Singers! Here's how to create the sound you really, really want.

I am a huge fan of using YouTube for learning; I have taught myself to play the musical saw and the spoons and can usefully turn napkins into credible terra dactyls. For anyone interested in singing, there is an Alladin’s Cave’s worth of imaginative, researched and properly useful information that is truly worth plundering. My students have been inspired to ‘have a fiddle’ (my favourite pedagogical term), after watching this video by US singer Tyley Ross, who sings in an MRI scanner, thereby enabling us to see exactly what’s going on inside his throat. By singing the same short section of Nessun Dorma in 4-different styles, we get to see the adjustments he is making, particularly with his tongue and soft palate. He admits that, due to the noise generated by the MRI scanner, he had to re-record the sound at a later point, but he is clearly a very accomplished singer and what you hear is certainly what you would have done in the ‘live’ situation. Thanks Tyley.

Singing; it’s just not natural


Singing; it’s just not natural

There is a prevailing myth, infuriatingly re-enforced recently by a BBC TV talent show judge, that the act of singing is the most ‘natural thing’ in the world and consequently, an apparent lack of ‘natural’ ability is clearly the result of unfavourable genes or a general deficit of god-given talent. Singing induces a level of self-criticism and self-consciousness like no other past-time (with the possible exception of dancing) and lots of people give up at the first hurdle, somehow neatly luxuriating in the certain knowledge that Mother Nature was having a joke at their expense. As a singing teacher, I find myself coaxing my students back into their saddles when they’ve had a go at Becher’s Brook at the Grand National on their first foray out of the starting gate. Singing is not the most natural thing in the world, it requires breath control to sustain long phrases, you need to access a range of notes beyond those used in spoken word, and be able to create a ‘tone of voice' to convey meaning and emotion and different styles of music have specific vocal requirements. The ingredients may all be natural and certified organic, but they need to be blended in exactly the right measure.

PS Check out the microphone* in the picture; made of plastic tubing, party popper, polystyrene ball, pop sock and black paint. Don’t believe everything you hear and see. Just saying.

(*made by Marie Atkins)

Q: Why can I sing along to the radio so easily, but can't seem to sing well on my own?

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Stop listening to yourself singing & start ‘feeling’ what it’s like to sing

Is this you? Standing in the kitchen, radio blaring, singing joyfully and unabashedly along with Aretha, Jessie or Frank. Singing so brilliantly. So effortlessly. Then, you switch the radio off and carry on singing. Those high notes that you hit with such ease now possess an uncannily feline quality and there’s a definite hint of braying on the lower ones. What was left of the melody of I Say A Little Prayer has morphed, rather poetically, into the tune of Old MacDonald Had A Farm. You could be starring in a one-man/woman production of Shrek.

I am obviously exaggerating (any similarities with my family members, is entirely coincidental), but the fact of the matter is that singing is a physical act and exactly like riding a bike, swimming or playing football, requires learning. Singing along to the radio, relies almost completely on auditory feedback, in other words, you are using your ears exclusively to match the pitch and rhythm of the song being played. If there is no learned technique or physical ability to sustain the sound and you attempt to sing without the radio singer, your voice is likely to become untethered and set uncontrollably adrift. To sing confidently, tunefully and independently, you have to engage a host of muscles, which is what gives you the ‘feeling’ of singing.

This isn’t to say that using your ears isn’t vitally important in singing, it is, but much less so than you might think. Controlling the pressure and flow of air (using your ‘breathing muscles’) as it passes through your vocal folds (aka cords), is important for tuning and for producing good tone. Muscle tension in your jaw, tongue and neck can adversely affect the quality of the sound and put a strain on your throat and did you know that if you don’t lift your soft palate while singing, the sound will travel out through your nose rather than your mouth (4 muscles are involved with lifting the soft palate). I am simplifying, but you get the picture. For the geeks among you, there is a lot of easily-accessible, on-line research exploring the bio-mechanics of the vocal process,

All singers need to find these muscles, work out what they do and learn to isolate them and that way you will have complete control over the quality and type of sound produced. Like any new discipline, it takes a lot of practice to coordinate all these muscles, but be assured that what feels unnatural to begin with, will soon become habitual. You’ll know that you’re on the right track when your singing has started to feel effortless and enjoyable.

