Exercises to Improve Your “Ear”…

130611122011_1_900x600So, we have discussed the fact that not being able to accurately sing in tune is not an unchangeable accident of birth, but rather a lack of proper ear training.  There are very, very few people for whom singing in tune is absolutely impossible – the figure hovers somewhere under 1% of the population.

Everyone else – almost certainly including you – can learn to sing in tune.

The first, and most important thing, is to relax.  If you get stressed, your muscles will tighten up, your adrenalin levels will soar and your voice will automatically rise, even if you try to keep it lower.  High levels of stress and adrenalin can also result in a very wobbly voice, or one that drops much lower than the pitch one is aiming at.  The secret is to keep trying.  The wobbly voice issue is a matter of confidence and muscle control.  The more you sing, the more toned the muscles will become, and the easier it will be to control them.

The second thing is about being able to actually *hear* the note that you are trying to sing.  Sometimes one’s brain just can’t tell if you are sharp or flat, and however you try to alter your tone, it feels like it is in the wrong direction.  Rest assured that this can happen to anyone, depending on how you are feeling, what you are thinking about and 101 other things.  In this case, it is usually easier to give up trying to hear where you are going wrong yourself, and use a little bit of technical back up.  I recommend installing a tuner app on your phone.  I use an iPhone and use Tuner Lite for both ear training and instrument tuning.  It’s a great little app, and free if you don’t mind a few adverts on your page.  Similar things are available for Android phones as well.  If you don’t use a smartphone, then I recommend buying a tuner from a music shop – it is a small device – often about the size of a large box of matches and will do the job equally well.    To use either a standalone tuner or a smartphone tuner to help with ear training, try the following:

  • hit a note on your keyboard (if you don’t have one, you can get one for your phone or your computer).
  • Try to sing that note back.  If you can’t hit the note, or aren’t sure if you’ve hit the note, turn on your tuner and try again.  The tuner will then tell you which note you’ve hit, and you can move up or down until you hit the note that you are intending.
  • Try again, listening carefully to the note on the keyboard and moving your voice up and down until you feel that you are in the right area.

An hour or so of this once a week (or even better, spaced out over the course of a week) will help your ear training hugely.  You will also find that after doing this exercise for a while, you will find it easier to find the right notes.  However, don’t be discouraged if you lose the ability to replicate notes between one session and the next.  The ability will last longer between sessions, the more often you practice.

Singing In Tune…

learn-hearing1The main reason that most people get singing lessons is often because they struggle to pitch notes correctly.  They are then told by people around them who don’t know any better that this means they can’t sing.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS WRONG.

Being able to hit the right note 100% of the time is a learned skill.  Some people are better at teaching themselves this skill than others.  Very often they have grown up with music constantly around them and have learned to differentiate and copy notes at a very early age.  However, make no mistake – it has been learned, it is NOT an innate skill.  If in any doubt, listen to small toddlers singing and the range of noises that they make.  Very, very few of them make anything like a true copy of the notes that are being sung to them.  Go back to the same group of children in 10 years time and you will see that 80% or more have learned to more accurately reproduce a note or series of notes sung to them in the intervening years.  Now go back in another 6 years as the same children leave school after going through the normal teenage phases of listening to music, taking weekly music lessons, singing hymns in assembly and so forth.  I’d be surprised if you found any more than 5% who had real problems holding a tune.  Interestingly, another ten years after leaving school and getting into the workplace, the situation will change again, and those who could sing accurately will have lost the ability, or find it considerably harder.  Why?  Because they simply aren’t doing it regularly anymore and their skill has diminished with practice.

Having seen this pattern repeatedly over many years as a teacher of Early Years & Primary students, a parent of teenagers and a choir leader for adults, I can say with certainty that the key is practice and habit.  The more you listen to music, the easier you will find it to hit the correct pitch.  The more you sing out loud, the easier you will find it to hit the correct pitch.  The more you listen to yourself, the easier it will become (but listening to yourself is hard, I know).

