Face to face

Today I am going to try out my first face to face lesson for 3 months, with a dear friend who teaches me to paint in exchange for me teaching her to sing. So it will be flexible. I am moving out of my little music room to the lounge where I have my spinet and she will stand in the Conservatory with the glass door partially closed at 2 metre distance and the outer doors fully open and windows open (so virtually outside). I think we shall be safe and it will mean she can hear me and I can hear her without masks. And I will try and keep to a 40 minute time.

Well it really worked and I have to say how fascinating it is to work with someone with a different creative skill. She is an internally famous watercolour painter and I try to find images that resonate with her. And when we are working on my painting skills it is amazing how often something comes up that rings true for singing. e.g. Malcolm Martineau spoke abut the magic triangle of singer, pianist and audience and the real connection that worked between all three. She spoke about the artist, the life model and the canvas in the same way, focusing on the dynamic relationship that must ‘flow’ between all three.

She enjoyed working with the spinet instead of the piano as well, and that does give a different timbre even with the same pitch. I used a lot of the discussion I had had with Karen Leigh-Post on awareness, pricking up ears and using the vestibular system. It reminded me of the Tomatis Listening posture which is such a valuable tool to help singers build awareness. It seems so essential to be ‘alive’ and aware when we are singing of the space around us and being in performance mode even in a lesson.

Singing in the time of Covid

Today is Super Saturday 4th July and we have had over 100 days of lockdown. As a singer and Singing teacher it has been very challenging and so many plans have gone to waste. I seem to have been busier than ever and I have found that online teaching has been OK, not perfect but if I adapt and plan thoroughly and keep focused it seems to produce results. I have done over 100 daily video singing exercises on WhatsApp which seem to have gone down well and now I have taken a break for the summer.

Today is also my dear departed singing teacher’s birthday  (Mollie Petrie) as well as Independence Day in the USA and I have recently finished 5 days intense virtual conferencing and Zooming. All very encouraging as we move forward and we might even save the planet in the process. Lots of great ideas to think about over the summer.

There is more research available on the vestibular system which controls body balance and sense of wellbeing which is linked with hearing and auditory perception and the sensations of space and movement. So my findings from my PhD are at last finding some sympathetic response in the teaching world. I am sure our ‘temples’ in our skull have a significant part to play in vocalising at an optimum level, otherwise why are they called ‘temples’?

There has been a real focus on the importance for justice for our brothers and sisters of all colour, race and creed around the world and while it will take time my prayer is that we can come out of this pandemic into a better world. But the implications for many are stark with a global economic disaster on the horizon. Some arts organisations are thinking out of the box but it will be very difficult for performers in the coming months with no incomes or venues.

Teaching is going to change that is for certain but singers and musicians are creative artists and we can surely do our best to give our students the quality of teaching experience they deserve.

 

Lockdown Singing Exercise

Well I have been really challenged! I started doing daily videos of short 2 minute vocal exercises for my students and choir members and it has got to  ridiculous number, I must be on about number 70 by now. However it has been fun and creative and stimulating and folk seem to enjoy them. If you look for Renaissance Choir on Facebook you can see them all. Bear in mind they were all done under Lockdown conditions.

It is interesting having to find new ways of saying the same things because the basics of singing are the same but we need to be stimulated with fresh images to stop getting into a rut. It is refreshing to the mind and the body and in lockdown it is good for the soul!

A unique space

It would seem that we are now in the eighth week of lockdown and there are many who have died of Covid19 and yet we, here in West Sussex have been relatively free of infection. We have enjoyed our beautiful harbour and our garden, and our daily walks. I have been very careful about social distancing and I have done something to help make PPE. I have done little services for Youtube for our Harbour Churches. I have also done lots of sewing and sorting and cleaning.

I have come to the end of semester teaching and marking assessments. But since lockdown began I have done a  daily short 1-2 minute video which I have sent via WhatsApp to my students and choirs. It has been a really good challenge for me to think of fresh approaches to breath, energy, focus, timbre and resonance.

I am now working on a Workbook for French for Singing and I am trying to work out how I can put a video lesson into my blog about Exsultate Jubilate.

