Monthly Archives: September 2013

Exercises for Beginners: Tongue Twisters

Tongue TwisterOne of my favourite kinds of warming up and technical exercises is tongue twisters. They’re great for warming up all of the muscles needed to form words when singing and help singers practice good diction and articulation (i.e. the ability to sing words so that the audience understands what they are).

If you’re new to tongue twisters, or new to singing, start by saying one slowly. Try this one:

How many boards could the Mongols hoard, If the Mongol hordes got bored?

Once you’ve mastered repeating it slowly, speed up gradually. Each repetition should be fractionally faster than the one before. As it gets faster, you’ll need to exaggerate the movements in your face to keep the words clear. Don’t do this where you can see yourself – you’ll end up laughing too much! Stop when the words become too muddled, and then have another go.

Once you’ve got the hang of saying them, the next challenge is to sing them. Pick a comfortable note and sing this one all on the same pitch:

Black background, brown background

Again, keep getting faster until the words become muddled. Repeat a few times before trying the last exercise.

The final way to use tongue twisters is to sing them over a pattern. For example, try singing this tongue twister

Seventy seven benevolent elephants

On a slightly higher note each time you repeat it, so you’re singing it once on each note in the pattern below:

Again, keep getting faster and repeating the words and the pattern in a circle until you can’t say the words clearly anymore!

You can use tongue twisters on any warm up pattern – scales, arpeggios, pentascales, pentatonic scales, anything you like!

If you need more ideas for tongue twisters, or want a list for sharing with students, you can grab my free tongue twisters printable by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1316″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

Last Friday Favourites of September, and the evenings are definitely drawing in. There’s even signs of a few autumnal leaves around. Oh, and musicians everywhere are in the middle of planning their Christmas concerts! Whether you’re prepping for an exam this term, or looking to festive performances, take a break and enjoy a few of these great posts and articles.

On Learning

Make Practicing Less Frustrating With the 5 Whys Technique (Bulletproof Musician) – Instead of thinking the mistake was because “I suck”, why not try this method to figure out what the real problem is?

On Teaching

The Piano Survey 2010 (The Curious Piano Teacher) – Results from some PhD research showing the demographics of piano teachers in the UK

When to Apply For a Piano Exam (La Dona’s Music Studio) – Some important and challenging thoughts on when we should put students in for exams.

Music in the News

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music (The Independent) – Acclaimed violinist criticises music teaching in the UK

Teenagers tune up for the homeless (Linlithgow Gazette) – A guitar recycling project has got youngsters in Linlithgow strumming from the same songsheet

My brain was like mashed potato after a terrible car accident – but listening to Coldplay helps me remember who I am (Daily Mail) – How playing Coldplay helped Ed Buckly recover from hit & run.


A Beautiful Process for Scales (Practicing the Piano) – A great suggestion from a master class on how to bring life into scales (and this technique can be practiced right from Grade 1 in a limited form).

Wake Up! Warm Up!

SunOne of the most important things you need to do when practicing singing is to warm up properly. Warming up is not quite the same as vocal exercises, although a good warm up routine will go from physical warm-ups to vocal exercises without feeling like the warm-up stops and the vocal exercises start.

Different people find different things helpful. For example, some people like to practice yoga, or use dance-based warm-ups before singing. However, if you have no idea where to start, here is a simple physical and vocal warm-up to use.

  1. Jogging on the spot helps to get the blood flowing – this is especially important if you are sat down for most of the day. Do this for about 30 seconds.
  2. Make big sweeping circles with one arm and then the other. Be sure to go in both directions – backwards and forwards. Take deep breaths as you do this, letting your belly move rather than your shoulders.
  3. Stretch right up, and then relax down, one joint at a time until you’re hanging right over. Breathe out slowly as you go down. Rest there for a few gentle breaths and then roll back up to standing one vertebrae at a time, breathing out as you go up.
  4. Roll your shoulders backwards and then forwards a few times. Shrug up your shoulders to your ears and then relax them.
  5. Rub your cheeks, jaw muscles and neck with your hands to get the blood flowing.
  6. Stretch up and over to your right with one arm, and then repeat in the other direction.
  7. Give your body a gentle shake out to loosen off all your muscles.
  8. Finish by adjusting your posture to make sure you are standing up tall and balanced with your weight evenly on both feet.
  9. Take a few more deep and slow breaths – you might want to go through a few rounds of square breathing, or other breathing exercises.