There are a number of very real reasons why you may find it hard to sing in tune:

  • Tension & fear: If you’ve become nervous about singing out of tune, your system floods with adrenalin and the ‘flight or fight’ syndrome kicks in.  You will have less control of your muscles, particularly your vocal muscles.
  • Hearing problems: Much more common than you’d think.  Some people have real problems hearing certain pitches and this makes it much harder to replicate a sound.  Technology can often get around this.
  • Lack of breath support.  Without the air with which to control your throat muscles, you are fighting a losing battle.
  • Untoned vocal muscles.  Like any other muscle, your throat needs to build up to be stronger so that you can control it with enough accuracy to hit the notes you desire.
  • Ear training.  As mentioned above, some people never get the very early training in terms of hearing music, and need to start from scratch when they are older.  Don’t be put off – contrary to popular myth, adults learning *much* faster than most children!

The most important thing is to be easy on yourself.  Understand that the way you are going to learn music is completely different to most people, because everyone is different.  You will learn at a different rate, and need different exercises and aids along the way.  Just because you find something hard now is no reason why you should continue to find it hard in a year’s time.

We’ll look at things like ear-training and exercises in more detail in the upcoming weeks!

 

Singing for Health

Singing-and-jumping-300x300We’ve all read that music is good for you, usually referenced in a Sunday Supplement, but what does it actually mean?

There is a really easy way to see this in action, and it doesn’t even require special research or diagnostic tools. Try this experiment:

(a) When you are next feeling tired and low, put on some really upbeat music – something that makes you want to dance and sing. Almost anything by Stevie Wonder is good, but alter this according to your personal tastes – something in a major key that makes you want to move your feet is what we’re aiming at here. Don’t put it on headphones if you can avoid it. Blast it out wherever you are. Have it as loud as either your speakers, ears or neighbours can tolerate. When the track finishes, ask yourself this – do I feel better? The answer is almost *always* “yes”, even if it’s just a little bit better.

Music acts on both our bodies and minds – music encourages us to let out our emotions – dancing with joy, crying with sadness, and most of all: lifting our voices in song.

When we *participate* in music, particularly singing, a recent Swedish study discovered that our heartbeats sync with those of the other singers around us. A feeling of belonging, of being part of something greater than ourselves is engendered, and it is a powerfully positive feeling. Music therapists working in palliative care settings report that clients need less medicinal pain relief after singing. Singing can access parts of the mental process that dementia has otherwise sealed off. We don’t yet know exactly why, the fact that it happens is undeniable. It is, for a significant percentage of depression sufferers, a more effective way of dealing with their depression than medicating.

Community choirs are an excellent way of experiencing accessible singing. I have people dealing with lots of different daily challenges in my various community choirs – I have people dealing with dementia, stroke recovery, heart issues, neurological problems, bereavement and stress. Everyone is welcomed, and everyone contributes to the wonderful sound that we make. Some people need a little help in the form of large print lyrics, music stands, accessible practice rooms etc., but with a bit of forethought and asking people what would be helpful, it is almost always possible to work in a way that everyone will find accessible.

Singing is also an excellent exercise for the less mobile – it encourages deep breathing and strengthens stomach muscles as well as promoting good posture and lessening back pain.

And all this is without taking into consideration the benefits that accompany participating in an ongoing learning process, keeping brain function active, making new friends and having a good laugh as well…

Join a choir today – you’ve got to admit, it beats dieting!

My Singing Journey

Laughter and musicI don’t come from a musical family, really.  Well, my Dad was Welsh, and loved to sing hymns with me – I was given a welsh pronounciation guide and there were a set of words to the hymns on my Dad’s favourite Cymanfa Ganu LP, lovingly typed up on onionskin paper by some member of the family I didn’t know about.  But it wasn’t something that happened often.  He’d sing one of two songs to me when it was his turn to keep me company whilst I had my evening bath on a Sunday – I’d either get “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” (which I heard as “My Bunny…” which made me very sad about the loss of someone’s rabbit…) or “Oh My Darling Clementine”, which he always sang as “Oh My Darling Turpentine”.  To this day, those songs make me think of the feel of warm towelling nappies and winceyette pyjamas, lovingly put to warm on the bathroom radiator because he knew I felt the cold…

But that was about it.  No-one played a musical instrument in any branch of my family, no-one knew how to read music and certainly no-one sang with a choir.

