Xann Schwinn is the co-founder of Biiah, a platform that makes singing for health easy and accessible. Xann has been studying the voice since she was 8 years old and spent many years working as a coral director and then realised the potential of technology to create accessibility to music and music education. Creating accessibility to music and ‘singing with others’ has been the strand that ties most of her life’s work together and a core tenet of that has been celebrating and empowering diversity in music.
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00:03 Welcome everyone to the Resonate podcast. I’m Aideen and my guest today is Xann Schwinn. Xann is the co-founder of Biiah, a platform that makes singing for health easy and accessible. Xann has been studying the voice since she was eight years old and spent many years working as a choral director and then realized the potential that technology has to create accessibility to music and music education. Hi Xann and welcome to the show. Thanks Aideen for having me.
00:32 tell us a little bit about your journey as a singer. So I think, my mother tells me, that I was singing all the time. We can’t remember a time where I wasn’t singing. And I remember very distinctly in my mind, the point in which there was an opportunity to sing in my local choir. And I just kind of became obsessed with the opportunity. And from there, every year that I sang eight, nine, 10,
01:02 I fell deeper and deeper in love with using my voice. The church that I sang in had great acoustics in it, which I’m sure was part of that deep love of sound and music and exploring. We sang all sorts of music from all different eras. When I sang in this choir for five years, when I was a child, I then went on to sing in high school and the high school musicals. I went on to study voice, both in undergrad and grad.
01:32 school, both in professional contexts and super unprofessional contexts. I spent a lot of time in college singing in car parks and tunnels and anywhere that I could find an acoustic space, bathrooms, anything that I could find an acoustic space. And so I think I just always had a really deep love from the time that I can remember starting. I’ve had a deep love for the voice and the power that it holds.
02:02 how it’s brought me together with other people. I think most of my, I’m not sure I have any memories of singing on my own that are as powerful as the moments where I had an opportunity to sing with others. That’s beautiful. Yeah, it does create that kind of connection, that community. And, you know, coming back to that word resonate when you’ve got people singing together and it’s like you’re all vibrating on the same frequency. There’s something magical, right?
02:32 Yeah, there’s just, I mean, as we’re talking about, just dozens of memories come to mind of where you just, something just fits and you are in this space together and it’s only, whether it’s two or three of you or a whole group of you and you all sort of exist within this other plane. I mean, it’s just, I think it’s the vibrations. I think there’s something about singing in perfect frequency where there’s
03:01 there’s this shimmer that happens. It sounds cheesy, but it’s exactly, you can feel not only sort of a shiver within yourself, but the shimmer that happens in the air when multiple voices come together. And so I think that there’s something, I mean, I’ve done lots of research onwards that says that absolutely there’s something that bonds humans together when they sing together, that scientific research exists, but just intrinsically it’s something that you feel when you sing with others. So.
03:31 for me, it’s always been, there’s something deeply profound about being able to express yourself through your voice. I think that there’s something emotive that happens when you sing that doesn’t happen when you speak. As somebody who speaks a lot, I’m a bit of a chatterbox. There’s something that singing and music conveys that words fall short. And so when you have the opportunity to do that with others, you can connect on a deeper.
04:00 profound level. Well, I have to say I love that because to me, the voice access is such a deep part, it’s like that emotional center. Sometimes for people, it’s like your inner child somehow comes out. Sometimes it’s your maybe something in your heart that you want to say some kind of deep value system that kind of exists underneath the surface of who we are. And that can really jump out when we sing. Right.
04:30 This passion for, you know, sharing music and kind of bringing people closer to their voices and helping them to access their voice. Is that partly why you set up Biia? Like, where did that idea come from? What was that about? I think I’ve always had this part of me that didn’t understand why people…
04:54 thought that they couldn’t sing or couldn’t engage in music or weren’t musicians. Like for me, it’s always felt like an intrinsic part of the human experience, playing music, singing together. And I don’t know if that’s the environment that I grew up in, whether it’s because of the school that I was in that had lots of music, whether it’s because my parents always had music on and were singing. I don’t know why that’s a part of me, but ever since I was a child, I just, I couldn’t understand why somebody would think.
05:23 that music wasn’t a part of them, let alone for them. And so the more that I studied music, the more that I sort of dove deep into history of music, understanding the many complexities to composition and performance and music education, the more that I realized that there were…
05:50 there was a lot that existed for people that had already engaged on some level. And so, you know, the more that I understood music education, that some people had the opportunity because they had gone to, maybe they had gone to a school that had really great music teacher that really led them through understanding music or opening their confidence in their own voices or their own ability to make music, or had.
