Last night I attended my first World Voice Day Professional Development session held at The Library at the Dock, Docklands, hosted by the Australian Voice Association (AVA). What a beautiful spot to get together with other people from the choir scene in Melbourne on a pleasant evening, with the lights of the Melbourne Star glistening on the bay. I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest, but I'm so glad that I made the effort to go. I had just read about the event on the Australian National Choral Association events page a couple of days before and decided to go.
I was greeted by Bec Tilley, a voice coach based in Brunswick West, who made the first presentation. She made the point that “If you sing, then you’re a singer!” “If you make music, you’re a musician!” So many people don’t see themselves as singers because they don’t think they are good enough or haven’t had formal training, I say not so!
“If you sing, then you’re a singer!” “If you make music, you’re a musician!”
A student doesn’t pick up a violin for the first time and start playing like Andre Rieu do they? (have you ever heard a beginner violinist – talk about painful!) No offense to those who are learning violin. The point is just like studying an instrument, singing is a craft which is learnt and refined over time with practice. Being part of a choir like Melbourne Contemporary Choir (www.mcchoir.com) can be a great way to develop this skill in a relaxed setting where individual differences are appreciated and people can develop their craft. Singers, like instrumentalists and other musicians have an instrument too – and a very complicated one at that – it just happens to be situated in a very small area in your throat. During the evening Dr Amanda Richards, an ear, nose and throat specialist took us through the complexities of the anatomy of the larynx and the connecting nervous system – (as a scientist myself, I really enjoyed this part - I felt like I was back at uni taking a lecture). I really believe that in order to master voice production, whether you’re singing or speaking - you need to under stand your instrument.
"In order to master voice production - you need to understand your instrument".
The voice coach, Bec Tilley, touched on what she termed “mouth effort”. As Australians we are generally pretty lazy with our articulation and the amount of movement we make with our mouth when we speak or sing (most Americans can’t understand a word we say!). When we are singing, ‘mouth effort’ can be described on a scale of 1 – 10 where 1 is little or no mouth movement and 10 is very exaggerated mouth movements. First Bec had us sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of the participants in the room who’s birthday it happened to be, with a ‘mouth effort’ of three (little effort or movement of the mouth) however she wasn’t feeling very loved at all after our rendition – the sound was dull and uninteresting. We tried it again with a mouth effort of 10 making large mouth movements and the difference in the brightness, volume and energy in the sound production was astounding! Although we felt pretty silly at a ‘mouth effort’ of 10, normally we would aim for a 7 when singing (and still feel a little awkward) but with much better sound production. Try it in front of the mirror – honestly you don’t look as silly as you feel and the sound quality is worth the effort.
Another take home message I gained from ‘World Voice day’ is that singers are ‘vocal athletes’. Just like an athlete needs to warm up, stretch, use different muscles, keep well hydrated and warm down, so too the singer does ‘vocal kilometres’. Our vocal folds inside our larynx are colliding at very high speed when we speak and even more so when we sing. Teachers and any professions that use their voice for a living, place high demands on their voice and its worth keeping it healthy. The vocal folds undergo millions of collisions and it’s very much like running a marathon every day for those who of us who use their voice a lot.
Singers are ‘vocal athletes’
One helpful analogy which Meaghan Sullivan, with ‘Voice Medicine Australia’ gave was the ‘vocal bucket’ or ‘vocal load’. We each have a ‘vocal bucket’. Every day whilst we are speaking, cheering our favourite footy team on, trying to be heard over background noise in a room, our bucket is being filled. If we are yelling or speaking loudly all the time, our bucket is going to be filled up much more rapidly. It gets to a point where our bucket starts to become overfull and overflows and this is when our voice becomes tired, husky, dry and irritated.
Things that can help to maintain a healthy singing voice:
- Take a rest from singing when your body is telling you need it
- Reduce your vocal load (speaking and singing)
- Do an individualized warm up before rehearsals or speaking event
- Marking music for some songs in rehearsals instead of singing everything
- Practice songs in your head instead of vocalizing it
- Lots of gentle voice movement throughout the day
- Become a hummer (humming is a great way to condition the voice)
- Warm down is just as important as a the warm up (and a great way to ensure you have a voice the next day)
- Vibration (bubbles or lip trills) and stretching (vocal sirens)
- Counterbalancing – if your singing a lot of high register stuff, finish off with some low Mm, Nn and Ng sounds
Meaghan talked about a study she had carried out with 22 Choristers over 5 weeks. One half of the choir did regular “vocal function exercises” as described by Dr Joseph Stemple, the other half of the choir did no exercises at all. She carried out a perceptual assessment at the start and the end of the test including looking at pitch and range and she observed marked improvements in voices of those who completed the exercises. Singers had measurable improvements in flexibility, strength and endurance. I know for myself vocal exercises performed regularly increase my range, strengthen my voice, and ensure my voice can perform for longer periods of time without falling apart.
Finally I wanted to remind ourselves that singing is wonderful for vocal health and can help you in your everyday communication and in your work. So why not give a choir like Melbourne Contemporary Choir a go, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I would also encourage you to participate in future World Voice Day events. This one was certainly cram packed with information - far too much to share in this blog.
Melbourne Contemporary Choir
"a place where people find a voice!"
Jason or (Jase) as he likes to be called is Founder & Creative Director of Melbourne Contemporary Choir (MCCHOIR) and is a passionate musician who wants to bring his love for music to a broader audience.
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Ferrars Street Community Facility
129 Ferrars Street, Southbank
(entry from corner Douglas Street and Ferrars Street)
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