Balance – Tennis v. Singing

Once again, I am indulging in watching Wimbledon fortnight and I am struck how a different ‘sport technique’ like Tennis can correspond to Singing. I am watching Roger Federer and it is interesting to hear how he specialises in Balance exercises when training. Looking at his very balanced, elegant body on court everything seems to be functioning as a ‘whole’ and as singers we need to do that too.

It started me thinking about balance exercises for singing, whole body but also laryngeal balance and how I would go about that. I think filling the mouth with air (tennis) balls, and feeling the space and air pressure, in the pharyngeal cavity is good. We know that whole body balance exercising is good for any singer and singers as a rule do not think in terms of athleticism and yet the top performers do.

This is when dance technique, Feldenkreis, Bartenieff Fundamentals, can help tremendously. Opening and closing palms thinking in 3 dimensions, sagittal, vertical and horizontal. Difficult to put into words but any whole body work is vital.

Now back to the tennis, more on this later!

Finger click!

I have been going to singing teachers’ conferences for many years now, nearly 40 years in fact and so I have seen and learnt a great deal from my colleagues over the years and my teaching is indebted to them. Having just returned from Berlin I thought I must write down a few things I learnt from there.

Jonathan Ware originally from Texas but now working in Berlin did a finger click trick which I have now used with my own students to keep them focussed and ‘in the moment’ of the thought and emotion of the phrase. So the singer singing Frülingstraum was asked to finger click each new thought as she sang and it did keep her ‘in the zone’. So often we can be carried away by the beauty of the melody and forget what we are singing about.

The second thing he did was encourage her to make kindergarten gestures/symbols for each word she sang which struck me as a good memorisation tool and I used to do something similar so that reminded me to try it again with my students.

Adam Benzwi, who was from California originally,  titled his presentation “Pas de Deux – Text und Musik” and he took a 4 pronged approach.

  1. The singer had to put the lyrics into his own words, but not just a description of the song but speaking the character’s self expressions
  2. Speaking the lyrics while the melody is played
  3. Half singing the phrases, half spoken
  4. ‘Singing/speaking’ tone

Again I have been using this with certain songs to really get my students to focus on the words and the meaning they carry through the music.

BDG in Berlin

I was fortunate to be one of the special guests at the 30th anniversary Congress of the BDG (German Singing Teachers Association). It began on Friday 13th April with over 300 participants in a very good auditorium in the European School of Management and Technology in cooperation with the Hochschule für Musik “Hans Eisler” Berlin.

The welcoming speeches were interspersed with musical items including a costumed demonstration of Baroque dances by Lully, a soprano concert aria by Mozart and a tenor aria by Puccini. This was followed by a lecture on the theme of the Congress “Lachen und Weinen” featuring examples as diverse as Gesualdo, Shakespeare, Beethoven and ‘My Fair Lady’. We were then treated to a lovely string quartet and baritone performance of Dover Beach by Samuel Barber and Professor Stewart Emerson (he is English and married to Eleanor Forbes) guided the five students through the text and sonorities of the piece.

Then Dr. Petra Kob gave a very clear presentation on the effects of hormones on female singers. She dealt exclusively with women and did not explore the complexities of pubertal changes in boys or girls. It certainly stimulated a lot of discussion but there did not seem to be much awareness of the international level of research in this field. We finished Friday with Adam Benzwi who worked on text and music with a song by Adolf Strauss, getting the young singer to put the text into his own words and then lots of ‘sprechstimme’, mixing spoken and sung phrasing and vocalising many times to ensure a great depth of interpretation.

The river cruise on the Spree was a great opportunity to socialise and learn people’s interests and backgrounds but as in Helsinki and Paris we were treated to torrential rain and lightening, so very dramatic!

Saturday morning began at 9am with Professor Sascha Wienhausen outlining the future of the BDG and the increased professionalisation and certification they are proposing. This created many questions in the rank and file! Walter Prettenhofer lightened the mood considerably with some very amusing demonstrations of different kinds of laughter (an excellent actor!) and tears with plenty of musical examples. A very clever demonstration which would have been equally fascinating in English! The only thing he didn’t explore was the effect of the lower abdominal muscles of both Lachen und Weinen. We then had a comprehensive overview of the singing aspects of the education programme run by the Berlin Philharmonic featuring Simon Halsey and Sir Simon Rattle. This was followed by a short lecture/demonstration of jazz improvisation on Autumn Leaves (which I felt was pretty basic) and then two lesson demonstrations using Frülingstraum from Winterreise and R. Strauss’s Ich liege dich. Both of which gave me some new ideas for approaching teaching and so worthwhile.

