Author Archives: Liz Nicholas

About Liz Nicholas

Liz is a passionate community music leader, working primarily with adults in different settings. She believes everyone can sing and make music to a level that gives them pleasure and a way of expressing themselves.

Singing together better

Just before the end of 2021, I led a session with my Thursday group at Under the Stars.  This is a group of adults with learning disabilities and/or autism, and we play instruments, write songs and sing together.

My new colleague, the lovely Maddie Morris, couldn’t come into work as she was waiting for the results of a PCR test, but she had planned this activity and she joined us on Zoom.

We were getting ready to sing Christmas carols together – in more of a choir style than a band style, and we wanted the group to think about improving their own performance. We’d chosen Away in a Manger and Maddie suggested we find a recording of a choir singing the song beautifully.  

We listened, and then asked the group what it was that made the performance so good. 

We ended up with something very simple and very profound. Sorry, is that too poncey?  I mean, the group came up with six aspects that cover an awful lot of what makes a performance great, or unique.  It was so good that I had to share it here.

1:         All in time and nobody was rushing.

Excellent.  This is exactly where I would put this: at the top of the list.  All the singers were in time with each other, and nobody was going faster or slower.  This is the absolute bedrock of singing together.  It’s the main purpose of having a conductor – to have a visual cue that each singer can follow so that the timing stays constant and the singers progress at the same speed.  

2:         Everybody was in lovely tune.

This is such a perfect expression of the pitch being spot on.  In lovely tune.  I will start using this on a regular basis as a goal.

3:         Some people were singing deep and some high.

It’s a very simple observation and it adds to the beauty of the piece – everybody sticks to their own line, be it unison or harmony. Some deep and some high.

4:         Not forcing – singing calmly

This led to a fun conversation about how we use different voices for different songs and at different times – for instance, singing a baby to sleep or at a football match.  In a choir setting, we usually want to have this feeling of not forcing the voice, an easy flowing tone with no “edge” to it. Everybody was singing in the same way, using the same kind of tone.

5:         It sparkled like it was in church

I love this comment!  This description of the acoustic of a cathedral is lovely.  We can’t often choose what room we sing in – but it’s good to be aware that it affects how we sound.  We talked about when we make a recording we can change settings to make something sound as though it was sung in a bigger, more echoey place.

6:         Soft and gentle, then strong and louder

Changes in dynamic (volume control) make a song more interesting.  This is different from 4, the tone, and it’s important to know which one you want to change.

We did not plant any of these ideas in advance, or guide the discussion in a particular direction. The learners simply said what they heard.  We introduced the musical terms – timing, pitch, harmony, tone, acoustic, dynamic, which people may or may not remember – and we also made a little icon for each one.  Now when we sing our songs we can talk about which of these aspects could be improved to make the song the best it can be.

The power, and responsibility, of choosing Christmas music

Singing together is something that people do at Christmas more than at any other time of year – unless, maybe, they are football or rugby fans.  The sound of a choir – especially with the frosty echo you get outside – seems to suggest tinsel and snowflakes.  In fact, in the song It Feels Like Christmas from The Muppet Christmas Carol, that’s the first line.
“It’s in the singing of a street-corner choir…”

Starting the season of singing Christmas songs in choir – for a musical director – is a microcosm of preparing for Christmas. Anyone who has had responsibility for buying presents and planning festivities will recognise the feeling:  How am I going to make sure it’s good enough this year?  I could work really hard and some people might still be disappointed. Expectations are high, and the emotions are super-charged after the blip of Christmas 2020. It has to be special, and magical, and give us the tingly feeling. 

We have such a big back-catalogue of Christmas songs now that we have to leave out somebody’s favourite every year.  And what about all the songs we haven’t sung yet? I’ve started arranging It Feels Like Christmas but we haven’t got time to learn it.  I’ve always thought What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding would fit beautifully in a Christmas programme. I keep finding, arranging and writing new things but to put them into the programme something else has to give way.  

There has to be room for a new song, most years – there was a time when we didn’t know Gaudete or Hail Smiling Morn, after all.  But this year I think not. We want to be able to recapture the joy of singing our old favourites, and that won’t happen without a bit of work.

Do we go for a big set of songs and race through them – which runs the risk that people sing all the same mistakes as in 2019 plus a few more, and new members of the choir just hang on by the skin of their teeth?  Do we focus on a few songs in more detail and hope that the singers appreciate rediscovering them and don’t get frustrated?

