The Role of Imagination in Singing…

Having a singing lesson is an exercise in imagination.  In a gymnastics lesson, a tutor might say, “extend your arms, keep your back straight and bend your knees when you land!”.  All very good advice and put over in an easy to understand way.  As long as you know where your arms, back and knees are, and how to stretch, bend and extend them, you can carry out these instructions well.

The same is not true for singing.  You wouldn’t get very far with a teacher who said, “Aduct your vocal folds and make them vibrate at 261.63Hz over a 131.87cm wavelength, tightening your soft palate, heightening your tongue at the rear of your mouth, widening your obicularis obis and then abduct your folds to their original position.”

However, a teacher who plays a “C” on a piano and says, “use a ‘witch’s voice’ to sing that  with an “eeee” sound and then stop,” will get an instant action from the student who understands what the teacher is after.

I use a wide variety of often daft imagery to get students and singers to marshall their muscles and produce different sounds.  For extreme nasality and voice projection, “The Wicked Witch” (image the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West character laughing), and for low breathiness and palate-lifting, “Sloane Ranger” (OK, yaaaaaah!) is hard to beat.  Cycling through vowel sounds and lifting the voice through the body (starting with ‘a’ in the belly and ending with ‘u’ shooting out of the top of the head), singing into “the mask”, supporting long notes with “bearing down for a poo” muscle tension rather than “go on, hit me in the stomach” muscle tension… the list goes on and on.  I’ve used phrases like “nose lasers!” and use imaginary lemons and lions in every single warm up I do.

The trick to getting the most out of this is to disengage your “sensible” head.  Let a bit of silliness and playfulness enter your singing – it will benefit you in so many ways.  For one thing – imagining these scenarios and attempting to recreate the accompanying sounds really *does* help you to work on parts of your voice that are not consciously operable without serious training.  And through that training you can learn how to work with your physiology much more seriously.  Also, music is *always* better when the person performing it is enjoying the experience – be playful!  Enjoy yourself!

NB: If you’d like an exercise to play around with, I recommend picking 4 characters (maybe an old man, a witch, a young child and someone from Scotland – to pick 4 at random, pick 4 that work for you!).  Try to sing the same song – any song – in 4 different and distinct voices for each of the character.  Record it on your phone or computer.  Listen back.  Which one sounded most in control?  Did your voice feel strained during some characters?  Why?  How could you ease that strain?  Really stop and think about the silly exercise, and how your voice felt and how that could inform your day to day singing…

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!

Wicked Witch versus The Sloane Ranger

openmouthWhen we first start to sing, we do so instinctively.  We just open our mouths and make a noise.  Sometimes the instinctive noise we make sounds good, and sometimes it isn’t so great.  Whether the noise that you, individually, make is a good or a poor sound is pretty much a case of good or bad luck.  It is not that most insidious of things, “talent” (for what it’s worth, I don’t believe it exists, it’s all about hard work in my book…), and you should absolutely not believe someone if they tell you that.

Some people just have the kind of speaking voice that translates well into singing.  They do all the correct muscular things in their mouth and throat without even thinking about it, because that’s how they speak.  They find notes easy to copy because their mouths and throats are in the right positions.  This isn’t talent – it’s luck.  They’ve been taught to talk that way.  Others – not so much.

The good news is that you can absolutely get those good habits in place whether you do them instinctively or not.  What I want to talk about today is singing with an “open throat”.

There is a lot of  “spirited discussion” about what an open throat actually is, and whether it is a good thing.  I’m going to tell you my opinion (because, hey, it’s my blog!) but do feel free to disagree or do your own research as seems appropriate.

When teachers tell you to sing with an open throat, they are asking you to pay attention to the back of your mouth – particularly the soft palate and back of the tongue.  Try to drop the back of the tongue as if the doctor had a tongue depressor on it, and lift the soft palate.  The feeling that you are aiming for is the very beginning of a yawn, but without any tension or stiffness in the muscles of your throat and mouth.  Please note that the feeling you are aiming for is most emphatically NOT the feeling right at the pinnacle of a yawn.  When you actually yawn, you expand your throat muscles and squash your larynx/voice box low down into your throat, which is not the position that you want it in.  Nothing should feel tight or under pressure.  Everything should feel loose and comfortable.

