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In-Depth Post #4: Honing, Improving

Since my piano exam ended last week, I’ve spent around 3-4 hours on in-depth every week, and am starting to see the fruits of my labour. I also met with my mentor twice, and we worked more on my exercises and repertoire.

Below are some of the subjects and skills we started to cover:

  1. Nasal resonance: Margo really wanted me to focus on my tone, and create a more full/resonant tone rather than a hollow sound. She gave me a new exercise where I would make an “-ng” sound to gain a resonant and vibrating sound, and then drop my tongue so I had an open note “-ah”, but could still feel my voice resonating.
  2. We spoke/sang at length again about using my core to generate power and breath support instead of lengthening my chin and creating neck tension. Margo used the word “connection” several times, as a way of describing the feeling when I sang while being supported by my core. When I focused more on improving my breath support, I found it much easier to sing high notes without getting tired.
  3. I was starting to develop the bad habit of relaxing my chest too much after singing before taking my next breath. Margo told me that completely exhaling after completing a phrase would be impossible to do when I was actually singing real music, when I only had a limited time to breathe. This really helped reinforce the breath-pause-sing-repeat cycle that Margo was trying to teach me in our earlier sessions.
  4. Finally, we started to focus on my vowel shape. When people speak, we typically use our lips/mouth to create vowels, and our tongue doesn’t play as crucial of a role in vowel formation. However, when we sing, our mouth should more-or-less stay in the same position (an open and vertical shape), and our tongue creates all the vowel sounds. This change was quite startling to me, but the exercises Margo gave me have really helped me to focus on my voice’s mechanics when I sing.

At home, I scoured the internet for recordings of my song that I chose, Silent Noon by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This one, sung by John Shirley Quick, is becoming a favourite of mine, as is another by the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (who I once saw in concert at the Orpheum a few years ago!). I also read a few more chapters of Singing for Dummies, which focused more on the larynx and proper breath support. It was very similar to what I was learning from Margo in my lessons, and having labelled diagrams were also enriching as well. A few difficulties I’ve had recently include finding proper tuning! I knew that staying in tune would be challenging from the start for me. I have been using an electronic tuner to check my pitch, and plan on discussing the topic with Margo at our next session. I have also found that having my mouth in a more vertical shape helps as well. Another challenge I’m having is incorporating Margo’s advice about the breath cycle into Silent Noon, as the phrases aren’t as robotic and predictable as my exercises.

Since I’ve been working on singing for almost two (!) months now, I took a quick look at my proposal, and reflected on my progress. I have been working a ton on breath support, and proper posture/the way that my body should look and feel physically when I’m singing. Additionally, I’m starting to work on vowels, diction, and tuning! Hooray! One noticeable deviation from my plan is the timing of when I’m learning my skills. Although I’m not completely following my schedule, I’m still reaching all my goals and benchmarks.

Ms. Mulder’s questions for us:

  1. What has been my most difficult mentoring challenge so far? Why?

I have found that continuously incorporating what Margo is teaching me into every single note I sing is quite a challenge. There are countless things to think about – the physical feeling of singing, breath cycle, how I look, what the sound is, how I’m breathing, and several more! She does a great job of explaining concepts, but it’s obviously a struggle to combine everything for my exercises. What I’ve found useful is slowing down my practice, and really making sure I’m singing every note the way I want it to sound and feel.

  1. What is working well? Why?

My progress is incredibly so far – we’ve covered so much. Margo even said that it took years for some of her students to reach the level of progress I’m at after four lessons! She has essentially taught the basics of 80% of what I wanted to learn, and now I can really focus on them and actually (try to) become an expert singer! Also, our communication and feedback loop is very clear, and there have been no major misunderstandings so far. I’m taking detailed notes, recording her discussions, and Margo is being very clear with exactly the sound and motions that she wants from me. Finally, I believe I’m benefiting from the exercises she has given me, which are simple but force me to pay attention to the mechanics of my singing.

  1. What could be working better?  How can you make sure this happens?

Probably the biggest improvement I want to make during my mentor sessions are learning how to ‘social-ly’ and comfortably respond to Margo’s jokes. Occasionally, when she uses more dramatic or self-deprecating humour, I struggle to respond other than laughing, and I actually believe that improving on this issue will also help our interactions! I have found recently that connecting with her when she makes jokes about her piano/teaching skills by referencing my own struggles have often helped make the conversation less awkward!

“If I cannot fly, let me sing.”

– Stephen Sondheim

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