So how did I get here (running 3 community choirs, playing guitar, harp, bouzouki and flute, teaching singing and musical performance and theory) from there?

I put it down to three things:

1. The people you surround yourself with.

2. The enthusiasm with which you approach it.

3. The work you are prepared to put in.

If you get all three right, then you are putting yourself in the best possible place to succeed.

1. The people you surround yourself with: If you surround yourself with friends who love music, who play music and who love to share it, then you’ll find yourself with a group of people who encourage you, build you up and can offer pointers in regards to teaching and learning techniques.  If you normalise music as something that happens in thought and action every single day, then you will start to look for it when your practice falls short.

2. The enthusiasm with which you approach it: Stick with it.  Enjoy it.  Do every part of it with enthusiasm.  The enthusiasm will carry you over the times when you are tired, bored and just want to watch TV.  If you find that part of your studies are boring, try and find out why.  Foster the parts that you love and let your enthusiasm direct you.

3. The work you are prepared to put in: I firmly believe that “natural talent” is a myth.  Anything can be learned, and the best results are generally from those who put in the hours.  The phrase “natural talent” implies a lack of discipline and practice, a lack of hard work and a sense of entitlement.  Don’t listen.  No-one ever became great because they didn’t bother to work.

If you get those three things right, then you’ll be setting yourself up for success.  It is most definitely the path that I followed.  My husband is a musician, and his friends were musicians.  Slowly, but surely, they normalised my vision that what one did was … music.  I sang.  I sang all the time.  I sang in the bathroom, in the car, in the kitchen.  I practiced my instruments when I wasn’t singing.  I taught myself fragments of music theory.  I went to events where singing was encouraged.  One day I woke up and realised that the vast majority of my friends were also musicians.  It became my “normal”.

The enthusiasm and work came hand in hand for me – I let my enthusiasm guide me in the direction I wanted (which is why my main instrument is harp!) and put in the hard work once I’d figured out what I loved most.

If you’ve always said, “I want to be a singer!” then the ONLY way to become a singer is… shockingly… to sing.  Don’t wait for the right time.  Don’t wait for a teacher to land in your lap.  Join a non-audition community choir, and have FUN!

Sing What You Love…

Music_Children-Parenting-Singing-Talent-ShowI have been lucky enough to  be asked to take part in a mentoring scheme for new singing leaders in my area.  This involves going out, meeting the leaders, watching them teach and chatting with their singers to find out how they are doing and whether there are any areas that can be improved or worked upon.

That all sounds very posh and important and as though I am standing there with a clipboard, marking them all out of ten.  In reality, what I got to do on Tuesday night was to go and meet a lot of delightful young singers, learn some new songs and chat about leading singing – one of my favourite things to do ever.

The young people in question were lucky to be presented with a wide variety of  different material to learn – they had rounds, campfire songs, action songs and modern material.  As with the vast majority of younger people, it is pretty difficult for them to hide what they thought about the various songs that they sang, and I found that really interesting.

They responded really well to very simple call and response songs – usually in thirds (if you sing the notes of a scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do – singing a third would be like singing “mi-so”).  The 20th century music educator, Zoltan Kodaly, had a LOT to say about the importance of singing in simple thirds with young people.  He was of the opinion that the third is the first musical interval we hear, because it is how our mothers call us in that sing song way tht all mothers seem to default to – “Geo-orge!” (usually with the voice falling to the “mi” note on the second half of the name).  We are hardwired to sing it to our children (most nursery rhymes use it – “Seesaw, Margery Daw…” and to respond to it as children ourselves.

I watched a roomful of 7-10 year olds loving working with that most comforting of note ranges and making a glorious sound whilst they did it.  Kodaly hit that one right on the head, I think.

But even more than the simplest of intervals, they responded to modern pop songs.

I know that a lot of choir leaders bristle at modern pop songs – the bubblegum of music (no nutritional value, gets stuck to everything and mostly appeals to children who don’t know better…), but I kind of like them.  Depending on the songs that you choose, they can be just as challenging and enjoyable as older, more classical repertoire, and for some people, vastly more so.  The key is singing what they want to, a choir – any choir at all – should be a democracy, not a tyranny.  When people enjoy what they sing, their voices blend better, their oxytocinon levels rise, leading to feelings of happiness, wellbeing and friendship.  Of course, singing something that you are not immediately sure about can be a challenge and the ability to divorce your immediate feeling of dislike from the material and look at it dispassionately is most definitely a skill worth developing.