I have been wary about posting a picture of myself but here goes and I think I need to become more adventurous and creative with my blog.

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Update

Well… we are only in week 1 of this ‘lockdown’ and I seem to have been busier than ever. Online teaching is exhausting but fruitful and even if it challenges me I am learning so much about the best way to teach under pressure of time and distance. Yes 1-1 online is not as good as face to face but it highlights different things when I rely so much on the sound as well as the visual. I also can see myself in a different if slightly disconcerting light, I do exaggerate my facial expressions because I am trying so hard to get through the barrier of a camera lens. We are human and we long for social contact that is physical and not just virtual. BUT we must save lives and social distancing for the foreseeable future may save many lives, and many families from great sorrow.

While the world outside is struggling to come to terms with a pandemic that is killing so many people, one’s own values and faith are really questioned and the purpose of life becomes more focussed. So I am a Christian and a licensed Reader/Lay Preacher in the Anglican Church, I am a mother and grandmother, an embroiderer and a gardener, a singer and an artist, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, a colleague, all these identities come tumbling around in life like in a stone polishing machine. The rough edges are made smooth or at least my prayer is that will happen.

In the meantime I work and think and meditate on the values of what and why I do and the value of HOW I do it.

Singing has come through this crisis as a release, first in China, then Italy and now here in the UK. The desperate need to sing is so clear amongst people of all ages, interests, creeds and colours. This gives me HOPE.

Virtual Singing lessons

Dr. Susan Yarnall Monks singunique.com

Susan’s thoughts on virtual singing teaching:

Okay I have had only one online lesson so far but apart from the technology I do think there are useful observations to share for what they are worth…

  1. I found Facetime closer to face-to-face teaching than Skype or Zoom but it is a virtual world and very different, so picking up nuances of communication is harder and there is a temptation to get so worried about the technology that you forget to watch the singer…
  2. I think short and sweet is better in the virtual world 30 minutes of intense concentration is enough for me and I think for the students.
  3. Planning obviously is important but agree the strategy of the lesson with your student and your shared aims at the start e.g.
    1. We will do 3 specific technical exercises
    2. Let’s work on this or that particular passage in this song and the next
    3. Lots of highly detailed attention to text, phrasing, pitch, timbre, musical accuracy
    4. Aims for next week’s practice and schedule next lesson
    5. Check singer is happy with the outcome

4. I am very aware that my demonstrations are very close -up with the camera and my very expressive eyebrows make me look funny but that is how I am

5.  As Ian Anderson Gray said the camera can drain energy from you and from your singer, that is why short and sweet is better. Try not to be a perfectionist…

6. Use daylight to light the lesson if you can

7. To be honest trying to accompany the singer gets lost in the time delay and I think it is more useful to get down into the details. The singers can practice using accompaniments on line but your skills as a teacher are about so much more, colour, timbre, emotional communication, technical abilities

8. I think there are huge benefits of virtual teaching but it will never truly replace 1-1, face to face. Being positive makes a difference when everyone is under such pressure, adapt and re-imagine your teaching strategies and styles.

9. Helping the student prepare for these lessons is crucial, again specific goals will help. e.g. “You need to work on loosening those lower abs, and try not to tighten the jaw, or really work on your vowels” etc.

10. I always have 10 tips so this is the last…teachers and students can learn from the challenges and we will be saving the planet as well! I am excited about finding how much more there is to learn!

New ways of teaching

Well as I write this on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 I reflect on the unusual times in which we are living. So now I am teaching at home and on-line and I am so grateful that I took part in the Leo project back in 2010 with EVTA on digital resources for singing teachers. I am having to brush up my skills and look at which are the best options.

It is a difficult time for so many people and peripatetic teachers, and self-employed singers are losing gigs everywhere, opera houses and concert halls are closing.

I think it is time to assess what are the most useful things we can do to keep our voices in tip top condition so I am offering another Ten Tips for Isolation Singing.

