Monday, May 23, 2011

National Single Mic Competition

This past weekend, my band (The Chris Talley Trio) competed in the National Single Mic Championship in Silver Dollar City.  This is the first time we have ever entered a band competition of this type, and it was the first time I have ever seen the band competition.  It was absolutely amazing.

First, let me say that all the competing bands had to submit a DVD or audio recording, then the submissions were screened and voted on, and then the bands were sent letters that stated whether or not they were accepted into the competition.  Only 20 bands were chosen to compete.

This is a two-day competition with three judges each day, for a total of six different judges.  The judges from Day 1 cannot talk to the judges from Day 2, and the judges cannot see the bands perform on the days they are not judging.  Bands are judged on their vocal abilities, instrumental abilities, showmanship, how they work the single microphone and audience reaction (which is actually only a minimal 10% of the score).

The Chris Talley Trio and another student band from The Bluegrass Shack, Charlie & the Girls, both competed.  I thought both bands did really well!  In fact, as Zane put it, "The only way I could have done any better was to have someone else do it for me"!  As much as I hate to admit it, my band was not the best band.  We were amazing, but not amazing enough!  The Link Family won first place, and they were SOOO deserving of this!  Everything they did was incredible, from working the mic, to vocals, to instrumentals, to showmanship, to having full audience approval and standing ovations both days.

Now, just for the sake of anyone else wondering, what could my band have done better?  (Maybe this will help you!)  Well, one thing I realized is that a three or four person band cannot really compete with a five, six or seven person band when it comes to working the mic.  I mean, what can two people do to work the mic on instrumentals other than trade places?  With more people, you can get really creative with how you work the mic and how you come in and out of breaks and vocals.

Secondly, you've got to have excellent three- or four-part harmony.  (That much I think we really had!)  Some bands had practically no harmony or just two-part harmony.  There are certain songs that are made for that, like Emily and Rosemary's amazing song on the second day, but you don't want to only have two-part harmony for the entire presentation.

Next, your instrumental breaks need to be amazing.  My band could have done better in this department.  I personally like simple, and so I tend to play things pretty straight-forward and solid.  The winning bands absolutely blew away many of the other bands with incredible instrumental breaks.  These breaks weren't necessarily non-traditional, because you could tell what songs they were playing.  They were clean, original, tasteful, and in many cases shared with another instrument (split break).

Stage presence is of utmost importance in this competition.  The winning bands really had this down.  They looked at the audience, they CONNECTED with the audience, they had FUN!  Many of them had great outfits and looked SHARP.  I thought we also did well in this category, but it simply wasn't enough!

Now that it's all over, I am really glad that we were accepted into the competition and were able to participate.  It was something I will never forget!  As a musician, I know I have a more discerning ear than the general listener.  This makes listening to bands not always so enjoyable for me.  That was not the case at all on Saturday and Sunday.  I can't EVER remember hearing so many really good bands at one time.  D.A. Calloway and Silver Dollar City really outdid themselves on this one!  Now I am full of ideas and can hardly wait to practice again!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Improving Your Band's Vocals

What can you do to make your band’s vocals better? Short of having a better voice or more talent, there are a number of things you can do to improve them. Although this entry isn’t intended to go into detail, it should give you some very general ideas for improving your vocals. Hopefully, a few of these tips will be just what you need to start making your band’s vocals better!

ONE PERSON PER PART – When singing harmony, only one person should sing each part. That means one person each sings lead, tenor, baritone, and/or bass at the same time. If you have several people sharing the same part, you will sound more like a choir than you will a band. Sharing parts also makes it difficult to get a good blend.

ONE PERSON PER NOTE – Not only should parts not be shared, but individual notes should not be shared. Good harmony never shares notes unless it is the bass part in four-part harmony (which would be singing shared notes in a lower octave). For instance, if you are singing the lead, the tenor and baritone part should not sing the same note you are singing in the same place at the same time in the song. If two people are singing the same note at the same time, then you must determine who is singing the incorrect note and then find the correct note.

PRONOUNCE YOUR WORDS CLEARLY – You must be more exact with your pronunciation when you are singing than you are when you are talking. This is called “diction.” If your diction is not good, then people will not be able to understand what you are singing.