06:17 grown up in an environment where they were encouraged to play music or sing, that some people didn’t have that opportunity when they were growing up or had been told at some stage, this story I’ve been told hundreds of times, where somebody was slapped on the wrist as a child for not sounding good, you know, singing in church, or was told in the school play not to stand in the back and not to sing, and that had a profound change in your confidence and your ability to sing.
06:47 And I think that word is really important ability because I think singing is an intrinsic part of the human experience. And the fact that anybody would think that this voice that we all have is a tool that we shouldn’t or couldn’t or yeah, really shouldn’t use, especially if it has healing powers just for ourselves, whether it’s something that unites us with other communities.
07:13 whether it’s something that makes us feel more powerful, whatever it is that we wouldn’t use a tool that’s in our toolkit that it’s an intrinsic part of the human experience. And so, you know, I would say like the deeper that I got into the depths of music education and understanding all of the more complex layers of music, the more I wanted to give everyone access to the foundation to explore whatever music for them felt.
07:43 most powerful or most engaging. And I think, you know, for me, you know, this is an honest space. I was studying 16th century choral music, which I love on so many deep levels and have always had a deep passion for. I just think the way that the music was composed, polyphony, you can’t sing the music without every single line. So it’s…
08:10 usually four or more voices, sometimes its three voices. And when you remove a single line from what’s written, it feels unfinished. It has to be sung together. And so, but because of the time period that it was written, it’s very much the way that you engage with 16th century choral music, oftentimes is in church. And so people, unless they’re…
08:38 brought into 16th century choral music through that experience, they think, oh, well, its church music. I don’t want to listen to it. And so there was this point where I thought, but it’s just beautiful music. And so if the only opportunity for us to engage with this music is in a church setting, of course, the number of people that are going to listen, appreciate and engage with this music is going to be small. But actually this music is beautiful and tells a story and brings us together. And
09:05 and is so moving on such a deep level, we are doing it a disservice by only performing it within church, which just cuts off the ability for all of these other people who could really be moved by this music to have an opportunity to listen to it at all, but listen to it in a context that without judgment, without the preconceptions of what it may be. And so that was really, I think, my starting place.
09:33 From there, obviously it expanded just to people should just have the opportunity to explore whatever music moves them and find access to their voice and whatever it sounds like and whatever it is. And I have a little bit of an obsessive personality. So the deeper that I got into that, like it was just a snowball effect. And so I just, I think it’s my life’s work. Well I love that because you know, my mission is so similar to let people know that their voices have value.
10:02 And I also love that you wanted to not just share, like initially it was like just making sure that people could appreciate music and that they didn’t feel that it was inaccessible. I love that, that because I feel like some, so much music nowadays is a little bit elitist. It’s like you only go to like certain people will go to a concerto.
10:26 and then the rest of the world just doesn’t. And I love anywhere that gives access to that music, to everybody and also kind of mixes and matches different genres of music, which can be fascinating. But wasn’t the 16th century music your first time that you brought technology to bear to make music accessible? How did that happen? Yeah, so that it started with that, what I just described to this like.
10:52 why can’t everybody listen to this music? Why does it only, I remember sitting in this church in Cambridge in the UK, which I consider sort of the mecca of 16th century choral music. And we’re sitting in this church and it was like this three hour long concert and the lights were up. And I was like, I love this genre. And it was one of the best choirs in the world. I was like, I love this genre and this is hard for me. Like we’re not.
11:20 This is, this, this is, I’m trying not to be offensive because I don’t think that it was the intention of the group to do this, but essentially like, you must just sit and appreciate because we understand like the historical value of this. And I was like, is that why we’re here? And also, is that the point of music? Like,
11:45 isn’t the point of music to express emotions that we can’t express with words, to connect us on a deeper level to each other, to a message, to a feeling, to a religion, whatever it is. And shouldn’t we support people, shouldn’t we try to make it as easy as possible for people to engage? And so I just remember leaving that concert and thinking,
12:09 Well, of course nobody listens to 16th century choral music if this is the environment that we are providing for people. So is there an opportunity here to create a platform that makes it really easy for people to just come and listen and have no sort of barrier to entry of, you must know who Palestrina is to start listening to this music, that there wouldn’t be any sort of words, names, or anything that people would just come and they would listen and they would engage. And if they like something, they would say, I liked this. And then it would lead them to a whole other set of things that were similar to that. You know, there are now a lot, this was, you know, over 10 years ago. And so there are lots of tools that do that now. Well, tell us more about yours because, yeah, well, yeah. Spotify is, yeah, and even, you know, YouTube will, you know, offer.
