The thing that gets me most excited about singing is how often it’s not really about the singing part. Singing is rarely limited to the functional process of turning air into sound. Instead, it’s an interdisciplinary and holistic activity that touches on a multitude of ideas and themes. Here is a list of 26 different things that singing is about that aren’t singing!
An easy A – singing is absolutely about anatomy. I have learnt so much about anatomy since I started teaching. My GCSE biology was enough to get me started – I knew the basics of how lungs work. Now I’m learning about the function of different muscles, and more than I ever wanted to know about mucous distribution.
All singing is breathing, but not all breathing is singing. Before we even utter a note, we need to know how to work with our body’s natural reflex to breathe. It’s a crazy journey to learn how to take something automatic, unpick it to work out how to do it more efficiently and effectively, and then put it back together so it’s almost automatic again.
The breathing we practice in singing also has benefits for our mental health, managing anxiety and for lung health.
It’s incredible how often I find myself counting in a singing lesson or practice session. Whether it’s counting breathing, counting beats, or totting up how many verses there are, we need numbers to help us make great music. I even know a few counting songs that function as great tongue/brain twisters!
Didn’t expect that one! The more I go on learning about singing, the more I’m convinced that rhythmic movement (or, dance) is essential. Moving with the music helps develop our internal sense of beat and rhythm. It helps us explore the sound in a non-verbal, non-cerebral way. Movement can cut through our overthinking. Plus, it’s good for tension release, and it’s really freeing to play about and move joyfully!
You’re probably thinking this means emotional expression in the songs we sing? And yes, that is part of it. I chose Emotions here because actually singing often helps us express, explore and process emotions that we bring into the practice room. How many times have you chosen a song to listen to because it makes you cry, or brings back cheerful memories? Music moves us.
Does this need explaining? If it’s not at least a bit fun, something’s gone wrong somewhere!
This was a hard letter to pick, but I went for graphics because we do spend a lot of time on visual media – sheet music. We’re always working to interpret something graphical produced by someone else, and turn it into something audio produced by us. There’s even a whole subset of graphical scores, and creatively printed sheet music that has extra layers to interpret.
Did you know my degree is 50% history? I’m not actually a music grad. History probably pipped music to the post as my first love. A big part of singing is understanding the songs and especially how they came to exist. That means learning about the times and places they were written and the people who wrote them. Sometimes, we can be a bit slack on the history side as singers, compared to instrumentalists. Something I’m thinking about how to fix in my studio. I want to create a set of lesson segments that help my students learn about the history of vocal music (including a diverse range of people and backgrounds).
I was reminded of this fab word this week. It’s the technical term to describe our internal sense of how we are. It’s the senses that tell us we’re hungry, or thirsty, or tired.
How does singing help? Singing is an internal process. I can’t show you how to hold your larynx like I would fingers on the piano. Instead, we’re always developing an internal sense of how we are feeling. Some of this is proprioception – our sense of where we are in space – and some of it is paying close attention to our internal sensations and learning to trust them.
One of my big goals in teaching is to help my students learn to form their own judgements about their technique and sound. It’s really important for a singer to hear and feel what is happening when they sing, and then judge what (if anything) needs to change.
It’s also a big learning curve to be able to do this fairly and not jump to a negative judgement!
When I drafted this list, I put knowledge in here, but I changed it to knowhow because singing isn’t just about knowing stuff. It’s knowing how to apply it. It’s great to know facts about the diaphragm, but can you turn that into technique?
So much listening. Listening to music for details like pitch and rhythm. Listening for the big picture. Listening to other singers and musicians. We all need more practice at listening to each other and to ourselves.
Right from the start, singers are expected to memorise their music. We’re actively using our memories all the time when we sing, and even more so when we put down the sheet music.
Singing, like all music, is good for exercising lots of brain functions including memory. There is even work going on with singing to help people with dementia, as music can trigger retained memories.
This one is still new to me, but research into singing and the brain is growing all the time. Singing is great for the brain and has an impact on our psychology.
I’m always excited when I see a brain scan of someone singing pop up in an article!
We Brits aren’t the most open and confident sort of people in the main. Lots of singers come to me very small, and closed. I wonder if that’s what draws them to come for lessons – a desire to be a bit more “out there”.
Singing challenges us to be vulnerable. We need to be able to access and communicate deep emotions. We have to take perceived risks like making weird or “bad” sounds. We even need to be open to different styles and ideas.
