Nadine Cooper was told by her music teacher when she was a child that she can’t sing and therefore shouldn’t join in with the school choir because she is ‘spoiling it for everyone else’ (as reported in this BBC article). Let’s think about that for a second. To me, it’s a bit like saying that you shouldn’t walk down the street because the way in which you place one foot in front of the other is not, in someone’s opinion, worthy of being classifiable as walking.
Everyone can sing. As a singing teacher I’m often asked to give this response to the first question that I’m faced with when someone’s learns what my job is. I’ve always given this same answer in my 9 years of teaching as I’ve never been proved wrong. Every student I have ever taught has been able to open their mouth a create ‘musical sounds with the voice’ (Cambridge dictionaries online definition of singing) right from the very first lesson and, more crucially, every student has made an improvement to this over time, even those who on initially hearing a note played on the piano are unable to internally hear it and therefore pitch it in their own voice. And that’s the main point here. Some people are born with an inmate musical ability and natural vocal technique which allows them to sing well with little guidance. But the vast majority are not, or at least have only a certain degree of these skills when they begin to sing more regularly. We wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to, for example, swim well, if even at all, the first time they try it, even though it only requires the use of our own bodies and no external equipment.
So learning how singing works is critical for anyone who wants to use their voice just like any other skill, with regular time needing to be spent on developing these skills in the correct way for the individual. If we go back to the walking idea, yes we can all walk (if we have no medical reason not to) but we could probably all improve our walking by looking at our posture, balance, fitness etc.
Nadine has decided to not let her music teachers words stop her and has formed a choir for ‘those who lack confidence or need more practice.’ I can’t applaud her enough. Often those students who have come to me with a seeming lack of skill as discussed above are really completely lacking confidence in their ability after being told they can’t sing, often by people who should know better. This is damaging, and can sometimes take years to reverse and have a knock on effect to other areas of their lives too. Singing as part of a choir is a great way to begin to combat this, allowing you to explore your voice in a relaxed way, whilst hopefully having some fun and learning something about vocal technique along the way. Of course there is no substitute for one on one lessons with an experienced teacher if you are serious about improving you voice, but we are not all fortunate enough to be able to devote the time and money needed to do this.
However you choose to do it, if you have been told/think you can’t sing and want to give it a go, then go for it – you can only progress, and you never know where it might lead.
I’ll admit that when I first became a singing teacher, and for a good few years into my teaching career, I blinkerdly looked upon it as a sideline, a way to work in music and earn money whilst supporting my own singing and studying. Despite the admiration that I received from those who learnt of what I did for a living, I couldn’t see the joy that could be found, and the knowledge that could be gained, in what I now come to regard as one of the most important and fulfilling ways in which to share your own passion for music making.
In the nine years that I have now been teaching, I can honestly say that I have learnt more about life and music making directly from it than from any other activity. I have had the privilege of working with a massive range of people of all ages who have come to lessons for a wide variety of reasons – to challenge themselves, to try something new, to resurrect an old skill, to pursue a musical career. All of these reasons may have given them a different starting point, yet they ultimately all end up experiencing the same negative and positive feelings during the inevitable challenging moments and the successful times which arise. Even though this roller coaster journey which every musician finds themselves one is one which inside I know all too well, it is only now when I get to experience it over and over again through the differing eyes of all my pupils that I can understand its merits and its importance.
And it’s not only in this way that I’ve seen what teaching can offer to the person delivering it. Over the years I’ve experienced moments of joy and laughter during teaching, especially when a pupil experiences a breakthrough in their development or when I can hear the beginning of a new vocal sound emerging. I’ve been privileged to witness numerous performances where pupils have gone far beyond my expectations and have given me more enjoyment and perhaps more to think about than if I had been performing myself. I’ve had the chance to explore pieces that I thought I knew well from a new perspective which has deepened my own understanding and interpretation. And above all, I’ve formed relationships with people which have become so well bound that the teaching and leaning has become so comfortable and instinctive as brushing your teeth.
How many aspects of music making can boast all that? Teaching, I’m glad you found me.
Breathing. We all do it. So why do we need to think about it? Unfortunately our modern lifestyle has led us to become pretty lazy in this most natural of functions, so much so that we really are missing out on the many benefits that it can bring.
Breathing fully from the bottom of your lungs upwards gives you an instant feeling of openness, relaxation and strength, right from the first time you do it. It’s almost like opening your eyes for the first time. However, I’m yet to meet a new student who already does this habitually of their own accord unless they already practice something else which encourages it, such as swimming. What I mostly find is that new students have become satisfied with only filling the top part of their lungs, meaning that they often create tension in this area and are missing out on the true feeling of what breathing should be like.
As a singer and flautist, breathing is a fundamental element of what I work to improve, and I encourage my students to thing about it right from their very first lesson. Without this full breath, we can’t create the beautiful sound which we crave for. But this awareness of breathing has given me so much more. I am able to experience a feeling of calm whenever I feel just by taking in air, alongside knowing that I’m improving my general health by doing what nature really intended.
It takes time for full breathing to become automatic, as does every other aspect of singing or playing. However, I believe breathing is element which really gives us one of the greatest benefits to other areas of our lives, and which, as musicians, we should be grateful for. Full breathing really does feel like a joy, and it only takes our persistence and effort to find it.