“Do Not Listen To Yourself Sing!”

“Do not listen to yourself sing.”

“Try to get an inner sense of what your voice is doing without actually listening to it.”

“Do not yawn!”

“Do not clear the throat.”

“The student must obliterate from their minds all concepts dealing with how they think they sound, or how they want to sound.”

“The singer must not conceive, think, hear, or in any other way sense effort.”

All of these are quotes from published books by singing teachers – in most cases very successful teachers with a good track record of students with great singing careers. Why then do so many students have problems following what seem to be, on the face of it, straightforward instructions? The problem lies, it seems, in the issue of positively attempting to carry out a negative command. An instruction to not do something will very often have us thinking about what it is we don’t want to do. Saying in front of an audience “don’t clear your throat” will probably result in more than several muted, muffled coughs. It is very difficult for us to think of not doing things in a positive way. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that the only way the mind could conceive of negation was through the positive thought of negation.

In psychology, this is known as the Paradoxical Effect of Thought Suppression. Psychologist Daniel Wegner writes about this in his “White Bear Story” (Wegner and Schneider, 2003). Participants were asked to speak freely about whatever came to mind, except they had to avoid thinking about White Bears. Members of a control group were told the same but were specifically prompted that they could think about White Bears. The incidence of White Bear thoughts amongst those trying to suppress it was far higher than those who were told they could think about White Bears. Again, Jean-Paul Sartre observed “I have to think of it constantly in order to avoid thinking of it” (Sartre, 1958)

How about not thinking about anything? Is that possible? Sartre argues that we are positively thinking about blankness, rather than not thinking about anything. If we try not to think about something, something will pop into our thoughts, as Dr Ray Stantz, Ghostbuster, found out when he uttered the immortal words “It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

When Wegner observed the White Bear effect, he thought that thinking of something else would be a good aim – a distraction. This was also spontaneously thought of by many of the experiment participants. After time, however, Wegner found that the distracting thought became so connected with the thought being avoided, that it did the reverse and made people think more about what they were trying to avoid. I have found this myself. Now, whenever in a film or book I see or hear a character saying “clear your mind and don’t think of anything”, I instantly visualise Dr Ray Stantz, Ghostbuster, uttering the immortal words “It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!

One practical way around this is rather than think about something else, actually DO something. Specific tasks to be achieved can be a great focus for the mind and are used in the treatment of some neurological conditions that require distraction. Functional Neurological Disorders – sometimes also referred to as Conversion Disorders – are typically movement disorders that cannot be explained by any organic or pathological damage. Unlike other neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s Disease, there is no brain or nerve damage or degeneration. To use a crude analogy, it is a bit like the software no longer communicating correctly with the hardware. Unfortunately, we don’t really have the option of turning it off and back on again when it comes to the human brain. To allow the correct parts of the brain to start communicating with the body, it sometimes helps to distract the “executive control” part of the brain, and to let the rest of it get on with its job without interference. The brain can start to behave like the really bad manager who attempts to interfere on the production line and creates more problems than they solve. In the same way that the factory workers may want the manager to get distracted by some really important meeting so that they can get on with doing what they do best, it often helps to distract the executive decision-making part of the brain to allow the other functions to occur unimpeded. A commonly used diagnostic tool and therapeutic option for functional tremor is the entrainment test. You can see an illustration of this in this video, and a second where a doctor is using physical entrainment with a patient with a tremor. As the patient attempts to match the doctor’s movements with his right hand, the tremor in his left hand is significantly reduced. This idea of distraction through action is known as task-orientation, and there are a number of task-oriented exercises used in the treatment of FNDs.