But don’t be afraid to sing the old favourites.  Don’t be snobbish about music – if people enjoy singing something, then it is a good song, regardless of everything else.

So, Why Do I Do It?

singing-on-the-brainI spend a lot of my working week singing for a living. Mind you, if I’m honest, I also spend an awful lot of my week singing for no reason other than “I love to sing”.

I recently bought a new CD by one of my favourite artists (Kate Rusby, if you are really interested) and have had it on continual play whilst I work. Because I’m not paying much attention to the words whilst I concentrate on other things, I couldn’t really tell you what many of the words are, but I sing along nonetheless. It’s a good thing that I have an office door I can shut because the one day a week that I work in an open plan office, I have to be *very* careful not to let my bad habits spill over. I hum, sing and vocalise made-up sounds *all* the time whilst I am typing. They go a bit like this:

“Come all you lovely lahyeeehah, ladadah warning. Oooooooo, sterry bield of hay…..” etc. Occasionally, I get the right word sound in the right place, but more often than not, I’m just singing a lot of rubbish, but still vocalising and enjoying it. The vibrations from my voice get faintly meditative after a while, and I find it very restful. I’m not singing to be heard, or for anyone to think that I’m wonderful, I’m just singing because I love to sing. And that is precisely the sort of singing that I wish more people did. Not to sound clever, not to get rich, but just because it is so much more fun than simply staying quiet.

Because I am lucky enough to lead a number of choirs, I get the feedback from lots of other people as to why they enjoy singing, and that is a very motivational thing. I’ve people in all of my choirs who have depressive issues, and find singing incredibly helpful in lifting the spirits without medication, or to help smooth out the transition into a new medication. I have met several people in my life who claim that singing has saved their lives by providing them with an outlet for emotions that simply couldn’t be channelled any other way. That’s pretty major.

But it doesn’t have to be the big stuff. Maybe you just feel tired, and need a little bit of a lift? Suffer from social anxiety, and find talking to new people difficult? Choirs and singing are perfect for both of those – one of my favourite sounds in the whole world is the sound of people leaving choir, still singing together as they walk away. I know that they feel so good singing that they don’t want to stop – best sound and best feeling in the world, that! And the social anxiety thing is difficult – but in a choir you don’t have to make small talk. And there is a ready built subject to talk to the person next to you – the music that you are singing!

You probably already know that it sounds great to sing in the shower. I’m here to tell you that it also sounds great to sing in the kitchen, the garden, the living room, the bedroom and the office. The pub is perfect – other people generally join in, as well…

Go on – have a bit of a warble!

Starting a Community Choir…


We are lucky to be surfing a bit of a zeitgeist as far as community singing goes at the moment.  Whilst I am sad about the direction that Gareth Malone has taken singing on TV (competitions?  Why is it always competitions?), I do believe that his Military Wives series in particular, helped to show people that singing was an empowering thing that *anyone* can do.  Lots of people feel able to look for a group to sing with.

The problem comes at the next stage, however.  You’ve summoned up the courage to join a singing group, but you can’t find one near you, or the ones that you can find are not the sort of thing you are looking for.  What should you do?

First of all – don’t give up.  The chances are very good that if you want to join a particular kind of singing group then you probably won’t be the only one.  Experience tells me that there are generally lots of other people willing to have a go if they find the right sort of group.  So why not set one up?

It isn’t as hard as you might think.  Formal choirs generally have piano accompanists and trained conductors familiar with classic and choral music.  They may encourage only music readers to join.

THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WAY TO SING!!!

I have been running choirs for several years now, and singing solo, in bands and in choirs for longer than I care to remember.  And…  I don’t care at all for the classical model with a piano accompanist, beautifully organised SATB parts and lots of showy, complicated music that you need to be able to read to follow.  And that’s OK – it really is.  Plenty of people *do* like that (I actually like to listen to it, but have no desire to participate in it), but plenty of people also like what I do – orchestrated backing tracks, modern and upbeat songs, choose your own part and sing what you love.

