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Vocal knowledge - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
Vocal knowledge
Okay, this is a bit of a left-field question, but you lot are a fairly eclectic bunch, so some of you may be able to help...

If you wanted to teach someone to sing, how would you go about it?

No, I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "teach someone to sing", which is part of the problem... IME most people can sing (and when they say "I can't sing" what they usually mean is "someone told me when I was a child that I couldn't sing"); what they can't necessarily do is stay in tune (with others, or even with themselves). So let's say you want to get somebody to the point where they're able to do that well enough that they can join in confidently with 'community singing' (weddings, carol services, etc.), and eventually do simple part-singing. Where do you start? Am I asking the wrong questions?

Reading music is sort of orthogonal (and the sort of people I'm thinking of could probably teach themselves that fairly easily anyway, because they're bookish kind of people).
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atreic From: atreic Date: January 29th, 2008 11:46 am (UTC) (Link)
I've found the playstation game singstar good for this. It doesn't teach you anything about tone, but it does teach you about pitch, and you can see the sound you're making (if you sing up, a line goes up and if you sing down, a line goes down) and see what the sound you're supposed to be making looks like (there's a line you're trying to get your line on top of, which is the tune). It's very intuitive, and it's fun as well, and you can see when you get better because you get a better score.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh, yes, we do have singstar... I'm not 100% convinced that it helps with hearing whether you're in tune or not (I mean, being able to do that when the visual cues aren't there) but it's certainly more fun than vocal exercises etc anyway! ;-)
cleanskies From: cleanskies Date: January 29th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm pretty sure there are some tuition videos/DVDs out there -- perhaps tied into the various reality TV series about teaching non-singers to sing? (I think one was called "The choir"). Might be worth seeing what Borders has to offer?
j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mm, good point, will have a look.

I am just a bit wary of doing the same thing as I do with languages / programming / etc., ie buying books as a substitute for actually doing things. If only learning by osmosis worked. Or maybe eating the books OM NOM NOM.
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j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Err, I feel like I'm being all humourless here, but how does that help?

I've been singing all my life: on my own, in choirs, all over the place. This is basically the problem: I don't know how to get from "I can't sing" to "I can sing", because I have no memory whatsoever of being in the former state.

I suppose the same is true of reading. Not sure I'd have much idea how to teach that either. :-/
aldabra From: aldabra Date: January 29th, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Be very patient. Find a note. Practice going up and down from it. Aim for one-two-three-four-five in a scale (don't worry about whether they're actual notes, that can come later). Try tunes with no more than five notes in them.

That was about where she gave up teaching me 8-)
j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
All useful, thank you!

Even if I fear I may fall at the first hurdle (ie the being patient). :-}
arnhem From: arnhem Date: January 29th, 2008 12:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can they tell when something is out of tune?

Can they tell when they themselves are singing out of tune (if you ask them to repeat a note played on a piano)?

Can they tell when they're out of tune, but not work out how to fix it?

Can they sing mostly in tune, but occasionally have dislocations when they switch key without apparently noticing it (this is particularly common in children; they're very focused in the present, and haven't learned the knack of having "what I've just heard" still replaying in their mind).

Can they sing in tune as long as they're by themselves? (I find it much more difficult to get things right if I can't hear my own voice very well; I also had all sorts of trouble carol singing at Christmas - my sister's family and their friends are all scarily good singers and I kept oscillating between singing the tune, and tracking the person next to me who was doing something inventive with the tenor line)






j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good questions -- thank you! (And a really interesting point about children's problems with staying in key -- OOI, is that your theory or established wassname?)

I find it much more difficult to get things right if I can't hear my own voice very well

Oh definitely -- makes it much more difficult even if you're a confident singer! (Hence the finger-in-the-ear thing that old folk-singers stereotypically do...)
barnacle From: barnacle Date: January 29th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Firstly, don't expect them to just be able to learn by osmosis. Putting a non-singer---even a confident one---in the company of singers doesn't necessarily help anyone. Tone-deafness and poor imitation skills often go hand in hand, and you can't guarantee an improvement in the former if the latter is going to get in the way.

I can only speak from personal experience here. had a couple of lessons with an opera singer/trainer, back when I are in M*f*s. She said that given I wasn't going to pay for a whole course of lessons she'd concentrate on teaching me exercises that would, over time and without her input, give my voice more strength. This, she said, would make it easier to hold pitch (especially with the extremes of loud and quiet notes).