Distracting the executive control part of the brain can simply take the form of rapid exercises. Rapid vocal exercises have been advocated in the past by Cornelius Reid and Nicolai Gedda, amongst others, for evening out the quality of the voice. The approach of using a rapid exercise, where the conscious brain is no longer able to concentrate on all the details of the task, is illustrated clearly, and very movingly, in this video where a young teacher in Australia lost the ability to walk, but it was found she could still run. It is thought that this type of occurrence suggests that there is a strong, intact procedural memory for movements that is being disrupted by conscious interference (Pareés et al., 2013). Given that we are born in what Stephen Mithen once described as an immature state and mostly helpless for the first eighteen months of our lives, the fact that infants are adept at vocalising needs suggests that there is a very strong procedural memory for the movements required in voice use (Mithen, 2005). We just need to learn how to get out of the way.

How can we make use of this in singing? Well, many aspects of musical vocalisation can be viewed as tasks. Cornelius Reid broke down the necessary tasks of vocalisation as being pitch, vowel, and intensity (Reid, 1972). Perhaps adding speed to warm ups can help, as advised here by Nicolai Gedda. We might add further musical ideas such as rhythm or articulation, or physical aspects such as balance/alignment. Can adding a metronome to vocalises change them more into a task-oriented exercise? Standing on a balance board? These are ideas that are already used in the teaching of singing, but can really make a difference to an over-thinking student.

In the next article I’ll be looking at some more specific exercise ideas, and hopefully including some video demonstrations. Do come back.

Mithen, S. (2005) The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Pareés, I. et al. (2013) ‘Failure of explicit movement control in patients with functional motor symptoms’, Movement Disorders, 28(4), pp. 517–523. doi: 10.1002/mds.25287.

Reid, C. L. (1972) The Free Voice: A Guide to Natural Singing. New York: The Joseph Patelson Music House.

Sartre, J.-P. (1958) Being and Nothingness. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Wegner, D. M. and Schneider, D. J. (2003) ‘The White Bear Story’, Psychological Inquiry, 14(3), pp. 326–329. doi: 10.1080/1047840X.2003.9682900.

Teachers’ responsibilities? Students’ responsibilities?

Looking back through these old articles has been illuminating in terms of seeing how thoughts about teaching have developed. My recent research as part of my voice pedagogy studies have seen me revisiting the ideas of what we concentrate on, and how we avoid concentrating on things that we should be avoiding. I’ll be writing a little more about this in the coming weeks, but you can see my articles from 2012 about letting it happen on this site.

Corneulius Reid, Oren Brown, and Giovanni Battista Lamperti all advocated that we should avoid thinking about the sound of the voice. It is very easy to write and say this. Do we, as teachers, say to our students “Don’t think about the sound of your voice” and then just assume that the student can do this? Do we think that we have done our part in imparting this bit of vocal wisdom, and that if the student has difficulty in grasping it then it is the student that is lacking in ability or application? I sincerely hope that this isn’t the case for singing teachers. Merely giving verbal information and expecting a full intellectual and somatic understanding on behalf of the student is not realistic – nor is it, in my opinion, ethical. Singing has been described, by Oren Brown amongst others, as a process of discovery. As teachers, one of our major roles is to assist and support in that journey of discovery. I have, sadly, been witness to less than supportive behaviour in the world of singing. Several years ago one of my students, at the time a talented soprano studying A-levels, was cast in a school production and was given a song that was far too low for her vocal range. Wishing to do her best for the school she kept attempting to sing it before she brought the problem to me. My suggestion was to transpose the song to a key which fit her voice. She was then able to develop a sense of character, and learn and perform the song with confidence and authority. Of course, that also meant that the band parts would need to be transposed for the performance. The school music teacher was very reluctant to do this, and insisted that she could sing it in the lower key, and it would be easy if she just “remembered to use her diaphragm!” In this simple, and often abused phrase, the teacher had absolved himself of all work, and laid the blame squarely at the student for doing it badly. If I were to take up athletics coaching, I could simply advise all of the sprinters to simply remember to run faster. If they didn’t win, it wouldn’t be my poor coaching, it would be them failing to follow my instruction. Fortunately, in the case of my student, the music teacher relented. The song was transposed, and my student was rewarded with a great ovation during the performance. Also fortunately, I don’t attempt to coach sprinters!

