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Busting Barbershop Myths

Kirsty Bui has more than a trained ear for the human voice. It’s her passion and her career.

She works at St Mary’s Hospital, one of London’s major trauma centres, as a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist. Part of her role includes helping people take care of their voice, make the most of it – and fix it when things go wrong.

She loves singing in choirs – and enjoys bringing her clinical skills and knowledge to her hobby.

Kirsty Bui

Kirsty’s also used to dealing with emergencies. So when the Knight’s annual Retreat programme fell apart, she stepped right in with a fascinating two-hour programme about the voice.

But it was her segment on ‘Busting Barbershop Myths’ that really caught the Knights’ attention.

She says: ‘I came up with an idea for a section based on some popular misinformation that I had heard from barbershop singers and other singing groups.

‘I wanted to make it fun – but I also wanted to help steer the Knights towards the best way of using and taking care of their voices’.

Here are just some of the barbershop myths Kirsty ‘busted’, in her own words:

Myth 1:  ’Barbershoppers only drink beer, they don’t need to drink water.’

‘Sadly, guys, you need to be aiming to drink two litres of water every day to keep your body properly hydrated. This will mean that your body can properly lubricate your vocal folds and keep them happy while you sing.

‘Caffeinated drinks and alcohol are both dehydrating as they are diuretics, and therefore should be taken in moderation and with regard to your water consumption.

‘Other drinks, such as fruit juices and flavoured waters, often have a high acidity content and can therefore cause problems with reflux. We all reflux, but with a high-intensity abdominal activity, such as singing, acidic food and drink will impact the delicate tissues of the throat. If possible stick to water.

Myth 2: ‘Barbershoppers need ‘special’ water to sing best (e.g. hot/cold)’

‘Water can be taken hot, cold, or at room temperature. The temperature of the water doesn’t impact on your vocal folds directly, as they don’t actually meet—if water were to meet your vocal folds you would likely cough (a lot). It’s the same feeling as when food goes down ‘the wrong way’, and that’s because it would be heading to the lungs.

‘Some people find that ice-cold water can cause spasms in the throat. If this happens to you then drink what feels most comfortable.

‘The only safe way for water to come into contact with your vocal folds is by steaming, and I highly recommended this. You could do this daily, on the odd occasion, or just before you perform. You don’t need anything special; the old fashioned bowl and tea towel works great. The best thing is that you can’t really over-do it—but five to ten minutes at a time is probably ideal.

‘Ever wondered why you sound better when singing in the shower? It’s not just the beautiful resonance of the bathroom tiles, but all that lovely steam – and probably a splash of naked inhibition.’

Myth 3’Barbershoppers need only worry about their voice on contest day.’

‘Sadly, not true. Good vocal care and vocal technique should be ingrained in your rehearsal routine so that they are intuitive. This allows you to really focus on other aspects of your performance—such as your performance!

‘There may be some additional aspects that you include just before you compete. What do you normally see A-level quartets doing before they perform? You will probably find them drinking plenty of water, getting an early night, and not talking or singing unnecessarily. I know it sounds boring, but once the performance is over they are probably the first in the bar celebrating with the knowledge that they gave it 110%.

‘Of course, one of the most important things to remember when you get off that stage, just like when you finish a rehearsal, is to ‘cool down’ your voice—it’s as important as warming up. (You never see athletes just sit down after they finish a race, they always cool down.) It allows you to re-set your voice back to its normal speaking level after performing some rather impressive vocal athletics. It doesn’t have to be complicated—it can be as simple as doing your warm up backwards.’

Myth 4: ‘Barbershoppers shouldn’t eat dairy before they sing.’ 

‘This is a theory that I have heard from singers for many years. The truth is that there is no concrete scientific evidence for this. For some people there appears to be a correlation between dairy products and mucus production—limited evidence suggests that this could be due to an unknown allergy to the casein protein in dairy and could be combatted by eating low fat dairy products instead.

‘The majority of people appear to eat dairy products without a problem. Therefore­, eat dairy products before you sing if you like them, but if you already know that you are lactose intolerant then steer clear!

‘It is much more important to give yourself a rest after eating before a performance or rehearsal due to symptoms of reflux. Try not to have a highly acidic, spicy, or heavy meal just before you sing, and try to eat more than two hours beforehand.’

Myth 5:  ‘Barbershoppers don’t use vibrato in their singing.’

‘Voiced sounds are produced from vibrations of the vocal folds, which create sound waves. Therefore we all have natural vibration when speaking or singing.

‘All singers produce a “vibrato” as notes are created from “rapid and slight” variations in pitch above and below the note you are aiming to sing. It is therefore not possible to sing without vibrato. Attempting to do so would be impossible and likely cause vocal strain from excess muscle tension.

‘Some people—such as opera singers—sing with a very “wide” vibrato; however this doesn’t work well for the barbershop style due to its negative impact on beautiful, ringing chords. A “wide” unintentional vibrato could be due to weak breath support or poor technique.

‘Singers should always sing with their own natural “free” voice following, of course, the direction of the chorus director. For example, singers often “warm” the ends of phrases with a slightly wider vibrato once they have locked into the final chord.

‘Enjoy singing, however you do it. It’s what we’re all here for!’

