Author Archives: Emma

A Meditation on the Breath

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Singing begins in the breath. Without air there can be no sound. Without air, there is no voice. Relax, stand tall, and begin.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

To sing, you need to fill every crevice your lungs with air without trying. Breathe in to your diaphragm. Breath in to your ribs. Breathe in to your back. Release your muscles and fill the whole body with power.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathing is automatic. You don’t have to think about it. In fact, thinking about it can make it harder. When you breathe out, your lungs refill automatically, like a sponge. Breathe in effortlessly.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

You can breathe in so many patterns. A long slow breath, flickering the candle flame, but not putting it out. A short sharp breath, putting out the candles one by one. Choose the breath you need for the music.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Everything comes from your core. Those muscles that surround your lungs and your organs are your strength. Use them to drive your sound up from the depths of your soul. Feel them in every note. Sing from the core of yourself.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Can you really breathe? Breathe with your whole self, and you will have a voice. Take that deep breath in with your whole self, and pause for a moment, a fraction of a second. Then you can let it run through your vocal folds, picking up a rich vibration before it rushes out to the world.

Breathe in.

Hold.

Sing.


Need some resources to help you with your breath control? You can find out more about how your breath works, or why not try my favourite slow breathing exercise.

Or, Vocalist has some exercises you can try, as does BBC Sing.

ABRSM Exam Certificates

The New ABRSM Syllabus is Here!

Eight years since the last major refresh of the singing syllabus, and five years after the last update, ABRSM have been heavily promoting their new syllabus as a modern update for singing students.

Yes, it’s true to say it’s been refreshed. Unfortunately, it’s otherwise a disappointing update.

But, let’s start with the good stuff!

There’s More Musical Theatre

Loads more songs to choose from, many of which I found myself thinking “oh, this wasn’t on there already?”. Most of the additions are from older, more established shows, and Disney works, but they are good singable tunes.

More for Teenage Boys

I noticed they’ve included a selection of new songs from publications aimed at teenagers with changing voices. This is great news for encouraging singing among boys who could easily be put off during their teenage years.

Simplifying the Publications List

ABRSM have included a good number of songs from some new publications, and expanded the use of some others. I can see they are trying to reduce the burden on teachers and students when it comes to buying materials in general. I’m actually quite interested in buying one or two, like the Songs from the Far East collection.

A Few Bad Options are Gone

I’m glad that As Long As He Needs Me is no longer listed for Grade 2. It’s about domestic violence, so not really suitable for kids! I’m also pleased to see the back of Die Henne, but then I have a personal vendetta against that song!

Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more that I’m less impressed with…

Foreign Languages are Not Required.

The requirement to sing in a foreign language at grades 6 to 8 is no more. This is a bit odd as these are classical singing exams, and classical singing requires the ability to sing in multiple languages. I can only see this as a weak attempt to attract non-classical singers to the exams, even though there’s so many excellent options for other styles of music. Any teacher worth their salt will ignore this change and continue to insist on a foreign language.

Basses can Sing Soprano Arias

There’s two issues here. Firstly, they’ve removed the restriction on key changes for oratorio and opera. As above, this is a weird decision as it’s so contrary to professional practice. Alongside this, this type of song is no longer listed by voice type in the syllabus. All this does is make it harder for good teachers to wade through the material to work out what is right for their students, and encourages weaker teachers to choose inappropriate repertoire.

Money Making Publications

ABRSM are also publishing a new set of books for Grades 1-5. Funny that.

It’s Still OLD

Even though about a third to a quarter of the repertoire has changed, I still feel like this syllabus is built on out-dated ideas about what children sing, and it’s full of difficult folk songs and pop songs from the 20s, 30s and 40s. There’s very little contemporary music, and the music theatre offerings are still mostly mid-20th Century at best.

It’s still Illogical

It’s also very hard to see the logic of the syllabus. A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes is still on Grade 1, and I’d never teach it at that stage due to the huge leaps in it. Popular is on Grade 8 and I’d say it’s closer to 5 or 6. I still don’t know what musical skills students are supposed to develop from one level to the next, which makes assessing readiness for the exam difficult, and encourages rote-learning of songs.

No Change to Supporting Tests

The sight-singing still doesn’t reflect a logical progression for singers. They still organise it by key, rather than starting with pentatonic melodies and moving outwards. The Aural tests still duplicate the sight-singing test. The traditional song requirement also remains the same.

I wish ABRSM would take their singing programme apart and start over. I’d love to see them take a Kodaly approach, starting with pentatonic materials with strong accompanied support at Grade 1, and then develop more complex accompaniments and diatonic music through to Grade 5. I would also love to see more repertoire and publications to support adult learners at the lower grades. And for the love of music, please sort out the sight-singing tests. I’m fed up of having to teach to the test because it’s so badly constructed.

What are your thoughts about the new syllabus?

Go practice!

