Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Month: March 2016

Singing Mechanics

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!


What Do Want From Your Music?

Screen-shot-2013-06-04-at-10.40.54-AMWe all want different things from music, and particularly singing, I’ve discovered over the years.  For some people, what they want is to sing riotous chorus songs and sea shanties, whilst others crave the precision and interplay of intricate Barbershop performances.

It’s important to think about what you want from a singing group or experience, and make sure that the ones you look at are meeting that need.  These are some of the more common things that people look for (please note that you cannot possibly get all these things in the same group, many of them are mutually exclusive…)

  • Companionship.  This one is very common.  There is a companionship to be found in music which is difficult to replicate in other art forms or pasttimes.
  • A Chance to Learn.  Many people want to stretch themselves and their musical knowledge.  Singing under a challenging choral leader can do this, and lead to a series of great learning opportunities.
  • Gentle Exercise. For less physically fit people, singing can be an excellent gateway exercise, involving good breathing practice and attention to posture.
  • An Opportunity to Sing Without Judgement. This one is very common in community choirs.  People who have been marginalised earlier in their musical lives can be very relieved to find a way to sing without feeling exposed or judged.
  • Health Benefits.  Singing is particularly valuable for those working through depression issues and those working with physical limitations through brain trauma or ongoing dementia problems.

So why do *you* want to sing?  Have you ever thought why?  What does singing do for you?

Singing Mechanics


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!