of the subtleties of sound. A good singer knows no separation from the flow of breath, pitch, volume, rhythm and emotion coming through the throat and lifting from the lips. Unlike, say, a cello player, the vocalist has not even a synaptic nano-second between impulse and sound. No fingers on strings or hands on hardwood, the singer glides effortlessly on a melodic whim. From the shape of the voice box, throat, nasal cavities, facial bone structures, tongue, mouth and lips comes the uniqueness that is the voice, my voice, your voice, our instrument.

 

The VOICE: the Hindrance

Many conditions are a hindrance to singing. Fatigue and vocal cord weakness are the worst. Add phlegm and tension and dehydration to the mix and we are in trouble. Also, the hidden flaws of the vocal cords contribute to singing struggles and even failure. These days, voice specialists can see what is happening in the larynx using cameras that reveal cord inflammation and even scar tissue called nodulesNodules can resolve on their own if the voice can rest and heal from overuse. A disruption in the connective vibration of the vocal folds either from phlegm or inflammation or scarring can cause huge problems for those who regularly rely on their singing.

The VOICE: the Incident

I didn’t know about any of this that evening as the band began playing my favorite Linda Ronstadt ballad. I sang the first verse and felt the fatigue of the previous hour of singing setting in. My wobbly sound was not the worst of it, though. My biggest mistake was wanting to sound like the soulful belter that Linda was. At the climax of the chorus when the big payoff arrived, I held out that note. That note. It started out strong, but, to my horror, my clear tone suddenly distorted and split into an awful gargling kind of cacophony. My instrument had found a mind of its own. What was it thinking?

To this day, I do not know exactly what happened to make my voice get so out of control that night. It was probably a combination of fatigue, dehydration, nerves and perhaps even nodules. Also, I didn’t know the limits of my instrument. I was trying to sound like Linda Ronstadt instead of finding my own vocal style. I was not, and am not, a belter with the power to pull it off.

photo girl with guitar belting her song

The VOICE: the Help

My voice students hear me talk about vocal health a lot.

Our instruments need what our bodies need:

  • lots of rest
  • plenty of water
  • healthful food
  • exercise

Our voices do not need:

  • stress and tension
  • coughing
  • shouting
  • over-singing

Adhering to these helpful lifestyle choices, we can then build vocal strength and other vocal techniques on that solid foundation. Most of all, we need to know our limits and try to find the God-given voice that is ours alone. Then our strengths and singularities can find their way to the song and our very being becomes part of the performance.

 

If you want to know more about the voice, singing technique and lots of helpful exercises and applications to singing, check out my handbook/workbook, The Singer and the Songwriter, which has an entire section devoted to singing. If you’d like the piano cover, you’ll find it here.   See below a sample of what’s inside.     ~Christine

the singer and the songwriter handbook cafe cover christine dente      the singer and the songwriter handbook piano cover christine dentethe singer and the songwriter handbook sample voice technique christine dente

 

The Recording Process #2: Comping the Lead Vocals

Christine Dente and Julian Dente in the recording studio

Comping Lead Vocals: The Studio Magic

Christine Dente with producer, Julian Dente, both wearing headphones during vocal comping recording lead vocals.
I take a quick photo with my producer, Julian Dente, during vocal recording.

Have you ever wondered how the finished vocals that you hear on a recording can sound so flawless?

Do you stand amazed at the perfect pitch most singers seem to have these days compared to, say, recordings from the ’60’s and ’70’s when the singer occasionally went sharp or flat?

Maybe you’ve already heard about tuning the vocals and other tricks toward perfection, thanks to the age of digital recording.

There’s another tool for optimal finished vocals that I have used when recording my songs. It’s called vocal comping and I want to describe how it works. But first, a few definitions:

The Dictionary

  • Lead vocals: the recording of the singer singing the song several times, usually toward the end of the recording process.
  • Takes: the individual recorded vocal tracks, saved digitally for later use
  • Tracks: separate recordings of instruments and voices saved digitally
  • Tape: the old medium for recording our first Out of the Grey records in which sound did actually ‘go to tape’ that could hold multiple and separate tracks of recorded information. Now recording is mostly digital/computer-based.
  • Tuning: auto-tune is computer software that can correct pitches digitally with minute precision. Sometimes this is used as an effect in itself, creating that robotic, digital vocal sound in pop music.

The Tracks

As I described in my previous blog about singing lead vocals, I usually sing the song from start to finish between 5 and 10 times, after my voice is warmed up. I will warm up somewhat before entering the vocal booth but mostly my voice hits its groove when I sing on the microphone as the engineer works on getting the best sound.

Recently, I recruited my son, Julian, to produce 5 new songs I’ve written. We started recording my lead vocals after he had created instrumental tracks for the songs. He did this by programming some parts using his computer and also by playing and recording keyboard and electric guitar parts. Putting this all together from the song demos I had given him, he made some beautiful music.