In addition to having good diction, everyone that sings together must pronounce all words the same way and at exactly the same time. When I am working with groups that are having trouble with this, I have them say the words of the song rhythmically. It’s basically rapping the song. When the group can speak the words rhythmically and exactly together, then I have them go back to trying to sing the words with the same accuracy. This usually works very well!

Another thing that helps people sing the words together is to have everyone watch the mouth of the lead singer. Basically, everyone is reading the lips of the lead singer. The more obvious the lead singer can make the words, cutoffs and phrases, the better everyone else will be at matching these things. After groups have been together for a while, this becomes less necessary, as everyone will get a feel for how the lead singer pronounces words and phrases.

HOLD OUT THE NOTES AT THE ENDS OF PHRASES – When you get to the end of a phrase, make sure you hold out the note. Don’t cut the notes off too short unless the song is supposed to be sung that way.

BLEND – Matching tone quality is very important. This is something that families tend to do quite well because of the genetic advantage. Even if your band isn’t composed of family members, there are things you can do to help blend better.

If your voice is too harsh, try expelling more air as you sing. (Think sexy.) This will soften your voice and make it sound more pleasant.

If your voice is too airy, then use more support from your diaphragm. (See next tip.)

Included with blending is making sure each part is the correct volume level. The lead part always needs to be the loudest part, or at least AS LOUD AS the other parts. If you have a softer voice, then you will need to work the microphone closer so that your part can be heard easily. Likewise, if you have a very loud voice or if you are very loud on certain parts of a vocal, then you need to make sure you are not too close to the microphone. If you work a single mic, then this will be even more important.

USE YOUR DIAPHRAGM – Your diaphragm is a big muscle that sits below your lungs. It directly affects your tone quality and your ability to hold pitch and length of notes. To see if you are using your diaphragm when you are singing, just try this simple test. Take your hand or several fingers and put them on your stomach with your stomach relaxed. Press with your hand to feel what your stomach feels like when relaxed. Now tighten your stomach and feel what it feels like. Now sing several phrases of a song and use your hand to determine if your diaphragm is tight or relaxed. If your diaphragm is relaxed when you are singing, then you need to start working on tightening it when you sing.

OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND MOVE YOUR LIPS – This goes along with good diction and pronouncing your words clearly. When you open your mouth, it makes your voice sound more open. Moving your mouth and lips will also make your words easier to understand. I tell my students to pretend that the audience is deaf and can only read lips. I also tell my students watch themselves sing in a mirror to see if they are actually opening their mouths and moving their lips. Many times students think they are doing this when they aren’t. Watching yourself in a mirror will show you whether or not you are doing this as much as you think you are.

HOLD OUT VOWEL SOUNDS – When holding out a note, be sure to hold out the vowel sound of the word. For instance, if you are singing the word “star,” hold out the “ah” part of the word and not the “ar” part.

Stay tuned for more helpful blog entries! Is there something you want help with? Let me know!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


CLOSING FOR INVENTORY - Please note that The Bluegrass Shack will be closed for inventory from Friday, May 20 through Monday, May 30, 2011. No mail orders will go out during this time and there will be no one answering the phones, but I will answer e-mail during this time. There WILL BE lessons during this time. Students should contact their teachers directly for revised lesson times. We will open again on Tuesday, May 31, 2011.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CD Release Party - yeah!

The CD Release Party for The Chris Talley Trio and The Pickin' Chicks was a wonderful success!  We had so much fun!  Nikki and Mallory decorated the stage area with CDs, which were hung from the ceiling and attached to the edge of the stage.  Several tables were set up at one side of the stage against the wall where the CDs were available for sale, along with business cards, stickers, t-shirts and several other items.

The evening started with great food downstairs and great bands performing upstairs.  Dual Generation hit the stage at 5:00 p.m. sharp.  Chelsea heads up this group, and for those of you who don't know, Chelsea has been a teacher at The Bluegrass Shack since we opened here in New Athens five years ago.  They did a great job and were a big hit with the crowd, too!  I especially loved "Walk That Lonesome Valley."  The rest of the band includes Dennis, a volunteer here at The Bluegrass Shack; and Fred and Kat, both students of Chelsea.

