This is a topic that really gets my hackles raised and reaching for the nearest bottle of wine. It’s so close to my heart and something that is not talked about or recognized nearly enough. Music colleges tempt budding stars to empty their bank accounts along with their love for music. (Remind me not to work in marketing for any music schools…) They promise the world and in my opinion can crush your soul if you’re not careful.
I started singing at a really young age; my mum always tells stories of how I was singing ‘Queen of the Night’ type-high notes at the age of 4 whilst skipping around my bedroom. ‘She’s going to be an opera singer!’ My mum said to my sister with glee. A couple days later my sister asked my mum: ‘What happens if Sarah doesn’t become an opera singer and becomes a Launderette…’
I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Diligently taking part in singing competitions and performing from a young age, it was always at the back of my mind that at some point I would like to go to a music school and ‘properly train’ my voice (and obviously become a star afterwards…) After going through the laborious process of auditioning I won a place at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I know, sounds like where dreams are made
To die. Excuse the cheeky bit of enjambment, I couldn’t resist.
In all seriousness, I was ecstatic to have got a place on the masters programme; I felt oh so grateful, oh so humbled, oh so privileged and oh so pleased with myself. I almost rushed in grinning and licking the walls (not quite) but I was excited and had made the massive effort of moving all the way from Surrey to Glasgow (cough what a step down cough) sorry bad cold today… I was so dedicated to make this work and to finally become the professional singer I have always dreamt of. ‘Naive?’ I hear you cry…Not naïve as I believe I was lied to.
Music colleges can gobble you up and spit you out a different person. My love of singing suffered as it dawned on me that this was a very unfair, immoral and corrupt place to be. Some teachers were great and I learnt a lot and my vocal technique improved tenfold. However, performance opportunities were very hard to come by; I saw the same people being picked for opportunities time and time again for 2 years. It left me disillusioned to say the least and very depressed at most. What is worse is that the people getting the opportunities were not paying more or more talented. Quite often these special few are on scholarships and the scholarship provider needs to be assured that their precious money is going to good use-so these students are pushed to the front and given all the performance opportunities.
I cannot stress more strongly that it is not always to do with ability. Some of the singing I’ve witnessed from the infamous ‘favourited’ has been verging on awful (sorry if you’re reading this!). Also the lengths I have seen taken to get roles in music colleges doesn’t bare much thought. You can probably make a guess as to how some roles are given out…(shivers)
During my time at the RCS I was told some really damaging things such as that I ‘don’t have personality’ that I ‘can’t sing in tune’, that ‘all my repertoire is beyond my reach’ (thanks Kathleen Ferguson) and so on and so forth. I felt ignored and to be frank- talentless. When you are spending all of your savings and feeling rubbish about yourself and bored and lonely, it’s not the best use of money. It made me question why, if I was so terrible, was I given a place on the course in the first place? I have come to see after leaving the college that their debilitating comments were not in fact true.
I think that some people, the ‘favourited’, do have a fantastic time at these colleges. Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck whether you are ‘in favour’ or not. It’s not always to do with ability as I have said previously and very often those ‘lucky few’ do not do well in the profession afterwards. All too often I hear that so and so who was a star at the college is now not singing a note anywhere and is in some other profession. I do feel sorry for these hopefuls who are put on a pedestal and then quickly chucked off when they graduate. It is as damaging as not being favored as it sets you up for failure. Furthermore, when opportunities have been given to you on a plate you get a shock in the real world where the standard is incredibly high and work is incredibly competitive.
I mainly left like I was being treated with little respect in both colleges that I attended (the RCS and the RWCMD). The power trip of putting students down can go to some teacher’s heads and they end up sucking the enjoyment out of what should be the most beautiful, natural and god-given activity. Since dropping out of the opera school at the RWCMD I took time to get the love of singing back. I taught, sung different styles and generally took a more relaxed approach to my vocal development. Having 2 lessons a week at college I think is too much as you can’t process the information that quickly and you wind up feeling frustrated and downbeat. Opportunities have come naturally and I have performed a hundred times more since leaving Music College and enjoyed professional contracts with opera companies.
What I have realized from Music College is that art is subjective and one singer might be the bee’s knees in one college and not even accepted into another. What matters isn’t what people think of you, but your enjoyment of the gift you have been given. Others will smother you with their ‘advice’ or ‘criticism’ or praise even but it’s meaningless. So what is it all about? From my experience: Integrity, patience and bloody hard work.
