SPRING HAS SPRUNG…and she can leave now!
I hate spring.
There, I said it!
I mean, what’s not to love about a season which makes my eyes sting, my nose run, and my lungs feel like I’m breathing through a wet face washer? Like many of the population, I am ‘blessed’ with the gift of hay fever whenever the pollen count rises and the wind blows. Add to that the indelicate asthmatic wheeze which invites a chest rattling cough, and a picture forms about my hesitancy to tiptoe through the tulips.
A stuffed up nose combined with lungs at less that optimum capacity means that sometimes, singing practice sessions can be quite the challenge at this time of year. Naturally, antihistamines and inhalers can make life easier (almost normal somedays), but how to approach singing practice on the days where the meds don’t quite kick it?
I’m glad you asked.
Here are three suggestions…
#1 - Imagery and Visualisation
Back in 2003, I discovered one of the best books about singing I’ve ever read: Power Performance for Singers - Transcending the Barriers, by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas (down the track, I’m going to dedicate a blog post to reviewing the book and its awesomeness). The writers explore so many great ideas about performance planning, confidence, mental toughness, and so much more. The chapter on ‘Imagery in Performance’ was a game changer for me.
“When you image a new technical skill or part of a new piece of music, the appropriate nerve impulses and pathways are used in the same way as they would be used in the actual performance. The brain does not distinguish between your imaging of the new skill and your actually executing it. In both activities, the information received by the brain is exactly the same. Therefore, if you combine the mental skill of imagery with the actual physical practice, you will accelerate the rate at which you learn”.*
So what’s that all about?
THE BRAIN DOESN’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE ACT OF SINGING AND VISUALISING THE ACT OF SINGING
How trippy and fabulous is that?!
In practical terms, it means you can make progress on a song even on days when singing isn’t going to be happen for you.
Close your eyes and picture yourself in your practice room. It might be your bedroom, perhaps it’s your lounge room or study. It’s a familiar place and a happy place. In your mind’s eye, watch yourself singing your chosen piece. It is very important that your imagery be done at the correct speed for the song your looking at, as it won’t be of benefit to you if the imagery is too fast or slow. If it helps, play the accompaniment track that you would usually use during practice to be sure you’re at speed. With your eyes closed, ‘sing’ the whole song, or focus on a troublesome section. Approach the visualisation session with the same goals you would take into a practice with full voice.
It’s quite liberating and empowering to know that no matter what, you can always take steps make progress, even when your voice isn’t up for it.
#2 - Breathing and Phrasing
Closely aligned with visualisation is getting breathing into your muscle memory. ‘Not Getting Married’ from Sondheim’s Company is a tour de force, but have you ever tried the breathing required for it? Fun it ain’t…unless you’ve taken the time to make some definite phrasing choices.
Make a pot of tea, grab your music and a pencil, and sit down to some self-care and musical decision making. Be guided by the line of the music and the punctuation as what’s going to work for you. Some choices will be obvious, while for others you’ll need to take your time. Oh, and don’t listen to a recording to make your choices - firstly, what worked for someone else may not be right for your current level of development, and secondly, we want your interpretation of the song rather than a carbon copy of a someone else’s version.
Doing the detailed work on phrasing away from the act of singing can give you clarity on the required speed of each breath, as well as the size of each breath (is it a short, sippy breath, or can it be a spacious, full capacity one?). Once you’re happy with your choices on paper, get up and put them in place. Again, use visualisation to see yourself singing the song, and layer in the creation of muscle memory to support your breathing choices.
When you come back to singing the song full out, you will find that some (or all) of your breathing for the piece is settled and secure.
#3 - Make some character decisions
Choose a piece from your current folder of sings which is still relatively new to you. Start to ask yourself some questions about the character. Keep it simple to begin with, as it can be developed down the track.
Start with the four fabulous questions that Peter Tulloch always had me asking myself about my competition arias:
Answer those questions, and you’ll be on your way to making choices about dynamics, about which lyrics you want to point up, and about which moment/s within the song are key to the character’s story.
Being unable to sing is not my idea of a good day….ever. But still being able to devote time to my craft and artistry is a great way to lift my spirits. Another lovely thing about the above approaches is that they can be done anytime and anywhere. You can do your ‘singing practice’ at a café, at the library, at home, or in the car.
You’re only limited by your resourcefulness and your willingness to try something a little out of the box.
*Emmons, Shirlee and Thomas Alma. Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.