I go to a BARBERSHOP RETREAT and it changes my life

June 15, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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Retreat. The word suggests a place of calm and contemplation; of quiet solitude and peaceful reflection. The odd hushed conversation. Maybe a bit of yoga. Line dancing doesn’t normally spring to mind. But the White Rosettes’ retreats are no ordinary retreats.

As you know, Providence intervened a few weeks ago and propelled me towards the White Rosettes, the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. (Providence: ‘Stop carrying on about how you’d kill to do barbershop, and GO. Go ON. For heavens. This is getting really boring.’) This turned out to be excellent timing, as I just managed to sneak under the wire for the Retreat, where the Rosettes get together for an intensive weekend of singing and learning and chatting and bonding and probably wine.

Our guest educator/ animator/ sorcerer for the weekend was Steve Jamison. We’re heading towards LABBS Convention in October (the big annual competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses and quartets), and Steve’s visit was part of our preparation for this. Industrial espionage is RIFE in barbershop, so there are lots of things I’m not allowed to write about. I won’t be telling you about how we’ve made enormous strides in [REDACTED] or how all the chorus are really excited about [REDACTED] or how Steve is just simply unbelievably amazing at getting us to [REDACTED]. It’s a good job, really, as I’m not sure I can put much of it into words. Steve’s guidance, interpreted and applied by Sally, made us sing entirely differently; it moved us on in ways we’re still struggling to fathom. Steve was the catalyst; Sally was the conduit; and blimey, magic happened. I mean, it really did.

white rosettes banner

Line dancing to loosen us up. Note me, going off-piste. This is not what you do in barbershop. No sir

I can’t tell you the intricacies of what we went through, so you’ll have to make do with my scrambled, half-parsed reflections. But I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home. As someone who blesses her smartphone every day because it means I don’t have to talk to anyone in the school playground, I can’t believe I feel so comfortable in this group of people I barely know. Liz says barbershop’s the perfect hobby for a control freak; rehearsals are a heady combination of obsessive attention to detail, and everyone cackling like Sid James. But there’s more to it. These are special people: outgoing enough to want to perform, but lacking ego. Barbershop choruses have no stars*, no soloists; no first and second strings. The aim is the polar opposite: to create a sound where nobody sticks out, where the blend is so seamless that it sounds like one voice.**

There’s something about a shared endeavour. I was struck by how many women came and started conversations with me in my first few weeks, and offered me advice and support, and made me laugh, and made me feel like it was all within my grasp. Competition – which seemed so odd at the beginning – is a straightforward, powerful motivator. Instead of vaguely hoping we’re going to be ready for a concert in a month or two, we’re thinking in terms of scores. Can we improve on last time? This bit’s good, but can it be even better? How do we make the judges drop their pencils altogether?

But it’s also about sharing peak experiences. At one point, singing a ballad, we were trying to apply something new. About two-thirds of the way through, I could suddenly sense the thrill as the whole chorus realised how brilliant we were sounding. The energy was insane. My shoulders started to shake. Sally released the music, barely able to speak. ‘Five minutes. Get out of here.’ Liz and I had a good Barbershop Hug™ and a bit of a cry. Other people drifted by, red-eyed. Someone smiled and gave us a tissue. High points like these I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

My latest theory is we are designed to sing barbershop. That’s how it feels. In the same way that discovering your own relaxed, natural running pace makes you feel like you could keep going for ever (Margaret and Liz gave each other ‘What’s she on about?’ looks at this point), barbershop, done properly, simply makes the best of what we have naturally. The whole spectrum of women’s voices is there; you find your place in the chorus according to your natural resonance and range. There are no People Who Have A Voice and people who don’t. You breathe and sing naturally, neutrally; if you don’t feel like you’re trying, you’re doing it right. Your body moves, easily, as you sing. You sing for other people; to captivate and entertain. And those raging harmonics, the overtones and undertones from singing in close harmony, and the buzz in your ears… they’re just Mother Nature showing you what VERY good work you’re doing.

white rosettes

Lovely delicious delightful White Rosettes. I am going to hug everyone individually on Wednesday

* Apart from Sally, of course, who should be a DBE at the very least by now

** There’s a whole branch of necromancy around the ‘stacking’ of voices on the risers. Swap singers about, and you can hear the difference immediately. It’s nuts.


