Category Archives: Teaching

Listening

How do you listen? Do you notice or make note of unusual sounds you hear in your day-to-day life? Have you ever thought about how you listen? Have you caught yourself drifting away from active listening?

Recently an article from the New York Times on Auditory Sightseeing came to my attention. It got me thinking about how we use our sense of hearing, but also how we disregard some sounds entirely.

In my post Listening vs. Hearing, I quoted one of my coaches at McGill University, Michael McMahon, who often said, (referring to a piece of music),

Go and have a listening experience!

How does one have a ‘listening experience’? As humans, we are encouraged to listen to one another in conversation and actively respond to what we’ve heard.

As a musician, I like to think that my listening skills are specially developed when compared with someone who didn’t necessarily study music. But even within the genre of musicians, there are groups of people with a specific set of highly developed listening skills.

An audio technician will have ears finely tuned to what she or he hears when mixing together different tracks. The conductor of an orchestra will have a highly developed sense of hearing so they can ask for different instruments and colours of sound from the orchestra; in order to create a unique experience for the audience.

As a singing performer and teacher of singing, my ears are highly tuned to the human voice and tonality. I can often hear tension in a student’s voice before I see it in their body. What sounds good to them inside their own head may not be optimal singing outside their head!

Sometimes a singer will be listening to their own voice so intently that they forget to be ‘in the moment’ of what they are actually singing (I used to do this a lot!). Public speaking is a similar situation – when we’re nervous, we often get trapped into that running dialogue ‘oh, I said that word incorrectly’, or ‘wow, that sounded stupid’, or ‘hey, they laughed at my joke’.

This train of thought means you’re listening to yourself too much! If you take your attention to listening inside your own head and away from the message you are trying to communicate, then you are robbing your audience of a fuller experience.

Take yourself on a ‘listening tour’ the next time you are out for a walk. Notice different sounds and how they may or may not be pleasant. Notice the rumble of a diesel truck, or some high ‘ping, ping, ping, ping’ sounds as you pass a construction site. Notice the high tonality of birds chirping in the morning. Take note of your neighbourhood sounds and maybe consider starting a ‘sound journal’ – noting the sounds you hear, recording them with your mobile device, or something similar.

One last thought – the following short piece was composed based on birds arranged on a set of wires. Music and sound may be found where you least expect it. How did you listen and what did you hear?

Review: Three Words for 2014

In January I wrote about my Three Words for 2014. It has been very enlightening reviewing that post and thinking about the past thee months.

Today I’ll review my three words very generally, then over the next three weeks, I’ll take a closer look at each of the words on their own.

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My Three Words for 2014 Word Cloud

My three words were Intention, Choice, and Consistency. Each of those words are informing my life in very different ways so far this year.

Intentions are related to habits. If you are intent on beginning a new habit, then it will form more quickly and more easily than if you don’t have that intention. I am still working on building my intentions for my personal singing practice habits. Sometimes life (or death) just happens and your intentions are skewered for a while.

Choice – we always have a choice of what action (or inaction) we will take. In my case, every weekday when I get home from my morning job, I choose to eat a square or two of chocolate and read for pleasure for about 15 minutes. I choose to get up 20 minutes earlier than last year so I can spend time writing and starting my day.

Consistency is something that can be harder to maintain. I’d like to say I’m consistent in my writing habits, but the truth is, I write (on average) three mornings a week. I want to be more consistent with my personal singing practice, but I need to adjust my choices to make that happen.

I want to draw your attention to a phrase from my original post Three Words for 2014 that has grabbed readers’ attention.

‘The only constant in life is change, therefore consistency in my actions will bring about the changes that will happen!’

In reviewing this phrase, I am struck by how true it is.

But I also want to share that I have learned the following in the past three months:

My choices lead to consistency in my intentions. 

My consistent intention will inform good choices. 

My intention will direct consistent choices. 

It’s this wonderful trifecta of related words that is swirling around my being and guiding me through the year.

Did you set up three words for 2014? It’s not too late! Reflect on the past three months and see if any specific words make themselves known to you. Share them in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

 

 

Inspiration Part 4 of 4

Over the past three weeks I’ve written about different forms of inspiration, physical, mental, creative, etc. The fact is, there are many different forms of inspiration that you can use every day to improve your life.

 

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Inspire by Hugh MacLeod

By simply taking the time to inhale a slow breath, you slow down your pace and your rate of observation.

By slowing down, you may observe something you never noticed before. Study it. Ask if it inspires you further.

It may not inspire you today, but down the road you could find yourself recalling that moment and how it affected you.

I started writing publicly to share my knowledge and thoughts on singing, but also to encourage and inspire anyone to sing for themselves. It doesn’t matter if you take lessons, it doesn’t matter if you just play in a band for fun and/or sing back-up vocals. Even if you just sing along to your favorite songs on the radio, maybe ask yourself why you do it and have fun!