I have recently had the absolute privilege of working with the charity Lost Chord which produces more than 1,300 interactive musical sessions a year in 130 homes, designed to stimulate responses from people with dementia through the use of music. Before my first concert with them I knew the basic power of music: that it can heal and bring joy to people of all ages and stages in life, however I was truly struck by the sheer magic that song/music produces and saw some responses that blew my mind.
The mind is a wonderfully complex organ which can do incredible things, however it is not immune to disease and decline and the epidemic of Dementia/Alzheimer's Disease is a fact we can't shy away from.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not actually a specific disease; it is a general term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's Disease counts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular Dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type. The signs and symptoms are various but here are areas that are most affected:
Some suffers can be in the early stages of Dementia for quite some time, whilst others decline rapidly.
Music is Medicine
Whilst singing in care homes I have seen residents with a wide range of symptoms, stages and severity; from mild to the very last stages where they are hospitalised.
What I want to write about here isn't the scientific reasoning or research behind the disease or what is physically happening to a suffer; I want to share my experience with music and dementia and the true healing/regenerative properties of song.
Walking into one particular care home in Sheffield, I saw many elderly people; some slumped in chairs, others in wheelchairs. One woman was whining and crying to a carer, tugging on her sleeve. Another was trying to get up whilst repeatedly being told to 'sit back down'. Others were chatting, mumbling to themselves, rocking in their chairs or being fed by a carer. I felt my chest tighten and my heart pick up a pace- the smell of human excrement and lack of fresh air gripping me tight. I thought to myself: "how are you going to make a difference to these people who are suffering so badly? Is singing them a song really going to do anything? You're no nurse, what you know about medicine is frankly not worth knowing!" I felt a bit silly, hopeless and was looking for the nearest exit.
After introducing myself and my lovely pianist, I started my first song ('The Trolly Song' made famous by the legend Judy Garland) I smiled and made eye-contact, walking around the room singing to the residents feigning confidence and ease. I tried to radiate joy and love through the song and to my amazement one woman begins singing along with me. The next song 'Moon River' has a calming effect on the more agitated residents in the audience and I see some residents smile and look like they are transported to a time where they first heard this song. As our programme went on we witnessed residents clapping, dancing and moving in time with the music.
Another care home I sang in there was a gentlemen at the back of the room who had a carer by his side. He looked expressionless and was quite immobile. During the course of the concert I plucked up the courage to start what I call 'working on' this man. I smile and sing directly to him, looking deep into his eyes. To the amazement of the carer he started singing the song back to me with the widest grin on his face. The carer was shocked and had tears in her eyes, visibly moved.
Another concert I saw residents get up onto their feet and dance, transported to a time when they were agile and carefree. We amazed carers, shocked medical professionals and ourselves with the positive response music was making in the lives of these individuals with Alzheimers.
Music really is medicine and should be given out freely in large doses to all. It really is a sheer joy to make just a little difference to the lives of these suffers and we have music to thank.
We've all heard the phase ‘break a leg’ which a performer is supposed to hear before walking out on stage but etymologically speaking it sets up up for the big ‘A word’…Anxiety.
Nearly every student that I teach asks me about stage fright, performance anxiety, The Fear or whatever name you want to call it and it is without a shadow of a doubt the trickiest aspect of performance.
From a very young age I was singing in a choir and doing regular performances, then I went on to have private lessons and started doing competitions (many competitions..) and slowly but surely the anxiety crept up on me and I began to experience Proper Performance Anxiety (I felt like it needed capitals to add gravitas or something).
I felt it physically (primarily in my knees which used to shake as I walked on stage and in a trembling voice informed the examiners what I was going to sing). I also went hot and cold generally wanted the ground to swallow me up or to wake up and discover it was all a dream…
I found that the more I was performing the worse the anxiety got-the opposite of what I was told was supposed to happen… Then at the tender age of 16 I decided to stop singing for the time being as the nerves were too much to bear despite winning every competition going (I was laden with shields, trophies, medals and photos with mayors…) but I still found myself feeling sick to my stomach and looking for the exit door. (There were times that my mum had to literally push me into the venue whilst I desperately dug my feet into the ground)
These nerves seemed to worsen when I took up singing again after university. I remember singing at a music festival in portugal and my husband having to almost hold me down in my chair so that I didn’t run out of the theatre before it was my turn to sing.