I do some one-woman barbershop*

June 1, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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My first bash at arranging (well, partly improvising) this marvellous song, for four parts. I couldn’t work out how to listen to something I’d already recorded while I was singing another part, so I just listened to a metronome to keep in time while recording each part separately. I’m quite ridiculously pleased with how it came out.

* I’m aware that this arrangement probably violates all the Rules Of Barbershop, but, you know. Baby steps


May 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music, and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.

Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher, persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.

The legendary White Rosettes. They’re the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. I mean, they win EVERYTHING. Here they are, winning in 2013:

Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.

There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.

They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?

And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.

white rosettes in rehearsal

The White Rosettes in rehearsal. This picture from Liz Garnett’s excellent blog, Helping You Harmonise (click to go there)

Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?

OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’

But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’


Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.

I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’



March 20, 2015 at 11:05 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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Ha! No, not to participate. My singing progress over the last few months may have been METEORIC [cough] but, sadly, I still don’t warrant the attention of Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake.

Peak eclipse selfie

Peak eclipse selfie

Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?

Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)

A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.

Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.

There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.

Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).

And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.

WP_004872Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.

I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.

* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.

I do some community singing

March 14, 2015 at 9:35 am | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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‘It’s all about having fun!’ my teacher said. ‘Not pitch, or timing, or accuracy.’ Then, pointedly: ‘It would be really good for you.’

The previous week, I’d reclined on her figurative couch and rambled on about my musical upbringing, while she tried not to look too shocked. Apparently there’s more to making music than Getting It Right. Some people find it enjoyable! Who knew?

Despite my conviction that rabid anxiety is all that’s holding me together, she insists I need to loosen up. Enjoying singing, it turns out, is not just about hitting that high F on your own in the kitchen, to the freezer’s baritone thrum. It involves OTHER PEOPLE. So there I was in the Town Hall bar, waiting for the Women’s Community Singing Group to show up. Efficient types tried to recruit me to the Arts Festival volunteer posse. I may have agreed. I’m not sure what to.

I’ll admit I was PETRIFIED. There’s a whole lot of community in our town, and it mostly freaks me RIGHT out. While I’ll happily wave at people from the safety of the other side of the square, I feel like an alien interloper among all these people Gaily Mucking In.

There was no time to worry about the strange local customs, though, as we were OFF with the fiendish warmups. Hannah, looking in through the window, was appalled:Screenshot (91)

My kung fu background helped, here: I am no stranger to waving my limbs around and looking a bit daft in public. The verbal exercises were a different story. Try this. Count out loud, singing up and down the scale as you go. One. One two one. One two three two one*. Go up to five, then six, then seven. Quicker. Now replace every ‘three’ with a clap. Now do it in French. The teacher was laughing openly at me by the end.

no parking no music

Notation? Pah!

OK, first song. Four parts. I nipped round to join the basses. Wise decision, as it was an easy part with lots of repetition. It’s all taught by ear, so no music to read; instead, the teacher goes through each part in turn and you’re supposed to remember yours. Then you all sing together. I was smugly confident**, but it was more difficult than I expected, mostly because a) I realised halfway through that I was trying to remember everyone else’s parts as well as mine, and b) it was all in Swahili, FGS.

A cup of tea, and then a different song, with harder words. Happily, my section were mainly going, ‘Hum, bum, KULE!’ Well, I think we were. I’ve done some group singing before, but this was weirder than I remember. Maybe it was the room; I couldn’t hear myself, and I couldn’t really hear anyone else. Singing turned into a leap of faith. (I explained this to the boyf later; he said, darkly, ‘You can hear yourself if you’re doing it wrong.’) Every time I tried to listen to what everyone else was doing, I screwed my bit up. A couple of times, I was so busy watching for the cue I completely forgot to sing at all.

