Monthly Archives: January 2012
There is a caricature in our cultural mind of how a female opera singer stands to sing – in particular – the way she clasps her hands. One hand faces palm up, the other palm down, and the fingers from the right hand are hooked into the fingers of the left.
I actually remember fellow competitors in the music festivals of my youth doing this. I also remember thinking that it looked pretty goofy. Ok – I still think that it looks goofy, but at least I’ve found a good rehearsal use for it.
It might be that they all knew about a wheel that I had to reinvent.
When everyone in a choir pulls or pushes (with the heels of the hands – but same general position) at the end of a phrase, the difference in support is remarkable.
I’ve also had success with students pressing against the piano at phrase endings – or choir members pressing down on the church pew in front of them. Both work well, but pianos and church benches are not very portable. Hands are usually available.
When this technique is used often enough, the body begins to do, automatically, what’s required for supporting a sound. The beauty of this is that the conscious mind never has to bother about trying to understand how to make it happen. It can leave support to the hands, and later, the body memory.
Please don’t get me wrong, this consonant can help to make lyrics come alive – especially when we sing through it in words like Love. The gentle sound at the beginning of the word helps to paint the picture of the meaning.
It’s usually when the ‘L’ follows a vowel that’s being held for a couple of beats that problems show up. It seems that as soon as our brain registers an ‘L’ it feels compelled to tell the tongue to start rising up, and the mouth to close – which then begins to block off the sound. Part of our brain knows that it’s not time for the ‘L’ yet – but the other part – the animal, conditioned part thinks that as soon as an ‘L’ is in view, the tongue needs to roil up. A battle begins and the two ways of knowing causes physical tension and tightness in the sound.
This happens in words like All, Feel, Sail…..
Each chorus member has a different idea of when the tongue should rise, and the mouth start to close a bit for the final consonant.
I’ve found that simply mentioning this isn’t usually enough – sorry to say, it needs to be rehearsed. That Pavlovian Conditioning is just too strong. I often ask singers to sing nothing but the vowel until they begin to sing the next word – at which point they can attach the ‘L’ to the front end of that next word.
AwwwwwwwwlNight (Or actually AwwwwwwwwwlNaaaahhhhhhhhEat)
And keep scanning the tongue for tension all the way through the sustained vowel, or Target Vowel.
And by the way – sopranos – if you have a word like this at the top of your range, you can probably get rid of the ‘L’ altogether, and no one will notice anything but your lovely tone quality.
Marilyn’s iconic performance has been seared into our public consciousness – so that when I need a choir to sound a little breathless, a little amazed or a little awestruck I ask them for Happy Birthday Mr President.
I’ve found this much more effective than asking them to write ‘pianissimo’ or ‘piano’ and ‘slightly breathy’ into their scores. It’s as if it’s a cultural shortcut. And this saves time and explanation.
Once upon a time I heard about the concept of a trim tab. Here’s the Wikipedia explanation: (you may have to copy and paste)
But here’s the gist of what I was told.
A trim tab is a thin strip at the edge of a rudder that can be adjusted using only a very slight amount of force. Once this has been adjusted, the rudder will move easily, and the entire ship can turn.
I figure that if we’re keeping our eyes open, we’ll start to see that there are trim tabs in every facet of our lives, and trim tabs for every problem. These aren’t just shortcuts, though they will save time, but they also seem to clarify our objectives so that everyone ‘gets it’ at once, and what we all thought would take massive force, effort and struggle suddenly just happens.
I’ve identified what I think are a number of choral trim tabs in these posts. (Elastic Bands, the Brass Buzz, Jerry Lewis, the Jin Shin Jyutsu Holding Points, Zzzzzz, the Central Meridian Sweep…….) Very small actions that have wonderful, huge consequences.
However, I’m always thrilled to hear about new ones. If you know of any of life’s trim tabs – any at all – I’d love to hear about them.
Turn on your Korg Chromatic Tuner. (Or your online chromatic tuner)
You can either mess around with your voice until the letter in the upper right hand corner of your screen says ‘E’ – or use the Sound button, and keep pressing it until it plays an ‘E’ for you. I usually turn the tuner off then, once I’ve heard the note, then turn it back on. With my tuner, the note will just keep sounding unless I turn off the device.
