All Change!!! (or – Why Creativity is Important When Things are Tough)

It’s been an odd few months here at Community Choir Towers….  Lots has changed, and that’s putting it mildly.

The short version:

I am in the process of getting divorced.  I’m over the worst of the grief and concentrating on moving forwards.  My name is changing from Annie Walker to Annie Griffith as from now.

Lost two dear family members in a very short period of time.

Put house on market whilst still unfinished, whilst trying to convince ex to finish it.

Lots of financial stress.

Lots of legal stress.

Lots of health stress.

Just… well… stressed really.

My life has resembled nothing so much as a Jeremy Kyle show recently, and not one of those heartwarming reunion ones, either.  However, I’m finding that amidst all the chaos, worry and stress, I am starting to get a big chunk of creativity coming back.  For a long while singing has been restricted to choral things, and I’ve lost some of the pure creativity I’ve always found in music.  Waking up with a desire to write songs, practice musical instruments and record is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  I am also helped by people giving me lyrics to set to music.

There’s this thing when you’re stressed that makes you close down areas of creativity and enjoyment.  We don’t want to go out and see people we love even though we KNOW that it will make us feel better.  The same with creativity.  It is often the first thing to go when we feel under pressure, but it is exactly the thing that we need to help us express ourselves and get our feelings out where we can examine them.

Singing with a choir is wonderful, and I would encourage your next step to be looking at singing other things.  What kind of music do you enjoy?  Americana?  Opera? Folk?  Whatever it is, find a song, look for a Youtube backing track (you’ll be surprised how much there is out there for free) and start singing.  Experiment with your voice when you are alone.  Permit yourself to make mistakes.  Don’t feel that you have to sing it exactly the same way as the original artist.  Try some different things.

If you would like to get into a bit more creativity, I really, REALLY recommend buying Julia Cameron’s “The Artists’ Way” as a gentle way of discovering your own creativity.  Allow yourself permission to play with creativity in the same way that you did when you were a child – not worrying about whether you were good enough, but just having fun trying things out.  Try music, try writing, try knitting, try drawing, try sculpting.  Don’t look for what you are best at, but for what you enjoy the most.  And do more of it. Much more.  Your singing will benefit, and so will your mental health and joie d’vivre.

Create!  Enjoy!

If you’re in the mood for something inspirational, I cannot recommend this talk by Neil Gaiman enough.  He is one of my favourite authors and favourite people.  What he has to say is inspiring, motivational and necessary for everyone to hear.

Singing Loudly, Singing Quietly…

For most beginning singers, the volume of their voice is something that bothers them almost as much as how in tune they are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I have stood in front of a group of new singers and asked them to reproduce a note, and hear them enthusiastically sing back a variety of wrong notes, then ask them to do the same exercise again, but quietly, and hear 95% of them hit the note accurately.

Equally, I hear people every week who can’t hit a note unless they metaphorically run at it, belting out anything in the upper third of their range, and unable to access that without the volume.

Volume shouldn’t be a tool to *achieve* accuracy, it should be a tool that you can deploy *alongside* accuracy to breathe life into your performance of a song.  It can also be the enemy if you let it.

Believe it or not the vast amount of problems with tuning for singers is not to do with technical details, but entirely to do with not *listening* correctly.  If you can’t tell if you are singing a note correctly, I *highly* recommend using an app called “Vocal Lab” – it is what I use to chart whether students are staying on key, and if not, whereabouts they are having problems.  It is £6.99 from the Mac App Store, and there are similar packages available for Windows as well.  What you need to do with this is fire it up, and then play a note.  Attempt to sing it back.  Look at what the computer says you are singing – are you sharp or flat?  Singing too low or high?  Try again, this time a little more quietly.  How does that attempt compare to the first one?  Easier or harder?

Now, try breathing in – a big breath into your tummy.  Sing the same note, quietly, just using a tiny bit of the air you drew into your lungs and tummy.  Hold the note.  Listen to whether it wiggles up and down or shakes.  Try and ease those shakes out.  Aim for the smoothest, most consistent note that you can.  Look at how the line is being drawn on your screen and work at keeping it as smooth as possible.  Most importantly though, pay attention to your breathing and where the note actually is.  On Vocal Lab, you will get a readout at the top of the screen telling you what note you are actually singing, and you’ll need to make sure that you aren’t miles away from that, by lowering or heightening the pitch of your voice.  Be careful to listen closely to the note you are trying to sing before you start, though!

Making your singing voice louder is entirely a matter of breathing, and where you ‘place’ your voice.  You should always be breathing into your tummy, and aiming to having a loose, relaxed throat when producing a note (exercises with the throat, neck and face can help enormously with this).  Broadway show type “belting” is an extreme (and often damaging) technique which can use a lot of air and often requires the manipulation of vowel sounds to get some of the showier effects.  It can, if done correctly, make your whole head almost rattle or hum with the force of the sound you are producing, as indeed, can a good operatic voice!  For a loud, belting voice, imagine the sound being fuelled from your stomach-reservoir of air, but being produced from the front of your face (imagine it as a mask of sound).  The more air you push through under pressure, the more power that mask will have, and the more powerful your voice will sound.  But nobody wants to sound like a Broadway Belter all the time (even the Broadway Belters!), and to get the quieter, more precise, voice, imagine that you have a tiny, delicate music box in the back of your throat, that produces gentle, tinkling music…

Most people will naturally swap from their chest to head registers when ascending a scale quietly.  If trying to holler it, they will stay in their powerful chest register and will find it difficult to access your higher notes.  It is, however, much easier to go a long way down a scale in head voice without ever switching to chest voice, and it won’t be until the bottom three or so notes that you will notice any difference apart from volume…

I’m hoping to find some time to record some vocal exercises in the next few weeks and I’ll demonstrate exactly what I mean by that.  But until then, I really recommend getting a voice analyser such as Vocal Lab and seeing exactly where you are singing, and how to improve it.

 

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!

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?