I had a new experience in this last Women’s Barbershop competition.
Thanks to the terrific choreography created for us by Theresa Weatherbee ( http://www.engageonstage.com/about-me/ ) it was necessary for me to relinquish all control of my chorus for almost all of our uptempo number.
And while the first layer of relinquishing control appears to be about trusting my chorus to execute the plan without my guidance, the deeper level as I experienced it was having to trust that I had done everything in my power to prepare them to fly unfettered by a director.
It’s almost exactly like learning to trust your kids. They think that it’s about me trusting them – but in reality, the question I’m asking myself is “Did I do at least an adequate job of being a Mum to prepare them for what’s going to come their way?”
And just as it has always brought me joy when my kids were able to be magnificent all on their own, so too it was an exhilarating feeling when my chorus was able to be fabulous without me!
In fact, for me it was just plain fun – because I got to be a front row dancer again!!
Of course, since then I’ve seen the video and am aware of how much more we could be doing.
But for now I’m ready to revel in the experience of having trusted not only my chorus – but also the work that I’d done to prepare them.
I’ve written before about the concept of getting rid of, de-emphasizing or mumbling unimportant words or syllables – but when my chorus was being coached by music judge Kathy Greason, she had an eloquent term for describing this.
Word Sounds. She asked my chorus members to just sing word sounds rather than enunciating the actual words, or the syllables that make up those words.
Our listening understanding of Word Sounds is rather like those texts we see on Facebook – where the words are printed upside down or backwards, but we still have no problem reading them.
When we listen analytically to natural speech patterns, most of what we hear is just Word Sounds. In fact, when we hear someone speaking and enunciating everything really clearly, it comes across as not only unnatural, but also as slightly condescending or judgmental. We get so caught up in listening to every syllable that we tend to miss the meaning of what’s being said.
Most of the songs we sing were written to be immediately accessible, in the language and cadence of our times. Meticulous enunciation is not only unnecessary, but can be an emotional barrier for the audience. If they are being distracted by the accentuation of syllables that would normally be swallowed in speech, it takes a moment for the brain to discount their emotional usefulness.
If the songwriting is good, the music matches the flow of a natural delivery of the lyrics.
Strong song delivery finds the most meaningful word or syllable of the phrase and communicates that one thing very clearly – while allowing the rest of the lyrics to flow in such a way that they point to that meaningful word or syllable.
By the way – just as a rule of thumb, I say that all articles, prepositions and any words or syllables on a pick up beat need to be just Word Sounds, and not enunciated.
One of the trickiest parts of a human to train is the mind. The mind seems to be inherently lazy, and when asked to perform a specific task, is able to come up with a litany of perfectly good reasons why it should not do a particular thing.
And so it is when we ask our minds to rethink the target vowel on the dot of a dotted quarter or half note.
“I’m already singing that vowel – for crying out loud”
“We’re ready for the diphthong resolution, or the singable final consonant – enough already with the target vowel!!”
The reason that I thought up the concept of the Propellant Dot was that I needed a way to explain the concept of musical lift.
One of my choruses had been told by a judge that their singing lines needed more musical flow within even short phrases – and while as a trained musician, I understood what he meant, I had to come up with a way for this to be understood by people who had not been indoctrinated at an early age.
Having the chorus move or direct or dance while singing works for some of the singers, but I’ve found that the majority need much more specific direction.
As I analyzed the way I would instinctively sing a phrase, I realized that I was ‘lifting’ the back ends of almost all my long notes, which created more forward moving musical interest.
So to put this into practice I ask my singers to rethink the target vowel and then the back end of the word on the dot of a dotted note – or even on the last beat of any longer note.
For example in the song If You Love Me, “If the sun should tumble from the sky” would be sung like this:
If the suh…uhn should tumble from the skah……ahee
My choruses now know that when I ask to hear the second syllable of the word ‘love’, that what I really mean is luh…..uhv. But in order for this to happen, they have to consciously and deliberately rethink the target vowel before finishing the word.
Not only does this give a song much more forward motion, but it also means that my singers are very focused on finishing all phrases together.
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.