Monthly Archives: July 2013

A History of Music for Singers : The Renaissance

A History of Music for SingersThe Renaissance – a time of grandeur, of experimentation and of scientific progress. For me, the Renaissance (ruh-NAY-sonce) conjures up grand Italian and Spanish courts with explorers and architects lining up to impress the monarchs. (Well, unless you pronounce it REN-ess-ahns, in which case, it’s bad wench costumes and spit roast pig in an American field!) I don’t, generally, think of Britain, or the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, as having much to do with this flowering of culture.

However, Henry VIII (1507-1547) was considered to be just a much a “Renaissance prince” as any other monarch. Yes, England was a little late to the party, thanks to a long running civil war (the Wars of the Roses) and a dour king who favoured an austerity policy (Henry VII). Scotland didn’t fare much better with the Stuarts getting themselves imprisoned by their own people (James III) and defeated by their old enemies (Battle of Flodden Field 1513). Yet, James V (1513-42) was a keen lutenist, and supported the growth of the arts in his country just as other European monarchs did.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth”. Around this time, there was a rediscovery of lots of Greek and Roman thinking and ideas which is what gave the inspiration for the term “renaissance” (which first appeared in the 19th century – it wasn’t used at the time). Another important element at this time, which matters for our story, is that the landed elites – the rulers of the day – were developing a system called “patronage” for funding the arts. Artists no longer had to either work for the church, or sell their wares. Instead, they were given a commission by a patron to create their work. Some were even paid on a retainer as court musicians, artists, poets and even scientists. Finally, there was also a grand new modern invention – the printing press – which made it easier to distribute music on a mass scale.

At the top of the social scale, music began to branch out beyond the church music that had dominated high art before this time. There were new ideas about composition which flowed from the rediscovered Greek and Roman thinking – music became more complex, and during this time the modern scales we use today were slowly refined. New forms of harmony also developed – polyphony (the weaving of multiple melodies) became more complex and homophony (block chords as used in hymn tunes and contemporary popular music) started to be included.

Renaissance singersSo what did this mean for vocal music? Well, the biggest change was the development of secular song. Traditional secular music had existed for a long time (see last week), but now the printing press allowed mass distribution. For ordinary people, this came in the form of the broadside ballad. Broadside ballads were new lyrics to popular tunes and followed the same themes as our pop music does today. There were political songs about current affairs (“Times, they are a-changing” – Bob Dylan). There were comic songs with lewd lyrics (“Thong song” – Sisqo) and without (“Earnie, the fastest milkman in the west”). Gallows songs, about the fate of criminals were very popular (“03 Bonnie & Clyde” – Beyonce & JayZ), as were the ever popular love songs (uh, everything else?). Broadside ballads were posted up on pub walls where those who could read would share the lyrics with everyone else. Here’s an example:

At the more elite end of music, songs began to be produced. Even Henry VIII wrote a few, with Greensleeves being one of the most famous to be attributed to him. This period saw a flowering of English composition. Works by Dowland, Byrd, Morely and others still appear on singing exam syllabi today. Many of these songs retain the characteristic uneven time signatures and slightly irregular tonality of this period, making them more challenging to sing than music from the classical era, for example. You can hear one of Dowland’s compositions below:

Music also entered into the fledgling world of theatre. Shakespeare’s songs, for example, have no surviving music, so large numbers of composers have set the same lyrics to different tunes. You can hear some selections of settings of “It was a Lover and his Lass” from As You Like It in the playlist below.

