Sunday, November 04, 2012

The secret to great singing that teachers don’t tell you

There is one vital ingredient to being a good singer.

mirror image
Photo by Peter Smile

It’s not innate talent or vocal range or ability to read music or quality of voice. And it’s something that most singing teachers won’t tell you about.

how did I do that?

I went on an introduction to Estill Voice Training recently. Jo Estill was a successful professional singer for many years. She was pretty much a natural. When she decided to move into teaching she realised that before she could help others she first had to answer a big question for herself: “How do I manage to sing so easily and well?”

Moshé Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist with a black belt in judo. One day he slipped and aggravated an old knee injury. Instead of opting for surgery he decided to explore in detail how his body worked so that he might rehabilitate himself. This eventually led to the Feldenkrais method: awareness through movement.

Laurence Olivier came off stage after a particularly brilliant performance and everybody back stage congratulated him saying how amazing he had been. “I know,” he said, “But I don’t know how I did it, so how can I do it again?”

singing teachers don’t have all the answers

Many people think that just by turning up to a workshop or training course or series of singing lessons, they will become better singers. Somehow the teachers impart wisdom and – as if by magic – the singing will improve.

But you know that’s not true don’t you? You know that you have to work at it. However, even that is not enough. Hard work alone will not bring results.

the secret ingredient to becoming a better singer

No matter how many singing lessons you have, no matter how many books your read or DVDs you watch, unless you you develop a personal and practical understanding of what you’re being told, you will never improve.
  • If your singing teacher is always telling you to lower your larynx, but you don’t know how to move your larynx up and down (or maybe don’t even know where your larynx is!) you’re not going to improve.
  • If your choir leader points out that your head is always tilted back and your chin juts out, but that’s the way you always stand and you don’t feel any different when they ask you to pull your chin in, you’re not going to get anywhere.
  • If the DVD you bought demonstrates the relaxed upright posture you need to sing well, but your friends tell you that your bum always sticks out and your knees are locked (but you don’t realise), then you’ll never learn to sing really well.
The secret ingredient that’s missing is self-awareness.

You need to be aware of how your own body and voice work before you can improve. Not just an intellectual understanding of how the vocal cords function or how your skeleton articulates, but a real, physical sense of what’s happening in your own body moment to moment.

how can I become more self-aware?

I’m often in the supermarket and people stop their trolley in the middle of the aisle so I can’t get past, or they take their time at the checkout not seeing that there is a long queue behind them, or they stand right in front of the baked beans not realising that I want to reach by them to pick up a tin.

They are simply not aware of what’s going on around them.

The reason is that they are focusing on something else. The secret to developing self-awareness is to learn to focus on the right thing at the right time.
  • If you’re concentrating on not locking your knees, you might find that your head is tilted back too far.
  • If you’re focusing on raising your soft palate you might find that your knees have become locked.
  • If you’re trying very hard to keep your head level, you might find that your shoulders become tense.
Learning to become more self-aware means not focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, you might need to concentrate on not locking your knees, but then also check in with the rest of your body to make sure that’s working as it should.

it’s a bit like learning to drive

When you first learn to drive it feels like there are just too many things going on at once: clutch, gear stick, mirrors, steering, accelerator, road awareness, etc. But slowly, over time, the whole thing becomes more manageable. Some things become second nature and your overall awareness of what you’re doing improves.

It’s the same with singing.

You will gradually learn to have an overall awareness of your physical mechanism: posture, breath, tensions, larynx, mouth cavity, lips, etc. You will be able to check in quickly with yourself to check that everything is functioning as it should be. You’ll be able to focus on a single element without losing sense of everything else (unlike our single-minded supermarket shopper!).

be playful

The work happens not just in singing lessons or at choir – you have to put some time in yourself. But it doesn’t have to be a chore.

The best way to find out about yourself, how your body and voice work, and to develop more self-awareness is to be playful. In the shower, in the car, on a countryside walk, in your den with the stereo cranked up. Dance in strange ways, put on silly cartoon voices, sing like someone else – an opera star, Tom Waits, the Muppets, a cowboy yodeller.

As you’re playing, notice what’s happening:
  • How can you make it easier?
  • Where does tension tend to creep in?
  • What happens if you play with the shape of your mouth?
  • Is your voice freer when you’re dancing or when you’re standing still?
  • Exactly where does it hurt when you strain for the high notes?
  • Can you do things more easily when you’re being a cowboy? If so, why is that?
Above all, keep it light and keep it fun. You will be amazed at what you begin to discover.

be patient – it takes time

Developing self-awareness doesn’t happen overnight.

I used to do a lot of contemporary dance. We were always being told to pull up and put our weight over our toes. I did this for years thinking that I was a proper dancer and had a great upright dancer’s posture. Then I caught sight of myself in a mirror at a workshop and realised that I was leaning forward at an angle and had my knees tightly locked!

Gradually I worked on how to stand in an easy relaxed way with unlocked knees, tailbone tucked under, body pulled up gently – a very natural way to stand.

In the early days I would find myself standing at a bus stop and realise that I had reverted to my old way of standing. I would notice this and gently make adjustments until I was standing free and easy.
Very slowly these occasions became less and less and it became a habit for me to stand in a better way. But I needed the self-awareness to realise when I was going back to bad habits.

So allow time to develop self-awareness.

You also need to set time aside at first. Later, it will become second nature, but at first you’ll need to really work at it. This is one of the greatest values of one-to-one singing lessons (in my opinion): someone is giving you their undivided attention for an hour and the focus is on you. You can learn a huge amount about you and how your body and voice work in this situation, so make the most of it.

In the end, you know yourself better than anyone else. Your body and voice and the way they work together are unique to you. Enjoy your voyage of discovery as you get to know yourself better!

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