Monthly Archives: January 2014

Repertoire Corner

Repertoire Corner remains, I am afraid, rather infrequent, but I have some new music that I hope to review over the next few weeks, starting with Lin Marsh’s Serendipidy Solos


The Cuckoo Clock – Lin Marsh

I’m quite new to Lin Marsh’s work, but I’m pleased to say that this is a great example of music which has been specially written for new and young singers. The melody is fairly straight-forward, but there are variations as the music progresses, so it is worth taking time over learning this song. Once the basic structure is in place, there is plenty of instruction for dynamic variation and change of moods which need to be included to really give a great polished performance. Young singers should enjoy this song and other works by Marsh.

[lyrics and video unavailable]

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Part of Your World – Composer (The Little Mermaid)

This stalwart of the Disney songbook is a popular choice, but requires careful attention to really perform well. Watch for the rests – they come in irregular places! Once the rhythm has been mastered, this song needs to be sung with imagination to convey the curiosity and wonder of Ariel’s character. This might be a good song to use for introducing some theatre games to young singers, or exploring how to mix singing with semi-spoken phrases.

[Lyrics] [YouTube]

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

I’ll be honest, it’s been a long month, but now, a new year is well under way, and so are the best blog posts about music and music teaching!


Posts on learning

3 Elements of Showmanship (The Musicians’ Way) – Find out what three traits you should be developing to really add pizazz to your performance.

What Leads to Better Performances: Telling Yourself to Calm Down? Or Get Excited? (Bulletproof Musician) – How to manage your emotions to boost your stage presence.

Posts on teaching

How to be a choir leader Part 1: Why lead a choir? (Total Choir Resources) – A great introduction to why leading a choir is worth all the work!

Conducting Your Choir: From Novice to Know How (Total Choir Resources) – A lovely review of the ABCD (Association of British Choral Directors) beginner and intermediate courses which makes me even more keen to take part in one eventually!

Posts about other things

We are Music Therapists (Listen & Learn Music) – Ever wondered what music therapists do? Find out here.

Music in the News

Music therapy class strikes a chord with autistic children in Beijing

Arts head: Mark Tinkler, English Pocket Opera Company

Music improves young minds

Classical music improves concentration and social skills

Mike Russell to hold talks on music tuition

Old Wives Tales: You Can’t Sing if You Have a Cold

It’s January, and that means it’s cold season! When you have a cold, often, it can seem like a bad idea to keep singing. Singers often cancel gigs because they have a cold. So should you stop singing if you have the sniffles?

There’s a very simple rule with singing when you have a cold: if it hurts don’t sing. Otherwise, you can keep on singing as normal!

You might, of course, find that you have a more limited vocal range, or need to take more frequent breaths. You might also have less stamina than usual, or be unable to produce your usual tones and sounds.

If you have a cold, here are some tip to help you take care of your voice:

  • Keep hydrated. If you’ve got a blocked nose, your mouth and throat can get dry, so be sure to drink regularly.
  • Keep your drinks warm. Slightly steamy drinks help to keep your nose and throat from getting dry.
  • Take care with taking cold medicines. In particular, avoid using anything that might numb your throat, like Strepsils. If you can’t feel your throat properly, you won’t know if your voice is starting to hurt.
  • Shorten your practice times, or move them to the shower. It’s vital to sing every day, but you should reduce down the amount of time you’re singing for. Singing in the shower helps thanks to the steamy environment.
  • Breathing steam can help to open up your airways. Fill a bowl with hot water and then cover your head and the bowl with a towel. You could use a little menthol-based oil like Olbas to help open up your sinuses, release a blocked nose, and reduce pain.
  • Rest your voice. If you can, reduce down how much talking you’re doing. Complete vocal rest is a bit much for most of us, but if you have a cold, but if you can rearrange those meetings, or stay home with a movie, it’ll help protect your voice from damage.

Above all, if singing hurts, stop singing. Don’t push through the pain. Pain is designed to tell us when to stop, and as a singer, it’s vital to listen to our instruments.

If you have a cold for more than ten days or so, it may be worth getting an opinion from your GP. Of course, most colds are viruses, and can’t be treated with medication (antibiotics only work on bacterial infections), but it’s better to rule out more serious problems like chest infections.

Three Key Practice Principles

New_Years_Resolutions.JPGIn the theme of New Years resolutions, we’re taking a look at what makes practice good practice. Many musicians resolve to practice more, but that often falls by the wayside because they don’t have good practice habits. This post will give you three key principles for practicing that will make it easier to stick to your goals!