As a teacher, I believe I have a responsibility beyond simply giving information to the student. More importantly, I need to ensure that the student has an understanding of what is needed, that they may need a little experimentation to “get it”, and that making mistakes is part of the process. No student is expected to instantly understand and be able to execute a new concept without a little trial and error. As I constantly tell my students, nobody learns to ride a bike without first wobbling and maybe falling off the bike. Equally important is for the student to understand that they are in fact actively doing the learning, rather than being told what to do. Language is often an inadequate medium for conveying the subtleties of motor learning. I could not describe in exact detail how to ride a bike in order that a new learner wouldn’t still fall off at first. Learning to sing has often been described as assisted discovery. I would add that quite a lot of learning could be beneficially viewed the same way. The teacher needs to have patience and understanding when the student doesn’t immediately “get it”, and equally the students needs to know that they must put in the inquisitive effort to make their own discoveries of how they use their voice. Teaching really becomes a two-way relationship, that depends a lot on mutual trust and respect.

Now, I believe there’s a vacancy for a coach for Emma Raducanu. “Just keep hitting the ball back in until the opponent misses!” 

I reckon I’ve got this in the bag.

Busy and changing times in education

Well, another year seems to have rushed by and I find myself attempting to get down thoughts. I think many in positions such as mine are always thinking about what is to come. Inevitably, musicians are currently thinking about 29th March and what might happen to our ability to travel for work in Europe. It is a daunting prospect to know that we may lose out on work simply because other musicians from EU countries will not need visa applications.
I don’t want to talk in detail about Brexit though. I’m more concerned about what we are doing about music education right here at home – and that has nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with how we value a rounded education. Rather depressingly, a high proportion of secondary schools in my local area have stopped offering music as a GCSE option. Music is still part of the National Curriculum and must be taught up to year 9, but sadly beyond that provision is being cut away, presumably because music GCSE results no longer contribute to core subject league table results. There is a strong campaign to correct this, and I would highly recommend that everyone read the details on the website https://www.baccforthefuture.com/
On a personal level, one of the schools I was teaching in dropped music as a subject, and I saw an immediate drop off in students wanting singing instruction. Most students were taking lessons to help towards GCSE performances. Once the subject was dropped, no need for the extra lessons! Sad to say I had to stop teaching there in order to find additional work to fill my time.
I am very lucky to be able to work in an area that gives so much fulfillment. Once again, I am working with a group of young composers as part of the Firebird Trust Komposit project. This year we have more composers, and a greater number of workshops with them. We had a massive number of applications from young composers to be part of this project, and many had to be turned away. There is a demand for music education. There is a willingness for the Arts Council to fund music education. There is also a great love and desire on behalf of musicians to teach and pass on their art. It is sad that mainstream education seems to be missing this point entirely and providing a lopsided education based purely on schools’ desire to be high in a league table.

Please do visit the Komposit project Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/kompositcomposerstool/?__tn__=%2Cd%2CP-R&eid=ARCP4s5nXOjnqOD_2zp4V99GV75xgdQSIBapEeOElAdqggm8q4_a9nLtFpREfmUe9874cSVyeZQV5uM- and come and see the results of the project at the final concert on 29th April in Nottingham.

Busy times!

I’ll start with apologies in case I am slow responding to any enquiries. The good news is that it is because I am very busy performing, and hopefully some of you will get a chance to see me somewhere near by over the next couple of weeks. This coming week will see me playing violin, mandolin and keyboards as well as singing with Ruff ‘n’ Ready at Melton Theatre on Friday and Nottingham Arts Theatre on Saturday (St Patrick’s). Then we are playing Retford and Boston the following weekend. All dates can be found here https://www.facebook.com/tours/170128773715090/

On Sunday 18th March I’m singing the tenor solos in JH Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary, back in Melton Mowbray. Details are here https://www.melton.leicester.anglican.org/…/ArticlePrintabl…

On 27th March we will have the culmination of a really exciting project with the Firebird Trust, working with four young composers from the East Midlands. The final concert will be at The Drill Hall in Lincoln, starting at 7pm. Details are here https://www.facebook.com/events/549979575360535/

Then, with a bit of a break to recharge, on 14th April I’ll be singing as part of an opera gala concert in Whissendine. Details here https://www.facebook.com/events/2117851135167766/

It will be great to see people at any or all of these. Do come and say hello 🙂

Dreaded Reflux!

