Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Month: February 2016


Help! It’s All Gone Wrong!!!!

whoops_manMuch as we would like to think that every time we open our mouths in a musical setting, it is like angels singing, and we are always perfectly rehearsed with exactly the right words in front of us, and remembering every single tip and hint we’ve heard whilst learning the songs, we know it doesn’t happen like that.

It is a hard thing to accept, but the mark of a professional is not the ability to never get it wrong.  The mark of professionalism (and I count choirs in that as well) is the ability to get it completely, appallingly, skin-shrinkingly wrong and still carry on with a smile.  Because it happens to us ALL.  Everyone who has ever performed live has had something go terribly, terribly wrong.  I am now going to share one of my all-time favourite Youtube clips with you.  If 1980’s glam rock ‘n’ roll isn’t your thing, I apologise, but I want you to stick with it.  This is supergroup, Van Halen, playing their huge hit, “Jump” and getting it so appallingly, terrifyingly, sickeningly wrong that watching it is like watching a train crash.  You know you shouldn’t look, but somehow you just can’t stop…  (For those who want to know what had gone so wrong, apparently the keyboards are pre-recorded and got played at the wrong speed, there was no way for the guitarist to play the same notes without retuning his entire guitar).  Please watch this.  It’s about 6 minutes (the guitar solo is a particular highlight at just after 3 minutes), but really, you’ll feel better about everything you’ve ever got wrong afterwards, because you’ve never got it wrong in front of several thousand people who all paid £50+ for tickets…

Oh, but it’s a hot mess.  But notice what they did?  They didn’t stop.  They didn’t glare at one another.  They didn’t look distressed.  They jumped a little higher, sang a little louder, smiled a little harder and (if you made it to the end) rode a giant inflatable microphone around the stage like a bucking bronco!  Notice what the crowd did?  The crowd went WILD!  They loved it!  How could they possibly have loved a version of a song so bad that not even its mother could love it?

The thing is, with this performance, and every performance ever (even more so with community choirs, I’ve found), is that the audience really want you to get it right.  The fun for them is in seeing something confident and effortless.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a really scared or upset performer, but it’s not a good thing.  You feel awful for them.  You want to jump up, take the microphone away and cuddle them.  There is no enjoyment in watching someone getting something wrong and then being uncomfortable and scared in the spotlight.  However, watching someone get something wrong, and turning it into a joke, or smiling, getting the right note in the second verse and carrying on?  Yes!  That’s great!  If the performers are comfortable and smiling, so is the audience.  You get extra brownie points for carrying on and turning it around.  Because that’s more professional than giving up or bursting into tears or storming off the stage.  So here are my top tips for what to do when it all goes wrong…

  • Smile.  Your instinctive reaction when something goes wrong should be to grin at the audience as if you are sharing something really funny with them.  They’ll feel instantly comfortable and probably won’t even notice something went wrong.
  • Don’t stop.  Unless your choir leader stops you – carry on!  If your choir leader does stop you, smile at them with confidence.  They’ll get you right, and as far as the audience knows, it’s their fault, not yours!
  • Mime for a bit.  If you’ve lost your place or feel your vocal line has run away with no hope of coming back in this verse, just mime for a bit.  Or sing the melody for a while.  Worst case, everyone sings the melody and it sounds like the arrangement was meant to do that anyway!
  • Jump back on the roundabout when it comes round again.  If there’s a bit of the song that is really familiar – the chorus is a good place – wait until it comes round again (either miming or singing melody as above) then jump back in with the right note at the right place.
  • Edge closer to someone who is singing your part and sounds confident.  There’s often one or two people in every choir that are pretty confident about what they are singing.  Try and hear what they are doing.  Unless, of course, you are one of those people, in which case, default to the melody, and to heck with it!

The greatest piece of musical advice I was ever given was this: “Start well and finish well, and they’ll forgive *anything* in the middle”.  It’s very, very true.

If you need anything else to bolster your confidence by remembering that this happens to professionals, I give you my last offering:  Paul McCartney screwing up “Hey Jude” at the Olympics in 2012, whilst THE WHOLE WORLD was watching.  Poor chap.

