Tag Archives: beginner level

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.

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: Sing Musical Theatre

One of the things I had been intending to add in to my blog posts is reviews of new materials. Now I’ve finally been shopping, here’s my first review.

Sing_Musical_Theatre_Wouldnt_It_Be_Loverly_Book_and_CD_e

 

 

Title: Sing Musical Theatre; Wouldn’t It be Loverly? (Foundation, Grades 1-3)
Type of Material: Sheet Music with Backing CD
Publication: 2011 Faber Music
RRP: £14.99

 

 

I was delighted when I discovered this series as I have been looking for a “graded” approach to musical theatre songs for a while. Musical Theatre is dominated by vocal selections, or anthologies sorted by theme or voice type, rather than difficulty. This made it hard to give students a single text to buy. Thankfully, Trinity developed these volumes which help students up to Grade 5 work on easy but satisfying songs.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? has a good selection of songs, many of which are well-known. A good number, however, are taken from UK Youth Music Theatre productions which are less known. This could be a disadvantage, but I like that the book isn’t just the standard songs. There is a good range of styles and dates which means one could pull an LCM programme out of this book alone for the early grades.

This book is also an educational manual as each song has some background on the show, and tips on both musical and theatrical performance. This makes it a great buy for learners as they have reference material to support their practice. For LCM candidates, the information about the song is really helpful for the viva too.

The backing tracks too are good. They’re nicely paced (not too fast or slow) and have a fuller sound than just the piano, with some percussion etc where appropriate.

I would recommend this book to any beginner or teacher working with beginners. It’s not too condesending to use with adults either, and the inclusion of backing tracks really makes this a value for money choice.

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

Natural Inhalation (Breathing Like Normal)

Breathing upwardsMany people come into singing and discover they don’t know how to breathe. Well. Kinda.

For singing, you need a very specific kind of breath, one which makes use of your whole lung capacity on the way in, and which you can control as you breath out. There are lots of ways to control the air going out, but it’s hard to practice drawing in the air in the right way.

We can try lots and lots of exercises, but one thing is vital – we need to remember we do know how to breathe. We’re not learning a new skill, we’re refining an old one.

Our lungs want to breathe in, and one way to help improve your inhalation is to let them do what they do best. Here’s how to try the “natural inhalation” exercise:

  1. Breathe out as far as you possibly can. Force the air right out.
  2. Relax

It might take a couple of tries to be able to do #2. There should be no active action of breathing in: don’t try and breathe in. Just stop breathing out and don’t hold your breath. When you get it right, you should just feel  your lungs inflate of their own accord.

Vacuum bagIt’s a little bit like the effect of opening up a vaccuum bag which has winter clothes in. They just want to suck all the air back in. The inside of your lungs is made up of lots of tiny chambers, like the gaps between the fibres in your winter coat. Just as the air rushes back into the winter coat, so the air rushes into your lungs. Combine that with the work of your diaphragm which is constantly creating and reducing a gentle vacuum in your lungs, and you have a really good way to get air in and out of the body.

If you find this exercise hard standing up, you could try it lying down. Lie on a firm surface, and let everything relax. Pull your ribcage down by breathing out until it’s as low as you can manage it. Then just relax everything.

When we breathe in as singers, we want to get this mechanism working really effectively. An in-breath should never be forced, it should just be the air rushing in to where it really wants to be.

How about you? What have you found helpful for managing to control your breathing for singing?

(With thanks to Gillyanne Keyes’ The Singing Actor where I first read about this method of controlling the in-breath.)

Top Books to Buy for New Singers

Books with a ribbonAs Christmas is coming, I thought now was the time to look at some gift ideas for singers. Next week, I’ll post some of the non-book ideas, but today’s post is all about books for new singers who have started lessons in 2013.

Before you buy, do check with their parent, friend, flatmate or significant other in order to be sure what the singer does or does not have!

The New Illustrated Treasury of Disney Songs (Hal Leonard, RRP £21.95)
Now in it’s sixth edition, this wonderful volume is great for any young or new singer as the songs in it are easy and satisfying. It’s also a great gift as it has a lovely introduction on the history of Disney’s music and each song is illustrated with a still from the film. This is a gift which will be treasured for years to come.

Sing Solo Christmas (Oxford University Press, RRP £13.50)
This is a festive gift for a new singer which contains some graded material and plenty of great ideas for classical singers to use in concerts. As with any Christmas music volume, this will be useful year after year. This book comes in high and low editions, so you may need to check which would be better.

Songs of Christmas (Boosey & Hawkes, RRP £14.99)
This is a lovely series of books edited by Marjory Hargest Jones. Across the series there is a wealth of graded material and plenty of ideas for unaccompanied traditional songs. If you don’t fancy the Christmas one, there are editions with songs from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Americas.

The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (Hal Leonard, RRP £16.99/£29.99)
This series is rich with resources, and has a multitude of volumes for all four main voice types. You can buy the volumes with or without CDs. Whichever you choose, these books will go on and on being useful for singers throughout their training.

How Music Works by John Powell(, RRP £12.99)
A really accessible introduction to the science of why music actually sounds good to us, and how that affects the way we make it.

