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.

The voice is a sphere

Recently I have been reviewing my PhD  research for publication and although it is 10 years almost, since I finished my thesis I was surprised when I read it again, how much that work has influenced my singing and teaching since then. It has been a really useful exercise and I still feel I have something to say. I was teaching one of my students the other day and using my hands to describe how I feel my voice when I sing and I realised that I do now think of it as a sphere, in a three-dimensional sense, which allows me to feel my sound moving forward and back, up and down, in a space that I can adapt and make as big as Carnegie Hall or intimate like a small chapel. It is a difficult concept to teach in a way and it needs an experienced singing to understand. I have also been assessing students at University again, it is that time of year, and once again I am struck how some singers really do ‘play’ with the sounds of their voices, colouring like a sound artist a singer should be; while other singers seem to sing with no sense of vocal identity or control over the voice and so often it just becomes boring.

More about my research next time!

Ten tips for singing in big spaces

For my friends in the Renaissance choir who are going to sing in St. Peter’s in Rome and in Palestrina Cathedral, such an honour to be asked and a great reward for years of dedicated hard work.

(Bear in mind if it is very hot, to keep the fluid levels up and think COOL like Formula One racing drivers. It may be necessary to wear cooler clothing if you can. And make sure your feet are comfortable.)

  1. As you look out into the space feel yourself anchored strongly as you expand the back of your ribs, remember you were born for this. You should be using your low back muscles to take the effort, not your throat. If standing for a long time, place one foot slightly in front of  the other. Not stiff but bouncing on the balls of the feet as if ready to take a dive.
  2. Breathe as deep as you can and try to maintain the open rib swing. Try not to waste energy collapsing between phrases. The diaphragm will do the work if you keep the ribs wide and strong but not stiff. Keep the lower body free, some hip rotation before you walk on.
  3. Remember the space at the back of your throat! Just start your note and let the building take over.
  4. Enjoy using the acoustic, we may be in an intimate area of the cathedral for Mass. Your sound will be taken by the acoustic. It can be disconcerting as it sometimes feels you are on your own but trust your instincts to sing as you normally do. RELEASE between items.
  5. Emphasise the upper harmonics in your sound so that it is deep with breath but high in the soft palate, sing ee instead of eh, aa instead of ah. Italian and Latin vowels give you resonance.
  6. Give yourself a free facelift, stretch up those eyebrows, open up the space behind the eyes, it is the ‘ecstatic nun’ look, “the hills are alive with the sound of music” but it must be a genuine  pleasure of singing not a forced cheesy grin!
  7. Remember to catch the light in your eyes when you walk on into the space, it will lift your posture and your face will look animated. (It does help ladies to have a smidgeon of lipstick and a bit of mascara to highlight your beautiful faces under strong light- otherwise you can look a bit pale and grey…)
  8. Watch beginnings and ends of phrases. You will need to be quicker on the attack to be sure to keep on the pulse and at the ends of phrases when your breath is running out squeeze your buttocks to get the last drop of breath out. You have much more air in your reserves than you think. If you panic it will go. Remember you can breathe on a vowel in all sorts of secret places. Just keep the musical phrasing and the flow.
  9. You will need to work harder on your legato line, but not with the throat- it is the lower abs that are the engines for your line and in a big acoustic it shows up so much more. Listen and blend though, don’t just belt out the sound ignoring those around you. Mould and melt into the tone of the choir.
  10. Enjoy the space, it is exhilarating. Renaissance music needs to dance, so enjoy your fellow choristers lines. YOU ARE MAKING MUSIC! Relax and keep the breath spinning the plates. You should finish the concert/service with more vocal energy than you began, even if mentally you are exhausted! If you find your throat is sore, loosen your shoulders, jaw and tongue. Remember the pinprick point on the shoulder tip and rotate that surreptitiously.

The Magic Triangle

It was Malcolm Martineau who I think spoke about this at an AOTOS conference and it has always struck me as a useful image and as I prepare my lovely singers at the University for their final performances I am reminded of the idea.

it is so important to get an audience on your side particularly in an exam where you want it to be a performance not just a boring assessment. And so you must engage with your audience however small it may be. I was reminded of this when I was adjudicating recently, a song does not have to be perfect but it does have to be communicated. The wrong words don’t matter if the sentiment is there and the energy to perform and tell the story takes place.

