Magic Choral Trick #393 Zoom Tuning Games

My dear friend Judy Comeau has done it again!! She’s turned a difficult situation (pandemic/Zoom rehearsals) into an educational opportunity. Here are a couple of games she shared with us on a Zoom rehearsal the other night!

I’ve often said that my biggest challenge in many years of directing choirs has been getting amateur choristers to sing in tune – especially if they’re coming to me after many years of singing with no previous opportunity to work on tuning.

Zoom has presented us with a number of options that we feel we normally wouldn’t have time to fit into regular rehearsals – like playing these tuning games.

Game One

  1. Have whoever is leading the game play the keynote on a pitchpipe (electronic is good, so the pitch can be sustained for a long time)
  2. Leader sings one phrase of a song in that key
  3. Leader asks singers if they remember the keynote – and to indicate that with a ‘thumbs up’ Zoom reaction button
  4. Leader then chooses one person to unmute and sing the pitch that they remember to be the keynote

This builds pitch memory for everyone!!

Game Two

  1. Leader plays the keynote on a pitchpipe
  2. Leader sings a song in that key – then stops anywhere he or she chooses
  3. Leader asks the chorus what that last sung note was – what scale degree (doh, re mi…or 1, 2 ,3, 4 etc)

This one is a little trickier and may require a few weeks of working on tonic solfa or scale degree numbers first.

In my Zoom rehearsals I’ve begun to introduce my choruses to singing simple rounds like Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques to tonic solfa names (doh, doh, doh, re, mi, mi, re, mi fah, soh…)

As much as I love the social games that groups have been playing in order to stay connected (like – who’s baby pic is this?) I really love playing games that will enhance the musical abilities of my chorus in ways I probably wouldn’t consider if we were rehearsing face to face.

Magic Choral Trick #392 Low Register Bubbling Warm Up

Many thanks to my friend Jill Woodley for revitalizing my enthusiasm for warming up the voice by bubbling.

She told my chorus that she’s discovered that bubbling (or doing a lip trill) for the length of an entire song, sung in your low register works the best.

Although I’ve always realized the value of the technique I’m not sure I’ve ever done it for the full length of Billy Joel’s The Longest Time – a fittingly appropriate reminder for the recommended duration of the exercise.

And bubbling it in a low register kept everything so relaxed that our voices warmed up significantly faster. (Yes – this is a rangy song, but easily manageable if the first note is right near the bottom of your range)

However, for the folks who simply cannot bubble in a relaxed, easy way I’ve tried a very gentle Zzz instead – and as long as the Zzz is kept light and very legato it works almost as well.

I’ve done this now with several of my groups in their Zoom rehearsals. Three minutes on Zoom seems like an eternity, but that amount of low bubbling was enough to get almost everyone to a self reported warmed up level of 7 or 8 out of 10. Sometimes I just had them bubble through a simple song multiple times (you don’t have to use Billy Joel’s song)

We tested for warm up level by singing through You Are My Sunshine to see how everything was feeling.

After that it took only another minute or so of bubbling or lightly Zzzing a simple two or three note exercise for people to start reporting that their voices were warmed up to a 9 or 10 out of 10.

All in less than 5 minutes!!

Magic Choral Trick #391 One Huge Upside to Zoom Rehearsals

By now many of us have been having Zoom rehearsals for 7 or 8 weeks, and though being unable to hear the group sound has left a gaping hole in our experience, there are a few mitigating factors.

Some good things…

We still get to socialize. I can’t believe how happy I felt at that first Zoom rehearsal to see all those smiling, familiar faces.

There’s a certain intimacy about having people invite the group into their own homes. Cats feature prominently – which to my way of thinking is always a plus!

I’m spending almost no money on gas!! (Of course it’s so cheap now anyway)

My commute to and from rehearsals is about 15 feet – to the piano room.

I can include a theory or sight singing segment in many of my rehearsals. The video set up is ideal for this sort of teaching.

I’m forced to tighten up my rehearsals even more than I would if we were together – which I’m pretty sure will affect the efficiency of my rehearsals when we finally get back together again. When people are experiencing things on a screen there’s a certain expectation of technical timing and proficiency. The moment by moment planning I have to do is definitely tightening things up.

I unmute everyone after every run through of a song for feedback. But my groups seem to be using this opportunity for feedback fairly sparingly. I like to think that this is building a habit for our future live rehearsals.

But the huge upside and opportunity for Zoom rehearsals is the Special Guest!

