Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

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Choirs in the Land of Covid-19….

Here we are, halfway through the year.  We all stopped singing together in mid-March, and it’s been 100 days (give or take) for most of us now.  Everything has changed, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of this brave, new world of no community singing.

But this is where we are.  At the moment, the government has offered no guidance on singing in a community setting, so we are all twiddling our thumbs and waiting to see what they say.  When a pronouncement is made, I can confidently predict that some people will agree with it, and some people with disagree with it, and a political argument will ensue.

But here are the facts:

  • Singing has been identified as a very high-risk activity because of the spread of aerosol particles when we push air out of our throats and mouths under pressure.
  • The 2metre social distancing rule is not sufficient for singing.
  • As lockdown eases, many areas are experiencing an uptick in C-19 cases, meaning that it is growing in prevalence in the population.
  • There have been multiple cases of large scale infection in choirs both in the UK and in the US.
  • C-19 is most dangerous for older people, or those with underlying health issues.
  • Choral singing is most popular with older people, many of whom live with underlying health issues.

A Choral Leader friend of mine from London – the amazing Mich Sampson – pointed me at the following document which outlines much of the evidence on various aspects of the C-19 situation as it currently stands.  I would recommend reading it – it is long, but links to many very useful and informative sources of information.

Covid-19 Information for Choral Organisations, Choirs and Conductors

As things stand, I have cancelled all singing until at least September.  Much as it grieves me to say it, I think we should probably prepare ourselves to accept that we might be looking at 2021 before being able to resume singing.  There are so many major holidays and causes for celebration between now and January 2021 that I don’t really want to think about our our wonderful communities not being able to raise their voices in joy, but it is – at the moment – a distinct possibility.

Stay safe, lovely singers – we’re not out of the woods yet…

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Lockdown

So, here we are at a time of madness.  The world is in lockdown.  We can’t go out (except for absolute essentials) and I don’t really want to anyway because I’m so worried about what compromised breathing would do to me anyway (I have breathing issues sometimes even when completely healthy – singing is good for that!).  I manage a little gentle walk with my daughter occasionally, but only as far as my local park.  I really should take up yoga again…

We went into isolation early as we thought our daughter had been exposed to the virus.  Thankfully it turned out that her friend had only had a nasty cough, and she’s fine, but we’ve been dancing this isolation tango for quite a while already.

My first week or so was spent finally pulling my finger out and recording my first EP.  If you’d like to have a listen and/or buy it, check it out here:

“Arise” by Annie Griffith

So I’m now sitting down in front of my computer and trying to think what the next step should be.  In this time of isolation, I’m very firmly of the opinion that we need art to pull us through.  I’ve been watching films, reading books, listening to music and connecting with other musicians.  I’ve also been watching how other choir leaders move forward.  If you sing with a choir, you know that the sense of connection it brings is a huge boost.  Losing that connection is really hard.  So we’re all trying to bring our networks into a virtual space.  There’s been a lot of work done with the Zoom application, but lag issues mean that it is never going to be a solution to singing all at the same time.  I’m trying a different route!  If you check out my menu at the top of this page, you’ll note (once I’ve got it up there) a new menu heading – “DistanSING!” which is the name of my project.  Check in there to get details and request an invite.

I’m also looking at getting other resources up as our time indoors is likely to stretch on for a bit.  Keep an eye on this page, and “DistanSING!”.

A new addition to this page is also over there on the right hand side at the very top – it’s an online “Tip Jar”.  If you find what I do of value, please consider contributing a little bit of something.  I am a self-employed community musician, and CV-19 had wiped out my income stream (sadly I am not eligible for govt. help, either).  A little help would be fab!

Let me know if there are virtual resources you would like to see, and I hope to get working on that!

Stay indoors and stay healthy, friends!