Similarly when studying voice at the RCS I used to be ill for weeks after performances as I had worked myself up into such a state before the shows. It’s only recently since leaving music college that I feel as though my nerves are more in control. I think one of the key things that helped me is to actually care less! The reason I was so beside myself before every performance was because I cared so terribly much and wanted to impress the audience/examiner so terribly much. I was essentially getting in my own way; not trusting myself and listening to the cruel parrot on my shoulder. I feel I now need a subheading entitled: ‘The Parrot’.
Well that felt good. So, in laymen's terms we all have a devil and an angel on our shoulders. The angel tells us “everything is going to be ok”; “you can do it”; “I believe in you”; “What’s the worse that can happen?”; “You look great”.
The parrot or the devil, on the other hand, tells us: “Well wasn’t that out of tune”; “Im sure you started singing in German when its an Italian aria”; “Why on earth did you choose to wear that dress; you look so fat and ugly it offended the audience; “Go on, just give up; you’re beyond rubbish”.
It’s thus up to us which we silence and which we listen to. I have a perchance for listening to the parrot and letting him berate me into submission. I think the key to silencing the parrot is to speak to him (now she’s lost the plot you’re thinking) Engage in rational dialogue with him; for example:
PARROT: You’re just rubbish; give up its never going to work out you're just delusional.
ME: Is there any evidence for what you are saying? I have won many competitions, studied at a royal conservatoire and perform regularly…Is that delusional? I really don’t think so.
PARROT: Well, anyone can do that-how are you any different? There are many better singers than you so just quit while you're ahead.
ME: There maybe many good singers but I have just a good chance as anybody else- I’m talented and able so the world is my oyster.
PARROT: What a cliche but ok go on then, prove me wrong.
When you open dialogue with the parrot you feel more in control and you questions his comments instead of just believing them straight away. The world is full of types who want to rain on your parade and bring you down so why do it to yourself? If you really think about it, putting yourself down is one of the stupidest things you could do. Be kind to yourself- we tend to treat people we love with respect and care but when it comes to ourselves we let the parrot win and beat ourselves down. So I say, look after number 1, silence that evil parrot and do what you do best.
By Sarah Dunbar
If you’re watching, reading this now,
Look to the left and answer us how:
Infants screaming, children bleeding
Mothers weeping; fathering pleading,
Crowds cheering and then disappearing
Families torn up, lives shook up
Flesh. Bones, hearts, souls shut up;
Minds, dreams, loves, hopes laid out on earth
Tarmac, streets, floors and roads.
If you’re watching, reading this now,
Look to your right and with all your Might:
Here’s Tommy, he’s our pride
And our joy, our special little boy
Hide and seek and his precious toy
Fills his lungs with joy,
His golden hair
Heart beating the tune of the elect
Now, close your eyes
Open, look and listen
To the ear-splitting silence.
Those golden locks now red
Sheet covered. Dead.
That favorite toy
Next to his side
It’s your turn to go seek
Now he has nowhere to hide
By Sarah Dunbar
When will I have used my allowance of tears
When will they dry up and be no more
Waves crashing on a desert floor
Bringing sweet release for a moments false peace
Rivers of salt exploring, searching the crevices of my face
Am I in the right place?
It’s not a race
But I just haven't got the pace
When will the nectar of frustration and pain expire
Calling me the lier
I know no more truth higher
Successes, boasts, praises, purposes, dignity, reasons, lofty, high, mighty reign
Whilst my tears they rain
Down my pain
Continual flow, different rhythms they know
Am I in the right place?
It’s not a race
But I just haven't got the pace
This is a topic of discussion that always gets singers fired up with opinions and ideas being thrown here there and everywhere like an episode of question time. I’ve had many different teachers all with different approaches; all thinking their way is the ‘right’ way. What needs to be remembered is that there is no hard and fast rule that applies to all. We all have different physical make-ups and are different shapes and sizes. Think of the body as an instrument like any other- a violin will sound different to a double bass!
