Singing from home

Back in the game

I’m back out on the road and inspired by daily exercise – today, a bike ride. Reaching forward onto the handlebars opens up the back and makes me very aware of the additional expansion that we can access if we exercise these muscles.

Some singers use the terminology “breathe into the back” and it’s often-forgotten space since we focus so much on the front of the body – around the ribs and the tummy.

To gain a sense of how much space is available to you in the back of the body, lean forward, arms outstretched and pushing your hands against a piano or a wall at home. Keep a nice, flat back and push your bottom out. Legs straight. Then sing as you continue to push into the piano or wall.

I often try this if I have a long phrase to sing and I’m struggling to reach the end. Suddenly, it feels like I have more breath to play with.

In fact, in the recent recording I made of Delilah’s famous aria, Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix, there are a few long phrases so I shall go back to the wall myself this afternoon and see if it helps!

Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

Operacise

I think I’ve just found a new name for the blog! I’ll change it when lockdown is lifted.

Today’s a bit of a sweaty one – or should I say glowing? I decided to take the blog out on the road with me for a morning run. As you know by now, I love sport and it always sets me up so well for singing.

It’s tricky because I love a routine and am committed to short sessions aimed at improving all sorts of singing-related skills – from languages to character work, and to include exercise – but I hate doing things in exactly the same order, day in, day out. I like to mix it up so there’s variety in my day and I can truly say, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring! However, working out before I sing is so great for getting the lungs working, limbering up and engaging different muscle groups that it makes sense to do it early in the day and practise later. So, that’s generally what happens.

Anyway, I was thinking about the stereotypical image of an opera singer. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the origins of the phrase “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings”, conjuring up an image of a sturdy Brünhilde in all her garb. There are also famous singers who would arguably be classed as overweight on the height/weight NHS charts.

There are benefits to a greater body mass. I’m convinced it increases the quantity and quality of resonating surfaces and spaces, off and around which sound can bounce. The result in many cases is a more luxuriant tonal quality. By the same token, it must increase natural amplification.

A large frame isn’t always unhealthy – I have a broad back for example – and there’s a need to balance the benefits of increased resonance with those of being fit enough to make it through an entire opera! Some can be up to four hours long and even the shorter ones can include vocal acrobatics that get the heart racing, not to mention the demands of a director who favours a lot of movement or even choreography.

My favourite recent example is Kate Lindsey who sang Nero in Handel’s Agrippina at the Met. As an ambitious, irrepressible adolescent boy, she sang most of the role while performing athletics – from pressing up a flight of stairs to eight bars on a side plank. She’s my hero right now.

Maybe I just love sport and convince myself that it links to improved singing ability to justify my lifestyle. Well, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Give it a try yourself and let me know what you think. Try singing a short song before you exercise and return to the same piece afterwards. See if you feel any different – if the sound, breath or emotion comes more easily.

Stay healthy, stay cheered and lots of love xx

This week’s aria: Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix

It’s been weeks since my last public engagement so I’ve manufactured my own! It’s time for the first of your lockdown Friday arias.

I was planning on singing something from Greek antiquity and even wore my Cretan earrings in readiness but the sun came out and I decided to go for something naughtier. So, here’s “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson & Delilah by Saint-Saëns.

I also had the best intentions of singing in a Facebook live but thought better of it so, to be completely honest, this is one of four takes. I’m always amazed at how much I learn from filming my performances. It’s such a hideous thing to watch back but is the single most helpful piece of feedback you can get.

With enormous thanks to the brilliant Toby Nelms who played and recorded such beautiful accompaniment for this. Thank you!

Have a great weekend. Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

(P.S. I promise to give you Greek myth next week…)

When I get hold of a new piece of repertoire, a new operatic aria, I start learning it by breaking it down into its constituent parts. I work on each element – context, language/translation, rhythm, pitch, dynamics, the composer’s intentions – in isolation. In today’s vlog, I explain how I go about locking down the rhythm.

