Category Archives: Learning

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.

Trinity AMusTCL Resources

Trinity LogoNow that my AMusTCL exam is over, I’ve collated all the useful links to essays and analysis I’ve found throughout the course of my preparations. Over time, I hope to provide links and book recommendations for the sections I didn’t do as well, along with a series of posts to give some better guidance on preparing for the exam.

Section A – Lutheran Chorale

Tom Pankhurst’s Chorale Guide – Straightforward, step-by-step method for completing chorale-based tasks. Work through all the worksheets and you’ll be on your way to full marks.

JSBChorales.net – Most of Bach’s chorales are online at this site. It’s really important to get a feel for how the original chorales look and sound and this site has plenty of mp3s and MIDI files to help non-pianists listen to the music.

Section A – Orchestration

I’ve yet to find much about this one, but a good knowledge of instruments is key.

Section A – Popular Song

Music Arrangers Page – A blog all about arranging for popular music. Not all of it is relevant, but it’s worth looking through the articles and applying the ideas to your own practice.

Section B – Schubert Symphony No 5 in Bb
Topic list blog post

This was definitely the trickiest section to prepare for. However, plenty of work on identifying chords and musical features is important in gaining the more straightforward marks on part b.

Scott Foglesong – Scott Foglesong works for the San Fransisco Conservatory of Music, and he’s put up a fantastic essay analysing Schubert’s Symphony no 5 in Bb. Saved me a lot of time doing the formal analysis, so I can concentrate on the thematic issues.

Section C – Musicals
Topic list blog post

The best way to approach this section is to watch as many of the musicals as possible. Lots of these are available on Netflix and LoveFIlm, and you can also find various versions on YouTube.

“Inside” series from New Line Theatre – there doesn’t seem to be an index page, but the link will take you to the search which brings up most of the pages. There are articles on Chicago, and Jesus Christ Superstar

Notes, analysis & essays for OCR A level Music – a Scottish-based webpage with useful articles on West Side Story and Les Miserables.

Sweeney Todd: an analysis of the dramatic and musical structure – Someone has very kindly put up their entire PhD thesis on this particular show, with detailed analysis on several of the key songs.

Michael Bennett’s A Chorus LIne 101 – Three pages analysing the songs and structure of the show.

A Chorus Line: Does it Abide By Equity? – Ok, not strictly speaking useful for the exam, but a really interesting read! (link is to a PDF)

Have you taken an AMusTCL? What resources did you find useful? Post them below.

AMusTCL – Topics for Section C

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section C: Stylistic Development – Musical Responses.

Toccata: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach

  • Spontaneity and improvisation
  • Inspiration from Baroque features
  • Creative limitations of arranging
  • Commonality between Baroque and Jazz
  • Compositions in their own rights?

Popular Music

  • Worldwide appeal
  • Variety of cultural backgrounds
  • Innovation
  • Distinct musical sound
  • Musical qualities that lead to success
  • Non-musical qualities that lead to success (video/fashion/publicity etc)

Film Music

  • Hallmarks of film music as a specific genre
  • Importance of music in film as an art form
  • Integration of music within the film
  • Music and emotional response
  • Relationship to Programme Music
  • Role of music in enhancing drama

Musicals

  • Conflict between speech and music v. unified artistic whole
  • Treatment of ‘the outsider’
  • Social and contemporary issues
  • Role as ‘Protest music’
  • Ingredients of a successful musical
  • Popularity of the music v. other reasons for success

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.

AMusTCL – Topics for Section B

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section B: Stylistic Development – Set Works.

Schubert Symphony no 5 in Bb major

  • Relationship to music which came before and after
  • Treatment of sonata form
  • Chamber-like nature
  • Hallmarks of the classical symphony
  • Markers of later symphonic form

Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms

  • Novelty of orchestral features
  • Use of orchestration to provide colour
  • The setting of the text
  • Innovation in the music
  • Neo-classicism
  • Latin as a language choice

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.

An Adventure into the Advanced, or, studying for an AMusTCL

Writing Musical Notes in PencilI didn’t discover the joys of Trinity Guildhall’s theory exams until after I had already taken the slow and arduous path of studying for ABRSM’s Grade 6 and 7 exams. I passed both of them, but the materials available for study made the whole process seem both mysterious and dull.

Then, I discovered Trinity’s exams and have hence forth switched over to them for all my students. Trinity’s Grade 8 is considered by ABRSM to be equivalent to AB Grade 6, and as I had already passed that exam, it was the diploma syllabus that caught my eye.

The AMusTCL is the first level of the diplomas offered by Trinity, and I’m planning to attempt it in November this year.

The syllabus has three sections:

Section A covers the harmony material required by ABRSM. There are five different questions, and candidates attempt either two or three depending on what they’ve chosen for section B. The options are: harmonise a Lutheran Chorale, orchestrate a piano reduction for a classical orchestra, complete an early romantic piano piece, compose your own melody using non-traditional harmony, and complete a popular song from the chords given.

Section B is a little different. This is a question on a set work. Currently, the set works are Schubert’s Symphony No 5 in Bb minor and/or Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Candidates can study one or both. Those who study both do two questions in section A, and those who study one do three questions in section A. There’s an essay question about the general form and shape, and then a more detailed analysis question on the harmonic structure in a given phrase.

Section C is a “listening” question, with options to choose from two set arrangements of a piece, a selection of modern popular music albums, a selection of film soundtracks and a selection of musicals. This is an essay question only, drawing mainly on the listening/watching and the relationship between the music and wider issues – everything from character and plot to the politics of the age.

Trinity don’t give much in the way of study guides, with only some brief notes and one past paper over and above the syllabus, so it’s going to be an adventure! The exam is in a little over 15 weeks, but I’ve bought my score for the set work, obtained copies of all the musicals and worked through the Trinity books up to Grade 8.

By taking the AMusTCL, I’ll have a theory qualification that will allow me to take an LRSM exam in teaching in the future, and I’ll also be much better equipped to teach my students not only about harmony, but also about reading scores and understanding music in context.

If you click on one of the social network buttons on the top, you can keep up with my adventure into advanced theory by liking Discover Singing on Facebook, following on Twitter, or adding my RSS feed into your Feedly (or other rss reader) account. I’ll be back in soon to let you all know how it’s going. Wish me luck!