How to Sing

Thursday 24th October 2013

How to sing: a matter of style, fashion and personal preference and the subject of years of musing, research and trying. At Starling Arts we like to share the joy of singing with others using lots of tried and tested techniques, and a pinch of what makes singing that much more fun - company!

Starling Arts' co-director Emily gives a short guide to Starling’s approach to singing together. 

 Earlier this week I watched a man walk through London Bridge Railway Station. The man had a smile like no other I had seen that day; it was wide, genuine and moving. As he walked, the man sang very, very loudly. While his voice was crude and his decision to sing so publicly received lots of scornful and suspicious looks from the passing crowd, still he sang loud and he smiled. 

This man got me thinking about the power of singing, and what it means to sing alone (in a crowded ticket hall or on stage in the West End) or with others (at a rock gig or choir rehearsal). Singing can feel scary, and while some have no inhibitions, most people seek a little extra nudge to get singing. Here are a few of my thoughts... 

1. Warm Ups

Yes, I know. Some people break into a cold sweat when asked to 'come into a circle for a warm up game'. Ask an adult group for a volunteer and you will nearly always be faced with a stony silence and eyes turned towards the floor for several seconds before someone brave steps forward. Adults want to know what the challenge entails - to suss out if they can do it - before signing up. They want to have one, perfect 'go'. 

Children, however, are usually desperate to jump in, to take part! They want as many 'goes' as possible and they are less interested in quality, but more in experience! What changes? 

Me enjoying leading a warm up

I think that somewhere in the adult psyche grows an overwhelming need to get things right first time. Performance doesn't work like that, which is why, at Starling Arts, we prioritise play in our warm ups. Getting out of 'office' mode and into a more creative mental and physical space is key to creating an open, fun singing space. Our warm up games - carefully chosen to support each group - cover everything from rhythm exercises to name games and physical challenges. These 'ways in' give everyone a dedicated purpose to what they're doing, one that is removed from external problems and pressures.  

2. Breathing! 

Read any book on the topic and you’ll find that breathing is at the core of good singing (although you won’t always find agreement on what the right breathing technique for singing is...!)

Breath is the fuel to the fire of the voice. Of course nearly everyone is able to breathe subconsciously, so the challenge comes for the singer engaging their brain to work the breath, re-learning good technique and mastering breath management, building up control from the diaphragm (a curious muscle at the bottom of the ribcage). Days in stressful city office jobs with pressing deadlines, aggressive colleagues and the rising cost of living, with the hostility of a crowded train or bus to contend with at the end of the day, mean it’s not hard to see why most of us have receded to shallow, chest breathing, pulling our shoulders up and snatching whatever breath our stressed torsos allow. We have lost the natural, easy breathing patterns of our childhoods (next time you’re with a new born baby, just watch them breathe - you’ll know exactly what I mean). 

Yet, place just about anyone in front of a stunning view (preferably of a large, open space, without anything man made or human shaped in the way) and they will breathe better, more comfortably and more naturally. It’s one of the reasons why we all tend to comment on 'the wonderful fresh air' when faced with a view - the air was probably just as good at the bottom of the hill, but the very act of relaxation actually opens our breathing apparatus up. Re-claiming our own breathing is central to good, healthy singing, and makes singing something we can yield our whole self to. 

One of my favourite breath-'making' views in Devon

3. Company 

Sometimes I'm a little bit like the man who sang at the top of his voice through London Bridge station.

I like to sing really loudly in the car when I’m stuck in a traffic jam. I hate traffic jams, so singing a song I love (usually a dramatic power ballad...) lifts me out of a hole the frustration of being late/flustered/stuck between a symphony of car horns has put me in. In these situations, I find something cathartic in singing the sunroof off the car with a Whitney Houston lyric. Yet I always fantasise that one day all my neighboring, traffic jammed drivers will decide to join in with me, complimenting my vocal belts in 4-part harmony (and perhaps even a dance routine on the bonnets of the stationary vehicles...)

My dream of a traffic jam chorus, inspired by West Side Story

Singing can take you outside of yourself, and this effect is even more powerful when undertaken in good company. It feels rare to actually be doing the same thing as other people in London - often we’re walking in the other direction to the crowd, raising our opposing options in meetings or fighting off sounds coming at us from commuter’s headphones / delay announcements / other people’s inappropriate conversations / mutterings about 'being held up on the bus again'. How refreshing it is then to sing with a group, moving in the same direction, creating one coherent sound rather than many conflicting ones. How nice it is to create and share a pleasant sound, one without ego. Singing in a group is a simple way of giving and sharing, and the act itself gives lots of people a type of basic yet absent human pleasure in a busy world.    

You can’t bake a cake using only flour, and you can’t make a choir with only one voice. As long as you’re not damaging your vocal apparatus, it doesn’t really matter what kind of music you sing as long as you enjoy it. We like to sing with purpose, with the whole self and with others. Maybe in an ideal world, we'll all put our hands up first, step out of our grid-locked cars to a stunning view and sing something - anything - together. Until then, we'll sing wherever we can.

- Emily

Starling Arts offer fun group singing workshops to all kinds of people - children in schools and community groups, businesses, parties and anyone else that likes to sing. Visit What We Do to find out more and get in touch at info@starlingarts.com with any questions.