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 ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Getting Started with Languages

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Learning your first song in a language other than your native tongue can be a daunting task. But, fear not! Here are some simple ideas to help you get started singing in foreign languages.

Listen and Repeat

When you’re working on a song in a foreign language, it is a really good idea to listen to it being sung. If you can find a native speaker singing it, so much the better. YouTube and Spotify are both great sources for finding a range of recordings. As you listen, make sure you have the words in front of you so you can follow them. Read and listen to the song a few times, and on the last time through, grab a pencil and make a note of any pronunciations that jump out at you as particularly noticeable. For example, in German, a “w” is pronounced as a “v”.

 

Understand Pronunciation

Pronunciation is a tricky beast. It can be very difficult to find a clear guide to how to pronounce any foreign language without learning how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, you can use different tools to help you. Try using an online text-to-speech generator to get a general sense of the words. Enter the song line by line to hear it read out. It’s imperfect, but should give you a good sense of the basic sound and shape.

I have also found that language learning software can be a great support for good pronunciation. If you have a smartphone or tablet, I cannot recommend Duolingo highly enough. This fabulous app has listening, speaking, reading and writing activities which help you learn all the key singing languages. This will also help you to begin to understand the structure and nature of the language you are singing in which will mean you will be able to communicate the meaning more clearly.

If you are keen to learn more about Pronunciation, A Handbook of Diction for Singers by David Adams is a comprehensive resource for Italian, French and German. This book uses IPA to explain the rules of pronunciation in all three languages.

 

The ‘Allo ‘Allo Rule

The best tip I was ever given by a singing teacher for learning a song in a foreign language was “sing it like you’re in ‘Allo ‘Allo”. For those of you not familiar with this reference, ‘Allo ‘Allo is an old British comedy show set in Nazi-occupied France. It was known for the particularly theatrical accents which often bordered on mockery.

Of course, my teacher was not advising me to mock the language I was singing in. Instead, by aiming for the over-the-top accent when singing, I would end up hitting a quite convincing sound. Thus, if you’re struggling, try to over-exaggerate the linguistic features. Make the German extra guttural and harsh, make the French really pouty, or the Italian very rounded.

 

Find the Meaning

Once you have a grasp on how to make the sounds, it is also important to begin to understand the song in translation. There are some excellent sites around which have translations of art song texts such as Rec Music. Choose one or two you like, and read them over a few times to begin to understand the words. Consider how the meaning of the lyrics fits with the music.

You might also want to try putting the lyrics through Google Translate. This won’t give you a poetic translation, but it will be quite literal. This can help you to identify key words in the text. I often write the translation of a few of the most important words, and the words at key points in the music, so I can see the meaning as I practice the song.

 

I hope these tips will help you to begin to tackle your first foreign language songs and help you have the confidence to explore the whole world of music.

Do you have any favourite methods for learning foreign language songs? Leave them in the comments below.

Why You Need HARD Goals

I’ve written before about SMART goals, but last year, I came across the idea of HARD goals, and it was a bit of a revelation.

What are HARD goals?

HARD goals are big goals. They’re not manageable, or realistic; instead, they’re:

  • Heartfelt – something that you really want to achieve. It’s a goal which you feel strongly about in a way that motivates you.
  • Animated – something that you can imagine achieving. You can really see the day that you’re going to get there.
  • Required – something you feel you have to do. It’s something you need to rather than have to do.
  • Difficult – something that’s beyond your abilities right now, but you are going to go for it anyway.

Think about the great songs from the musicals – none of the big dream songs are realistic, or time-bound. They’re not measurable or specific. They’re big, expansive, imaginary dreams that drive our protagonists forward. Think about Elphaba at the start of Wicked. In the song, The Wizard and I, she describes her heartfelt desire to meet the Wizard. It’s fully of animation with her imaginary conversation. It’s clearly something she feels is required for her future happiness, and it’s definitely difficult! This HARD goal is what drives her through the whole first half of the show (and if you want to know what happens in the second half, you should definitely try to see it!).

HARD goals are what we really find motivating. Why else would humans have climbed Everest, circumnavigated the globe or travelled into space?

