This may seem like something frivolous and esoteric, but it really does make a difference to the quality of sound, and to the synchronization at the end of a phrase.
I find that it’s not enough to ask your group to sing through the singable consonants at the end of a word – for example, the ‘ng’ at the end of the word ‘song’. In order for the richness of the sound to continue, the singable consonants must be preceded by a rethinking, and an intensification of the target vowel.
So the word ‘song’ would actually look something like this……
Not that there would be an accent on the target vowel intensification – just a mental recreation of the vowel as it attaches to the singable consonant or consonants.
Last night my chorus seemed to find it helpful to imagine a vowel-filled bulb attached to the final singable consonant.
Regardless of what imagery is used, the actual rethinking of the vowel before the final singable consonant is what is important.
The happy chatter of choral singers getting up from their chairs
Cheerful discussions as they sit down again
Hilarity as they move from one standing formation to another
Many helpful suggestions to one another as people find the sheet music for the next piece.
So the question is – does this need to be stomped on, or is it just a side effect of people having fun?
The first part of the answer to that depends entirely on what the group’s goals are.
For example – a church choir needs to be able lead the hymns on Sunday, and perform one or two anthems well. In addition to that, they’ll need to lay the groundwork for similar success for a couple of weeks hence. If this can all happen to the satisfaction of choir, director and congregation even with a bit of chat at rehearsal – so be it.
A competitive chorus just weeks away from their competition may need gentle reminders of how much better they’ll feel on the contest stage if they focus now, and are really well prepared.
The second part of the answer is that no matter what the group or their goals, having the director run a tight rehearsal magically cuts down on a lot of chatter.
If I have drawn up a schedule ahead of time, and know exactly what I want to work on with each piece, my groups are suddenly much more interested in what I have to say. Especially if each time I stop them I have something specific, and meaningful to ask of them.
Leading by example is also useful. If I speak succinctly about the reason I cut them off and my focus appears to be completely on the music, it’s contagious. As is a director’s passion for excellence.
I love to have both the rigorous, focused work and the happy chatter at my rehearsals. One is getting the work done, and the other releases the tension of all that concentration. Both build community.
If we sing the vowel ‘ee’ the way we say it in English it will always be strident.
The problem is the quiet ‘yuh’ at the back end of the way we speak the vowel. And it’s worse than that. The ever vigilant tongue, who knows about this ‘yuh’ spends most of what should be target vowel time preparing to scrunch up for it. It’s so excited about it in fact, that it will begin its scrunch up almost immediately that the ‘ee’ vowel starts.
Tongue tension produces a strident sound. Think of your best imitation of the Wicked Witch of the West. Lots of tongue and jaw tension.
If your first language is Italian, French or Spanish this tongue tension doesn’t apply to you because the ‘ee’ sound (written as ‘i’) has no resolution vowel – and your tongue knows how to relax whether you’re saying or singing it.
So what’s the solution for the rest of us?
I recommend that my singers think really stupid thoughts as they sing ‘ee’. It ends up being more of an ‘eu’ than an ‘ee’, but in the context of the word it’s unnoticeable to the listener – other than the fact that the sound is round and blended.
Also, creating lots of space between the back teeth automatically relaxes the jaw and tongue – which helps with a richer sound.
When it comes to high notes though, I ask my singers to not even pretend that they’re singing ‘ee’ and just go straight for the dumbed down ‘eu’ sound.
When singers complain that they can’t reach a particular high note that has an ‘ee’ as the target vowel, it generally means that their tongues are gradually tightening up for the ‘yuh’. And this increasing tongue tension is choking off the sound. Once they change what they’re thinking to ‘eu’, singing the high note becomes much easier.
Sopranos and Barbershop Tenors are already no stranger to slight vowel modification in the high register, but it will work for all voice parts.
I came across a quotation attributed to Gus Speth, a US advisor or climate change.
“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
So while the problems facing our societies and communities all over the world seem huge, complex and unfixable, perhaps we can agree with Gus Speth, that the beginning of transformation will take place when our hearts open.
