Tag Archives: opera

Words

Learning notes has always been easy for me. I have the proverbial ‘ear for music’. I can follow and pick up a melody, even predict a harmony to a certain extent, with little to no trouble. Uniting music and words together in memorization is what challenges me!

A singer's best tools: score, pencil, cue cards, and memory.

A singer’s best tools: score, pencil, cue cards.

Separating text from music gives us a deeper insight into the structure of a piece or song. In most cases, the words existed first in the form of poetry or a libretto (the words of an opera). In an oratorio, the story is usually taken from a religious (Christian) context.

When you have experienced German art song (Lieder) spoken as poetry, the true beauty of the language shines through. Poets like Heinrich Heine, Eduard Mörike and Wolfgang Goethe were masters of the written word and inspired multiple composers’ Lieder. I have participated in several programs in Austria where poetry written in German was studied, translated, recited, sung, and performed. It gave me a wonderful insight into the beauty of the words and the environment in which they were written.

The next time you are listening to a favorite song –  no matter what the genre, find the words and read them out loud to yourself. See if it changes your experience of the song.

What was the writer trying to say? Does it change when removed from the music?

If you feel inclined to compose, try to set the words to a new melody.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Did you experience words and music any differently after reading this?

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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?

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!

Singing? I can’t sing!

I am a singer. What does that mean exactly? I love singing and could sing a tune back before I could speak coherent words. I didn’t start formal singing training until my early 20’s, which is quite late if you’d like to have a career as a performer (as I did and still do).

Singing lessons are an exercise in patience, perseverance, but also letting go and having fun. When I tell people that I’m a singer, the most common thing I hear is “Oh, I can’t hold a tune” or “I can’t sing at ALL”. Now that I teach singing, I find that is not true. I have had students who couldn’t match a single pitch when they started, but several weeks later are singing a 5-note pattern accurately. A very small percentage of the population is clinically ‘tone deaf’  http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/tone-deaf-test

I want to tell you something profound right now:

Practically anyone can learn how to sing. YOU can learn how to sing (and enjoy it), and not just in the shower!

If you are sitting on the fence about taking lessons, or you were told as a child ‘please don’t sing with the choir”, “Stick to (insert instrument here)” or some variation of that, then ignore that little voice inside and go and take some lessons.

Singing for fun is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things you can do for your self. Even if you already play an instrument and would like to learn how to sing along with yourself, just go and do it.

Here is your challenge: Find a teacher and register for at least one trial lesson. I will be writing a future blog post about how to find the right teacher, but just take one lesson and see if you enjoy it. If you like that one lesson, register for at least 6 more. Expect to be asked to practice a little bit each day. As with anything in life, 15 minutes a day when you’re first starting out is progress. (I gave myself 15 minutes to write the first draft of this blog post).

Remember: Sing, breathe, and have fun!