Thursday 20 October 2011

How To Sing (Virginia Graham)

Here is the first chapter from Virginia Graham's wonderful Here's How - 'How To Sing'.  I learnt a lot...

In order to be able to sing it is necessary to be able to do so.  Many people, eager not to be left out of things - things such as weddings or the dedication of British Legion huts - open their mouths hopefully in the chanting of "Oh Perfect Love" or "Jerusalem" yet, though enunciating the words with commendable clarity, remain, musically, on one note.  This, though the note be ever so loud and ever so pure, is not singing, and it is wise, before embarking on a strenuous vocal course, to discover from friends whether you are or are not deaf.  They will only be happy to provide the information which, strangely enough, may come as a surprise to you.

Having ascertained that your rendering not only of "Night and Day", which happens all too conveniently to be on one note, but also of "Oh for the Wings of a Dove" or, damn it, "God Save the King" is recognisable, you should, if you want to sing properly, do exercises.  Singing in the bath, in a cheerful "savonard" fashion is no use at all for, as you will have learned at life's knobbly knee, the road to success is invariably painful.  To achieve anything worth while you must experience discomfort and get thoroughly depressed.  (This does not apply to asparagus which can be procured simply by being rich.)

The whole secret of singing is not to breathe.  You should therefore educate your mind into believing the life does not depend on breath alone and that air, whether on a G string or not, isn't in the least important.  Not only must the breath be constrained but practically everything else as well should be rigidly disciplined, particularly the stomach.  It is then, when the body deprived of air and activity, begins to become atrophied that musical notes, rebelling against this unnatural state, force their way with a plaintive whining noise to the surface.  The neck, being shaped on narrower lines than the bits below it, forms an obstacle, indeed a bottle-neck, to ascending scales, and the tongue is, of course, hopelessly redundant.  So that while most portions of the body should be kept tightly under control the neck and the tongue should wave loosely, like a demi-mondaine saying goodbye to Tosti.  To be tight below the shoulders and loose above them calls for biological ingenuity but if you spend a few hours every day holding your breath and waggling your head from side to side with your tongue hanging out you will soon get results.  These vary from falling in a faint on the floor to being sick.

The vowel sounds, ah, ee, oh, oo (but not, I think, y) form the basic language of all singing practice, and it is usual to run up and down the keyboard, metaphorically speaking of course, to these words until the top of the head blows off.  Notes, if one is thoroughly musical, are constantly seeking freedom, but it is a singer's duty to keep them in a condition of perpetual frustration, making giant efforts to deter them from doing what they want.  This, owing to the peculiarities of the human torso, is to come down the nose. Every note that would fain rock the chandeliers with a fine nasal bellow must be squashed back on to the vocal chords and re-directed round the teeth.  It takes an infinite number of years to establish ascendancy over these wayward breves, and anybody who thinks he can ah, ee for a week and then sing "Verdi Prati" to a Mothers' Union is a fool.

Having produced, after many months of abdominal and laryngitical exercise, a sound that can be called a note, you should permit yourself to sing a song; and this must, it absolutely must be sung in front of a looking-glass.  Even though the sounds are being squeezed up from God knows where and squeezed through God knows what the process of compression must not show on the face.  Distorted mouths, semaphoring eyebrows and great big agonised eyes should be severely strictured.  You should aim to look serene and unbreathing like some beautiful pink and white instrument draped in lace or, of course, a starched dickey.  There should be no signs of struggle save in the furtive wiping of hands on pocket handkerchiefs in the intervals.

I am assuming that you are confining your vocal operations to the concert platform, for opera singing is a very different affair. During the required dramatic exertions the face can of course get as anguished as it likes, the hands can wring themselves like rags and great generous gestures of despair can swept the carafes right off notre petite table without anybody becoming embarrassed.  Only when opera singers knock down whole pieces of scenery or take a peeler off Valhalla on to the stage are they considered to have gone too far.

It is possible - people are so idiotic - that you may fancy yourself as an opera singer, visualising splendid nights at Covent Garden when you knock them for six with your Butterfly, mow them down with your Wotan; but before indulging too deeply in dreams it is well to pause a moment and consider.  Not only will you have to sing loud but also long, memorising your roles in French, Italian and German so that the English versions, which you will invariably use, puzzle and confuse you.  You will have to learn the art of making love in a tender way to a colleague who is, as are you, looking at the conductor, and you will assuredly have to die, propped up on one elbow on a very draughty stage for a very long time.

Many are called to enter opera, but few are chosen and these are usually rather fat.  So unless Joan Hammond AND Joan Cross tell you you'd make a ripping Mimi; unless Walter Midgeley AND Walter Widdop cry "By jove, here's a smashing Siegfried!" my advice to you is to stick to the platform.  Platforms can be hired for quite a modest sum and they can be sent back and forgotten about the following day.

It is a good thing for a singer to sing in tune.  Difficult as it is to reach a note it is doubly difficult to stay there, and indeed I would suggest that should you lose more than a tone and a half in the course of an aria you should think seriously about pursuing some other vocation.  Many singers also, while aiming at a particular note, become waylaid by others en route and this, which is called in musical circles, a "scoop", caused a certain amount of pain to purists who prefer to reach B flat in one go.  In crooning, of course, everything is inverted, and it is very bed form to find the note you're looking for straight off.  It should be approached obliquely and slid up on (and sometimes over) like a main road on a wet day.  But then, crooning is not singing.  It is much too natural and much too easy.

