A follow up to: Keeping your Voice Healthy
Breathing and Support Exercises
Some Thoughts on Learning Songs
Motivation for doing these Exercises Daily
Breathing and Support Exercises
1. Get out of breath. I like to play the game where someone shouts 'Port' and you all run there. 'Starboard'. 'Climb the rigging' 'Scrub the decks'. That game. Yes, you can play it on your own. In life, you should develop so many inner resources you could live alone in a bisexual menage a trois.
2. Lie on the floor with a book under your head. Massage your head, neck and shoulders. Put the backs of your hands against your ribs on either side, shoulder blades down, neck free, and inhale to push your hands away from your body. Put your hands by your sides and imagine that your ribs are making snow angels, one on either side.
3. Go on all fours and imagine you're breathing through your hamstrings. Arch your back, flatten your back. From your hamstrings you could yawn, laugh, cry, speak, sing, and - here's the one - take the kind of sharp breath in that my plumber mate Jimmy does when he's asked for an estimate.
4. Stand up slowly, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees unlocked. Put your middle finger tips on your thighs. Make your neck and shoulders jelly. If you can see the horizon through a window, look there. Actually, if you can't, go outside to look at the horizon and register the position of your head when you do.
Feel all your toes and both heels on the ground. Imagine you have roots going down into the ground at least twice as far as you are tall.
Without moving anything other than your facial muscles imagine things on the horizon that you would react to: with indifference, annoyance, joy, confusion, love, lust, indifference, scorn, revulsion, fear, panic and so on. Always start with indifference and go back to it between whichever other choices you might make. Oh, and surprise must be included. As we'll see later.
5. Put your forefinger in the ridge between your bottom lip and your chin. Relax this ridge while you check how clean your teeth are by circling your tongue around your mouth five times in either direction.
6. Close your eyes and imagine that your forefingers are flirting with each other; first innocently, then getting more and more full on, but never touching.
7. In the position described in number 4 above, make floating snow angels. Therese, soprano, likes to imagine that the angels were singing as they floated. She likes, furthermore, to imagine that they are singing songs to suit her mood. But, see there - the operative word was 'soprano'. Keep the angels afloat while you walk somewhere as though you mean to get there and do something. While you brace your hands against the wall. While you pick up a chair and put it down again where it ought to been in the first place. 8. Put your hands flat, fingertips meeting, just above your pelvis. Breathe into your hands for a silent count of two, hold the breath for a count of four, release the breath for a count of eight. Then breathe in for a silent count of three. And so on. Soprano Graziella Sciutti could do this exercise breathing in for a count of twenty-five. Her radiologist couldn't get a view past her lungs to her heart to take an X-Ray.
9. Suck your finger as though it tasted nice.
10. Mime biting a huge apple. Chew and swallow. Repeat till you've eaten the whole apple.
11. Imagine you're now going to be sick. (It was the apple.) Those muscles now working in your belly are your support muscles. Engage with them at all times. They're the same muscles you use when you cry, cough, sneeze, laugh, hiccup, excrete and orgasm.
1. In the number 4 above position, breathe into your legs. Three times, using up all your breath, imagine a silent 'ee' vowel traveling from a point in front of your shins, through your shins and out at the backs.
Imitate a vacuum cleaner, with the same movement of the breath. Lips loosely together, the vowel shape a mix of an 'er' and an 'oo'. Open the vacuum cleaner sound into an 'ah'.
2. Look to the horizon as before, but now with 'surprised' shins. Recite your chosen Shakespeare text in your shins, the sound being amplified by the rest of your body.
3. Say the cardinal vowels. You will need to have learnt these at some point from a voice coach. If there's absolutely no hope of that, the Wikipedia entry, with recordings, is a useful fallback.
(And at least with Wikipedia you won't have the Italian coach we had at Guildhall making you repeat 'U' - 'oo' - as in "Oo are yoo?" Or a French language coach who is virtually deaf. I got nosebleeds bawling my close-mid front rounded vowels across the French lab at her.)
4. Mix and match the cardinal vowels with consonants and consonant clusters. Don't entertain yourself doing this. To paraphrase the King of Hearts: 'Begin at the beginning with 'b' and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'
5. Imagine you're the wonderful, sadly no longer with us, Geraldine McEwan as E.F.Benson's Lucia. Find on YouTube the earlier of the two versions of Mapp and Lucia and listen to how McEwan's voice soars and plummets over a huge range. Also notice how still she is as she releases her sound. Don't imitate her actual pitch, use your own; it's that reveling in a wide range that you're after. Use speeches or song lyrics.
