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.

Qigong

Whole body, movement, perception and connection are so much a part of the Singing Teacher’s repertoire of skills and they constantly need updating and re-thinking.

At the recent event in Berlin, we were introduced to the complex but wonderful principles of Qigong, the third branch of Chinese healing alongside acupuncture and herbal medicine.

I am only a beginner but it inspired me once again to re-examine the exercises I give my students and the purpose of them but also the student’s perception of what is happening in their body when they sing.

Posture and balance and energy flow are connected to how we use our breath effectively when we sing, it is the fuel in our engines, the water in our brush, as we paint the sounds we need to express. And it is a need to express that is the root of all voicing.

This need to ‘voice’ starts as soon as air flows through our lungs and in our society which has learnt to communicate (or not) through text and digital technology, we are leaving the lonely and vulnerable no vehicle to ‘sound’ their needs through speech and song.

The habit of imitating others, while not in itself a ‘bad’ thing, means we are losing the uniqueness of our own ‘grain’ or timbre which truly expresses who we are and releases that self-expression which is our basic human need.

Creating sound is one of the most immediate ways we create communication through art, culture and societal values. It can be as simple as a cry or moan, but it can be as complex as an operatic masterpiece or a poem. When we cease to ‘sound’ we can cease to exist (bearing in mind that the deaf and mute in society still DO communicate fully through sign language). Even those who have little mental capacity through brain damage, still moan and wail and express themselves however difficult it is to understand.

Voicing and visioning are not so far apart and creative expression keeps us truly alive and living in the fullness of all we are and want to be.

 

Black American Sacred Music

I confess, I am white, and British and have very little experience or knowledge about a music which has influenced so much of the world’s musical expression over the last century. I confess, I get in a muddle as to what is technically Gospel, Spirituals, Soul, Blues and where those rich and diverse traditions are rooted and how they spread and interacted with the music around them. The whole world shares the sin of the terrible evils that were done and are still being done, through enslaving our fellow human beings and the equally terrible prejudices that still exist around the world, between man and man, man and woman, religious groups, ethnic races, and gender.

So I was apologetic when explaining that my village choir’s summer concert “Stars and Stripes’ was almost certainly confused about the American musical history I was trying to portray in particular the music that came from the Black American slaves. BUT because I met a wonderful singer and teacher Ollie Watts Davis, at the recent mini-conference in Berlin, I have at least an opportunity to amend my understanding and help others in our small rural village on the south coast of England feel some of the truth of those dark years of American and World history.

International Co-operation

It was a coincidence I hadn’t foreseen, travelling to Berlin for a meeting of American, German and European Singing Teachers just a day after the moving D-Day commemorations. But there we were, NATS, BDG and EVTA singing teachers, American, German, Dutch, French and British, sharing our expertise, listening to each other, talking about our wonderful world of singing and teaching voice in the heart of Berlin which 75 years previously was a scene of so much devastation. And I know my Father was part of that devastation, he was a navigator in Bomber Command and it weighed heavily on him for the rest of his life but where would we be without the sacrifices all those veterans endured for freedom and democracy?

But to return to what was an amazingly full day of speakers from all parts of the globe, we covered Voice Science, Qi-gong, practical approaches for diction, ‘hands-on’ teaching suggestions, discussion groups, information on Black American Sacred Music, advice for Worship leaders, Estill Vocal exercises, Evolving voice, Increasing professionalism in our Teaching associations all under the umbrella of the Kaleidoscope of Voice Pedagogy and the thorough examination of how we approach singing teaching and the different styles and routes teachers take. It felt like we had squeezed a 4 day conference into 1 it was such a rich experience.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the American Teachers of Singing (NATS) were celebrating their 75th Anniversary by visiting Germany! It brought home to me why I am still passionate about my role in the European Voice Teachers Association to help arrange spaces/meetings/conferences where singing teachers can meet each other and share ideas. I know I learn so much from these encounters and last Saturday I believe everyone felt the same.

Ten tips for warm ups with no voice!

Ten Tips for warm-ups with no voice!

If your throat is sore and you really feel you cannot sing, try the following to keep your body and voice balanced.

  1. Yawn: this is good for stretching the back of the throat, it stimulates breathing, stretches the ears and possibly encourages positive energies. As a singer you need to be aware of all the space in your pharynx.
  2. Puffy Cheeks: this helps to balance the air pressure above and below the vocal folds. When you release connect with the breath in the lower abdominals.
  3. Sniff (hum) breathe. You don’t have to do the high hums but it helps connect breath and resonance.
  4. Panting: encourages freedom in the breathing muscles and helps energy flow.
  5. Seated bending forward with head and arms dropped, breathe to feel the lungs expand into the low back.
  6. Self- massage shoulder rolls, clockwise and anti-clockwise.
  7. Pin-point on the shoulders for tiny rotations with big impact across the back.
  8. Bunged ooo: pull the lips forward in kissing position for an ‘ooo’, this helps to release jaw tension and then block the ooo with the tongue, you can sing through this as well for more resonance sensations
  9. Massage the lower jaw from ear to centre and then massage upper cheek bones. You should feel blocked mucus moving down the back of the nose and throat.
  10. Candlestick wick: stretching whole body against the forces of gravity gently but extending vertebrae and back of neck keeping body balanced and poised.

