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.

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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!

A new year with new perspectives!

It has been rather a long time since I posted something I’m afraid but life has been busy with singing, teaching, new grandchildren and becoming President of European Voice Teachers Association EVTA. I am also writing an article based on PhD research into perceptions of vocal timbre and it has been a really useful exercise to revisit what I  wrote and researched ten years ago. I have been challenged to explore Vocal and Linguistic Anthropology, a new discipline for me, but it is teaching me new perspectives on the same conundrum- how can we talk about timbre in the singing voice.

I reviewed an excellent performance of the Creation last Saturday – the soloists were good but there were times when I felt there was more in the voice than they were releasing. They were singing carefully and generally accurately but not really using the acoustic space to their advantage. I know I have been in that place myself and it is so hard to take the risk and free the voice so the timbre is fully heard and appreciated. It is difficult because our internal feedback is not the same as the external sound and so we have to rely on instincts and scary things like that.

Intuition is not always reliable but technique is what helps to build up a firm understanding of the kinaesthetic and somatosensory experience of singing in performance. How do we teach that? Well if there was an easy answer someone would have made a fortune by now and there are not many wealthy singing teachers. The problem is that each singer is unique and the teacher has to respond to that person in unique ways. It can’t  be a predictable method, yes there are the disciplines we teach so that breath management, resonance, musicianship and clarity of tone can be secure but the internal/external feedback is subtle and sometimes ignored altogether by students and teachers. I believe it is that shared understanding that ultimately helps a good singer become outstanding.

A letter of enquiry

Today I received a letter ‘out of the blue’ about my thoughts on singing. I answered it as best as I could, but as it was to a complete stranger I had to be rather brief. Anyway I though I could put

Thank you for your letter which the music department forwarded to me. You don’t explain who you are in your letter but I assume you are a singer or a singing teacher so I will try and answer your questions.

What do I look for in a solo singing performance?

A unique beautiful sound in the voice, a variety of timbres, word painting, good breath management, energy and excitement, commitment and focus to the words and music, a love of singing, a generosity of spirit to give to the audience. Attractive and interesting appearance with care taken on presentation. A good relationship with the accompanist.

Would I say singers are born not made? 

Well I do believe we are all born singers but some have that desire to sing knocked out of them at an early age and they lose confidence in their God given abilities. Singers are ‘made’ in the sense that any singer wishing to become an international singer has to have nerves of steel, a good teacher and coach, an amazing promoter or agent, a good repertoire, skills with many languages, an ability to cope with travel and air conditioning and excellent health and physical fitness. Those are skilled to be learnt!

Memorising words and music seems to come easier to some and not others.

Yes that is true of all skills, but if the plasticity of the brain to learn things is fully utilised, you can memorise using aural, visual and kinaesthetic means (i.e. parrot fashion, writing the words down, visualising the musical notation etc.). It is certainly easier to learn when you are younger but age is never a barrier if you really want to do something.

What books would I recommend? 

I have hundreds of books, where do I begin, but Richard Miller, Oren Brown, Meribeth Bunch, Janice Chapman are all great authorities plus all the books on body mapping, alexander technique, lieder, melodie, languages, interpretation, music theatre etc.

Which singer or teacher influenced me the most and why?

I was very fortunate to have the late Mollie Petrie as a teacher for over twenty years and she has been my greatest inspiration because she was such a hard task master, she would not let me get away within anything but the best I could do. She was a wonderful performer herself and loved languages. She never gave up learning and was instrumental in starting AOTOS the UK singing teachers association and was also involved with EVTA (Europe) and NATS (USA). She had an incredible ear for vocal colour and would demand a high level of nuanced performance. She did not have any patience with ‘methods’ and was always highly critical of those who thought they had all the answers. So she has influenced the way I sing and the way I teach but also I have followed her example of continuing to explore and have been fortunate to work with colleagues from all over the world and learnt so much from all of them.