6. Tongue twisters. Range further than Peter Piper, Betty's bit of Butter and the one about New York being necessary, please.
7. Ever focussed in your shins, paradoxically, isolate head resonance. Put your hand flat on the top of your head and speak a speech or some song lyrics until you can feel your hand and nothing else vibrate. Put your hand loosely over your mouth and repeat. And once more, hand on your chest. Moving your hand between all three places to spot-check, speak with all three areas vibrating.
Therese, soprano, boasts that she can use head resonance with chest but without middle. Similarly, there is a Disney a cartoon about Willie, an opera singing whale, who has three vocal cords.
8. Sopranos - even more than tenors - can never quite be hated enough.
1. On a middle tending to lower pitch sing the cardinal vowels in turn. Shins! Go up a semitone and sing them again in reverse order. And on till you've gone up a fourth, then back to where you started to sing the vowels on a slow trill, twice. So, for example, c/d/c/d/ on i and then c/d/c/d on e and so on. Don't stop between the vowels. Once you've sung this slow trill on the notes of the the fourth and fifth, go back to singing on single notes. Up a fourth and then back down again to start on the trill. Use this exercise to sing-in your middle octave.
Put the vowels that you sing best on either side of weaker ones.
Sing the vowels on the first three notes of the scale, up and down. Then up and down four notes. Be aware of the waltz rhythm. Actually, miss out going up and down the first three notes and go straight from the trill to four notes. People tend to stick with scales up and down from the third, fifth and ninth. Don't do that, your voice will get lazy. Go up to the fourth, the sixth and the tenth. Your voice will waltz, Salsa and Cucaracha and thank you for it.
2. Take an arpeggio apart. Sing the first two notes on all the vowels in turn, smoothly flowing between the two pitches. Then three notes. Then the whole.
4. Replace the words of a song you're working on with the single word 'chocolate'. Half way through, switch to the word, 'appelle'.
5. Here, use any exercises that you may specifically need to work on. Otherwise, gradually increase the range used in the above exercises to two octaves.
Go to the very bottom of your range and one below it once.
Go to the top of your range and one note above it once.
Sing some single vowel sounds again going from soft to loud and back again, then from loud to soft and back again.
6. The belt voice in women. A word of caution, I had to deal with not so much breaks as holes in a number of girl's voices at the Guildford School of Acting last century. Don't push the belt on too early. Get the whole voice of a piece, your technique as solid as possible and then start on belt gradually. Garcia, who invented the laryngoscope, used to teach his female pupils to quack like ducks when he was working with them on the chest register. I adapted this at GSA, making girls imitate ducks quacking with a strong Bronx accent. I would get them to practise everything in their belt range imitating the duck with the Bronx accent.
6. Centre the voice again with the vowels sung on one note.
Some Thoughts on Learning Songs
1. Never learn anything from a recording. You will do an impression of the singer concerned. Yes you will. I can always tell when one of my students has learned a song this way.
2. Learn the words and music separately. There are times when you must stress the words against the music. For one example: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The musical stress in the first phrase is on 'over'. But if you were to speak the line stressed this way: 'Somewhere over the rainbow', you would be implying that perhaps there was a place we might have heard of beneath the rainbow, or to the left of the rainbow or opposite it.
3. Speak only the vowel shapes, then speak the text; speak the consonants only, then speak the text.
Now sing the tune to only the vowels; then sing the song; again use only the consonants, then sing the song.
4. There must be a compulsion to sing every line. Create that for yourself with a thought - inspire yourself. The word 'inspire' also means, of course, the act of breathing in. As I breathe in through my shins to sing, I imagine a question that I am compelled to answer with the forthcoming line of the song. If you don't take the time - and the breath - for these thoughts, the audience can never be with you.
The big number in my show My Tutu's Gone AWOL! is the Ivor Novello song, "Fly Home Little Heart". Here it is as question and answer.