The next day, I tried to teach the boiz ‘Hum, bum, KULE!/ Sha-la, la, la!’ in three parts over breakfast. We got as far as the 6yo going, ‘Hum, BUM! You HUM. Out of your BUM!’ and the two of them collapsing. Boyf [horrified look]: ‘You were doing WORLD MUSIC?’

But it was fun. No, it really was. I had fun. Me, Little Miss Don’t­-Make-Me-Leave-The-House. The basses were a jolly bunch, cracking jokes and making up dance steps and coming in in the wrong places and cackling. People kept introducing themselves to me, even though I forgot all their names instantly out of shock. (I decided just to call everyone Sarah or Cathy.) It was bewilderingly friendly. ‘Are you new? Are you going to come again?’ Yes. And yes. ‘Good!’

* do, do re do, do re mi re do…

** I got 94% on a musical memory test for the Goldsmith’s earworm project. That’s NINETY-FOUR PER CENT. You’re DAMN right I’m proud.

Why you should become a FIEND

February 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Members’ booking opened today for Jonas Kaufmann’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme’s still unconfirmed, so it may be Yodelling The Classics or perhaps an Eartha Kitt retrospective, but frankly, we don’t care. This is the Greatest Living Tenor, and we want IN. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

Being a Friend, of course, is the way to go. Pay your yearly fee, and get priority booking. The price depends on the venue. Some charge one flat sum for everyone; others propose a scary hierarchy of increasingly exclusive ranks of Friendship, from entry-level, giving you a badge and a t-shirt, up to £HE,LLO.OO, which lets you jump the toilet queue in the interval, say ‘The usual, please, Fiona darling’ to the bar staff, and lick peanut butter from the belly of your favourite performer up to three times a year.

The arts need supporting, of course, and there’s a long tradition of benefaction (if that’s a word). But what about impecunious fans, unable to cough up membership fees for every venue in which our favourites might perform? After all the Inamorati, Friends-With-Benefits, Exes-We’re-Still-On-Good-Terms-With, Slight-Infatuations, Friends-of-Friends, Facebook-Friends and People-We-Nod-To-Uncertainly-In-The-Street have had their share, there may be precious few tickets left for us to scrap over.


Tension mounts as Joyce DiDonato fans struggle to remember her favourite pizza topping

That’s why I’m proposing a new category of ticket purchaser: the Fiend. Become a Fiend, and book first for all events your favourite is performing in, regardless of venue or price. That’s FIRST. Before EVERYONE else. There’s no joining fee or annual subscription: being a Fiend is entirely free of charge. All you have to do is answer a set of questions, randomly selected from an enormous database, under exam conditions. Examples for Jonas fans are given below:

  1. Jonas was amazed that his Andrea Chénier costumes lacked…
    1. Whalebone corsetry
    2. iPhone pockets
    3. Automatic poppers
  2. Jonas has described learning to use his natural tenor voice as…
    1. Like driving a truck
    2. Like growing a beard
    3. Like waiting for a bus, oh my GOODNESS, totally incredible, you know, how you wait for HOURS and then three come along at once, haha!

(Databases for other stars are still under construction; sample questions can be provided on request. The Iestyn Davies exam, for example, is expected to include advanced matching of Farrow & Ball paint shades, and the practical identification of dog hair on settees.)

The benefits to fans of the Fiend scheme are obvious, but venues will also profit; no longer will they need to employ ushers with long sticks to prod snoring audience members, or devote scant staff resources to fielding 176 phone calls a day from the same person enquiring about returns. And EVERYONE will need to buy a programme. If only to fan themselves with it.

(Thanks to @SecondNorn for the conversation that provoked this, and for her unrivalled JK knowledge.)