We’ve had several coaches join us for 10 – 20 minutes for warm ups and vocal technique or performance coaching. With live rehearsals we’d never be able to invite such a variety of people, so frequently, to come and share their expertise. Right now, my women’s Barbershop chorus is enjoying a five part, 15 minutes a week series, from a neurologist friend, on the effect of music on the brain.

And the lovely thing is that the people I’ve asked have been happy to say yes!! Ten or fifteen minutes is fun and low stress for them, and it’s exciting, and a wonderful change of pace for my groups.

So yes – these are tough times for singing groups, but there are also some wonderful opportunities that have never before presented themselves.

Magic Choral Trick #390 When Online Rehearsals Seem Overwhelming

When we had to shut down all rehearsals because of this pandemic there seemed to be a lot of momentum in other choruses to take it all online right away.

I wasn’t able to even think about it till this week, and it’s been nearly three weeks now since everything got shut down here.

Apart from the steep learning curve involved for me in running online rehearsals, I realize that I just wasn’t ready, and that adjusting to the new normal wasn’t going to happen until I got over the shock of my world changing so dramatically. I direct 6 singing groups, so it was very shocking to go from musical and social interaction with more than 200 people every week – to zero.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as I’ve started working online with Zoom…

When you open up Zoom for the first time with your chorus, it’s very emotional. Seeing all of these faces that you’ve been missing is wonderful!

As great as Zoom is, don’t expect to be able to sing together. The synch issues are far too great. A friend of mine referred to the sound as being like geese in a blender.

It’s a great opportunity to get to teach some music theory and sight singing.

You can still teach vocal technique.

Great tool for learning new music. As I played and sang the notes for one part, people could sing along with their own part – as long as they were on ‘mute’. It’s a lot like doing normal chorus homework – but having company, and having coaching if needed.

Everyone can sing along to a recording played through the system (while their own mics are on mute)

In my women’s chorus we have a roster of people who do physical warm ups, fun vocal warm ups, and tag teaching. This is still all possible – again, as long as everyone else is muted. Unfortunately though, because of the synch issues, you don’t get to hear the fruits of your labours.

There is a possibility for sectionals during rehearsal (in the Break Out rooms which I have yet to figure out) or at some other time that’s convenient for the section members.

And for Directors who are hosting – that ‘mute all’ button is like you’ve died and gone to heaven!

An unmuted free for all social time is an absolute must.

But I still really miss that glorious sound that feeds us all.

Magic Choral Trick #389 3 Fast Acting Tips for More Musical Singing

Although I’ve written about all of these before, I thought it would be useful to describe them again in the context of creating a more musical performance.

The development of musical artistry takes a lifetime, but there are some shortcuts. Like these…

The Propellant Dot 

For more musical lift in the sound, a greater awareness of pulse and a sense of musical meaning that drives the song forward.

Although I originally created this phrase to apply to dotted quarter notes it also works beautifully with half notes. Not only does it create ‘musical lift’ on the second pulse in both the dotted quarter or the half note, but it also cleans up synchronization issues in any half note at the end of a phrase.

Here are my suggestions to my singers:

– love the pulse on the dot

– more emotion on the dot

– open the vowel, the heart or the mouth cavern – just open something on that second pulse. I’ve taken to calling it the mouth ‘cavern’ because the image is so evocative, and discourages singers from just dropping the jaw.

I found that if I simply said “Give me more on the dot” my singers thought I wanted more volume. There was a tendency to bear down on it, creating unwanted tension – especially amongst my super achievers. Though a slight lift in volume is a by-product, that’s not where I wanted their attention.

Because this creates more rhythmic awareness, I find that the eighth note following the dotted quarter is more likely to be sung in time and less likely to be inappropriately accented. However, I still occasionally have to remind my singers to sing that eighth note with the mouth in a completely neutral relaxed state.

The Propellant Dot has proven very easy to teach to all my singers in all of my groups, and the musical result has been almost instantaneous.

The Whole Back End

I’ve always spent a lot of time on clean vowels, but perhaps even more was spent getting my singers to execute diphthong resolutions together. And even when the diphthong was turned well and together, I found that the result sounded a little contrived. In addition to that, at a time when I wanted my singers to remain emotionally connected to the lyrics, their brains were working overtime remembering exactly which and how many vowels made up the diphthong, or the triphthong.

Yes, in a perfect world all of my singers would go home and drill and drill the warm up exercises on this. But life intervenes and not all the singers can get that work done. And for diphthong resolutions there needs to be 100% buy in for the result to be clean.

I came up with a very simple and elegant fix.

Target vowel……………………..Whole Back End of the word, sung briefly, on the cut off or attached to the next word.

