We had a great vocal workshop on Sunday, led by our Music Director Masako Johnson. Vocal workshops are fantastic opportunities to step away from the pressures of rehearsal and take the time to focus on creating a beautiful sound. And for an amateur choir like us, it’s a treasure-trove of valuable vocal techniques and information.
We started with simple movement exercises and games that focussed on one of the most important aspects of musicianship: listening. When you have almost a hundred people singing at least five different parts, it’s absolutely vital to at least have an idea what the other sections are doing. (And that’s what choirs are about anyway: working together as a musical team, bringing complementary elements together to make something special. The fact that choristers’ hearts beat in time to one another’s and that choirs improve empathy and create stronger interpersonal connections are testimony to the power of choral singing!)
Turns out walking and listening at the same time can be quite challenging!
The main part of the workshop was Masako’s Three Ideas for Singing — three vital and useful tips that are essential to any singer. So let’s have a look at them.
Idea #1: Lots of Air
There’s an old Italian saying that’s attributed to Gaspare Pacchierotti: “He who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing.”
“Of course I know how to breathe,” you’re thinking. “It’s kept me alive all these years, hasn’t it?” The thing is, breathing to stay alive is one thing, breathing to speak is another thing, and breathing to sing requires even more air and finer technique than the first two activities. You’ll need lots of air — heaps of it — to sing well.
Breathing comes so naturally to all of us that we don’t stop to think about whether we’re breathing well. This simple exercise will make you more aware of your breathing and help you get better at it.
Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You should feel the expansion around your waist when inhaling — more experienced singers will feel the expansion around their abdomen, and after several years of training you’ll be able to expand your back. Shoulders, however, should stay completely still when you breathe in and out — so it’s worth practising in front of a mirror a few times.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, start to vary your breathing. Inhale very quickly, then exhale slowly. Then try it the other way round — inhale slowly and exhale quickly. When you inhale and exhale quickly, make it a sharp, fast movement that shouldn’t take more than a second.
The next step is to practise inhaling and exhaling very quickly. Once you get the hang of this, you can try it anywhere — at home, at the office, or in your car!
Idea #2: Lots of support
Air is great, but it’s important to give the air lots of support. This is where the muscles around your abdomen and back come in handy. Practice singing a simple scale or arpeggio with lots of support as you ascend and descend. In situations like these, visualisation helps (in fact you’ll find that singers use the strangest visualisations to help them sing better!) Higher voices can imagine a rubber band stretching both ways; lower voices can image the outline of a wide mountain sloping downwards. Notice that supported voices are well-controlled and they have somewhere specific to go.
Idea #3: Lots of space
You have the air and your have the support. Now, where’s the sound come from? You’ll need to create lots of space at the back of your mouth. The difference between a vocal teacher and a dentist is that, while both tell you to open your mouth, the dentist wants you to part your jaws but the vocal teacher means for you to open the back of your mouth.
It’s a difficult movement to imagine, so take a moment to feel around the back of your mouth with your tongue. Notice that the top of your mouth (the ‘roof’) is hard, but as you move your tongue back, you feel a soft area. That’s your soft palette, and that’s what needs to be raised and open to create a wide space at the back of your mouth. You can also locate your soft palette by ‘sucking’ in air and feeling it hit the back of your throat. Some people like to visualise a golf ball stuck at the back of their mouths; others like to imagine an ‘inner smile’ at the back of the mouth. Whichever visualisation you choose, the aim is to create lots of space at the back of your mouth.
As you’re singing, you’ll find that certain vowels like “ah” will be easier to sing with a raised soft palette, but vowels like “ee” and “ay” are more challenging. Be especially diligent in practising these tricky vowels with a raised soft palette.
There you have it, three simple ideas to sing better.
“Well that’s great,” you’re thinking, “but how do I even start remembering all of this?”
It’s simple: start with just one thing. At any practice session, focus on just one of these three techniques. Work on it until it becomes natural and automatic, then move on to the next one.
And of course, the more familiar you are with your music, the more attention you can give your voice — so use all the resources you can get your hands on to learn your parts.
Many thanks to Masako Johnson for these great tips and for leading our vocal workshop.