Monthly Archives: June 2014

Macro-Micro-Macro

Practice can be daunting. Simply finding time and motivation is hard enough, but the biggest challenge is often the question of what to do when you finally start. Where should you start? And what should you do next?

Rinse and Repeat

Image by Jennifer Brandel on flickr

Image by Jennifer Brandel on flickr

All musicians fall into the trap of the “rinse-and-repeat” method of practicing at one time or another. It can be far too easy to just run a song or piece a few times and count that as practice. We fudge over the difficult bits and focus on what we can do. In the run up to a performance, this can be a good way to practice keeping going, but otherwise, it’s fairly hit and miss as to how effective it is. You will get better simply by singing a song over and over and over – how many songs have you learned just from singing along to the radio? But, you won’t ever be able to really perfect the song without looking more closely. How many times have you discovered that you learnt some of the lyrics to a song wrong because you never stopped to look them up or think about what they were? To really get something perfect, we need a better method.

Go Macro

Rinse and repeat does one thing really well – looking at the big picture. We always need to look at the big picture of what we’re doing. So the first run through at the “macro” level is really valuable.  The problem with “rinse and repeat” is that we just repeat. Instead of using the first run through to identify problems and areas to work on, we ignore the problems and focus on the bits that are working. Unfortunately, the bits that are ok aren’t the bits that need our attention.

When you come to practice, grab a pencil before you sing. Then, as you go through, scribble a star or draw a line or circle at the parts where you’re not sure what’s going on. It’s a really simple, physical and practical way to make sure you know where to go next.

Make it Micro

What “rinse and repeat” misses out on is focus. Repeating over and over doesn’t give us a chance to look at the problems. Instead, we need to zoom in on the issues, and look at the “micro” level to fix the issues.

Image by m kashara on flickr

Image by m kashara on flickr

Look back at your piece – the areas which you marked are the best place to begin to look at the micro level. For example, if you’re having trouble pitching a note, you might have marked the note or the phrase. To try and zoom in on it, try singing through the line or phrase with the note in the middle. Can you identify what’s the problem? Are you flat or sharp? Are you missing your cue? Is it that you’re actually getting the note before it wrong too? Zoom in some more. Try just the word either side. You can even zoom right into the intervals before and/or after.

You need to zoom in until you can get it right three times in a row, or until you are confident of it.

Macro Again

Once you can get it right, zoom out again to the next level. Don’t go right up to the full song! Just add another layer on. So try your previously duff note in the phrase, rather than the whole verse. If it goes wrong again, try to work out what it is that changed to cause your problems. You can always zoom out from 200% to 180% and then back to 200%. Try to zoom out in stages – bar, line/phrase, half the verse, whole verse, whole song.

Once you get back out to a level where a new problem appears, you can zoom in on that one.

Using Macro-Micro-Macro

You can use this process in lots of ways. Micro can mean without the accompaniment, or it can mean a short section with the accompaniment. Macro can mean a single verse, or all three of the songs for the exam one after the other. Micro might mean timing a movement along with the song. Macro might mean trying everything in costume with all the blocking.

You can try and fix everything at once, but if you don’t have time, you can just fix one or two things each day. It might be you have to re-fix a problem each day for three days. Your teacher might highlight some ideas of things to fix, but the goal is to be able to identify problems yourself without someone else pointing them out.

Can’t Fix It?

If you’re really stuck on something, take it back to your teacher. Believe me; your teacher will be delighted! If you’re asking for help, it means you’re practicing at home, and you’re really engaging with the music.

So, there you have it: the Macro-Micro-Macro method. It might not work for you, but if you’re struggling to know what to do, why not give it a try?

How do you face the music and get practicing? What methods do you use to perfect mistakes?

 

I Can’t sing! I’m Tone Deaf!

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Too many people say to me “I’m tone deaf”, but I’ve yet to meet someone who acutally suffers with this disability.

Yes, tone deafness is a real medical condition. Tone deafness is an inability to recognise relative pitch, which is a subsection of a condition called amusia. People who suffer with amusia have some kind of neurological abnormality that affects how their brain processes sound.

There’s a very simple test of tone deafness. Ask a friend to sing or play a high note, and then a low one. If you can tell which note was higher and was lower, congratulations you’re not tone deaf! (If you couldn’t tell, do go and see a medical professional…)

People who have amusia can have a range of problems including being unable to recognise differences in pitch (tone deafness), not being able to remember familiar tunes (like Happy Birthday), not being able to tell whether music is tonal (if it harmonises) or not. Because the brain is complex, this the symptoms can vary massively.

Having genuine tone deafness is like having very severe dyslexia which makes it near impossible to learn to read.

So why do people who can hear music normally say they are tone deaf?

“Tone deaf” has become a colloquial term people use when they’ve not acquired the basic musical skill of being able to hear a note and reproduce it. An person with amusia will not be able to do this because they can’t hear the note. Most people who claim to be “tone deaf” can hear the note just find, but they either aren’t listening to it in a way that they can understand the pitch, or haven’t learnt to listen to the pitch of their own voice.