The Story of Music by Howard Goodall (RRP £12.99)
The book to accompany the brilliant TV show from 2011. This series gives an excellent overview of the development of music in the Western world.

The Story of the Orchestra (Black Dog & Leventhall, RRP £13.95)
A delightful book introducing the orchestra for ages 8-12.

You can buy all of these books by clicking on the links which will take you to my special Amazon store. By buying through these links you help to support the cost of running this blog.

What are your best buys for a new singer? If you’ve been singing for a while, do you have any books you are still using that were bought early on? Add your suggestions below.

Excercises for Beginners: Straw Singing

StrawsI have recently rediscovered the childhood magic of the drinking straw. I don’t know what it is about this small, plastic thing that creates such joy, but I love ’em.

Why have I rediscovered straws? Well, I have been looking for some new ideas for technical exercises, and I have discovered that straws can help improve your singing technique.

One of the biggest problems singers have is nasality – allowing air to go through the nose when singing even when it’s not necessary (which it is to say ‘m’ and ‘n’). By using a straw, this can help to focus breathing and direct air and sound away from the nose and through the mouth.

First, let’s try overdoing the nasal sound. Sing a note and try to drive the sound through your nose. It’s going to sound silly! Can you feel the air is rushing much faster than when you sing normally?

Now, grab your straw. First, blow through the straw. All the air should go through the straw, not through your nose at all. You should feel something closing off your nose. That’s your soft palate. You can’t feel it moving as such, but you should feel the effect. Try allowing air to go through your nose on the next breath. Keep alternating between just blowing through the straw and then blowing through the straw and your nose until you can identify what’s different.

Next, we’re going to sing through the straw. Pick a pitch that’s in the middle of your range and comfortable. Sing the note down the straw. Don’t let any air escape through your nose. It should make the straw buzz at your lips.

Now sing the same note, but allow sound to go through your nose too. You should feel the buzz in your nose rather than your lips. Repeat a few times, and then try alternating between singing down the straw and singing with your nose too on the same breath. It’ll sound a bit like “nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo”.

Lastly, take good breath and sing down the straw. Then, about halfway through the note, open your lips and switch to regular singing. Don’t move anything else – can you do it without letting any sound come through your nose? Test this by pinching your nose as you sing. If it changes the sound, you’ve let air escape down your nose.

This is not really a daily strength building exercise, but instead it’s a great way to build awareness of how your voice works, and the ability you have to control it.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your tone and reducing nasality in 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?

Why Even Beginners Need to Practice Singing

It’s amazing how often I come across comments like this, which I recently read on a forum:

Singing doesn’t count, as it doesn’t … require the same kind of practice as instruments do.

There’s a bit of a myth that exists that singing, especially at a beginner level, doesn’t need practice. After all, we all use our voices every day, right?

Wrong.

Singers, even those just starting out, need to practice every day in an organised and focused way.

Image by monica liu on flickr

Singing practice is like doing physical exercise. If you’re a runner, and stop running for a while, the next time you go back to it, it’s hard, right? Your muscles are all stiff and your body feels slow. You probably even wake up the next day with aches you don’t normally get. Singing, just like running, dancing, swimming or going to the gym uses muscles. They’re very small muscles for the most part, but they’re there, and the need to be strengthened and conditioned to work at their optimum (You can learn more in this post about how the voice works and this one on how breathing works). This can only be achieved by singing regularly, and focusing on using good technique. Training those muscles is vital, and the sooner you start doing it regularly (daily), the sooner your muscles will get stronger and more responsive.

Regular, focused practice time also helps you to learn songs faster and more accurately. By giving the song your full attention (rather than just practicing in the car, as one parent proudly claimed her daughter did), you can be certain you’re not learning notes or words incorrectly. You’ll also be using your whole brain to absorb the information, rather than just part of it. This might not feel important when you’re learning little more than folk songs and nursary rhymes, but by focusing on your practice, you’re not just learning about singing – you’re learning about learning to sing.

So, what happens if you don’t put in the time and effort to practice properly when you first start out?

Your voice doesn’t develop strength, power, accuracy, control or range. This is a serious issue. Just as if you launched straight into a marathon, doing nothing by the occasional jog around the park, jumping from low effort levels into working on harder songs with more challenging range and technique can not only lead to frustration, but it can lead to injury. By working on building up skills and strength, you’ll be improving  the longevity of your voice.

If you don’t learn how to learn songs when you’re learning nursary rhymes and folksongs, it’s an awful lot harder to sit down with a four page Romantic song in French or German and know where to start. It’s like trying to solve a complex quadratic equation without having ever taken the time to learn how to do basic arithmetic.

Ultimately? Not practicing early on leads to frustration, injury and, ultimately, giving up
It’s that simple.

So, how can we fix this? Well, make some time every day for practice, and keep following the blog for tips on practicing, and simple vocal exercises that can help you to build up good habits and make it feel just as easy at Grade 6 as at Grade 1.

Excercises for Beginners: Sirening

sirenOne 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. I’ve recorded a clip of me doing this exercise below.

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. Click the recording below to hear me doing this version.


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. And if you’re in any doubt, listen to this clip of me sirening:

 

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?