Coaching Weekend with Sally McLean
On Saturday, the chorus split into Sections, giving each voice part the opportunity of an intensive monotone session as well as a duet with one other voice part. First up, in the morning, were the Leads and Baritones, followed by the Basses and Tenors in the afternoon.
On Sunday, the whole chorus came together to work on our favourite song, “And So It Goes”, and a new addition to the repertoire, “Titanium”.
Originally, Fascinating Rhythm had planned to go on a chorus retreat weekend in April 2020 for an immersive coaching experience with Sally. Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown meant those plans had to be cancelled.
Throughout lockdown, Fascinating Rhythm’s Musical Director, Jo, stayed in touch with Sally online. Sally made a guest appearance at one of the choir’s Zoom rehearsals and led a virtual coaching session that included evaluating one of the White Rosette’s performances.
“As Musical Director, I have really appreciated staying in touch with Sally, if only to get a sense that the things we were struggling with were also the same issues for her chorus,” said Jo. “The pandemic isolated us in more ways than we could ever have predicted.”
“It was simply fabulous to actually meet in person this weekend with my friends at Fascinating Rhythm,” said Sally. “I have so missed everyone, and although I dislike technology, I was grateful over the last 18 months to be able to see familiar, smiling faces on screen, holding on in there until we could meet face to face again; and to chat with Jo about anything and everything, whilst we waited patiently for a return!”
Normally, at this time of year, Fascinating Rhythm would be hard at work preparing to compete at the annual Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) Convention. This year, due to covid-19, an ‘Unconventional Convention’ will look a little different, with a number of regional events across the UK followed by an online celebration of barbershop singing.
Instead of polishing a Convention package, Fascinating Rhythm members are focusing on slowly returning to normal, having recently returned to indoor rehearsals at The Greenfield Centre.
“This weekend has been a significant step towards more normal ways of working. We know that things may never be exactly the same as they were pre-pandemic and, actually, nor should they be. We have learnt over the last 18 months just how creative we can be and how strong we are as a team – these things we should never let go of.”
As Sally headed back to the White Rosettes, she left a positive note for the chorus. “Thank you, Fascinating Rhythm, for an uplifting weekend of friendship and music. Until next time!”
If you are interested in joining a choir and would like to find out more about Fascinating Rhythm, please get in touch via our website.
Homeward bound: Fascinating Rhythm are moving back to the Greenfield Centre
Since lockdown restrictions were lifted in July, allowing singing groups to meet and rehearse in outdoor spaces, the covered stand at Yate Town FC became Fascinating Rhythm’s temporary home. Now, with autumn approaching and the imminent start of a new football season, it’s time for the chorus to return to rehearsing indoors.
“For over a year, we stayed in touch on Zoom, but it just wasn’t possible to run normal rehearsals online. We are very grateful to Yate Town FC for their support and hospitality this summer. Being able to meet in the outdoor stand has given us the chance to reconnect as a chorus,” reflects Musical Director Jo.
Whilst outdoor rehearsals have been a welcome first step towards normality, singing outside has presented a unique set of challenges for the choir. With the weather turning cooler and evenings drawing in, the ladies of Fascinating Rhythm are looking forward to moving back indoors.
Fascinating Rhythm’s Chair, Iris laughs, “One night, a mouse was running about the stand, between people’s feet! On another occasion, it poured with rain all evening, and poor Jo got completely soaked through. We’ve also had to contend with background noises, like a circus and a lawnmower, which was quite distracting and made it hard to hear ourselves sing.”
Since the first lockdown was implemented last year, the choir’s Health & Safety Team have been working with The Greenfield Centre to prepare for a safe return to indoor singing.
“We have read the latest UK Government guidance and carried out a risk assessment to ensure a safe return to indoor rehearsals”, explains Fascinating Rhythm’s vice-Chair, Amy. “We’ll be social-distancing and wearing specially-adapted face masks for singers during rehearsals. To be extra careful, we’re also encouraging regular use of lateral flow tests and asking members to stay at home if they feel unwell in any way. And we’ll still be on Zoom and recording our live rehearsals for those ladies who aren’t able to be there in person.”
“To be back inside, where we know we can create and enjoy our true Fascinating Rhythm sound is going to be an absolute joy, for sure”, enthuses Jo. “A choir’s rehearsal space is like a home; the memories created in that space are priceless. It is where we feel safe, where we step outside of our comfort zone, where we form lifelong friendships, where we discover our ‘best selves’ – it is where we make our own kind of music. We are indebted to Greenfield for waiting for our return, so we may indeed ‘come home.”
Breathing to Sing
Fascinating Rhythm is renowned for close-harmony singing in the barbershop style, and we work on the basics of our craft at every rehearsal: from the fundamentals of breathing and posture to the more advanced skills of vocal artistry and performance.
Breathing to survive is something that most of us take for granted – we do it all day, every day without really thinking about it – but breathing to sing requires a combination of great posture and skilful inhaling and exhaling. Mastering the technique of breathing to sing gives us more control over our voices and supports our unique vocal sound.
Our Musical Director, Jo Thorn, is passionate about breathing to sing. “It might sound easy, but breathing is actually quite complex, and it’s something that lots of singers want to work on,” she says. “When the penny dropped for me about how to breathe to sing, it completely changed everything I did”.