Hearts open quickly and completely when we sing in large groups – especially when everyone is caught up in the moment. And being caught up in the moment has several avenues of approach. Singing for a cause, focus on excellence, and spontaneous outbursts of singing. Or simply because we just can’t believe how many of us are doing this all together. (As in the Choir Choir Choir link below – at the Toronto Eaton Centre) The physical sensation is like nothing else – and feels wonderful.
The several groups of singers that I have the privilege to work with are the kindest social groups I know.
Singing in groups makes us better human beings. We become more than we thought we were. Perhaps it’s because a singing group is always more than the sum of its parts, and because we’ve now had a taste of something we knew would never have been possible by ourselves.
And being in the presence of the sound changes us.
So when there’s a chord that really rings, sometimes I ask my singers to sustain it a little longer than normal, just so that we can lose ourselves in its glory – and allow it to transform us.
Gus Speth says that scientists don’t know how to open hearts – but we do.
This is just the first verse of the famous poem by Aurthur O’Shaughnessy
Ode – by Arthur O’Shaughnessy
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
And here’s the Choir Choir Choir link!!
Because in English there are so many unaccented pick up words that appear on beat 4, the opportunity to drag and be out of synch happens frequently.
Here’s what can go wrong on and around beat 4
1. Breath before beat 4 is too slow, or at least unsynchronized
2. Different amounts of mouth opening for breath
3. For many singers the mouth is wide open for the breath and it stays that way for the singing of the pick up note, so more sound comes out and the pick up word is accented and generally slower.
4. Because the breath and pick up note are now out of synch, the disorganized sound creates inertia and it feels like we’ll never arrive on beat one of the next bar.
5. Directors get very discouraged, their right shoulder begins to hurt from pulling their singers along and they just want to go home and open a bottle of wine.
We tend to think that the real problem is people not feeling where beat one is – but it’s just that there are so many technical land mines to dodge before you ever get to the next bar.
Here’s what I propose
– Practise breathing in very quickly through a relaxed, neutral mouth shape – and an open throat. An open throat means that the breath won’t be noisy.
Breathe in – then kick the air out in 12 – 16 loose-lipped exhalations. Rest for a few seconds, then repeat. The reason for so many exhalations and then the rest is that you don’t want your singers to hyperventilate and pass out. Bad form.
The object here is to create a habit, so this needs to be done often.
– Once the breathing is fast and synchronized we can turn our attention to the pick up word
As I know I’ve mentioned before, the pick up word, or words always need to be sung through a completely neutral mouth shape, even if the word’s target vowel is one that would normally require forming – like ‘Oh’. If mouths are open wide, then synchronization gets compromised, an unimportant word/beat gets accented, and we lose forward motion. (And we’re late for beat 1, director unhappy, shoulder problems, drinking…)
During warm up it would be good to introduce a bunch of phrases that have one or two pick up words (or syllables).
A few seasonal suggestions:
It’s the most wonderful time
O come all ye faithful
Away in a manger
O Christmas Tree (Tannenbaum)
In a Lowly Stable (published by Boosey and Hawkes – blatant ad for my husband’s music)
– Then with the addition of a little Gear Change (see previous blog post) leading into beat one, the transition from one bar to the next will be more fun for everyone!
When we want to carry the sound over from one phrase to another without a breath, it’s never enough to simply not breathe.
If there’s a good enough reason to carry through, what we really want is to sweep the audience along with us.
And while phrases like “spin the sound here” and “create an arch in the sound” work for some of our singers, our more pragmatic chorus members may need other imagery.
Since most people are aware of the energy kick when you change gears on a standard car, I’ve found the Gear Change an effective tool.
There’s even a ready made director’s hand signal – as if I’m changing gears on a sporty little convertible. As I’ve mentioned before, hand signals save precious time in rehearsal because once the chorus knows and has imitated the signal themselves, they understand exactly what I want.
Yes, I do have other more graceful ways of indicating energy flow from one phrase to another – but sometimes my groups just seem to sleep through these moves and not really notice them. The Gear Change is not flowy and attractive – but they notice it.
