Tag Archives: vocal health

Excercises for Beginners: Sirening

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

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

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


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

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

That’s why it’s called the siren.

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

I hope you’ve found this exercise fun and useful. For more help with exercises to help your singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

How the Voice Works – A Guide for Singers

Following on from the post last week about how breathing works, here’s a quick guide to how the voice works.

There are four parts to the voice the air pressure system, the vibratory system, the resonating system, and the modifying system. Each of these works to create the sounds we make when speaking and singing.

Candle-flame-no-reflectionWe’ve already looked at the air pressure system – it’s the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that pull air into the lungs and then control the outflow of air. You can test it! Imagine there’s a candle in front of you or use the one on the right. With your first breath out, blow over the candle very gently so that you would make the flame flicker, but not go out. Now, with your next breath, blow a strong puff of air as though you’re going to blow the candle out. Manage it? Congratulations – you can modify the air pressure coming out of your lungs!

You can see how the lungs connect to the throat and mouth in this diagram:

So let’s look now at the vibratory system. This is what turns the air into sound – at this stage, it’s just any old sound, though. To create sound, your body has vocal folds (or vocal chords as they used to be called). These are flappy bits of flesh which are normally relaxed when you breathe in an out. When you choose to speak, your body uses muscles to create tension, and the air rushing past them makes them vibrate. The closest analogy in the musical world is the way in which blowing into the reed on a clarinet or an oboe produces sound. If you watch the video below, you can see the vocal folds vibrating as the poor person with the camera down their throat tries to sing for us…

balloon-squeakerOne way in which I demonstrate this for my students is by getting a balloon and blowing it up so it’s full of air. Then I pull the neck of the balloon taught and let the air out – it makes a very loud, but unfocused noise! Try it for yourself next time you are blowing up balloons for a party.

Singers learn to adjust the muscles around their vocal folds and the larynx that protects them so that the quality of the sound is clearer. Learning to sing also involves exercising these muscles to make them stronger and more flexible which increases the range. Because we can’t normally feel these muscles, it can involve some creative exercises and lots of imagination!

Now the body has made sound, we need to make the sound louder. The noise made by vocal folds is quite small, so the body has a resonating system to amplify the sound. Many instruments have a resonating system – for example, the body of a violin or acoustic guitar, or the long length of the tube on a trombone.

In humans, our resonating system is our mouth and nose, or “oral and nasal cavities”. Just as the body of a string instrument allows sound waves to bounce around and get bigger inside it, so the space in our mouth and nose allows the sound from our vocal folds to get larger. You can feel the effect a little if you hum single note in the lower half of your voice. As you hum, relax your lips until you can feel them vibrating. That vibration is the effect of your mouth magnifying the sound into much larger waves.

Part of singing training is making use of this resonance to not only amplify the sound but to modify it’s quality so that it has a lovely tone. We can do this by adjusting the shape of our mouths – lowering the tongue, and raising the soft palate, for example. We might also want to limit the nasal resonance of sound for classical singing – though if we’re singing a country song, some of that nasal sound can be useful!

Last of all, the human body is designed to be able to shape the sound we make into distinct forms that allow us to form words.This is the modifying system. Every time you form a word, you use your lips, tongue and teeth to form and pronounce different phonics. Babies are born with the capacity to make all the sounds used in all the languages in the world, but they very quickly copy adults to learn what sounds they need to be able to use to communicate in the language their family speaks. Young children will start to sound like their parents, not just in language, but in accent because they copy the sounds around them. That’s why teens are so easily mistaken for their parents on the phone!

Here’s a labelled diagram showing all the parts of the resonating and modifying systems:

Head and cavities

You can experiment very easily with this modifying system by comparing the letter P and T. P, when pronounced as “puh” uses the lips to control the sound. T, when pronounced as “tuh” uses the tongue at the roof of the mouth. We also use our soft palate (the soft part of the roof of your mouth at the back) and the glottis (the flap that closes the airway when we swallow) to form different sounds.

Singing lessons help singers to learn to form letters in a way that still allows the sound of their voice to resonate properly, and doesn’t change the air pressure or vibrations of their vocal fold. This can involve learning to modify vowels, for example, to make the mouth and throat more open on a high note. Compare singing the sound “ah” to the sound “ee” for an example.

Each exercise a singer practices aims to develop control over different parts of these systems. Great singers have developed excellent control over these systems so that their lungs produce well controlled pressure, their vocal folds vibrate free from strain that might damage them, they can direct sound to the places of best resonance and then modify it to communicate not only sound but words to the audience. A good teacher will develop all of these skills in their students.