So we know that vocal music came in a wide range of different forms (click on each one to go to an example on youtube):

When listening to Renaissance music, here are the key features to listen for:

  • Renaissance musicModal harmony – use of different modal scales (see future post on modes)
  • Acappella singing – limited use of instruments – recorders and lutes were popular
  • Polyphonic sound – interweaving melodies
  • Contrapuntal – use of imitation
  • Word pictures – the music matches the words (the word “flying” might be on the highest note)

Composers to remember:

–> Next week: The Baroque Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

Choosing an Instrument – A Practical Guide (Woodwind edition)

Perhaps singing isn’t for you? Or you feel your child is too young to start formal singing lessons? Maybe you just want to explore all your musical options? The first and most important reason for learning an instrument should be that you want to learn it, but even then, it’s good to think about practicalities too. Here’s some ups and downs of your woodwind choices to help you out:

Woodwind Instrument PileWoodwind in general:

+ many among the cheaper instruments
+ easy to learn to play
+ smaller to carry around
– lots of spit involved – though not as much as brass
– not many of each one in orchestras (one flute, thirty violins…)


RecorderRecorder – simple wooden or plastic wind instrument with a range of about two octaves. Popular during the Renaissance period, but has since dwindled in popularity as an orchestral instrument. Comes in four sizes, but most start with the descant.

+ cheap to buy – a starter recorder will cost under a tenner (though nice wooden ones cost a lot more)
+ very easy to get sound out of and start playing melodies
+ helps with learning to read notation
– sounds an octave above the notated pitch so can be, uh, piercing
– limited options for progressing past beginner level as not many teachers specialise in recorder


elkhart-100fl-fluteFlute – metal instrument played in the same fashion as a milk bottle (broadly speaking!). Popular orchestral instrument throughout history, and considered a good instrument for young musicians to learn. Has smaller and larger versions for the adventurous.

+ light and easy to carry
+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
o moderately expensive at around £150
– doesn’t teach multiple clefs or harmony
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras


ClarinetClarinet – originally wooden, but now plastic single reed instrument (reed vibrates against the body of the instrument rather than another reed). Used in orchestras since Mozart.

+ light and easy to carry
+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing, including more styles than the flute
o moderately expensive at around £150
– transposing instrument, so it sounds differently to the notes on the stave – can result in some tricky keys for group playing
– doesn’t teach multiple clefs or harmony
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras or bands
– noisier than a flute and prone to random squawks


SaxophoneSaxophone – newer metal instrument, appears in the later romantic period, and not used in most orchestral music. Comes in a range of sizes – most start with the alto sax

+ quick to get playing real melodies
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
+ transferable skills to/from the clarinet
o limited styles of music
– quite expensive at £280 upwards
– very popular, but not many needed in orchestras or bands
– on the nosier side


Oboe – the first of the double reed instruments (two reeds vibrating against each other). Popular in orchestras throughout history. Has older siblings in the form of the Cor Anglais and Bassoon.

+ unusual choice, so lots of options for collaborative playing
+ wide range of styles and genres of music
+ teaches notation
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
– difficult to play as double reeds are hard to get sound from and require strong lungs
– reeds break easily and aren’t terribly cheap
– very expensive at £700+
– very loud as it has no ability to be muted for practice


BassoonBassoon – also a double reed instrument, the bigger brother of the oboe. Popular in orchestras throughout history.

+ very unusual choice, so lots of options for collaborative playing
+ wide range of styles and genres of music
+ teaches notation, including bass clef
+ opportunities for collaborative playing
o young children may need to start on a mini bassoon
– difficult to play as double reeds are hard to get sound from and require strong lungs
– harder to find teachers for
– reeds break easily and aren’t terribly cheap
– very expensive at £1000+
– not a very wide range of solo music
– very loud as it has no ability to be muted for practice


Bagpipes – ancient traditional instrument popular in celtic countries. Not generally used in orchestral music.

+ engages with traditional culture
+ variety of sources of income, such as playing for weddings etc
+ practice chanter means it’s actually pretty neighbour-friendly to practice
o finding a teacher may be difficult depending on location
– expensive with a good set costing around £400 (and the costume to go with can cost much the same if not more!)
– double reed instrument in the UK, so has the associated challenges including the need for strong lungs
– limited range of musical genres (you’re scuppered if you like Mozart…)
not tuned to equal temperament so can sound jarring to modern ears


So there you have it, a quick run down of the main members of the woodwind family. There are, of course, many other options which include many traditional instruments like the ocarina and the tin whistle. However, there aren’t many teachers for the ocarina. Victorian College do offer exams in the subject though!