I should also mention that, as with asking for any increased energy flow from one phrase to another, the energy increase should be on the target vowel.
For example, if in Amazing Grace I decided that I wanted to flow straight from those first two words into ‘how sweet the sound’, I would make the gear change motion on the back end of the target vowel for the word ‘grace’.
So it would happen like this
Amazing Greh……..(Gear change/crescendo/energy flow boost/tone spin/intensify the vowel/arch here) eecehow sweet.
I’ve included the extra descriptors in the bracket above because as with any effect I want I usually have to say it about 5 or 6 different ways for every singer to understand what I mean.
The Gear Change is not pretty, but it’s been working well for me.
I often wish that I could have a really terrific coach with me at every rehearsal – pointing out to me the things I haven’t noticed, and give me tips on how to run tighter and progressively more productive rehearsals.
However, the truth is that most of us have had enough coaching to be able to lift ourselves to the next level, whether we’re directing or singing. We just lose focus. We forget that this is actually important to us.
As singers, we know that daily technical practising, going through our music at home and getting into better physical condition are three basic things that would create some next level magic.
As directors we know that more specific schedule planning that anticipates the work that our group will need, more musical and emotional analysis of the music, and a thoughtful daily review of our directing and rehearsal technique would make each rehearsal even more exciting for everyone.
And many of us do at least some of this.
But the question is the same as it is for all those other areas of our lives that matter.
Am I doing absolutely everything I can to create loving relationships?
Am I giving my body everything it needs for radiant health?
Am I as kind and generous as it’s possible to be?
When I was singing professionally there were performances that went gloriously well, and there were some that were barely adequate. But what every single performance had in common was that I can honestly say that I always brought everything I had to it – what I had in the moment. There were just some days when that wasn’t much when compared to my other performances. The truth though was generally that if I’d prepared more, or taken care of my health beforehand, it would have gone much better.
In my years of bringing up four kids there were days when my Mom skills were second to none. Then there were days when my parenting skills went on vacation – and my poor kids and I all ended the day feeling fed up, sad, annoyed or anxious. But I always felt that whatever had happened, I’d given it everything I had.
But was that always the truth?
I Can Do Better
This phrase is like a reset button for determination.
Even though we may have given whatever it is we’re doing 100% of our effort – there’s always something more that we could easily be doing to improve the outcome.
The phrase “I can do better” is a trigger for our subconscious mind to come up with the next small step. A step that’s small enough not to overwhelm us, but big enough to make a real difference in the outcome.
For chorus singers – a small step like a cleaner target vowel, or singing with mental energy right to the end of a phrase, or lifting the pitch on a slightly saggy note, or listening more.
As a solo performer having a tough vocal day, I could have increased my emotional interaction with my audience.
As a mom I could have just hugged each kid more on those bad days.
As a director I’m thinking of adding “I can do better” as a call and response every once in a while – especially when they already know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it, but have just lost some focus.
It’s time for a Bass revolution.
Yes Basses, we truly appreciate the overtones that you create – your absolutely vital role in the richness of the chorus’ sound – but now we require more.
When a Bass section is singing with the same level of artistry that we usually ask of those singing the melody line, the result is transformative.
With most groups we directors are more inclined to be merciless with our Sopranos or Leads when it comes to phrasing and word stresses. We tell the whole group what we want – but we don’t follow up nearly enough with our harmony parts.
As a result our harmony singers get the impression that what they’re doing is enough.
I’m suggesting that the director’s cajoling/nagging/bribing should start with the Basses because they are the engine that drives everything. If the Basses are singing a lovely arching phrase, absolutely everyone else will feel compelled to join in.
Bass sectionals are the best way I know to lock in the unit sound and to solidify the expressive interpretation. Probably a good idea for the director to sit in, so that he or she can give feedback on the specifics of the artistry.
However, the biggest shift here is in the transformation of the Basses’ perception that no one’s really listening to them, and that their role is strictly structural.
When the Bass section sings their part as if it’s their own poignant melody, the whole chorus suddenly sounds much more polished.