1. Quality over quantity

It can be very easy to get bogged down in ideas of how long we should practice for. Should someone at grade 1 practice for ten minutes or thirty? Shouldn’t someone at grade 8 do three hours? It can make even the best of us feel inadequate when we start to measure the quantity of practice rather than the quality of practice.

Doing three hours of practice is useless if you stop focusing after thirty minutes. For singers, long practice sessions are impossible as our voices get tired. Instead, aim to make the most of the time you have, whether it’s ten minutes or ten hours. Make sure you know what you want to achieve in a practice session – having a routine can really work wonders for this. I usually start with scales and exercises, move on to studies, then classical work, and finish up with the musical theatre repertoire. If I have time, I might pick an old favourite to run over at the end. You might find a different order works better. If you’re short on time, why not choose to work on song A on Mondays, song B on Tuesdays and song C on Wednesdays? If you already know what needs to be done, you can get right on and do it.

Another key to getting quality time is to have everything in one place. Keep your music on the piano, or the music stand, and keep your notes from your teacher with them.

Finally, it’s better to go deeper into a short section of your piece than to sing the whole song over and over fluffing bits of it. Sing through, and then work on the bits that you’re messing up. It’s always better to work in small chunks. Which leads on to my next key principle…


2. Little and Often

Not only is it important to aim for quality over quantity, but that quality time should be a daily occurrence. For singers especially, it’s far better to get through scales in the shower every day and nothing else, than to just do one mega three hour session on the day before your lesson.

Muscles develop best when theyare stretched and used a little bit at a time, but frequently – this is just as true for the tiny muscles in your larynx as it is for the big muscles in your leg. Marathon runners do shorter runs every other day and build up, rather than running a half marathon every weekend and nothing else. Treat your singing practice like that. Sing daily, but do a short focused burst rather than a long gruelling slog. It’ll feel far less arduous! Plus, by singing for a short time every day, it becomes habit and you’ll find it easier to make space for it in your life.


3. The Principle of 80:20

80:20 is an amazingly accurate ratio for many things in human life, but for musicians, I like to think of it as 80% work, 20% fun. In your practice time, you want to aim for 80% effort on the stuff you need to be doing. That 80% includes scales, exercises and the pieces for your teacher. However, 20% of your time should always be for playing and singing the music that you love.

Music is a tough hobby to have as it requires hard work and commitment (if you want an easy ride, following a soap opera might be a better choice!). However, we all took music up for a reason. Whatever you enjoy most about music should be your 20% treat time. You might be studying for a classical piano exam, but you can still enjoy 20% of your time playing jazz improvisation. You might be working for a musical theatre concert, but really love singing a bit of Handel too. Make space for your guilty pleasures – it’ll help to keep you sane when things get tough and you feel worn out and hopeless.

That 20% might even be a cheeky day off practicing, but try not to skive off more than one day in five, or you’ll break your habit!


Practising regularly is hard work, and sometimes we just don’t want to, but if you can get these three key principles working for you, your practice times will feel like less of a chore and more of a pleasure!


Have you got any key principles you use to help you practice regularly and effectively? Let me know in the comments!


5 New Years Resolutions Singers Should Make

January is that time when we all look at our post-Christmas selves and consider the improvements we could make to our lives. Us musicians are no different. We’re all making resolutions to practice for two hours a day and watch more operas. If you’re one of us, here are five resolutions you should make that you might even have a chance of keeping!

1. I will sing every day

There is nothing more important than singing every single day. Sing in the shower. Sing in the kitchen. Find a secluded section of your walk to work and sing there. Your voice is powered by muscles and muscles need exercise to strengthen them. When you sing, make sure you are singing properly. Think about how you’re breathing. Make sure you’re sending the sound out of your mouth not your nose. Watch for a good clean start to each phrase (“glottal attack”). It doesn’t matter if it’s opera or pop you’re singing – all singing is singing and you can’t go wrong if you’re focusing on technique as you do it.

2. I will join a choir that uses sheet music

Joining a choir is another easy, and vital thing for singing students to take up. Singing in a choir teaches loads of aural skills (like part singing), and technical skills (like blending). It’s really good for combatting singer’s ego as you’re part of a team in a choir and you have to work together to make a good unified sound. If you pick a choir that uses sheet music, you’ll also be improving your sight-reading and music theory skills without having to work at it! Plus, being in a choir is a great way to meet other musical people and make new friends.

3. I will take care of my body

Considering loosing some weight, taking up exercise, giving up smoking or cutting down on your drinking? These are great resolutions for singers. Being overweight can be a serious problem for singers as it puts extra stress on your lungs and respiratory system. Exercise improves lung function, mood and cognitive performance. Smoking is also bad for singers because of the impact on lung function and mouth health. Alcohol causes dehydration, and can result in bad vocal decision making like excessive shouting!