Setting HARD Goals

Let’s face it, you probably have a HARD goal or two already. Perhaps it’s a life-sized HARD goal, like wanting to become a professional singer. Or maybe something a little smaller, but no less challenging, like singing in public. One of my HARD goals is to learn to accompany my students on the piano (I’m a first study singer, and only started piano lessons a few years ago).

The first part of setting a HARD goal is to work out what HARD goals you already have. What do you dream of? It might feel stupid, or impossible. It might seem ridiculous. That’s ok. Remember this is supposed to be a difficult goal.

If you don’t already have a HARD goal that comes to mind, try thinking about what you’d like your life to be like in five, ten or twenty years. Where does music fit in? What place does it have? Is it your career? A valued hobby? A way you are volunteering your skills? What kind of music can you play? What qualifications do you have? Are you in a choir? It should provide some inspiration!

Using Your HARD Goals

HARD goals are all about inspiration. They’re the things that drive us forward. Why not write them down? Keep them in your music notebook or on the wall in your room. Keep them in your mind so that when you are struggling to practice, or wondering why you bother, you can remember the goals that make you feel alive.

Our HARD goals can help us to make SMART goals too, and this is what I’m going to talk about next time.

Help! I’ve Lost My Voice!

Image by Cieleke at freeimages.com

Image by Cieleke at freeimages.com

As a singing teacher, the last way I wanted to kick off 2015 was with a bout of Laryngitis, but alas, I am finally recovering after nine days without being able to speak, let alone sing. So what should you do if you end up hoarse, or loose your voice entirely?

Stop Talking! (And Singing)

This was my number one mistake. I had a friend staying overnight when my voice began to go, and instead of sadly sending her away, I carried on talking… I’m pretty sure this is why it’s taken over a week to recover.

In order to recover quickly, it’s important to get as close to 100% vocal rest as possible. If you have a vocal problem, then it’s really important to stop immediately. If you can, take time off work. Even if your work doesn’t involve talking professionally, you’ll find it hard to rest 100% if you are in the presence of your colleagues. Same goes for school.

You should also stop singing. Singing is usually harder than talking, and trying to sing when you’re hoarse can make it worse and delay your recovery. Even if it doesn’t hurt, you should still take a few days off. If you’re still wanting to keep up with your music, why not use the time to work on some theoretical exercises, listen to some new music, or even watch a whole opera, oratorio or concert (you can usually catch them on Sky Arts, or there are plenty available on YouTube).

Keep Hydrated

It’s really important to drink plenty to help your larynx recover. Try to avoid caffeine, and sugary drinks. Warm herbal teas may be especially soothing. Alcohol is especially bad because it is so dehydrating (that’s part of what causes hangovers).

The other thing that can be really helpful is steam. I absolutely love it! Breathing in hot steam can be soothing, and will keep your larynx lubricated which will help reduce irritation. Fill a bowl with a kettle full of boiling water, and then cover your head and the bowl with a towel. Breathe until the water stops steaming (usually about 15 to 20 minutes).

Take Care with Medication

Most “sore throat” remedies like Strepsils will not reach your larynx, so are unlikely to help with your problems. Taking anything that acts as a painkiller can dull sensations and this means you are more likely to think you can speak and then injure your voice. Over-the-counter medications will only relieve some of the symptoms by masking them.

Laryngitis is usually caused by a virus, so antibiotics are unlikely to be effective. However, if it goes on for a week or more, it is usually advisable to see your GP to make sure that it is not a bacterial or fungal infection.

Ensure Good Vocal Health

If you are aiming for good vocal health, smoking should be off the table anyway. However, if you are a smoker, this can make laryngitis worse and delay recovery. It may be helpful to use a nicotine replacement therapy to help you avoid smoking.

Recovery!

Hopefully, if you follow the rules of complete vocal rest, your voice will recover. Once your talking voice returns completely to normal, you can start to go back to singing. It is very important not to try to sing until you are sure that your voice has completely recovered.

It’s vital that you take it really slowly. Start with gentle humming over a very small range close to your speaking range. If there is any catch in your voice, stop and try again in the next day.

Once you can hum over a good range, try sirening on a hum, or an ‘ng’ sound to see where there are catches. It may help to start with a small siren over an octave or so, and then increase it a little each time until your whole range is back.

You can then begin to introduce other exercises gradually. It may take three or four weeks to fully recover, but you will be glad you took the time.