Still confused? Click some of the links below for more options, or have a look at this handy flowchart from Sinfini Music.

[Strings] ♦ [Brass] ♦ [Other] ♦ [Why take singing lessons?]

A Brief History of the Crotchet

When learning to read musical notation, the representation of pitch is pretty logical. When the blobs go up, the pitch gets higher, when the blobs go down the pitch gets lower. So far, so good.

However, what’s less clear is rhythm. Most musical theory works start with the crotchet, or quarter note, and then work outwards. In reality, starting with a crotchet is a little bit like learning the alphabet by starting with the letter M, or learning to count starting at 5!

So let’s go back to where our modern notation came from.

Pre-staff notation

Unsurprisingly, like the notation in this picture, it started out being blobs and lines going up and down. This was all very well for someone who already basically knew the songs, like a monk who sung the same psalms over and over again. Not so great, though, if you’re trying to learn a new song from what’s been written down without having heard it.

As a result, a system of representing rhythm developed. At first, this was by joining groups of blobs together with bars. The direction and number of blobs joined told singers which rhythm the notes were supposed to be sung to.

The blobs became the basic count and were called “breves” because they were short (or brief) compared to the “longa” or long note. The breve was a black blob, and the longa was a black rectangle with a little tail. It’s not exactly clear why they used those, but so it was.

As music got more complicated, singers needed new divisions of notes. To show a semibreve, the breve was drawn as a diamond. Then to make it shorter and create a minima (tiny note), an upwards line was added. Then a little tail on the top.

White mensural notation

Somewhere around the 15th century, scribes added in an extra level by beginning to draw the longer notes as open shapes, and filling in shorter ones with black centres. This allowed another level of notes, open with a stick, and closed with a stick, before the adding a tail.

The shape of the heads slowly became less important, thanks to the use of tails and the open/closed distinction. As music writing ceased to be the exclusive realm of trained monastic scribes, they became round, like the notes we know today.

So, if you’re trying learn your way around note values, remember the breve (which we rarely use today is the basic block. Chop a breve in half, and you get a semibreve. Chop a semibreve in half and you get a minim (remember – minimal, tiny note!). Chop that in half and you get a “fusa” which is now known as a crotchet. Half of that is a semifusa, now called a quaver.

Finally, it’s worth remembering all this if only to totally confuse anyone who uses American terms. After all, it’s really the breve that’s the “whole note” and semibreves are “half notes”, half notes or minims are really “quarter notes” and so on…!

Want to know more about how to read music? Discover Singing offers theory lessons in Leith, Edinburgh.

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

The weather has been very dramatic here this week, but not so the blogosphere – I think everyone must be on holiday! If you’re not, do enjoy a good cuppa or an icecream while having a read of these gems. For more news-y articles and updates through the week, you can follow @discoversinging on twitter.

 

How Can I Help My Child Be Successful in Piano Lessons? (Teach Piano Today) – Here’s a great list of tips for parents as to how to help their child when taking music lessons.

How Much Piano Practice is Enough? (ClassicalMel) – A great article with some key tips on how to practice effectively.

(New!) Measure Cards (Pianimation) – Find learning rhythm boring? Not any more!

Missed the gold mine… (La Dona’s Music Studio) – Not only do I want the item in the picture on the right, but the one on the left would make a great group activity for school or small group music lessons.

Saving Money on Expensive Music Software (Music Matters) – A really useful post, not just for finding free and open source music software, but any software you might need.

My Book on Practicing is Born! (Beyond the Notes) – I love the idea from this blogger of a coffee table book about practicing. Maybe one day I’ll have one for my waiting room? (When I have a waiting room!)

Finally, fresh from a new blog find this week, BloodyHELLBrennan brings you an Edinburgh Fringe Survivial guide and a brilliant post about how tough life can be as an actor.

How the Voice Works – A Guide for Singers

Following on from the post last week about how breathing works, here’s a quick guide to how the voice works.