Go enjoy music and singing for what it is. Think about your own voice and how others hear it.

Then let that go and be inspired to create whatever it is you do best.

I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply below if you feel so inspired 🙂

Inspiration Part 3 of 4

Did you breathe today? No, I mean really take a conscious inhalation and exhalalation? Was it an exhalation of peace and joy, or was it one of of indignation or irritation?

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Stop reading for a moment and inhale to a count of five, hold for a count of five, and exhale to a slow count of five. Do it again if you want!

Did it feel good? Did you feel inspired? What you just did is inhale slowly and consciously, but you also performed an act of ‘inspiration’.

Physical inspiration is a simple inhalation. The physical act can influence and inform the mental act of inspiration.

When was the last time you held your breath for any reason?

Do you remember doing it?

Do you remember how it felt?

Did time stop?

Did you feel uneasy?

Was it a moment of suspense?

The next time you find yourself holding your breath – ask yourself why this might happen at this moment. Then release that breath and take a naturally deep breath. I use the word ‘naturally’ as it is possible to over-inhale and create more tension instead of releasing. Go ahead, over-inhale – fill your lungs – feel your shoulders tense up and your back get tight.

Now exhale and slowly inhale about 70% of what you just over-inhaled. Focus on breathing low into your belly. Do this a few times and see how you feel.

As your breath slows and your mind slows down, try and be open to what inspires you and makes you happy. You will find that both with and within your breath.

We all need reminders to just stop and breathe. What are you waiting for?

As always I love to hear from you – please feel free to reply below or drop me a line on social media.

Inspiration – Part 1 of 4

Welcome to the first of four shorter blog posts on Inspiration. You may want to review my posts in inspiration and breathing here before reading further.

Inspiration is a word that has several meanings or implications – there is the mental condition of being inspired to do something, and then there is the physical act of inspiration, more commonly known as inhalation.

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Today’s post is the first of two on the  mental condition.

What inspires you to make music? Have you always been inclined towards music, or is it simply background filler for you? What styles of music move you?

Inspiration comes in many forms – as varied as the human condition itself. For me personally, I have always been drawn to music. According to my mother, I could sing a tune back before I could properly speak words. My grandfather taught himself to play the accordion and when I was young, I used to go  down to the basement where he practiced and we would play tunes together, me playing the melody on the keyboard, and him playing the chord buttons and squeeze-box.

Those memories of being immersed in music still inspire me today. Music is such a personal experience – no matter what we do musically – it’s still all about us and what we share.

As a teacher of singing now, I encourage my students to explore their passion for music. It can be scary, allowing music to open your soul – but that is what leads to true inspiration!

The next time you listen to music, make music, or are inspired by music, take a moment and think about how you feel inside. Record these feelings and start a ‘music inspiration journal’. It may help you hone in on other factors in your life that require attention.

Be inspired, then be inspiring to others.

Happy music-making – whatever form that takes for you!

As always, I love to hear from you! Your comments, feedback, and experiences of inspiration and music are welcome!

Interference

Do you interfere with your own success? Do you put up blocks, distractions, negative thoughts to stop you from making progress? If you do, the good news is, you’re human! We all, at some point or another, impede ourselves from learning. Interference plays a huge role in that (non) progress.

It’s easy to say, ‘Just sing, be free, and let your sound come out.’ The mechanics and physical reality of doing that, however, is very different. Our command of different, minute muscle groups, our coordination of those muscle groups, and the openness of a space in which to resonate, all affect the final product.

Mentally, we often provide just as much interference! In the book ‘The Inner Game of Music‘ the authors discuss Self 1 and Self 2 and how Self 1 sends instructions that hinder you from making progress, but Self 2 is perfectly capable, and even more so when Self 1 is not interfering. Interference is part of that ‘inner voice’ that critiques what you are doing, instead of being open to, and exploring what you are doing. I encourage you to read the book, as it’s an excellent insight not just into musical practice and performance, but more widely applicable life skills.

So, what can we do to reduce interference? First of all, you need to recognize it.

I classify interference into two broad types: external and internal. Within those types, there are many forms of interference.

External interference includes distractions like anything on the internet, our families, cleaning the bathroom, phone calls, to-do-list, etc.

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Create Focus rituals and habits – use this mindmap for tips and tricks when you are feeling like these things might interfere with your progress. Image is used courtesy of learningfundamentals.com.au

You probably know what I’m going to say.

Turn off your phone. Turn off your computer. Shut the door to your practice space and put down the cleaning products. Schedule a practice time and stick to it. I set a reminder on my phone to come up 10 minutes before my scheduled practice time. That gives me time to wrap up whatever I’m working on and get into the ‘head space’ to practice.