When the crit hits the fan

January 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Fans have a rough time. We admit to a Bit of a Thing for someone, and immediately give up all hope of being taken seriously. The Arts World looks on us with faint distaste. Can’t we keep our silly emotions to ourselves? Whatever will become of rationality, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as base as looks?

Cumberbitch leggings, by Poprageous

I can’t not have these

There’s so much wrong with this. First, it’s more than just a question of looks. Fans react to the package (sorry): the acting, the singing, the musicianship, and yes, the looks (though looks can, believe it or not, be secondary: think of the Cumberbatch fans who only really fancy him as Sherlock). The ability to inhabit a part, to make us believe; to transport us, to sing us into submission. And, as I’ve pointed out before, esteem takes many forms, and it can be hard to figure out which one someone evokes in us. Admiration, inspiration, identification, #voicecrush, #mancrush…

Second, just because we’re fans, it doesn’t mean we don’t know or care about music. Well, OK, I don’t know much [cough] but others do. And admiring the cut of a tenor’s jib doesn’t negate this knowledge. We know a poor casting decision, a below-par performance, a phoned-in contribution when we see one. And we’re interested in the rest of the production too, not just ‘our’ star.

Third, there’s an element of sexism lurking here. While there’s the odd joke about fanboys, most of the disparaging comments I see are about women. Dirty, dangerous, lustful thoughts, we women have. How dare we? Can’t we have a cup of tea and a nice, safe, clean, intellectual think about things?

Lastly, and most importantly, emotion is part of life. Emotion is, very obviously, part of music. Why is it OK to admit to some emotional reactions to music (joy, pain) and not others (fascination, desire)?

Because YOU HAVE THESE FEELINGS TOO. Yes, you, Mr. Serious Critic. You may think you’re overcoming them, evading them; that your emotional reactions can’t possibly be influencing your intellectual assessment of a performance. But they are, because you’re human.

Iestyn Davies

This picture of Iestyn Davies is entirely necessary to the narrative. (c) Benjamin Ealovega

I’ve been listening to lots of countertenors recently. I bring this up, not just because it’s an excuse to burble on about Iestyn Davies again, but because it’s a good example of a response that isn’t intellectual in nature. I’m busy learning about different genres and techniques and approaches to the art, and starting to understand the immense skill and artistry that goes into classical singing. But I know that part of my obsession is just because some countertenor voices do inexplicable things to me. (Not everyone shares my view: my twitter friends’ reactions have been fairly evenly split between ‘God, that’s amazing! His voice is like a musical instrument!’ and ‘Ooh no, he sounds like a GIRL!’)

So, to some extent, we like what we like. And this is interesting in itself. I’d love to explain to you how the B-52s are the most criminally underrated band in the history of pop. I could go on for ever about the lyrical faux-naïveté, the clean-as-a-whistle vocals, the undercurrent of danger in the drumming. But I know it won’t make you like them (unless you do already, in which case, highfive!).

This fascinates me. But rationality has such a hold on our approach to criticism that we minimise the importance of these responses. People feel the emotion so strongly, and yet are so convinced of lovely clean tidy rationality’s priority over base messy mucky emotionality, that they seek intellectual explanations. It’s in the chord structure, the cadences, the phrasing. It can’t just be me, happening to like it. Do you like it too? You see! It must be universal!

I mentioned this to the boyf, and he brought up Adorno (he has a habit of doing this, but that’s what you get for living with intellectuals). Apparently, Adorno said that our reaction to an artwork is both rational and emotional, and it’s folly to think we can have one without the other. Instead, the tension between rational and emotional reactions creates the ‘problem’ of art appreciation; this ‘problem’ is, of course, what makes art interesting.

So I say it’s time to bring emotional reactions back into the critical fold. Accept them; learn to recognise them in yourselves; see them as part of your appreciation of performances, rather than some kind of dirty little secret you have to suppress. Start to understand their interplay with rational, intellectual interpretation. And stop looking down on fans, with our love and our pain and our joy and our desire so close to the surface. We might be closer to the truth than you think.

