Please see two videos attached.

Knowing that language is a true barrier in working with our Chinese choirs, I have been forced to be more concise with my instruction! I hope I make this change permanent. The shortest explanation to our singers can either create more confusion or fall silent on their young minds. Even though I have a translator, I must wait for the translator to deliver the instruction then hope the translation was accurate.

Dr. Daugherty, Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, constantly stressed delivering remarks in seven words or less. This might be a hard fast rule for advanced or professional choirs, but it is certainly an efficient manner in which to manage rehearsals for younger choirs.

For the novice singer to the most mature singer, the use of gestures and modeling has become my modus operandi. At this stage, few of our singers actually need more explanation. They simply need to hear and see how the phrase is sung.

In the two videos attached, the Purcell Choir, 9-11 year olds, is singing Sanctus from Cornell’s Unison Mass. We added a breath mark after the highest note in the last phrase of the piece. The natural response is to clip the note while also accenting it. The only remedy was to demonstrate using the fingers of one hand to gently brush the palm of the other. Viola! The voice automatically matched the kinesthetic gestures used by the hands.

The Byrd Choir, 7-8 year olds, has been using Brahms’ Die Nachtigall to learn many elements of musicianship. It has served us well learning to:

  • count sing “1-2-3” in English
  • sing repeating pitches, rhythms and arpeggios
  • sing staccato
  • sing German text

We used the fingers of one hand to tap lightly the other in order to understand staccato singing and to understand where to put the final consonant. In this case the end of each phrase ended with a crotchet or quarter note. All the other notes in the piece are quavers and semi-quavers.

So much more can be accomplished in less time, when we apply a gesture to better understand the goal of our music making. Articulation and phrasing become instantly clear and without ever giving any verbal instruction. Accept the challenge to see how few words you can use in order to achieve amazing results.

Lynn Swanson, MME

December Survival Guide for Singers

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year….” You just sang that in your head, didn’t you?!? Congratulations! It’s December! The magical, marvelous season of wonder is upon us. We wonder what we were thinking when scheduled our month with back to back to back rehearsals and performances that fill our lives and calendars. Of the many challenges facing singers, staying healthy is probably the most important of all. Many of the tips you are about to read, are things you already know. However, a few reminders may keep you in good voice for all your endeavors.

  1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! I think I may have posted about this before! 😊
    • Drink more water! Breathe steam! Depending on humidity levels where you live, you may need to outfit your home with humidifiers. If you are in a drier climate, you should probably be running yours at about a 50% level.
    • Keep an assortment of your favorite herbal teas at hand if you find water monotonous. If you prefer a sweet treat, consider adding honey. It can soothe a tender throat and has natural antibiotic properties.
    • If you are sensitive to dairy products, save the egg nog for after your gigs. In some individuals, some dairy products may cause mucus to thicken. Thick mucus impedes the free oscillation of the vocal folds making it necessary to exert greater breath pressure to create sound and/or more breath pressure to blow the thicker mucus off the vocal folds.
  2. REST! Rest your voice, rest your body, rest your mind. Remember that even if you are NOT actively phonating, your larynx may be moving as though actually singing just listening to your music. Remember, speaking and singing use the same muscles and coordination. REST = QUIET!
  3. Eat well! As time is a precious commodity, grabbing a quick bite can be tempting! Acid reflux is a common affliction for singers. A healthy diet will reduce the possibility or symptoms. Spicy foods, while delicious, can irritate the pharynx and cause additional sensitivity or swelling. Enjoy with care!
  4. Practice Smart! Not every rehearsal requires 100% of your effort 100% of the time. Sing smart & save your best for performance. Some may take issue with this and say you should always give it your all. If you have the luxury of abundant rest, by all means, sing with all the joy and passion you have within you! But, if your calendar has few to no days of rest, budget your resources wisely.
  5. Cool down vocally after a concert or rehearsal. During especially busy weeks, warm salt water gargles can aid recovery by whisking away extra swelling and soothing tender pharynx tissues. I realize the salt water never actually contacts the vocal folds, but swelling can be reduced in near tissues and the extra water in the vocal tissues will be pulled out indirectly.
  6. Have a well packed gig bag!

GIG BAG should include: 2 full water bottles tea, snacks, fuzzy socks, scarf, throat drops (NO MENTHOL, EVER! More on that later…), tissue, hand sanitizer, saline spray, lip balm, acetaminophen (not ibuprofen or other NSAIDS they can contribute to vocal fold bruising – more on this later too!), pencil, post-it notes, thank you notes, business cards, pitch pipe, and if soloing – an extra copy of your music. Be prepared to share! 😊

I don’t know what December is without every weekend jam packed with music. With care and preparation, I hope to never face that sadness. Sing with joy and sing well!        –

Contributed by Author Melissa Shallberg



The Human Brain and the Influence of Music

Are you looking for a great book to add to your holiday reading list?
By Developing Voices Author Jamea J. Sale, MME

