How To Be “In Tune”…

There are many things in this life that irritate me to the point of… well, maybe not violence, but certainly a heartfelt “GRRRRR!” under my breath and stalking away to put the kettle on.  Bullying, racism, being rude to waiters….  And first and foremost: people who think that if they can’t hit a note reliably from the age of 3 or 4, then they are ‘tone deaf’ and should never be allowed to sing.

I’ve spoken at length on every platform I can think of about why this is a complete fallacy.

Yes, some people do seem to be able to hit notes more reliably than others.  If you look a little closer into the background of these people, you will see that they’ve often had a very early exposure to music.  Maybe their parents played music, or they had older siblings who played records when they were around, or they were just encouraged to sing along in the car to make journeys a little less boring.  None of these things *seem* exceptional, but they encouraged the people to start listening and experimenting with their voices early.  They didn’t have time to learn fear, and by the time that external judgement and fear kicked in, the habit of singing was already ingrained.  They weren’t child prodigies, able to belt out the collected works of Wagner from their pram before they could talk – no, they just started *working* a little earlier than everyone else, and before they understood that it was, indeed, working, at all.

Everyone else, and it’s a big percentage of the population, just has to do a bit of work to catch up.  Make no mistake, however, you can catch up.  In much the same way that some children can walk at 9 months old and others are still happily shuffling around on their bottoms at three, but almost everyone eventually manages to make it onto two feet, you can totally learn to sing at your own pace.

Singing is more than the simple act of opening your mouth and hitting the right note.  It involves breathing, learning lyrics, telling a story, the muscular techniques of controlling your voice and much, much more.  But to start with, we’re going to concentrate on just hitting the right notes.

So – having problems hitting those notes?  Can you hear that you are wrong?  If you can’t hear that you are wrong, the most basic advice is to go back to the drawing board and listen to lots and lots of music.  Listen to it all the time.  Sing along with it constantly.  Slowly but surely, you’ll start to differentiate between the notes and understand where your voice is sitting in regards to the tune (in tune, out of tune, varying between the two?).

At this point you can come back to how to get your voice singing the same notes as you are hearing.  (And make no mistake, singing is *always* about what you are hearing – whether it’s out loud, or internal, you always hear what you are meant to be copying…).

I would recommend getting a piano, or a cheap keyboard – it doesn’t have to be expensive and take up a lot of room, your local electronics or music shop will probably have something for under £50 which will do you just fine.  Now remember that you don’t have to be able to “play the piano” to get a note out of it.  You’ll probably look at it in confusion for a little while first and wonder what the heck you are meant to do with it.

Play a note.  Any note, but one from near the middle of the keyboard is probably a good move.  Play it a couple of times and really listen to it.  Imagine in your head how it is going to sound before you play it for the third or fourth time.  Before singing it, play it and imagine it again.  Finally, after imagining it a LOT of times and playing it even more, open your mouth and try to sing it.

How was it?  A bit high?  Too low?  Not sure?  Kind of wobbly?  Play it again and try again – any better, or can’t you tell?  Try a few notes, one after the other and try to copy them with your voice, always using the trick of “Listen, imagine, sing”.  Always imagine before you open your mouth!

This is not an overnight fix.  You need to put aside a few minutes every single day to do this exercise, and slowly but surely you will find that your voice and your ear start to work together.  You can hit the pitches you are aiming for!  A happy side effect is that if you are singing for just 15 minutes, but every single day, your voice strength and range will increase as well!  Hurrah!  Get singing!

Happy New Year!

Apologies for not blogging over the Christmas and New Year period – things were very busy here at Bishop Grosseteste University with all of the Community Choir events and then a little bit of relaxation and unwinding after what has been a bit of a challenging year.

So, what should you expect from a Community Choir over the festive season?

Speaking personally, we’ve done a variety of events: we’ve sung for a charity event for the local Hospice, we’ve sung in a local shopping centre as a fundraising exercise, we’ve performed for older members of our local community, we’ve performed at a wedding and sung at several carol services all around the area.  It’s been *very* busy indeed!