Man! I feel like a… Oh

September 19, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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Singing, rather than being merely a delightful thing to do while washing up, continues to be all about excavating mental skeletons. It’s getting a bit irritating. After all that enthusiasm over singing up HIGH (which is totally new to me, and feels terribly STUNT) and LOADS of practice, I develop a searing headache that lasts a week and stops me doing anything other than peering, mole-like, at the kettle for just long enough to make a cup of tea.

I run, trying to visualise my head floating lightly above my shoulders. (In the dappled dusk, this is one of the most cosmic experiences of my life, by the way. I keep expecting unicorns to leap out of bushes.) I sing lying on the floor, noticing when I’m pushing my chin forward and my head up, and trying to stop. The bottom end still sounds fine; the middle of my range sounds better; but my newly-discovered top end is basically gone.

I arrive at my teacher’s house and immediately burst into tears. Her: It’s all right. You have to take a step back sometimes and re-learn something. Me: I know, I know. But, BWAAAA.

gorple pic

Teacher’s house, by that clump of trees. In space, no-one can hear you blub

We reach an agreement. I spend an hour happily splashing around in the octave below middle C. Her: It sounds lovely. I always wanted to be able to sing down there. Let’s do it a bit lower.

And I recognise this. All right, it’s a bit of a theme for me. Ignore the stuff you can already do, the things that feel natural and unforced, in favour of busting a gut trying to do whatever you find difficult. It can’t have any worth if you find it easy, can it?

UoL SU card

London-era me. Definitely NOT compensating with the earrings

But there’s something else going on, too. I’m six feet tall and beanpolesque. I’ve got what women’s magazines euphemistically call strong features, and a laugh like Sid James. I don’t really get why anyone would go to a spa or have a pedicure or get their eyebrows threaded. When I used to cycle around London with cropped hair and a tracksuit on, people called me ‘mate’.

Mostly, I manage to ignore my ineptitude at girliness, or subvert it. Salsa, for example, favours short, cute, curvy chicks. (Oddly, male salsa enthusiasts are rarely over 5’6”.) Standing out got boring, so I learned to lead. It IS fun, and you get a LOT of compliments even if you’re not very good, but sometimes, you know, I just wanted to be whirled around the dancefloor, like a Proper Girl.

Now, I’m googling around, trying to find out what voice type I might be. This post suggests contralto, which sounds like a gorgeous, pulchritudinous thing to be, but all the clips are of women singing around an octave higher than me. This chap sings Dowland at the same pitch as me (though I’ll admit I lack his richness of tone, not to mention his sharpness of suit). And he’s a BARITONE. Gulp.

As someone whose ideal day is spent lying on the carpet with a countertenor cranked up to 11, the irony is not lost on me. Just as some people’s reactions to a countertenor are ‘Ooh no! He sounds like a GIRL!’*, I imagine people listening to me and giggling ‘Eh! You a BLOKE?’ Sigh. I’m not sure I’m ready to be an individual AGAIN.

So, I challenge you. Find me some role models. Ideally, they’ll sing happily right down to the D below middle C. My teacher suggested Nico, though that didn’t end too well, did it. Dagmar Krause (the boyfriend’s idea) is fabulous but decidedly idiosyncratic. That one off the Communards, praps? Help me out. Please. I’ll be girlishly grateful.


* these were @jenlovescycling‘s actual words. Don’t look at me like that.

I have a think about female falsetto

August 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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This is a semi-serious attempt to talk about falsetto singing in women, which is a new subject for me, so I’m sorry if you are a) only here for the LARFS or b) someone who actually knows about this stuff*.

It all started with Kate Bush. I watched this BBC4 documentary the other night. It’s full of people going ‘Wow! She sounded so WEIRD! And it was so HIGH!’ And then I went and made a cup of tea, and found myself singing Wuthering Heights, and thinking ‘Actually, it’s not that high. I can sing it, so it can’t be. But it SEEMS really high. What’s going on?’

