Directors – here’s another one for you.
Because a raised palate – or Tall Throat – is not yet a habit for most of my chorus members, they need frequent reminders.
I needed a hand signal to communicate this during both rehearsals and performances. It needed to be subtle enough that the audience wouldn’t see it – but obvious enough that the chorus would catch it and adjust.
I use my left thumb and index finger – as if I were holding the ends of a toothpick. Then I place thumb and index finger against my throat. (By the way – the other left hand fingers are curled so that the view of the thumb and index finger is not obstructed)
If the audience’s attention isn’t going to be drawn to the move it needs to be fairly fleeting – and preferable while the right hand is directing in the same vicinity.
Of course, it helps when the chorus has everything memorized and is free to rivet their attention upon my every gesture.
When that curtain opens our first job is to let the audience know that we’re ready. Ready to entertain, ready to sing and ready to have fun right along with them.
If every one of us has the weight on the balls of our feet, with knees very slightly bent, we’re halfway there. By this I don’t mean that we should be up on our toes. Our heels should still be on the floor, but our weight needs to be forward.
Of course, standing tall and proud with the chest floated upwards also helps. But the crowning touch is the face that goes along with the raised palate. One way the palate can be raised is to imagine that you are deeply breathing in the faint fragrance of a rose.
The face suddenly looks interested in a slightly excited way – as if you can hardly wait to start. (Very useful as an acting technique for people who are nervous.)
The signal I’ve been using for this recently at rehearsals is to point, as subtly as possible, to my toes, then my nose. This is to remind the chorus about Toes and Rose.
The audience ‘reads’ readiness in stance and facial expression. Their perception is then confirmed during the first note, because the vocal apparatus is positioned correctly.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had singers say to me “I won’t be there for ‘x’, but you don’t really need me – there’ll be lots of (whatever part they sing) there.”
Which is not quite the same communication as: “I won’t be there for ‘x’ because I have an important family function; I have to work; I’m sick;” or even “I really can’t handle mall, or lengthy standing gigs”. These sorts of reasons are nothing to worry about.
For each singer who assures me that they won’t be missed, it’s left up to me to interpret what’s really being said. There are a couple of possibilities.
1. There’s something else I want to do, but I feel a bit guilty about letting the chorus down (and would like your blessing on my absence.)
2. I’m letting you know that I won’t be there, even though I really don’t think you’ll notice – because I’m only one of many, and my contribution doesn’t matter.
This second one really concerns me.
This person hasn’t yet understood that as far as choirs go – the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
This person doesn’t realize that if everyone who doesn’t consider themselves a musical leader stayed away, there’d be only a handful of singers left in any choir. So it would no longer be a choir – just a quartet or quintet.
This person is also telling me that they’re not working on their singing at home. Chorus members who are actively engaged in becoming better singers know that their presence, and therefore their absence, makes a difference. The people around them notice the difference, which affects the work ethic, the pride and the desire for unanimity within the group. One of the truly magical things about choirs is that if every single singer does the same thing at the same time, the effect is spectacular. The whole point of singing in a chorus is that everyone wants to create something that would be impossible alone. So every single voice is vitally important.
For example, at my men’s Barbershop chorus rehearsal this evening they were sustaining a final chord that was just fine. I then asked them to sing me that last chord again – but this time with a relaxed tongue, and with a raised soft palate. When every last man did this, the result was an amazingly expanded sound, with lots of resonance, and sounding as if there were twice as many guys singing. The larger the group, the more spectacular the difference when all the singers are perfectly in synch.
Every once in a while I need to remind my singers just how valuable each one of them is – and to let them know that when they’re not there, they are absolutely missed.
Collection is a riding term that refers to the gathering and holding of the horse’s energy in the hind quarters – the most powerful area of the body. The idea is to allow the horse to harness the maximum amount of springing energy. Not only does this set the horse up to jump well, but in dressage it gives the visual impression of great controlled strength.
We’re already standing on our hind quarters, but if our weight is rocked back on our heels our springing potential is absolutely nothing – and visually, we look like weak, vulnerable pushovers (It’s very easy to push someone over backwards if their weight is on their heels.)
To access the springing, physical strength in our bodies, and dynamic stage presence, the weight must be mostly on the balls of our feet and the knees very slightly bent. This creates that ‘ready for action’ feel, like when you’re guarding in basketball.
When every singer (yes I know – there are one or two in every group with whom everything new is a hard sell) does this, even this one small shift in weight makes a difference in the fullness and strength of the sound, and in the chorus’ appearance of readiness.
Directors! Quick! Before it’s too late – video yourself!
Just watched a video of one of my choirs in performance…
My directing is still not as clean as it is in the Dreamland inside my head. Can’t believe that I’m still doing too much.
My tempi can be externally influenced. At this event they were bit too perky due to general excitement, and knowing that we were performing at the very end of a long concert, and the audience was tired. Guess I thought I was doing them a favour.
Clearly I need to be more insistent about presentation – both faces and Full Body Involvement.