Even if these aren’t resolutions you need to make, resolving to take better care of yourself by eating better, exercising regularly and sleeping sensibly will help keep your instrument in tip top condition ready for exams and performances throughout the year.

Music with CDs and headphones4. I will listen to more music, and more kinds of music

Listening to music is vital for all musicians, and if you don’t do it much, why not resolve to do it more? If you already listen to music, add in another genre or two. BBC Radio 3 might seem snooty and scary, but you’ll hear music there you’d never hear anywhere else. If that’s too big a leap, why not put Classic FM on as you wind down at night? If you already listen to classical music, venture out into BBC Six Music, home of some of the cutting edge of contemporary music. For musical lovers, there’s also Elaine Paige on Radio 2 on Sundays form 1-3pm. Whatever you do, listen often and listen widely.

5. I will focus efforts on learning my words, not just the notes

I don’t know any singer who doesn’t find learning words a chore, and so we’re all bad for leaving it to the last minute. If you’re one of us, why not resolve to learn the words first this year? Make the effort to write out the words over and over by hand. Listen to a recording while reading them to yourself. Record yourself reading the words aloud. Make words a priority this year. It’s our privilege as singers to use words and music together to express stories and emotions, so let’s give both parts equal respect!

What are your New Years Resolutions this year? Do you have any other ideas for good resolutions for singers? Leave a comment below!



5 New Year Resolutions for Singers
sing every day
join a choir
take care of my body
listen to more music
focus on memorising words

Setting Goals for your Music – Why You Should be SMART [repost]

This is a re-post of an article I published last May. As it’s a New Year, I thought this might be a good time to share it again.


No matter what it is you’re learning, setting yourself a target is essential. You need to know where you’re going to know how to get there. It’s one of the main reasons why schools have a curriculum – there’s so much information in the world, so a curriculum gives teachers direction, and creates targets.

Most young learners come to learning music with the same expectation as in school. We learn things, and then we take exams to prove it. Young students are also used to teachers setting the pace and direction. Some will come in knowing they want a career in music, but many are happy with moving from one target (usually graded exams) to the next with no long-term goal in mind.

For adult learners, however, musical targets can be a huge problem! Private teachers often struggle with students whose targets that are far too ambitious “I want to go from nothing to Grade 8 in one year”, or who flounder when things get tough because they have no goals and “just want to play for fun”. Both of these extremes usually end up with the student giving up.

I first came across the concept of setting SMART goals on my gap year, where we were challenged to set ourselves personal goals for the year beyond completing the course. Although I didn’t manage to achieve all of mine, simply making the goals meant that I made more careful choices about how behaved and what I did with my free time.

While “SMART” goals are a bit 1980s Yuppie, they are effective, and I encourage my students to set goals annually that match more or less to these criteria:

S is for Specific – The “just play for fun” student quickly falls at the first hurdle. Playing for fun isn’t very specific. Exams are, of course, very specific. However, specific could be something like “I want to learn to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables” or “I’d like to reach a top Bb”. If you’re coming into music with a loose goal like “singing for fun”, try to define what you mean by fun right now. Is singing in a choir fun? Or is “fun” singing solos for an audience?

M is for Measurable – Goals also need to be something you can know you’ve achieved. There’s a chasm of difference between “I want to climb a couple of mountains” and “I want to climb Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike” [the highest mountains in Scotland, Wales and England respectively]. The first one is fairly specific, but it’s not as easy to measure.A signer might say “I want to improve my vocal range”, which is a specific goal, but “I want to have a solid Bb” is even clearer.

A is for Attainable – Attainable is where our “I want to get to Grade 8 in a year” goal fails. While it’s very specific and measurable, it’s not realistically attainable. Even in singing, where a student might very well start with Grade 5, a year is not going to be enough time to develop the skills required to pass at Grade 8. It’s a bit like saying “I want to run a marathon in one week’s time”. Even a professional athlete makes decisions about what races they’re going to run months or years in advance because they know it takes time to prepare. A goal like “I want to be on (or, worse, win) the X Factor” is also going to fall down on the attainability. You might be talented enough, and you might have allowed enough time, but it’s still statistically unlikely (and why would you want to be on a show like that anyway…?).

R is for Relevant – Relevance is not normally a problem for musical goal setting, but it is important to keep your goals connected to what you’re doing. If you’re studying singing, make sure your musical goal is related to singing, not playing the piano!