I started to wonder about falsetto. We associate falsetto with men singing in high registers, like the Bee Gees, and of course lovely delightful countertenors. But what about women?

Up until recently, many singing teachers argued that women didn’t have a falsetto (or that falsetto and ‘head voice’ are the same thing in women). This is mostly because falsetto doesn’t add significantly to a woman’s range in the way that it does for men (and therefore lacks the ‘stunt’ factor). But this description of falsetto points out that falsetto isn’t about singing high, per se; it’s a different way of producing a sound. Anyone can produce a falsetto, and you can do it through most of your range**. Some women use it to produce notes that are above their normal range (though this also gets confused with ‘whistle register’, which is yet ANOTHER method of vocal production used to do Mariah Carey-style 5-octave stuff), but others are using it for more interesting, less talked-about effects.

So, in the Challenge Anneka spirit, I thought I’d have a go at producing it. This turned out to be a very good idea, as if you know what (female) falsetto feels like, you start to understand what it sounds like. This WikiHow article says you need to lift your eyebrows. Okay… Iestyn Davies is a bit more helpful. He tries to teach Alan Yentob to sing falsetto here:

Iestyn & Alan Yentob

Iestyn suggests Alan uses a ‘Dame Edna voice’ to get the feel of falsetto. Dame Edna’s not very high-pitched for women, so here’s an example of me trying to sound ‘girlish’ instead:

Then trying to sing in that voice:

Falsetto is described as sounding ‘thin’, ‘ethereal’, ‘airy’. You run out of breath a lot more quickly. It’s a bit easier to hit the high notes, but moving around is more unpredictable (falsetto is also described as being harder to control, which means for many people things like vibrato are out of reach).

So here’s Kate, doing Wuthering Heights:

That sounds to me like falsetto. Thin, breathy, girlish, no vibrato. So then I thought about other singers. Here’s PJ Harvey doing a terrifying song where she spends most of the time speak-singing, but listen out for her falsetto when she sings ‘Jesus, save me’:

So far, so up-the-top-end-of-the-register. But Peej turns out to use falsetto in other songs, too. Listen to this one. Not as high-pitched, but still sounds falsetto to me:

And when I listened to the next one, I got really excited, because this is low. That first note is the E above middle C, so it’s near the bottom of soprano range, and in the middle of alto. And yet that sounds like falsetto to me. Compare with her voice at ca. 2:45, where the song changes and she sings ‘When I’m not with you…’; suddenly her voice is richer, fuller, you can hear the vibrato, and yet it’s the same range:

The boyf couldn’t hear this when I played it to him, so I did my own version. Sorry, Peej fans. ‘Normal’ voice first, then falsetto:

What’s interesting about both Peej and Kate Bush is that they’re using falsetto, not to sound beautiful, or to hit particularly high notes, but to create a particular effect. Kate, in Wuthering Heights, telling the story from the point of view of the ghostly Cathy; Peej, taking on various ‘girl’ characters, all more or less deranged.

Twitter came up with some more examples. Here’s Debbie Harry doing Heart of Glass, where the ethereal falsetto matches the dreamlike sound and sentiment of the track. (thanks @Cheyneyk):

(Am I imagining it, or is ‘Once I had a love, and it was a gas’ in falsetto, and ‘Soon turned out to be a pain in the arse’ in normal head voice? Nice contrast…)

And then there’s Joanna Newsom – I might need answers on a postcard about this one, but it’s jolly lovely (thanks @ATreeWithRoots):


* Please tell me if you know good things I can read on this. I can’t find much, and I’ve been googling around all day.

** and laryngoscopy shows that women sing falsetto, too.

I do some SINGING (aka, I Heard My Neighbour Weep)

July 31, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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I sing constantly. In the shower, at the bus stop, on my bike, at my desk. (Yes,  I’m aware that this is intensely irritating. I genuinely don’t know I’m doing it half the time.) I’ve passed the habit on to my kids, who hum ‘Thunderbirds’ while building Lego spacecraft and ‘Happy’ while digging up the things I’ve just planted.