 

So if you’re feeling a bit hoarse this winter, don’t be afraid to take the time out that you need to really ensure you are fully recovered.

For more information, check out NHS Choices for a comprehensive guide.

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

Why bother with music theory?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Let’s face it, music theory does not have a good rep. It’s like arithmetic and spelling. And actually, that’s the problem…

Most people only ever really encounter the kind of music theory which feels very similar to learning your times tables or how to spell ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. No one enjoys memorising the letter names for notes on the stave, or what key signature is what.

So why bother?

In the same way as arithmetic can, eventually, lead to the kind of maths that can discover the secrets of the physics of the universe or build a skyscraper, so basic music theory eventually leads on to symphonic masterpieces of every ilk from Ode to Joy to the theme from Star Wars. Just the same, I couldn’t write this blog without having a basic grasp of spelling and grammar – nevermind some of the great literary works of the age from The Luminaries to Harry Potter.

Music theory is the key that opens the lock to the secrets of music. Understanding how to construct and deconstruct chords and harmony has made music more interesting to listen to and look at. Knowing how music works can help me to work out how to fit my own voice into the shape of the music – I know whether I am in harmony or dissonant, on the beat or syncopated.

Even simple things like knowing letter names can help with our communication around music. It’s much clearer to say “I’m having trouble with that high E” than it is to say, “Well, I’m having issues with that note there” or “I’m not sure about the note I sing on the word ‘tree'”.

Lots of what we learn in early music theory is actually about learning how to talk about music with other musicians. There’s a whole language which has grown up as a ‘shorthand’ – it’s quicker to say “at the crescendo” than to say “where it gets louder”, and it’s even easier to know what to play when you’re looking at a pair of expanding lines instead of text that reads ‘get louder here’!

So why bother with music theory? Because it’s actually all about learning shortcuts! And once you know the shortcuts, you can get into the heart of the music so much quicker.

I’m not saying it’s not dull, and I’m not saying you won’t find bits of it boring. But, it’s worth fighting through and getting it into your head so you can discover secrets and create masterpieces.

Why is music theory important for you? What helped you to get interested? Or do you not bother with it?

To Enter, Or Not To Enter…?

It’s September. That means for all us music teachers, like the children we teach, it’s back to school and back to work. In the UK, as well as abroad, a new term means we once again face the question: do I enter my pupils for an exam this term?

Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. Maybe it’s a last opportunity before a student moves away, or maybe you put it off the previous term to give yourselves a few more months. Your student might even need to take the exam to get into university. For others, it’s more tricky to decide. Here are a few really important questions to ask before you enter a student for an exam.

Have I covered all the material required for the exam?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

If you’ve not actually taught all the material, this should be a big warning light. There can be as little as five weeks between entries closing and the first possible exam date. Five weeks is not enough time to teach whole songs or concepts. You want to be able to spend the time working on refining and improving what your student can already do.

Would my student pass if they sat the exam tomorrow?

This can be a really good acid test of whether your candidate is ready. If you reckon your student could get the pass mark or a little better if they sat the exam now, then you have plenty of time to ensure that not only will they pass, but they’ll do so comfortably, or even gain a merit or distinction. If your candidate is looking ropey, it might be time to push back a term and give you both a little more time.

Am I considering entering them because their parents/they have asked to even though I don’t think it’s a good idea?

It can be really hard to say no to a parent who is keen for their child to excell, but it’s not kind to a student to enter them too early. If they fail, you may crush thier confidence. If they pass, they (and their parents) might gain unrealistic ideas about their abilities. If you are not happy entering them, bite the bullet and say ‘no’.

Would my student do better by waiting an extra term?

Some students will improve massively with more time, allowing them to slowly and surely build towards success. Others will continue to procrastinate until you put a deadline in front of them. Get the measure of your student – are they likely to work hard in the extra time, or do they need pressure? You can wait forever for a procrastinator to be ready for an exam and many of them may give up entirely if you wait too long.

There’s no right or wrong answer about when to submit for an exam. It’s a careful balance between knowing your students, listening to the parents, and forming your own judgements. Make sure everyone has a say in the choice. It’s often easy to give in to pushy parents, or decide you ‘might as well enter’, so if in doubt, leave it one term and see what happens.

Good luck to everyone who is entering candidates this term. I hope they do really well.