I want to encourage all you singalong-a-radio singers; there is hope, a lot of it, so don’t be so harsh on yourselves, just acquire a bit of knowledge, practice a lot and you’ll be well on your way to feeling yourself sing.

This is why I love teaching

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One little reason why I love teaching singing

In May, a shy 9-year old came to me for lessons, strongly encouraged by her parents who said that she sings at home all the time but needed to build her confidence. At her first session she reduced me to tears with a perfect and moving rendition of Quiet from Matilda. She is a joy to teach; she tries everything I ask her. She recently asked if I could help her learn another song from Matilda, the Escapologists Song, which requires lots of spoken word and is essentially a duet with the character’s father. She acted it so well, that we recorded it during her lesson and this is the result. Warning: As the only other person in the room, I had to cast myself as the tenor/father! It really is worth a listen, particularly when you consider that she had not performed in public or had a singing lesson until a few weeks ago. She has a passion for this music and is incredibly hard working.

When a 7-year old song writer is let loose with recording equipment

I wanted to encourage a 7-year old, who had shown an interest in song-writing by letting her record one of her songs during her lesson. Her discovery of how the recording process works and in particular the infinite possibilities for harmonies and backing vocals was hilarious. As we progressed during the song she got more adventurous and would have recorded 20 tracks if we’d had time. All of the lyrics and melody are hers, I just pressed the buttons. Funny and charming in equal measure.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ― Socrates

Never was a truer word spoken. As a singing teacher with a voracious appetite for knowledge, I read books, go on endless courses, participate in on-line forums, rub shoulders with and learn from the best in the business and yet I am light-years away from knowing everything I need to. My current fascination is in the detail that lends vocal identity to different musical genres and how that can create successful (or often unsuccessful) crossovers. Just enrolled on this course facilitated by the British Voice Association.

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Why singing teaching can't be regulated

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I have been asked several times which teaching method I ascribe to and my answer is normally a rather convoluted ramble about how there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to singing teaching as each voice is unique to the individual who owns it and subject to an infinite number of variants. As singing teaching is unregulated in the UK, I can’t just reach for my shiny certificate that shows that my teaching has been assessed and deemed as acceptable. I have to admit to a bit of internal eye-rolling and a desperate need to sigh, when I get asked this, but accept that it is a perfectly natural line of enquiry, after all, there are prescribed methods of teaching for all other instruments. The big difference between the two is that musical instruments have a resonating space that can’t change shape, but the vocal tract can change shape radically, and small changes make big differences to the sound. You can take an instrument out of the box, follow the instructions and get playing straight away, if it doesn’t work it is very likely due to the short-comings of the player and not of the instrument itself.

Life would definitely be so much easier if we had an officially recognised system that confirmed that we know our stuff and that our students will learn to sing safely and well, but I can’t begin to imagine how many modules would need to be included in a ‘singing teaching’ qualification to be able to cover everything you need to know; effects of age, gender, biology, physiology, state of health (physical and mental), vocal set-ups (huge, huge, huge subject), musical genre (enormous influencer on how you might teach someone), lexicon (as everyone processes information differently the choice of language has to be personalised to suit the individual) & not least, how to teach. By the time you had completed the course, which may be a life’s work, it would be time to review the science and start all over again.

I asked other teachers how they respond to being asked about their ‘teaching method’ through the Vocal Process Facebook Group set up by Dr Gillyanne Kayes. I was reassured to see that the universal response was as I described in the first paragraph; one-size-cannot-possibly-fit-all. In this group, we are all committed to CPD learning and keep up with the latest science and developments in teaching and take from that whatever is appropriate and manageable for the individual singer. We are drawing from research coming from all over the world (there is still so much that is unknown about voice function) and our lucky students are benefitting from that. But there is no compact, convenient or certificated way of describing this commitment to our trade, to potential employers.