There are four parts to the voice the air pressure system, the vibratory system, the resonating system, and the modifying system. Each of these works to create the sounds we make when speaking and singing.

Candle-flame-no-reflectionWe’ve already looked at the air pressure system – it’s the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that pull air into the lungs and then control the outflow of air. You can test it! Imagine there’s a candle in front of you or use the one on the right. With your first breath out, blow over the candle very gently so that you would make the flame flicker, but not go out. Now, with your next breath, blow a strong puff of air as though you’re going to blow the candle out. Manage it? Congratulations – you can modify the air pressure coming out of your lungs!

You can see how the lungs connect to the throat and mouth in this diagram:

So let’s look now at the vibratory system. This is what turns the air into sound – at this stage, it’s just any old sound, though. To create sound, your body has vocal folds (or vocal chords as they used to be called). These are flappy bits of flesh which are normally relaxed when you breathe in an out. When you choose to speak, your body uses muscles to create tension, and the air rushing past them makes them vibrate. The closest analogy in the musical world is the way in which blowing into the reed on a clarinet or an oboe produces sound. If you watch the video below, you can see the vocal folds vibrating as the poor person with the camera down their throat tries to sing for us…

balloon-squeakerOne way in which I demonstrate this for my students is by getting a balloon and blowing it up so it’s full of air. Then I pull the neck of the balloon taught and let the air out – it makes a very loud, but unfocused noise! Try it for yourself next time you are blowing up balloons for a party.

Singers learn to adjust the muscles around their vocal folds and the larynx that protects them so that the quality of the sound is clearer. Learning to sing also involves exercising these muscles to make them stronger and more flexible which increases the range. Because we can’t normally feel these muscles, it can involve some creative exercises and lots of imagination!

Now the body has made sound, we need to make the sound louder. The noise made by vocal folds is quite small, so the body has a resonating system to amplify the sound. Many instruments have a resonating system – for example, the body of a violin or acoustic guitar, or the long length of the tube on a trombone.

In humans, our resonating system is our mouth and nose, or “oral and nasal cavities”. Just as the body of a string instrument allows sound waves to bounce around and get bigger inside it, so the space in our mouth and nose allows the sound from our vocal folds to get larger. You can feel the effect a little if you hum single note in the lower half of your voice. As you hum, relax your lips until you can feel them vibrating. That vibration is the effect of your mouth magnifying the sound into much larger waves.

Part of singing training is making use of this resonance to not only amplify the sound but to modify it’s quality so that it has a lovely tone. We can do this by adjusting the shape of our mouths – lowering the tongue, and raising the soft palate, for example. We might also want to limit the nasal resonance of sound for classical singing – though if we’re singing a country song, some of that nasal sound can be useful!

Last of all, the human body is designed to be able to shape the sound we make into distinct forms that allow us to form words.This is the modifying system. Every time you form a word, you use your lips, tongue and teeth to form and pronounce different phonics. Babies are born with the capacity to make all the sounds used in all the languages in the world, but they very quickly copy adults to learn what sounds they need to be able to use to communicate in the language their family speaks. Young children will start to sound like their parents, not just in language, but in accent because they copy the sounds around them. That’s why teens are so easily mistaken for their parents on the phone!

Here’s a labelled diagram showing all the parts of the resonating and modifying systems:

Head and cavities

You can experiment very easily with this modifying system by comparing the letter P and T. P, when pronounced as “puh” uses the lips to control the sound. T, when pronounced as “tuh” uses the tongue at the roof of the mouth. We also use our soft palate (the soft part of the roof of your mouth at the back) and the glottis (the flap that closes the airway when we swallow) to form different sounds.

Singing lessons help singers to learn to form letters in a way that still allows the sound of their voice to resonate properly, and doesn’t change the air pressure or vibrations of their vocal fold. This can involve learning to modify vowels, for example, to make the mouth and throat more open on a high note. Compare singing the sound “ah” to the sound “ee” for an example.