Performance Skills

Don’t Let Others Sabotage Your Creativity!

i canLast time we looked at how words can affect small children, crushing their self-esteem and leaving them unable to join in with our singing culture for decades.  It’s horrible.  Don’t do it.

But there is a flip side, and one that I know all too well.  The chances are good that you aren’t the person making the comments, but the person to whom the comments have been made.  That one little comment haunts you, and has done so for decades.  You want to sing – you desperately do – but you are frightened that you are going to make a fool of yourself and that someone is going to tell you to be quiet, shut up or that you can’t sing.  And then you’ll feel like you are 7 again.

I get it.  I really do.  And so does every other community choir leader EVER.

It might help a little to understand that a lot of the people in any choir you decide to try out are dealing with similar issues.  Family members will laugh and make fun of the fact that you are doing something creative.  That is the hardest thing to cope with, I find, and the hardest thing to ignore, because the comments are made by people we love.  However, it is important to understand that these comments are generally also made with no concept of the meaning behind them.  I have never yet found a singer who has made these comments about another singer.  The comments usually come from people who don’t sing.  They will portray them as “poking fun” and be very resistant to understanding how hurtful they are.

So, if you get that comment from someone close to you about the fact that “you can’t sing” or some “funny” remark (you sound like a cat in heat, someone will call the police thinking a siren has gone off, etc. etc. ad nauseaum), the first thing you have to do is remember this mantra:

“They don’t sing.  What the heck do they know anyway?”

Because really, they don’t know squat.  Maybe you don’t sound like Katherine Jenkins or Pavarotti yet.  That’s OK.  They didn’t either, when they started.  And maybe, just maybe, you’d rather sound like Billie Holliday or Ray Charles, instead.  Because, hey – who wouldn’t?

There’s also another, slightly nastier undertone here.  People make those sorts of comments because they want to stop you.  To sabotage you.  They don’t want you to succeed at something that they can’t do.  It is hard to acknowledge, but often those comments are not made with love at their heart.

When you receive comments like this, the best thing is meet them head on:

“Actually, I think that’s kind of hurtful.  I’m enjoying my singing, and I’m doing it for myself.  What makes you think that it’s OK to make a comment like that?”  I can guarantee that meeting a ‘joke-y’ hurtful comment with a response like that will shut it right down.  Do it twice, and it is very unlikely that person will try again.

You don’t need external people trying to hold you back – you deserve to fly!


I Can’t Sing…

568370862_no_vocals1_answer_2_xlargeYou’d be surprised at how many people come to my community choirs (and from what I’ve heard from other choir leaders – their community choirs, too) with absolutely no self-confidence in their ability to be able to sing.

Or maybe you wouldn’t.  Because maybe your story is very similar to their story.  I’ve heard it a few hundred times at least:

An adult makes enquiries about joining one of my choirs.  I am thrilled and say that we’d love to have them, and outline details of what we sing, when we meet and so forth.  They look a bit sad and say something like, “Don’t expect much.  I can’t sing, you know.”  I look concerned (privately I completely doubt what they are saying – they have a very nice speaking voice, and I’m sure that there is a lovely singer just waiting to surface), and probe a little deeper as why they think they can’t sing.  They generally tell me that when they were a child, a parent or a teacher told them to be quiet.  Told them that they couldn’t sing.  Sometimes they are told to just “mime whilst the others sing”.  Sometimes they are asked to sit down whilst everyone else sings.  Sometimes a parent or an older sibling tells them to shut up, and says that they can’t sing, so don’t try.

I’ll be honest here, I struggle with this story.  I don’t struggle to believe it, but I struggle with the white-hot rage it inspires inside me.  The people telling me this are usually older adults – often retirees – who have spent their entire lives thinking that they can’t sing.  They’ve lost out on the decades of joy and companionship that singing brings.  And WITHOUT EXCEPTION every single one has turned out to have a lovely voice, and after a few weeks of worry and concern, they have managed to join in with the rest of the choir in raising those lovely voices joyfully.