There are always a couple of people who choose to opt out of choir while we are doing our Christmas set.  I completely understand this.  Some people don’t want to sing anything on a Christian theme, because they are atheist, or anti-organised religion, or have another faith. Some people just find the emotional overload of the Christmas songs too much. I’m reminded of one of the checklists in The Sloane Ranger Handbook (which we thought was very funny in 1983): “*Don’t cry at funerals, *Do cry when you sing Christmas carols.”

The power of Christmas songs to touch the heartstrings is undeniable.  Is it because we have heard them year after year since we were very small? Is it because we sang them with our grandparents, parents, schoolfriends – all the important people down the years – and now sing them with children and grandchildren? We miss the people who are no longer with us, and the people we no longer are.  

A few thoughts about breathing

All things share the same breath
The beast, the tree, the man
They all share the same breath

Chief Seattle

Breathing is part of what defines a living thing. It links us with other living things, as this lovely quotation shows. When we breathe, we take in what is essential for life – more than food, more than light, we need it constantly, every minute of every day, to stay alive.

Most of the time, however, we are not even aware of respiration. Unless we are stretching ourselves physically, or we are emotionally upset, our breath is something we take for granted. 

Breath has spiritual overtones.  The word “spirit” itself comes from the Latin “spirare”, to breathe.  It seems to make sense that if a person dies when they stop breathing, that their essence leaves the body with the breath.  

The word “inspiration” literally means breathing in.  We imagine the silent invisible force that produces art or heroism is part of the air, that it can be breathed in. Breath gives power to creativity.

Breath is the engine of singing. The movement of air makes the larynx vibrate. By controlling our breath, we channel the air through our voicebox and the passages in the head – our nose and mouth – so that it creates a sound.

When singing, we need to channel the breath without force, finding a balance between control and relaxation, getting rid of tension to allow the voice to come out in all its glory. We have to pay attention to the breath and develop our ability to breathe consciously, taking that quick silent inbreath and controlling a long melodious outbreath.  

Breathing exercises are part of Hindu and Buddhist traditions of meditation, as well as every choral warmup. To breathe consciously and slowly calms the mind and helps us to simply be in the moment.  Learning to be aware of our breath and make each breath last longer has benefits way beyond the choir rehearsal. 

Another important thing happens when we breathe: our body transforms the air.  What we breathe in and what we breathe out are not the same.  It seems more magical because the breath is invisible.  We breathe in air that is 21% oxygen, we breathe out air that is only 16% oxygen.  We change the air around us.

When we sing, we go beyond this and shape the air to create sound, which communicates and moves people.  Liz Powers, a fantastic choir director, described what we do as “creating magic with humans and air.”

I started with one quotation and I’ll finish with another, a very short poem by Adrian Mitchell, written on the death of one of his heroes.  

He breathed in air, he breathed out light.
Charlie Parker was my delight.

Adrian Mitchell

Just One Thing…

No, this is not a Columbo tribute – although I am a fan of Peter Falk’s scruffy detective.  This is a Radio 4 series of short 15-minute talks. Dr Michael Mosley, the one who got everybody fasting and doing HIIT, has come up with things we can do to increase our physical and mental wellbeing.  

They are all simple, like getting some sunshine and eating dark chocolate in moderation.  Last week his prescription for health was – hooray! – that we should sing regularly. Singing for five minutes a day improves your mental and physical health. 

There’s already a page on this site sharing some of the research promoting singing for health.  The findings reported in “Just One Thing” are even more extensive, and fascinating.  

Here are three of the research studies quoted in the programme:

  • Anxiety, fear, fatigue and blood pressure were reduced in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy when they listened to live music.  (I’m intrigued by this – is recorded music less effective?)
  • There is evidence that singing boosts your immune system – immunoglobulin A levels were higher when people sang rather than just listening to music. 
  • It can also help people manage chronic pain by stimulating endocannabinoids produced by the body. A study at the University of Nottingham found that after 30 mins of group singing, the level of endocannabinoids in the blood rose by 42%. 

There is a great deal of evidence where people report significant reductions in their symptoms of stress, but science can be sceptical about results that consist of people telling us how they feel.  Immunoglobulin A and endocannabinoids are chemicals which can be measured, analysed and logged in a spreadsheet, proving our physiology is affected by singing.

The special quality of singing together is that it has multiple effects all at once – improving posture, memory, lung function and stimulating reward pathways in the brain, as well as building self-confidence and providing social connections.  

Most people acknowledge that music affects mood, and that listening to, or making, music can improve our mental health.  When we listen to music our bodies tune in to it – the pulse of the music changes our heartrate, blood pressure, and the rate at which we breathe.  These physical changes affect our thoughts and feelings – and the chemical balance in our bodies. 

