Tag Archives: technique

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.

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?

Movement for Non-Actors (Part 2) – Where?

Mary Poppins

As we talked about on Tuesday, movement isn’t normally part of a singer’s repertoire, but it becomes vitaly important in musical theatre.

However, once you’ve worked out why you’re moving, it’s time to work out where to go.

Geography of the Stage

In this post, I’m going to give a quick run-down of some of the different places you can move to, and ways in which you can move there to help you develop a plan for your song.

One of the first considerations is where on the stage you will stand. Will you go for front and centre, or back and off to the side? Each choice says something different about how you character is feeling, and how s/he relates to others.

Stage Geography

Front and centre is the most powerful location on the stage. No other actor can get in front of you, and you can speak right to the audience. For a song like Maybe This Time from Cabaret, you might want to select a front and centre position, and stay quite static too. Something more tragic, and uncertain such as I Dreamed a Dream might feel a bit odd sung from that location.

Conversely, the back of the stage suggests weakness. You’re easily overshadowed by other actors and the set from the back of the stage, and you need to really project to be heard. It’s rare to find an entire solo sung from the back of the stage, but many a number begins at the back and moves forwards as the character develops.

Character or plot development pieces like Daddy’s Girl from Grey Gardens often end up in the middle of the stage. Front and centre breaks the imaginary fourth wall of the room, and speaks to the audience. If a song is directed at a character on stage, then it makes sense to be mid-stage, well inside the imaginary room.

Off to one side or the other of the stage is a good location for narrative songs, or for introspective songs, as the character has removed themselves from the action and can look from the side of the stage over to the events of the story.

Levels

It’s important to consider not just where on the stage you are, but what kind of position you take in that location. When directors talk about “levels” they are referring to whether an actor is standing, sitting on a chair, sitting on the floor, or lying down. You can think of it as what “level” your head is on. In some shows, such as the opening number of Wicked, levels can even mean flying in from overhead!

Standing up is a confident and pro-active position. A big solo number with a very definite mood like I Am What I Am might be stood throughout. Character and plot development numbers might also involve standing, depending on the context.

Lying down on stage

Sitting down is often a sign of meakness or uncertainty. It can also be a sign of reflection or introspection. A number like Still Hurting usually starts with an actor sitting down as it’s a reflective song, dealing with painful issues. Sitting down on the floor can have a similar effect of sadness as in With You from Ghost, or it can be a relaxed and optimistic act as in By The Sea from Sweeney Todd.

Lying down is either result of the events leading up to the song, or absolute emotional brokenness. Being horizontal can make breathing difficult, so this should be used with care, but it can be very dramatic and communicate strong emotions.

Making the Move

Movement means choosing where you’re going to start and then when and where you’re going to move to. Go back to the score you’ve marked up and start by thinking where you are going to be when the introduction plays, or you say the preceeding lines. From there, at each point where the emotional story of the song changes, you should consider moving to another part of the stage, or changing your level. If you get sadder, move away from the centre of the stage or sitting down. If you get angry, stand up and move forward. Happier people also tend to move more, and faster. Think about how you move when you feel particular emotions.

Don’t be afraid to move while singing too. If a bridge or chorus builds towards a new emotion, you could make the transition as you sing.

Whatever you decide to do, make a note in the music as to exactly when you are going to move, and where you are going. Practice the movement to a recording of someone else singing before you try the movement while you are singing.

I hadn’t intended this, but there’s so much to say that I’ll conclude this with a third part next Tuesday talking about smaller kinds of movement such as eyecontact and gesture.

In the meantime, are there areas of the stage that you think have particular meaning? How do you map out the stage, or use levels to show emotion?

Exercises for Beginners: Tongue Twisters

Tongue TwisterOne of my favourite kinds of warming up and technical exercises is tongue twisters. They’re great for warming up all of the muscles needed to form words when singing and help singers practice good diction and articulation (i.e. the ability to sing words so that the audience understands what they are).

If you’re new to tongue twisters, or new to singing, start by saying one slowly. Try this one:

How many boards could the Mongols hoard, If the Mongol hordes got bored?

Once you’ve mastered repeating it slowly, speed up gradually. Each repetition should be fractionally faster than the one before. As it gets faster, you’ll need to exaggerate the movements in your face to keep the words clear. Don’t do this where you can see yourself – you’ll end up laughing too much! Stop when the words become too muddled, and then have another go.

