• My first ever blog post was about confidence - and although I've only actually written about two other things since then, the confidence issue has already risen it's head again and is begging me to write about it!

    To be honest, that's not too surprising - I firmly believe that confidence is the single biggest barrier to happy, effective, and healthy singing.

    This was brought home to me (again) last night; I was covering for another local choir leader, taking her rehearsal as she couldn't be there. The group was new to me, which is always an interesting challenge as you never quite know what you're going to be facing! What I found was a lovely group of singers, but who were so lacking in confidence in their own voices that I was singing louder than all of them put together, even recovering from laryngitis.

    One of the side effects of their tentative singing was that they tended to lose their melody line at the end of each line of the song - they started off ok, but because they weren't confident they were wobbling slightly off the note, which made them less confident, which made them wobble more... and so on! What I pointed out to them was that ironically, they were almost always singing the right note to start with - but they were moving off it because they weren't confident about it, and were actually making themselves go wrong!

    So what can you do about this? As a choir leader, at least half of my job is to instill confidence in my singers, but how? Last night I decided to start off by making them laugh - I was honest with them about what they were doing, but approached it in a lighthearted way and we all had a bit of a giggle about it. Then I got them to sing each line of the song, one line at a time - when they got to the end they had to pause on the last note of the line, and hold it until I told them to stop. This made them really listen to the chord they were making as a group, and helped them to hear how their part fitted in to become part of the whole. It also gave them time to find the note, as I would sing it to them if they hadn't quite got it straight away. After we'd done one line two or three times, we'd move on to the next, and then pair them up to sing two lines at a time - building up to the whole chorus.

    By the end of that exercise the group were singing that section much better, and much more confidently. Sometimes confidence is just about psyching yourself up and going for it, but as choir leaders we mustn't forget that it's really important that our singers have a chance to get in to their parts, and feel like they know which note they are supposed to be singing. Spending some time really getting inside a harmony can be worth it in the long run; the singers will be happier in their parts and will be able to sing out and really enjoy it. Which is the whole point, really!

  • I had a singing lesson today - or more accurately, I had an introductory session with a voice coach. Despite singing being my main source of work, I've never actually had formal lessons, and had always promised myself that I would find a teacher, and work on improving my own practice as well as teaching others! I've been suffering with laryngitis this Autumn and am struggling to shift that last little crackle, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to get started with my self-improvement journey.

    The thing I've been mulling over since I left my teacher's house is how relevant all of our background life experiences are to the specific task of opening your mouth and singing.

    We talked a lot, my teacher and I, about various things that have been going on in my life for the last couple of years. I won't bore you with the details, but I have had a few operations in the last 12 months or so (all requiring general anaesthetic, which means a nasty tube down my throat), plus I have ongoing problems with my back, which affects my core stability. My teacher was really interested to hear about all these things, and as we talked it started to build in to an overall picture and I realised just how much my general overall health is affecting my vocal health. For example, if my back is hurting during a choir rehearsal, that is going to affect my posture, which is going to affect the flow of air through my vocal chords, meaning they may get fatigued more easily. If my core muscles are not working well enough it is going to affect the way in which I control my breath when I'm singing, and so on.

    So where will I go from here? Obviously I'm going to continue with the singing lessons, as there's plenty of vocal technique I can work on straight away, but the most important lesson for me today was to be mindful of the bigger picture. Singing is a source of great pleasure to me, but it is also my livelihood and my profession, and in order to do it as well as I can for as long as I can, I need to take great care of my instrument. Up until today, if you'd asked me I would have said my instrument was my voice - but in actual fact it's not, it's my entire body.

  • My new choir did their first performance yesterday - they did brilliantly, and I've been flooded with excited emails saying how much fun they had.

    One comment in particular jumped out at me, from a lady who said:

    "Having been told when I was at school that I couldn’t join the choir because I was rubbish, it has taken me over 50 years to pluck up the courage to try again!"

    I'm full of admiration for this brave lady; her comment reminded me why it's so important to have a nurturing and supportive environment when you are singing - regardless of the age group! I have long believed that the single biggest barrier to effective singing is confidence, and the more I work with people of all ages (but particularly adult community choirs), the more I believe this is true!

    It is a sad fact that many people have been told as a young child that they 'can't sing' - myself included! - and we mustn't underestimate the impact that comments like this can have. I have often thought that learning to sing is a much more difficult and personal process than learning an instrument; at least if your violin or trumpet makes a horrible noise you can put it down and walk away, thereby disassociating yourself from the source of the nasty sound. When it's your own voice that is out of control or squeaking you are stuck with it!