An incessant tremolo is also to be avoided, as not only is it very ugly but it is associated in an audience's mind with nerves, anything that wobbles, be it knee or epiglottis, giving an impression of doubt and insecurity.  Already anxious relatives may easily panic and make for the doors if your quavers oscillate too freely.  A coloratura soprano, which you most certainly will not be, does, it is true, rush about the top register in acrobatic trills, but she invariably sounds as though she were doing it on purpose, not as though she couldn't help it.  That will be the difference between you and her.

Enunciation of words, however silly they may be, should be crystal clear, and this is by no means an easy task since composers rarely bother with the words of their songs and expect singers to sing phrases such as "My love is a singing bird" or "Where can I go to find my rest?" on bat-high notes.  It not being possible to sing A and say I at the same time the result sounds like this: "Mah lahve eez ah see-ning bahd" and "Wha cahn Ah gaw to fahned mah rahst".  An effort must be made, however, to overcome these carelessly contrived hazards, and it is a good thing to practise with hot potatoes in the mouth so that when, on concert day, they are removed, it will not sound as though they were still there, if you get my meaning?

For those of you who are intelligent enough to realise, quite early on, that you are wasting your time, there are always Choral Societies.  In order to join one of these it is only necessary to be able to sing any scale in any voice you happen to have on you at the moment.  No one, since the larynx was first fully fashioned, has ever been rejected, on musical grounds, from joining a choir, and it is comforting to know that not only is it easy to become a member of some such organisation, but that apart from drunkenness or sedition there appears to be nothing on earth that can get you out once you're in.  There was once a famous choir, the master of which sought to purge it of its older members; but it was discovered that all but six of the choir were older members, most of them over seventy and none of them able to sing within the meaning of the word.  The fact that there were 500 of them accounted for the volume of sound they made and the fact that they had sung Handel's "Messiah" forty-five consecutive years accounted for their accuracy in hitting the right notes.  In any case their hearts would have broken had they been superannuated, so on they went till death brought them to the last chord.

A word of warning.  While the ability to sing well is of no importance in choral singing, to be able to read music is, if not absolutely necessary, certainly useful.  Choral works are commonly divided into four parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and as these are all written on top of each other it is usual, on turning the page, to get lost.  Sopranos are all right because they are singing the tune, but altos who should, several notes lower, be repeating "Oh my luv, oh my love, oh my luv" may get seduced into tagging along with the tenor who has advanced to "is like a red red rose".  You will notice I say tenor in the singular?  This is because tenors are tremendously handicapped by never being there.  They are as elusive as a demmed pimpernel and at most choir practices they number one with a slight head cold against thirty sops., twelve alts. and four basses.  Somehow basses seem to be more reliable, perhaps because they tend to be elderly and have really nothing better to do than spend an evening holding on to bottom C.

For those with modest vocal ambitions choir singing is a delightful pastime, for there is safety in numbers, and providing the mouth is open and closed at correct intervals little else is demanded.  Ambition, however, burns in many breasts, so on with the gargles and the gusty breaths, the diaphragm exercises and the first fine lamentable bashes at Percy Quilter's songs!


  1. This is fabulous! Every paragraph had me laughing out loud, starting with the brilliant "it is wise, before embarking on a strenuous vocal course, to discover from friends whether you are or are not deaf." What a wonderful book!

  2. Hmmm, I'll pass on this book as I suspected from your earlier extracts.

  3. Very good stuff -- I like it. I have read some of her poetry, which is also excellent, but never her prose. But I'm curious -- do you actually sit there and copy out the whole chapter, or do you have some other way of getting it all onto the blog? If the former you must spend an awful lot of time at it.

  4. Claire - wonderful! I adore her two books, they had me laughing out loud a lot too - do try and track this down, it's full of wonderful stuff!

    Peter - how about you only tell me when you *do* want to read a book I recommend? ;) (Have there been any?)

    Harriet - you're welcome to borrow it, if you want to! And, yes, I do sit and type it all out... and it did take quite a while, and explains any typos! I'm lucky in being quite a fast typer, but I only use about four of my fingers, so there is lots of room for error...

  5. Hello Simon, it's a deal!

    Yes of course there are books you have recommended that I'd like to read and some that I have read.

    I'll keep quiet(er) from now on :-)

  6. Peter - don't worry, just me teasing! But I would be intrigued to know which you have wanted to read (if you can remember any) because I don't really feel that I know what your tastes are in older British novels - although I know what your tastes aren't! And I know which modern European authors you like, etc., but not if any of my 1920s, 1930s etc authors tickle your fancy.

  7. Hi Simon

    As you know I read the Richmal Crompton you gave me with some pleasure (unexpectedly). I have read (not recently I'll admit) Orwell (though I admire him as an essayist primarily), Huxley, D H Lawrence, Woolf (essays mainly), Mansfield, Spark and no doubt many others that I now forget.

    You have spoken of a number of books by Spark and Mansfield that I have not read, so those are probably the first that I might seek out.

  8. I had tears in my eyes from laughter by "a starched dickey". This is a book to be pulled from the shelf whenever you're having a rough day.

  9. As a singer, I am torn between horror (at the thought of the sounds made by anyone who happened to take this seriously) and amusement! I have already bought the book, having enjoyed Say Please so much, and look forward to reading it. Now back to the Stravinsky ...

  10. Oh, my, this is too funny. It brought back many church choir memories! :)

  11. Darlene - hahahaha :)

    Rosie - yes, thankfully we can assume she was being tongue in cheek!

    Susan - lovely!


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