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.

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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!

Consonants and Air

This is really an addition to my previous blog about high consonants and it is just a little check for you to experiment with. I have found that ‘placing’ my consonants higher – and I know the articulatory muscles are really no different but it feels higher- I don’t expel so much air. So place your hand over your mouth as you play with the consonants and then see how much air comes out. It works with many consonants but particularly H.

I think it something to do with the pharyngeal space creating a background vowel shape that uses a higher soft palate but I can only experiment and try things out. Most of the time when I sing I don’t even think about it if I am honest but when I have a difficult leap or a high tessitura where the words need to be clear, THAT is when my understanding of consonant creation becomes vital!

High Consonants

Recently I was teaching a choral singer about flexibility with Baroque melismas and runs. We talked about whether it was a good idea to use an aspirate h sound in front of each note. Mostly this is a big NO-NO but it can be useful if you want to create a laughing sound. However the way we English tend to say ‘h’ sounds is far to low to be incorporated into a vocal line, the Dutch I understand have a higher placement of that consonant. All this got me thinking about how singers have to think the consonants differently to normal speech. This has changed as culturally we now to tend to speak with less clarity in the consonants anyway, and the same is happening across Europe I understand with French in particular.

Anyway how can we pronounce our consonants differently is it just a feeling or is something happening in the articulatory muscles and the resonance?  Singing is such an ‘interaction’ activity it is too simplistic to nail it down to one thing. But I suggest experimenting with different ways of saying ‘h’ leading from the usual way you speak and leading to a higher feeling in the soft palate area with a lift in the whole facial musculature. Try singing Handelian runs with different ‘h’ positions and come to your own conclusions.

It is, I find, easier to use a higher placing of consonants and a higher feeling of resonance. It’s a good idea to use some kind of visual feedback with spectrographic imaging to help you ascertain how much extra resonance you can produce. And of course it is still linked up to quality of breath and sub-glottal air pressure. Singing is never just one thing, it’s always holistic and involves the whole body-mind-imagination and soul miracle!