But for all that, I’ve never liked my voice. I can’t trust it to hit a note precisely, to hold on without wobbling. In the spirit of Giving Stuff A Go, I find myself looking out of a window in Colden, with a teacher at the piano, trying to stop shaking long enough to get a sound out. She asks me what I want to sing: my list includes Dowland, Velvet Underground, Gluck and Dagmar Krause. So far, so midlife crisis.

Of course, I’d overlooked that voice exploration is bound to be more personal than, say, having my ‘cello bowing technique critiqued. Is it my voice I don’t trust, or myself? What’s with the confidence issues, anyway? Tell me about your childhood…


Nothing to do with me

I decide, in typical fashion, to ignore all the rattling of subconscious cages and just practise. Practising is the BOMB. Proper, give-it-some-welly singing turns out to be a mad, zen-like, out-of-body experience. I gaze out at the neighbour’s hedge, doing my warmups. Mee-mah-mee-mah-meeeeeee*. Within a few steps up the scale I’m in the ZONE. The privet blurs. The clouds slow. Half an hour passes. I don’t notice the window cleaner arriving (though he compliments me when he knocks for his cash, possibly fearful I might break something with a high F).

It’s like being taken over by some malevolent force. I tune back in suddenly and think, blimey. Am I making that noise? It’s not that it’s beautiful; there’s just such a LOT of it. Down at the bottom of my range, my sternum thrums and my teeth rattle. Up at the top, I double-check my feet are still on the ground.

Pilates mat class setup

Scenes that some readers may find disturbing

I never thought I’d learn to meditate. Anything where I have to think about my breathing is guaranteed to freak me RIGHT out. I’ve wept in Tai Chi, in Pilates, even in the lying-on-the-floor bit of aerobics classes (though that may have been the teacher putting on I’m Not In Love, come to think of it). But this is surprisingly close. At the end, my ears hum and my eyes won’t focus. I float about for an hour or two, saying things like ‘Hey, that’s just the way it is,’ and ‘Hmm? Cup of tea? That would be AWESOME.’

I’m learning to breathe properly, and control the breath. To understand what tension feels like, and realise that I can drop it. I’m starting to feel in charge of the sound that comes out of my mouth, which is bizarre and brilliant. I can’t escape thinking about how this relates to, well, everything. Normally, I put my fingers in my ears and squinch my eyes shut when Life throws me Lessons, but here they’re so BLINDINGLY obvious, even an idiot in full denial like me can’t fail to be whacked around the head by them.

The Life Lessons of Singing

1. Commit. Like cyclocross remounts, if you believe, you might do it. But if you don’t, you definitely won’t.

2. Relax. To quote my teacher, ‘Don’t worry about sounding nice; just get the sound out.’ Realise what tension and ‘holding back’ feel like, and just decide to let them go.

3. Do your thing. Sing in front of people. It sounds fine. (And if it doesn’t, they mostly won’t care. As my granny said to my Dad, anxiously primping in front of the mirror, ‘Who’s going to look at you, dear?’)

4. Try to love a challenge. Quoting my teacher again, ‘Enjoy the high notes.’

5. Give yourself the occasional gold star. Note progress. Be pleased with yourself.

singing selfie

The author, thrilled

6. Feel thrilled by what you can do. I sound better if I sing at the top of my range or right at the bottom, and avoid the octave or so in the middle**. I took the plunge and pitched the Dowland up a tone, meaning I hit a high G*** at the end. It feels like the edge of the world. The utter KICK of going for it and getting it. I did a bit of jumping around the kitchen. (Then I did it a few more times, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.)

Naturally, I am failing comprehensively to transfer any of these insights into the rest of life. But, you know. Baby steps. I’ll keep you posted.


* Shutting the door on the boyf, who’s asking me why I’m singing ‘mummy, mummy’, and giggling.

** This is officially weird, by the way

*** It’s high for me, OK? I’m basically some kind of freak tenor-countertenor hybrid.

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