Now, full disclosure – as well as teaching choirs, I also teach music to primary aged children (4-11).  I’m a patient person, and I enjoy listening to those unfettered voices being raised in song.  It’s a wonderful thing.  I don’t shout.  I don’t victimise and I don’t get cross except for one thing.  One single thing is guaranteed to make me incandescently angry.  Never, ever, ever say to a child, “You can’t sing”.  Not if you are an adult, and not if you are another child.  No-one gets to judge anyone else’s music making in my class!  I’ve stopped whole classes to have the discussion about everyone’s voice having worth, and everyone’s voice sounding different.  We may all be born with the same voice apparatus, but we all use it differently.  Some people take a little longer to sing the note that they can hear in their heads, whilst some can do it immediately (but might really struggle with some other aspect).  That does not mean that some people can sing and others cannot.

This is a soapbox of mine, I’ll admit.  Far too few adults understand the impact that a single negative comment can have on a child or young person.  Don’t do it.  Understand that this one single comment could be the thing that they carry with them for the rest of their lives, replaying it in their head when their child asks for a lullaby (I can’t sing), or the rest of the football stadium erupts in song (I can’t sing), or everyone sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to a beloved relative (I can’t sing), or singing a hymn at their own wedding (I can’t sing), or a party where someone gets out a guitar and starts playing old Beatles’ songs for people to sing along with (I can’t sing), or even at their parent’s funeral (I can’t sing).  That single comment haunts them.

Do not be the person that stops them singing to their baby, or singing “Hey Jude” with their best friend as the sun sinks below the horizon and another bottle of wine is opened.  Don’t do it.  Try this instead:

Be quiet” = “I love to hear you sing!  It sounds best when we’re all singing at the same time, so try to join in with everyone else – that would sound great.”

You can’t sing” = “You’ve got a great voice!  I love the fact that it sounds a little different – there are some fabulous musicians with voices a bit like yours – let’s have a talk about finding some of them for you to listen to…”

You can’t sing this song” = “This song isn’t the best for you.  How do you feel about it?  Shall we find something that lets you shine a bit instead?”

Just mime with the others” = “I want to hear everyone.  If you are comfortable singing, I’d like to hear it.  Everyone’s voice has value, and adds to the overall performance.”

You get the idea, huh?  Try to remember that every thing you say has an effect and can stay with a child for life.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Someone grows up enjoying music, and slowly getting better as they practice?


The Ageing Voice

Elderly-Lady-SingingAs optimistic people say, “I love getting old – it beats the alternative!”.  Dealing with an ageing voice is something that hopefully we will all be dealing with at some point.  Mind you, the definition of “an aging voice” is probably going to be a bit shocking for you.  Medically speaking, we are growing, filling out and extending our bodies until we reach the ripe old age of… approximately 35.  After that, the studies tell us, it’s all a bit downhill.  Personally speaking, I peaked a good few years back, according to that!

However, the medical concept of “an ageing voice” is not what you think.  It’s not that croaky, shaky little-old-person’s voice that probably worries every singer.  The concept is that we continue to stretch and add muscle tone until we reach 35 and after that, what we have is pretty much set.  If you want to be an operatic soprano, you really ought to start before being 35, is what they are saying.

The nice, flexible cartilage in your throat that makes singing so easy when you are in your twenties will start to ossify (read: turn to bone!) the older you get – this process starts when you are a toddler and finishes when you are in your early sixties.  Reading this, a casual singer over the age of sixty is likely to think, “It’s all over!  I’ll never sing again!!!”  I can counter this is one easy, easy video.  Check out this link:

Aretha Franklin sings a tribute to Carole King

If you are a woman, past menopause and worried about your singing voice – I refer you back to this video again.  Listen to her voice.  See her *own* that stage.  She oozes sex appeal.  This lady is almost 74.  Seventy-FOUR!   She’s reduced the President of the United States to tears with the power and expressiveness of her voice.

There are a whole lot of things that you can do, regardless of age and gender, to make sure that your voice stays supple and in great shape until you are well into your nineties, at least.