All the best work begins with a pencil and I’m rarely found without one behind my ear. I use it to mark in every beat of the piece. The wonderful Jeremy Silver, who coached me while at the Associated Studios, taught me to draw in marks around the beat rather than where the beat falls. For instance, in a 4/4 bar (containing four beats), rather than four lines, you’ll end up with four spaces. It makes it much easier to see what’s going on within each beat.

Once I’ve marked every beat, I start drumming out the rhythm on my thighs. You can use pencils, click your fingers, clap or tap your feet but I find my ‘leg drums’ most effective. For me, it’s the best way to ingrain the rhythm into the body. It’s muscle memory and it becomes part of you meaning you’re more likely to remember it, even if the piece drops out of your repertoire and you don’t revisit it until years later.

I use the left arm and leg to beat the underlying rhythm, the bass line, and the right arm and leg to beat the melody, the vocal line.

Have some fun messing about on your own leg drums this evening. Try beating a steady rhythm on your left leg and play around with faster or irregular ones on the right.

Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

 

From the heart

It’s been a tricky day in Lovelassland and it doesn’t feel right to bleat on at length about the whys and wherefores of opera today. But it is an opportunity to think about what’s important.

Just over two weeks ago, we started this journey together and we’ve taken a bitesize look at various aspects of singing – from breathing and posture to dynamics and pronunciation. Of course, we’re always aiming to improve and quite rightly so, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that really matters is singing from the heart.

For our art to stir the soul, our audiences need to hear something that touches them – captures a feeling or a memory – and to convey that emotion in the voice, sometimes it just has to be raw.

When I think of the moments in music that choke me or give me goosebumps, it’s because there’s an unbridled intensity. In many cases, it’s not the most refined sound.

I’m planning to sing in this Friday’s Facebook live and I can guarantee you it won’t be a perfect performance. I have yet to, and doubt I ever shall achieve that. But what I can commit to, is to giving my heart and my greatest hope is that you’ll open yours to accept it.

For now, with all my love and hopes that you stay cheered and healthy xx

Wait for the drop

A week ago, we started on our breathing journey. We looked at a basic ‘out-breath’. We began with an explosive breath out while in a yoga cat, pulling our belly buttons through to our spines before translating this to a standing position. Today, we can finally breathe in!

I guess the natural order would be to breathe in first, then breathe out, but I specifically chose to address the topics this way around since I believe in placing more emphasis on breathing out than in.

Having spent years grappling with whether I’ve taken a big enough breath, I’m convinced that we only need to concentrate on controlling the out-breath. If we do that, the body has an in-built sense of how much air it needs and it should simply drop into the lungs.

An Alexander technique teacher once gave me some very helpful imagery. She said that it’s like a plastic bag – open it and what happens? Air simply drops into the available space. You don’t need to do anything to help or to force it. So, as long as your airways and your vocal tract is clear and open, and as long as your abdomen and tummy muscles are relaxed, you should be able to picture your lungs like our plastic bag.

That’s all there is to it!

Well, there’s more I’d like to add and shall do in future blogs but in the interests of trying to keep my vlogs ‘bitesize’, get used to letting the air drop in and we’ll revisit the in-breath at a later stage.

Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

Taking it down a notch

At the weekend, I was marking an aria, trying to keep it down while Mr Lovelass (Nobby) was checking some emails. Afterwards, he said: “That was nice. I like it when you sing like that.” Well, tiptoeing over a melody under my breath isn’t going to get me heard in an opera house but it was another opportunity to check myself, since I am guilty of indulging in my voice. I suppose, just because you have the capacity, doesn’t mean you should, and this is one lesson I’m still trying to learn.

Today’s tip comes courtesy of a great teacher that I’ve worked with over the years, Lynton Atkinson, who says: “You should never use all of the available voice. In fact, most of the time, you should only use about 60%.” This used to seem crazy to me. Why wouldn’t I impress my audience with everything I’ve got? Having since become fanatical about low heart rate training for endurance triathlons, it’s finally starting to make sense.