Once you’ve warmed up your body, you can start getting your voice going:

  1. Gently, start to siren over a small range of notes. Each time, let the range get bigger until you’re swooping up and down through your whole voice.
  2. Using a hum, or a lip trill, sing up and down some simple patterns in the middle of your voice
  3. Sing some tongue twisters on comfortable notes in the middle of your range.

From this point, you can then move on to start working on the exercises set by your teacher for your practice which will probably include things like singing arpeggios and scales. You should also now sing through your full range properly, as this will help to extend and strengthen the highest and lowest notes.

If you need a reminder to put up in your practice space, or want to share this warm-up routine with your students, you can grab a free printable copy of this blogpost by clicking here: [purchase_link id=”1317″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]


A History of Music for Singers – The Romantic Era

A History of Music for SingersThe Romantic Period in musical history is so termed because it’s an era of music that’s endlessly high on emotion whether in art, music, or literature. Largely, this “Romanticism” is considered to be a reaction to the developing Industrial Revolution which saw machines take over from people and cities grow sprawling and black with coal. Artists wanted to stand against this de-humanising and un-natural direction and instead bring out human emotions and natural themes. Compare the top picture of the Victorian City with the painting by Turner from 1839 below.

Victorian City

For composers, this was the start of two centuries of experimentation. Music became more focussed on emotional communication rather than technical elegance, giving scope for complex chromatic harmonies and vast, dramatic orchestrations. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique) and compare it to some of the music by Mozart in the previous post on Classical Music – it’s a totally different listening experience.The Romantic Period in music covers most of the 19th Century, the era of Queen Victoria for us Brits, and relative political stability in many countries, although there were still plenty of Civil Wars, and International Conflicts.

However, the biggest changes were social, with everything from the introduction of workhouses, to the invention of blue jeans. This is also the age of the novel, with literature becoming more popular as printing has become mechanised for the masses. Music is also printed more frequently now, and music books develop into the forms we have them today. The Romantic period is generally thought of as ending in the 1910s, as the Great War was looming and political unrest began to plague Europe again.

For singers, the biggest change that happens is that composers begin to use the voice as an instrument. Art songs, a trend which began in the Classical era, develop into a huge genre with its own internal divisions (English songs are quite distinct from German Lieder and French Mélodie). The lyrics are mostly poetic settings, written by Romantic poets, but the words are subsumed into a soundworld that tells the story whether or not you can understand the words. Have a listen to this beautiful setting by Fauré. The poem is by an anonymous Italian, but was translated into French by Romain Bussine.

The other main feature of the Romantic period for singers is the rise, rise and rise of Opera, reaching its zenith with Wagner at the end of the 19th Century. Wagner is responsible for the image of the opera singer as fat, Viking-horned, singing full pelt with plenty of vibrato! However, there were plenty of other kinds of opera on offer which are slightly less intense. Here’s an aria from Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore that shows the dramatic potential of high romantic opera.

Popular music was also developing new trends. As published music became more accessible and pianos more affordable, the broadside ballads of previous eras developed into parlour songs for the rich and music hall for the not-so-rich. Mass employment in factories led to more people living in cities, and more people with set working hours that gave them distinct leisure time – and people with leisure time wanted entertainment. Music Halls provided a good sing-a-long of bawdy songs and comic sketches for the work-weary masses. Here’s an early recording (1907) of music hall star Vesta Victoria singing a well known song Wating at the Church.

Music Hall and Parlour Songs also gave rise to a new type of musical show – the operetta. Operettas had more of the feel of the music hall, while still keeping the kinds of stories and orchestrations of opera, and borrowing spoken dialogue from theatrical plays. The masters of this genre were Gilbert and Sullivan, and here’s an aria you might recognise.

The final trend related to song that was a huge part of the Romantic period was nationalism. Nationalism was a huge issue in the 19th Century as modern nation states began to take shape under their own governments. This often led to an interest in the cultural heritage of the people who made up the modern nation, and (in the wake of the Grand Tour of the classical era) interested individuals began to “collect” traditional music. In countries across Europe and beyond, composers collected volumes of songs sung by ordinary people, writing them down and sometimes arranging them as art songs, or collating different versions into a “best” version. One of the most famous collectors of them all was a Scot by the name of Robert Burns. Burns collected hundreds of Scottish folk songs and arranged many of them into the tunes that are now so famous. The clip below is the result of Burns listening to a dozen different versions of Ae Fond Kiss, collating them together to select the most effective combination of words and music from different versions, and then publishing his work. Burns is possibly one of the most famous editors in all of history!