How does breathing work?
Breathing is a fundamental biological mechanism that keeps us alive. Basically, it’s about getting air into and out of our bodies. We don’t need to think about having to breathe because our brains take care of it on our behalf by controlling the movement of specific muscles in our torsos.
Inhale: To breathe in, the diaphragm (a large, dome-shaped muscle located under your lungs) flattens and moves downwards; and, at the same time, small intercostal muscles between the ribs work together to push the ribcage outwards. The combination of these two actions expands the lungs and draws air into the body.
Exhale: To breathe out, the diaphragm pushes back up into a dome shape, and the intercostal muscles pull the ribs back in, which makes the lungs smaller again and sends air out of the body.
As singers, we try to manage our breathing to get as much air as possible into our lungs as quickly and efficiently as possible, then carefully control how we let it out. The tricky part is getting the diaphragm to work harder because it’s not a muscle that can be consciously controlled; instead, we have to use other muscles to encourage the diaphragm to make bigger and faster movements.
So how do we do this?
Check your posture
Adopting a good posture is the first step towards getting your breathing apparatus working well. Stand securely on a level floor or surface, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees ‘soft’ so you can gently bend them. Slightly tuck your hips under, open your chest and keep your shoulders low and back. Align your head and neck by imagining there’s a string holding you up from the very top (like a puppet)!
Standing like this allows you to take full, deep breaths because all your breathing equipment is nicely aligned and not squashed or restricted in any way. If you slouch or hold yourself too stiff, you won’t be able to breathe as efficiently.
If you’re unable to stand or you prefer to sit down to sing, try to keep your torso as upright as you can so air can drop into your lungs without restriction. Try to position yourself on the front edge of your chair and make sure you’re not leaning back.
Locate your breathing apparatus
The two main parts of your body to think about when breathing to sing are the area below your belly button and the area above your belly button.
In the area below your belly button, you’ll find your abdominal muscles, which can be used to encourage your diaphragm to lift and drop more efficiently. Engaging your abdominal muscles towards the end of an exhalation will push the diaphragm a little higher, so it drops faster and further and draws air more quickly and deeply into your lungs.
In the area above your belly button is your ribcage, which is flexible enough to expand by at least one inch to give your lungs and diaphragm plenty of space to work in! Using the muscles around your ribcage will aid the diaphragm’s movement and support the flow of air in and out of your body.
Breathing to sing involves finding and exercising these muscles, working with your body so that the air just drops in naturally!
Work those muscles!
Here’s how to find your singing muscles and switch them on:
- Bookwork: Lie on the floor on your back, place a heavy book on your abdomen and breathe in and out deeply. You should be able to see the book rising as you inhale and lowering as you exhale.
- All-fours: Get down onto all fours on the floor, with your knees below your hips and your wrists below your shoulders. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Allow your tummy to fall towards the floor as you inhale and notice it lift back up towards your spine as you exhale.
- Shhhh! Stand with good posture, inhale deeply, then exhale with pressure through a long ‘sh’ sound until all of your air is gone. Hold yourself empty for a few seconds before relaxing your abdominal muscles and dropping your jaw. As if by magic, a full breath of air should ‘drop in’ without you having to actively inhale!
- Shhhh harder: Repeat the exercise above and actively engage your abdominal muscles as you exhale by consciously drawing your belly button towards your spine. As you get close to the end of your exhale, lift those abdominal muscles up a bit to really push out the last bit of air. When you release, notice how the air ‘drops in’ deeper and faster than it did before. (Note: don’t do too many of these as they can make you feel a bit dizzy! Be sure to stop, sit down and just breathe normally if you start to feel giddy.)
- Ribcage lift: Place your hands gently on either side of your ribcage, with your thumbs towards your back and your fingers towards your front. Inhale deeply through your nose and notice how your ribcage expands in all directions (front, sides and back). Exhale steadily through your mouth, and your ribcage will start to fall but try not to let it fall all the way back to where it began – see if you can keep it a little bit lifted for your next breath. Your air should come in really fast, and your ribcage should expand at the same speed. Exhale normally.
- Spaghetti slurp: Inhale slowly through your mouth as if you were sipping the air in, like slurping on spaghetti. (Imagine your mouth opening is as small as the inlet valve on a football pump!) As you do this, you should feel your ribcage expanding and the muscles around it working hard to support your airflow. Exhale normally. Now, inhale again but with your mouth open wider, as if you were sucking through a hosepipe. Your ribcage should expand more quickly this time. Exhale normally. Finally, inhale again but with your mouth wide open like a drain pipe.
Practice makes pleasurable
Whilst breathing to sing involves techniques that can be tricky to master, a little regular practice will give you greater control of your singing instrument. You’ll know when you get it right because it’s such a joyous feeling!
So here are a few final tips to help you on your way:
- Try to include at least one breathing exercise in your daily singing routine
- Work on the breathing techniques one at a time; wait until you feel confident with one before you move on to another
- Don’t worry or feel embarrassed if the exercises make you yawn – it’s perfectly normal!
- Try to stay as relaxed as possible, although it is normal to feel some tension when you first learn where your muscles are and try out these breathing techniques
- Breathing to sing encourages a deep, meditative cycle of breath-taking, which is good for your mental welfare and physical health – so if you feel a bit stressed, have a breathe and a sing!