So the triangle is you the singer, your pianist and your audience and as long as the three points are linked with a mutual communication the performance will work. How often have I had to ask the accompanist to read the lyrics so that they understand what it is I am singing about it! But a good pianist will do that and will be engaged with the telling of stories. A primal gift since camp fire days but it transfers to the Wigmore Hall with ease!

Mollie Petrie

In memory of my wonderful singing teacher, Mollie Petrie, I thought I should try and encapsulate some of her many words of wisdom. Although she too had an inspirational teacher, much of what Mollie knew about the singing voice was distilled from trial and error, working with singers of all capabilities. She did not mind teaching the ‘ungifted’ as she would be determined to give them a beautiful sound and help them discover the voice within. Thus she learnt how to ‘build’ a voice and so much instinctive knowledge one can never find in books!

She was charismatic and focussed but fierce in her judgement. Her ears may not pick up the doorbell but even in her eighties she was able to detect the slightest change in tone quality or a dull vowel or a miss-placed pitch. Everyone of her students from the wonderful Susan Chilcott to the humble rest of us was submitted to the one note lesson, yes you needed to have stamina learning from Mollie and to be fearless! You rarely got a ‘good’ from her but then she only really worked hard those she felt had promise. I waited 20 years for a ‘well done’ and then I thought she must have been unwell!

In her last years she taught from her home, a rambling Georgian farmhouse in Dundry, full of treasures like Mollie herself. Sadly her loving and adorable husband Eric passed away when they were at the ICVT in New Zealand. But Mollie never stopped thinking about the voice, “you know all that crying has made me realise how much I need to use those lower abdominals”. Her singers were her family, as she had no children of her own, though she dearly loved her sister in law and her nephew and nieces. And of course we all loved her as our singing mother!

So what words of wisdom amongst the many that pop into my head as I teach or adjudicate:

The fingers around the eyes to help lift the sound

The ‘sniff hum’ to get the ring

The ‘bunged Ooo’ to release tension and to feel the resonance

The cat pose – on the floor like the yoga exercise- to let the larynx hang and release tension again

Italian open vowels from Tina Ruta’s great friendship and advice BANANA and double consonants!!

I know there are more but this will do for a start. It was as much the way she taught that inspired me, no fancy jargon, but lots of well thumbed scientific knowledge, no fads or ‘methods’, she even hated the word ‘technique’. Her love of words and language and the music that meant so much to her, singers were just the vehicles or vessels for the music and the poetry. She could not stand the teachers who claimed they had all the answers, she was constantly learning herself and we all benefited from her drive to understand how the singing voice really worked.


Ten tips for my husband!

Talking in the car, on the way to the University to teach I started trying to explain to my dearly beloved husband about using the voice. Poor fellow is trying to learn the tenor part of the Messiah choruses and his wife, who teaches everyone else to sing, is not being much help to him.

… So here are some of the ten tips she should offer:

  1. Try not to focus too much on what is happening in your throat. There are various teaching methods that will try to persuade you that you can really control the muscles and fine tune the vocal folds, but this is not my approach as I think you can end up with a tighter sound that is not truly free.
  2. Start by getting the breath free and the lower body loose.
  3. When you do scales start at the top and go down. If you are trying to get higher with a free sound, use the idea of a falling sigh.
  4. Shaping the vowel spaces at the back of the throat can change the colour of your sound so work on Italianate vowels over the passaggio areas. Feel the difference between OO and Ee and Aa with your tongue shape and soft palate. Do that on different areas of your range and observe and listen and feel.
  5. Use forward resonance to help focus the sound, hums and bright E’s can help. It can help to feel it as if it is a mask, although that is quite an old fashioned idea, it still has some merits.
  6. Practice the parts without words, if you feel tongue tightening or shoulders or jaw use a kissy OO shape. Yawn if the throat tightens.
  7. Always release breath and tension before you sing and let the whole body take over the singing.
  8. Keep eyes and ears pricked as if listening for something exciting to happen.
  9. When you have lots of Handelian runs, split them up into sections and sing them light with motorbike Rrrrrs or diddle-dums to keep the vocalising light and free and flexible.
  10. Work on the higher passages a little at a time and learn the notes an octave lower so that when you do sing them high you can focus on timbre rather than accuracy. Focus on one thing at a time!