Several years ago, if you’d mentioned the word “reflux” to me, I’d have conjured up images in my head of a flask containing a solvent, a heating source underneath, and a water-cooled condenser in the top. OK, so not everyone has spent the time in chemistry laboratories that I have. Nevertheless, reflux is increasingly being used to describe what several years ago might have been called indigestion or heartburn. Of course, heartburn is a symptom, whereas the description of “reflux” is trying to get closer to what is actually happening. In the case of stomach acid, reflux – or Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux – describes stomach acid moving upwards out of the stomach into the oesophagus. For most people, this happens if they (over) indulge in many of the things they enjoy; rich food, spicy food, alcohol. For singers, however, it is something to be obsessed about to the degree that living anything approaching a normal life seems entirely out of the question. Of course singers are the one group of people who will find something, anything, to obsess about. We know it, non-singers know it, and it’s quite easy to parody! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR8Pfqe2Js4

The problem, insofar as it is perceived, is that the stomach acid can travel all the way up the oesophagus, and then start to work its way towards the larynx, causing irritation, swelling and other damage. Singers will often worry terribly about GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disorder – the “E” comes about due to our trans-atlantic cousins’ somewhat eccentric approach to etymology 😉 ). The major worry is that this will lead to reflux laryngitis. Almost any vocal problem is assumed to be due to reflux. Hoarse voice? Reflux! Bit of catarrh on a morning? Reflux! Can’t remember the words to the final scene in Act 3? Reflux! OK, so I made the last one up, but you get the idea.

So, what if you actually have none of the other associated symptoms of reflux? It’s still reflux, but it’s “silent reflux”. What about if you have an already diagnosed medical condition that fits all of the symptoms better? Nope, it’s bound to be reflux! I only mention this last one as I had direct experience of it. In the early days of the internet, I was told by a singer who I’d never met and who had never heard me sing that my catarrh and slight chesty cough that I sometimes get on a morning were caused by reflux, and not by the asthma that I was diagnosed with at the age of 3, and have regularly re-checked and monitored.

So, what’s the downside of thinking you have reflux? Well, it’s mainly the huge list of food and drink that you must “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!” The list mainly consists of tomatoes, garlic, onions, red wine, cheese, wheat and chilli. Recently I’ve been told that I should also avoid coffee – especially strong black coffee. Let’s face it, what we’re being told is to entirely avoid an Italian diet. I guess that’s ok, because after all, what have the Italians ever contributed to the world and culture of singing?

More seriously, whilst I have an increasing worry of the willingness of young singers to jump on whatever fad diet is currently in vogue, it often appears to be a search for blame rather than ever to admit there may be something lacking, or more accurately something still to be learned, in the area of vocal technique. Many excellent singers will tell you that they can eat a wider range of things when they know how to sing properly. I suppose it’s similar to the sportsman who gets a few lucky breaks in a match, but observes that the more they practice the luckier they seem to get.

If we are to sing excellently, then we must constantly observe ourselves, practice, get a second opinion from a good teacher, practice some more, read about how various singers describe their own singing, practice, read works by great teachers, practice again, and then if we think there is also an underlying medical condition, get it diagnosed and treated correctly. Adhering to an incredibly strict diet may not be fun, and may take a lot of time and effort – time and effort that could go into the more constructive things I’ve previously listed. In some cases it may end up causing more damage than good, although I’m not going to speculate because I am not a medical professional. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of someone who is a medical professional. Dr James Thomas is a physician who works in the area of voice disorders. His thoughts on the damage to the voice if you actually have reflux may surprise many people, and will certainly challenge some of the commonly held beliefs.

