Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Music in the Community and for the Community with Annie Griffith

Category: General


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.


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!


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!

ConfidenceGeneralSinging Mechanics

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.



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?


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.


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?