My first singing teacher used to have me stick out my stomach to breathe, filling up ‘like a balloon’. This caused tension and my breath control suffered. If we stick out our stomachs on the intake of breath then we disengage the support system and so singing for long phrases will be near impossible. We need to aim for a feeling of expansion from the back and on the intake of breath feel like we are birds opening our wings. That way we can engage the abdominal muscles, expand the ribcage and thus control the expel of air. A good exercise for this is sitting on a chair with your back firmly on the backrest, taking a breath that opens the back and so pushing the back of the chair and then breathing out on an audible ‘hiss’. The aim of the game is to keep the flow of air completely even. A good way to achieve this is to imagine colored smoke is coming out of your mouth and that you are trying to keep the line of smoke exactly even; we don’t want a gush of air or a juddery flow.
My next teacher had me holding my stomach in tightly like when doing a sit up. ‘It must always be firm and engaged!’ she said. So I was singing with a strained (and slightly constipated) look trying to not let my naturally squishy tummy stay squishy when I sang. This did not work for me as I was tense and could not relax the abdominals on the intake of breath. A good exercise to get the right feeling on the intake of breath is to breathe out every single piece of air in your body (impossible I know but work with me) then before you pass out (…) wait a few seconds holding your breath and just before you drop dead (not quite…) take a nice efficient breath in. You will feel your abdominals relax as they thank you for taking air in! This is the feeling we want. It’s not the sticking out of your stomach or anything like that; it’s the natural feeling of expansion that I will keep banging on about. My students know this too well!
My next teacher was always shouting at me to ‘use my diaphragm’…and to ‘get that diaphragm working!’…Actually it’s physically impossible to manipulate the diaphragm as it is an involuntary muscle…
Just like another very important involuntary muscle in our body (the heart) the diaphragm has an important job to do, but we cannot directly control it I’m afraid. Telling a student to “use your diaphragm!” is like telling an athlete to “pump your heart!”...which would go down as well as a cup of cold sick (sorry).
Teacher number 4 was really great and taught me everything I know today so I will name her in the blog-Helen Lawson. Complete legend and wise owl when it comes to well most things but what she taught me about technique was invaluable and has served me well to this day. She worked on me releasing the sound and making sure the ‘attack’ or ‘onset’ was very clean. Not that you can start a note dirtily…what she meant by this is that the closing of the vocal folds need to be simultaneous with the flow of air. To achieve what is called ‘coordinated onset’, the abdominal and intercostal muscles must be engaged just prior to singing so that there is sufficient breath support for the onset of sound. This onset method is normally preferred because it produces a clear, resonant sound. However, ‘glottal onset’, sometimes called a hard ‘attack’, involves inhaling, closing the vocal folds, and then beginning to sing. Glottal tension is abated just enough to cause the vocal folds to vibrate and so produce sound. Whereas ‘breathy’ onset occurs when singers inhale and then start to exhale while leaving the glottis open. Shortly thereafter, they close the glottis just enough to bring the vocal folds into vibration.
This is one of the main problems I find with young or inexperienced singers; they think that we need looaddds of air when singing. They do the ‘I’m singing now’ face and throw lots of air at the chords. It’s really not necessary (or helpful). I sometimes get my students to attempt not breathe before starting a phrase. This sounds odd but what they find is that they manage the breath (and musical phrase) better without tanking up on air.
Teacher number 5 was always telling me to smile and lift my cheeks when singing. This is helpful to a point but what is important is to not use this as a rule of thumb and sing with a crazed smile all the time. I see singers taught by this particular teacher smiling quite widely when they sing and so when it comes to French repertoire or certain vowels that need the rounding of the lips, the technique falls flat. I teach my students to keep the face relaxed (but alert) and as natural as possible. If the emotions of the piece needs a smile in the voice then I do encourage the lift of the cheeks like a smug teenager trying to be polite to a family member they hate: ‘So nice to see you Aunty Joan…loved the teapot you knitted for me…It’s what I’ve always wanted (3rd degree burns)’.
I do apologize for the image but he’s doing the smug smile so well!
Personally the most important thing is to master is a feeling of controlled freedom in the sound. An oxymoron it seems I know but when you get it right (I achieve this 2 times out of 10…) it’s an amazing feeling like you are riding a wave; you are in complete control but you are liberated and are holding nothing back. A lot of my students tend to hold the sound back due to nerves or fears of ‘getting it right’ and it can be quite tiring for the voice. I encourage my students to get it wrong and to ‘make an ugly sound’ that way they free themselves up and allow the voice to be released. A good exercise to get this feeling of release is to pick up objects and throw them when singing. Be careful where and what you throw though….not near the TV and please mind the cat.