The Takes

sound waves show my vocal tracks on the computer screen comping recording lead vocals
sound waves show my vocal tracks on the computer screen

The photo above shows us after recording multiple takes of me singing the entire song along with his tracks. (Julian was both producer and recording engineer in this part of the process.)

In singing the leads, I usually perform the song in much the same way for the first several takes. After I feel I’ve gotten what I want from the song, I use the next takes for experimenting. I’ll try changing up the rhythm of a word or phrase, knowing I might want an alternative to the way I initially sing it. Maybe I’ll try a slight melodic change to add flavor and choices for the next phase of the process. Julian will suggest changes as well.

After this, we have a sense of whether or not we’ve recorded what we need for the lead. For example, I know I keep singing that word “things” flat and out of time. I’ll sing it again and he’ll punch me in on just that word, recording only that split second in the midst of the phrase.

As another example, he may tell me that a melody I’m singing doesn’t seem to work with the guitar part. We may go back and try a slightly different melody a few times, finding one that fits. Here’s a 24-second video of us listening in the Dente home studio.

The Tool

Vocal Comping means compiling all of the recorded vocal tracks to create the best lead vocal on one track. The final performance could come from mostly one track. It may have had a lot of good elements because the singer was in ‘the zone’ on that one particular take. Or the lead vocal could be created from bits and pieces of multiple takes, cut and pasted together with ease on the computer.

Listening through to 5 or more takes plus any extra verses and choruses can be tedious. However, there is usually gold buried in the layers and now it’s time to dig it out. Sometimes the singer is happy to leave and leave the comping up to the producer and engineer. Julian and I decided to do the comping together right after we recorded all of the lead vocals on my song, Butterflies Inside. Listening to the takes line by line, we made quick decisions about whether or not it was a good performance.

paper with markings showing check marks or x's on various lines Exhibit A

Usually, I use a printed lyric sheet to mark up and keep track of what words and lines sounded good on the track we are listening to. This time, however, Julian and I each started with a blank page and blocked out the verses and choruses using columns for 4 or 5 takes in a very loose grid.

As you can see in exhibit A to the left, it’s a shorthand way to listen and make quick decisions. I used X’s to say, “no way, that sounded terrible!” and I used a √  to say, “hey, maybe….”  I circled some words I thought were good in the midst of a phrase that was not a keeper.

Sometimes Julian and I agreed perfectly on which track had the best line in this or that part of the lyric. Other times he had an entirely different idea of what was good. He might choose a phrase that I thought less-than-perfect but he wanted to keep it for its tone or its texture.

Julian would cut and paste as we went through the song, comping our favorite performances together. For example, perhaps the first verse used most lines from track one with a few words pasted in from track 5. The chorus may be more pieced together because I sang it inconsistently. Verse 2 saw a good performance all the way through track 4 so that’s a keeper.

He put it all together as we went, using software magic and engineering skills like cut-and-paste and crossfades. The finished lead vocal track became (almost) the polished performance that we hear in our stereo speakers. Next, come the background vocals. More about that later.

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Thanks for listening,

Christine

READ NEXT: Singing Background Vocals, Part 1

The Recording Process #3: Singing Background Vocals, Part 1

recording vocals, little terrier, Josie, the family dog, wearing headphones

Singing Background Vocals: Starting It Up

Have you heard about background vocals or BGV’s for short?

Back Ground Vocals are often the final task and one of the hardest parts of the recording process. Once the artist, producer, and players have recorded all of the tracks, the overdubs, and the lead vocals (read my blog post here ), and after they have comped the lead vocals (read that blog post here), BGV’s become the finishing touches.

They answer the question, “What else does this song need?”

Because that answer is elusive, the decision on how many background parts to add and where in the song they should be added becomes all important.

Making It Up

a woman's beautiful red lipstick lips

I imagine adding BGV’s to a song is like a woman dressing for an evening out.

After choosing her clothing carefully, fixing her hair to perfection, she makes the final touches by putting on make-up to enhance her beauty without it drawing attention to itself. Too much color here and it draws our eyes to that particular instead of the whole face. Her make-up should complement and not compete with her beauty.

Accordingly, BGV’s should serve the beauty of the song without attracting too much attention to themselves.

Backing It Up

I’m a big fan of singing background vocals. It’s so much fun! In fact, I have sung background vocals on my own solo projects as well as our seven Out of the Grey recordings. Also, I’ve sung on commercials and other artists’ projects. Given my experience with BGV’s, I’ll explain the process with a few categories:

  1. Doubling
  2. Stacking
  3. Vocal Padsboy in profile belting into a studio microphone
  4. Harmonies
  5. Call and Response
  6. Counter Melodies
  7. Gang Vocals

1. Doubling the lead vocals is quite common and you’ve heard it without knowing it. What happens is this: the singer sings along with their lead vocal, matching their own melody and inflection as closely as possible.

This recorded double fattens the sound of the lead vocal track. Because this new track is almost identical (if the double is really good) but not perfect, it adds a great effect heard in lots of pop music. For example, in All We Need from the Out of the Grey Diamond Days record, the chorus lifts because of the doubled lead in addition to the harmonies.