When we listen to someone speaking, we aren’t always really listening. Have you ever found yourself drifting mentally when someone is speaking and then realised you haven’t heard the question they just asked you? It’s the same with learning to hear a melody. Just hearing isn’t enough. People who are “musical” both hear the melody as a sound, and they hear inside their head – they think along with the melody.

Lots of people learn this skill when they are really young through singing with their parents as children, through attending worship services, or through music at school. Some people don’t, and it’s not that they can’t learn.

Calling yourself “tone deaf” does nothing but convince you and others that you can’t learn musical skills. This is nonsense. Everyone who has learned to speak and listen has musical awareness – pitch and rhythm are part of language, and you use these skills every day. Even babies can tell the difference between sounds that clash (dissonant) and sounds that harmonise (consonant).
If you still think you’re genuinely tone deaf, make an appointment to see your GP, and get checked. You don’t want to be missing out on opportunities if you’re not!

I’m Convinced, I’m pretty sure I’m not actually Tone Deaf – Can I Learn How to Hold a Tune?

Singers rehearsingYes! The simplest way to combat a lack of musical awareness is to get making music. Join a choir, take up an instrument, listen to more music, sing along to the radio! If you have kids, why not join a parents and children music group. There will be loads of opportunities in your local area to make music with others, and the more music you make, the better you will get. There’s also various online games and even a MOOC on musicianship skills on Coursera, if time is pushed.

Whatever you do, stop saying you can’t, because that’s the biggest barrier you face.

Have you ever thought you were tone deaf? What convinced you that you were, or weren’t?

Reaching High Notes – When the Voice is a String Instrument

The voice is fundamentally a wind instrument. We use air to make sound, rather than vibrating strings or hitting objects. However, when we’re trying to reach the high notes in our voice, it’s more helpful to think about a violin than a flute.

elkhart-100fl-fluteWhen you want to make a high note on a wind instrument, we shorten the sound waves by either making the tube smaller. A piccolo has a shorter and narrower than a flute. If you’re tuning a flute or a recorder, you push the head and body together more to sharpen the pitch, and pull it out to flatten it.

Many people try to sing high notes like a flute – they try to make the tube smaller. We tense up in the back of our throats and neck, raise our tongues and generally make all our airways small. This can really succeed in making a high note, but it often sounds pinched or squeezed and not very pleasant at all! It also stops being effective after a certain point. The bone and cartilage makes it impossible to keep making our throats smaller.

ViolinSo what about a stringed instrument? To make the pitch higher on a violin, we fit thinner and thinner strings, and we stretch them tighter. On a violin, all the strings are the same length, but the tension on each will be different. To make any string sound higher, we pull the string tighter – we make it “longer”.

When you want to reach the high notes in your voice as a singer, it’s much better to imagine this process of making your vocal folds longer like a violin string. To make a higher pitch, your vocal folds need to vibrate faster, so we need to increase the tension by lengthening them. Think of it like plucking a rubber band guitar. If you stretch the band more, the pitch gets higher.

Me singingAs you start to sing higher, imagine your vocal folds getting longer. Think about getting taller and longer as you go higher, and open up your throat vertically. At first, this might feel strange, and it might even sound strange because your muscles aren’t used to it. However, you’ll start to find you get a much more pleasing noise on the higher notes, and the range of your voice will increase because you can lengthen and thin your vocal folds much more than you can tighten and constrict your throat.

As you experiment with this, try to keep your tongue low and your mouth quite open as this will mean the sound has plenty of space to resonate in.

To practice singing higher notes and extending your range, try exercises like arpeggios which go from a low, easy to sing pitch, to a high pitch in a single breath. Aim to keep your throat and mouth as open and relaxed on the high notes as on the low ones.

With any luck, starting to sing like a violin will soon help to make those high notes easier to hit and much more pleasant to listen to!

How do you think about your voice when you sing high notes? What exercises help you to extend your range and sound good in your upper register?

Review: Go for Bronze

One of the biggest challenges any singing teacher faces is teaching sight-reading skills. Sight-singing is often neglected because singers tend to learn more by listening than reading. Many singers can go a long way with only rudimentary ability to read music – much further than a violinist or pianist can.

On my search for resources, I discovered Go for Bronze. Go for Bronze is a resource produced by the National Youth Choir of Scotland and it is used by them to develop musicianship in their choirs.

Image from musicroom.com

Image from musicroom.com

 

 

Title: Go for Bronze
Type of Material: Teacher’s Folder, Student Booklets
Publication: 2012, NYCOS
RRP: £35 for binder, £30 for 10 booklets (or individually from the BKA)

 

 

 

Go for Bronze is a comprehensive resource which is primarily designed for use with groups of children aged about 7 to 11. It uses traditional songs to help teach musicianship through the Kodaly method. It is structured to use tonic sol-fa along with physical movement and singing to teach fluent music reading.

