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Honing Singing Skills During a Pandemic

By Jaime Babbitt

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Let’s face it: these days, it’s extremely hard for singers and choir directors alike. We don’t have lots of live performances, if any. (Note: if you are a working vocalist, please be sure to observe all safety distancing and bring your own microphone. This is non-negotiable.)

We aren’t able to mingle with our choir buddies. We’re feeling low, unsure, and anxious about the state of the world and our place in it. Questions abound, the most pressing being: will we ever be able to sing together again?

Let’s look at that question later, because it’s a biggie. Instead, I’m going to pose another question specifically for singers, one I ask myself every day: Are you taking steps to ensure you still feel like a singer? To keep your voice strong and vital? Be honest. I ask because I had to ask myself the very same question. I can get so busy teaching and writing that I forget to foster and acknowledge that most sacred part of my identity. So, while many of us can and do Zoom with our choir buddies, many cannot. How can singers keep their voices and spirits in tip-top singing shape? Let’s start with some not-so-obvious suggestions:

Breathe Mindfully, Every Day

Breathing is super important. Notice I said “mindfully,” though. For singers who are recovering from the coronavirus, getting your lungs back to peak condition is every bit as important as breathing itself. Ask your doctor for the best deep breathing exercises to master for a speedy and full recovery.

Dr. Ingo Titze, a brilliant vocologist, has a wonderful site that will help you understand how much control you actually have over your singing breath. I highly recommend the 4/4/4 breathing technique. www.voicescienceworks.org/breath.html

I also highly recommend this section on understanding the importance of “appoggio:” www.voicescienceworks.org/appoggio.html

Meditate Every Day 

Meditation is another road to mindful breathing, and it’s spiritual soup for your soul in so many other ways, too. Apps like Calm can help you get started, but all you need to do is find a comfortable seat. You can sit in a chair and not twist your legs into a pretzel, close (or slightly open) your eyes, inhale, exhale, and try to let your thoughts pass through. Start with a short, five-to-seven minute sitting time, and increase that number as you go. 20 minutes is lovely, if you can get there, but no judgment! The whole point of meditation is to let go of your thoughts.

Chanting can be a very uplifting segue from meditation. Lots of chanting is done in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language found in Hindu, Buddhist or Jain texts), in Japanese (“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” is a popular Buddhist chant in Japan) and other languages as well. One doesn’t have to be a follower of these religions to enjoy chanting, as many of my friends and I can attest. You can simply sit and enjoy the call-and-response singing. I’ve been chanting with Krishna Das for many years; he’s awesome and hosts a free Thursday night satsang/kirtan (gathering/yogic chant) on Facebook. https://krishnadas.wpengine.com/events/

Move Your Body, Every Day

Your body is your voice’s case, so you’d best keep it in good condition. Start now: do something for 15 to 20 minutes, at first. Work up to 45 to 60 minutes. Dance, yoga, walk, bike, hike, go to the gym (well, only if you feel it’s safe – I personally haven’t been to mine and adjusted my workouts to be done at home or outside). It doesn’t have to be vigorous, unless you’re conditioned for it. Buy some hand weights, a yoga mat, and maybe even a subscription to some fun online workout sites.

Sing Every Day

Believe it or not, this was the most difficult for me to embrace. When one is living in these times, concerned with so many things, singing can seem somewhat frivolous. Why sing as world events get crazier and crazier and we get more and more anxious? Firstly, that’s exactly why you should be singing. Perhaps you read my other article? No? Well, here:

www.choraldirectormag.com/articles/vocal-pro/your-brain-and-singing-why-singing-in-a-choir-makes-you-happier

Enough said there.

There’s another reason to sing – remember the old adage, “Use it or lose it…”? Those old adages have lasted so long because they’re true. Start small. Find a warm-up you like. If you have the money, find a teacher you like and take some online lessons. Those of us who’ve taught online for years know our stuff, have the right set-ups and winning strategies for making your experience a fun and fruitful one. Make sure you ask any voice teacher how long they’ve been teaching online.

Get in the habit of warming up, even if you don’t have the time or energy to sing. Your voice will thank you. Then, as I do with my students: go karaoke song shopping! YouTube is full of free, quality recordings to sing along to. Here’s Sing King, one of my favorite pop music karaoke video channels:

www.youtube.com/channel/UCwTRjvjVge51X-ILJ4i22ew

And for you classical singers, something for you:

www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLut3AbqxxV3v8OhcD7sCVED2lxzgfz419

If you’ve only ever sung in a group, now is your chance to see how you do on your own. It can be a bit daunting, but try not to give up too quickly. It’s a different headspace and skill set, and it may not be for you. That’s okay. My motto: why not try? If you enjoy it, then you’ve found another way to lift your spirits, and maybe even the spirits of others in your sphere.

Now, back to our original question:  I have no choice but to tell you that yes, we will be able to sing together again someday. Do I know when? Of course not. However, I have no choice but to say “yes,” because while we can’t fully see through to the “yes” at the moment, it’s true. Eventually, there will be a vaccine and we will find a way because we humans have always found a way forward. To me, the act of singing shows faith in our very humanity; it shows we can still create beauty and make a joyful noise even in the face of adversity. Music has always done that for us, and it always will.

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