2. Stacking the vocals means adding more than just a double to a certain vocal track. Some stacks are 3 or 4 or even more separate tracks of the same melody being sung. This creates a very big sound but can also detract from the lead vocal itself.

Stacks are most often used to form a layered sound that vibrates beneath and supports the lead vocals. Here’s an example of a stack-happy lead vocal: “The One I’ve Been Waiting For.”

3. Vocal Pads are often “ooh’s” and “ah’s” that the background vocalist sings and stacks with layered harmonies. These thick pads of sound often underpin the lead vocals. They fill out the sonic landscape and support the lead vocals. The chorus of “Not A Chance” has some nice ‘ahh’s’ for padding.   

4. Harmonies are those vocal parts that the singer adds beneath or above the melody. They are often just a single track and grab a line or two of a verse. We find a lot of single harmonies in pop song verses.

For the choruses, producers commonly add more harmony parts as the song builds. This creates dynamic growth and interest, especially in the out-choruses at the end of a pop song. In “All We Need” and “Steady Me,” I added high harmonies in the choruses.

In “Bubble Girl,” from the latest Out of the Grey CD A Little Light Left, I am singing low harmonies in the second verse which subtly enhance that part of the song. Notice how low the volume is on these harmonies so as to be an underpinning and not a distraction.

Summing It Up

For me, singing BGV’s is an exciting part of the recording process. I like the challenge of blending with my own vocals. Also, when I am invited to sing for other artists or commercials, I get the chance to test my skills in a different way, like matching another’s voice or singing the parts exactly as the producer directs. I especially enjoy the final result: a finished song that was nonexistent before the start of the recording process.

Thanks for listening! READ NEXT: categories 5, 6 & 7 from the list above, BGV’s Part 2

The Recording Process #4: BGV’s Part 2

singing boy in profile belting into a studio microphone

Singing: BGV’s By Definition

In Part 1 of this series about singing background vocals, I described the first 4 items on this list. I have tried to simplify how it all happens in the recording studio with some quick definitions and examples. Read the first part here. Now let’s talk about numbers 5, 6, and 7.

  1. Doubles
  2. Stacks
  3. Vocal Padsboy in profile belting into a studio microphone
  4. Harmonies
  5. Call and Response
  6. Counter Melodies
  7. Gang Vocals

Call and Response

You’ve heard lots of songs that use this cool technique for adding interest and adding other voices to the mix. Usually, the ‘call’ is the lead singer’s part which is answered or echoed by a less- prominent vocal in the background.

Out of the Grey‘s song, “Shine Like Crazy,” on the Rocketown album titled 6.1, is a good example.  Monroe Jones produced this project and in this song, he had Scott and me exchanging lines in the verses. In the choruses, you’ll notice there is also a call and response in which I sing “shine” and then a responsive pad of voices echoes with their own “shine.” Call and response singing sometimes comes close to being a duet. We use this technique a lot in our Out of the Grey music.

Counter Melodies

singing

I like to weave in countermelodies on some parts of my songs. Maybe my classical training plus that Counterpoint 101 class at Berklee College of Music inspired this in me. (By the way, Scott, who was not my husband at the time, and I were in that class together and he got a passing grade only by a hair, thanks to my help! But that’s another blog).

These types of melodies play off of the main melody, maybe going in opposite directions from the original. Or they may add new rhythmic twists.

An example of what I call a counter melody is at the end of the song, “Constant.” It’s on the See Inside record which Brown Bannister produced. You can hear the lyric, melodic, and rhythmic changes I made to the original part which add interest at the very end of the song.

Also, in “Eyes Wide Open,” you’ll notice that the second half of the second verse has an interesting counter-melodic BGV happening on the lyric: “I am trying to be wise, I’m watching You to keep me far from dulling lullabies.”

I urge you to keep your ears wide open to hear examples of this in other music!

Gang Vocals        singing group of people

On my solo project, Voyage, my producer, Scott Dente, had a great idea for the out-choruses of the song, It’s All About You. He brought in some friends to gather around the microphone and sing along with my lead in the last choruses of the song.

As a group, each singer sang the melody for a few recorded passes. On the next few passes, each person sang a harmony. Scott told them to not worry about precision, let it get a little sloppy.

Then on the final few tracks, he had some of the singers back up from the microphone and get a bit shouty on the next passes. This created the gang vocal effect, all the tracks adding up to quite a large crowd of voices. It brings a lot of energy and interest to the end of the song.

On our son Julian’s song, “Father,” you can hear the gang vocal in the final choruses where everyone is singing: “Father, won’t you listen to me, cos I want to believe, I want to believe you.” He had a bunch of his friends come to the studio to be part of the “gang.” And he invited me to be in there, too. How cool is that?

Producers use gang vocals a lot. See if you can find some examples of your own.

What Do You Know

Most of what I know about singing has come from my many years of experience on the road and in the studio. I am amazed at how much we learn from just living the lives in which we find ourselves!  What expert knowledge do you have to share, just because it’s a part of who you are?

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