I had a lot of ideas for P, but patience is the one that stuck. Singing is absolutely a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a step-by-step, day-by-day journey. Little and often is so essential to the process.
Often, I have to slow students down and remind them that their progress and abilities are not defined by the next singing exam. We don’t need to rush to the next step. We don’t need to do every exam, or even any exams.
The more I learn, the more questions I have! I am always asking questions of myself in the music room. What went wrong there? How can I make that better? I wonder why s/he chose that chord?
I want to grow curious singers. Singers who ask questions about their music, their technique and themselves. Questions are how we grow as musicians.
With questions comes reflection. I feel like I’ve chosen three words here that are all about slowing down. Reflection is really important to me in singing. We can get carried away with karaoke-ing our songs, and not stop to reflect on how we sung them. Reflection is an essential aspect of growing and learning.
It can even go beyond our music. Sometimes I find myself reflecting on more personal things – my personality, my thought processes, my strengths and weaknesses.
Singing can, of course, be a form of self-care. However, I chose this word because I so often find singing challenges me to do other kinds of self-care. Lack of sleep and lack of exercise can show up in my voice before I’ve even noticed. I can hear stress in my students’ voices around exam times. We are our voice and our voice is us – it holds up a mirror to our lives and shows us the places we need to put ourselves first a little more.
Let’s get a bit deep. Singing is about our tomorrows. It’s about our personal tomorrows – keeping ourselves healthy and well. It’s also about our collective tomorrows. Art of all kinds can bring people together around a cause, or express a collective idea. We can proclaim in song what kind of tomorrow we want, and that can drive us to do what it takes to create it.
Think about the power of protest song, spirituals and even the songs we use to teach ideas to our kids. Singing is about tomorrow.
Singing brings us together. Not just as individuals, but within ourselves too. We are putting our whole body to work, along with our mind and our spirit. We’re connecting the movement that produces sound to the mental work of turning that into music and the spiritual connection that allows us to express the song emotionally.
To me, that’s what makes singing such a powerful activity. We are using what we have, nothing more. Just ourselves. And we’re creating something beautiful.
I wrote about this recently in my post on why I’m not just a classical singer. Just as with any other exercise, our bodies can get used to the activities we do. To exercise effectively we need variety in what we do. Same for the voice – we need to keep exploring new ways to use old exercises. It’s amazing how many ways we can sing a scale or an arpeggio once we really get going. Or have you tried mixing up tongue twisters with emotions?
Singing is all about variety and cross-training!
Waves (of sound)
I quit physics as soon as the school would let me. Little did I know I’d be sharing YouTube videos about the science of sound with everyone I know twenty years later… (meep! that’s a long time!)
I’ve become a bit obsessed with learning more about equal temperament and how it’s a scientific fudge. The piano is actually slightly out of tune to make it work! There’s a whole book on the subject that’s in my reading queue right now.
(yeah, I know, but you always have to cheat for X, right?)\
Expression is fundamental to music, and with singing we have the extra bonus/challenge of words. We need to develop our ability to be expressive. That goes far beyond singing too.
Being expressive is such a big part of communication – whether we’re on a date or making a speech. Plus, learning song lyrics can improve our vocabulary. It’s even a great gateway to learning to express yourself in second, third and fourth languages.
Often, I find singing touches on our past and our experiences. What we experienced yesterday comes into the voice studio today. Whether it’s about accessing experiences to act more in a song, or having a difficult experience that’s holding us back from being really free, yesterday is always with us.
Sometimes, I’ve had voice lessons turn into a bit of an impromptu listening session when a student has come in from a really tough day or week. It’s part of the challenge for me to think on my feet and adapt the plan so the lesson is a really encouraging and nurturing experience no matter what a student brings in.
Z was a bit difficult to come up with, but let’s end on a bit of current events. Right now, singing is all about Zoom (or your video platform of choice). While singing together is still highly restricted in many places, technology allows us to keep singing and learning safely. I would never have thought I could teach online for over a year, and see amazing progress in myself as a teacher and in my students. I never would have dreamed that I’d take on students who are going to stay online even when my local students can come back in person!
Zoom can be restricting – it’s harder to sing together and it does mean I have to watch and listen pretty carefully at times. Yet, Zoom is also liberating. It means I’ve had a (mostly) sustainable job over the last year. It’s given me access to the most amazing CPD opportunities, and the chance to connect with other teachers across the UK and the world.
Whatever happens in the rest of 2021, enjoy singing. Enjoy it for itself, and enjoy it for all the reasons in this list and more!