Enunciation in choral singing

“Over-pronunciate your continents!”

I’m sure that’s a phrase that many a church or cathedral chorister has heard from many a well-meaning choirmaster. The reasoning seems to be that absolute clarity of the text is paramount. That may or may not be a good thing, but my main issue with this approach, and also the problems that I have encountered teaching students who have had this background, is that it doesn’t generally lead to improved articulation. The reasons for this are twofold. Words are made up of consonants and vowels. Vowels are generally what we think of as the singing sound – it is what we extend to hold a pitch, or to hold over a melisma. Consonant, as a word, means “with sound”. This suggests that the consonant is linked to the vowel – many singers and vocal coaches say that the consonants “launch” the vowels. When the consonants are artificially and over pronounced, they tend to separate from the vowels. Many is the time you hear a choir singing Lotti’s Crucifux with a heavily asipirated “Kkhuh-rucifixus”, and the effect is that you lose the first “u” vowel. Similarly with the heavily accent “K” when singing any one of the many Kyrie Eleisons from the mass. On a subjective note, I prefer a more legato line in this style of music – the Lotti is a beautifully melismatic piece, and in breaking up the words much of this beauty is lost for me. I realise that this is subjective, and that many may prefer the more accented consonants. Of more concern to me as a teacher is that it leads to tension. Invariably, due to the excessive aspiration, the vowel is “grabbed” – often with the jaw – and you get a wide range of “singing faces”, many of which look more than a little unnatural. The reason for this tension brings me to the second point. Over-pronouncing consonants in this way is not what we do in spontaneous communication – ie speech. In everyday communication we vary our speech – rising and falling in intonation, varying the rhythm, and most importantly in this aspect, stressing certain syllables and words. We tend to stress the strong syllables of nouns, or important verbs – especially when they are commands , eg “Will you reMember to put the bin out!” When we stress these syllables, we don’t over pronounce or aspirate consonants. Moreoever, we eMphasise them, or stRess them, or Lean on them. Each of these examples is a consonant that can be extended and drawn out, but the principle is the same if you were to say “Don’t forGet to put the bin out!” When we do this, we tend to feel that we are talking from our core, possibly from our “hearts” or from the “gut”. When our speech is spontaneous in this aspect, there is a connection between our breath and the consonant – not a stretched over working of the mouth and the articulators. If we are to sing with clear words and a sense of conveying the emotion of song, rather than just the clear information, then this same approach must be there. Consonants must be part of the voice-body connection, on the breath and not separate from the vowel that follows. If we intend to sing as if we mean what we’re singing about, then we may find that the approach of over-pronouncing is leading us to over-pronounce the wrong syllable. Lets go back to my example of the Lotti “Crucifixus”. I’m sure even the non-Latin speakers among us realise that this word means “crucified”. If one were to suggest that I may be crucified for writing this article – and I may be – then I’m sure you’ll say “cRRucified” and not “Kkrucified”. The over aspirated K is not what you would do when spontaneously and genuinely stressing this word, but it is very common in singing of this particular piece. If singing is to be meaningful, then the words shouldn’t just be clear, but should be genuinely meaningful too.

“Classical music for kids? Waste of time and money!!”

I was taken recently by this comment article in The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/09/arts-audiences-white-metropolitan-middle-class-harriet-harman


In this article, Stephen Moss argues that it is a waste of time to take young people to see classical music concerts, because a performance of Orfeo would be wasted on a bunch of 14 year olds. Perhaps more telling, is that his own “Damascene moment” wasn’t until he heard an Italian friend playing a recording of Brahms’ Third Symphony when he was in his early twenties – that’s Stephen Moss, not his Italian friend (although it would be reasonable to assume the friend was in their early twenties too.) Pointless diversions apart, this idea that classical music is too mature for young people is simply ignorant. Basing the entire argument on the anecdote of the author is crass at the very least – and can best be illustrated by crassly basing an alternative viewpoint on the anecdotal tales of this author.