My favourite exercise for opening the throat is “Wicked Witch versus The Sloane Ranger” (I suspect that ‘The Sloane Ranger’ as a term is only instantly recognisable to those of us who remember Princess Diana as “Lady Di”…).  What I want you to do is this:

Remember The Wicked Witch of the West?  Remember that nasty little cackle she had?  I want you to copy that cackle.  It’s high and channelled through your nose.  “Heheheheheh…”  That feeling right there?  That’s the feeling of a constricted, tight throat.  You can probably reach some of your higher notes when making this noise.  Now, pretend to be a Sloane Ranger or other similarly posh person.  Make this noise, “Okay, Yaaaaaaaaaah.”  You will note that your voice goes down, your tongue drops and your soft palate rises.  But not so much that it is squishing your larynx and making your throat sore and your voice sound weird.

Once you’ve done this for a few minutes, I really recommend trying to sing something silly and easy that you know well, but keeping those feelings in place (repeat the exercise if you feel you are losing the throat shape), but be very aware of not giving yourself a huge double-chin, or making yourself uncomfortable.  All the sensations should be soft and comfortable, not overblown and difficult to maintain.

Another way of thinking about this exercise (particularly if you have a problem with the imagery and associated sounds) is to try and imitate a donkey:  “Heeeeee- HAW”.  The throat will react the same way, but do be sure to do the exercise *slowly* – give each sound a good 3-5 seconds before moving onto the next sound, and think about what your mouth and throat are doing as you make the sound.

 

Remember to BREATHE!

It is easy to underestimate the importance of breathing correctly for singing – after all, we’ve all been breathing for *years*!  Surely we know how to do it properly by now?

Well, the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, of course.  Yes – we’ve all been breathing since the moment we were born, and unless someone actively challenges the way you breathe, or you are undertaking exercise, you tend to forget that you are even doing it.  But the way that we habitually breathe is not the optimal way to breathe for singing.

When you breathe normally, you are mostly using a very small amount of air from the top of your lungs.  If you try to sing a sustained note with taking just a little normal breath, you will notice that you run out of air very quickly, and the note isn’t very loud.  This is because you aren’t supporting your note.

“Supporting” is one of those comments that singing teachers talk about a lot, and most people are slightly confused by (unless cornered by a singing teacher at a party with a glass of Prosecco and a mission – I may have been that teacher…).  If you equate “support” and “breathing correctly” you won’t be *far* off.

When you breathe properly to sing, you need to take in as much air as possible, control it effectively and expel it precisely.

lungs-2ivfnn4Picture your lungs.  They aren’t a regular shape, they are a little more pear-shaped, really.  Bigger at the bottom where the diaphragm sits below them in your middle.  In order to inflate them *fully*, you really need to focus on sticking out your tummy when you breathe in at first and then filling your lungs from the bottom up.  This will have the effect of pulling your diaphragm down, expanding your lower ribs, and making room for your lungs to expand in all directions, making sure that you have plenty of air ready for a long, slow, steady release.

If you find this difficult, I would suggest trying it with your hands on your head which will help a little, or try breathing deeply whilst you are lying flat on a firm surface.  Both will make it a little easier.  What we are aiming at is doing this kind of breathing *so* much that it becomes second nature.  (However, do be aware that deep and steady breathing of this kind, if practiced whilst lying on a comfy bed may well send you off to sleep in very short order!)

I sometimes find it helpful to put hands on your hips, with your thumbs resting on your lower ribs.  If you are breathing correctly, you will feel your ribs expand and lift a little with each deep breath.  When you feel that you need to exhale, don’t just let go and let your chest and stomach collapse in the aftermath of the whoosing outward breath, but blow slow and steadily, pulling in the stomach as you feel yourself running out of air.

Don’t underestimate how much you need to do this in order to get a habit building up.  Try to take a half hour every day to breathe properly – you can easily do other things at the same time.  The bonus of this exercise can be reaped in many other ways – it will increase your overall lung health, decrease your incidence of bronchial infections and lower your stress levels as well.