T is for Time-Bound – Ideally, time-bound should mean you give yourself a deadline. The “grade 8 in one year student” has given themselves a great deadline, even if it’s completely unrealistic! Sometimes, time-bound is “by Christmas” or “in two years’ time”. Time-bound can also be a little less specific. I have goals which have are “soon”, which translates to “somewhere in about the next three to six months, maybe”. I do have a sense of time, but it’s a bit vague. Depending on what sort of person you are, you may find fixed deadlines more or less helpful than vague ones. Usually more driven people are ok with vague deadlines, while naturally reticent people respond better to more concrete time restrictions!

If your goal meets all these criteria, it’s a great goal, and your teacher should be able to help you get there. Not every goal is achieved, of course. Some change before we get to the end. That’s absolutely fine. I once heard someone point out that “you can’t steer a ship that’s not moving” (Think about it. It’s absolutely true). Of course, if you never reach your goals before you change them, you might want to think about why that happens.

Goals are great. Everyone should have at least one. Why not have a think about what goals you could set for your music, and let me know in the comments below?

If you’re a teacher, keep an eye on the blog, as I hope to post later in the year about the resources I use to help my students set their own SMART goals. You can follow me on Twitterlike my page on Facebook or get posts delivered by RSS feed.

Review: The Messiah (2014)

As has become tradition for me and my friends, 2014’s theatre-going opens with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union’s Messiah. For 127 years, ERCU have been performing this work at the Usher Hall on the 2nd of January, and I’ve been every year for the last five years.


Where and When: Usher Hall; Thursday 2nd January 2014, 12:00

The Show

There is little that I can add to the myriad of essays, books and reviews which have been written about Handel’s Messiah over the years. The Messiah is the archetypal oratorio and possibly one of the best known choral works of all time. It is performed constantly around the world in various forms and is part of the central canon of vocal and choral repertoire. ERUC usually perform the work more or less in its entirety as published in the Watkins-Shaw edition.

This year, there were some cuts, notably, The Trumpet Shall Sound was not sung in full, which was a disappointment. In Part II, items 34 (Unto Which of the Angels said He at any Time) to item 37 (The Lord Gave the Word) were not performed, and in Part III, item 49 (Then shall be brought to pass) to item 51 (But Thanks be to God) were also omitted.

The Cast

The Choral Union themselves were, as always, outstanding. I happen to know a few of the members, and I know that they have very few rehearsals for this concert. Instead, there is an acquired level of knowledge from the annual performance, and a lot of hard work by individuals.

This year’s guest conductor, James Lowe, is usually an orchestral conductor, which led to some interesting experiences for the choir. He did decide to take an interesting interpretation with the choral elements. Many of the arias were taken (to quote a choir member) “at quite a lick”, and no where was this more obvious than in the Hallelujah Chorus, which did not have the usual dramatic changes of tempo. I’m not sure I liked it, but there are few rules with a work such as the Messiah about how one should interpret performance directions!

Overall, the soloists were a weaker group than in previous years. The bass, Andrew McTaggart, was the least notable, showing neither outstanding talent for baroque oratorio, nor a distinct lack thereof. The same could not be said of the mezzo-soprano, Louise Collett, nor the the tenor, Jamie MacDougall. Neither seemed vocally suited to this work. The mezzo-soprano performed with so much vibrato I was unable to tell at points if she intended to sing a trill, or was just wobbling a lot! Despite her rich tone, Ms Collett also failed to properly sing over the orchestra in the lower passages. The tenor was, I suspect, closer to a baritone, and thus lacked the rich, honey sweetness needed to really excel in this work. On reading his biography, I was given to understand than he sings a lot of German lieder, and I feel this would suit his talents rather better.

On a brighter note, however, the soprano, Emma Morwood, was outstanding. Her vocal vibrato was beautifully controlled allowing her to sing the intricate runs, trills and turns of Handel’s score with precision and expression. For the first time, I truly enjoyed all the soprano arias, rather than slowly zoning out as the twittering obscures the technical genius of the composer. I can only hope that she enjoyed her experience sufficiently to want to return and perform in future years.


Once again, a lovely New Year day out with friends, enhanced by the picnic lunches and traditions of this event. This is, perhaps, the weakest of the performances I have seen so far given the conductor, soloists and cuts, but that does not detract from the wonderful chorus, excellent musicians and remarkable music.

Notable Songs

All the arias in the Messiah appear in graded and diploma lists, and should form part of any classical singer’s repertoire. Rather than listing them all, I recommend purchasing a vocal score and exploring these great works yourself.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