  • Accept that if you are a woman you are going to lose several notes from the top of your range.  If you are a man, you are likely to lose a couple of notes from the bottom of your range.  This is to do with the downward journey of the laryngeal structure as you age, and hormones.  Those on hormone replacement therapy (including vocalists who are trans.) will probably notice less of a difference, as they will be dealing with the age related laryngeal drop, but not the hormone alterations.
  • Pay a lot of attention to your posture.  This is great advice anyway, as no-one wants to end up with a posture like a fairytale grandmother…  Stand up straight and position your head over your body, not leaning forwards or backwards (forwards is the most common).  Make sure your shoulders are back and relaxed, and your feet are located under them.  Clasp your hands in front of you and raise them over your head.  Try singing with your hands in the air and see how different it feels!
  • Concentrate on breathing from your middle.  Keep your chest and upper body as still as possible.  Sing gently, and as you use up your air, pull your tummy in.
  • Don’t let your natural vibrato slow down.  When it does, you will instantly sound at least ten years older than you really are.  Keep your singing voice as smooth as possible and when you want to use vibrato, do so with control, and do it fast!
  • Practice moving your throat and mouth by doing the “Wicked Witch vs. Sloane Ranger” exercise (“Heheheheheh” “OK, Yaaaaaaaaaah”).
  • Pay very careful attention to what you sound like.  Record yourself and listen to it.
  • Lots and lots of audiation (we’ll cover this in more depth later).  The more, the better!  (Think of it as singing along in your head…)

We’ll look at this in more detail as time goes on, but remember that the watchword is to just get your voice moving and then worry about the right notes later…




Cough. Cough. Coughcoughcough.

Depositphotos_6301020_mI’m writing this from home today as I am not feeling very well.  I have a cold, but one that doesn’t seem to have lingered around my nose and sinuses as they often do, but one which seems to have skipped straight to my throat and lungs, leaving me with a high temperature whilst trying to fight it off.

It strikes me that I am probably not the only person to be dealing with this at the moment, as colds and coughs are very prevalent in late winter and early spring.

So, how do I deal with a cold, and particularly the kind of cough that steals your voice?  I’ve had a LOT of practice over the years.  I often claim that I could stub my toe and get a cough, and it’s true.  Eventually, everything settles to my lungs and I feel dreadful, and my voice suffers hugely as well.

First up, I think it is really important to understand what is happening when you cough all the time.  When you talk or sing, your vocal folds move gently in different configurations to allow the sound to be formed and projected in the way that you want.  When you cough (in this case to expel foreign matter such as phlegm from your throat and lungs), your folds are suddenly forced wide open and air expels from your lungs at over 100mph.  If you do this often (personally, I tend to have coughing spasms, wherein I cough repeatedly for up to three or four minutes with increasing strength, until I choke or sometimes gag) then the delicate muscles of your vocal folds are being forced, time and time again, into an uncomfortably open position, and shaken by the force of air moving past them.  They dry out very quickly, which then makes them more unwilling to move.  Another cough after this point will inevitably bruise the folds, making them more tender and even more unable to move.  You will end up with a croaky, airy voice, because your folds can’t move in the normal manner, and the only thing you can do is allow them to rest.  Here is my personal list of things to do:

