Tennis and Singing

Each year during Wimbledon I am reminded how so much of tennis performance is parallel to the singing world. So here are some of the tips I have picked up from hearing the commentators on the tennis.

I loved Billie-Jean King’s comments on the ‘intensity button’ that all great athletes seem to have, the control over the emotional intelligence of a performer, being able to calm down when the emotions are running high, and then when things are getting dull and dry in performance to be able to turn up the intensity button. I shall use that when I am teaching voice!

Then I heard how the speed of the serve really surprises players when they play at club level and then play with a Grand slam champion. It reminded me of a concert I did for my teacher Mollie Petrie and the wonderful Susan Chilcott, also her student, sang and I heard that sound, how huge and resonant and loud it all was and then I realised how much I had to learn about singing at a professional level.

Watching Andy Murray play with his hip injury, how the upper body was weakened because of the weakness in the lower body and how he couldn’t get any speed in the serve, and how the core muscles need the strength from the pelvis. So do singers, so many ignore the whole body awareness which is fundamental to producing a great performance.

Acoustics of air is something tennis players know, and they feel when the ball is fast or slow depending on humidity, heat etc and singers need to be sensitive to the air and how acoustics affect the sound we make. I have also been reading “Sound” by Bella Bathurst describing hearing loss and gain and how she learnt the particularly qualities of air for sound. We still do not know enough about the ear and acoustics for singing.

So apart from singers becoming athletes and learning from sports psychology, I also learn a lot about Singing when watching Wimbledon, crazy but true!

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Metaphors Matter

We need to encourage more timbre words. Metaphors are really useful and they can and should act as intensifiers rather than comparators. Teachers who used images and metaphorical language were deemed to be ‘old-fashioned’ and un-scientific, when the voice scientists came along and told us what was happening in the throat! That was all good in its way and we have to thank Sundberg and Titze and Sataloff and many others who have opened our eyes and ears to the complexities of singing.

But there has been a flattening out of vocal colours in singers of all genres, partly due to recording digitally, though that is changing, with the return of analogue.

We have to learn to encourage our students to play with their voices and develop more colours, appropriate to the text of course.

It is coming to the end of semester at University and the singers are getting nervous about their final dissertations. I never know how they will perform under pressure until it actually happens. Last week I had a very promising first year singer who appeared for a lesson 24 hours before her assessment singing with a tight jaw and bent neck! I had never seen this before. Stress she said, so I said “You’re stressed, so am I!? why are you suddenly tightening everything up just before you sing!!”

These are moments you have to think quickly to help them break out of a dangerous physical cycle where they could sing badly or worse do some damage. So in this instance I made her sing with her back against the wall so we got the head balanced again and the jaw loose and I made her promise not to tighten up in her recital. I think the surprise and the energy with which I spoke made her realise how dangerous the stress had become, especially when she is usually such a good performer. Exams do strange things to singers!

If the singer can overcome stress and use nervous energy to their advantage they can concentrate on the colours and the vibrancy of their sound, using the acoustic to explore the space for sound. But if they have no idea how to begin, because they haven’t been taught to ‘imagine’ and ‘intensify’, and their sound palette is limited to just a few descriptors like, sob, sigh, cry, belt, moan, they will only be able to draw with primary colours instead of blends and shades of colour.

Movement and sound

Just watching the Young dancer competition 2017 on BBC is making me think about how we need as singers to think about our performing space, movement pathways, using our vocal technique in challenging ways. It is so exciting seeing the different genres, ballet, contemporary, Asian and street dance and how they convey the music in dynamic ways.

As singers and teachers we must always be thinking of extending our boundaries. Learning from other genres is such an important lesson for us all.

 

We can do it with modern musics but the challenge is to take our pre-conceived ideas about ‘classical’ performance and refresh and renew. We can certainly use movement and visual space but we can also use our timbre, to change weight, to feel the sound in our bones, phrasing with the acoustic colours. However how do we teach that to our singers who feel so insecure at the best of times!

Make a sound out of the piece of crumpled paper.  Use colours and textures of mixed media, torch lights, pottery and clay vessels and of course dance movements.

The next difficult task is to create something as community singing, getting a group of singers to perform in an adventurous way.

Reaching out with singing

We live in a world where people feel isolated and alone as we seem to have lost much of our sense of community, looking after our neighbours. Singing together in choirs can be a wonderful way of feeling part of a group, and that group can be very diverse with folk of all levels of musical ability and background.