Each exercise a singer practices aims to develop control over different parts of these systems. Great singers have developed excellent control over these systems so that their lungs produce well controlled pressure, their vocal folds vibrate free from strain that might damage them, they can direct sound to the places of best resonance and then modify it to communicate not only sound but words to the audience. A good teacher will develop all of these skills in their students.

Want to know more about how to make the most of these vocal systems? Why not take singing lessons? Discover Singing provides lessons based in Leith, Edinburgh.

A History of Music for Singers: An Introduction

History of MusicOur new blog series for the remainder of the summer is a history of music for singers. This isn’t meant to be a “history of singing”, not least because it’s a fairly under researched area. Instead, I want to touch on some of the changes and developments in music that affect us vocalists. I’m also planning to highlight some key composers of vocal music, which may or may not be the ones you’d expect to hear about for each time period.

Following on from this series, I plan to have a composer of the month beginning from September. Each month, we’ll feature a composer, including a brief post on his or her life, and one looking at the fingerprints of his or her vocal music. For that month, the “history of music binder” pages for our composer of the month will also be available for free download. After that, you’ll be able to buy them from my (soon to be launched) resources shop, either individually, or in a range of bundles.

So let us begin with a trundle through music and the role of the voice from ancient times to the medieval age:

In The Beginning…

Music in human culture almost certainly originated with the singing voice. Some people even claim we might have sung before we spoke. Whether or not that’s true, singing had practical uses for early cultures. Have you ever tried comparing singing with shouting over long distances? Singing caries further. That’s why yodelling developed in the Alps! We don’t know much about early singing, mainly because there’s very little evidence. The soft tissue of the body doesn’t last very long after death, and there’s not much in the way of music that’s been written down. Nevertheless, we know that early civilisations like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had cultural practices which included singing.

Greek vase

Greek and Roman myth is full of mythology filled with songs, like the mermaids who sung sailors to their death on the rocks. That alone is enough to demonstrate that these early cultures recognised song as an art that had power over human life. However, music also begins to be studied in these cultures, with Greek philosophy starting to unpack the science of music. We still use some of their terms like the modal scale names today. The Greeks also thought about the role of music in the universe, with Plato imagining the planets sang as they moved through the heavens! (Isn’t that a wonderful idea?)

gerrit-van-honthorst-king-david-playing-the-harp

The Jewish culture at this time was also rich with song – the Old Testament contains many of the lyrics of songs which have become poems now that the music has long been lost. There are only tantalising references in the book of Psalms to the instruments use to play it, or the composer.
Coming, as Christianity did, out of Jewish culture, the early church also used music and the voice as part of worship. At first, these were borrowed from the Jewish music, but as Christians spread across Europe and the globe, so they adopted other local styles of music and made them their own – and they’re still doing it today!

The church authorities were unhappy about this borrowing from secular styles, and they tried to stop it (things don’t change, do they?). They mostly succeeded in this to begin with, and singing was limited to plainchant – mainly unison singing to begin with. Slowly, as time went on, the singing became more adventurous, with some very limited harmony being included. This harmony


threeClericsSinging-300x295Most of the evidence for how singing sounded at this time comes from drawings in manuscripts. It seems likely from the descriptions and pictures that singing was quite nasal in sound – very twangy. I imagine it sounding a lot like very bad country music that’s sung all on one note…was largely based on fourths and fifths as those intervals are very stable – they’re “perfect”. The third or “triton” could be major or minor, and thus was considered to be the devil’s music!

 

Here’s an example of plainchant from the 11th Century, sung by a modern day professional tenor.

As harmonies grew more complicated, the need for a wider range of voices grew. The church couldn’t bring itself to allow women to sing, as they believed it was banned by the bible. Instead, they allowed boys to train as trebles for church choirs, just as they still do today. There were, of course, disadvantages to this as boys do eventually grow into men. This led to the use of castrati: men who have had their testes removed to prevent puberty, and thus their voice dropping. Unpleasant, but it did allow greater variety and experimentation with choral music.

sumerisicumenin

Alongside these changes in church music, secular music developed more complicated forms. One very early example of non-church music is the round “Summer is Icumen in”. Rounds were a popular form for medieval songs as they were easy to learn and could be sung both by individuals and by groups (probably in the pub…).