Vocalises sung to ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ can be lovely and musically very expressive, but the reason we sing songs is because of the extra levels of emotional depth that are possible with the musical expression of language.
Built into our language are many, many magical triple arches – arches that get progressively more emotionally important.
Here are some examples from three completely different songs:
Faith and Hope and Love
But the Greatest of These is Love
Fading like Sunset to Glow no More
And Leaving a Heart that is Sore
Amazing Grace how Sweet the Sound
That Saved a Wretch like Me
Each one of these lines gives us a triple arch – but in each case here, there’s yet another triple arch in the very next line. You will need to make a decision about whether it works best emotionally for the second line to keep on growing (bigger and bigger arches), or to backtrack the intensity of the first arch in the second phrase from where you ended up after the first line.
Then there are songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy which set up the triple arch beautifully by using the ‘ready set go’ technique – double arch, double arch then the triple. Which as an overarching pattern, is yet another triple!!
He was a Famous trumpet man down by Chicago way
He Had a boogie sound that no one Else could play
He was the Top man At his Craft
These arches are everywhere!
And if we use them, we immediately create more interest and forward motion in every song, no matter what the song’s tempo or style.
The progressive triple arch is such a natural pattern for us. From expressing love (I love you/I really love you/I can’t live without you) to throwing up, to a child starting to wail – this is all very familiar. I’ve even heard people sneeze in this pattern. And our language has evolved to include it.
Because we tend to align ourselves emotionally with patterns that we recognize, an audience will be more engaged with us as we use this aspect of our language.
So what exactly should we do with the arches?
I have my groups use arm motion for each arch as they sing – drawing a little hill, bigger hill, Appalachian Mountains (an old mountain range that runs up near the east coast of North America, that is now quite rounded)
When they actually do this movement I can avoid having them just accent the target word in the arch – which is not at all what we want.
The ‘dynamics’ monitor in your choir may go a little nuts with the arch drawing thing, so they may need to hear the instruction as a messa di voce (crescendo/diminuendo), but everyone actually drawing the progressively larger arches will know what to do.
I also like to add the instruction to sing the target vowel of the word at the top of each arch with progressively more emotion. Fill the target vowel with emotion – then more emotion for the target vowel at the top of the second arch – then even more emotion filling the target vowel for the word at the top of the last arch.
It just occurs to me that anyone still reading at this point must really love this stuff as much as I do!!! Bless you!!! You’re the reason I do this.
Gotta find your fun wherever you get it, so I’ve turned this diphthong drill into a sort of game.
The two words I’ve been using for this quickie drill are ‘Are’ and ‘Our’ – though it might be a good idea not to tell your group what the words are before you start. What we’re trying to do here is detach the mind from some lifelong habits.
First ask the group to sing an ‘Ah’ vowel for about 4 slow beats.
Tell the chorus that when you do the cut off with your Right Hand, they’re to sing a very fast, but focused ‘er’. (the word Are)
Do this several times until:
1. Everyone is scanning the tongue for tension for the duration of the ‘ah’ vowel – thinking only the vowel, and not the word.
2. The ‘er’ is completely synchronized
Now ask them to sing a slow 4 beat ‘ah’ again, but when you cut them off with your Left Hand, they’re to sing a very fast, but clean, ‘oor’. (the word Our)
Again this will need drill until those tongues stop roiling up with tension in anticipation of the end of the word.
I find also that there’s almost never enough ‘oor’ initially – and I ask them to sing the diphthong resolution with about double the amount of mental intensity. I don’t mean that it should be accented, just that the thought of the ‘oor’ is even clearer, and twice as intense as for the thinking of the ‘ah’ vowel.
Now comes the extra focus (and hopefully fun) part of the drill.
Have the chorus sing ‘ah’ for at least 4 slow beats as both of your hands are ready to do the cut off. A cut off with the Right Hand means they should finish the word with an ‘er’, and a cut off with the Left Hand means they should finish the sound with and ‘oor’.
I vary these – so there’s no pattern, and so that no one knows which ending is coming.
Next week I’m going to do this same exercise with ‘Nice’ and ‘Now’ (Nah…….eece, and Nah………oo)