The principle of low heart rate training is that, to improve over long distances, you should maintain an 80/20 split – that is, 80% of your training should be in low heart rate zones, at an aerobic intensity level and only 20% should be in high heart rate zones, at anaerobic intensity. You rarely can or should complete a race close to your maximum heart rate. Of course, you incorporate bursts into your training plan to make sure you’re still exercising your heart at its extremity from time to time but, to sustain a core level of fitness and to avoid injury or burnout, you need moderation.

Apply that to singing and there are similarities. As a professional singer, practising and performing day in, day out, you need to maintain good vocal health. How can you keep that in check if you’re constantly singing at your outer limits?

There’s also another specific benefit to the 60% rule – it gives you somewhere to go, room to manoeuvre. Singing with moderation and consistency, there’s still the option to push up to 70%, 80% or 90% when the occasion calls for it – when the piece requires you to convey an intense emotion, when the character needs to express something for impact or when the composer specifically asks for ‘forte’ or ‘fortissimo’.

Basic dynamics in music dictate ‘piano’, ‘mezzo piano’, ‘mezzo forte’ or ‘forte’. But these can’t simply be defined in terms of sheer volume. If voices are different sizes, then you can’t simply measure dynamics in decibels because smaller voices may never be capable of achieving ‘forte’ and larger voices could never strip back to ‘piano’. That would be nonsensical. So, as my very first opera teacher, Patricia Taylor, put it: “It’s more of a feeling.” Within the unique frame of reference of individual voices, we need to be able to access a variety of dynamic qualities.

In today’s blog I attempt to define these feelings using the lockdown scenarios that have become commonplace in Lovelassland! It’s not hugely helpful but it was a bit of happy Monday fun and I hope to expand on dynamics in a more useful way in the future.

In the meantime, stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

 

Feeling thoughtful

Today’s the second Friday since starting the #sfh blog. Last week I wrapped up with a Facebook live so wanted to do the same but was really struggling to think of a topic. Every other day, a subject has come naturally but today it felt forced and manufactured.

When I was studying at the Associated Studios, my acting coach was Orlando Seale. He taught me the importance of checking in with yourself. Being honest about how you’re feeling. Not to dwell on it, analyse or indulge in it, but just to recognise how you are right now in this moment. Today, I’m feeling thoughtful. Nothing active or physical is coming to mind so I’m just sharing my thoughts on the last week.

The lockdown, aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, presents an unusual opportunity. Ironically, being confined physically is making me feel more liberated artistically. It feels like suddenly, the constraints of the industry, the expectations of my peers and the norms within genres have been removed. The restrictions around what’s acceptable for me to sing and how to sing it within the operatic arena have lifted. I have time to explore my own capacity to entertain and my own unique brand. I’m exploring my ability to perform via social media and I’m learning more about digital platforms and technology as I go. There’s a truly blank canvas on which to create. The new, global pace of life means that I can prepare for my future as the singer that I want to be, more organically and in comfort. I hope that I and many others will emerge from this with greater self-awareness, courage, confidence, curiosity, compassion, tolerance and joy.

Communications with friends and family are also invested with greater weight, gratitude  and delight. It’s been wonderful to get feedback on the blog from close friends and to hear from people that I haven’t spoken to in a long while. Lots of you are saying that you’re “no singer” but that you’re enjoying the vlogs. I’m thrilled to hear you’ve spent some time, which is so precious, to join me and I do believe everyone can sing – you won’t convince me otherwise. I mean, quite literally, you can! It’s just about identifying the genre, environment and level that’s right for you.

Finally, thank you. Thank you for giving me a sense of purpose. I’m enjoying the blog so much that I’m struggling to find enough hours in the day!

Enjoy the weekend – I’m planning a whole glass of G&T with Nobby (Mr Lovelass) tonight since it’s Friday. Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

Ping-a-ling

I’m honoured that people are reading/watching the #sfh blog/vlog and grateful for all the feedback and questions. Today, I’m attempting to shed some light on how opera singers sing so loud. It’s not just a question of sheer volume – opera singers are not miked or amplified so it’s about producing the right tone and quality to be heard in big venues and over large orchestras.

I wanted to address (in a Miranda’s mother-style) “the, what I call, ping and hoot”. But first, we need to understand a bit about resonance. I love talking about resonating surfaces and spaces because I have big ones (I’m a tall girl)!

