On the Usefulness of Humming

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After one of my ‘Make Your Nerves Work For You’ classes at BinG! Harmony College, one of the participants came up and remarked that I had mentioned humming in several different contexts, and could I give her a list of the different uses it has. My reply was: that sounds like a follow-up blog post. So here it is. A little way after the event, but there’s been quite a lot of stuff going on just lately that I wanted to blog about as it happened.

I suppose I should start with humming as a form of singing. As an activity to use in the warm-up, it is a nice gentle (and safe) way to start phonation and get the voice moving - I guess it would be possible to hum with voice-damaging tension if you deliberately tried to, but it’s pretty unlikely to happen by default. And while you’re at it, you can focus on activating the resonant cavities in your head to enhance both the richness and brightness of your sound.

In the BinG! class, though, we first used humming as part of a listening exercise. After simply listening with our eyes closed (inside the room, outside the room, inside ourselves), we hummed into the space. Any note, changing whenever we wanted, breathing as we needed to. The purpose was to open up our ears, and help us connect to each other through sound, to counteract the tendency for adrenaline to focus perception and isolate members of an ensemble from one another.

I love this exercise. It is calming and collaborative and confidence-inducing. The beauty of the ambience it creates is its own reward, and it helps ground us all in the now. And of course, as above, we get the benefit of the combination of a relaxed vocal mechanism and resonance.

I proposed this exercise in the class as one for the warm-up room before a performance. Get the voices up and going, get the brains on task, and then finish with this to connect everyone together and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Then, the extra dose of adrenaline that will get released into the blood stream as you go on stage will lift and energise rather than distract and frazzle you.

But if you also do it every so often in your rehearsals, it takes on the character of a ritual - that is, a habit with meaning. It is a piece of your shared experience as an ensemble that you can take with you wherever you go, and bring a piece of the familiar into unfamiliar circumstances. You can thereby create continuity with everything you have prepared, even while your external circumstances are discontinuous.

The third use of humming I mentioned was as a means to ‘park’ your preparation, to keep yourself in a state of readiness between warm-up and performance. Humming quietly to yourself keeps you in the musical part of your brain as well as keeping the vocal mechanism gently active and ready to go for as long as you need to wait.

It also - and possibly most usefully - is a way to calm yourself. It is a form of aural-kinaesthetic stroking through which you can keep the happy hormones of the rest-digest system circulating through you. It has the same function as having a purring Persian cat to stroke as you wait to perform, only it won’t shed hairs on your stage-wear.

So there you have it. Humming is useful for the voice, for the ears, for the ensemble, and for the mood. It is accessible to the most novice singer, and remains both pleasurable and helpful to the highest levels of skill and experience. Enjoy.

Thank you Liz for this excellent article on the value of humming. I agree totally with everything you say particularly the way humming can help calm nerves and focus the mind in a gentle but highly effective way. I'd like to refer to your article when I present my education workshop class on warming up next weekend in the Netherlands (part of the Region 31 Satellite workshops) if you are willing. Thanks Liz! Best wishes, Alyson

Oh, feel free to refer to it - glad you'll find it useful :-)

Have a good trip to Holland!

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