Give it a try!

Audiation…

brain-music-300x257Oh, that sounds so professional…  It sounds like I know what I’m talking about, doesn’t it?  What does it mean, though?

The quick (and not terrifically accurate) definition is that audiation is “singing along in your head”.  It is much more complex than that, but it gives you a handle on what we are talking about here.  Audiation is how a composer can write multiple lines of an orchestration or arrangement without playing them all simultaneously.  S/he is running the lines in their head, experiencing the interplay between them without them being played externally, and as they write each new line, they are running the existing lines in their head, over and over again.

To a much lesser (but more accessible) degree, audiation is also what unwittingly happens when we get an earworm.  You know the routine – you are walking down the street, doing nothing very important, when all of a sudden “Close to You” by The Carpenters pops into your head and won’t get out.  Round and round it plays in your head, demanding your attention and constantly surfacing like an inflatable toy in a swimming pool…  You can’t sing it out loud because… well, there are limits to how many times you can sing, “Birds suddenly appear, every time, you are neeeeaaaar!” without your co-workers killing you.  But it is still in your head.  If you want to properly shift it, the best thing to do is probably to sing the entire thing.  Out loud.  Maybe with a backing track.  Go  on – look up the lyrics, lock yourself in the bathroom and go for it.  The unfinished nature of earworms makes them worse.

Anyway – if this has happened to you, then you know that you have the ability to audiate.

I often say that I usually have a backing track playing in my head whilst running choirs, whether there is music going or not, as is proved by the fact that I continued to conduct a totally absent backing track during a choir rehearsal last night, whilst explaining a point about breath control and pronounciation.  In my head, the music was still playing, going round and round the instrumental until we were ready to come back in, at which point we moved forward into the next verse.

It is easy to audiate a bit – playing the hook, or earworm section of song in your head is easy.  More difficult is playing the entire song from the beginning through to the end, carefully running through key changes, breathing spots and tricky passages, not stopping at any point.  But when you do this, and hear the music in your mind as vividly as you can in the outside world, you are culturing a skill which will help to improve your overall musical ability, and particularly your ability to  sing accurately on pitch.

Listening to music and singing along internally, is a very useful skill to learn.

  • Start small – it is very helpful to try matching notes internally and then externally.  First play a note (I recommend getting a free keyboard app for your smartphone or tablet if you have one, or a cheap electronic keyboard), and then try to sing the same note inside your head a few times before opening your mouth and trying to sing it.  Keep on with this – it may be hard to start with, but will get much easier with practice.
  • Move up – when you can do this, try a three or four note sequence and sing it internally before externalising it.
  • Try the melody line of a song you know.  Pick a song that you know well and search YouTube for backing tracks or karaoke versions of the song.  Play it on your computer screen (tip: karaoke versions will often have the words on the screen to help with your timing) and sing it internally.  Don’t do it out loud!  This needs to be internal.  Try it with several songs and repeat the exercise a LOT.  Repetition is the key here.  If this is something that you are not used to doing, what you are trying to do is to build up a skill that has developed over years for some people.  Go easy on yourself.  Don’t expect it to work immediately.  Give it time.  You may discover that it comes really easy to you – there is a lot of evidence to show that children who are offered a lot of musical opportunities before the age of 7 find this considerably easier than others.  If you sang a lot as a small child you may be pleasantly surprised to find that it comes back easily to you.  If not, don’t worry – it *can* be developed as part of your toolbox of vocal tricks.
  • The ultimate test is to use audiation to learn your harmony and alternative part vocal lines.  I am a visual learner and find it easier to learn if I audiate whilst I look at the notes (notational audiating) and I find it easier to take the movement of a part this way.  Depending on your learning style, this may or may not work for you.  If you are a kinetic learner, you may want to try moving to the music, conducting it, lifting and dropping your hands as the part rises and falls.

Experiment and see what works for you, but do try singing along internally, matching pitches and going from the beginning to the end of the piece before you open your mouth to sing.  You may just surprise yourself!