For ‘night’ it would look like this. Nah………………………….ight

‘Home’ would be Hoh…………………………..ome

‘Name’ would be Neh………………………..ame

In each case the target vowel is reiterated as it would naturally be spoken as part of the diphthong resolution. To prevent an accented, clipped release I tell them that the back end of the word is their last chance to love that target vowel. It still does take a little drill, but much less than the hours I’ve spent on drilling diphthong resolutions that had no emotional connection to the lyric.

I find this helps my singers’ brains stay freer to think and feel the emotion of the song.

Cello Bowing

After telling my singers about the drag effect of rosin on a cello bow’s movement over the string I had them mime bowing their own cello, with their right hands, feeling the isometric pull across the string as they bowed in each direction.

Then I introduced them to down bows – the bowing used for strong beats, from left to right – from the frog of the bow to the tip. And to up bows – for upbeats, from right to left – from the tip of the bow to the frog. The essential thing is that they needed to keep ‘feeling’ the contact of the bow on the string at all times.

After they’d sung and bowed a musical phrase a few times, they were very responsive when I used the gesture as part of my directing.

I would suggest having singers experience the physical sensation of ‘air bowing’ for themselves before using this as a directing technique – perhaps in warm up. I often use this in rehearsal.

Cello Bowing is great for legato line, for sustaining vocal integrity, for feeling the strength of a downbeat or the up bow pull towards the next downbeat. It’s also a great gesture for indicating a phrase that I want carried over to the next with no break or breath.

I find that if I ‘air bow’ as if I’m really feeling the drag of the rosined bow across the strings my singers intuitively understand the legato line, and react to it without me having to say anything.

Magic Choral Trick #388 Forward Pigeon, Backward Pigeon

This is part of the alignment regime that I use several times every rehearsal.

Most of us, because of the way we spend our days, hunched over computers or standing till everything aches, are unaccustomed to what great alignment feels like.

And because it’s essential to align the vibratey things (the vocal cords) over the top of the hole (the windpipe) for maximum resonance, most of us have some serious retraining to do.

Here are the basics:

– Feet shoulder width apart. Many singers think their shoulders are actually wider than they are
– Relaxed, easy knees
– Hips lined up over ankle bones. Boogey hips – feel that they can move easily
– Shoulders lined up over hips

And then there’s….

– Ears lined up over shoulders. This is the one that feels most unnatural for our internet device times.

So that people can have an easy way to get a sense of this I ask my singers to first jut their heads forward. I call this “Forward Pigeon”. Chin is still parallel to the floor.

Then I ask them to pull the chin way back, which of course displays every single chin we happen to own. I call this “Backward Pigeon”. Chin is still parallel to the floor.

I have them repeat Forward Pigeon/Backward Pigeon a few times, so that they become aware of the radically different positions for the head.

Then I ask them to do a modified, more relaxed version of each – finishing with “Relaxed Backward Pigeon”

Generally, “Relaxed Backward Pigeon” places the ears in the correct position, directly over the shoulders, chin parallel to the floor – which is where the head needs to be for maximum singing resonance.

They can keep tabs on where their chin is sitting as they sing, by placing a thumb lightly on their chin and having their extended pinky finger (same hand!) touching the chest – and keeping that hand position constant.

Until people get used to the feeling of this position they’ll need to keep checking themselves for tension and for shifting out of alignment.

Magic Choral Trick #387 Revisiting the ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ Vowels

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that the tip of the tongue needs to rest lightly behind the lower teeth at the gum line – for all vowels.

However, ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ offer a portal into a new increased resonance when the back of the tongue is relaxed, and is allowed to float up so that the sides of the tongue lightly touch the upper back molars.

I know that this seems counter intuitive – that the floated up tongue is now blocking the sound path. But what’s happening is that more resonating space is being opened up, and we remain more conscious of and committed to keeping the tongue relaxed. (A tight tongue is the fastest way to kill off resonance.)

‘Ee’ and ‘ay’ are the easiest way to discover more ping and ring – but once we get accustomed to the feel of the increased resonance for those two vowels we can begin to play with matching the feel of that level of resonance with ‘oh’, ‘ah’ and ‘oo’.

Magic Choral Trick #386 The Propellant Dot’s Sister

Last Sunday morning at my church choir’s pre-service rehearsal I played through the anthem as the choir sang – and as they did, I noticed the musical energy on every single one of the dots that followed the piece’s quarter notes. I turned around to give them a ‘bravo’ and just choked up. Being aware of that second pulse has made such a difference to the way they sing, and clearly that willingness to act on their awareness has warmed my heart.