And apparently I’m not as slim as I think – so I need to wake up and smell the coffee on this one and dress accordingly (and not have clothing being laterally stretched across the haunches)
Over the years I’ve heard countless coaches – dancing, speaking, and singing – talk about paring everything down to only what absolutely has to be there. Only when all the distraction and ‘noise’ is gone can we hear and see the message from the director as well as the chorus.
Even costume, hair and makeup has to be just enough to enhance – or the entire performance becomes all about the costume, the hair and the make up. (Though I do recall one time that I dressed in a more provocative than necessary outfit, for a conducting exam for which I knew I was unprepared. This of course is the conjuror’s art of distraction.)
So I pledge to do better.
I’m going keep cutting down on the flailing, quit trying to do it all for them, and just give the chorus small sized reminders.
And I’m going to keep tabs on what I look like from behind.
Bring on the video cameras.
I was asked recently about how one goes about raising the soft palate.
As a soloist, I never thought about this much – but it really does make a difference to the sound of a chorus. And of course, the amount of difference is in direct co-relation to the number of singers who know how, then remember to do it.
If a technique is explained only one way, only a small percentage of the chorus will understand – so here’s a list of all the different ways I can think of to get singers to raise the soft palate
1. Create the feeling of stifling a yawn. That feeling in the back of the throat tells you that the soft palate is raised.
2. In the back of the mouth, create enough space for a hard boiled egg
4. Imagine that you’re breathing in the delicate scent of a rose or the aroma of something wonderful, baking next door. The sinuses open and the soft palate rises.
5. As you breathe in, imagine that the air is flowing in through your eyes
6. Think of an inner smile
7. Imagine that someone is telling you something scandalous. During that slow, shocked breath right before you whisper “Whaaaaat???!!!” the soft palate will rise.
8. Opening the eyes really wide as you take a breath will make the soft palate rise – but this won’t always be appropriate for the Presentation plan.
9. Think of opening the space at the very back and top of the nose – where it meets the throat.
10. Sing like an opera singer – but be careful not to make it a caricature (no oversized wobbly vibrato). Just be that opera singer singing a straight sound.
11. If these mental tricks fail, go to a mirror, open your mouth, drop the jaw, relax the tongue – and look at your relaxed throat (don’t say “Ah” yet). The little dangly thingy is attached to the part of the throat we want to raise. Now try saying “Ah” and see if everything rises. If for some reason it doesn’t, don’t give up. Just start moving the muscles at the back of the throat, and through trial and error, you’ll come across the right movement – the one that makes the dangly thing and the soft palate rise.
Now the real trick is to make this a habit.
As my groups’ performances and competitions approach, my focus is now backing off on my directing and trusting them to do everything we’ve rehearsed. Tough, especially when you know that for your chorus members, life has intervened and fully 30 to 40% of them haven’t done all the homework they had intended to do.
Fortunately for these members I’ve developed my own language of subtle hand signals. I’ve gathered some from other directors and from coaches, and some are uniquely my own – but they’re all designed to be able to draw the chorus’ attention to performance aspects that we’ve rehearsed. And chorus members themselves have all used the signals during rehearsal so that now they have a body/muscle memory of the association between the hand signal and a specific vocal technique.
Here are some examples of subtle reminders for the 30 to 40%.
Tall ‘ee’ vowel – Pull hand upward with great resistance, as if you’re pulling a heavy sweatshirt out of the muck in a marsh. This needs to be practiced by everyone, in rehearsal, as a large movement – so that the small onstage reminder by the director is enough to trigger the body memory.
Or still for a tall ‘ee’, you can do a smaller version of this one:
Solid, tall, resonant sound right to the end of the phrase – Prayer Hands Slide:
Keeping the mind excited enough to keep spinning the sound on a longer, sustained note – miniaturized, finger version of this one:
Unformed vowels, neutral mouth shape – Side to side movement of fingertips just in front of lips
Relax, the jaw – less movement:
Tuning repeated, or step by step descending notes:
If anyone reading this has any directing tricks that they’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.
Also – if you have any questions about anything that I might be able to help out with, please leave a message in the comment section below.
It may be a function of some sort of primal sense of forward motion that makes the Ready Set Go! template so satisfying. I was taught about this formula in my first year Polyphony class by my prof, composer David Keane. Here’s what he said.
As listeners, our brains love repetition, then transformation of what we’ve been repeating. And the formula is Ready, Set, Go!:
Here’s the start of it – get ready
Here’s the same thing again – but more of it
Tah Dah! – This is where we were headed – and now see where else we can go…
Like a succession of progressively larger waves breaking on the shore, the music washes over us and carries us onward.
Once you know about this (or get reminded about it, as a coach – Kathy Greason – recently did for me) it’s amazing how often there are opportunities for it to be applied. Most songs contain several lyrical or melodic sequences just crying out for this treatment.