I remember the 70s. I remember them because I was born then – and a huge number of formative experiences happened in the years from 1971 to 1979. One of them was my father moving to work abroad (Saudi Arabia as it happens) and bringing us back radio/tape players as Christmas presents. This was a massive boost in the technology (and electricity consumption) in our little semi-detached in Leeds. Most of my family hail from the North East, and many of the aforementioned formative experiences involved riding in the back of a car up the A1 and A19 to Teesside or County Durham. One of my earliest musical memories was listening to a tape (when tapes were “cool”) of The Shadows playing a track called Mozart Fort. Something in the minor key melody had an immediate attraction. On one of our many “road trips” – they were little more than an hour at most, but seemed like a lifetime to a seven year old – I chanced upon Radio 3 when twiddling the dials, and heard the most beautiful sound of strings playing this very same tune. A certain amount of waiting for the presenter later confirmed this to be Mozart’s 40th Symphony – a work whose attraction has never diminished for me.


Now, had I never had that exposure, I may have followed my other musical leanings (ska in the early 80s, followed by rock and then jazz) and ignored classical music entirely. That early exposure kept it open as an option – as something to not be dismissed – in my growing aural world. I was lucky to have a musical family – my mother played piano, I inherited my Granfather’s violins. On the other hand, that musical opportunity may have been wasted on me had I not had my initial Mozart exposure at such a young age. It is all very well to claim that exposure may be a waste – but it is only exposure, not compulsion. A 14 year old is already part of a complex social structure. Peer pressure appears to rear its ugly head earlier and earlier. A 14 year attending a performance of Orfeo may love it – and yet be unwilling to express that appreciation for fear of kickback from their peer group. A seven year old would almost certainly have less trepidation. How many more “what’s the point?” arguments should be used in neglecting the artistic education of our young? “What’s the point in reading Shakespeare? I’m sure it’s too difficult, and what with Twitter we hardly have need for more than 140 characters.” “What’s the point in learning other languages? They’re really difficult, and kids will learn how to use Google Translate.” Now, I don’t want to go down the Reductio ad Absurdum route, but I think we can see where this could lead. Giving opportunities for everyone to at least hear, with un-prejudiced ears, great classical music cannot be a waste of time or money. It can merely lead to a more positive outcome for some than others. If we’ve already decided that 14 years old is too early to appreciate any classical music, then we’ve already written off the potential of one or maybe two whole generations. That, Stephen Moss, would truly be the waste.

The One True Way!

“Breakthrough method of singing”, “Certified Instructor”, “Master instructor in hypno-asian school of singing”, “My Bel Canto is Bel-er than your Bel Canto”.

We have all seen these claims, either in Google pop-up ads, or in the ever increasing business of self help books. More people want to sing, and everyone is after the book or method that will guarantee success. This seems inevitably to lead to “methods”, and to increasing claims that the advertised method is the only one that will work, and how it is unique and different from all other methods. We have vocal methods with trademarks, with certification procedures to ensure that all instructors will teach exactly the “one true method”, and not deviate from the script in any way. I sometimes wonder whether we are learning to sing, starting a political party or joining a religion.