If you’re thinking about joining a choir but are afraid your breathing isn’t up to scratch, Fascinating Rhythm can help! Breathing exercises are always part of our rehearsal warm-up routine and, after many months on Zoom, we’re revisiting our breathing technique and working on getting back our breathing fitness.
So, if you’d like to find out more about singing with Fascinating Rhythm, we’d love to see you at one of our Thursday night rehearsals. Please get in touch via our Join Us page and follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
You might also like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insight series:
05 – Why warm-up?
Keeping it in the Family – Lily joins Fascinating Rhythm
Lily is well-known to Fascinating Rhythm because she’s been supporting our chorus at concerts and competitions and coming along to rehearsals with her mum since she was seven years old. It was in being part of the Fascinating Rhythm family that inspired Lily to join. “I really like all the ladies and wanted to sing with them”, she explains.
Lily is looking forward to learning our repertoire, especially the Pachelbel Canon (her favourite Fascinating Rhythm song) and singing on stage at the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) Convention. “I went to my first Convention when I was nine years old and have been every year since. I watched all the quartets and gave them marks. I loved it!” she says. “I’m looking forward to competing with Fascinating Rhythm and seeing what happens backstage!”
Lily’s mum, Sarah, says, “I came to my first Fascinating Rhythm rehearsal in June 2014 (having been to one of the Learn To Sing days) and passed my audition three weeks later. Now, exactly seven years on, Lily has done the same! I know the date because every year, I give our Musical Director, Jo, an FR anniversary card.”
Sarah feels pleased that Lily will be joining her in the Baritone section and keeping it in the family. “It’s brilliant because Lily’s a better singer than me and will help me learn. Plus, she knows how to download the teach tracks to her phone, so I’m hoping she’ll do mine too!” Sarah says.
Musical Director Jo Thorn says, “what an absolute joy to have Lily joining us; she is an incredibly talented young lady who we have witnessed grow and flourish over the last few years. We know only too well the social value of belonging to a community such as Fascinating Rhythm, and we hope that Lily will gain so much more singing skills whilst she is with us. The confidence that can come from spending time with like-minded people is priceless. I joined my first female chorus at the same age and instantly gained 40 new ‘mother figures’ – we aim to ensure that Lily has great fun with us whilst learning a whole host of singing and life skills. It also, of course, brings down the average age of Fascinating Rhythm, so a total win-win!”
Lily is a former member of Junior FR and is the first person to move up to Fascinating Rhythm from our girls’ choir. “I joined Junior FR when mum was helping direct their show ‘Cinderella’ in 2015. I got a part in the chorus, and I liked it because I met people and made friends from outside of school,” she remembers.
Junior FR’s Musical Director, Wendy, is over the moon that Lily is joining Fascinating Rhythm. “I was privileged to sing with Lily during her first assessment piece, and she sounds amazing!” Wendy says. “Lily holds her part really well and has a beautiful voice with a lovely tone. She’s going to be a cracking member of the chorus.”
“One of the things we’ve always flagged up for the Junior FR girls is to come through the choir and end up in Fascinating Rhythm, but it hasn’t ever happened before – Lily is our first candidate to do it! I’m absolutely delighted that she has chosen to carry on her singing and it’s so lovely that she can do it with her mum,” Wendy enthuses.
Wendy hopes that Lily will be an inspiration to other former Junior FR girls who left a few years ago. “We always invite ex-Junior FR girls to our Learn To Sing days, so they know Fascinating Rhythm is here, and we would love to have them come along to a rehearsal,” she says.
Sarah says, “If you’re thinking of taking up singing or joining a choir, I’d say just go for it! I walked into my first rehearsal alone, not knowing anyone, and it was the best thing I ever did… (apart from having Lily, obviously!).”
If you are inspired to join Fascinating Rhythm or Junior FR, please contact us via our website.
Fascinating Rhythm is getting back to rehearsals.
Fascinating Rhythm members are excited to be getting back to in-person rehearsals after more than a year of meeting online, thanks to Yate Town Football Club offering its stand as an outdoor venue.
According to the latest UK Government guidance, amateur singing groups can meet outdoors in groups of up to 30, as long as they adhere to social distancing and hygiene rules. In line with this, Fascinating Rhythm’s membership will split into two groups that will meet separately in Yate on a Thursday evening.
Fascinating Rhythm’s Chair, Iris, says, “We were following the timetable for lockdown easing and working with our usual venue on a risk assessment to ensure a safe return to indoor rehearsals. However, an unexpected change to the coronavirus guidance last month put those plans on hold. Thankfully, Yate Town FC stepped in and offered us the use of the covered stand until we can re-group as a single choir indoors.”
The past year has been challenging for singers, with choirs unable to meet in person due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, Fascinating Rhythm has adapted to weekly Zoom meetings and staying connected through social media.
“Over the past year, we’ve struggled to sing together online because four-part a capella harmony just doesn’t work on Zoom!” says Fascinating Rhythm’s Musical Director Jo Thorn. “But we’ve embraced the opportunity to work on other elements of our craft, learn some new songs and make a couple of lockdown videos. Most importantly, we’ve stayed socially connected in what has been an incredibly isolating time for the whole country.”