Q. Where did this sad thing happen?
A. Far, far away
Q. That can't be all?
A. Where the clouds hover low
Q. What sparked the incident?
A. I heard a cry like a bird in the snow.
Q. How did you respond?
A. Soft was my answer: have comfort, my dear. Why waste a moment, when April is here? Fly Home Little Heart.
This process is different in the special case of lyrics that make up a list. Audrey's song "Somewhere that's Green" from The Little Shop of Horrors for example. A list is not a list when it's in a speech; each item on the list must be spoken as though it was the only thing the character was going to say on the matter. In this case, the question would always be the same. Audrey is compelled to speak by the memories of how she came to first discover and then hanker after each item on her wish-list. Playing Audrey you need an inventory of backstories for each of those items, as she references lifestyle magazines, celebrity cooks, film stars and so on. So, here is an excerpt in Q and A form, with a possible Audrey thought for the line.
Q. What is your dream, Audrey?
A. A matchbox of our own. (I call it that because it's detached...)
Q. What is your dream, Audrey?
A. A fence of real chain link. (If I had a fence, I must have a garden, mustn't I?)
She must, indeed! And I would ask an Audrey I was coaching to stress the 'f' of fence and then almost stammer another breath before adding the qualification that her fence would be a fancy one.
Q. What is your dream, Audrey?
A. A grill out on the patio... (I saw that in an old copy of Homes and Garden in the salon. I keep sneaking peaks at that photo)
And so on...
5. In a speech or song, always ask a question in a speech as though you really don't know the answer.
Motivation for Doing these Exercises Daily
Bollocks to that. Just practise. If you're in work, the audience has paid a lot of money to see you at your best. If you're not in work, then imagine the phone ringing, and you're on tonight!
You have to be ready.
No - not as if. It happens. Lotte Lehmann walked offstage in the middle of Rosenkavalier, unable to continue, and was immediately replaced by Hilde Konetzni. Konetzni, who had been watching the performance, was pinned into cloaks snatched from women in the stalls as she ran to the pass door. When at beginners one of the four Royal Ballet Big Swans suffered a torn calf, she pulled her tutu over her head and threw it to the other three.
'Nicola's still here!'
Nicola remembers what happened next being like an abduction: one minute she was sitting doing her July tax-return, the next a romantic-length tutu was being forced over her head like a mail bag and she was being dragged to the wings, then pushed onstage.
About to perform her first a la seconde, foot to head, she wished she'd had time to put knickers on...
Yes, those are extreme cases. Konetzni and knickerless Nicola were physically in the right place at the right time. So let people know that you are spiritually in the right place at the right time - via social media. Create the public domain equivalent of - again the Royal Ballet - Adam Cooper. Still at the Royal Ballet School, he was doing walk-on parts with the company. Bored standing around at the back of the studio day after day he would put down his spear, grab the nearest girl and learn a dancing role. The patron saint of understudies smiled on him when all the male dancers cast in the role he happened to learn in the Act Two Pas D'Action role went down like EE broadband - the first cast boy, second cast boy, third cast boy, the boy learning it, the second boy learning it, that boy who would never, ever, have been learning anything but for the insistence of the old queen, heir to a certain insurance dynasty, and whose chequebook was without end. Adam went on in the Pas D'Action on opening night.
So, put your belt register, your jump, your spins, whatever, all over social media. If there's a role out there now, or in the offing, that requires your USP - usually some freakish high note, has to be said - then that goes straight online. You have no excuse with social media today. Diva Anna Stolli remembers last century at GSA, when I would grab her from the cafe and hiss that so and so west end producer was in - her cue to skip apparently unaware down the stairs opposite the staff room belting "Rainbow High" at pitch.
See? Always try and know that you're born.
None of this has anything to do with the motivation malarkey. Because the motivation malarkey has nothing to do with any of this. Motivation is an invention of nineteen nineties self-help books. And I'm a sixties kid. We were brought up on The Magic Roundabout. Ermintrude the Cowm believing that she was destined to become a number twelve bus going up and down The Strand, commandeered dinghies, mechanical diggers and Dougal in her quest, never stopping to consider self-motivation; she simply prepared for the day when she would be lowing that hallowed route from Oxford Circus to Dulwich Library.
And let's deal finally with the 'muse' brigade. Performing is a profession. Plumbing is a profession. My plumber mate Jimmy doesn't need the muse to descend for him to unblock a backed up toilet. He quips that he just needs a mask, very thick gloves and a girlfriend with expensive tastes.
I wouldn't have made a reference to tastes there...
Keeping your Voice Healthy