As Laurence Sterne put it, 

“A man’s body and his mind… are exactly like a jerkin and a jerkin’s lining; rumple the one, you rumple the other.”

Maybe we can see singing as a kind of psychic iron, smoothing out those rumples.

And “rumpled” brings us right back to Lieutenant Columbo!

Singing in the Park Part II

 We’d decided to sing on the flat car park outside Meersbrook Hall.  The barrier is shut at weekends so there wouldn’t be any vehicles there, and opposite the hall there is a grassy slope, just right for sitting on, lending the place an amphitheatre feel.  

I started laying out the coloured cones to show people where to stand, pacing out the gaps. I’d been nervous all day, feeling slightly sick. How would we sound? Would the one bass survive? Would the tenors and sopranos be able to hear each other? Would the occasion get people too excited to concentrate? Would they remember to watch me?  Would my amplifier work? Would I forget the words or steer people wrong?  Would it spoil the balance, or help it, if I sang with the sopranos? I decided I would sing with them if there were only three.  I knew that we would have an audience of at least eight, as well as a couple of choir members who did not feel ready to perform but wanted to listen.

What was it for, this performance? It wasn’t linked to any event. We hadn’t promoted it much, because most of us are still nervous about crowds. It was a date plucked out of the air, and a time designed to maximise participation. I’d just felt we needed something to look forward to, a time and a place to say, “Hey, we’ve learnt some songs!”

I saw the first singer arrive in turquoise and I smiled.  She was happy, excited, wearing something special.  I’d forgotten this feeling. More people arrived, in ones and twos, and greeted each other warmly. The cones were done. My music stand was up, set list anchored to it with a heavy-duty clothes peg (Where were my other pegs? Why did I only have one? On cue, a gust of wind blew across the car park.) The sun peeked out from behind a cloud like a blessing. 

There were singers there who had not made it to a rehearsal for several weeks but had been practising at home, and some who have loyally attended every practice come rain or shine.  This particular group of people had not been all together for a year and a half. It felt like an Occasion.

We were ready. I initiated a little warm-up, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s, since I’d not done anything vocal all day.  It was still only 4.28: one singer and a couple of expected audience members – including our chairperson, Isobel – had not yet arrived so we sang a few short scales. There was an air of expectation, into which rode Isobel, on the glorious semi-recumbent tandem she shares with her husband.  They waved like royalty, took their seats, and the occasion was officially open.

The singing was everything I’d hoped for – rhythmic, unified, with some lovely light and shade. The richness of harmony in E Malama was particularly gorgeous – it was worth taking the risk of those four-part songs when the number of singers in each part was so unequal. 

We sang for a full half-hour – and for our choir, thirty minutes is a long programme. As we reached the end, I knew that organising this small happening was completely worthwhile.

We were there to celebrate singing, joining together to raise our voices, and being a band – bound together by something that unites us.

Singing in the Park

This is a weird one – I don’t know whether to shout about it or not. On Saturday 11th September we are doing the closest thing to a performance that we have done since December last year. It’s similar to that event, when we sang carols and Christmas songs at the top of Meersbrook Park.

We’ll be singing the songs we have been practising over the last few months. We would like to share them with other people, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s somehow irresponsible to invite a crowd along.

What makes this different from the Christmas sing is that we are planning to sing in harmony, and to sing songs that the audience will not know and join in with. This is more nerve-racking, obviously, more vulnerable, but also very exciting. We’ve always said that performance is not the goal of our choir, and we welcome singers who choose not to perform. Nevertheless, it feels great to have something to work towards, to feel we have a gift to offer people and an occasion to rise to.

We will be standing spread out with our markers, and will keep our distance from any audience (I am quite prepared for there to be no audience, and we will sing anyway!) This makes hearing each other tricky and the sound may suffer, but we hope people will understand. All our Walled Garden rehearsals have helped us get used to singing without being side by side.

If you’d like to come along, we will be singing at the top of the park, near Bishops’ House, at 4.30pm. It won’t be a long programme, not much more than 20 minutes. We look forward to seeing you.

Festival Memories

We’ve been having a clear-out and I have unearthed some musical memorabilia, so this week’s blog is an unashamed trip down memory lane.

I have three certificates from the Newcastle-under-Lyme Music Festival.  They are all from my very early childhood – the first being from 1970, when I was five years old.  There’s a photo somewhere from the local paper, with all the children who played in that “8 years and under” class and the formidable adjudicator, Miss Winifred Law.  I remember the photo but nothing about the event.  

