Performance Psychology for Presenters

My second workshop, in partnership with Sheffield University’s Counselling and Psychological Wellbeing Service, is a confidence-building session on public speaking and making presentations. Information about this can be found here

Presentation Flyer


Singing Workshops for Wellbeing

At the end of this month, I will be launching a series of workshops for students, in collaboration with the Counselling and Psychological Wellbeing Service at the University of Sheffield. Details about the first sessions are available here

Wellbeing Flyer


If You Can Talk You Can Sing

Many people have heard of the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing”. But is it true? Well, I’m no expert on the first half of that proverb, but there is some evidence that the second half is true.

At the recent Sounds Human Conference at Leeds College of Music, we were treated to a very moving demonstration of the close relationship between speech and song. John McHugh presented his composition, Hidden Voice, a multimedia piece based on interviews with people with dementia, their families and carers.

In his programme notes, John notes that the project ‘gives voice to people living with dementia though the beautiful melodies of their speech’.  By recording and repeating phrases from the interviews, the inherent melodic features of the conversations were revealed. Some of the most striking phrases were transformed into hypnotic musical passages, which were the inspiration for the sensitively composed instrumental accompaniment. The innate musicality of everyday speech was clearly exposed and the interviewees were an integral part of the composition process, providing the lyrics and tonal patterns for the main themes.

Audio-visual extracts from the interviews are a key feature of the performance, so this process has enabled all the participants to leave a lasting and impactful musical legacy, regardless of whether or not they would have regarded themselves as ‘musical’ in any way. An example of some of the music is in the link below. This is emotionally very powerful, so make sure you have some tissues handy!

One of the main reasons that this composition was possible is due to the existence of prosody. This is the melodic and rhythmic content of spoken language, which includes variations in pitch, length of syllables and the spaces between them, and the amount of emphasis placed on particular syllables. The ‘speech to song illusion’, as exemplified in John McHugh’s composition, was first illustrated by the Music Psychologist, Diana Deutsch. When polishing her own recorded commentary for a CD on Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, she noticed that, after a number of repetitions, the spoken phrases started to sound like singing. This is demonstrated in the following video, in which the audience response is a joy:

This strikingly demonstrates the strong relationships between speech and music, and I hope that it will be encouraging for anyone who thinks that they are not musical. We all have musical capabilities, and we demonstrate this every day in the rhythms and tonal variations in our speech. The difference between a ‘singer’ and a ‘non-singer’ is not as great as might be imagined, and most of us have the capacity to develop our natural vocal skills – even if some of us might need a little more help than others! In over 35 years of teaching singing, I have never encountered anyone who cannot improve their singing once they have had some training.

Admittedly, there is a very small minority of individuals who may genuinely struggle to develop these skills. These people may have a very rare condition, known as ‘congenital amusia’. This is so rare that it can be challenging to find sufficient participants for research projects on the subject, so if you really have ‘amusia’ you are very special indeed! Estimates of the prevalence of ‘amusia’ vary from 1.5% to 5% of the population, depending on the diagnostic methods and definition of the condition. This is somewhat similar to the varying estimates of the proportion of people who are transgendered, again depending on the definition of the term. I have definitely worked with the voices of far more transgendered people than individuals who are undoubtedly ‘tone deaf’.

As a little inspiration for reluctant or less confident singers, here are two musical arrangements of the words of the Zimbabwean proverb. The unaccompanied arrangement is by Linda Hirschhorn, and the composition with a piano accompaniment is by Elizabeth Alexander. Both versions are great fun, so I hope they get you singing loud and proud!

Further Resources:

Deutsch, D. Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, 1995, La Jolla: Philomel Records

Deutsch, D., Lapidis, R., and Henthorn, T. The speech-to-song illusion. Invited Lay language paper presented at the 156th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2008, November, Miami.[Laylanguage version]

Peretz, I. (2013). The biological foundations of music: insights from congenital amusia. In The Psychology of Music (Third Edition) (pp. 551-564).

Singing Together for Wellbeing

Last night I conducted a concert with the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir at Bingham in Nottinghamshire. Our current theme song is ‘Stout Hearted Men’ from ‘New Moon’, which was one of the first musicals that my mother took me to see at the theatre. One of my favourite lines in the song is ‘Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire’, and the gentlemen of the choir are among my main sources of inspiration at the moment.

As I rapidly approach a significant birthday, I have been constantly looking for good examples of healthy aging, and I am now fortunate enough to be surrounded by positive role models in the male voice choir. The youngest members are in their mid-sixties, and the rest are mainly in their seventies and eighties. Two of our singers have recently celebrated their ninetieth birthdays, which makes my approaching landmark seem comparatively modest.

After telling last night’s audience about the singers’ longevity, I realised that I had possibly delivered a slight insult to our younger members when I added ‘…And I defy you to work out which of the men are the ninety-year olds!’ Of course, I meant that it is quite difficult to identify the most senior singers, as they look so well and continue to make such a strong contribution to the choir.

Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir
A Great Advertisement for Singing and Wellbeing!

The longest-standing members of this group have over 250 songs in their repertoire (not including their Christmas songs), and pride themselves on performing everything from memory. Post-performance celebrations in the pub are often enlivened by spontaneous renditions of old favourites, such as ‘The Rhythm of Life’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, as many of the singers can (and do!) perform these items with very little persuasion. Newer members quickly learn to catch up by memorising the songs for each concert.

The choir operates as a learning community, with more experienced members of the choir mentoring new recruits, making sure they have everything they need (sheet music, choir uniform, performance directions etc.) and helping them to get up to speed with the music. Often I look around and see one of the basses discreetly gesturing to his neighbour to indicate where the pitch goes up and down. On other occasions, I might see one of the tenors helping his colleague to work out which verse we are singing, or a baritone quietly explaining the ‘map reading’ for those who hadn’t noticed a repeat mark or coda.

The singers’ collaborative approach to learning and performing extends into their social life, as they have a healthy relationship with the local pub, and many of them keep in touch outside rehearsals. Some of the gentlemen sail together, meet to play golf or bowls, belong to other networking organizations, or simply visit and support each other in times of need. There is a strong sense of community within the choir, and the singers also play an active role in the wider community. They arrange collaborative performances with local schools and colleges, provide opportunities for young soloists to perform in their concerts, and are constantly fundraising for local and national charities.

All of this means that this group of singers, like many other choirs, are a very powerful advertisement for the wellbeing effects of singing. Their physical wellbeing benefits from the good posture, deep breathing and general relaxation necessary for healthy vocal production, while their cognitive skills remain sharp due to the constant need to learn, revise and memorise their words and music. Their social wellbeing is enhanced by their own supportive community and their valuable contributions to the wider community.

Our plans for this year include an open day to enable newcomers to gain first-hand experience of the wellbeing benefits of singing together. This will take place on Saturday 17th March at Lutterell Hall  in West Bridgford, starting at 10 am and finishing at around 4 pm.  Participation is not dependent upon vocal skill or musical training, and male singers of all ages and abilities will be welcome.

The open day will start with a short presentation on some of the ways of accessing the benefits of singing and making the most of our voices. Practical workshops will then help new singers to learn how to use their breath efficiently for relaxation and optimum performance, to explore their voices, to take part in musical team building activities, and to have fun singing in harmony with other people. The event will finish with a brief ‘show and tell’ session at which we will perform our songs to a select audience of friends and family – by invitation only! There will also be opportunities to socialise and to hear the gentlemen of the choir demonstrate some of their current repertoire.

For further information about the choir and this event, see the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir website here.