As an example of its use dynamically – the first phrase swells from a mp to a mf, the second from slightly less than the mf to a f, and the third phrase from a mf to a ff. If you use numbers for dynamic range, phrase one would go from a 2 to a 3, phrase two from 2.5 to 4, and phrase three from 3.5 to 5. Of course this can also be applied at much quieter dynamic levels. The forward pull does seem to work better if each successive phrase begins at a slightly lesser dynamic level than the peak of the phrase before it.
The effect can be even more dramatic if, as you’re using these dynamics, the vowel intensity, faces and body involvement all bump up a notch in energy with every wave.
This is an email I wrote to a member of my men’s Barbershop chorus, when he asked me why I continue to be optimistic when the guys are still not doing everything we’ve worked on.
It’s a hot topic right now, because both the men’s and women’s Barbershop competitions will soon be upon us – which gives both choruses a focal point for some self evaluation.
In any group, there are always well developed bad singing habits – and it can take a while to turn those habits around.
The secret is to view the development of excellence as a lifelong and really wonderful challenge – a game really. As long as we are working towards excellence, the game is fun, and absolutely worth playing. It does take a willingness to embrace change – change in the physical way of doing things, and change in the mental processes.
I do this because I love the game of the pursuit of excellence. And as long as I have friends who want to play the same game, it doesn’t matter to me where we are on the continuum. (If my sons are anything to go by, video games have tapped into this basic human need for the thrill of striving.)
I think my men’s chorus is now singing at about the “C” judging level. Much of the time, we’re mid C, sometimes we’re low C and sometimes there are flashes of something truly lovely, which would be closer to a high C or low B level.
The judges will tell us this. They’ll also share with us the revelation that we need to make all the good habits more consistent.
I think it was when the judges told my women’s chorus, for about the 16th year in a row (under my direction), that we needed to be more consistent, that something finally kicked in and every individual started working as if excellence were really important. Not surprisingly, that was the turning point for membership numbers too. Four years later we continue to reap the rewards of the non stop focus and hard work.
We built it, and they came. And perhaps not coincidentally the women won the regional championship last year for the first time in their 42 year history.
They have no superstars – no Harmony Queens, and no regional champion quartets (yet). Exactly as the Harmony Inc. slogan puts it “Ordinary Women, Making Extraordinary Music”
This is all possible for every chorus or choir. Everyone just has to want it enough, and to recognize the true value of the work.
Competitions really help with this – but therein lies the paradox.
When all is said and done, how you place in the competition, and the marks you’ll get, really matters for months beforehand, and then for about half an hour afterwards. What you realize afterwards was that it was actually the flat out, no holds barred striving – all of us together – for a common goal, that made a huge difference to the quality of our lives.
And THAT’S why I do this.
Harnessing the power of Intention requires the superpower of Noticing.
We need to notice when our minds have strayed – and gently guide them back to the task at hand. The operative word here is ‘gently’. If we start beating ourselves up about our loose mental abilities we get into a conversation with ourselves that’s a second generation away from our original focus.
Noticing, and returning the mind to the original thought is the essence of meditation. And apart from the obvious necessity of training the muscles of the vocal apparatus, this is the whole point of practising.
There are two main reasons to develop the Intention/Noticing skill – superb entertainment for your audience and fun for you.
When we send a deliberate, clear, consistent message – to the body, to family members, to an audience or to the world – miraculous things can happen. Our voices become freer, family members can understand how much we love them, audiences will sit up and take notice, and the world will respond more clearly.
But in our culture, our minds are not trained to work this way. The only people teaching this sort of thing to our kids are performing arts teachers, and sports coaches. These are the areas where our culture recognizes that performing well requires moment by moment mental presence. Unfortunately, even some of these teachers are unaware of the importance and depth of what they’re really teaching.
Sing a five note scale up and down twice to the vowel of your choice – and I’ll bet money that unless this is something you practise consistently, you’ll have lost mental focus on that vowel by the time you sing the 4th or 5th note. You’ll have stopped filling your mind with the vowel, and will have been distracted by something else. And we can hear it.
Rather than being distressed about this, we need to see the huge opportunity for improvement. Just Noticing this slipped focus gives our minds a chance to reboot the vowel.
A present, mentally focused vowel is noticeably different in sound from one that’s got no brainpower behind it. And though this is obvious with just one singer, the difference when a whole chorus is mentally focused is staggering.
Of course, this applies to more than just vowels. Every facet of our performance is affected by being mentally present. And the only way to practise this is to have a specific Intention, and to Notice when the Intention slips a bit. Without the follow up of Noticing, our minds will wander and never return to the original thought or Intention.
The good news is that developing the Intention/Noticing skill is such an enormous undertaking, it will last your whole life. The fun need never stop!
And speaking of fun: The great sages have reminded us that almost all suffering is a result of our minds stewing and worrying about the past or the future. If we can keep ourselves present in only this moment, this moment, this moment…our suffering disappears and we’re free to revel in being alive right now.
Singing in choirs already draws us closer to this ideal – but the more we develop the Intention/Noticing skill, the more this mental discipline opens the floodgates for unbridled joy.
That’s worth the effort.