When the tuner is turned back on, sing these notes below, and keep checking both the name of the note in the upper right corner of the screen, and how consistently you’re able to keep the green light lit. Take heart – if you’re able to keep the green light on for more than one second, you’re doing very well. The red ‘sharp’ and ‘flat’ lights may go a bit nuts, but try to keep the green light on.
Sing these notes (very slow Jingle Bells)
E E E E E E E G C D E
Take your time.
Sing through the notes on one vowel, then again on a different one. Some vowels will be more successful for you than others.
Experiment with mouth shape, amount of air being used and with volume.
Try singing the words (Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way)
Please don’t get discouraged! This is pretty tricky.
If everyone in a chorus or choir was improving their tuning just a little bit each week it would make a huge difference to the group in only a short time.
If you get tired of these notes above – but still love Jingle Bells…..
D D D D D D D F Bflat C D
As singers, our bodies are our instruments – and not just for singing right notes at the right time with good quality. We also need to inhabit the lyrics and emotion of a song enough to be convincing performers.
I’ve often seen and heard wonderful singers who are very convincing, from the neck up.
And in fact, this stultification of energy is obvious in the bodies of most people in our culture. Perhaps we withhold body expression in case we’re judged on our bodies’ appearance.
Whatever the reason, there’s a wealth of physical vitality and self expression locked up in most of us – from the neck down.
Eckhart Tolle has an amazingly simple exercise that makes you feel alive, and at home in your body.
Sit or stand comfortably.
Without looking at your hand, ask yourself “How do I know that I still have a right hand?”
As you are paying attention to your right hand you’ll begin to notice a sense of aliveness in the hand – almost like a magnetic field.
Now ask yourself “How do I know that I still have a left hand?”
It’ll start to feel like you have both hands in some sort of magnetic field. It might even feel like a whooshing, or warm wind blowing around inside your hands – or you might feel your pulse.
Then do the same with feet, legs, pelvis and lower back, torso, arms, neck, shoulders, head and face – and even the inside of the mouth.
Just sitting there will become fun. No matter how you felt about your body before this exercise, being in your body during this process feels great.
I’ve found that when I can sustain this feeling of aliveness even for short periods of time, a gentle freedom of movement and physical expression starts to emerge.
I guess if we could sustain this indefinitely we’d be in a state of perpetual bliss – which isn’t a bad goal.
I was asked once which character from Literature I identified with most. Sad I know – but the answer would have to be Henry Higgins.
While other people are worrying about the economy, the environment and children’s literacy, here I am stewing about what we’re doing to the English language, and how as choral singers, we’re ever going to find any common ground.
For example, we no longer have a common understanding of the sounds of the short vowels.
‘a’ Often becomes ‘eh’ “Where do I put my beggage?” There is some hope for this one, because in words like ‘bath’ it’s usually ok. However, I have often heard this word pronounced ‘bayeth’ or even ‘buhaaath’ – with the ‘a’ then stretched out and the sound produced right at the back of the mouth (as CBC’s Promo Boy is wont to do.)
‘eh’ This one has been particularly hard hit. It has been unabashedly turned into an ‘a’. “That’s what he sad”. “The house has four badrooms” “Yoursalf” “He’s one of my bast frands” This is almost always delivered with a flaccid, back of the mouth placement, lots of jaw movement, and at a pressed down pitch – which is absolutely the opposite of what’s needed for healthy singing.
‘ih’ And this one has become ‘eh’. “I’ll be with you in a little bet”
‘o’ Slightly more unscathed – but again, usually produced right at the back of the mouth. “I bahd a new phone” and “What have you gaht?”
‘uh’ So far, the cleanest of all the short vowels. “Done, But, Nothing”
On CBC, Promo Boy’s vowels are all over the map. I often amuse myself by trying to analyse how many vowels he can put into the word ‘books’. This gentleman is a good example of wide, loose, back of the mouth placement. (Singers – Do not do this)
It’s usually only women that add the vocal insult of pressing the voice down to lower pitches, and hardening the quality. This leads to jaw tension and vocal tiredness.
Even the illustrious CBC host, Jian Ghomeshi, whose vowels are usually pretty clean, strangely, talks about painters or writers who produce great ‘ort’.
I guess what we’re witnessing here is the evolution of a language. So be it. However, please, please be aware that the vocal placement required for the currently fashionable way of speaking is leading to vocal tiredness and damage.