By the end of the medieval era, as the Tudors in England and Stuarts in Scotland were ascending their thrones, vocal music had developed into a more melodic and harmonious form than ever before. Meanwhile, on the continent of Europe, the rebirth of science and art was beginning to take hold. This was the Renaissance, and it marked the true beginnings of what is now called “Western Art Music”.

 

–> Next post: The Grand Renaissance

 

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

Repertoire Corner

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Welcome back to Repertoire Corner. This week, we’re contrasting two very different songs taken from the ABRSM Grade 2 list – both with more adult ideas in them than might first meet the eye.

 

Anon. English – The Coventry Carol
[ABRSM 2(B), TG 2(B)]

At first listen, this sounds a like a gentle lullaby to be sung around Christmas time. Instead, if you delve into the words, this is the mothers of the baby boys massacred by Herod singing a lullaby to Jesus. Throughout this song, the singer needs to engage deeply with the agony of these women who have lost their children, and yet still urge the baby Jesus to be quiet so that Herod does not find him. Carefully chosen dynamic variation will help to keep the simple melody from becoming repetitive. Take care with the end of each verse as the shift to the major key could easily catch beginners out. This song is also very long, so needs effort to maintain interest and concentration throughout. [YouTube]

* * *

Bart – As Long as He Needs Me
[ABRSM 2(C); TG 3(A); LCM MT 5-6]

It is all too easy to sing this song as a flowing and pretty tune. It sounds so romantic. However, this is really a song about a woman trapped in a violent relationship, and in fear of her life, but unable to leave. It’s a 1960s version of the haunting “Maybe I Like it This Way” from Lippa’s The Wild Party. Instead, the lyrical melody should be sung more haltingly as though on the brink of tears, in desperation. LCM’s music theatre rating is a lot more accurate regarding the difficulty of this song. Even without the acting challenges, there are also vocal challenges since singers should also aim for a cockney accent over the top of basic good vocal technique. [YouTube]

How Breathing Works: A Guide for Singers

When I started taking singing lessons, I never expected that I would come to know so much about the human body. I’m still not convinced that anatomy is my favourite subject, but it’s vital for singers and singing teachers to understand what’s going on in the body.

The very first process singers are introduced to is usually their breathing mechanism. Breathing is an automatic process for the body – a reflex. We don’t have to consciously decide to breathe in and breathe out (how bad would it be if we did?). Instead, our body knows to tense and relax the right muscles at the right time all by itself.

The muscle which does most of the work for our breathing is called the diaphragm. It’s a large muscle located right on the bottom of your lungs, dividing them from the rest of the organs in your abdomen (stomach, kidneys, liver, intestines, etc). It is what draws air into your lungs. Without it, your lungs would be empty, like a party balloon when it comes out of the packet.

Here’s where it gets a bit technical. Unlike a party balloon, where we push air into it, and it expands (this is how medical artificial respirators work), our body uses an amazing bit of science to draw air into our lungs. When our diaphragm becomes tense, it creates a vacuum in your chest which sucks your lungs down. Our muscles around our ribs (intercostal muscle) also tense, moving our ribcage up and out, increasing this vacuum that’s opening our lungs. As our lungs open up, that creates another vacuum in our lungs which air rushes into.  It’s exactly the same scientific principles as a vacuum cleaner uses. When the diaphragm relaxes, the vacuum stops, the lungs close down again, and the air in the lungs flows back out again. Amazing stuff, eh?

So what does this mean for singers?

Well, our diaphragm works automatically without us noticing most of the time, but singers need to become aware of it. Sometimes it goes wrong, and we get hiccups – the feeling you get at the base of your ribs when you hiccup, or when you’re waiting to see if you’re going to hiccup? That’s your diaphragm you’re feeling. You don’t want to try to induce hiccups just to feel your diaphragm so when you’re breathing normally, place your hand just across the bottom of your ribs, where the left and right separate, and you should be able to feel a rising and falling sensation. That’s the effect of your diaphragm.