Possible outline for a book on timbre

Introduction to Timbre in Voice: a practical guide with focussed exercises to illustrate and encourage a wider colour palette for a singer

  1. Perceptions for the singer:  visual as well as auditory feedback with spectrographic analysis
  2. Light and shade, Chiaroscuro… an artist plays with pencil or charcoal to practice the control of light and shade- a singer can play with this too in phrasing and vowel colours
  3. Texture and mark making… an artist experiments with mark making and an embroiderer uses different threads and stitches to create contrast and interest- a singer can use breath management and articulation to make textural differences and consonants also add texture as they do in speech
  4. Colours are very subjective but just as a painter will play with putting colours together and different pigments so can a singer use imaginative application of colours, cool, warm, pale, strong, vibrant etc.
  5. Word painting – such an important tool and poetry can help and a singer often has that as a given in a song but there can be so much more to play with, taste, temperature,
  6. Movement – singing is a bodily experience and physical movement can encourage the release of more colour in a voice, through tension and release, emotional breathing, posture and balance and if linked with word imagery can produce exciting results.
  7. Tuning – how does pitch affect timbre for good and bad
  8. Body resonance – using Kristin Linklater’s exercises for actors – the triangle
  9. Three dimensionality in performance: learning to use the acoustic space
  10. Conclusions – the audience, the ear of the singer, the kinaesthetic experience

Colour and timbre

Well a New Year and a remembrance of an old idea but i think I must get down and write that book before I forget what I want to say!!!

I am listening to Anne Schwanewilms and Susan Gritton and thinking what amazing colours they find to bring to their singing. I guess it was a pianist that made me realise how one could achieve so much from one instrument. Richard Goode was the pianist who I heard live in Bath some years ago. He played or rather ‘orchestrated’ the piano with so many nuances of colour I could not believe it was the same instrument. Last year I wrote an article for Contemporary Review and I am now planning to do some workshops to illustrate what I try to teach my students about employing more colours. I teach principally University singers, young voices with lots of potential but with whom I have to take great care as their instruments are not yet fully grown and stable and so it seems a good idea to me, at least, to work on opening up their ears to the possibility of the nuances of colour in languages and text.

Languages, vowels and consonants, tuning, texture, harmony, resonance all contribute to the colours we can make with our voices but are our ears really open to the perceptual skills we need to imagine the colour before we sing. That is what I want to explore in the workshops and in writing the book. There are many wonderful books on teaching singing and I cannot repeat those ideas but I do think there is a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to Vocal Perception and giving singers the tools to explore their timbre and enrich their voice.

So I had better get on with it….

Singing and Painting

I’m having a really interesting time with my teaching at the moment, because I am ‘bartering’ singing lessons with an amazing watercolour artist who is trying to teach me to paint! So we are sharing many ideas that creatively cross the boundaries of very different disciplines. Colour, tone, texture and timbre are perhaps the obvious words we can exchange but here are some more examples:

  • Preparing your paper and brushes – do you use a crumpled dirty paper to start working on – and when you sing you need to get your body balanced and not squashed with preconceptions?
  • When you mix colours, primary colours to create new colours, are there parallels with vowel sounds and mixing the vowel colours in our complex language?
  • Legato line in sound and flowing water from the brush
  • If you exaggerate the separate notes in a scale are you ‘scratching’ the beautiful surface of your expensive water colour paper
  • Using the whole body for singing just like an artist standing at the easel and using their whole body to create shapes and marks on the paper, or sitting crouched over the paper – getting very tense trying to make the image ‘right’! Do we get too focussed on little notes instead of the whole picture, the phrases in the music?
  • Thinking of creating colours in the voice can help unlock inhibitions of perceptions where we feel we want to make a ‘beautiful’ sound, when really it is more important to think about expressing meaning when we sing, it is NOT about you the singer on an ego trip of sounding amazing.
  • We can talk of timbre and tone quality but tone is different for an artist, but when I complimented her warm mezzo sound, she asked what I meant, so I said it is like your use of ‘transparent yellow a warm brown paint that when diluted had a bright clear yellow colour. And we went on to talk about working through our vocal range and changing the tone quality as we move up and own scales

All in all interesting and challenging discussions….more to follow

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.