Without a question, the December holiday season is one of the busiest times for singers working in their local communities.  Everyone wants a choir for Christmas.  The only trouble is, as noted in a previous blog, there isn’t a whole lot of time to get things rehearsed as people start wanting you to perform at roughly the same time as you want to start singing Christmas songs.  Any earlier feels like buying an Easter Egg in January, and any later and you’ve missed the boat.  This year I am going to live dangerously and attempt building a Christmas song at several very non-Christmassy points throughout the year – a little like Wizzard recording, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” in July…  It’ll feel weird, but we’ll be ready!!!

I like to try and have a good selection of both carols and secular songs – not everyone celebrates a religious holiday at this time of year, and having some secular things like “White Christmas” or “Chestnuts Roasting” can be a relief for those who celebrate a seasonal holiday, but not necessarily a religious one.  A good mix of voicings and difficulties also helps to spice things up for the singers.  Make sure to have a few easy and cheerful things for a good old sing-song, but also keep a couple of really impressive things ready to go at the right moment – everyone likes to look good on a showy number that you’ve really got right!

I would also recommend being prepared to bring the Christmas singing season to a close earlier, rather than later.  Many people will be feeling overburdened with commitments at this time of year.  If your last big choir event is mid-December, it gives them time to work on other things, and you’ll find that attendance stays relatively high, and you can go out with a great feeling of satisfaction for a job well done.

New Year is also a great time to start something new.  I’ve got a couple of projects on the horizon, and want to start getting prepared for those – it is inevitable that other things will jump up and require attention, but if I’ve already started on the bones of my bigger projects, then I’m hopeful I can get everything fitted in.

So what are we looking at here in Bishop Grosseteste Community Choirs?  Well, I’m hoping to have two big concerts this year – one in summer and one in late spring, both with separate repertoires, and playing to very different crowds.  Fingers crossed!

What singing are you planning on doing this year?

 

 

The Problem With Autumn…

Sorry to have been away so long!  imgresThe past couple of months have been taken up partly by a break from work over the summer (although it was a bit of a busman’s holiday this year, as it involved accompanying my husband to festivals for a lot of the summer) and before that – by a huge show that my community choirs were asked to do for the BBC – “Green Fields Beyond”.

We’re now back after the summer break and feeling a little shell-shocked.  I had decided to take things a bit easy, but no sooner was I back from holiday than the phone started ringing with requests for us to sing.  We can’t do everything – everyone has other commitments as well – but the last quarter of the year is a problematical one for choir leaders and singers.

Problem 1: Everyone wants to book you in for Christmas singing.  Everyone loves carolling at Christmas.  However….  No-one really wants to be singing Christmas carols in September.  It’s difficult to just produce Christmas carols in late November without having done several weeks of practice beforehand.  But “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on a blazing hot day in September?  Hrmmm….

Problem 2: People booking events in November want a whole different programme of music.  Non-Christmassy music.  I’m currently working towards a charity event in late November with a very varied programme – a Celtic hymn of blessing, a Gary Barlow number and some Enya.  Only one of these is something in our standard repertoire, and the Enya is a reasonably complicated piece.  We’re also starting working on material for a themed show next year.  That’s a LOT of pieces of music to fulfill everything around December.  But come December, all we’ll be singing is Hymns Ancient and Modern and Nat King Cole, I guarantee it…

Basically, people don’t understand that in order to produce a programme of themed music (whatever the theme is: Christmas, Show tunes, 70’s hits or anything else) requires a whole lot of work from the choir director (repeatedly clicking “Buy Now” on the sheetmusic.com site…) and even more from the singers.  Considering that the average choir meets for a couple of hours once a week or so, that’s a big ask.

There’s also the question as to how the singers consider their time within the choir itself.  Are they there to sing in the moment, or are they there to practice singing for a performance in a few week/month’s time?  If there are a variety of opinions, which opinion takes precedence?

It’s all pretty tricky.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that a little bit of thought and consideration can go a very long way, as can performing out-of-season songs, and making it clear that a specialised programme is a long-term commitment and not something that people can just pull out of the air as if by magic…  That’s certainly the way I’m taking it.  It looks likely that our Christmas programme will feature “May It Be” by Enya, alongside “White Christmas” though…

To Perform or Not Perform? That is the Question…

There are a few different views about the issue Adrenaline-Logo-300x168of performing in public – some
choirs just like to gather together and sing for the joy of it without any of the stress and adrenalin that comes along with performing for external people.

Other choirs really enjoy performing, and thrive on the excitement and gratification of a job well done and the obvious enjoyment of an audience.