The key forms of music for voice in the Romantic era were:

  • Opera
  • Operetta and early musical theatre
  • Songs (lieder, chanson) often about love, nature, or both
  • National anthems
  • Transcription of folk songs
  • Parlour songs and music hall
  • Almost complete separation of religious song from mainstream composition

When you’re trying to decide if something is Romantic music, listen out for:

  • Dramatic, emotive & descriptive
  • Virtuosic
  • Full of contrasts
  • Thicker texture
  • Complex harmonies with chromatic movement
  • Lyrics which are as descriptive as the music
  • Draws on national musical traditions

Composers to Remember:


–> Next week: The Modern (20th Century) Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

Excercises for Beginners: Straw Singing

StrawsI have recently rediscovered the childhood magic of the drinking straw. I don’t know what it is about this small, plastic thing that creates such joy, but I love ’em.

Why have I rediscovered straws? Well, I have been looking for some new ideas for technical exercises, and I have discovered that straws can help improve your singing technique.

One of the biggest problems singers have is nasality – allowing air to go through the nose when singing even when it’s not necessary (which it is to say ‘m’ and ‘n’). By using a straw, this can help to focus breathing and direct air and sound away from the nose and through the mouth.

First, let’s try overdoing the nasal sound. Sing a note and try to drive the sound through your nose. It’s going to sound silly! Can you feel the air is rushing much faster than when you sing normally?

Now, grab your straw. First, blow through the straw. All the air should go through the straw, not through your nose at all. You should feel something closing off your nose. That’s your soft palate. You can’t feel it moving as such, but you should feel the effect. Try allowing air to go through your nose on the next breath. Keep alternating between just blowing through the straw and then blowing through the straw and your nose until you can identify what’s different.

Next, we’re going to sing through the straw. Pick a pitch that’s in the middle of your range and comfortable. Sing the note down the straw. Don’t let any air escape through your nose. It should make the straw buzz at your lips.

Now sing the same note, but allow sound to go through your nose too. You should feel the buzz in your nose rather than your lips. Repeat a few times, and then try alternating between singing down the straw and singing with your nose too on the same breath. It’ll sound a bit like “nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo”.

Lastly, take good breath and sing down the straw. Then, about halfway through the note, open your lips and switch to regular singing. Don’t move anything else – can you do it without letting any sound come through your nose? Test this by pinching your nose as you sing. If it changes the sound, you’ve let air escape down your nose.

This is not really a daily strength building exercise, but instead it’s a great way to build awareness of how your voice works, and the ability you have to control it.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your tone and reducing nasality in your 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?

What’s the Point of My Practice Book?

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For every musician, practice is a problem. No matter how we write about it, talk about it or think about it, the only solution to the problem is to do it. However, there are lots of useful things that can help you get over that barrier that tries to prevent us from starting in the first place.

Today, I want to talk about practice books. Every teacher I’ve had has used some system to make notes on what to practice for me. Sometimes, it’s been books. Sometimes it’s been bits of paper. I know some teachers who print their own forms to put into binders, and others who just write in pencil on the music. My system is to use a copy book. I write the notes in the lesson and give the top copy to my student to put in the front of their binder, then I type up the notes from the copy into Music Teacher’s Helper and email them a copy as well.

However, the question remains. What’s the point of this?

For me, some of the point is to help me remember what I’ve taught my students. I only teach part time just now, so my other job can zap all the details of lessons out of my brain. Full time teachers will have lots of their students confusing their brains. A practice record helps us to build from one lesson to the next in an organised fashion.

What about for you, though? What’s the point of the practice book for you? Ultimately, your practice book contains what you need to focus on this week and usually some way of recording what you did.

Practice books help you focus on what you need to work on right now.

Practice books need to be seen to be used. They are useless if they’re left in your music folder/rucksack/pocket/teacher’s house over the week. Instead, when you get home from your lesson, why not put your practice book on your music stand open on the last lesson? Putting your book in a visible place that you’ll see when you come to practice means you’re immediately working on the key things you covered in your last lesson. It means you’ll know you’re supposed to be doing Bb major not B minor, so when your teacher asks you to play it next lesson, you’ll be able to.  I’m always forgetting the studies my piano teacher sets me, so leaving my practice book open reminds me to play a couple each day.

Practice books help break down long pieces into smaller chunks.

Remember that bar you stumbled on in the lesson? Or maybe not? Your practice book will probably say things like “focus on high notes at the end of the verse” or “smooth out register changes in chorus”. These give you smaller chunks to focus on that will mean you learn your songs faster and more accurately.

