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Moo-d Music

March 18, 2012

“Work hard, do the best you can, don’t ever lose faith in yourself and take no notice of what other people say about you.” Noel Coward

It has been objected, wittily, that too much of herbork doesn’t make “sensei” heh heh to the average reader. All this martial arts and satori and what have you.

Fair enough. I don’t want to be Johnny One-Note. So I ask myself what might this “average reader” enjoy? Especially when, in this case, he happens to be Emmett Grayson, a well-respected Nashville songwriter and live performer of note.

Honest is as handsome does, my friends, so Emmett is the toast of those famous informal “songwriters’ bars” where the country-music legends used to pass around one old guitar and take  turns debuting their latest tunes for each other. That classic scene has changed to suit the new guitar technologies, but even in our age of digital fakery and Vegas-style “hat” acts, the country artists who matter are still dealing in three chords and the truth.

So, what can herbork offer one of the idols of these hard-bitten minimalists of everyday life? Naturally, Noel Coward.

On the surface, I admit, the two camps seem at odds. Over here, Coward — Sulka dressing gowns, cigarette holders and cocktails: England’s greatest 20th century master of sophisticated light comedy. And over there, Grayson — the-truth-is-back working man whom his fans call The President.

Dig deeper, however, and you realize what both men have in common is song-writing and live singing. And the Master, as Laurence Olivier and his generation called Coward, was so honored because he knew hard truths about the world’s spongiest business: live entertainment.

Coward in 1955 was preparing to do a Las Vegas review. In turned out to be one of the biggest smash hits not only in Vegas history but coast-to-coast that year. He had two things going for him. Peter Matz had done brilliant new arrangements for all Coward’s old songs; and Noel took steps to be in the best possible voice. From My Life With Noel Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day…

“On the insistence of Mary Martin and Kate Hepburn, Noel put himself in the hands of America’s well-known vocal coach, Alfred Dixon. Noel certainly knew how to put a number across, but the dry Nevada air is notorious for its adverse effects on singers. Noel’s rather thin, breathy voice had to be brought down, a feat which Mr. Dixon achieved with a distinctive technique: “Imagine you’re a cow, only moo with your mouth shut. Then imagine the cow is a long way away, so you moo quietly. Now it’s getting closer, louder, now it’s going away again, softly, softly.”

“The technique might now endear you to your neighbors, but it extended Noel’s vocal range considerably. Because of his training as an actor, Noel also developed the habit of “reaching,” trying to take too much in one breath. But dialogue falls where you chose; lyrics fall where they must. “Use the smallest amount of breath possible,” Dixon advised, “and sip in a little more when you need it. Don’t be so aware of the physical aspects of singing.”

So, Mr. Grayson, meet Mr. Coward. Dixon’s technique is nothing short of terrific. I’ve been doing it myself driving around alone in the car. My high and low notes are smoother and more accessible. And I hate to dip back into that esoteric enlightenment stuff, compadre, but I think there’s also a deep-slow breathing chi gung aspect to the mooing which might, who knows, bring on a satori on stage one night.

Moo, you sinner!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Emmett Grayson permalink
    March 18, 2012 3:23 PM

    So I most definitely should work on singing that line about how the cow jumped over the MOOOOOOn. huh? Getting mentioned as a writer in the same post as one with Noel Coward is, by the way, “over the MOOOOn”, too, sir! I’m just a guy who knows all 3 chords and can spell most of the words.

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