Pick a Time!

I woke up yesterday to find the air had changed – the fresh, damp air of autumn had appeared. Summer is definitely on the way out, especially now it’s September.

Of course, September also brings with it that return to routine. Schools here have been back two weeks, and the English schools are about to kick in.

What, ask you, has this to do with music? Well, I’m sure you, dear reader, have practised diligently every day throughout your holidays, but I’ll be honest. I haven’t!

It’s so easy to make excuses as to why you can’t practice. I have a seven month old baby. My husband works long hours. My students have ever increasing homework piled upon them. Then, before you know it, it’s been months and you’ve not done anything.

So what’s the solution?

The only solution I know is this: Pick a time. Stick to it. Even when it sucks.

First thing in the morning can be a good time. A key part of lots of self-care advice is to have a morning routine that includes some ‘quiet time’. You want to start your day doing something that focuses your mind, and helps you prepare for the day. A few minutes at your instrument can be just that. Even for singers, it might not seem much fun to begin with, but adding a few vocal exercises to your morning routine can help to limber your voice up for the day. This probably isn’t the time for working hard on your pieces, but don’t discount singing some scales in the shower on principle!

My personal favourite used to be the “when I get home” slot. Come in, don’t sit down, go straight to your practice space, via the kettle if need be! By avoiding distractions, and going right to your music, it’s more likely to get done, and you won’t find the guilt eating into your free time. You might find you’re a bit vocally tired, but gentle warm-ups should help to ease your voice into things.

Some people prefer the evening. This can be risky if you have light sleepers in your house, or don’t want to bother the neighbours. However, I find it can be quite a relaxing time to practice – I’ve done all the housework and now I can do something for me. It’s much easier to focus on working through that tricky pattern, or memorise the words.

Image by monica liu on flickr

My challenge this week is to put my vocal practice back on the agenda now my daughter is settling into a bit more of a routine. I need to sing, so my pick is vocal exercises in the morning when my daughter is calm and happy, and then to do a little bit of work on my current project pieces in the evening a few nights a week.

To give myself a little motivation, I’ve set myself up with a star-chart and the reward that I can buy a new vocal selections if I can keep up some practice five days a week for the whole of September.

 

 

What about you? When do you like to practice? What are your tips for avoiding distractions and getting on with the music? What motivates you?

Need some ideas on what to do during your practice time? Try the macro-micro-macro method.

Review: Made in Dagenham

Full of youthful vigour in tackling a valuable and important topic.

FRINGE RUN: 10/8-12/8 @ 15:00; Paradise in Augustines; [£10.50/£8.50]

Who, Where and When: Norfolk NYT; Paradise in Augustines; Friday 11 August, 15:00

The Show

Made in Dagenham tells the story of the female workers at Dagenham’s Ford factory who went on strike in 1968 over equal pay, bringing the issue into the political sphere. It’s based on the film of the same name.

The story moves at a good pace (some cuts may have been made in this production  to limit run-time), and there are some fantastic musical numbers, including a dancing Harold Wilson. The group numbers are clear and powerful.

It lacks the panache of similar shows such as Billy Elliot, but nevertheless tells a moving story through an excellent score.

The Cast

This was clearly a young cast, and there were a few wobbles to begin with. However, as they hit their stride, they really shone in both the singing and acting. There were some very moving performances in the second half in particular.

Overall

Much like Billy Elliot, Pride and the film that inspired this show, the story of the strikes is one that needs to be made accessible to a new generation, and this show does a fantastic job of just that. Add in a talented young cast, and you’ve got a lovely afternoon ahead.

Notable Songs

  • Wassname – Clare (Intermediate)
  • The Letter – Eddie O’Grady (Advanced)

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Excercises for Beginners: Sirening

One of the very first exercises I do with a new student is sirening. It’s a great way to warm up your voice and start exercising, as well as a good way to me as a teacher find out a student’s basic range and diagnose problems.

Sirening is really simple. The safest way to try it is to make the sound “ng”, like the end of “ing”. You should be making a vocalised sound, but it’s mostly going through your nose rather than your mouth. Have a try! Take a nice deep breath (see my article on square breathing for tips on good breathing) and then sing the word “sing” and elongate the “ng” part at the end.

DownwardsArrowNext, sing onto the “ng” sound, and then drop the pitch down. Just relax and let it slide on down into your boots. You want the pitch to move just like the arrow to the right.

 

Once you’re happy, try going the other way and sliding up. You want a smooth slide up as high as you can go. Try to imagine you’re throwing your voice up to the sky.


Finally, put it all together. This time, you’re aiming to go as high up as you can and then as low as you possibly can. You want to go up and down a couple of times in each breath, going further and further each time:

That’s why it’s called the siren.

When you’re confident with the pattern, you can siren on different sounds. It works really well on “ah”.

I hope you’ve found this exercise fun and useful. For more help with exercises to help 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?