Once you’ve got the hang of saying them, the next challenge is to sing them. Pick a comfortable note and sing this one all on the same pitch:

Black background, brown background

Again, keep getting faster until the words become muddled. Repeat a few times before trying the last exercise.

The final way to use tongue twisters is to sing them over a pattern. For example, try singing this tongue twister

Seventy seven benevolent elephants

On a slightly higher note each time you repeat it, so you’re singing it once on each note in the pattern below:

Pentascale in G

Again, keep getting faster and repeating the words and the pattern in a circle until you can’t say the words clearly anymore!

You can use tongue twisters on any warm up pattern – scales, arpeggios, pentascales, pentatonic scales, anything you like!

If you need more ideas for tongue twisters, or want a list for sharing with students, you can grab my free tongue twisters printable by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1316″ style=”button” color=”inherit” text=”Purchase”]

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?

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for 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?

How Breathing Works: A Guide for Singers

When I started taking singing lessons, I never expected that I would come to know so much about the human body. I’m still not convinced that anatomy is my favourite subject, but it’s vital for singers and singing teachers to understand what’s going on in the body.

The very first process singers are introduced to is usually their breathing mechanism. Breathing is an automatic process for the body – a reflex. We don’t have to consciously decide to breathe in and breathe out (how bad would it be if we did?). Instead, our body knows to tense and relax the right muscles at the right time all by itself.

The muscle which does most of the work for our breathing is called the diaphragm. It’s a large muscle located right on the bottom of your lungs, dividing them from the rest of the organs in your abdomen (stomach, kidneys, liver, intestines, etc). It is what draws air into your lungs. Without it, your lungs would be empty, like a party balloon when it comes out of the packet.

Here’s where it gets a bit technical. Unlike a party balloon, where we push air into it, and it expands (this is how medical artificial respirators work), our body uses an amazing bit of science to draw air into our lungs. When our diaphragm becomes tense, it creates a vacuum in your chest which sucks your lungs down. Our muscles around our ribs (intercostal muscle) also tense, moving our ribcage up and out, increasing this vacuum that’s opening our lungs. As our lungs open up, that creates another vacuum in our lungs which air rushes into.  It’s exactly the same scientific principles as a vacuum cleaner uses. When the diaphragm relaxes, the vacuum stops, the lungs close down again, and the air in the lungs flows back out again. Amazing stuff, eh?

So what does this mean for singers?

Well, our diaphragm works automatically without us noticing most of the time, but singers need to become aware of it. Sometimes it goes wrong, and we get hiccups – the feeling you get at the base of your ribs when you hiccup, or when you’re waiting to see if you’re going to hiccup? That’s your diaphragm you’re feeling. You don’t want to try to induce hiccups just to feel your diaphragm so when you’re breathing normally, place your hand just across the bottom of your ribs, where the left and right separate, and you should be able to feel a rising and falling sensation. That’s the effect of your diaphragm.

Some people say singers need to learn to “breath with (or from) your diaphragm”. This isn’t anatomically correct, but the principle is the right. We need to learn to do two things as singers – breath using our whole lungs and control the speed of our breathing.

Normally, our breathing is fairly shallow – we don’t need to breath heavily as we’re not using much oxygen up when we’re sitting down. As we do more active things – walking or running, our breathing gets deeper as we need more oxygen. Singers harness this natural ability to vary the depth of our breath by developing conscious control over how far out the muscles inbetween our ribs (our intercostal muscles) move out, and how quickly or slowly our diaphragm tenses. You can already do this a little because you can already choose to take an extra large and deep breath.

Singing is always building on natural things our bodies do anyway. It’s not a mythical or mysterious process – there are lots of buzz words and jargon some teachers use, but really, it’s all about getting your body to do the stuff it already does even better! You can already control the speed of your breathing a little too – you can hold your breath. When we hold our breath, we are consciously telling our diaphragm to stop moving. Eventually, our body will override this command as we need oxygen, but we can control it. Singers develop a very fine control over this muscle, not only being able to hold their breath, but to control how slowly the diaphragm releases, and using the muscles around our intercostal (rib) muscles to control the speed of our breathing.

Lots of techniques exist now that help with general breathing. Many people, singers and not, find yoga really helpful as there is a focus on breathing deeply and rhythmically. The Alexander Technique can also help with breathing along with improving posture and movement.

Keep following the blog for exercise ideas that will help you with controlling your breathing for singing. If you’re serious about getting better at singing, do find a singing teacher in your area to help you. For Edinburgh-based lessons, contact me.