Are you looking for a great book to add to your holiday reading list? I suggest Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia explores the wonders of the brain, neuroscience and music. In any other hands the topic could make for dry reading, yet Sacks exudes enthusiasm about advances in neuroscience which enabled the visualization of the human brain under the influence of music. Sacks also adhered to his point of view that the description and observation of the people being studied is paramount. Perhaps this explains why Sacks’ writing is so appealing and accessible to readers; he weaves the clinical aspects of musicophilia into an artful telling of each patient’s life experience.
What is musicophilia? The Greek word suffix -philia as applied to music refers to an abnormal or heightened awareness of music which presents as intense music-seeking or music-associated behaviors in people. This might include the playing of music, dancing, or singing along to tunes (Fletcher, Downey, Witoonpanich, & Warren, 2013). An example is the account of Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who had a near death experience when he was struck by lightning in a telephone booth. He made a full recovery and returned to his work as a surgeon, but his life was transformed by an extraordinary craving to play the piano thereafter.
Sacks refers to such phenomena as musical “hauntings.” Less dramatic hauntings occur for the average person. Many have experienced the occasional “ear-worm” in which a song is “stuck” in one’s mind. The music subverts a part of the brain somewhat like a tic. Unfortunately for some people, this repetitive firing of the brain becomes a musicophilia, and it takes on a disturbing pathological quality taking place at a high level in the brain.

Sacks made profound discoveries about music and the brain in his lifetime. Movie enthusiasts may be acquainted with the dramatic film called Awakenings, based on his 1973 book of the same name which recounted the experience of catatonic patients suffering the after-effects of sleeping sickness. These patients miraculously “awakened” after being treated with the drug, levodopa, but sadly the effects of the drug were short-lived. However, Sacks found that his patients responded to music! They were observed to temporarily move with ease and grace in response to music, and they could sing expressively. Music represented auditory dopamine for these patients, a testament to the therapy of music in their lives. (Awakenings trailer)
Musically talented people are often described as having a marked, innate musical ability, and a good ear for pitch and rhythm (Watts, Murphy, & Barnes-Burroughs, 2003). In Musicophilia, Sacks suggested that there is innate musical talent in everyone but that the cognitive and emotional capabilities needed to grasp music varies from person to person. He explored the ability of people to realize the artistry, meaning, and phrasing of music, and the apparent neurological misalignment that inhibits some people from achieving their desire for great musical ability. The advent of MRI morphometry in the 1990s made it possible to visualize the brain structures of musicians. It was determined that in the brains of professional musicians, the corpus callosum is enlarged and that the planum temporale, a part of the auditory cortex, is asymmetrically enlarged in those having absolute pitch (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003; Hutchinson, Lee, Gaab, & Schlaug, 2003). There are “increased volumes of gray matter in the motor, auditory, and visuospatial areas of the cortex and in the cerebellum” of this population (Sacks, 2007, p. 100).

Figure 4: Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G., 2003, pp. 9243.
For a very few, amusia is a reality. Acquired amusia can occur as part of a neurological event (stroke, migraine, etc.) that may affect one’s perception of music. Researcher Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthal (2005), was convinced that musical language is embedded in the human genome, even more so than spoken language, yet Mithen said that he, himself was unable to match pitch or rhythm. Therefore, Mithen was compelled to discover whether his claim to life-long amusia could be overcome. His adventure involved taking singing lessons and having brain examinations under fMRI. Mithen’s singing practice not only led to heightened activity in his brain’s inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus but Mithen also had substantial improvement in his ability to sing! After the year-long experiment, Mithen wrote that it is “remarkably difficult to sing—to simultaneously and unconsciously manage pitch, rhythm, timbre, tone, and dynamics—I am even more mystified as to why humans have evolved such an amazing ability.” (Mithen, 2008, p. 39).
Musicophilia concludes with a reminder that all cultures hold music in high esteem. It is central to human dance, religion, celebration and entertainment. One need not be particularly knowledgeable about music to be profoundly affected by it. The same could be said about the artfully woven personal stories and scientific studies of humans and music in Musicophilia. It is a compelling and worthwhile addition to your holiday reading list!

Jamea Sale, Director of the Institute for Healthy Singing:                                                                                                                                    Executive Associate Director, William Baker Choral Foundation
Voice Specialist, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City
Fletcher, P. D., Downey, L., Witoonpanich, P., & Warren, J. (2013). The brain basis of musicophilia: evidence from frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 347.
Gaser, C., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240-9245.
Hutchinson, S., Lee, L. H. L., Gaab, N., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Cerebellar volume of musicians. Cerebral cortex, 13(9), 943-949.
Koelsch, S., Skouras, S., Fritz, T., Herrera, P., Bonhage, C., Küssner, M. B., & Jacobs, A. M. (2013). The roles of superficial amygdala and auditory cortex in music-evoked fear and joy. Neuroimage, 81, 49-60.
Llinás, Rodolfo (2001). I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Mithen, S. (2008). Singing in the brain. New Scientist, 197(2644), 38-39.
Robb, S., Hanson-Abromeit, D, May, L., Hernandez-Ruiz, E., Allison, M., Beloat, A., Daugherty, S., Kurtz, R., Ott, A.,
Oyedele, O., Polasik, S., Rager, A., Rifkin, J., & Wolf, E. (2018). Reporting quality of music intervention research in healthcare: A systematic review. Complementary therapies in medicine.
Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Vintage Books.
Storr, A. (1992) Music and the Mind. New York: The Free Press.
Tomaino, C. M. (2015). Music therapy and the brain. Music therapy handbook, 40-50.
Watts, C., Murphy, J., & Barnes-Burroughs, K. (2003). Pitch matching accuracy of trained
singers, untrained subjects with talented singing voices, and untrained subjects with nontalented singing voices in conditions of varying feedback. Journal of Voice, 17(2), 185-194.