When I was a little girl, a music festival was not Glastonbury, or Latitude, or even Trowbridge Folk Festival.  It was a competition for musicians of all instruments and ages, sometimes including drama classes as well. Festivals were one of the things you did if you had piano lessons. They were taken very seriously. You wore a Sunday-best dress and a ribbon in your hair, and were allowed out of school to compete.  Some people did not go back for the end of the school day but my mother was a stickler and unless it was within ten minutes of the bell, back to school I went.

Newcastle Festival, the most well-established in North Staffordshire, took place in the Walter Moberly Hall at Keele University.  This was a red-brick mid-20th-century building with tall windows down each side and a parquet floor.  Every March it welcomed the parade of children, parents and music teachers who came and played the pieces they had been practising for weeks or months.  We sat on rows of hard metal-legged chairs on the shiny pale wood floor.

I went in for two classes every year. For each age group there was a “Set Piece” class and one called “Own Choice”.  It never was my own choice, of course.  Miss Hughes told me what I was going to play, and it was usually something I was going to play for an exam later that term.

Looking at the certificate when I unearthed it from the filing cabinet in the cellar this month, I noticed the date for the first time.  It’s a very familiar date – because it’s the day my sister 

Alison was born.  I had a sister already, who would have been two. Who took me to Keele? It was about half an hour’s drive from our house.  Mind you, my mother was very matter-of-fact about pregnancy and followed the school of “Carry on as normal till labour starts”. Maybe my sister wasn’t born until the evening. 

All my certificates are the pale blue second-class ones.  First-class certificates were a lovely yellow colour, pale gold almost.  I never got one of those.  I remember seeing them in the hands of a pair of sisters who both had thick, dark blonde plaits. I have an amalgamation of memories from all the years I went there, years of watching the same sisters win the classes I entered.  I didn’t mind.  I had very little concept of performance – I just knew it was harder playing on a different piano in front of lots of people. If I got to the end of my piece and off stage again I was happy, and I waited to get my inevitable blue certificate.

Next week I will stay on this topic and reflect on the place of competition in musical education.

Horse Sense

One episode from this year’s Olympics that has stayed with me is the extraordinary show-jumping competition in the women’s modern pentathlon.  This event involves fencing, swimming, riding, pistol-shooting and cross-country running.  (Ah, fencing, the most modern of sports. In case you’re wondering, there aren’t many British competitors who went to a local state school.)  

Whatever my qualms about its elitism, it is a fascinating competition to watch.  You need a combination of speed and endurance, a steady hand and a clear head, just to complete the final round, where you have to get five shots on target with a laser pistol and then run 800m. Then wipe the sweat out of your eyes and shoot again, and run again – four times in all.

Annika Schleu was way out in front after the fencing and swimming.  Then came the show-jumping.  The athletes are allocated a horse at random.  They have 20 minutes to get to know the animal.  Riders who compete in the purely equestrian events think that a year is a short time to form a bond with their horse.

From the moment they came out, both horse and rider looked tense.  The first four fences went all right, then the horse clattered noisily into the fifth, hardly jumping at all.  Schleu led him to the next and he shied away, refusing to jump. His eyes were wild, and so were hers.  They were both panicking and it was hard to watch.  She tried the approach again. The horse was bigger and stronger and he was determined not to jump.  At one point he even started walking backwards.  Annika Schleu was in tears, sobbing noisily.  She did not manage to complete the round so she ended up with zero points, falling to 31st place.  It was excruciating.

In the studio were two experienced riders, Clare Balding and Samantha Murray (who won silver in 2012 and did not go to a public school).  They had sympathy for Annika, but some comments on how best to handle an unfamiliar horse. 

When I get on a new horse, said Sam, I always sing quietly to it. Horses can’t see you, when you’re riding them. They can only feel you.  If you are tense, they feel that. You need to get rid of that tension.

Clare agreed.  That’s why you hear so many jockeys singing to their horses as they line up at the start, she said.  (Jockeys, of course, ride several highly-strung thoroughbreds in a day.) Singing or humming is great, it’s a quick way of making yourself breathe more slowly and calm down, and the horse can hear it and feel your muscles relax.

What can I say?  Singing can soothe a savage beast. 

We may not all have to deal with large feisty animals but there are other situations where a bit of singing can help you to face a nerve-racking situation.  I’ve used it myself when walking in the dark, and had a “silent sing” in my head when having unpleasant things done under local anaesthetic – it regulates and slows my breathing.

People might be fooled by a tense grin, but animals know when you are stressed.  Singing is a short-cut to loosen the tension. That’s horse sense.