13:02 you know, similar ideas, but was it yours an app or what way did that work? How did you do that? So it was a web platform as a start. The project never fully got off the ground because I was encouraged to partner with a couple of guys that were also building something for the music industry. And so we ended up building a tool that was much broader to create support mechanisms for choir groups, singing groups.
13:31 kind of on a bigger, larger basis. Wow. That’s good. It’s an evolution. Absolutely. And I think that the more that I worked in this space, and I hear myself repeating myself, but it’s true. I just sort of became more passionate and more obsessed with this area of everyone deserves to have access to whatever music feels good, heals them, whatever it is.
13:59 and for me, that’s 16th century choral music, but for you, it may be something else. And doesn’t everybody deserve to feel what I feel when I sing with others, when there’s this sort of unadulterated, when you create a space that a bunch of people come into and you’re just singing and there’s no judgment and we’re just, we’re all singing together.
14:28 whether in harmony, whether in unison, there’s this powerful thing that happens and whatever the building blocks are that can bring somebody to that moment, whether it be finding music that you feel most passionate about just listening, whether it be learning to sing on your own, whether it be singing in a very big group, take a church setting as an example where you’re singing hymns on a Sunday.
14:55 whatever it is that your entry point is, can I start to understand what the many different entry points could be and start to fill in those gaps to make, to create accessibility in whatever way possible for every person, no matter if they live in a town that doesn’t have a lot of people, so doesn’t have a lot of opportunities like this. Yeah. And I think a lot of music does have a lot of preconceived notions. Like people have…
15:24 an idea of what they think classical music is or what they think church music is. And you’re coming back to something you kind of alluded to earlier. People feel like singing itself is like a gift that only some people have rather than the skill that it is, that it actually is a skill that we can learn. And I loved the fact that Biia is designed to help people to, to find those building blocks.
15:52 to that skill because I know myself working with people who want to sing, their biggest block is that they don’t think it’s worthwhile because they’re not already a singer or they haven’t succeeded in some way yet, even as an adult. So are you encouraging people of all ages to start singing even if they never sang before? Of course. I think, as I said, singing is an intrinsic part of the human experience.
16:22 sing in the car, in the shower to our kids as kids, at sports games, in church, at karaoke. There are so many points, you know, when we sing national anthems, there’s so many points in our existence as a human within a society where we sing. And I just, I want people, everyone to feel like they, A, builds the confidence in their own voice because we all deserve to feel good about
16:50 who we are and what we sound like, whatever that sound is, because this idea that we must all sound like Adele or we must all sound like fill in the blank is a construct made by media, right? If you think about the popular voices of the 50s, and then you think about the popular voices of the 2000s, like vastly different…
17:17approaches, sounds, techniques. And so this idea that somebody has a gift and sounds like this, well actually, I always think about like camp songs. When I was a kid and we’d all be sitting by the fire and we’d all sing these camp songs and it didn’t matter what you sound, we were kids. So we didn’t, like there was no judgment at all. And we, in our mess hall, we used to stand up on our chairs and we would shout sing at each other.
17:44 and so it didn’t matter at all what we sounded like. It was just this togetherness where, you know, one tent unit would be like challenging another tent unit. And it was just this profound moment that happens through song. And I just, I want everybody to have, to feel like they are allowed to, it seems wild for me to, I keep hesitating because it seems wild to say out loud because that anybody would not have confidence in their voice feels so hard for me.
18:14 because it’s something that we’re born with. It’s an intrinsic part of the human experience. We sing all the time as a society in so many different formats. And there’s so much value to singing. There’s so much value to it. I think, you know, what you’re saying, there’s a lot of people who maybe sang and did have an experience as profound as you as a kid, but then they have something that just sets up that block. You know, they get told you can’t sing or something like that.
18:43 wonder if parents sometimes want to come back to singing again because somehow they’ve got young kids in the house and they’re like, oh, maybe I should start singing now. Or maybe somebody is like just, you know, bored and they want to have a, they want to join something. They want to take part in something. They’re like, well, maybe I could join a choir, but they don’t have any confidence in their voice. They don’t have any way to build that confidence. And maybe they don’t, they’re not ready to, maybe they don’t have the confidence to even see a singing teacher.