The downside of not having a system of validation, is that employers don’t really know the right questions to ask and often accept applicants with music degrees from recognised conservatoires who are fantastic musicians and instrumental teachers, but who don’t necessarily have the appropriate skills and knowledge to be effective singing teachers. I understand why they use this criteria to make their employment decisions, what else could they do?

Sorry, I haven't a clue how I did that.

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As I have never considered what I do in terms of a quantifiable process, a recent request to describe my creative process sent me into a tailspin that required a surprising amount of time and introspection to level.

Central to everything I do is a well-honed, unshakeable creative habit. I compare it to running, which is a huge part of my life; despite being fit, the first few minutes of every run are torture, but the further I run and push myself, the better I feel and the more inspired I become to push harder next time. If I don’t run for a few days, it becomes a literal, breathless, up-hill struggle. If I don’t create for a while, finding and committing to an idea is painful. The creative habit is a discipline that needs to be treated with respect.

Beyond the inspiration is the practical challenge of taking a song from its embryonic state to putting it in the spotlight. My songs are mostly written for live performance so I am likely to be working to within a remit, which informs the way that I approach specific projects; Context (foremost), venue, voices, audience, instrumentation and technical limitations being some of these considerations. I generally work alone.

As I am naturally inquisitive and sociable and have a fascination with other people’s stories, I am most likely to begin a piece with an idea for the narrative. I look to personal conversations along with stories across the media and the wider community for inspiration. Everything I write is steeped in truth, resonates and is often witty (according to the press and audiences).

Having worked mostly within a cabaret context, my work is theatrical but it is unbounded by the stylistic constraints of a single musical model. Two examples of this: Benjamin Britten’s Got Talent is a macabre piece that uses the style of Benjamin Britten’s music to underpin an audition that goes horribly wrong on the TV show and, A Worthie Man of Garish Town (co-written with Robin Kingsland) is based on the Karadashian family and depicts the vacuous nature of fame using the structure and stylings of traditional English folk music to support the comedy potential in the juxtaposition of the utterly contemporary with the olde. This is written for 3-voices and accompanied by auto-harp.

I work initially in a home studio environment, which enables me to record piano and vocal demos at my own pace, overlaying harmonies and playing with production ideas where appropriate. A work-in-progress is normally workshopped live by the performers or by cyber-sharing recordings and roughly transcribed parts. Workshopping in front of a small, invited audience is a normal part of my process. When the piece is performance-ready, I create audio and MIDI files for full transcription (by a 3rd party).

That’s my process!

Words of inspiration

Enjoying myself

Enjoying myself

I can never remember jokes. I am surprisingly good at names and I have an an almost supernatural memory for people’s voices, but generally, I have a terrible memory for most things that actually matter. In particular, the brilliantly inspiring nuggets of wisdom that pop up on my social media feeds. I have made the practical decision, if I can remember, to commit some of the best and most useful of these to the blogging bit of my website and to occasionally read them in the hope that, with repeated exposure, they will be osmotically absorbed and I will become a better and more enlightened human being. I will be known for my sagacity and my followers will come to me, the great Tanya Holt, for spiritual navigation. Possibly. I have tried blogging before, but after a few days of recording the minutiae of my existence, I got bored with myself and then simply used my forgetful gene (my mother’s side) to positive effect, and forgot to carry on with it. My ‘blog-self’ turned to dust some years ago, like a Marvel character, but without any chance of a pubic outcry or a season 2.

So, these nuggets are recorded here as an aide memoire. They will be absorbed and then I shall drop them into conversation with my students as if they were my own profound musings.

If by some twist of mis-navigation, you have stumbled across this stream of unabashed consciousness, feel free to nick anything you fancy and carry it off as if it was your own. Like I do.