Don’t look at your desk or shuffle papers. Open your music, or set up your recording device for playback/record. Set a timer, if you have to (I suggested this in my post  focus )

When it comes to internal or physical interference, that’s a much tougher thing to nail down and you would be best to discuss this with your teacher. We all have physical habits that will interfere with our singing. Some habits are easier to change than others.

If you are a choral singer, the way you hold your music could be interfering with the quality of the sound coming out. You want your arms to hold your music, but let your shoulders and neck be free and without effort in order to get the best sound possible. Play around with different heights of holding your music so you have optimal sound, but also optimal vision of both your music and your conductor.

If you are learning to sing solo works, you have more physical freedom! Walk around while you sing. Obtain a large exercise ball and play with different positions to free your sound.

Swing your arms, bend at your hips and bend over like a rag doll, slowly rolling up while singing – observe how that affects your sound.

A solution is as as simple as your thinking of allowing your neck to be tall and free (Alexander Technique) and then singing will offer a world of changes.

Be aware of your interference, then let it go.

Interference comes in many forms – recognize it, then explore solutions to deal with it.

As always, thanks for reading, and I love hearing from you. Feel free to leave me comments or questions!

Opposites

Have you ever been so firm in your convictions about something  you were so certain about, and the opposite ended up being correct or true?

But if a line of notes goes down, we go down, right?

Nope.

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Movement in singing (not just physical) quite often works better when we think of ‘movement of opposites’, or thinking the line goes in the opposite direction to which it is written. I have learned this from several coaches and teachers over the years, and I incorporate it into my own learning and teaching.

When you have a run of notes that descend, you need to practice and think of them as if they are ascending instead.

Another way you can practice this is to sing your written line backwards – start from the highest note and work down, or vice-versa.

By working through opposite directions, you learn your vocal line more thoroughly  – you bring the outer edges of your line closer to the centre of your vocal line. This creates a more uniform sound overall, which is generally what you want when singing.

Try it and let me know how it all works for you – I’d love to hear from you!

Movement

Do you like to move? Do you feel trapped and tense in your body when you sing? How does movement (or stillness) inform your singing? I’m not talking about a dance background being necessary for you to sing, but by being free in your body, you can improve vocal function and freedom in your sound overall.

internal views of body movement

When first learning to sing, it can be challenging to even move an arm voluntarily, let alone coordinate it with your singing. That’s not to say you don’t move – maybe you have some involuntary movement happening? It could be hand tension that is coming down from your neck, it might be a little knee wobble you do when you sing. Or maybe your shoulders get a little tight when you run out of breath? The next time you’re practicing, check in on that. As distracting as it is, get in front of a full-length mirror and observe.

You are your own best teacher.

There is a direct correlation between vocal tension and unnecessary body tension. By giving yourself permission to move, you create new pathways of freedom in your sound.

Voluntary movement is very freeing, but coordinating it with singing might feel a little weird at first.

Below are some simple movements you can do to free your body from involuntary tension while you sing. You can practice all of these movements first without singing, then try singing a phrase or line while doing them. If you have mobility constraints or pathology, trust that your body will know how far to go with these movements.

  1. If you’re not already standing while practicing, you should be.
  2. Walk around your house/practice room. Swing your arms freely. Sing!
  3. When singing a descending line, raise your arm or arms from your sides to shoulder height, in a shape as if you are holding onto a very large beach ball. This move is intended to counteract a tendency to ‘sink’ while singing a descending line.
  4. When singing an ascending line, start with your arms raised in front of you and slightly to the side (large beach ball), and then slowly lower them to your side as you sing that line.
  5. While singing a phrase with an ascending line, bend your knees, bend your torso slightly at the hips (as if you are about to sit in a chair) and let your back and head be long. Imagine a long, free line from your tailbone, up your spine to the top of your head). You can place a chair behind you for reassurance, if you like.
  6. While singing a phrase with a descending line, reverse the movement of number 5. Start in that ‘nearly sitting’ position, then slowly stand up tall while singing your descending line. Your torso should be roughly 45 degrees to the wall and you can start by looking at a point where the floor meets the wall. As you stand your vision moves up the wall, and your body lengthens naturally. You can start in the chair, if you like. Be sure to watch the video below for more information!

Some of these movements are related to a form of body awareness called The Alexander Technique. You can find many videos on YouTube about this technique – here is a short one that clearly shows the sitting to standing position. Scroll to about 2 minutes in and you’ll see the sitting/standing position I describe above. Feel free to watch more Alexander Technique videos – they are a wealth of great information.