19:12 so is B as one of those kind of crossover platforms that can take someone who really feels like I can’t do it and on their own, they can kind of build some of these skills. What stage should you be at before you engage with something like your platform? We are the first stage. So what I realized was there wasn’t something that was, unless we had the opportunity to meet somebody like you, Aideen, you know, and…
19:40 and have the time or the money or be in the right time zone or be in the right space to engage that there was nothing that existed for people at that one-on-one place. Now our platform does cater to more than the one-on-one place. It kind of carries you through that early entry journey. But we so we have we have three offerings. We sort of have an in-person offering very similar to what you would imagine where we kind of just have people engage.
20:08 no sheet music, no lyrics or anything. We just kind of engage in the voice in person. We have a virtual experience that’s very similar where we all sing on mute. It is the most fun, I have to tell you, thing ever. As somebody who trained as a professional, I have so much fun in these sessions, just singing with 50, and 80 other people just within the virtual space all along to whatever song it is, pop song, whatever. And then we created this app.
20:37 that is sort of like a, when I imagine it, I have this music teacher from when I was a kid that just affected me so profoundly in my experience with music so profoundly. She was just the, is the most inviting of teachers. And I wanted to create something that was like a tech version of her. Like if I was engaging as an adult for the first time,
21:07 what would I require, what would I need? And so I just thought about all of the games that she used to do that would make the shyest kids in class engage. And so we created all these games that essentially hand hold you through starting to explore your voice and over time become confident in your voice. And yes, there is some skill building stuff in there around.
21:30 breast control, around pitch, around rhythm. And we do try to sort of increase your skill in each of the things that we consider the categories of singing that build up a good singer over time. But something that’s autonomous, that allows you to kind of engage on your own, if you really don’t have confidence, how would you need to first engage and then kind of handhold you through that experience? And once you feel like you’re at that point where you have confidence, we have all these other things that plug in.
21:59 that either challenge you with harmonies, invite you into the live setting. And so really kind of leading people from that 101, I have zero confidence in my voice. I don’t want to sing in front of people point to actually I feel comfortable singing live in person with others and I don’t feel fear around that anymore. And so really just trying to lead everyone through to that point. Beautiful. Yeah.
22:26 That’s so important because I think that there are significant goals and stepping stones and a lot of people who maybe have a lot of music around them as children are gaining so many skills that they don’t realize they’re gaining as a kid, whether that’s that they’re, they’re learning to listen or that’s that they, they’re starting to recognize changes in the, the backing track, like what’s happening with the music behind what you’re doing.
22:54 whether it’s that they’re shaking a rattle. Like one of the key things to actually engaging with music, if anyone is listening has a baby or a young kid and you want to encourage them, you put a rattle in their hand and they will engage with music immediately. So that’s one of the first steps is just giving someone almost an instrument to somehow take part in that. And then bit by bit, some of these skills are really tough. Like, I mean, even that skill of like hearing a semitone, like
23:23 that’s a baby cannot hear semitones. That’s like babies can only hear a leap. They can hear bigger intervals. So when I started teaching beginners, like what your app does, I started to, you know, build on that, you know, what where are you ready for? Like what’s what the next thing to learn is? Like you can’t learn the semitone, which is like a teeny half step. That’s why it’s so scary because you can’t. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen next.
23:50 it’s that theme song from Jaws, in case you don’t know. And, you know, this idea that if you have the right instruction, you can build on each skill and come to a place where you can actually do it. But if you’re trying to find out how to learn to sing from the very, very base, from the very beginning of I can’t sing, there’s nothing out there that does that other than, say, work with a singing teacher one on one. Because if you go to YouTube and you look up
24:18 how to sing or easy songs, they’re often like 10 steps ahead from the beginner. Right, right, right, right, right. What’s that one-on-one place of somebody who literally doesn’t have any confidence in their voice, who hasn’t had any musical training whatsoever, you know, really the hundreds of conversations that we’ve had as we’ve built this platform, you know, we really were trying to understand the psyche of a person who doesn’t have confidence and where does that lack of confidence come from?
24:47 and our methodology is really built on the idea of there are so many places that somebody could start from, right? If you don’t have confidence in your voice, you could have confidence in rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer and you just, you can’t use your voice, but you understand rhythmic structure. Maybe you are a swimmer and have excellent breath control and so actually could carry a note for ages and ages and ages longer than somebody else.