It can be really tempting to just start at the beginning of a song, sing it to the end and never really focus on the parts which are causing you problems. This is even more of a temptation for singers compared to instrumentalists as we are masters of “keeping going”. We usually work with a piano accompaniment which means we can’t stop, so we fudge over the weak parts and make it work. This often means we learn to sing things wrong, which is much harder to sort out than fixing mistakes when they first happen.

Breaking down songs into smaller chunks and working on specific passages or skills means harder work in the short term, but much greater reward in the long term.

Practice books help you see what you’ve achieved

Sheet music curled edges

Have you ever flipped back through your practice book? Simply looking back through the notes can help you realise just how far you’ve come. If you fill in the check boxes in some of the printed ones, you can see a visual record of how much practice you’ve done too. All of us hit plateau points in our art, and sometimes we need to realise that we’ve come a very long way and achieved an awful lot. Practice books are one of the most obvious records of what we’ve done. Why not pick up a song you were learning three, six or twelve months ago and sing it again? It will almost certainly come back to you and be better than it ever was before.

Your practice book is a record of all the repertoire you’ve learned and worked on too. I tried to make a list once of all the songs I could call “repertoire” (I could polish them for a performance in less than two weeks). It’s a pretty long list these days.

Don’t have a practice book? Ask your teacher for one, or just buy a cheap notebook from the supermarket and bring it to lessons. If your teacher doesn’t write in it, use it to make notes on what you’re supposed to be practicing during the lesson.

And, don’t forget to put it out where you can see it when you get home!

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause
Autumn has definitely set in. I’m wearing gloves and I’ve been putting in exam entries left, right and centre. Theory exams with Trinity, musical theatre with LCM and a piano exam for me with ABRSM. It’s going to be a busy autumn. However, today is Friday, and that makes it time for a cuppa and the blog round up.

Posts about Learning

Student Plan – Setting Goals for the Year (Practice Makes It Easy) – A lovely post reminding teachers and students alike that it’s that time of year when we set goals and targets. Click over to my post on SMART Goals for more ideas on how to set your own targets.

Be More Confident at Your Next Audition by Going on a Facebook Diet (Bulletproof Musician) – The downside of Facebook for the Musician and why you it’s best to use social media in moderation!

Structuring Your Piano Practice (Classical Mel) – A great post about how more advanced musicians can get more out of their practice time. Although this post focusses on piano, actually the tips work for most instruments including singing.

Formant Tuning and Vowel Modification (Wonders of Voice) – A short but sweet post on why we need to change the way we sing on higher notes.

Posts about Teaching

5 Days of Piano Teaching Using Playdough (Teach Piano Today) – Some fantastic ideas on how to use playdough to teach theory concepts to students!

What Maternity Leave? When a Piano Teacher Becomes a Parent (Teach Piano Today) – It must be something in the air, but I’ve seen some recent forum posts about maternity plans for music teachers, so here’s a good post with some really helpful tips.

Free Printable: Piano Lesson Contract (The Teaching Studio) – Just like we have home-school agreements to help everyone know what they need to do to get the most out of school education, here’s a really simple way to present a parent-student-teacher agreement on what everyone will do to get the most out of music lessons.

 Other Interesting Things

Tchaikovsky not gay? Here’s some more musical shocks for you (Guardian Classical Music Blog) – Some interesting anecdotes about recent revisionist history coming out of Russia.

The Only Calibration that Matters (La Dona’s Music Studio) – Two lovely, encouraging quotes.

Finally, here’s La Dona’s latest funny. I may not have loved the Peanuts musical, but this is a great little comic strip from Charles Schultz: It’s all right… I can still play

Discover Singing Shop Now Open!

*cue the trumpets!*

The brand-spanking new Discover Singing shop is now open for business!

The very first item I have published for sale is my Classical Singing Repertoire Database. This spreadsheet details all the songs on all the grades and diplomas for all three major exam boards and four smaller ones too. It’s especially designed for teachers to help get an idea of the difficulty of different repertoire, and to inspire everyone to go beyond the songs set by their chosen exam board and try new music. There’s even two editable columns where you can note whether you have copies of songs in your library, and make your own notes. Priced at a modest £5.00, it’s an affordable resource to help with planning lessons, exam programmes, concert repertoire and more.

Follow the blog for updates as more publications become available, as well as my free printables for students and teachers.

Click here to visit the Discover Singing Shop!