Want to know more about how to make the most of these vocal systems? Why not take singing lessons? Discover Singing provides lessons based in Leith, Edinburgh.

Singing Through the Summer

It’s school holidays from this week, up in slightly sunny Scotland, and it won’t be long before the schools are off in England too. That means lots of music teachers are on holiday too. Some teachers take the whole summer off and most of us will take a couple of weeks.

So, how do you survive the summer as a music student? Here are some of my favourite things to do to keep myself motivated without weekly lessons.

1. Read some books about music

As things quiet down over the summer, it’s a great time to pick up a book about music. If you’re off on holiday yourself, a good book is a must to pack into your suitcase. Join your local library to get books for free. If you’re under 16 (mainly aged 4 to 11), you can also join in the national summer reading challenge at your local library and get rewarded for reading!

There are loads of choices for all ages. You could pick up a composer biography, a book on the history of musical styles, or one about instruments. What about a scientific book about how music works, or one on the psychology and neuroscience of how music works? Amazon even has a selection of classic texts on music available free in kindle format.

I’m just compiling my reading list for this summer (more later in the week), but in the meantime, check out my book recommendations page.

2. Head out to a concert or festival

Music happens all year round, but in the summer it’s usually mild enough that musicians venture outdoors. There’s a huge range of outdoor concerts that take place throughout the summer, from national events like Proms in the Park, to the bandstand in your local park. Keep an eye on national sites like The List as well as your local listings for opportunities, especially family friendly ones with the option to picnic while you listen.

For the more adventurous, summer is the time for festivals. Urban festivals often showcase local talent, while weekend events in fields give a more intense and cosmopolitan environment. These aren’t the cheapest option, but often offer a wider variety of styles of music. I’ll be reporting back from Greenbelt later in the summer which offers a huge range from classical opera to punk rock all on the same site.

If you really can’t find anything locally, check out coverage on the BBC of the various music festivals from Glastonbury (last weekend) through to Leeds and Reading (at the end of August). They also broadcast lots of concerts from the Proms on radio and TV.

3. Make some music with others

I nearly titled this one “take part in a concert” and I would definitely recommend that as one of your considerations. If you have a local festival, why not consider participating? It might be too late for this year, but you could use your summer to plan for next year.

If you’ve got some more free time over the summer, why not touch base with some musical friends and get together to play? You could even head for the park and make music outside, or try busking (check out your local council’s by-laws before setting up just anywhere). Making music with others challenges all kinds of skills like sight-reading and aural perception, and it’s loads of fun. I love getting together with my duet partner to rehearse new songs.

4. Take part in a summer school

Summer schools for music come in all shapes and sizes for all ages and abilities. Local events are often short and affordable. Come-and-sing events often crop up over the summer, as do workshops for kids run by local music groups. I was lucky, as a teen, to take part in summer workshops with a local opera society, for example. Non-residential summer schools are often run in vacant school buildings for local kids, while boarding schools often host residential weeks for more advanced children.

For adults, the range goes even further with Conservatoires opening their doors to a wider audience. There are also many residential events, some of which involve travelling overseas to French country lodges or Mediterranean hotels. You can get a taste of what is on offer here.

5. Set Yourself a Challenge

Why not set yourself a challenge? Your teacher might have left you a list of things to do, but if you’ve got some extra time (especially if you’re on school holidays) why not set yourself something totally different to do? The summer break is a great way to hit the T of SMART by making your challenge one which is “time-bound”.

You could set a goal of learning anything from a single song you don’t know up to a whole song cycle. I’m toying with learning all the mezzo arias from the Messiah as my musical challenge while my teacher is on holiday for a month.

To take a different angle, why not consider the challenge of composing something? Set a favourite poem to music, or muck around on an instrument (anything from piano to recorder) and write down a melody all of your own.

6. Think about what you want to do by next summer

Maybe you need to take some time to refocus on what you want out of music lessons. We can often get stuck in one track in music, like getting from one grade exam to the next without really thinking about why we’re doing exams. It’s important to think about what you’d like to do in the future and summer is a great time for blue skies thinking (well, on the three days when the skies are actually blue anyway!).

Think about what you’ve achieved up till now. Is it what you’ve wanted to do? Are you happy with all of it? What would you change?