 

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Guilt Has No Place In Music

People take part in music, particularly community music for very many reasons.  Some people want to meet new people, whilst others might want to improve their voice, or perhaps work on breathing and health issues.  I’ve come to realise that there are just as many reasons to sing in a choir or play an instrument as there are singers and players.

There are also very many ways of running a music group or choir, and I’m not here to disagree with how individuals choose to run their own groups.  Personally, I am not a fan of the “term subscription” type of set up.  I’m sure you know the kind of thing, and maybe your group uses it: your director announces the new “season” of rehearsals (usually in line with school terms) and the members pay a flat fee that covers attendance at every rehearsal for the season.  This has the advantage of getting the messy business of money over and done with at the beginning of a term.  No more worrying about spare change, or wasting a few minutes at the beginning of every rehearsal.  I can see the appeal, really I can.

But the flip side is, to me, much more difficult to deal with as a choir or music group leader.

Because as leaders we have no choice.  We HAVE to be there every week, come rain or shine, to facilitate and teach the music for everyone else.  We organise our lives around those dates because it is our JOB to do that.  But our members?  They might not have the luxury.  Some of them will have full time jobs, or families that need them.  They might have no choice about taking a choir night off because they have a sick child, or desperately need to go to the dentist, or are just so ground down and worn out that they need some time to themselves.  And if they do that when they have paid for a season, it is difficult to avoid thinking that they’ve wasted their money.  If you pay for a session you can’t attend, you feel guilty about the money, and then guilty for not being present.  Guilt is introduced into your music-making experience.  And guilt eventually leads to absenteeism, and finally to them giving up.

I’m here to tell you that guilt has no place in music.  You shouldn’t feel guilty about wasting money.  I firmly believe that you should have the option to not spend the money in the first place.  I also believe that if someone says, “I can’t make it next week, I’m visiting my new grandchild!” the appropriate response should be, “That’s wonderful!  Bring pictures the week after!”, not something vague about missing out on a valuable learning experience.  I am also arguably a terrible businesswoman because I don’t make a note of who has paid me or not.  This is because sometimes people can’t afford to pay.  They don’t deserve to be shamed.  Maybe the boiler broke.  Maybe their kids needed new shoes.  Maybe they just forgot their wallet.  There is no way I could ever find a way to tell a person that they couldn’t sing because they didn’t have the money.  I would always rather that they sang and not worry about the money as opposed to going home feeling embarrassed or glum.  Can’t pay?  Don’t feel guilty!  For a brief, delightful period of time, one of my singers paid me in random items of groceries.  They’d leave a can of pop or some interesting crisps next to my money tin.  They had contributed what they could, and that was absolutely fine with me.

The guilt also works in regards to practice and here’s where I start to get a bit controversial.  I don’t believe in making people practice.  Guilting them into it NEVER works.  You know what does work?  Making them love it.  Leaving an instrument where they can’t help but pick it up.  Working on songs that they just can’t help singing.  All of that works wonderfully.  But guilt?  Not so much in my experience.  I taught primary school pupils various instruments for years, and I can tell you that the ones who excelled, who went on to great things were NOT the ones whose parents made them practice for 20 minutes every evening.  In fact, those parents generally got maybe one or two years of lessons for their child, before their child decided to give up, and never wanted to touch an instrument again.  They had literally had music guilted out of their soul.  They learned to associate music with feeling inept and guilty and wanting to do something else.  The ones who excelled didn’t practice their instruments, they simply couldn’t wait to get them out and play with them.  Nobody is born with an innate talent for an instrument, but they are born with a fascination for the sound and feel of it, and a curiosity which can only be satisfied by just playing the dratted thing.  The parents whose children excelled were much more likely to say, “Can you put that ruddy oboe down?  It’s dinnertime!”.