Charlie & the Girls performed on stage next.  Their harmonies are outstanding, and they have that wonderful blend that only family harmony has.  They are currently recording their first CD, so maybe you'll be attending their CD release party next!  Charlie and Emily both teach here at The Bluegrass Shack.

Next up was The Worthing10's.  What a joy it is to see this family perform!  They played four tunes, including "Georgia Piney Woods," and their choreography working the single mic was fantastic.   Lucas and Katarina sounded especially good together on their vocals.  Katarina teaches piano lessons at The Bluegrass Shack.

By this time, there were as many people upstairs listening as there were downstairs eating!  The Chris Talley Trio was taking to the stage, and Earl was manning the camera.  This was the Trio's first performance since Zane's 2nd triple bypass surgery just six weeks or so ago!  We performed every song on our new CD, entitled "Cold Frosty Morn."  It was so good to be on stage with Zane again!  We also performed the four songs that we are planning on playing in the Single Mic Competition at Silver Dollar City this month.  You can keep track of the Trio's performance schedule by visiting their website at

Rounding out the performances that evening was The Pickin' Chicks.  They started their part of the show thanking many people who made this evening possible for them.  They also gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers!  Since this was their first CD release, I planned several fun things for their time on stage.  I think the part I enjoyed the most was asking questions about the individual band members.  This is how it worked.  I asked each of the girls to make 10 questions (and answers) about themselves that others might find interesting and might also be able to guess.  I took these lists on stage, and then asked if anyone in the audience thought they might be able to answer the questions.  First up were Paige's questions.  I ended up picking BOTH of her music teachers!  It was Chelsea (her fiddle & guitar teacher) up against Marilyn (her piano and vocal teacher).  Each contestant had a triangle and dinger.  I would ask a question, and the first person to ding was allowed to answer the question.  If the question was answered correctly, then a point was awarded.  If incorrect, then the other person got to try to answer the question.  It was close, but Chelsea won this one.

Next up was Mallory's questions.  It was Mallory's boyfriend pitted against her best friend.  As Mallory's boyfriend was working his way to the stage, Mallory's dad yelled, "You'd better not know too much!"  The funniest thing to happen was when I asked the question "What is Mallory's boyfriend's name?" and the best friend was able to beat him to the answer!

Millie's questions were answered by both of her grandpas.    I never knew that John Deere green was Millie's favorite color, but several farmers from the crowd were quite pleased to hear this!  In the end, the paternal grandpa pulled ahead to win a small, decorative fiddle in its own little case.

Nikki's questions were answered by a friend and a neighbor.  I think Nikki's questions were probably the toughest, and neither girl knew the answer to a good number of her questions.  By this time, the Chicks themselves were dying to answer the questions, and were giving hints that bordered on direct answers!  The most interesting bit of information about Nikki was that her banjo used to belong to Steve Martin.

The Pickin' Chicks also acknowledged Don Carroll and Rodney Schilling.  Don made the Pickin' Chicks logo, and Rodney had a sign made for the Pickin' Chicks with their logo on it.  Rodney and his wife, Tammy, presented the girls with their new sign at the beginning of their performance.  The logo appears on the inside of the new CD, on t-shirts, their business card and everything else that is Pickin' Chicks oriented!

The Pickin' Chicks played every song on their new CD in addition to the songs they plan on playing in the Silver Dollar City Youth in Bluegrass Competition.  The audience loved their performance and they received a standing ovation.  Make sure you check out their website at or their Facebook page for their upcoming performances.

After the last song by The Pickin' Chicks, Zane, Chris and Kabbie jumped back up on stage to play for the dancers.  We had 18 couples for The Virginia Reel, and did they ever dance!  Next up, we had a Hat Dance.  I thought this dance was the most fun to watch!  Each guy or girl that had the hat got to decide who to dance with.  It was up to the two that were to be picked from to make themselves desireable to the person with the hat.  You should have seen the flirting!  It was hysterical!  If anyone has pictures of this, please send them to me so I can post them.  Lastly, we had two squares for Nine Pin.  Lucas gladly called the dances for me while I played the fiddle.

I can't remember the last time I had such a fun time!  It made me especially happy to see people from the neighborhood, both old and young, having fun together.  Please take a look at The Bluegrass Shack Facebook page for pictures from the party.    Thank you to all who attended and also those who helped us out!  YOU are a blessing to us!