Fascinating Rhythm’s Social Media Manager, Erica, captured the chorus reunion on camera. “It’s quite emotional for us, coming back together and singing one of our favourite songs. I can’t wait until we can all meet properly as a full choir and get back to making that unique Fascinating Rhythm sound,” she says.
Jo agrees, “Whilst we don’t know how soon we will be able to return to indoor rehearsals at The Greenfield Centre, we’re glad to have the chance to get back to singing together and are grateful to Yate Town FC for their support and hospitality. Perhaps we can grace the stand with a four-part harmony football chant or two!”
The New Members Guide to Joining a Choir During a Pandemic!
Anne-marie, Emma and Fionna
Fascinating Rhythm members say that the best part of being in a choir is the fun, friendship and joy of group singing. However, when Anne-marie, Emma and Fionna decided to join Fascinating Rhythm after coming to our tenth Learn To Sing Workshop in February 2020, they got a little more (or less) than they bargained for.
Just a few weeks after our three ‘newbies’ passed their auditions, the coronavirus pandemic plunged us into a national lockdown. Our weekly face-to-face rehearsals at The Greenfield Centre in Winterbourne were cancelled, and we scrambled to find a way for our choir to meet online.
Despite the highs and lows of Zoom rehearsals, Anne-marie, Emma and Fionna have stuck with us over the past fifteen months, becoming fully-fledged members of Fascinating Rhythm.
Now, with the prospect of a return to in-person rehearsals insight, we asked them what it’s been like as a ‘newbies’ during the pandemic and what they’re looking forward to about singing with the chorus post-lockdown.
What encouraged you to join Fascinating Rhythm?
Fionna: “I’ve known about Fascinating Rhythm for about ten years because I made the bookings for Rangeworthy Village Hall, where you used to rehearse. I’ve always liked singing, and I sang in the school choir, but I never considered myself good enough to sing with you because you always seem so professional, dedicated and talented!”
Emma: “I did lots of singing when I was younger, but then family, marriage and work took over. I’d heard Fascinating Rhythm sing lots of times because my daughter sings with Junior FR, and I felt very jealous that she was singing with a choir. Wendy persuaded me to come along to the Learn To Sing day, and I was completely hooked!”
Anne-marie: “I’ve been coming to your Learn To Sing workshops for several years but wasn’t able to join the chorus because of work and family commitments. Then, in October 2019, Wendy came to a singing forum for my Music With Mummy business, and I just thought, ‘I have to do this now!’ I spend my life singing for work, but I also want to sing for pleasure.”
Fionna: “I’ve actually been to four Learn To Sing days! But it was the last two that really persuaded me to join Fascinating Rhythm because I just loved the songs. Attending the workshops helped me build my confidence, as I don’t read music or play an instrument.”
What were your first (in-person) rehearsals like?
Anne-marie: “What I loved about walking into my first rehearsal was feeling very comfortable. I knew quite a few people, and there were familiar faces from the Learn to Sing day, which made me feel happier.”
Emma: “I was petrified of coming to my first rehearsal – it’s a bit intimidating seeing you all on the risers being amazing! But everyone was welcoming and supportive, and people I’d met at the Learn to Sing day came over to say hello. It made me feel part of something special.”
Fionna: “Everyone was friendly, very chatty and welcoming, and to stand on the risers and hear the sound all around me – being part of that was amazing!”
Fionna: “Fascinating Rhythm has a reputation for a high standard, but I found that as long as you have the basics of singing, you can learn the rest. It’s been a really positive experience.”
Emma: “Joining Fascinating Rhythm pushed me outside my comfort zone, but I was brought in very quickly. I was terrified of the audition, but once I passed, it was the best feeling ever!”
What has been your experience of online rehearsals?
Emma: “When the pandemic started, everything went crazy! Working from home and home-schooling was challenging and I felt like I spent far too much time on Zoom. But Fascinating Rhythm gave me something just for me, away from work and the family – my escape (even if still at home)!”
Fionna: “Zoom has been good because everyone joins the call with their name on display, so I’ve been able to get to know who everyone is. But I don’t like being in a big group on screen – it’s quite daunting.”
Emma: “I’ve tried to turn Zoom into a positive, and Jo, Karen L, Wendy and others have put in so much energy, structure and momentum to the online rehearsals. I went through stages of “I can’t face it” on Zoom because of work, but I was never made to feel I had to be there. The fact that we’ve all kept going is a real testament to Fascinating Rhythm as a group.”
Anne-marie: “I lack the confidence to speak up when we talk about what the songs are about, but part of our new process for learning is getting to the essence of a song. I’m just concentrating on remembering the notes and words – then I’m happy.”
Emma: “Not knowing the warm-ups was a challenge, but Wendy and Karen did an amazing job of getting us up to speed. It was also hard to get to know people online, but the Bass WhatsApp group and buddying-up with Anne-marie and Kate B really helped, as did the breakout groups organised by Jo.”
Fionna: “One of the funniest Zoom moments was playing The Generation Game on party night. I knocked my laptop over when I was passing things in front of the screen – and that was just one of, lots of things, that went wrong!”
Anne-marie: “… and Becky’s voiceover commentary was hilarious.”