If you are feeling guilty about any aspect of your music practice, then think twice.  Why are you feeling bad?  How can you take the guilt out of your music?  It might involve going to a different choir, or just allowing yourself the time to recharge your batteries without worrying about the money if necessary.  And if you lead music sessions of any kind, don’t ever make your musicians feel guilty.  It genuinely achieves nothing.  If someone leaves for a different choir, smile and wish them joy with their singing.  If they are burned out, or suffering ill-health, let them go and let them know that any time they want to come back, there will be a chair and a chocolate biscuit waiting for them.  Because choirs and music groups work best as inclusive, caring communities and that is what we should be trying to create and foster.

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Breathing 101

Breathing is easy, right? It’s instinctive. We do it every minute of every day, from the minute we are born to the minute we die. Surely we don’t need to devote more time to it when we are singing? We already know how to do this stuff – we were born knowing it!

Hmmm. Not so much. The kind of breathing that you are doing now, sat on the sofa, or at a desk, is the shallow kind. Unless you’ve got a cold or a cough, it is unlikely that your chest or stomach are moving much. You are breathing just enough to keep you alive with the minimal effort. But singing is NOT minimal effort. You should finish a singing session feeling pleasantly tired. You should have been using a LOT of air to power your voice, and the stomach and lungs is where this breath is rooted.

It is no coincidence that we refer to singing loudly as “belting” – that’s exactly the area that you should be exercising, pulling in air from there and then gently releasing it in a controlled way to make a really good sound. It involves a lot more conscious thought than you might imagine.

Imagine your whole torso is nothing but a container for air. Starting at the bottom of your torso, just above your pelvis you will pull air down, and just like any container, it will fill from the bottom up. As you fill up, feel your stomach pushing out slightly (it’s making room for your diaphragm which is governing this whole “breathing” malarkey), and then as your stomach feels full of air, start to engage your ribs and lungs, finally explanding your chest until you can’t breathe in an iota more.

Hold it.

Hold it…

Now, as you release it, don’t puff it all out in a single, coughing breath. Let it out gently and oh, so very slowly. If it helps, purse your lips and let it trickle out that way. You want to make this breath last. With this breath you are moving the tiny folds of muscle and skin in your throat to make a beautiful sound. They are only little, so you don’t need much air to move them.

Now, do the same again, but this time, make an “Ooooo” sound whilst you let your breathe trickle out. Experiment with pulling in your tummy to make the sound louder, and relaxing it to let the sound drift to almost nothing. Work with other vowel sounds – noting which ones take the most breath to sustain, and which ones sound solid and which ones sound wobbly and uncertain.

Once you’ve got the hang of that, try altering the note of your “ooo” sound up and down. Gentle and strong. Always be aware of how much air you are using.

Try it sitting down. And standing up, and – most importantly – lying down. Lying down helps your stomach muscles to understand exactly what is happening and what is required of them.

Now, I want you to do that for 20 minutes every day. Try “oooo-ing” a song that you know and love. Keep it gentle. Remember to breathe deeply. The performance doesn’t matter. The breathing and your ability to do it without thinking consciously *does*. This should be part of your singing routine every day. Eventually you will get to the point where breathing correctly is second nature, which is the whole point of the exercise!

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All Change!

So…  Why have I not been posting much?

You may notice (if you are a regular visitor to this page) that some things have changed – the colours for example.  Previously they were a very fetching purple to reflect the corporate colour of my employer – Bishop Grosseteste University.

Sadly, the University has decided that music is no longer something that they wish to offer, so my post with them disappears in a couple of weeks’ time.  However, as they were not interested in carrying on any community music activities, they said it was fine for me to continue working with the groups that I had spent so long with, and this website was always my own, so…  here I am, self-employed!

It is a bit of a scary undertaking, if I’m honest – I’m going through a period of extreme change at the moment – my divorce was finalised in February, my Ex and I are trying to sell the marital home and now I’m out of a regular job.  It’s all a bit intense if I stop to think about it too much…

But the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are opportunities in all these ‘negative’ changes:

I’m divorced.  My marriage of 25 years has gone.  BUT…  I’m with a new partner now, and he makes me incredibly happy.  The opportunity to experience the excitement of new love at this stage of my life is a wonderful one, and I’m relishing it.  My new partner get the person I am NOW, as opposed to my Ex who probably saw me as an echo of who I was 20 years ago.  I’m in love: the bubbly, gushy, smoochy kind of love and it is wonderful.