The exercises were singing arbitrary intervals and five-note major scales, with odd vocal articulations e.g. singing a very restricted letter "v" to exercise the diaphragm. There was some emphasis on "pick an interval and keep trying to sing it" but that was less important than just building up lung muscle and capacity.

Modesty aside, though, I've always had reasonable pitch, and a workmanlike counter-tenor voice which can make a smooth transition between normal and falsetto speech. If the person you're teaching is starting below that skill level, then there might be other areas you should concentrate on. Or there might not: for the basic sort of singing you're after, perhaps improved muscle tone is still the key.
barnacle From: barnacle Date: January 29th, 2008 12:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Incidentally, it just occurred to me in a rather Proustian fashion that I used to find the singing lessons all very jolly and silly. Such exercises are tantamount to asking people to make weird noises. If your pupil finds themselves in the situation where doing that is not merely sanctioned but encouraged, that alone can be a tremendous confidence boost.
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mobbsy From: mobbsy Date: January 29th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm interested in the answers to this since I'm firmly in the "I can't sing" camp. By which I do mean that I can't stay in tune, or even start in tune, or produce a sequence of tones more than vaguely relating to anything else going on around me.

It doesn't stop me enjoying participating in 'community singing', but did cause some people at school to attempt not to stand next to me at assembly because they found my attempts at singing seriously distracting. These days I try to keep the volume down to minimise the damage.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 12:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm interested in how you experience hearing tunes, and hearing your own voice. Can you tell whether you're in tune or not (other than by people saying "you're out of tune", I mean)? Can you hear the difference between different notes/tunes? (Sorry if these are really patronising questions -- I don't mean them to be, I just can't visualise [auralise??] it.)

I suppose outside the context of singing there are phonemes that people find incredibly difficult to distinguish depending on what language/accent they're starting from (e.g. Japanese speakers distinguishing between 'r' and 'l', or people from Staffordshire/Cheshire distinguishing between the 'u' sounds in 'put' and 'bus'... ;-) ... is that a sensible analogy, d'you reckon? What's the musical equivalent of minimal pairs?

Community singing is more about the community than the singing anyway so I'm glad you can still enjoy it!
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: January 29th, 2008 12:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Kodaly is your friend here.

I would say; start by getting your friend to becomfortable with counting, by clapping and saying: ta ta ta ta (crotchets); ti-ti ti-ti ti-ti ti-ti (pronounced 'tee') (quaver); tiri-tiri tiri-tiri tiri-tiri tiri-tiri (semi-quaver).

This will get them *used to the sound of their own voice working to time* without them having to worry about note-matching. I think feeling bad timing is much worse for novice singers than bad pitch, by a long shot - one feels an utter damned idiot for coming in at the wrong place or not knowing how long to go on for. You can show them the notes in what is called stick notation - jsut the sticks and flags - to train their eyes to associate timing with what they'll see on a stave in due course.

After a little while, get them to sing their TAs and TI-TIs to 'so' and 'mi' - the classic notes of the childhood mocking notes "nyah, nyah", or of the fire engine "nee naw" sound. You can work them around to singing in solfa without worrying about reading music in a given key; that can come later.

Do build on this note by note and don't stretch their range too much initially: build their confidence. Even 'twinkle, twinkle little star' has a lot of stretch for a non-singer.

If you help them to recognise timing and train their ears in correct intervals then their voices and reading abilties will follow, as night follows day.

I have some lovely and fairly straightforward Kodaly exercises requiring two voices I can photocopy and send on, if you'd like. Clap them until you know that, then learn each line, the two of you, then sing the two lines with one another. Bliss.
ewtikins From: ewtikins Date: January 29th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I second this.

Working with tunes that it's likely they already recognise the sounds of - nursery rhymes and so on - also helps. It can seem a bit juvenile but it is useful.

Some people find that the Kodaly handsigns help a lot, too; at least one of my voice students (okay, I only have two at the moment) can match pitch if he's doing the handsigns but has great difficulty doing it without. He's a kinaesthetic learner. We'll gradually get to the point where he doesn't need the handsigns but in the meantime they're a very good thing.

vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: January 29th, 2008 12:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

p.s.,

this http://www.musicarrangers.com/star-theory/t01.htm may help on some of that. Did me.
crouchinglynx From: crouchinglynx Date: January 29th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can't sing and I have the paperwork to prove it - specifically, the examiner's notes from the bits when they asked me to sing during my flute exams. (If I'd wanted to sing, why would I have taken up the flute?)
What I found particularly frustrating about the headmaster's attempts to get us to sing in assembly, and his belief that there was no excuse for not joining the school choir, was the way that he expected us all to be able to "hit that note" straight off. I can only reach a specified note by letting some noise out and then homing in on the right frequency. From my observations of people who *can* sing, that's an ability I'd have to gain before I could consider myself a singer.
j4 From: j4 Date: January 29th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Like I say, somebody told you "you can't sing" and you've taken that as an article of faith ever since. Homing in on the right note -- that means you can tell what the right note should be, and reproduce it. So yes, you'd have to practice before you could do it right first time every time... but isn't that the same for most skills? You can make a tuneful noise with your voice: you can sing. You can learn to sing better if you want to (or not if you don't).

And if your headmaster expected everybody to be able to hit the right note first time without any learning or practice, and forced everybody to join the choir, he's a c0ck. Stop listening to him!! Don't let one guy being a c0ck 20 years ago put you off singing!

If I'd wanted to sing, why would I have taken up the flute?

I believe some people do want to do both :) but the aural bit in music exams is a way of testing general musicality/music theory/etc independently of your technique on the instrument you're learning. Boys are allowed to whistle instead of singing (because of breaking voices) and I think anybody's allowed to hum instead, can't remember the exact wording of the rules. Though music teachers tend to just do things the same way for everybody cos that's the way they know how to teach. :-/
katstevens From: katstevens Date: January 29th, 2008 01:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Remind them to actually open their mouth wide, like they're biting an apple.

Or if they're of the geeky persuasion, get them to imagine Interweb smileys:

:-O
:-x

They could be in tune and singing sweeter arias than Charlotte Church, but if no-one can hear them it's not going to be much cop.
glittertigger From: glittertigger Date: January 29th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was told I was tone deaf by a couple of music teachers as a child because I sang so far out of tune. Although I could tune instruments (cello and guitar) better than most people and play them pretty well, so I clearly wasn't.

The wonderful (and very patient) singer Sandra Kerr taught me to sing at a summer school when I was 16 and I've been OK since. I can't remember the details of how she did it, but will have a think and see what comes back to me.
ewtikins From: ewtikins Date: January 29th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
In addition to what others have said:

Teach some breathing exercises. Singing involves a lot of breath control, and it's often useful to practise that separately. Practise yawning, practise inhaling and holding the breath, exhaling and holding the breath, letting the breath expand the lungs (rather than lifting the shoulders up in an attempt to fill the lungs), stretching, and so on. Practise humming with a dropped jaw but the lips still closed, and feel how that makes bits of your head vibrate or buzz.

Wishy-washy exercises like visualising the breath getting to every part of your body on inhalation and all the stress melting away on exhalation can seem hokey but what they actually do is teach your body that breathing is relaxing. When people are nervous or lack confidence about singing, it's very easy to be tense, and that makes it much harder to sing. Even trained singers often carry quite a bit of tension in their bodies while singing.

Remember that an unused voice won't have much endurance to begin with. Practising every day is best, but practising 10 minutes a few times a day may be more viable than practising a half hour all at once. During actual lessons, take lots of breaks to talk about stuff or breathe, it's a lot easier to work on endurance later when tone production and pitch-matching are not such huge challenges.
From: rgl Date: January 29th, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm one of the people who can't remember how I learnt to sing, because it was so long ago. However, I'd like to add a few (unrelated) points to the above discussion:

i) A small number of people really are "tone-deaf" in an identifiably neuropsychological way, i.e. they have problems with pitch perception (cf. dyslexia etc)
ii) Singing higher takes more effort, as you have to contract your vocal cords more. Thus almost everyone has a natural tendency to sing flat, and I remember one of the most frequent instructions in church choir was always to "sing sharp" or "think sharp" to counteract this. Possibly worth mentioning.
iii) Several posters have implied that trying to distinguish different semitones from one another is a helpful way of exercising pitch perception. This can be surprisingly difficult, because two notes a semitone apart have little harmonic relationship to one another, and sometimes it's easier to hear harmonic relationships (notes that have simple ratios of their fundamental frequencies) than melodic ones (notes that have "nearby" fundamental frequencies).
hairyears From: hairyears Date: January 29th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
If you wanted to teach someone to sing, how would you go about it?

I'd say: Wot she sed but there's a bit missing: Ewt's a singing teacher (among other things).

So, from experience, my answer is: put them in touch with a singing tutor, and I'll be happy to recommend one.
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