Emma: “I’ve laughed ’til I’ve cried on Zoom with Fascinating Rhythm. The Generation Game was a real Tena-Lady moment! And when Jo asked people to say the song lyrics in ‘what’s the next line?’ and no-one could remember the words! I’ve also cried because it’s been so emotional: when Di sang with her daughter Mads, it was so beautiful.”
Has singing helped during lockdown?
Fionna: “Jo did lessons with us in the early part of the first lockdown. It was like getting free singing lessons, and it really helped! It’s quite reassuring to feel like there is a process and a system for learning and assessment that you all follow. Although lockdown has taken away a huge amount of song-learning time because I used to do it in the car.”
Anne-marie: “I drive half an hour to work (and half an hour back) every day, so I use that time for song learning. Sometimes I’ll listen to teach tracks when I’m out walking and sing along in the quiet country lanes. My partner joins in too – he’s been learning with me!”
Emma: “During the lockdown, I’ve had time to catch up on the basics of learning songs. Anne-marie and I chivvied each other along. At the weekends, I’d go into the garden and sing for a couple of hours.”
Anne-marie: “I’ve loved learning the repertoire – it’s kept me sane during the lockdown. I’ve been doing about one song per month. Emma and I buddied up with Kate B, supporting each other on WhatsApp and motivating each other for recording – we call ourselves the Bass Buddies.”
Fionna: “The first two audition songs were assessed in person (singing in a quartet with the Section Leaders and Jo listening), and I found it hard to keep my part. I much prefer being able to record on my own at home against the teach track – it removes the nerves of doing it in-person during the tea break. So, I’m very keen to get as many songs signed off as possible before lockdown ends!”
Anne-marie: “The first song I have to record to send in was ‘And So It Goes’. I didn’t realise you just had to do an audio track, so I put make-up on and did a full video! Brenda always says lovely things when giving feedback on my recordings, even if there’s a bit I have to work on. She’s very supportive.”
Emma: “When I signed off ‘This Is Me’, I felt like I’d made it! The hardest to learn was ‘Listen To The Music’ – I was nearly in tears over that one, but Brenda’s encouraging feedback helped me to get there in the end.”
Anne-marie: “My best bit has been receiving a certificate for passing all my audition pieces – it was the highlight of my lockdown!”
What’s your favourite Fascinating Rhythm song?
Fionna: “I like ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music, which I’ve learnt, and ‘Titanium’ is one of my favourite songs anyway.”
Anne-marie: “My favourites are ‘City Of Stars’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘And So It Goes’. I was learning City Of Stars’ when my dog was poorly. Sadly, he’s passed away now, but every time I sing it, I sing it for him.”
Emma: “‘And So It Goes’ is my absolute favourite Fascinating Rhythm song. ‘Titanium’ was one of my favourites before, and I can’t wait to sing it with the chorus. ‘Anthem’, too.”
What are you most looking forward to about returning to in-person rehearsals?
Fionna: “I’m looking forward to picking up where we left off in March last year. And that feeling of singing with others, rather than on my own.”
Emma: “I’m most looking forward to singing with everyone and hearing the Fascinating Rhythm sound. I think singing ‘Titanium’ will be really special, as a new song that we have learnt during the lockdown and therefore new to everyone (oldies and newbies alike).”
Anne-marie: “I’m slightly nervous about going back to face-to-face in case I’ve built it up too much in my head! But I’m looking forward to finally meeting everyone, the friends I’ve made online, and becoming ‘proper’ friends. And the singing, of course! I’ve been in Fascinating Rhythm a year, but when I go back, I’ll be a beginner again.”
Fionna: “It’s nice to be still thought of as new, even a year on. It’s really welcome.”
What would you say to someone who is thinking of joining a choir-like Fascinating Rhythm post-covid?
Emma: “Just do it! Go for it and do it for yourself because it’s the most amazing hobby. When you get signed off, it’s the best feeling. Embrace the opportunities and the scariness because it will take you out of your comfort zone… in a good way!”
Fionna: “Singing is a good way of losing yourself in something completely different, away from the day-to-day. It’s been good for my mental health.”
Anne-marie: “The sense of achievement I feel with Fascinating Rhythm has blown me away. I run my own business – I work long hours, and I love my job, but it doesn’t push me out of my comfort zone. Being part of Fascinating Rhythm pushes me to do more, and the sense of achievement and recognition has been amazing. Every time I get a sign-off, I whoop with joy! It’s a massive achievement that I can do it.”
Fionna: “And don’t think you can’t sing because you can probably sing enough. You do have to hold your own, which is tricky, but hearing all the notes is an amazing experience. So, give it a go, and you might surprise yourself!”
Anne-marie: “I’d say you couldn’t meet a more supportive group of people. And fun!”
Emma: “I can’t wait for the next Learn To Sing (when we’re able to do one), so I can bring other people along!”
…and if reading about our newbies’ experience of joining Fascinating Rhythm has inspired you to take up singing post-covid, we’d love to hear from you. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
You might also like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insight series:
05 – Why warm-up?
07 – Breathing to Sing
Why Warm Up
Getting in the zone for singing
Fascinating Rhythm is renowned across Bristol and South Gloucestershire for close-harmony a cappella singing and our unique choral sound. We strive for musical excellence through regular rehearsals on Thursday evenings.