I’m selling my “forever home”.  BUT… I’m going to be moving out of the tiny village where I’ve lived for 16 years and into the nearby city.  I can go out at nights, my daughter can have friends over to stay, and best of all, I hope to be able to buy something little without the need for a mortgage!

I’ve been made redundant.  BUT… There has never been a better time to try going self-employed.  Once I am in the city I will be setting up a teaching studio and taking private students again.  My choirs are going strong and I’m trying out some new formulas on older events.  I’m very excited about the whole thing.

I’m embracing the change and all the wonderful things that it can bring me.  Running through everything is the thread of music and my ongoing desire to share that with other people, and help them to find a place for it in their own lives.

I think the future is looking pretty bright these days!

Singing Mechanics

Relax Your Voice

We often use imprecise terms when dealing with vocal anatomy.  The one that tends to concern me the most is the phrase, “Voice Box”.  It summons up thoughts of “The Little Mermaid” – all your sounds being stored in a little box in your throat, which can be stolen or damaged, thus rendering you voiceless.

The larynx is the correct name for ‘the voice box’, and is made up of a number of fleshy and cartilaginous structures.  The vocal cords are part of this, certainly, and do probably the closest to what you think ofwhen you think “voice box”.  Air travels between them and makes a noise, which varies according to their movement, which – in turn – is controlled by the muscles through the vagus nerve.

All very complicated, and not actually necessary to understand in order to use them.  Like so many things involved in singing, we can do a huge amount with visualisation and exercise to get the direct result we want without having to understand parts of our anatomy over which we have very little direct control.

The main thing when thinking about the larynx during singing is that your throat (and by extension, your larynx) should be relaxed.  I often say in vocal lessons that some of the greatest singers are the most relaxed – listen to Dionne Warwick for a masterclass in relaxation in the larynx.  She makes it sound easy because it IS easy for her.  She has worked very, very hard to make it that easy.

Here are my best tips for singing effortlessly:

  • Always warm up before singing.  At least 20 minutes, if not more.  If you go to a choir, warm up on your way there, don’t just rely on the exercises you do when you get there.  Try humming up and down super, super gently whilst you are in the car on your way there.  Make sure to rotate your head and stretch out your neck and throat muscles.
  • Practice opening your mouth when you sing.  I am strongly of the opinion that because our society does not generally prize loud voices, we clamp them down with closed mouths.  I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen singing through clamped teeth over the years.  It’s terrible for both your muscular control and the sound that you are making.  However, the key is this – don’t just open your mouth when you are singing, or you will be making your jaw muscles tense through unusual use as much as if they were clenched shut.  Practice talking with an open mouth and singing in front of a mirror to check what is happening with your mouth and jaw.
  • Actually, now I think about it, singing in front of a mirror is an excellent thing to do anyway!  Formany good reasons (not least of which is how to make yourself look less daft whilst singing), a mirror is a good idea.  Things to watch for: your stomach should be inflating when you breathe, not just your chest.  Make sure your shoulders are dropped when you sing, not hunched up and stressed.  Don’t frown!  It’s a lot to think about all at once, but remember that the aim of the game is get all of this stuff into your muscle memory so that you don’t have to think about it, it will just happen.
  • When your swallow, feel the front of your throat, your ‘Adam’s Apple’ will bob.  This is your larynx.  Try to keep it low in your throat.  This DOES NOT MEAN forcing it down, which will just make your voice sound a bit strangled.  It is more a case that if you feel your throat closing up when you reach for higher notes, give a little thought to your larynx.  Lower the back of your tongue and concentrate on letting your Adam’s Apple drop naturally.  Relax your throat, even if it means you can’t hit that top note that you are going for.  Range can come later – right now you need to be relaxed!
  • Experiment with different sounds whilst warming up your voice.  Humming is good, (mmmm) but it can make fillings and facial prosthetics vibrate in an alarming fashion!  Cycling through the vowels in order is also good.  Try pushing your start note higher each time, but continuing with the samenumber of notes, so that you expand the top of your range.  Same with pushing your range down.  As you hit the top of your range, take a deep breath and try to keep the note held and pure with as little tonal drift or vibrato as possible.  With that long held note, concentrate on relaxing everything and dropping your larynx without forcing it down.