It is really easy to do as well.  To get something started, I recommend this setup kit:

Z

  • A battery-powered portable amplifier (something like this  Block Rocker that works off Bluetooth).
  • An iPod/MP3 player.
  • A copy of any of Mark DeLisser’s “Sing Out” books.
  • A printer with a photocopy facility.

With this setup, you can take a choir rehearsal *anywhere*.  You can work acapella, or if you are uncertain and need a little bit of confidence building, you can sing along with the tracks, following the alternative parts (Mark’s books utilise CDs/downloads of tracks so that everyone can learn their own parts before blending them altogether. )

Pop the tracks from the books onto the iPod, and then connect the iPod to the Bluetooth speaker and just… sing… along.

You can do this in your living room.  Or a church hall.  Or a friend’s garage.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it really *should* be joyous.

Don’t wait for someone else to set up your dream choir – do it yourself!!!

Why Warm Up?


4224808_f260How long does your choir session last for?  A couple of hours or so, once a week?  That is certainly how most of mine seem to run.   Depending on the group we can run on a little longer so as to have time for a cup of tea and a biscuit or cake during the session as well (never underestimate the social power of a good quality biscuit!).  But the limitation of singing for an hour or two means that it is very tempting to not warm up properly.

Spending half an hour or more on warm up exercises which are generally less than thrilling seems like a huge chunk of time out of the general singing which is, after all, why people come to the choir in the first place.  However, don’t underestimate the importance of warming up your voice.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up a huge chunk of your choir time to warm up your voice.  It is something that you can easily do at home, or on your way to choir.

  1. Do you drive to your choir?  A car is the best place for making the odd noises that are so beneficial to vocal warmups.  Nobody except you can hear yourself, and if you give a lift to another choir member, you can warm up together.  Beware of doing lip trills in the car in summer when your windows are down, though.  People look oddly at you whilst you are stationary at traffic lights.  And yes, I know this from experience…
  2. Is your choir after you’ve come home from work?  Do you have an hour or so whilst you are making dinner or whatever else you do between the finish of your daytime activities and start of your evening activities?  Warm up in the kitchen whilst you are cooking or hum whilst you check Facebook.  Anything that gets your voice working is great!
  3. Do you walk your dog before choir?  Are you generally on your own?  Have a bit of a sing whilst you are doing it, maybe put on a gentle song on a music player, and step out whilst you hum along.  There are lots of great warmup exercises on the web which can be easily downloaded to an iPod or MP3 player.
  4. Do you have a shower before going out?  The shower is the absolute best place to warm up – the air is warm and moist (excellent for your vocal muscles), the sound bounces around on the hard tiled surfaces, making you sound excellent, and there is a lock on the door, so no-one can interrupt you!  Perfect!
  5. Does your choir leader give you CDs and/or downloadable tracks to practice along with?  Use them before choir to warm up with – gently – and arrive at choir with your head full of harmonies and melodies and a voice ready to sing.

The difference between your cold voice and your warmed up voice can be really stark.  Try recording yourself with your phone singing a simple song or nursery rhyme before you warm up, then warm up *properly* for half an hour – sing scales, lip trills, vowel enunciations, consonant practice, vocal placement and all the other stuff that we’ll talk about here in time – and then try recording yourself again.  Listen to how many notes you got right the second time.  Feel how much easier it is to move between notes and sing quick passages.  Listen to the liquid quality of your voice in the second example as opposed to the tighter and more stressed sound of the first.

Now – isn’t that worth singing in the shower before you go out?

Why Sing?


The voice is the very first instrument that any of us use, and we use it within seconds of breathing for the first time.  We use our voice to signal pain, unhappiness, joy and mirth.  Everyone has a voice that they can learn to enjoy using.

But so many people expect to be able to use their voice beautifully and instinctively with no training whatsoever – would we expect to pick up a French Horn and play it instinctively?  Almost certainly not.  So why not go easy on yourself and allow yourself a little latitude in learning to play and use this wonderful instrument that you were born with?

Follow along with this blog as we learn about our voices, experiment with different techniques and songs, and get to know some other singers, just like you!