Viva la Diva

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Learning to sing is simple, trills Geraldine Brennan. All you have to do is imagine that you're swallowing a coathanger...

I love to see people cry at weddings, but I'd rather my singing wasn't responsible. After six weeks of lessons, I'm grateful that if I'm not exactly a lark, at least I no longer frighten the horses.

Ghislaine Morgan has taken me in hand. She is former head of singing at St Paul's Girls' School, teaches at Dulwich College and is in great demand as a coach for choirs, masterclasses and summer schools. She also sings solo soprano and next month will tour South Africa with the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra.

She also takes individual pupils and believes that everyone is capable of improving their voice once they get in touch with their breathing: "We're all basically wind instruments." Even untrained enthusiasts who think pitch is something to do with soccer and tone is short for Anthony.

I can now report that "tone" can mean several things, including a specific distance between notes and the quality with which a note is sung. When it comes to staying in tune, though, only one type of pitch will do. At my first lesson, poor pitch was diagnosed as my main problem.

Singing "in tune" - sounding a note correctly after hearing it - depends on co-ordination of the left and right brain, so that the reasoning and analytical faculty that tells you what you have just heard co-operates with the intuitive spark that makes you repeat it in a pleasing way.

My right and left brain, it seems, behave as if they have never been introduced - not surprisingly, as my right brain is still marooned, panic-stricken, in a primary school assembly trying to join in with an incomprehensible hymn.

On the other hand, my posture and projection are not too bad and it's much more encouraging to be told you're "somewhere in the alto range" than that you're making a racket.

Enter the Elephant and the Owl. These are physical co-ordination exercises from the Brain Gym* (Educational Kinesiology) system developed in the United States. Ghislaine recommends students who have problems with tuning should do them before even attempting to sing - along with another exercise called the Thinking Cap which involves turning your ears inside out. (It feels surprisingly pleasant.) Besides these, there's my home Brain Gym* programme - 176 repetitions of the Cross Crawl (walking on the spot and slapping alternate knees) twice a day. This is tedious, but it works. It doesn't seem to make much difference if I do 174 or 178, but the week that I didn't do any my singing was awful.

Sending the right and left brain on a hot date is only part of the process. Tuning also requires stamina if you are to sustain the note once you've heard it. The wind instrument needs to be working as hard in singing as if you were speaking, but trying to be heard at the back of the school hall.

Meanwhile, the breathing needs to be co-ordinated from low in the body. You need to "fill up your knickers", as Ghislaine puts it, when you take a breath. And regulate the breath so that the wind instrument can produce a bellow or whisper at will. And breathe through your back (singers seem to have washboard backs rather than washboard stomachs). And keep your throat open so that you don't gasp and strain. And do all this at once. A variation, Ghislaine says, on "patting your head and rubbing your tummy".

Some of it is fun, as I suspected it might be. I love the role-playing element of interpreting a song and, in lesson two, I attempted "Happy Birthday" (Ghislaine advises starting with something with familiar words) in various styles from Guys and Dolls to grand diva.

Singing provides a great energy boost - the creativity, the physical exercise and the intense concentration add up to a heady adrenaline rush - so that I leave a lesson less tired than I went in. As my vocal skills improve, the panic about "joining in" recedes.

After six lessons, I am considering swapping the sofa for a piano. I am thrilled with my tiny repertoire: "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind" from As You Like It, chosen because I can bear to repeat the words the requisite hundreds of times, plus light relief in the form of "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?". I'm working up to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

And, if I imagine swallowing a coathanger, I can keep my throat open most of the time.

Ghislaine Morgan, who is based in south London, is offering 'TES' readers Pounds 5 off her normal adult rate of Pounds 30 an hour on an introductory lesson during September, subject to availability. Telephone: 0498 625414

WORD OF MOUTH is the best route to a one-to-one singing teacher, but it is worth trying music colleges, libraries, music shops and adult education centres.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians includes approved singing teachers in a directory of its members, which costs Pounds 8 (including postage and packing) from the ISM, 10 Stratford Place, London W1N 9AE and is also available in larger public libraries. The Association of Teachers of Singing can supply names of local members (telfax 01283 542198). Personal chemistry is the key: always insist on an introductory lesson before committing yourself.

For an information pack about Brain Gym* send Pounds 3 to the Education Kinesiology Foundation, 12 Golders Rise, Hendon, London NW4 2HR

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