Now, the first thing I have to say about the content of many of these methods is, it’s not all bad. In fact, many of the methods are based on fairly sound ideas of relaxation, vocalising without strain, and producing a free sound. I have no problem with any of this. It works, and we know it works, because it has been working for centuries. What I have a problem with are the claims from authors and teachers that they have made these discoveries and invented the exercises. I recently watched several “sampler” videos for voice lessons on YouTube. One involved a lady teacher demonstrating a breathing exercise where you inhale on a count of 8, hold for a count of 8 and exhale for a count of 8. This particular exercise is not harmful, although I seriously doubt it will really have much benefit on your singing (that discussion is perhaps for a different article). I was astonished though when this lady claimed that she invented this exercise herself. It is possibly one of the most widely used warm-ups in choirs across the Western World, and no-one could possibly believe that this lady was the sole inventor of it. I wonder what would have been the downside for this teacher to say “This is a very widely used exercise that has proven itself over decades of teaching. I’m going to show you how to do it properly.” It would have demonstrated research and knowledge on the part of the teacher, and a respect for the craft. And this is an important aspect. No matter how “contemporary” everyone wants their singing to be, it is necessary to realise that humans have sung for a very, very long time. It is an art that has developed over time, it has not suddenly been invented. Changes have occurred in musical styles, in the prominence of the voice and in instruments and technology to accompany and even amplify the voice. Nevertheless, the majority of the body and vocal function in singing is more or less the same as it ever was – only the detail, the periphery, has changed. It is difficult to argue with the fact that much vocal teaching originated in Italy, in the tradition of Bel Canto. I have seen around the internet discussions of the voice that Bel Canto is good for classical singing, but most singers now would run a mile rather than sing classically. It is strange, therefore, that the very teachers that say this are often using the same very principals of Bel Canto – often given English names. Others claim to properly teach Bel Canto, having learnt it from the last living survivor who taught true Bel Canto at the turn of the century (conveniently forgetting that composers such as Rossini were claiming Bel Canto was dead around 1830). Google “Bel Canto Technique” if you think I’m exaggerating this last point!

So, where does this leave the idea of methods and schools of singing? When I was studying for my PhD in Chemistry, I heard a quote from a colleague: “There is nothing worse for a scientist than a theory that he wants to be right.” It is very similar to the quote from Emile Chartier “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” If we claim that the way we have learned to sing – or discovered how to teach – is the only true way, then we have a duty to point out how everyone else does it wrongly. However, we hear examples of good singing all the time – and there have been examples of good singing for centuries. A moments thought should tell us that there are different ways of achieving our goal of good singing. The end result is what is important, not the purity of our learning. My learning came principally from the late Howard Milner. My teaching therefore draws on many of his ideas, but I do not teach exactly the same. We are different people, with different personalities and educations, and therefore cannot reproduce exactly the same lessons. We borrow and acquire our tools and ideas from many different sources. In fact I did learn an important lesson from Howard regarding methods and schools. “There is only one true method; The Magpie Method. If something works, steal it!”

Bold Claims

I came upon an interesting piece of advertising today. As you might imagine, I quite regularly use Google to see what other voice instruction is being offered in my geographical area. I came across a website for a young teacher, “licensed” via one of the available methods of teaching singing (I may write more on my thoughts of these methods at another time). Most of the descriptions on the site, and incidentally of the linked site of the particular method, were in my opinion quite sound. There was little that I would disagree with, and in fact a description of how to choose a singing teacher that I believe would reflect very favourably on how I teach. However, one particular part of the teacher’s website caused me to react. The teacher expects that early lessons with a new student would involve an understanding of what is happening functionally with the voice, and also exercises to improve the voice. Well, nothing to argue with there. The next phrase is a bit much though “with no other teacher in the Nottingham area will you find a more thorough breakdown of what is functionally happening in your voice.” Initially I felt a little insulted by this – hopefully I am viewed as a teacher with a thorough understanding of the functionalilty of voice production (it is certainly an area of study that takes up a lot of my time). After a little reflection, I decided it was just symptomatic of many of the more exaggerated claims that one is likely to find on websites. Of course, this particular teacher has no way of validating his claim, as they have no idea what the others of us in the area may be doing in lessons. A quick search of the area will find at least two very well regarded teachers working within specialist voice units of the NHS. I suspect that their knowledge of the functionality of the voice is as good as anyone would come to expect. Furthermore, a quick search revealed that the teacher of the bold claims has been teaching for a year, and singing for around 3 years. Even my own relatively recent start in the world of teaching is now approaching 5 years, with 15 years of singing study preceding this move. Now, this might all mean nothing. Regardless of experience, this teacher cannot know what I and others teach in the way of voice physiology and function because they have never observed us working. In the same way, I cannot say if their expertise belies their inexperience. For that fact, I can only claim what I offer – not in any way compare it to what others can offer, because I simply cannot validate such claims. I will not offer to be better, different, superior, to other teachers. All I can do is give an indication of what I do, what my expertise is, and how I hope to help your long term singing and vocal health. I may miss the advertising opportunities of wild claims, but I remain with a fairly clear conscience that I am doing this for the right reasons.