So which is the best sort of choir for you?

Remember that this might not be an “either/or” kind of decision – some choirs may be performing choirs, but be perfectly happy for certain members to bow out of concerts and appearances.  It is always worth asking to see what their policy on this is.

I would also suggest that it is worth asking yourself why you want or don’t want to perform.  What are the underlying reasons?  For many people, singing is a very personal thing, and singing in public can feel very exposed – an uncomfortable feeling.  If this is the case, then do bear in mind that singing in a choir is a very different thing to singing on your own.  You will be part of a section – a number of people all singing the same thing as you – and the aim of the performance is to blend your voices together to make them sound as much like a single voice as possible.  Nobody is going to be listening to your voice on your own, unless you ask to do a solo.  Also remember that when you are surrounded by people all singing the same thing as you, it is much harder to get lost and sing the wrong thing.  If you do all go spectacularly wrong at the same time, then nobody will be blaming you on your own, and the choir leader will gently figure out where you’ve gone wrong and try to find a way to make it easier to stick to the part you should be singing (if you have a choir leader who shouts or makes you feel bad about either the music or your own skill, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY, OK?  Nobody should have to put up with that sort of behaviour.)

Of course, what it is impossible to describe is the high that one gets from singing in public for an appreciative audience.   Yes, there can be nerves, butterflies in the stomach, and an adrenalin rush (whether you enjoy the adrenalin is a very personal thing – personally I detest it – it makes my fingers go very cold, I feel sick and I need many trips to the bathroom, but other people absolutely adore that “riding a rollercoaster” feeling.)

The thing that it is almost impossible to understand until you’ve experienced it is the feeling of being a part of something much bigger than oneself, losing oneself in the music and creating something utterly spellbinding.  And when you’ve finished?  When you are standing there in the spotlight, having performed the very best that you could, and listening to the crowd clapping just for *you*…  Well, it’s the best feeling in the world, bar none.

Personally, I love performing, and enabling others to perform is the thing that motivates me, and makes me want to get up in the morning and start my day.  I’d love everyone to have the opportunity to feel that incredible buzz.  Even if singing solo is not your thing, give a choir a try, it is less scary, less pressure and all of the happy buzz, along with the pleasure of companionship with your other choir members.  What’s not to like?

Singing vs. Cancer?

blog-sing-for-your-health-memd-300x300I was recently passed a clipping about a fascinating study being undertaken by Tenovus Cancer Care.  They are a charity providing support to cancer patients and funding lots of different research.

One of their most recent studies involves the effects of choral singing on cancer patients.  You will be unsurprised to find out that the results are extremely positive.
We certainly expect to see lowered levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) after singing, and this is an effect that has been seen and studied in choirs all over the world, along with improved moods and lessening of depression.

What wasn’t expected, but is very welcome indeed is the elevated levels in a range of biomarkers related to immune function and inflammatory response in the body, both of which may be linked to the body’s ability to fight serious illnesses including cancer.

It is early days yet, and more research is planned, but right now, it looks like the evidence is pointing towards singing being an effective way for cancer patients to improve their mood, bond socially with other people in the same situation and actively fight the disease.  What’s not to like?

Anyone who sings with a choir will have noticed the effect on mood.  I see it week after week, particularly in the choirs that I run immediately after a work day – people come in, tired and low after a long, hard day, but as soon as we start singing – and particularly when we nail a hard bit! – the mood lifts and lifts.  By the end of 75 minutes of singing and laughing together, people leave with a smile on their faces, often singing as they go.  I swear that the best sound in the world is the sound of people singing as they leave.  They don’t *have* to be singing at this point, but are just enjoying it so much that they don’t want to stop.  It’s a sign that the choir leader has done their job well, and that the singer is carrying that joy and music forward into the rest of their week.  It’s the best thing in the world to know that 🙂

Singing is also a positive anti-depressant – so much so that many doctors are recommending patients start singing instead of increasing their reliance on drug-based solutions.  The combination of lowered cortisol, and increased endorphin and oxytocin levels means that singers feel less stressed, and happier about their general situations.

With all of these health benefits – how can you resist joining a choir?  Nobody is going to judge your voice, and you’ll make new friends as well as helping to keep your health in tip-top condition!

Oh, and you’ll sing some great songs, too – how great is that?