Mark Bennett writes:
I always sang. My family had never studied music, but singing was just something they did, around the house, in the garden and especially on holiday. I always felt good when I sang and it always felt right to sing with other people. Then, inspired by a friend’s singing lessons, there came a day when I felt that I could sing better if I knew what I was doing, and maybe, through my singing, help other people to feel good too.
I started singing lessons in 1991 with Mary Lou Aylesworth in Plymouth and in 1995 then took my first singing exam – grade 8 – coached by Sian Dale. At Exeter University I was guided through my performance units and my ATCL singing by Christopher Teuton, whose warmth and directness were an unfailing support. I have been extremely lucky to have a number of individual lessons with international singers Evelyn Tubb, Jonathan Veira and, across three years, James Gilchrist.
With young learners, the emphasis is on having fun singing and on learning musicianship. Between the ages of eight and twelve there is a lot of good technique that can be learned and this then needs constant revisiting while the voice goes through its largest changes (for girls as well as boys) until it starts to settle again around sixteen and “final version” of technique can start to be learned. Vocally lighter repertoire but that is emotionally engaging is ideal here – musicals, lute songs, baroque arias and English songs.
With learners who have already had some vocal training we do a careful check through posture, breathing, phonation, resonance and articulation. Good singing feels easy, so I use my knowledge of Alexander Technique and anatomy to help singers find ways of singing that minimise tension. Learning to sing is challenging because your instrument is inside you, where you can’t see it and you often can’t even feel it. I was once told to sing as if a string of precious pearls was coming out of my eyes – and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do! I understand now after years of study, but the instruction didn’t help me at the time, so I don’t teach like that. I give very precise instructions about what to move and how much, and how to practice so that you develop the specific muscle tone and control that you need.
There are many parts of your singing mechanism to think about moving, so we also work on assembling sequences of “muscle memory” (procedural memory), so that you gradually put more and more of your technique on “autopilot”, allowing you to concentrate on meaning and performance. The most important thing, I think, that my students learn from me is how to practice – that makes them independent of me. Once a learner understands what practice is for and has the discipline to do it regularly, lessons become coaching sessions with me as a “critical friend”.
I had a fifteen year career as an English teacher and I was trained in Speech and Drama, so a central part of my teaching is on understanding the text and finding ways of helping an audience to follow a story or character through the song. I also speak French, German and Italian and can teach these languages as part of our lessons or as separate additional lessons.
Big Big Sing – find a choir, national singing events, school resources
British Choirs on the Net – lists links for 92 choirs in Devon and 78 in Cornwall
Gerontius.net – find a choir, with full contact details and addresses
Vocal Technique Tips – a reliable source of information about singing technique on the internet – there is a lot of very questionable advice on the internet, but I can endorse all the advice on this site.
Chapman, Janice: Singing and Teaching Singing
Helmsley, Thomas: Singing and Imagination