Go for Bronze begins with the concept of holding a steady pulse or beat, before introducing the minor third (the easiest interval to sing). From there, rhythms are introduced in a slightly different order to traditional educational texts, as they draw on folk music rhythms. For example, syncopation comes much earlier in Go for Bronze than in most piano tutor methods. Complexity of rhythm is also built up much earlier than complexity of pitch which is really good for singers as they tend to be weaker on reading rhythm. Singing activities are interspersed with writing tasks as stick notation and then staff notation are introduced.

The general structure of the book is excellent, and very logical. There is plenty of time given to practice each concept before a new one is introduced. All the text is big, bold and clear. There is also plenty of information in the student book, making it a resource students can use confidently at home to practice and keep for years to come.

The pace of the book is quite slow – it takes a month or more to get to three pitches (so, mi and la). This can be frustrating for those who already read music, and for this reason, Go for Bronze may not be the best material for those students. For non-readers, or those with little more than school level knowledge, Go for Bronze starts right from the basics without being patronising. Despite the suggested ages, I mainly use this book with adult beginners, and they are very happy using it. Many of them enjoy singing songs they know from their childhood which appear in the book.

If you are considering using this resource, it’s well worth buying the teaching manual as it gives very clear guidance on how to teach each section. There are also loads of ideas about additional songs and games to reinforce concepts. The teaching manual also includes the end of level tests and photocopyable certificates which can be given to students. The Go for Bronze manual includes both levels in the one binder. The student books are good, but probably insufficient if one is using this programme with a group, or with several students. Unless you are already very familiar with Kodaly based learning, I would advise getting the Go for Bronze teaching binder.

Overall, the cost of this resource is quite high, but the effectiveness makes the £35 worth every penny. Since using this resource, I have become completely converted to this being the best method to help singers learn to read music. Kodaly resources are, by no means, the be-all-and-end-all of musicianship resources, but they do what they do extremely well.

Go for Bronze has two further levels: Go for Silver and Go for Gold. By completing the whole course, students encounter an equivalent understanding of music theory to the ABRSM Grade 5 theory examination.

Content: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Layout: ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Value for Money: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Overall: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Why I’d Rather Clean the Toilet Than Practice (Some Thoughts on Priorities)

After my cold-of-doom which inspired the post a few weeks ago, I have been slowly building back to my normal routine. Or, possibly, a new and improved normal routine. When you get a cold that results in taking steroids for your asthma, it makes you reconsider what is important in your schedule and how you can prevent yourself from having to repeat the experience. I’m try to focus more on the important things, and worry less about the urgent, but not important things – the things I can let go.

One of the things which is important to me is music (duh!). I want to make more time for practice, but it always seems to drift down to the bottom of my list, somewhere below cleaning the toilet and taking out the bins. The question is, why is that? Why don’t I value my practice time more highly, so it’s at the top of my list?

As I began to think about this, I had a startling revelation: what if I don’t practice regularly because it’s too much like having fun.

Image by poison-yvi at freeimages.com

Image by poison-yvi at freeimages.com

See, my to do list is usually arranged so that the “horrible, but necessary” tasks are higher up the list than the “fun, frivolous” tasks. Doing the washing up comes higher than watching the latest episode of my favourite TV show. Calling the utility company comes higher up than calling my mum.

If practicing is so onerous, and so much something I don’t want to do, why doesn’t it come higher up the list? If it’s so hard to practice, and so boring, why will I take out food waste before I’ll sit down at the piano? Perhaps it’s because I actually like practicing!

Maybe sometimes I’m not practicing for the same reason I don’t eat chocolate every day – I don’t think I should be allowed. But, here’s the secret. Practicing isn’t like chocolate. It’s much more like eating a rich, ripe peach – sweet and juicy and it shouldn’t be good for you, but it is! Eating a whole punnet of strawberries seems luxurious, but I bet most doctors would rather we did that every day than eat so much ice cream, or even pasta.

We can get so busy doing other things – the things which feel urgent, or which seem pressing. It can be easy to say that music practice doesn’t matter because it’s fun – it’s a thing we do for pleasure. But can we really say that because something is pleasurable, it’s not important? Music boosts intelligence and memory, it calms our minds, it releases hormones that make us feel happy. Aren’t these things worth something?

Hands Play the Piano - an image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

Image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

Surely, the things at the top of our to do lists should be the things that make us alive. At the top of our lists should be the things that make life worth living. Yes, we need to clean so we don’t die of food poisoning, but that isn’t why we let all the pleasurable things slip down the list. We let them slip because we worry that we aren’t good enough – our house isn’t clean enough, our inbox is too full, work is left undone. We worry we’re letting others down, and we’re trained not to put ourselves first.

And yet. Will we really call our lives a life worth lived if we hit “Inbox Zero” every day, but at the cost of the things we enjoy?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider how you manage your to do list (be it real or imaginary). Perhaps it’s time to say it’s ok to do the things that give us pleasure. Perhaps, it’s time to let music practice come before the washing up from time to time. I know which one I’d rather be doing!