Don’t know about you – but I’d rather provide my own grocery shopping soundtrack.
There’s a whole style of singing that we do in the supermarket that can be a very useful part of our choral repertoire of sounds.
It’s mostly ventriloquist lip, heady and rather anonymous. And “Hey – it could be any one of these other women around that’s singing the theme from ‘I Dream of Jeannie’.” (Yes it is hard to keep it all in check when it’s time to move into that great, soaring middle 8)
This is a great vocal technique to use for the highest notes in a phrase, when one or two notes need to be held in check – to prevent them from popping out of the line. A perfect example of this would be in ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ where the word ‘a’ is the top note of the phrase. Even worse, this note is approached by a leap. On the first run through, almost every singer just nails it.
In this song, I ask the chorus to use ventriloquist lips/supermarket singing on the second syllable of ‘Yourself’, and on the ‘a’, and it works like a charm. Very smooth.
The other day I had another singer say to me “Maybe I can come and take some lessons from you and you can help me with my breathing”
This is almost always amateur singers’ first concern.
Good news and slightly more difficult news.
If you can walk across a room without wheezing, and if you can finish a sentence when you’re speaking – without gulping extra air, then breathing is not actually the biggest issue with your singing.
The most likely cause of running out of breath too soon is that air is escaping in the sound. If you listen to a recording of yourself, you’ll hear a slight hissing, or hhhhhaaaaaaaaaa, or ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ in your sound.
It’s also possible that you’re trying for more volume than you can manage.
What the voice needs is more laser beam focus.
The slightly more difficult news I mentioned is that there’s no quick fix for breathiness, because it involves retraining the mind. We need to reprogram ourselves to think Narrow Narrow Narrow when we’re forming any singing mouth shape.
The mind also needs to be very clear about the pure vowel that we’re singing.
An interesting exercise that can help us experience more focus is this:
Take in a deep breath
Let it all out
Without taking in another breath – sing a phrase.
Because the body thinks that it’s an emergency, and that you could die – it focuses the sound for you, because it doesn’t want you using up that last tiny bit of oxygen.
Forward placement, clarity of vowel and singing through a narrow column will eventually get rid of breathiness in the sound. Once the fuzziness starts to go, it tends to leave in one vowel before all the others. That vowel placement can then be used as a template for the rest.
Lip Rolls are a great way to work on smooth, legato lines and to improve breath control. Like the Zzzzzz, the Lip Roll also brings the vocal placement further forward.
A Lip Roll is just the horse lips type sound that we all make when we’re frustrated – especially if we’ve been working away on something for a long time, then stop to take a break.
When a vocal sound is added, it becomes the type of sound that little boys make when they’re playing with toy motorcycles or boats – and are imitating the noise of the engine.
It’s best if this is done in a lazy motorboat style, rather than something more aggressive like the little boys’ motorcycles.
During the warm up is a good time for this – but it’ll also help any song phrase that needs to sit better in the voice.
Sing the phrase.
Now sing it again to Brrrrrr.
When you sing the phrase again it should feel more comfortable in the voice, and the breath control will be better.
When you’re singing, jaw tension makes you feel like you’re having to fight to get sound out.
Tension in my jaw shows up when I’m worried, annoyed, fearful, sad, anxious, judgemental, tired, headachy, sick, nervous, stewing, rushed or stressed in any way.
So unless I’m prancing through daisies in a state of exuberant bliss – pretty much daily.
I’ve found that jaw tension is also the sort of thing that creates this nasty cycle: Stress – tension – more stress because of the tension – more tension. Soon, you’re a complete mess.
Here’s what I’ve found has helped:
Breath of Fire (Post #4 on this blog)
Massaging the jaw line – especially those little lumps of tension at about where the wisdom teeth would be inside the mouth.
Massaging the muscles on the sides of the neck – the ones that keep your head on.
Tennis ball against the wall for massaging knots out of the upper back, and along either side of the spine.
Planning my day – making sure to include activities that are fun. I find it much easier to release tension when I’ve had a day where I accomplished the things that I’d planned.
Walking – especially outdoors
Going easy on the caffeine and sugar.
Reminding myself to relax the back teeth (This one has often made a big difference to singing students)
Asking the jaw to think ‘stupid, stupid, stupid’
Ironically – singing my heart out