Under a Roof Again

On Monday 2nd August we had our first indoor choir session since the 16th of March 2020.  That is 504 long days since we sang together in a hall.

How did it feel?  It definitely didn’t feel normal.  It is quite different from our rehearsals before the pandemic.

This is a new phase.  We are in a new venue, for a start.  We have chairs and everyone sits or stands in the same place.  We used to start off in a circle and do quite a lot of moving about in the first session, smiling and interacting with the other choir members. It’s harder to connect when everyone is facing the front and looking at the back of people’s heads.

I took everyone’s temperature as they arrived and we scanned or signed ourselves in.  It was exciting but I think everyone felt a tinge of anxiety.

We asked everyone to do a lateral flow test that day – not asking for proof, just requesting it as a courtesy to the group. I loved how many people arrived brandishing either their actual test strip or a picture of it on their phone!

I’d been surprised by how few people signed up for the session.  Back in May we had 20 people on the list. For Monday’s session we only had 14 volunteers, and not all of them came.  One had a nightmare motorway journey and didn’t make it back in time, and as for the other two…

At 5pm I got a phone call from a choir member – one of a couple who were both looking forward to singing that evening, saying “I’ve just done the lateral flow test and it’s positive!”  They didn’t have any of the classic Covid symptoms and were shocked by the result. 

It made me very glad that I’d asked everyone to test. It also reinforced my feeling that there is a lot of Covid about.  Almost everyone I talk to knows someone who either has the virus or is isolating.

The rate of Covid cases in Sheffield this week is 481.1 cases per 100,000. That’s significantly more than the rate for England, which is 283.7.  The evidence supports my impression – there is a lot of it about.  So I am going to carry on being cautious, welcoming people back gradually, and not until they feel ready.  We are planning to sing outside again next week, and on the 23rd, and have one more indoor session on the 16th.  It’s all fluid. There is no “new normal” unless the new normal is that we creep along cautiously, planning only a couple of weeks in advance.  

And the singing? Oh, the singing was glorious.  The blend of voices, wrapped up in the lovely reverberation a good hall gives you, was beautiful.  At times, if I shut my eyes, I would not have known how many individuals were singing, as the sound was so unified.  It is quite different from singing in the garden, where even on a still evening the air whisks our voices away before they can mesh with each other.  

Writing Our Own Map

From next Monday, 19th July, we will be able to meet indoors to sing in a group of more than six.  A whole choir can sing together again without wearing waterproofs.  I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.  So why am I not ecstatic?

Here are the current statistics on Covid.  You can see the numbers for yourself.  Those lines look a bit like smiles – the red smile, the green smile, and that blue lopsided one in the corner.  They are bad news, though, nothing to smile about at all. They show the rising rates of infection, serious illness and death.  

The government has decided to, as they would put it, “grant us our freedom”.  We can now make our own decisions about how close to stand to each other, whether or not to wear a mask, how many people we can squeeze into a venue, and whether to open the windows or not.  

There may be new Performing Arts guidelines coming along – but nobody knows for sure. Maybe they are considered unnecessary.  We will just have to work on “common sense”, which is open to multiple definitions.

Passing the buck, putting the responsibility for decisions on to individual organisers, is predictable behaviour for this government.  Choir directors and committees now have to each plough their lonely furrow, working out for themselves what a safe and responsible rehearsal looks like.

We have a lot of factors to consider.  First and foremost, we want to ensure the safety of our group members.  The science says that singing is no more risky than loud talking, but the simple fact that singing in a big group has been banned makes it seem like a dangerous activity.

People with chronic health conditions are particularly worried about catching the virus.  They will be more vulnerable if existing limitations are scrapped, and many will retreat into a self-imposed isolation, because there are no statutory measures in place to protect them.

I worry that some singers with health issues, or family members whose health is vulnerable, will start to feel that nothing will reassure them.  They will not trust any gathering outside their immediate family to be safe.  This is very sad. 

We are all craving the sound of voices close together.  It is a very different sound, hearing twenty voices, each two metres away from the next, and twenty voices coming from people standing side by side.  The essence of choir is the individual voices blending into one complex sound.  Being outside adds another level of distance between the voices.  If people have come to one outdoor rehearsal and then no more, is it because the musical experience was less than they wanted?  

The bums-on-seats question, of course, is also at play.  We have to have enough people coming to sessions for it to feel like a choir, and for us to pay the room hire and the director’s fees.

For my part, I think we should move forward cautiously.  Hooray to being able to sing indoors again (why does it always rain on Monday evenings?) but when we do, we will still acknowledge that there is a pandemic happening.