Then think about what you’d like to do in five or ten years with music. Do you want to go to conservatoire, or be a teacher? Do you want to sing in amateur musicals? Or just to be able to sing to your kids?

I try to spend time with my students at the end of the summer talking about what we’ve achieved and where we’re going together. Watch out for more on this later in the summer.

7. Don’t stop singing!

Whatever you do, don’t stop singing all together. Just as when you stop exercising for a month, going back to the gym is unpleasant to say the last, so if you don’t sing over the summer, your voice will get out of condition! So keep singing. Even if you’re on holiday on a Spanish island, do your warm-ups in the shower to keep your vocal chords in check! Remember, too, that just like athletes, singers need to be wise about things like drinking too much and sleeping too little…


All in all, though, have a great summer and enjoy taking a more relaxed approach to music for a few weeks. If you’ve got any of your own tips as to what to do over the summer, why not comment below with your ideas.

Asthma and Singing

As someone who was diagnosed with asthma around the age of 7, it’s been my life longer than singing has. My symptoms are generally mild, and I’ve never been hospitalised, but my diagnosis does still affect my day to day functioning.

Asthma InhalersA few years ago, I went to my routine asthma appointment and discussed my medication as usual. As a result of the appointment, my asthma nurse transitioned me onto a new daily inhaler. The new inhaler helped with my symptoms as expect, but it also had the effect of almost instantly improving my top range! I gained three or four extra notes almost overnight.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, firstly, because if you suffer from asthma, getting the right medical treatment can make a huge difference to your singing. Secondly, I genuinely believe that my singing lessons have helped improve my asthma.

Asthmatic Singers: Getting the Right Medication

If you are diagnosed as asthmatic, when did you last see your asthma nurse? In the UK, all asthmatics should see the asthma nurse at their local GP surgery at least once a year. For under 16s, that should be every six months. If you’ve not seen anyone about your asthma in more than a year, the first thing is to give your GP a call, and see your nurse. It takes 15 minutes a year, and could save your life.

Asthma UK LogoAsthma UK has a short test they’ve called “The Triple A Test” which can help you determine if you are at a high risk of an asthma attack. However, if you find yourself struggling to breathe, or getting wheezing or coughing symptoms, you should make an appointment to see the asthma nurse or your GP rather than waiting until your routine checkup.

Singers use their lungs as the “power” for their sound, and so all singers need to take good care of their lungs. I’m a big advocate of the important of a healthy lifestyle as part of good singing practice. For asthmatics, this means we need to be on the right medication.

As singers, it’s also important to pay attention to your breath control. If you are struggling to sing through phrases, or need to snatch breaths more often, it is worth making an appointment to see your GP/asthma nurse. If you are newly diagnosed, tell your GP that you sing. If you’ve just taken up singing lessons, let your asthma nurse know at your next appointment. Part of the care you should get at an asthma check-up is a personalised asthma management plan, and your singing should be considered when making that plan.

Why Singing Can Help With Asthma

One of the core things singing lessons focus on is breathing. Part of learning to sing is learning to control the muscles that help us breath, and to build strength in our lungs. This is really important for asthmatics as it improves general lung health.

Singers rehearsingMany singers also find that practicing breathing helps when they feel that first indication of their asthma “flaring up”. While singing techniques are unlikely to help in a full-blown asthma attack, they can help to slow down the cycle of panic which can worsen asthma symptoms. Deeper breathing also helps to get more oxygen into the lungs, which means less gasping for breath.

Although there’s been little research directly into what Asthma UK calls “complimentary therapies”, they do say that “some people with asthma find that some complementary therapies and treatments help to relieve stress which can be a trigger for asthma. Others have been shown to help reduce asthma symptoms, such as breathlessness.” Singing is likely to fall under both of these categories. I have certainly found that using singing breathing techniques have been helpful, both to keep me calm, and to help my symptoms pass (alongside using my inhaler).

Of course, singing lessons are not designed to replace medical treatment, and singers should never stop taking their asthma medication without being told to by their GP or asthma nurse. However, if you’re asthmatic, don’t be afraid that your diagnosis might prevent you from succeeding at singing. It’s far more likely that singing will benefit your asthma.

If you want to know more about controlling and manging asthma, please visit Asthma UK’s website, or call their asthma nurse helpline on 0800 121 62 55.

For international readers, a simple google search will usually bring up your local organisation, but here are links for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, The Asthma Society of Canada and the National Asthma Council Australia, all of whom have advice on getting treatment and managing the condition.