If you would like to hear the other myths Kirsty busted or want to know more about vocal health and technique, Kirsty and her husband Sean (Chorus Director of the Knights and Royal Harmonics) are both available for group coaching.

Contact: sean@seanbui.com

http://www.seanbui.com/

Royals rescue Knights – how our retreat was almost beat

It’s one of the high points of our year. A weekend retreat where we do nothing but sing and learn how to be the best we can, from some of the finest coaches in the country.

That was the plan for our opening event of 2018. A comfortable hotel in the countryside with a full two-day programme – and an ample supply of fine ale. It wasn’t till we were unloading the risers that we heard the unhappy news: our guest coach had been forced to cancel due to a family emergency.

We were on our own – or so we thought.

Step forward our neighbours and friends, the Windsors.

No. Not the posh ones, but our music mates, the Royal Harmonics chorus of Windsor who – by pure chance – had booked their retreat for the same weekend, in the same hotel.

It’s also a happy coincidence that we recently appointed Sean Bui as our chorus director. Sean conducts several choirs – including the Royal Harmonics. https://royalharmonics.org.uk/ Within an hour, our chairman Al Lines, Sean, assistant directors and the Royal Harmonics had cobbled together an impressive programme of shared resources.

It began with Neil Horchover, RH bass and Performance Judge at the BABS annual convention, helping us to connect more effectively to the songs we sing.

Then a couple of sessions with the irrepressible Becki Hine, Director of Song of Atlanta chorus and acclaimed international coach. Director Becki’s other half is the renowned arranger-director-baritone Clay Hine who was leading the RH’s weekend coaching, and who also directed the end-of-weekend performances by both choruses.

Myths debunked

Day Two brought a really useful session with speech and language therapist Kirsty Bui about how to take better care of our voices, and debunking some favourite Barbershop myths. Good news: it’s OK to be a cheese-eating barbershopper unless you’re lactose intolerant. Bad news: water is better for you than beer.

For the remainder of our retreat we were treated to the talent and sharp wit of RH coach and 3-times BABS gold medallist Stuart Owen, whose dad Chas happens to sing bass with the Knights. That led to an interesting moment when Stuart had to tell his dad he wasn’t doing it quite right…

In between the training sessions, an evening’s entertainment of cabaret (starring our own Assistant Director Trevor Pearce) and a splendid afterglow with Knights and Windsors in close-enough harmony after a glass or two of beer.

We couldn’t have done it without them all. Thanks everyone.

The man out front – meet our new Chorus Director

Sean Bui is a busy man – and he just got a whole lot busier.

Sean’s the new chorus director for the Knights of Harmony. Or, to put it in simple terms, he’s the guy who’s undertaken to stand out front and to teach us to sing and perform better than we’ve perhaps ever done before.

This in addition to the four other choirs – classical, church and Barbershop – that he also conducts.

Sean is an accomplished musician who, as well as leading choruses, composes, teaches and edits music. He’s also raising his two young kids. All this at just 28, and he takes it all in his energetic, enthusiastic, good-natured stride.

Sean’s background is mainly classical and he’s a relative newcomer to Barbershop, having stepped in to direct the already successful Royal Harmonics’ chorus as recently as March 2016, just two months before BABS Convention. And from their results so far, things appear to be going very well for him and our good friends in Windsor.

Is he daunted by agreeing to take on the Knights?

No, actually I’m not, not at all“, he says. “When I took on the Royal Harmonics I was absolutely daunted because I knew nothing about Barbershop and I thought, my god, what have I done?

Then I went to my first Convention and it was<em> amazing. I absolutely loved it and I thought: Wow, how did I not realise this was here“.

Barbershop, he says, is rather like any other type of choir – just a different style of singing and one he ‘really loves’.

Novice no more

At the beginning of October Sean sang lead with the First Edition quartet in the IABS contest in Cork. It was their first time out and he came away with a Gold Medal. He’s clearly not a novice any more.

After working with the Royal Harmonics, I understand Barbershop,” he says. “I feel I have the confidence to know what I’m doing.”

Sean, who has an MMus in Advanced Musical Studies from the Royal Holloway University, started playing the piano at 7. At the age of 9 he began singing with the Berkshire Boys’ Choir and ‘just fell in love with it’.

Suddenly,”’ he says, “the whole world of choral music just opened up to me“.

At 17 one of his compositions was performed by choir and orchestra in public for the first time. “It wasn’t an amazing piece” he says. “but I guess it was for someone of 17 to have gone and written it. Composition has always been an emotional outlet for me“.

Having fun

Sean’s first night with the Knights

Of his new job leading the Knights he says: “If the guys are willing to put in the effort, we will get better. The only way we are going to get better is to be challenged – there’s no quick fix“.

That means, in part, going back to the basics of good singing – the breathing, the positioning of the sound in the mouth, the technique.

But Sean is also aware of one other key component of his job. Barbershop singing, he says, “is also about you guys having fun.

He wants the Knights’ to measure their success not by their BABS national competition rankings – we’re currently 12th – but by the points the judges award us.

Why? Because the judges’ scoring offers a truer reflection of progress, whereas rankings reflect the performance of the other choruses around you.

Of his own easy-going style he says: “I always hope that I give my best to the chorus as I always want what’s best for them,

This is what I do, every day, and I thoroughly, thoroughly, enjoy it.”

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