Category Archives: General musicianship

Why everyone has the capacity to sing-Idler Singing course week 1

This is a re-post of the first session I’ll be doing at the Idler Academy later today. Stay tuned for video recap on daily warm ups!

A quick word about talent and ability, or why it’s important to slay the inner Simon Cowell. The only capacity that it helps to have if you want to learn to sing, or improve your singing, is the ability to tell the difference between two notes of different pitches; i.e. to be able to hear which note is higher and which is lower. The vast majority of people can do this. True tone deafness -when, after a period of repeated ear-training, you can’t hear which note of two different notes is higher or lower-is very rare. As long as you are able to distinguish this, everything else can be learned and developed. The vocal cords are muscles and respond to training just as other muscles do. The volume, resonance and tonal quality of the sound you produce is a function of how you use your voice. If you start using it differently, the sound that you produce will change. All of which is to explicitly underline the fact that talent is not a useful concept when considering your potential as a singer. Anyone in the public eye that you may admire has spent years training their voice or developing their performance style.

In the same way that you don’t stop to consciously consider where to place your hands to catch (or in my case, miss) a ball that is thrown to you,  you don’t deliberately ‘tell’ your diaphragm to send a certain volume of air up and your vocal chords to shorten or lengthen in a certain way. Your brain learns to co-ordinate it through practice. Another comparison would be driving a car. To start with, we do execute the desired sequence of movements very consciously. Then we repeat them enough times until hopefully by the time the licence is granted, the sequence of actions to start, go, turn etc runs automatically. I may seem to be labouring this point, but the reason for this is that lots of people really under-estimate how much they can enjoy singing from a feeling of inhibition that they aren’t very good, or very musical, or ‘talented’, which is a great shame! Music in general and singing in particular has all kinds of proven physical and emotional health benefits, which I may go into in more detail another time. Life is better with music, and we don’t need to kow-tow to self-appointed ‘experts’ to tell us what our entertainment should be and by whom it should be mediated.

Week 1:  Importance of warming up; bringing the sound forward;  resonating spaces.

Every time you prepare to sing, check your body for tension. It can be a good idea to do some stretches to release tension. When standing up to warm up, make sure your weight is comfortably balanced between ball and heel of foot and that your knees are relaxed.

Once you’re relaxed, do a couple of breathing exercises to shift from chest-breathing to abdominal breathing.

In the exercises we’re about to do, focus on developing an awareness of where the sound is travelling from and to. We’re aiming to get an awareness of placing the sound in the front of the face, and becoming familiar with how that feels. The voice is moving from a different position to the position it is in when we speak.

Warm up exercises.

  1. Mmm Nnnn Ng/Buzzing  (2 mins)

-Encourages the sound on to the front resonators; builds the habit of bringing the sound out of the throat. Go up 5 notes from your starting point and down again. If you have never explored this part of your voice before, spend a few minutes doing some scales on one of these sounds. Spend enough time so that your awareness and the sound has migrated comfortably forwards. (eg 5 semitones – start Bb)

  1. Ma/mi/mo – waking up the diaphragm. Ideally you’re working towards completing a cycle of all three in a breath – up five notes and down, then moving up a semitone. (8 semitones-start Bb)
  2. Arpeggios-up 1,3,5 and down the scale. Keep the sound forward. Bb to Ab, 11 semitones.
  3. Diaphragm (rrr7r222, etc). On ‘ah’  (Bb and D)
  4. Vocal chords reaction-smooth out previous exercise ©
  5. 1-2-1

These are the kinds of exercises to do at home if your voice is coming out of a period of little use.

Diction – this is a great aspect to focus on right at the beginning as you will develop good habits. Good diction immediately lends an ensemble performance more conviction.


O what a geek am I

Johnny has a head like a ping pong ball / Merry Men



How to motivate yourself to practice-my three best tips

Well, this is something every musician at every level needs to consider. When you are at school, you have a full timetable and often some after school activities plus homework. When you leave school, you may be a student with increased responsibilities/money-earning activities and a degree. When you leave uni, if you’re working full time or looking after a family, pressures on your time only increase.

The single most important tip I’d give is to set an intention for your practice. What is it you want to be able to do? is it a certain piece you want to be able to play or sing; a technique you want to master, or some vocabulary in a certain style you want to acquire? It could be  - to solo over three latin jazz standards, or to start singing a couple of songs out of your vocal comfort zone, or to finish writing one new song every month. Just ‘practicing’ in a vague sense will soon be too woolly to get you into action when there are always millions of things competing for your attention. This Sunday, I might go play some swing tunes at a vintage fair. I have been meaning to learn a few more for some time, but without a specific performance situation, I hadn’t been sufficiently clear with my intention. Often that’s the way – and whatever your level, you can find a suitable deadline. Perhaps an end of term concert or ensemble performance, perhaps a family gathering or maybe just your own timeline.

My second tip is-be consistent and realistic in practice time. Easier said than done, but easier to get those minutes in if you know you’re going to have to play in front of people. It only takes a couple of excruciating performances to teach you that it’s waaaaay more enjoyable playing confidently. The easiest way of being consistent is to make your practice manageable. Maybe you can only manage 15 mins a day. But if you are consistent, you can make great progress on almost anything. 15 mins of sight-reading a day for 2 months will radically improve your reading, if that’s what you’re interesting in. 15 mins of technique even five days a week will really improve your agility. Don’t set unrealistic and unmanageable goals. If you’re working full time, doing 2 hours a day is not possible. If you set that as an intention, you’ll just feel like a plank and a let down when you can’t stick to it. If you exceed what you promised yourself, you’ll feel really productive.