Twenty minutes later when they sang it for the congregation it’s unlikely that anyone listening would realize what made those phrases so musical – but the choir and I knew.

To recap (from a previous blog post) – the Propellant Dot is the conscious acknowledgement of the pulse on the dot following a quarter note. (ie a dotted quarter note) I refer to it as conscious acknowledgement simply because I don’t want my singers to feel like they need to bear down on it. Instead I ask them to re-express the emotion on that beat, to rethink or intensify the vowel, to add more emotion, to love that second pulse or even to open the mouth cavern a bit more.

The Propellant Dot’s Sister is really just applying all these same ways of thinking to the second beat of a half note. In both cases, it creates conscious and musically intelligent forward motion – which creates more emotional engagement in both singers and listeners.

Magic Choral Trick #385 Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Why do I keep having to relearn the value of preparation? The difference between even a moderately prepared rehearsal and a no kidding prepared one astonishes me.

Last night Big Choir and I had our first of 6 rehearsals that will take us to our annual benefit concert on November 25th. Granted, over the last 15 years this particular group of amateur singers has come to know that I’m going to ask them to stand with great alignment, sing on the target vowels and that I expect that they’ll sing on my beat. But last night they were so focused that we made major headway on all seven new songs. And there was almost no chatter after any of my cutoffs – which is amazing for a choir of about 90 singers who get together once a year for a few rehearsals.

The secret? Preparation

The first hats off has to go to the team that chooses the music. The songs are familiar and the arrangements are appropriate to the group’s abilities. I think we’ll be able to get notes straightened out in one or two more weeks, after which we can get to really making music.

The second level of preparation rests on my shoulders. For last night’s rehearsal I had prepared the scores with coloured pencils for the tricky bits and how I was going to work them, and of course a hi-lighter for the road map DS, Repeat and Coda markings. I find hi-lighting the road map and using colour coded large paper clips for the DS/Coda flipping of pages really helps. One colour of paper clip for going back to the DS and another colour for flipping ahead to the Coda. This is particularly helpful on the night of the show, under the bright lights and with the more intense atmosphere.

I look forward to seeing how many of the choir take these suggestions for their own music. (Guess it’ll be obvious next week by the level of characteristic merfling of words and drop in volume that normally accompanies a return to a DS or a flip ahead to a Coda)

Having accomplished so much on the first night I now need to go back to the preparation drawing board. As we clean up remaining note stuff, the next step is to see how we’re going to draw out the beauty of the musical lines, the fun of the uptunes and the intensity of emotion in the power songs.

I’m excited to see what level we get to next week after I’ve done my homework and prepared these next steps.

Magic Choral Trick #384 Untapped Magic

A few friends and I have made an amazing discovery. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a community being chorally saturated. Perhaps there’s always room for one more group, if the conditions are right.

Late last spring I was approached by several women who had had the idea to form a choir out in the community where they lived. I realized that it was true that most people who are involved in singing groups do travel in to the city to get their weekly fix.

Because I had run out of weeknights when I’d be able to direct such a group, I suggested something that I’d been talking about for years – a morning choir. In fact, for ages I’d been asking everyone I knew why it was that community choirs don’t normally sing during the day, especially in light of the fact that a huge proportion of many of our choirs is the retired population. Many of our older people are no longer comfortable driving at night, and feel they have to drop out of the choirs they’ve enjoyed for decades.

My friends wanted to start a women’s choir – so at 10:00 am on a Thursday morning in August we had a meeting for any women who might be interested. No audition, no judging, just singing. I had expected between 20 and 30, and 64 showed up.

Then at our first rehearsal last Thursday morning we had 80 women come to sing.

And it’s crazier than that. When all the names from both the meeting and the rehearsal were tabulated, there were 105!!

I’m putting this out there for any and all directors and chorus boards who may be experiencing a scarcity of singers. They’re out there!!! This was clearly a previously untapped resource.

What I don’t know is if there would be the same kind of response for a men’s or a mixed voice chorus.

Yes, I do have some crossover from my other singing groups, but there are also women who showed up to sing – for the first time since they were children, when someone had told them just to mouth the words.

Next target group? The early morning before work corporate crowd! The gyms downtown are full by 5:30. Surely there are people who’d love to sing for an hour before work. We could call it The Dawn Chorus!!

In fact, I’m issuing a challenge to all large companies out there. Form employee choirs, and have them compete in singing competitions against one another. A whole new level of fun and corporate pride!

The world is rich with singers, we just have to find the conditions that are needed and wanted, and provide them.

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