Give all of that a go!  Let me know how you get on…

Confidence

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.

Health Benefits

Depression and Singing.

Well, this is going to be a cheery post, isn’t it?

I’m not going to back away from it though – it needs addressing.  There are many things which stop you singing – and not just singing, but being creative in any form at all.  The one that I hate most is depression.  It’s not fashionable, and it’s definitely not the sort of thing that one often talks about in company, but if you catch people quietly, and in a confidential mood, you may discover that depression is a thing that happens to far more people than you realise.

I’ll put my hands up and say that I suffer from depression.  There you go.  I’ve said it.  Over the years I’ve figured out how to hide it pretty well, and most people who aren’t close to me even realise that it is a thing.  But it most definitely is.  And when I’m depressed I find it incredibly hard to create anything of any merit.  Or maybe it’s just that I think it has no merit because I’m depressed.  In actuality, I don’t much care about the “why”, I just can’t do anything.  It’s horrible and tends to lead to a downward spiral of negativity which never ends in a particularly good place.

I’m luckier than most because I run choirs.  I am forced to sing multiple times every week because otherwise I am letting people down.  And if there’s one thing that makes me feel worse than having to go out and do things whilst depressed, it’s letting other people down.  So…  I sing.  I have to sing.

And no matter how bad I feel before I go out, I can *guarantee* that I’ll feel better after I’ve sung for an hour and a half.  I can feel the depression ‘fog’ lifting, and for a not-inconsiderable amount of time, I do feel a whole lot better.  This works whether the depression is situational or just out-of-the-blue chemical.

But why?  Well, there’s significant evidence to show that when we sing or make music of any kind, our brains release dopamine.  Dopamine is the “pleasure” chemical that is released in our brains when we do something that feels good – eating chocolate, taking a hot bubble bath or falling in love.  It is the same neurotransmitter that some of the more addictive drugs can stimulate.  Singing really does make you feel high in the same way that a tiny dose of an illegal drug might do.  Added to this, the action of opening your lungs and breathing intensively will aerate your blood and make your heart pump a little faster, which will make you feel more alert and combat the tiredness which depression often triggers.  If you are singing with a group of other people in a communal setting such as a choir, then it becomes even better.  It’s been proven in scientific studies that singing in groups makes our heartbeats synchronise and gives us a feeling of belonging and self-worth that is difficult to mimic in any other way.  Singing with other people bonds you into a social group, literally, and helps to battle the isolation of depression.

The important thing to remember is that singing is only going to help if you ACTUALLY DO IT.  The cruel irony of life with depression is that it tries very hard to isolate you and stop you from doing anything at all, when going out and doing something is exactly what you need.  The urge to just stay at home in bed or on the sofa is very, very strong.  But if you can force yourself to go out and sing, it *will* help, I promise.

It’s well worth talking to your choir leader as well.  Let them know how you’re feeling, and they’ll keep an eye on you.  If there are certain songs that trigger feelings of sadness or depression, tell your choir leader, so that they can work on other things if at all possible.  Remember that this is a partnership, and it is only by working together that you’ll get all the benefits.  Let your choir leader know what’s happening with you, and let them help.

So there we go.  I get depression.  I sing.  It helps.  I hope it helps you, too…

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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.

 

Singing Mechanics

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…