The performance of The Barber of Seville at Komische Oper was excellent and unforgettable. In modern dress with texting, Facebook, refugee crisis, electric guitar and video it brought the story bang up to date for a new generation and it was very cleverly done without denying the power of Beaumarchais or Rossini at all. The singing was superb!

Sunday began with a gentle demonstration of Alexander Technique, followed by an excellent lecture giving an overview of the ‘Kaleidoscope’ of the various we teach singing by Dr. Barbara Hoos de Jokisch. I have asked AOTOS to consider inviting her for 2020 and Heidi and I have already written to ask her to keep the dates free. Even with my limited German I could tell she had really clarified the muddy waters of our teaching profession in such a non-judgmental way but with an historical overview that helps us all to be more professional in the way we work.

We then had two young presenters talking about their work creating a popular music course in Berlin which I had hoped would contain a little more detail on how the course was structured. Then Dr. Philipp Caffier gave a generalised overview of the grunts, belting, distortion effects of singing ‘Pop’ music which was very scientific but I am not sure everyone would agree with his conclusions. Dr. Kevin Clarke talked about the changing cultural expectations and the role of women in Operetta, contrasting various performances from historical archives to the present day, a stimulating and provoking presentation.

Finally Anne Schwanewilms spoke with Professor Marilyn Schmiege about her illustrious career and then worked with two young singers. Sadly we ran out of time as she had much to teach us about using the air we breathe to spin the sound. I confess I am a huge fan of hers having heard her as an unknown singer in 2002 in Euryanthe in Glyndebourne and it was a huge honour for me to finally meet her and her husband. A truly wonderful, sensitive and intelligent singer.


New approaches to singing

I have always wondered whether I would write a book on singing. The trouble is there are so many books on singing and voice, would another one be worth all the effort. And if I did  what kind of things would it include.

A part of me would like to be revolutionary and try and find new things to say, unconventional perspectives that would get singers to think in new ways about their instrument. And being a teacher it would have to include educational approaches I suppose.

I suppose what has interested me has been the relationship with other forms of creativity and expression, like sculpture, or dance or needlepoint, winter sports and tennis. Or at least how I can see the making of sound with one’s body reflected and reimagined through other mediums. It is interesting that the earth itself makes so much noise, wind, rain, ice, volcanoes, and when we sing we connect somehow to a deeper level of expression.

So if I imagine how my book would look, what would the chapter headings be!

1. Sound as a soul: an examination of vocal identity

2. Singing and movement : the physical imagery of sport, dance and sound

3. Singing into space: acoustics and the  sculpture of song and sound

4. Singing and textures: weaving threads of timbre

5. Singing and colour: painting and pointillism

6. Singing and words: the crunch of consonants and the halo of vowels

7. Conclusion or just more questions?

Would that make an interesting book? I think so but would anyone else?

Play Music

It has all been a bit busy lately but this morning I started a tots and toddler group for our three churches to encourage and bless our young families. And I found myself saying well 30 years ago I was running music groups for young children called ‘Play Music’ and I can do so again.

So here I am more than 30 years on (with my own grandchildren now living too far away) starting up a “Play Music” group for the tots and toddlers in our Parish. And now I will have to find all the games and songs that I used to do and make some more instruments for them to play.

I used to do a game where they beat out on the chime bars the time on the clock which had a chocolate finger pointing to the hour and if they got it right they could eat the chocolate finger. Now I shall probably have to do it with a carrot stick so it is healthy. Not sure about that!

I have a treasure store of songs about trains, clocks, pussy willows, apples and bananas, as well as all the nursery rhymes which I shall have to dig out and remember. It is funny, on the one hand I have my talented B. Mus Vocal performance singers at Chichester University and then the up and coming singers of the next generation!

Meanwhile I am preparing to go to Ghent to have our EVTA board meeting next week in preparation of our Eurovox Congress at the end of August in Ghent. Life is certainly abundant.

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!