Some people say singers need to learn to “breath with (or from) your diaphragm”. This isn’t anatomically correct, but the principle is the right. We need to learn to do two things as singers – breath using our whole lungs and control the speed of our breathing.

Normally, our breathing is fairly shallow – we don’t need to breath heavily as we’re not using much oxygen up when we’re sitting down. As we do more active things – walking or running, our breathing gets deeper as we need more oxygen. Singers harness this natural ability to vary the depth of our breath by developing conscious control over how far out the muscles inbetween our ribs (our intercostal muscles) move out, and how quickly or slowly our diaphragm tenses. You can already do this a little because you can already choose to take an extra large and deep breath.

Singing is always building on natural things our bodies do anyway. It’s not a mythical or mysterious process – there are lots of buzz words and jargon some teachers use, but really, it’s all about getting your body to do the stuff it already does even better! You can already control the speed of your breathing a little too – you can hold your breath. When we hold our breath, we are consciously telling our diaphragm to stop moving. Eventually, our body will override this command as we need oxygen, but we can control it. Singers develop a very fine control over this muscle, not only being able to hold their breath, but to control how slowly the diaphragm releases, and using the muscles around our intercostal (rib) muscles to control the speed of our breathing.

Lots of techniques exist now that help with general breathing. Many people, singers and not, find yoga really helpful as there is a focus on breathing deeply and rhythmically. The Alexander Technique can also help with breathing along with improving posture and movement.

Keep following the blog for exercise ideas that will help you with controlling your breathing for singing. If you’re serious about getting better at singing, do find a singing teacher in your area to help you. For Edinburgh-based lessons, contact me.

Friday Favourites

Time to take a Friday Pause

The BBC Proms has got underway this week, with a wonderful sea-themed opening night last Friday. The Doctor Who prom was only available on Radio 3, but a generation of children were introduced to the joy of radio because of that (and I assume a TV broadcast will be shown in November). For more info on the Proms season, click this link, or read the Guardian’s review of the week. Why not put on tonight’s prom (or one of this week’s on iPlayer) and enjoy catching up on the week’s music blogs?

Are You One Of The 50%? – This May Change How You Teach Piano (Teach Piano Today) – A very short post with a very important message.

A Simple Strategy for Worrying Less and Practicing More Productively (Bulletproof Musician) – Some fantastic tips for how to focus on music practice when your mind is filled with other stress and worries.

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!” (Practising the Piano with Graham Fitch) – A really challenging post about the benefits of quick study, alongside the longer-term practicing to perfection.

Speaking from the Stage (The Musician’s Way) – Some key tips taken from public speaking into the world of music making.

Grand Pause (don’t shoot the pianist) – Makes me quite glad our national anthem has an introduction and is usually sung in a big group!

The Dog Ate My Piano Book – Part 2… And Now It’s Personal (Teach Piano Today) – What can we learn about practicing our music from dog obedience training? More than you’d think…

Composing Music with Music Dice (Practice Makes it Easy) – A fantastically easy and creative idea using musical dice to introduce students to composing. I just wish it was easier to get hold of musical dice in the UK!

Meet the Artist… Melinda Huges, opera singer & satirical performer (The Cross-Eyed Pianist) – Normally, this series is interviews with pianists, but this time it’s an opera singer, and it’s an enlightening interview.

Stage Frights: Musicals We’ll Never See (Guardian Theatre Blog) – Following the news that 20th Century Fox are planning to make more movies into musicals, Lyn Gardner muses on the wisdom of such a move.

Critical Vs Creative Thinking: How Initial Judgments Can Cripple Your Learning (Jazz Advice) – A little open-mindedness goes a really long way in music!

Audience in a Bottle (Pianimation) – A great, if slightly creepy, idea to help you really perform every time.

Fearlessly Embrace Things That Seem Odd (La Dona’s Music Studio) – A great introduction to one of the odder trends in 20th century music.

And finally, a cartoon courtesy of La Dona’s Music Studio:

swing