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Running and Singing

I’ve written before about the similarities between running and singing but I was out this morning in the spring sunshine and a very specific thought struck me.

I was trying to stay focused on my body, keeping a rhythm going, controlling my breath – I know, I know, it’s like singing, we’re keeping a rhythm and managing our breathing, but that’s not quite what this post is about. What I was telling myself as I plodded round the park was, “abs, and glutes, and tuck your tail under”. Of course, I turned it into a little song in my head.

I’ve been trying to build up my strength and run in a way that should prevent me from getting injured, so I’ve been doing a lot of exercises using my stomach and bum muscles, instead of putting so much strain on my lower back, hamstrings and knees. I’m definitely getting stronger, but what I find hard is to remember to use all these muscles when I’m actually running. I’ll think about where I’m going, and is my ankle still twinging, am I going to get back in time for that parcel, and was that a robin? and I’m just putting one foot in front of the other in a slightly ramshackle way like I always have. Hence the song and trying to run more consciously, using the right muscles and staying aligned on every step.

THIS is today’s parallel. We do lovely warmups at the beginning of the rehearsal, breathing in deeply, controlling the exhale, and standing in a strong, well-balanced way. Depending on the week, we might practise creating a lovely legato sound, building a precise rhythm or enunciating our words clearly. And then we start singing a real song and we just sing, not really thinking about any of the things we learnt in the warmup.

It takes work. It takes lots of practice, consciously engaging your brain and muscles, to improve the way you run, or sing. It might feel a little mechanical to start with, and you’ll forget after a while, but it really does help. Just take one thing first – try standing tall, with soft knees, a long neck and wide shoulders. If you notice your posture slip (in whatever your idiosyncracies are – rounded shoulders, standing lopsided with one hip out, lifting your chin too high), just fix it on the next in-breath. The more you do this, the more good habits you will build and when this becomes second nature you can move on to another aspect.

New Year 2024

….and I’m late already!

It’s the 19th of January as I’m writing this. It really annoys me when I find out-of-date information on other people’s websites so I should have made it more of a priority, but here we are, with Carfield telling us about a concert that happened on December 2nd last year.

It was great, by the way. There are some videos to give you a flavour of the afternoon, although the sound isn’t great.

2024 is going to be a fun year. The pinnacle of our programme is the weekend of June 7th to 9th when we are joining with Sheffield Socialist Choir and Out Aloud, Sheffield’s LGBT+ choir, to host the Street Choirs Festival 2024. It will be 40 years since the inaugural event, also in Sheffield, that started the Street Choirs movement.

Street Choirs is a huge festival, involving up to 40 choirs. There will be concerts, choirs singing out of doors, a massed sing with hundreds of voices joining together, workshops, friendships new and old. It’s going to be great. But there’s a lot to do to make sure that everyone has the best time. We’re starting to learn songs but the organisation has been under way for months now.

Before that, we’ll be having a Not-very-far-Awayday at Heeley Institute on February 10th, where we can spend a whole day singing together and do something new. Before lockdown we used to have residential weekends away, but this year we decided to stay local, and more affordable, because we want as many people as possible to join in.

Our main aim though, for 2024, is to keep singing every week. To meet together and enjoy the power and thrill of singing with other people. Performing is fun, and it’s the reason some people do music, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for our choir. We’re very happy to welcome singers who like singing in a group but don’t want to perform.

small park BIG SING

We’ve always supported small park BIG RUN, which is held in our local park every June. It’s an event which raises funds for children’s projects in Gaza and women’s education in Palestine. The park is roughly the size of a refugee camp in Palestine that is home to 21,000 people, and we’re encouraged to reflect on the restrictions on movement that people there have to live with constantly.

Runners and walkers complete laps of the park over the 24 hours from Saturday noon to Sunday noon. People can sign up for whatever they want to commit to – from half an hour to 24 hours, at whatever speed works for you. This year two amazing individuals ran for the whole 24 hours despite a torrential thunderstorm in the darkest hours of the early morning!

Some of our choir members signed up for shorter stints – (four of us were in the park at 10.30pm) and as well as the running & walking we had our first BIG SING. About 200 singers from six local choirs and beyond joined our voices to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It was incredibly moving, opening with an Arabic translation of the lyrics being spoken over instrumental accompaniment, then the singers joining in, in unison to start with and then splitting into three gorgeous harmony lines.

The technology all worked and we had a live link to the projects in Gaza that we are fundraising for, as we sang together to let people know they are not forgotten, and that we stand with them.

I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes by the time we finished.

Helen Lyle was the conductor, and Emer McKay created the arrangement and played keyboard. The bass player was Nuala and the drummer Noah.

The other choirs were:
Sheffield Socialist Choir
Purple Cats
Sheffield One World Choir
Body of Sound

Christmas is Coming!

We’re doing a concert – here’s everything you need to know.

We’re so looking forward to singing with the Carers & Friends Choir, and the Inspire Choir, on a wintry afternoon in the very beautiful Upper Chapel.

Look at the 360-degree tour here and see for yourself.

We’ll be singing songs old and new, some familiar and some less so, sharing the Christmas values of peace, joy and togetherness. Come along.

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.