1 Warm up before you sing
Do anything! Lip trills, sirens, ‘v’, ‘z’, ‘m’, ‘sh sh sh’, ‘s s s’. Literally anything to take the voice out of normal speech pitch and to wake up the muscles involving extended breath flow and expression. Stretch the body and the face! Exercise that tongue. Stick it out, roll it around, to the left, to the right. Our tongues are a huge muscle that go right down into the neck. When we sing, they are best placed slightly forward in the mouth with the tip of the tongue over the bottom teeth. The back of the tongue is allowed to rise up for certain vowels: just make sure that the front stays near the teeth.
2 Bring a pencil
Maybe I’m old fashioned… don’t forget the stylus for your A4 Tablet or iPad. Not only is a quick pencil marking a useful trick to jog even the best of memories, but a little picture, even a simple stick figure drawing, can instantly spark the right-side brain of creativity and story-telling. Also, mark the beats in: score light lines down through your stave to show the beat during fast passages with lots of syncopation (offbeat rhythms) or that are just tricky rhythmically. This might sound like a left-brain activity but, for me, it allows the right-brain more freedom and provides a visual crutch to help you sing in time and with groove.
3 Find the tune
Listen to the other musical parts (choral/orchestral/piano) and notice where you can take your leads from them. They might give you your note directly or lead you to it indirectly, or you might enter canonically with them and need to bounce off their energy. Music often takes itself from nature, where there is imitation, symmetry, odd and even groupings and structure. Try to hear the imitation in a canon as the main tune passes from one voice to the other and notice when you’re the accompanying part. Handel is a huge exponent of this: think of “For unto us a child is born” from Messiah. That text always has the main tune and should come out of the texture. The semi-quaver runs are less important, don’t get bogged down by it… speaking of which…
4 Breathe where you need
You can pretty much “sell” a breath anywhere in a musical phrase if you have the imagination. You can breathe in the middle of a sentence if needs be, you just have to make up a reason to breathe: is it for emphasis, drama, emotion or perhaps to show confusion? Mark the breaths in with a tick between the notes or the words. If a conductor asks you specifically not to breathe somewhere, mark a little line to show this and plan where you might take breaths around that point. If a conductor asks for “staggered breathing”, all they are looking for is no discernible breaths to the listener, so just try not to breathe at the same time as the person next to you, but don’t stress if you do – no one will notice. Finally, and perhaps something we’ve all been guilty of, try not to show the audience that you’re running out of breath during that final long note. Gauge it: if you have time, simply stop singing, breathe and start again (if it’s a very soft note, coming back in on an ‘ng’ sound might help you sneak back in without a ‘blip’ in the sound). If you think you’re too late to come back in, just stop singing but keep your mouth in the singing position. Don’t collapse on the floor, reaching out to the audience whilst gasping for air: it’s not a good look.
5 Work on your high notes
If you struggle with high notes, lengthen vowels as you sing higher (tall and vertical, not wide and horizontal), take a good breath that resets your tall, stretched posture before you sing and distract yourself whilst you’re up in the rafters with huge feelings of elation and joy! Practising higher phrases on an ‘oo’ or ‘oh’ (as in ‘pot’) vowel often helps.
6 Pitch consonants
Both the voiced ones (b, v, d, z, l, m, n etc.) and the unvoiced ones (p, s, t, k etc.)! Just as you pitch vowels on the note, actually pitchthe consonant, too.
7 Watch your posture and breath flow
Physical technique whilst singing boils down toposture: encourage a tall, wide back and long neck as you breathe in and maintain this posture throughout the sung phrase. Impressive vocal production boils down to breath flow, not pressure and weight. Singing is closer to a Yoga pose or a good stretch than it is to a session of weight lifting or a boxing match. An impressive sound is a rich one, full of upper resonances and brilliance. If you try too hard and apply lots of pressure on the face or neck, you’re likely to be blocking some of this potential. And maintain your performance posture: wait to the very end of the piece, including the accompaniment, before relaxing: it’s something that can completely burst the bubble for your audience.
8 Know what you are singing about
…Especially if it’s 30 reutterances of Kyrie eleison. This is the most important point! If your music is in a foreign language, find a translation and write it in your score. If this seem like too much, at least scrawl one word, an emoji or colour patch on each page with a general mood to be emoting. Even the most inaccessible, ancient text will have something you can relate to and, if it doesn’t, make something up so that you have some expression. If your score is in your first language, think about what the text truly means to you individually and show that in your performance. Singing is about communication between humans, so it’s imperative that you’re constantly connecting with what you’re trying to say.
Of course…but how do you practice? Again, just like warming up, anything is better than nothing. Listen to a recording of the piece you are working on, sing along, follow the music and the words. Speak the words in rhythm whilst maintaining the communicative interest throughout. If you can, sit at a piano and play your line through, or sing through your line and check the odd note. Try to play the accompaniment. If it’s a tricky phrase or passage, take the words out for a moment and practice that long, slow melisma on an ‘oo’ vowel, or replace the text in that semi-quaver run by Bach with ‘do-be do-be do’ à la the Swingles. Speaking of runs, they’re usually much more fun and easier to sing if you imagine the notes grouped across the beats – so, not 1234, 1234, 1234, 1234 but 123,4123, 4123, 4123 or 1, 2341, 2341, 234 etc. Listen to Jacques Loussier and swing that Bach! Try to link strong, imaginative imagery to the text and music to keep your communicative brain active. Research the text, the poet, the music and the composer – this might help you conjure up those vivid characters and scenes. Draw some pictures and use colour on your score (if it’s not a hire copy!). Don’t ignore the other musical parts in your practice: they might be able to help you out musically (see above) but are also communicating with you, often with the same emotional intensity and quality.
10Above all, don’t forget why you joined the choir and started singing, hang on to that feeling, and don’t be dull!
Phil Wilcox is an experienced Choral Director, currently leading the Fleet Singers, a community choir based in Gospel Oak, and several choirs for Music in Offices. A Royal Academy of Music graduate, he has sung as a baritone soloist for Buxton Festival Opera, Royal Shakespeare Company, Retrospect Opera, Merry Opera Company, XOGA, Opera on Location and Young Opera Venture and appears regularly on the oratorio and concert platform. He is the Learning and Participation Manager for Leeds Lieder and a freelance workshop leader.