25:17 and so we try to help identify where your strengths lie so that you can lean into those strengths. And then by leaning, thus by leaning into your strengths, you will build up the skills and the confidence around your weaknesses, right? Because it’s just through engaging over time that that’s where confidence comes from with the right…
25:43 positive affirmations that happen along the way with the right instruction that happens along the way with the right positive environment. But so we really try to, you know, through your experience, understand, Aideen, what’s your strength and where are areas that you need a little bit more handholding and our platform can kind of identify that and help lead you through that so that hopefully, eventually, you get to the point where you have confidence across the entire skill set.
26:11 there’s so much benefit in that. And there’s like, I think that idea, a lot of what I’ve noticed with beginner singers is a lot to do with that. It relates to breath control, but actually the solution isn’t the breath. It’s the posture, you know? And so there’s a lot of like ways that people talk about how to improve your singing, that if you don’t already do it well, the terminology doesn’t fully explain what’s really happening.
26:40 And I often have to really, you know, retune that idea. So, you know, the breath is my thing that’s going to make me a better singer, but actually it’s the posture and it’s containing the air. It’s in the control of like, you know, the torso rather than the throat. And so anything that helps someone to take those steps and learn them bit by bit is hugely beneficial.
27:04 so I know that your platform is available on their iPhone. It’s also available, the website is available also. So can people go through those steps on the website as much as on the app? So the app is just available to iPhone at the moment. We do have live Zoom sessions where everybody’s on mute and it’s a very engaging environment. You can have your video off if you want. And so we don’t have a web version of our app available yet.
27:33 but we do have these sort of live Zoom classes that you can engage with. Beautiful. Absolutely, yeah. Great, so how do people find out more about your platform? What would you say is their next step? So if you go to biiah.com, B-I-I-A-H.com, everything is laid out really clearly there. There are, you can join, we lead you through the downloading process for the app. There are ways to sign up for the classes.
28:02 that happened virtually. We also, you’re welcome to contact us anytime. I am always available to kind of support anybody through, especially if you’re not sure where you want to start. I’m always happy to chat with somebody to help figure out where their best starting place is. So please do come to the site, reach out if you need anything, but we are here to support you on your voice confidence building journey. I’m so impressed by it. I mean, it’s funny because,
28:31 just from context perspective, I got an email, like a, like a cold call email from someone on your team saying, Hey, would you be interested in finding out more about this? But when I, when I realized that it was an app that takes someone from, you know, from zero, I mean, it just was like, Oh my gosh, well, that’s so many people could benefit from that. And it’s definitely part of my mission to make singing, you know, feel accessible to others. And I’m so happy.
28:59 that you and your co-founders have actually done so much with it already. It’s a huge achievement. Your congratulations on how far you’ve already gotten. It’s an amazing feat. Well, as we said in our last conversation, Aideen, you know, it’s really through lots of us just trying to build towards helping more people feel confident in their voices, whatever that sounds like, whatever the sound that comes out is. And so…
29:28 I’m also grateful for obviously the work that you’re doing. This podcast is important. The work that you do on an individual basis is important. Your summit is important. All of these things, how can we just start to resonate this idea of everyone should have confidence in their voice? Where does that come from? It comes from just continuing to talk, continuing to spread this message that everybody deserves to have confidence in their voice. And over time,
29:57 I do have faith, I’m ever the optimist. I do have faith that this message will come clear on the other side and hopefully we’ll be able to break down some of these societal barriers around this idea that somebody can or cannot sing. That’s just so profound. I love it. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the listeners before we sign off?
30:22 just thank you so much for listening. If you need anything, please do reach out. I know both me and Aideen are here to support you on your vocal confidence journey. And we are here for everyone. So please do reach out if you need anything. Yeah, definitely. And remember that only you are you. You know, anyone who’s listening, I just want you to know that nobody else gets to be you. No one has your voice. No one can stand in your shoes.
30:50 and so if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it? You’ve got to, you’ve got to find ways to, to step into what we love, what we enjoy. And if singing is something that you have, I mean, if you’re still listening right now, I’m sure the singing is something you’re curious about. So take a take a next step. Not everybody wants to sing, but if you’re curious about it, it can be so beneficial like that. It’s for your mental health. It’s for your sense of connection to others.
31:18 it helps you physically. It helps you in so many ways. So there’s no reason not to. And there are plenty of reasons to do it. And you can do it with Xann’s help, with my help. And even just, you know, listening more to your music and enjoying. And, you know, sometimes I think a lot of people that over time, we stop listening to our favorite music, like even if we start listening to music again, like put on your favorite thing and enjoy music more.
31:46 and we would love to hear from you if you’d like any support. So thank you all, everyone who’s listened today. We’ll see you again on the next episode of the Resonate podcast. Bye bye.