My third tip is to examine your mindset.  An awful lot of procrastination is based on hidden beliefs that get in the way of taking action, eg ‘well, I probably won’t ever be that great, so there’s not much point in practicing’ ‘practicing only helps if you have talent anyway – and I’m not sure I do’ ‘people like me aren’t rockstars’ etc.

If you have a hidden belief that you’re probably not that talented, or unlikely to amount to much musically, then every time you sit down to practice, you’ll have to find the energy to overcome that, which is an inefficient use of your energy. Far better to investigate any limiting beliefs you may have and work through them. Talent is really unhelpful idea. Most people have huge potential for development in whatever direction they choose to direct their attention-so don’t ever waste a second wondering if you’re ‘talented’. Talent is time plus attention plus knowledge.

Topics like mindset, understanding your potential and even identifying, let along overcoming, your limiting beliefs, are pretty big ones which I’ll tackle in subsequent blogs, but hopefully this gives you some different ways of thinking about structuring your practice.

Bonus tip-Routine

If you fit in your 15 mins or whatever amount you’ve decided is manageable at the same time each day, like brushing your teeth it just becomes something you do, and you don’t have to even think about whether you feel like it, or whether you’re going to do it. It’s your routine.

Keep playing!


Recap of Idler vocal workshop 24th September

This is a short follow up of the session we did on 24th, with two videos – one is  recap of the discussion about vocal tone and a run through the warm up exercises on the sheet with a bit of explanation, and the second video is just the exercises with no interim chat, so that once you’re used to them you can run them in sequence.

In a previous blog post and vid (it’s in the sidebar) I’ve talked a bit about how singing in tune and developing a consistent tone are very trainable capacities. Wherever you are with your singing at the moment, there is absolutely no doubt that if you’re interested and you can spend a bit of time on it, you can extend your technique. If that is something you want to do, regularity is key-if you can do the ten minute warm ups 4-5 days out of a week, that’ll do more for your singing than doing 30 mins on one day. With repetition, your body learns to co-ordinate how much air is required for different pitches, or how to supply enough air for a tricky phrase, or how to listen to a melody and sing a harmony over the top.

There’s also an mp3 of the three part gospel tune we did, Bright Morning Stars. If you would like the individual parts I can put them up too.

So whenever you prepare to sing, there are a few things to remember:

- posture-being relaxed and comfortable. Do a few shoulder rolls and relax your head, neck, shoulders and find a comfortable position between balls and heels of feet. To start with, it is good to stand to do the warm ups as you have more room for breath and it’s easier to tune your mind into where in your body the air is coming from/travelling to.

- breath-taking a few deep breaths helps to relax and activate the diaphragm. It’s very common during a busy day to be breathing from the chest for at least some of the time. Doing some lip rolls is a good way to start moving bigger volumes of air.

Recap and explanation – 15 mins

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Ten Minute vocal work out

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Bright Morning Stars

Bright Morning star all

If you are interested in another particular area of singing (eg harmonies) you are welcome to express that and I can do another little vid.

Handout here Idler wshop 24 sept handout – participants

Audio for Red Red Rose in preceding blog post.


Idler vocal workshop 24 September 2013 - My Love is like a Red, Red Rose - R Burns, arr, Diana de Cabarrus

This is a well known Burns song, with an interesting background-he apparently noted the lyrics down as he heard them sung by a young girl, rather than composing them himself. Burns was an avid collector of songs as well as writing them.

Here are the individual vocal parts you can refer to. They’re in midi, which isn’t an aurally expressive format, but you will at least get the notes. The full arrangement is at the bottom. It will sound much better sung by humans!

Soprano RRR

Alto RRR

Tenor RRR

Bass RRR

My_Love’s_like_a_Red_Red_Rose (all vocals)


O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Everybody can enjoy singing and everyone can improve their voice!

Singing is great fun. There are societies in which the notion that somebody couldn’t sing just wouldn’t make sense-it would be like someone with two well functioning legs saying they couldn’t walk. But in Western culture, a division has sprung up between ‘experts’ – professional musicians/performers etc, and us; and sometimes our right to enjoy making music can be unduly mediated via these experts. We can feel inhibited about making music or singing if something comes out unexpectedly. I think music is a really natural instinct, and it’s really rare for someone to be totally unmusical. If you enjoy music and you love to listen to it, you are already musically inclined, and the rest is just time and technique.

When it comes to singing or playing an instrument, there’s co-ordination involved that is trained by repetition and practice. The way sound is produced when we sing is a result of air travelling up from the diaphragm and being shaped by our vocal cords. So although some aspects of the sound we make are determined by our physiognomy and are fixed (eg-the lowest note you can sound will not change much even if you do voice training as it depends on thickness of vocal cords); there are other parts of sound production that respond really well to development; namely the tone of the sound produced, the resonance, the accuracy of pitching and staying in tune, breath control, and upper range. There are so many reasons to sing-it’s linked to improvement in mood; breathing in sync with other people is a powerful experience; and regular singing is even linked to improved heart health! So if you’ve ever wanted to sing but held back because you didn’t like the sound that came out, or felt embarrassed, stay tuned for vids on developing your voice, and get singing!

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