Let it Happen – Part 3

Let It Happen – Part 3: There’s a tongue in my cheek!

In the previous two articles, I have addressed the idea that we can start a flow of energy which corresponds with breathing, and then we can let it happen. There are, in my opinion, various imagery ideas that can be used to keep our minds in the “allowing” mode rather than the “controlling” mode. Since it is inevitable that we will think about our throats and mouths at some time during singing, then what can we do here? Again, I think that the language and imagery we use is extremely important. I was reminded of this whilst attending a recent event organised by the British Voice Association. Several mentions were made of sub-glottic pressure, and the need for increased sub-glottic pressure when raising pitch. To my mind, the word pressure immediately causes more pressure and tension than is necessary. If I were to say to a student that they need to increase sub-glottic pressure, then I can be fairly sure that they would quickly increase tension in the upper chest, across the collar and in the neck. So, why the need for sub-glottic pressure?

Fluids (gases and liquids) flow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. When we see weather forecasts on TV and we have an area of low pressure over us, we know that air will rush in from an area of higher pressure, causing wind. If that area of higher pressure is somewhere cold, then it will bring cold winds – and associated weather! When we sing, we need air from our lungs to pass through the larynx. Therefore we need sub-glottic pressure (pressure in the area below the larynx) to be higher than supra-glottic pressure (pressure in the area above the larynx). More often than not, supra-glottic pressure is ignored, because whether consciously or sub-consciously, people assume this to just be atmospheric pressure, and therefore something that we cannot affect. This isn’t entirely accurate. After passing through the larynx, the air must negotiate other parts of the vocal tract and then the mouth before it emerges into the atmosphere. The first part of this is the pharynx.

In this diagram, the label of the pharynx is pointing at an area called the oropharynx. For simplicity, we can assume this to be a tube (cylinder) shape. The diameter of this tube can clearly be affected by pulling the tongue back and making the space smaller. Any fluid flowing through a tube will create resistance to its own flow. According to Poiseuille’s Law, this resistance can be expressed as follows.

R=\frac{8\eta L}{\pi r^4}

where η is the viscosity of air (constant in this case), L is the length (again we will assume it is constant) and r is the radius (cross section of the tube). If we were to half the width of the pharynx (radius) by pulling back on the tongue, the resistance to the air flowing through would increase 16 times. In other words, in order to get the same flow of air through the larynx we would need to push air sixteen times harder, or increase sub-glottic pressure sixteenfold. Conversely, if we allow the tongue to relax forwards in the mouth, we take away resistance. We retain the pressure differential that is required for airflow not by increasing sub-glottic pressure, but by taking away things that are in the way. Suddenly we find that things can flow, that unrestricted movement can occur, and that we can go with the flow. Undoubtedly there is a release of both tension and conscious control when this happens. Sometimes a feeling of resistance makes us feel secure, and makes us feel that we can “go at it” a little more confidently – just ask any golfer whether they prefer putting uphill or downhill! However, in accepting and going with the flow we can find an easier relationship with our own voice and our own expression.

So, my tongue isn’t really in my cheek. Hopefully it is remaining in my mouth rather than in my throat. Gormless expressions really can be of benefit in singing. Slack jaw, lolling tongue, open throat and flowing sound. After all, why would we want to make singing more effort?