A crucial part of our rehearsal time involves getting ourselves ready to sing. Far from being a tedious slog that we have to get through as quickly as possible, Fascinating Rhythm’s warm-up sessions are as much about coming together and having fun as they are about exercising our voices.
Musical Director Jo, Assistant Director and Choreographer Wendy, and Baritone Section Leader (and vocal coach) Karen make sure our warm-ups are efficient, effective and fast-paced. So, we asked them to tell us why warming up is important and share their top tips for preparing to sing.
Turn up and tune in
Barbershop singing typically involves standing up and being in close proximity to others. When we first step onto the risers, we take a few minutes to get used to our surroundings and tune in to each other. Each singer has her own ‘spot’ on the risers, with a unique environment created by her neighbours’ voices and physical space confined by singers in front, behind, and either side. Before we start singing, we must assimilate into our space and tune in our bodies to what’s going on around us.
Stepping onto the risers also takes us away from the day we’ve just had, allows us to re-connect as a team, and puts us in the zone of ‘we are singing now’. Warming up acts as the next step in the process of relaxing our bodies and entering a state of readiness for making music. We are expected to be engaged and give 100% to our rehearsal from the first blow of the pitch pipe.
Fascinating Rhythm dedicates half an hour to warm up at the start of every rehearsal. We use this time to switch on our brains, position ourselves with good alignment for singing and pump some adrenalin. The way we warm-up sets the tone for our whole rehearsal – if everyone is fully engaged, we know we’re in for a good night!
Care for your voice
Singing uses the whole body, from the tiny muscles in and around the larynx to the major rib and abdominal muscles. Warm muscles are stretchy and soft and less prone to injury but, if you don’t warm up, you risk causing damage. So, think of yourself as a vocal athlete, exercise your voice like you would any other muscle and make warming up part of your daily routine. Jo recommends aiming for 20 minutes per day. You could even consult a vocal coach for some personal training and ask them to tailor a set of warm-up exercises to suit you.
Warming up also aligns your vocal instrument, eliminates any tension that could affect your voice, and improves vocal quality. A warm voice will be less likely to break or crack, less prone to throat bubbles, and more likely to stay on pitch and in tune. Gentle breathing and warm-up exercises are also a really nice thing to do for yourself – mindful and relaxing, a kind of self-care for singers!
Follow a warm-up routine.
Fascinating Rhythm follows a structured warm-up routine covering posture, breathing, pitch, performance, vocal techniques and vocal quality. Each element has a purpose in getting us ready to sing, and Wendy follows a similar approach with Junior FR (with an extra focus on having fun)!
1. Posture: We take a few moments to settle our bodies, noticing our posture and any areas of tension. Then, we gently mobilise our neck, shoulder and back muscles and do some side stretches before aligning our posture for singing.
2. Breathing: Most of us breathe all day long without thinking about it, but, as singers, we need to be more aware of how we can use the breathing apparatus to control our airflow. Shushing or hissing will exercise the abdominal support muscles, and we practise squeezing out every last bit of air before taking in a new breath. (Taking care not to make ourselves dizzy!)
3. SOVT (semi-occluded vocal tract) exercises: Singing is more intense and covers a broader vocal range than talking, so we start with lip trills (or ‘bubbling’) and humming up and down a few notes to get our vocal folds vibrating. Beginning somewhere comfortable in our vocal range, we gently extend out to a full scale or a simple tune.
4. Vocal quality: The voice makes a different type of sound according to where you ‘place’ it – for example, it can be nasal or throaty. As singers, we want to create a nice, resonant sound with open vowels.
5. Vocal techniques: We try out different ways to add interest to our singing (such as dynamics, staccato and legato, the enunciation of consonants) by singing some simple songs. We also use rounds or simple harmony tunes to get used to singing against different voice parts.
6. Performance: Barbershop singing has a visual performance aspect, and it can be surprisingly tricky to move and sing at the same time. So, we do something that engages the brain – like ‘say what I say and do the opposite’, which always ends up with everyone giggling!
The critical thing to remember about warming up is taking your time and doing it gently from a point of comfort. Warming-up isn’t about pushing yourself – if it feels too intense, ease back down.
Warm-up time is never wasted.
Multi medal-winning barbershopper Sally McLean (Musical Director of the White Rosettes) has coached Fascinating Rhythm on several occasions and praised our commitment to warming up because it helps us achieve our unique look and sound. Jo, Wendy and Karen make sure our warm-ups are accessible and inclusive to suit the range of skill across the choir, and explain what each exercise is for (without getting too technical!) so that everyone understands what to do and is able to join in. Our greatest achievement has been staying in tune as we work up and down the solfege scale, which took weeks of practice!
We encourage every singer to get enthusiastic about warming up! Don’t just stick to scales and arpeggios but think about what you enjoy singing and build it into your warm up time. Fascinating Rhythm love singing rounds and our current favourites are “Alfred the Alligator” (complete with lots of visual performance and vocal dynamics) and “Gin and Tonic” (which is excellent for practising consonants, articulation and synchronisation).
Warm-up with Fascinating Rhythm
Warming up can help you to maintain a healthy voice for as long as possible. So why not warm up with us? We’ve created a CD of warm-up exercises designed to help improve vocal range and perfect various singing techniques.