EVTA, with some wonderful partners from our LeoSings project are planning to co-host a new concept called Singing Roadshow which will involve a communal creative project which will use singers, choral directors, singing teachers, artists and other creative people to develop a vocal performance that will encourage singers to work in new and refreshing ways,  at higher levels of competence with diverse audience experience. EVTA hopes that local teachers will offer vocal technique opportunities as well as engaging in the sharing of creative ideas.

Sound not notes

Once again it is time to mark the students and give them helpful assessments but I am so fortunate that my daily work involves playing and listening to great music. And I don’t mean just classical music and art songs, though I love Schumann and Fauré et al. All musics have great examples, jazz, rock, folk, pop; the list is as long as world music will allow, but generally I work with classical music and music theatre.

But I woke up this morning thinking about the difference between notes and music or as I suggest in the title notes and sound. My role as teacher is to develop the sound my singers produce, the timbre, tone colours and music they create with their voices. I’m not a coach who helps them learn the notes though that is always a part of my job, but singing is so much more than getting the notes and the language correct. I’ve just been working with the French language singers trying to help them get the sound right as well as the words accurate. It is a subtle difference between French French and Bognor French but oh so obvious when you hear it. It requires an ear for colour and timbre which some singers seem to understand instinctively while others are still struggling with “Have I got the notes right?”.

And I think it’s a bit like having an electric keyboard or an acoustic piano, or an upright piano and a Steinway grand. We can hear the difference in our bones. The return to analogue recording rather than digital is also a reflection of this desire to have a vibrant living sound, even on recordings.

So how do I teach this sense of ‘more than notes’?

I try to encourage singers to think of colours for phrases. And encourage them to listen to their timbre and the vowel colours of the language they are singing in. I use a lot of visual imagery and emotionally breathing techniques. For some it is easy because they are open to ideas that are ‘outside the box’ and a little unconventional. I also try and convey the wonderful privilege of singing a Schumann song. When they have been used to singing for music exams they can lose that sense of wonderment in a Sondheim lyric, or a Gershwin melody.

I have been working with a group of mixed media artists,  and it has been such a creative process with the sharing of ideas on colour, shape and texture. I do a lot of hand embroidery and I have learnt how much I see from a textile perspective both in my visual art and my sound world of singing. But I learn so much from other artists who work in 3D, sculptors, painters, weavers, potters.

And for singers they also need to work in other genres, learn from singing other languages, celebrating the diversity of vocal sounds from actors as well as singers who maybe a little unconventional but who can open the mind and broaden the perceptions of sound.

Sniff-hums and eye resonance

The great teacher Lucie Manen who taught so many fine singers used an old bel canto ‘trick’ to help the initial voice ‘placement’ of doing a little sniff-hum before starting to sing a phrase. My own teacher the wonderful Mollie Petrie also used it with me occasionally along with putting my hands around my eyes like a pair of binoculars, making me sing through my eyes. Now I know and she knew the sound doesn’t come from the sinuses but it is a good way of feeling that ring and resonance in a place that lifts both consonants and vowels and is part of the kinaesthetic response when we sing.

Feelings are fundamental to singing, emotions yes, but also the physical responses we need to monitor our aural sensations. If you play around with colours like an artist with his palette you can explore all kinds of ways of producing differing timbres with the same pitch note.

I know if I get my voice in the right ‘place’ I lose and use, less air, I feel my lower abdominals working more, I feel the strength I need in my back and I am in the zone. And it is easy! Mind you it can take ten years to find that easy place and it demands huge resources from us mentally and physically but not in the larynx, that is still good to go IF I have everything flowing well.

In this day of quick fixes we can easily get frustrated if the voice doesn’t do what we want immediately but like any athlete you need to keep your muscles and nerves regularly exercised. If you seriously want to sing for the rest of your life, you never stop learning and you never stop singing.

Temple and forehead

This is really pushing the boundaries of my limited understanding of brain and nerve function but I think it may be the answer to a question that has been bugging me for a long time. I have asked many eminent scientists and acousticians why I ‘feel’ something in my temples when I sing and stretch into more space and why I hear a different sound. They usually look at me with a kindly benevolent eye as if I am from another planet – well I am a singer!

On a recent TV programme I learnt that the tri-geminal nerve lies close to the skin under the forehead and travels deep into the brain. They were using a simple sticking plaster on the forehead, connected to some electrodes to help PTSD war veterans to sleep more restfully as it was doing something, I’m not quite sure about the science, to help them monitor and alleviate stress.

The fact that the nerve is situated close to the skin, I found interesting because I do lift my forehead and my eyebrows when I sing and I know my skull can’t be moving and yet the sound changes. So perhaps I am stimulating the temporal artery and doing something in my deep brain???

This might all be mumbo jumbo so I need to befriend a brain surgeon to find out more…still it might be of value!