  1. Try to limit your coughing.  Medicate regularly and effectively.  Learn what cough medicine works for you.  For me, it is non-branded Pholcodeine Linctus.  It’s available over the counter and is the only thing that breaks that dry, tizzicky cough that causes so much damage.
  2. Sooth your throat.  Pastilles and lozenges are good, and will make your throat moister, limiting the damage of the air inherent in coughing.  I recommend Vocalzone pastilles.  They taste like a mixture of earwax and liquorice, but do the job very effectively.  I can only force myself to use them in extreme conditions.  A nice Strepsil works more palatably for me.
  3. Eat chocolate.  Really – it’s very good for stopping coughing.  It has been medically proven and everything!  It has the pleasant side effect of BEING CHOCOLATE as well.  What’s not to like?
  4. Drink pineapple juice.  There isn’t much in the way of medical science to support it (unlike the chocolate thing above), but it’s a long held belief by many singers that it soothes the throat, helps to disperse mucous, and helps with restoring a voice to health.  I’ve personally found it very helpful, but can’t prove it!  Don’t drink too much, though – there’s an enzyme in it which attacks the collagen in your cheeks and tongue and will hurt if you drink a whole carton in one go!
  5. Don’t whisper.  You use more air, and dry out your folds really effectively.  Don’t do it.
  6. Keep your voice moving.  If you keep absolutely silent when you have a cold, the likelihood is that phlegm will settle on your folds and not be shaken free. This will actually make your voice worse, as those little muscles are now trying to work whilst bruised from coughing and with a horrible lump of dried up gunk layered over them.  Yuk!  Keep talking gently and trying occasional very quiet “siren” exercises to keep them clear and functioning.
  7. Neti Pot!  I always forget to recommend this one, but if you are bunged up, and particularly at that stage of a cold I like to call, “My Head is a Glue Factory”, try a Neti Pot.  You fill them with lukewarm saline solution, tilt your head sideways and forwards and stick the nozzle into your nostril and pour the water in.  Keep your throat closed and do it over a sink.  The water will swoosh around your sinuses, feel very strange, but clear out all of that gunk when it streams out of the other nostril.  The first nose-blow after a Neti Pot treatment is one of the more joyful experiences of life.  They aren’t that common in the UK, but you can buy them online.  I love mine with a burning passion, and haven’t accidentally waterboarded myself yet!
  8. Drink water.  Lots of water.  Colds and coughs dry you out.  Decongestants dry you out even more.  Drink as much water as you can bear, it will moisturise all of the mucous membranes in your body, make you feel better, and enable your body to fight the infection more effectively.  It will also make your skin look better!

So – have you got any cold/cough fighting tips?  Do chip in!  I’m going to have some more tea and hope that I’m well enough to lead choir tonight – although maybe from a distance so I don’t cough over anyone!.


Head Voice? Chest Voice? Eh?

uwqvleYou’ve heard the phrases, “chest voice” and “head voice”.  They get thrown around in singing lessons and choirs quite a lot.  But if we are not careful, they can be overused terms which are never properly explained.  So, what do they mean?

Chest voice is that full, low sound that you belt out when you sing rock songs in the shower.  It is not quiet or polite.  It is a loud, bombastic sound that, when used properly, makes your chest reverberate.  It’s the bit of your voice that you use when you sing the bit of McCartney’s “The Frog Chorus” that goes “Bom, bom, bom” (incidentally, the Head Voice is the bit that you go, “Aye-i-aye” with at the end of the “Bom, bom, bom” bit…).  It is powerful, low and often easier to control.  If you are a bloke, then a huge amount of what you sing will be in chest voice.  It is also known as your “heavy register”, which I think is very descriptive – the voice does, indeed, sound and feel much heavier.  When you sing like this, your vocal folds (the muscles that control the sound you make – pictured in the animation in this post) are quite relaxed and thick – the whole of the vocal muscle is involved in this register.

Head voice is lighter and higher, and often referred to as “falsetto”.  If you are unused to singing in this voice it will feel odd, and possibly as though you are pretending to sing opera, rather than singing in your “natural voice”.  It is important to understand that it is your natural voice as well – I often use the trick of getting an entire choir to “put on a silly operatic voice” and then asking them to sing.  The result is *always* excellent.  Once a singer is over the idea of “the real voice” and “the fake voice”, it opens up possibilities of using both, even dramatically swooping between the two (listen to Dolores O’Riordan for an excellent example of this).  When you sing in your falsetto voice, your vocal folds are stretched thinner and tighter, and only the edges of them vibrate.  This makes a higher/lighter sound (the tighter the folds, the higher the note), but is generally quieter, with less volume variation than the heavy register.

In normal repertoire, female singers are expected to use both chest and head voices, whilst men are routinely expected to only use their lower, heavy, chest register.  There is no reason why men should not use their higher register, and indeed Counter-Tenors use it to great effect.

To hear the difference between your registers, try singing a note which should appear in both – something around middle C will work for many people.  Try belting it out in your lower voice, and then add a little breath and try it in your “fake opera” voice, smoothing out any vibrato/wobble as best you can.

Pay attention to how it feels, and how it sounds.  Does it sound different to your ear?

Now try singing a song which extends above the range that you normally feel comfortable in.  When you feel you’ve run out of voice and can’t go any higher, try swapping to the “fake opera” voice, smoothing out the worst of the wobble and see what happens.  Any extra notes there that you hadn’t suspected?