You might like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insights series:
07 – Breathing to Sing
Musical Director Lockdown Harmony Project
The Directors Teamed Up
Following a virtual four-chorus get-together last October, Jo (Fascinating Rhythm), Mary (Avon Harmony), Craig (Bristol Fashion) and nooj (Black Sheep Harmony) secretly formed a mixed quartet to record a special song.
Having all tirelessly supported our choruses in staying connected through online rehearsals for nearly a year, the Directors jumped at the chance to do some singing and combine their musical talents.
The Blind Date
Since Lockdown prevented the quartet from rehearsing, singing or filming together, they recorded themselves separately. nooj combined the audio tracks with video and visual effects to create the final film. Craig says, “It was a bit like a blind date because we didn’t know what it was going to look or sound like until we saw the final product.”
A four-part arrangement of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was chosen for its poignant lyrics and wistful melody. The four Directors filmed themselves in isolation to reflect the theme of being all alone in a lonely place. Mary says, “Lockdown has been hard because, for many of us, singing is an escape. This song is about hope and just keeping going…”
Reflecting on the project, all four Directors say they would like to work together on a similar venture in the future. Jo says, “The project has connected us as MDs in what has been a pretty isolating time.” nooj agrees, “We’re all good friends, but we’ve been apart for some time, and we miss each other.”
We are lucky to have such experienced barbershoppers leading our choruses and feel incredibly proud of them for producing this video. We hope they will be able to give us a ‘live’ performance of Somewhere Only We Know at the next four-chorus get-together (hopefully later this year)!
Teamwork makes the dream work for Fascinating Rhythm whose members have spent a lot of time online over the past year using Zoom and social media to stay connected – Thursday evenings are for singing, laughter, and friendship. We haven’t let lockdown prevent us from getting together (albeit virtually).
Fascinating Rhythm is devoted to a love of barbershop and musical performance. We are so much more than singing: we also care about teamwork, peer support, social connection and the health and wellbeing benefits associated with singing. Being off the risers has allowed us to work on some of the non-singing aspects of being a choir, like what makes Fascinating Rhythm a solid and supportive team?
One of our fabulous Lead singers, Hanna (a consultant in behavioural change and continuous improvement), has investigated Fascinating Rhythm’s personality profile and uncovered some fascinating insights. We asked her to explain how our individualities come together to make our chorus a successful team.
Check your personality
Everyone perceives the world and makes decisions differently, and this diversity is essential within a team. Understanding our individual members’ personalities can help us communicate better and work together even more successfully.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a tool for finding out how you naturally prefer to focus your energy, gather information and interact with other people. It’s not an exact science, but this type of personality profiling can help you learn about your preferences and highlight your strengths. Towards the end of last year, 35 of our members volunteered to complete an MBTI questionnaire so Hanna could gain insight into our collective chorus personality.
MBTI divides people into 16 personality types based on four areas of preference or behaviour:
- Extraversion (E) / Introversion (I) is about focusing energy. Extraverted people tend towards action, oral communication and group work. Introverted people tend to be more reflective, prefer written communication and enjoy working alone or with one or two others.
- Sensing (S) / Intuition (N) is about gathering information. Sensing people, like specific examples, following an agenda and focus on the applications of a situation; intuitive people prefer general concepts, desire change and focus on the possibilities a situation can bring.
- Thinking (T) / Feeling (F) is about decision-making. Thinking people will seek general truths and objectivity by asking questions and wanting things to be logical and feeling people will seek individual and interpersonal harmony by expressing feelings and knowing when support is needed.
- Judging (J) / Perceiving (P) is about lifestyle. Judging people like order, they finish tasks before a deadline and dislike surprises. Perceiving people like to keep things flexible; they finish tasks at the deadline and reserve the right to change their plans or decisions.
There is no ‘right’ personality type, and none is better than another. Each type has its own unique strengths, and an effective team will have a spread of people from across the MBTI spectrum.
Our team: The Defender
The most common outcome for the Fascinating Rhythm members surveyed was the ISFJ profile (also known as ‘The Defender’), which makes us a warm, efficient, responsible and practical team. Singing in a choir is not a solo sport – everyone has to put in effort and enthusiasm – and our collective personality (particularly the SJ bit) means we are willing to take responsibility for helping our chorus succeed as a team.
We strive for musical excellence through dedication to rehearsals and the challenge of learning a diverse repertoire, and there’s plenty of help and support within the chorus. Being ISFJ means we are good at summarising our learning; we make notes, written instructions and visual materials to support people’s different learning styles. (It should come as no surprise that we focus on details, given that we have a strong IS preference!)
Our ladies are happy to share their experiences to help others in the team (that’s our SF tendency shining through). With Feeling as our most dominant trait, we nurture interpersonal harmony. We are lucky to have a committed Music Team who, along with our Section Leaders and Assistant Section Leaders, are always happy to provide peer support.
Our strong Judging tendency probably explains why our rehearsals tend to be quite structured, with a mixture of warm-up exercises, singing practice, perhaps some barbershop music theory and something fun that takes us out of our comfort zone. Whilst we vary the specific activities, we do like to have a rehearsal structure and enjoy setting goals and making plans.
Perhaps surprisingly, we have strong natural introversion! Whilst we may look super-confident on stage, performing our socks off, the majority of our members (including Jo, our Musical Director) don’t enjoy actively seeking out the limelight.