Try the above movements and see if they work for you with finding more freedom in your sound. Do you already move when you sing? What do you do when you sing to keep freedom in your sound and in your body? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment in the Reply box below – or better yet share this post with those you think would find it useful.

As always, thanks for reading, sharing, and singing!

Motivation

How much do you love to sing? Is it all shiny and new and you sing every day? Do you love choir practice, but find it hard to find the time to practice on your own? How motivated do you feel to practice the things you need to do, in the best possible way?

Yes, it can be terrifyingly uncomfortable learning to practice on your own. The quote ‘Sing like no one is listening’ can be pretty hard to do when you’re first starting to sing.

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Maybe you find some other important things to do instead of opening your score and practicing singing. I know I fall into this category. I have an ever-evolving to-do-list that provides endless distraction when I would be better served by practicing.

There are several keys to motivating yourself to practice regularly. Writer Stephen Pressfield wrote about ‘Resistance’ in a great book called The War of Art. Pick it up, borrow it, read it.

If you don’t have that book at hand, here are some tips I’ve learned over the years to help you find the motivation to practice!

Tip 1: Manage your time

Put your practice time in your day planner. That time is sacred time. Even if you just open your music and look at it – that is practice time. You don’t have to be singing the whole time!

Tip 2: Prioritize

This is related to Step 1 above. If you are just starting out on a singing adventure, set aside 20 minutes a day to start – make that time a priority. Done.

Tip 3: Minimize distraction

This is a tough one. Distractions come in many forms, from family members, email, phone(s) ringing, television, the internet! Turn off the computer, turn off your phone, and sit at your keyboard, piano, whatever, and focus for 20 minutes. Set a timer if you have to. I do.

Tip 4: Be inspired!

This falls into the realm outside of practice time, but might be something you do to prepare to practice. Find some videos or recordings of what you’re working on and observe and enjoy them. You can do this anytime and anywhere. I recommend you use headphones to minimize distractions!

Tip 5: Be flexible

Life happens. Sometimes your practice time will be eaten into by other activities. But don’t NOT practice because you didn’t get to it ‘at your time’. Some of the most productive practice I have had has been in the 15 minutes before I have to do something else. Review your music on the bus, hearing the sound of your line in your head. Review it while listening to the recording, without singing. If you record your lessons (which I highly recommend), listen back to them several times before your next lesson. I prefer to do this while walking places.

Tip 6: Have fun!

Remind yourself how much fun you have when you do sing. Go to that fun place and let that motivate you to look at your music with fresh ears, eyes, and enthusiasm.

Do you have any tips for motivation? I would love to hear from you! Hit Reply under the title in this blog and leave me a comment. As always, feel free to share your own experiences. Thanks for reading and see you next week!

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Discovery

You know that feeling when you finally ‘get’ what someone is talking about. Up until then, you think you understand what they mean, then Presto!, something clicks, something falls into place, and you realize that what you knew before was the tip of the iceberg, and now you know there is more under the surface….

That’s discovery. How exciting is that?!!

As a student, it’s thrilling, and as a teacher, doubly so, as it means you, as a student, are taking risks and discovering new ways to explore singing and sound.

There are external and internal discoveries. External discoveries are those outside of your body – perhaps you found a new restaurant, found a hidden drawer in your antique desk, maybe it was forgotten treasure at the back of your closet?

I am talking today about internal discoveries. Those real moments when your brain makes a connection with a physical act of exploration.

Internal discoveries don’t just happen in singing, as you probably know. Discoveries happen in yoga class, in the classroom, in the workplace, etc.. Sometimes they are new methods of doing things, sometimes it’s a whole new process that works better for you overall, and sometimes it’s a simple as adjusting your big toe slightly!

Re-discovery can be tricky, though…especially when you’re learning singing, or even another instrument!

Have you ever discovered something then went back later to try and find ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ may be, and it’s been harder to find? Sort of like chasing a dragon?

Don’t despair! Sometimes the harder you chase, the more elusive it is. Here is a process to try, the next time you are returning to a discovery.

  1. Think back to the date, time of day, and location of that discovery.
  2. Remember in great detail all aspects of that time, including what you were wearing, who said what, how you were feeling.
  3. If it helps, close your eyes and envision that moment in your head
  4. Now try to replicate what you ‘discovered’ in the present time.

You’ll probably find that muscle memory will kick-in. You may also find that the re-discovery isn’t as strong a ‘feeling’ as the discovery. In my experience, this is completely normal. It’s just a sign that you are incorporating this ‘discovery’ into your being.

If the steps above don’t seem to work, don’t despair – just keep exploring those sensations. You will find it again!

Once you have found it multiple times, you own it! It will now be a process of refining and integrating what you have discovered into your daily practice.

What kind of discoveries have you made – external or internal? Are they special and memorable?  Hit the Reply link above and share your discoveries!