    To add to that, anxiety and stress around learning and performing will make your body tense, and more often than not the focus for this tension will be the throat. Imagine trying to push a really heavy piece of furniture and talking at the same time - it's hard, if not impossible! If you try to sing when you are tense or stressed it's likely very little will come out.

    So, my big tip for my lovely new choir, and anyone else who is starting to explore their singing voice - relax and enjoy it! :)

  • I find the actual process of creating and composing new music a very strange thing. Given the starting material I can easily create new arrangements out of an existing tune at any time of day or night, but actually having to come up with something new (that I don't hate) has historically been a much more frustrating experience. Traditionally, inspiration will lurk somewhere out of sight until about 11pm at night, when it will leap out and demand that a song be written *right now* or be lost forever. Once I was in the shower when a new tune floated through the window and I had to cut short my hair washing so I could go and write it down.

    Now, staying up writing songs in to the early hours is perfectly acceptable for most musicians; in fact it's actively encouraged, and bags under the eyes are something of a badge of honour in some circles. However when you are required to function as a human being before midday (every day!!) and in my case when that also involves dragging yourself out of bed to take a small person to school it's not quite so convenient.

    It's unbelievably frustrating, because everyone knows that you have to take the inspiration where it comes and if you try and force it then it's just not going to happen.

    Or is it?

    I recently composed a piece of music which is going to be sung by around 350 singers, from at least 12 different choirs. The date for the first performance was set for late November, and the singers were going to learn the piece in their own choirs before we all came together for one final dress rehearsal. This meant that I had to get the music to choir leaders by the beginning of September so they'd have time to learn it, and given that the preceeding month was going to be eaten up by summer holidays and hanging out with my daughter I was on a really strict deadline for the end of July to get it all finished. With all the other meetings, workshops, and committments I had, I was essentially left with two weeks to write the basic song, and two weeks to arrange it - but that had to fit inside school hours and around meetings.

    If I couldn't *make* myself be creative between the hours of 9am and 3pm then the song just wasn't going to get written, so I had to find a way to do it, and doing so I became very interested in the process that I was taking myself through in order to get the song out.

    First, I did a lot of brainstorming. I like to write songs as a way of channeling and sorting what's going on inside my head, so first I had to put a load of stuff in there to shape in to a song. I like to think big, so I did this on sheets of A1 paper bluetacked to the wall in my office. I also decided what sort of song I wanted to write - in this case I decided to go for what I would delicately call "Disney-cheese"; the song was going to be sung by adults and children, and I wanted something really catchy and sing a long. 'Let it go' from Frozen was a bit of an inspiration for this one, I will admit - even gave it a nod in the lyrics!

    When it came to actually writing the song I did it with old-fashioned pencil and paper (I use A4 as I like space to scribble). I avoided computers, phones, anything with technology and tried to completely wrap myself up in creative space - for me that's anything relaxing, comforting, or soft, where I can switch off the nagging bits of my brain and just indulge. I moved around the house a lot while I was writing - I have written a lot of songs on my bed (usually the 11pm inspiration ones) so I spent quite a bit of time there, but also did a bit in the living room, in my office, at the dining table, in the garden... just a change of scene, a change of light, seemed to give me a bit of a boost. Much to my surprise it did seem possible to recreate the atmosphere of late-night songwriting in the middle of the day, and although it did take me longer than normal (an inspiration-struck song will take me about 3 hours for the whole thing) the song was there, and it was finding it's way out.

    So anyway, to cut a long story short, the song was done - on time! - and it's currently out with the choirs. I'm really pleased with it; the cheese factor does make me cringe a teeny bit sometimes, but that's the folky in me I expect! Both my choirs seem to love it, and lots of them are saying it's constantly stuck in their heads - I told them I know the feeling as it's been stuck in mine since July!!

  • Vocal health is something I’ve become really interested in over the years, as more and more of my professional life relies on being able to use my voice on a regular basis. There was a time, a few years ago, when I would get a pretty serious infection a couple of times per year, and would lose my voice for a couple of weeks each time, and during that time I did a lotof research in to what did and didn’t help me. Right now, I’m sat in bed with a horrendous chesty cough, and have been for over a week, so it seemed like a good time to put all my learnings together in to one place so I can check if I’ve missed anything this time around..!

    1. Over the counter remedies

    Firstly, don’t waste your money. They don’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried them all.