If you imagine the body like a cello, it’s basically made up of sound boards and space for the sound to bounce around. So, we make a sound when our vocal chords vibrate together. That’s called phonation. That initial, core tone or sound then bounces around the spaces in the body and off the sound boards, or resonating surfaces.

Now we know more about resonance, we can find our ping. Ping – or “squillo” in Italian – is a tonal quality that we can achieve by bouncing the sound in the nasal cavity. The nasal cavity is located behind the nose and eyes. Think of the space behind the bridge of your nose. To access this particular resonance, try talking in a high-pitched American accent or laughing like a witch. You’re not necessarily trying to make a nice sound, just to create a really focussed, clear one. This is the tone that will carry, like a laser beam, across a distance and over an orchestra.

Next, the hoot. The hoot is how I describe the result of bouncing your sound off all your other resonating surfaces, especially those lower in the body – the mouth, then down into the chest and back. It should feel like you’re making a broader noise. It’s less focussed and you might feel different parts of your body tingling or vibrating when making the sound. It should feel quite soothing and most importantly, it will feel different for everybody since our differing physiological make-ups will determine which spaces and surfaces are most accessible.

To sing opera – to be heard from the back and over an entire orchestra but with feeling and character – we have to combine the ping and the hoot. We have to balance these qualities.

Explore the limits of what you can use within your body to help you create sound. That is what makes us all different and gives us distinct vocal qualities. By having a greater awareness of our bodies and the available resonating spaces and surfaces, we can choose which to use and when to add the right emotion or colour to a performance.

Thank you so much for watching. With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and around what the future brings for me as a singer, checking in every day on specific aspects of he art form gives me a sense of purpose and teaches me more about myself and my craft. This opportunity (or operatunity!) is a gift. Thank you.

Stay cheered, stay healthy and lots of love xx

My type on paper

You’re all being very studious and trying out the tips I’m giving you so I thought it was time we took a closer look at your own voices. Today, I’m back at the piano with an explanation of the six main voice types in opera, as well as approximate vocal ranges (i.e. lowest and highest notes for each type).

The lowest of the male voice types is bass. Ranging from approximately the second E below middle C to the E above. Man, these guys are deep. Then, come the baritones. Most men will fall into this category and these voices typically range from the second G below middle C to the F above. The third male voice type is tenor, ranging from the second A below middle C to the A above. Tenors are in high demand! The least common of the male voice types, we often joke that these high-voiced men will never be short of work as opera companies struggle to cast enough love interests and heroes opposite a plethora of leading ladies.

The lowest female voice type is contralto and these singers can typically go from the F below middle C to the second E above. This is the rarest type of female voice, especially in opera where singers need to have enough power, volume and clarity in these low registers to be heard over large orchestras. In the middle of the three female voice types is the aptly titled mezzo-soprano (literally ‘half’ soprano). This is my voice type and therefore, the best. Fact. We mezzos generally sing between the A below middle C and the second A above. And finally we reach the dizzying heights of the sopranos. They’ll happily drop to a middle C and soar two octaves above …and beyond.

That leads me on to mention some extremities and exceptions. There are some stratospheric sopranos that can sing much higher than the top C mentioned above and there are basses that can sing much lower than the typical low E – in fact, oktavists are low, typically Russian, male singers that rumble a whole octave below the standard bass range. Countertenors are also a more unusual exception – they sing higher than standard tenors and overlap into the female vocal ranges.

There are many variations and anomalies – some of you will find you have a bigger range than any listed above – and don’t even get me started on the vocal quality (richness, timbre, agility etc.)! That’s for another day. The important thing to note is that your voice type will be where you are most comfortable singing. I’m a case in point. I have some high notes – higher than the prescribed mezzo limits – but my voice sounds best and sits comfortably in the mezzo range.

Have a go at pitching some of the notes as I play through the voice types and hopefully, if you don’t already know, you’ll get an idea of where you sit most comfortably.

Stay cheered and healthy. Lots of love xx