Smells like team spirit.
So much about being part of Fascinating Rhythm comes down to teamwork. We have teams for everything: from Wardrobe and Music to show-planning and organising our participation in the annual LABBS Convention. Everyone can play to their strengths and find their niche!
Indeed the unsung heroines of teamwork and communication are the Riser Team, who arrive early for every rehearsal to set up the staged risers for us to stand on. Their seamless coordination of this weekly construction challenge and commitment to health and safety ensure we can arrange ourselves on the risers in the way that best enhances our unique Fascinating Rhythm sound.
Joining our team
We believe that singing is for everyone and we are always on the lookout for new members. So, if you’re considering taking up a new post-lockdown activity, we’d love to hear from you!
You might like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insights series:
05 – Why Warm Up?
07 – Breathing to Sing
Fascinating Rhythm has a diverse repertoire of songs well-suited to our style of a cappella singing. From show tunes like “City of Stars”, “This Is Me” and “Feeling Good” to a ten-part arrangement of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, we have songs for every occasion, and we love to share them with our audiences at concerts and competitions.
Creating the classic harmonic barbershop sound is a key part of our craft, but Fascinating Rhythm also tries to connect emotionally with a song to give a more authentic performance. As well as using movement to enhance the song’s meaning, we express the emotions behind the lyrics and music using our voices and just as with visual performance, achieving unity in our vocal sound is an important aspect of making a song entertaining.
Professional vocal trainer Karen, our pitch-perfect Baritone Section Leader and trainee LABBS Singing Judge, has kindly agreed to share her top hints and tips for adding some vocal ‘wow’ to any song:
What is vocal expression?
The Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) promotes a cappella four-part harmony singing in the barbershop style. Under competition conditions, LABBS singing category judges are looking to “…evaluate the degree to which the performer achieves artistic singing in the barbershop style […] through precise intonation, a high degree of vocal skill, a high level of unity and consistency within the ensemble as well as the use of the vocal expression.”
The five key elements of barbershop singing are:
– Intonation – precise harmonic tuning and staying in pitch
– Vocal quality – well-supported, freely-produced, resonant and accurate singing
– Unity within the ensemble – synchronisation and precision, matched vowel sounds, good diction and articulation
– Expansion and ring – well-sung chords and a balanced sound
– Vocal expression – nuance, dynamics, tone ‘colour’ and use of artistic effects
So, vocal expression is just as much a part of the barbershop style as singing in harmony and in tune, breathing effectively and using the voice as a musical instrument.
How do I ‘do’ vocal expression?
Vocal expression covers a range of techniques you can use to make a song sound more interesting:
– Dynamics are about volume – that is, how loudly or quietly you are singing. You can vary your volume across the whole of a song, across a particular phrase, or even within a single word.
– Tone colour is made up of the resonance of your voice, your vocal placement (for example, throaty or nasal) and the timbre (combination of frequencies) that make up your vocal sound.
– Vocal quality describes a spectrum of effects from airy whispering to a brassy, edgy, forced sound. You can change your vocal quality from one word to another or across whole phrases.
There are also artistic effects that can be added to a song.
– Moments of silence, audible breaths or adding vibrato to a word (a purposeful ‘tremor’ in the voice) can emphasise an emotional thought
– Diphthongs change the vowel sound part-way through a word (so ‘night’ becomes ‘nah-eet’); whereas ‘pre-thongs’ (a concept we learned from Frenzy quartet ) add a vowel sound to the beginning of a word (so ‘whenever’ becomes ‘oo-weh-nn-eh-ver’)
– Hard consonants (like ‘c’, ‘b’ or ‘d’) can be used to emphasise the start or end of a word, whilst ‘singable’ consonants (like’ n’ or ‘m’) add a musical softness.
– The way you start a word can also be made more interesting by using a glottal stop for a hard onset or an aspirate, breathy sound for a softer onset.
How can I improve my vocal expression?
One of the best ways to improve your vocal expression is to listen to other singers and choirs from a variety of genres and take inspiration from what they do. Have a think about what effect their vocal expression is creating and whether or not it is working. Then try playing around with your voice, recording yourself and listening back to see how you sound.
By testing things out and finding what feels right, you can internalise and practise the techniques for vocal expression until you can replicate them more naturally. The more you practise, the more you can expand the capabilities of your voice as an instrument. You might even choose to ask a vocal coach to help you work on certain aspects of your singing technique.
Sprinkling on the glitter!
You can think of a song as being like an artwork: notes and words are the pencil lines; dynamics and nuance provide the shading; tone colour adds the colours; and artistic effects are the glitter sprinkled on top!
However, whilst we love a bit of glitter, adding too much would smother the artwork and ruin it. So, consider using artistic effects sparingly for the best impact.
At Fascinating Rhythm, we put just as much work into our vocal expression as we do our visual performance. We talk about the emotional story of a song and the vocal techniques that help us to express it, so we can help each other to give a unified, authentic performance. We love using our voices to connect with and entertain our audiences, but the most magical and rewarding moments come when they are so caught up in a song, they don’t notice us sprinkling on the glitter!
You might like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insights series:
05 – Why Warm Up?
07 – Breathing to Sing