    2. Prevention is better than cure

    Not much help to me right at this moment in time, admittedly, but it’s always worth remembering. Since my husband and I started on a daily regime of fresh ginger shots in the morning (a chunk of ginger juiced with one apple each) I have had a muchbetter time, health-wise, and when I have got a cold or sore throat it has gone away within a few days. Also coming under this heading are things like good singing practices. Think about your posture, are you tense in your throat, are you supporting your voice with your diaphragm? Make sure you warm up properly. Take regular breaks. Drink lots.

    3. Rest

    This is vital, especially if you are feeling a bit under the weather. Physical rest for the body, and vocal rest - by which I mean not speaking unless absolutely essential. Especially don’t whisper, as this puts extra pressure on your vocal chords. 

    4. Lubrication

    It doesn’t really matter what you drink, but keep your fluids up, as it’s important your vocal chords don’t dry out. Sucking sweets can help as it makes you swallow - again it doesn’t really matter if it’s a throat lozenge or just a boiled sweet, it’s the lubrication that will help to ease your throat. You might find warm drinks easier to manage if you have a sore throat.

    5. Ginger 

    Ginger is my go-to when I’m feeling under the weather. As well as daily ginger shots I will also drink ginger tea - grated ginger, hot water, and honey. 

    6. Honey

    Speaking of honey, it is great for soothing the throat and for making ginger tea drinkable for people like me! You might be tempted to buy expensive manuka honey from the supermarket but to be honest I don’t think it will actually make an appreciable difference, and you may as well just get cheap runny honey. The main benefits to you will be lubrication and soothing rather than any medicinal properties.

    7. Lemon

    Lemon is another great one, and has antibacterial properties so is great for fighting infections. Be a bit careful if your throat is the main problem area though as I am told that lemon can dry your throat out quite quickly. The best thing I do with lemon is to squeeze a couple of lemons in to a glass, and add about 3-4 teaspoons of runny honey. Stir until the honey is dissolved, and then drink as a shot. For an interesting twist on this I sometimes also add port ;)

    8. Turmeric

    Turmeric is another thing that is supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties. I can’t say that I have noticed a huge difference when I’ve used it but if you want a bit of a change from ginger tea you could always look up a recipe for golden milk - essentially milk (I use almond), honey, turmeric, and black pepper.

    9. Steam

    I always forget about steaming, but actually it’s one of the most effective remedies for shifting a persistent cough. If I’m having a coughing fit in the night that I just can’t stop I will often go and sit in the bathroom with the shower running (and extractor fan off), and once the steam has built up a bit the cough will ease off without fail. (This is common advice for young babies but it works really well for me too!) I’m not a fan of the towel-over-the-head-over-a-bowl thing, I find it really oppressive, so outside of the shower I do most of my steaming over cups of ginger tea. 

    10. Salt water gargle

    By far the most effective remedy I have found for a sore throat is gargling with salt water. It’s disgusting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s incredibly effective at numbing the pain.

    11. Sage tea 

    This also works very well, for sore throats. You can use fresh sage if you have it, but dried works just as well. I’d put it through a tea strainer though as it gets a bit bitty otherwise! Just add hot water, and I usually stir in some honey with it.

    12. Cough remedies

    A friend of mine makes a cough medicine that basically involves chopping up an entire raw onion and leaving it to steep in half a jar of honey overnight. I have to say that I haven’t dared try this yet, but I might do if I can’t shift my current cough! My granny always used to say that chocolateis good for coughs, and I half thought she was putting it on, but actually chocolate contains something called theobromine which is a natural cough suppressant. The darker the chocolate the better. I also have a vague recollection of granny giving me raw jelly cubes when I was younger (to be fair that might just have been because she was the sort of granny who always has a plate of cold sausages in the fridge for snacking), and having done a bit of googling today glycerindoes seem to have some quite soothing properties. Anyway, I’m currently sucking on jelly cubes and they seem to be about as effective as cough sweets. Marshmallows can be good as well, apparently, but I haven’t tried those yet!

    i have only found two types of cough sweets that really seem to make any difference for me. One is Ricola (herbal lozenges) and the other is Jakemans. Jakemans are my go-to I-need-to-get-through-this-choir-rehearsal aid, but they haven’t helped much with my current chesty cough. Also, I had a few too many of them yesterday and got a bit of an upset tummy..!! I would also be careful of taking in too much menthol if you have a sore throat, as I’m told it can dry out your throat very quickly.

    I must say that none of this advice is designed to replace proper medical advice from your doctor, and if you’ve been ill for over a week and nothing seems to be helping then you should always check it out with your GP. I’m currently having to take steroid drops up my nose twice a day, not that they are making much difference at the moment.

    I’m back off to the doctors tomorrow to beg for antibiotics, but in the meantime if you have any suggestions I could try then please let me know!

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© 2019 Cat McGill