Ten Tips for Isolation Singing

  1. Always warm-up the voice as if your life depended on it. Half hearted singing just tires you out and is not good for the voice.
  2. Always check your body for unwanted tensions and RELEASE all those worries away. It is a discipline we all need to WORK on.
  3. High hums and resonance but NOT heavy singing. Energetic and energising, enthusiasm, exploring the sounds you have in your body.
  4. Find creative ways to practice and always sing music you love, choose composers who write for the voice, luxuriate in their melodies.
  5. Any singing is good, sing as you do the house work, singing in the garden, be a full bodied, full time singer and any music that makes you FEEL good, singalong to the radio or CDs.
  6. Be curious and find out all you can about the composer, the lyric writer, the poet.
  7. Explore the repertoire of singers you admire, you can find new songs to sing.
  8. Find on-line resources but be critical of what you see, there is rubbish out there!
  9. Ask for help from teachers you trust, we all need reassurance that we are doing the right things
  10. Never sing if it hurts! Rest and take care of your body and your soul and your voice.

And work on your immune system, eat Shitake Mushrooms, colourful and spicy foods, plus Vitamin C foods.

Performance Skills

I found this the other day and thought it needed another airing, I prepared it for a workshop on performance skills some years ago.

Knowing WHY helps the HOW so I can DO the performance and BE the singer!

Why vocal anatomy, vocal health, vocal acoustics and vocal psychology can make a difference to vocal performance? It has taken singers and musicians a long time to catch up with the sports athletes in terms of taking an all round approach to performance.

  1. When I understand where my lungs are, the shape of my diaphragm etc. I will breathe more efficiently at an optimum rate. My lungs reach down to my low back, my diaphragm is a dome…when I walk on to the stage I breathe deeply and this also helps with nerves as it balances the body and means I have core strength. Do I sing with my whole body or just the upper half? What are my legs and knees doing?
  2. If I am in panic ‘fight or flight’ mode I will lock my knees and my lower abdominals will tighten the diaphragm so it is not free to work properly. Knowing my own psychology will help my anatomy do what I want it to do. Knowing I have done my work will help too…worrying about my memory  will produce a worrying timbre- not good.
  3. If I have kept to a good diet and drunk water regularly I will arrive at my performance hydrated and at an optimum state of well- being. Andy Murray won Wimbledon after 6 years of regulated diet and specific training.
  4. Knowing that my vocal mechanism is mostly cartilage and very bendy I know it will work however I hold my posture  but I also know what is the most efficient balance for good production! Know how your larynx works even if you can’t remember how to spell crico-thyroid.
  5. If I know something about vocal acoustics, both the internal and external feedback/perception of the singing sound and the colours of vowels, this will help me use the acoustics of the performing space most efficiently. ‘They pay you to sing if they can hear the ring!’
  6. Knowing how to deal  with the symptoms of colds, flu, sore throats, back ache, tiredness, hormonal changes, medication side-effects is essential knowledge for the performing artist. Knowing how to deal with mucus in the middle of a recital is a bonus.
  7. What is my identity as a singer? Do I really know what I am good at? Have I a style of my own or am I just a clone? Do I sing as someone else or is it the real me? Can I be the vessel of the music without compromising my own self? Can I lose myself on the operatic/music theatre/recital stage so I become the character I am to inhabit? Am I flexible enough and can my vocal technique adapt to the changes necessary?
  8. Have I done my homework, do I know the back story, do I understand the translation, the view of the poet and composer and have I memorised the words?
  9. Have I thought about my image, what I am wearing, my shoes? Do I use the mirror enough? Are my facial and articulatory muscles really working? Can they hear my words? Do I have disturbing habits when I perform? How do I walk on to the stage?
  10. What is my tongue doing when I sing? Have I lifted the soft palate? How open is the back of my throat? Where are the tight spots in my body? Is there unwanted tension even in my toes?

You may find this an impossible list but these are the reasons why it takes 10 years to train a professional singer – it doesn’t matter which genres you sing. Develop your unique identity as a singer, follow your musical passions but with discrimination. Look at your body, can it cope with Wagner? Tone and Focus are important in terms of muscle quality and musical quality. Space and movement are important in terms of acoustics and psychology. Vocal Health is a full time occupation for a singer. You are in charge of your destiny, so Practice and Preparation are in your hands.