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.
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.
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.
Want to increase your group’s resonance instantly? (Although you’ll still have to keep reminding them about this for months)
One of the biggest barriers to gorgeous resonant sound is tension in the tongue. And while we directors may talk about this non-stop, many of our singers really don’t understand the specifics of what we’re asking for.
This is when the squishiness metre becomes a very useful tool.
With a bit of pressure, press the thumb up into the squishy underside of the chin – behind the V of the jaw bone. Swallow and feel that big hunk of meat, that is your tongue, tighten.
Say ‘ee’ normally and feel, with your thumb, the muscle (tongue) tighten. Sing that version of ‘ee’. It’ll probably sound edgy and not at all resonant.
Say ‘ee’ with the tip of the tongue relaxing on the lower lip (yes – this looks really, really dumb) and the back of the tongue being allowed to float up to gently meet the upper molars. Sing ‘ee’ in this position. Experiment until you feel no tongue tension with your thumb.
Now instead of resting the tip of the tongue on the lip, bring the tip behind the lower front teeth to the gum line, and let it relax there. Maintain the relaxation in the back of the tongue so that it still floats up to caress the upper molars. Sing ‘ee’ again and check for under-the-chin squishiness.
Do this with as many vowels as you can think up. ‘ee’ ‘ay’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’ ‘eu’ ‘ih’ ‘a’ ‘eh’ ‘aw’ ‘uh’
Some consonants need to tighten the tongue – but when you’re singing a word, these should be released to the succeeding vowel as quickly as possible – ‘D’ ‘the hard G’ and ‘T’.
‘L’ – with conscious relaxation and the use of only the tip of the tongue to form the ‘L’, can remain relaxed.
Another squishiness challenging sound is ‘Y’. Say ‘you’ normally and feel it tighten – then try a fast ‘ih’ – opening immediately to an ‘oo’ (‘ih-oo’) and note how it stays more relaxed. This formation of the word ‘you’ has the added benefit of preventing singers from using the ‘y’ to slide up into the note.
It’s a great idea to create a warm up that incorporates many opportunities for Squishiness Checks – so that singing without tongue tension becomes normal.
Legato is always a tricky concept for amateur singers. Here’s another kinaesthetic technique that I use.
Have your singers sing a slow 5 note scale 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1, using the numbers as lyrics. (Think half notes at about mm 80)
If you notice any energy leaks or lack of synchronization try having them physically mime bowing each note along with you, as if they were playing a cello – one note per bow.
1 – Down bow – as if you’re bowing a note, drawing the bow out to your right
2 – Up bow – as if you’re moving the bow over the string across the body towards your left side
3 – Down bow – to your right
4 – Up bow….etc
It works well when they understand that there’s always some resistance – a bit of grip on the string by the bow because of the rosin on the bow hair. So it takes even, deliberate pressure and pull to create a lovely cello sound.
Once they can imagine this, vowels in the ‘lyrics’ will become more defined, and longer, without your singers having to deliberately think those thoughts.
Yes, of course, they should know about target vowels and diphthong resolutions to words – but if they are physically bowing each note those things tend to fix themselves.
Once the singers become accustomed to physically bowing the phrases they’re singing, sometimes all it takes to bring back the legato into a phrase is for me to mime the bowing as I direct.
And those pesky pick up beats that inevitably get accented when the singers’ brains stop working can be radically altered into something much more pleasing by me miming the pick up as a short, but smooth up bow.
Doug, who sings in my men’s chorus, arrived at rehearsal the other night with something new he’d discovered for bringing a pitch up to where it needs to be.
He was working with Tonal Energy Tuner on his phone ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/tonalenergy-tuner-metronome/id497716362?mt=8 ) and was sustaining a pitch – but having difficulty with the accuracy.
He says he tried tapping his forehead, which worked a little. But then he began to draw circles – with a light massage touch, just above the space between his eyebrows, and amazingly, the Tonal Energy Tuner told him he’d raised the pitch, and was no longer singing flat.
“Cool!” I said, “Let’s try that with the chorus!!!”
So throughout the evening, on sustained chords at the ends of phrases I asked all the guys to do this ‘third eye massage’, and amazingly, the chords began to lock in more quickly than usual.
I tried it the next night with my women’s chorus, and it worked for them too!!
Of course some of my singers wanted an explanation – and though I have a few theories, I feel that it’s immaterial. (In the same way that understanding electricity is not a prerequisite for turning on a lamp)
What does interest me though is the technique’s possible continuing effectiveness. And after the singers have internalized the feeling of the light circular third eye massage, would it be enough of a trigger for in tune singing if only I were to do it?
Regardless – thanks Doug for your willingness to share the weird stuff!!!
All of my choral director working life, people have been paying me to hear what’s wrong, and to fix it. So when a coach challenged me to give only positive feedback I was at a complete loss as to what to say. At first, the weaknesses were the only things I could hear.
I’ve now brought this challenge to most of my groups, and to a singing workshop and initially, they’ve all had the same issues as I had with giving feedback on only the positive stuff. Only compliments – not even any inferred comparisons or ‘buts’. Not easy when every one of us has been taught to be critical of every performance we hear.
So here’s an exercise to incorporate positive feedback into a rehearsal.
Ask the Basses (or any other section) to come out in front of the group, and sing a section of one of the repertoire songs. But before they sing, tell the rest of the group that you’ll be asking for only positive feedback and that they should listen for something that they love about the Basses’ singing.
When the Basses have finished, ask the members of the rest of the group what it is that they loved about the Basses’ performance. Sometimes if something I’ve heard (or seen) isn’t mentioned I contribute too.
After about 4 or 5 comments from the group, ask members of the Bass section to repeat the compliments about their singing. The acknowledgement of what was said makes the compliment more real for the recipients.
Now have the Basses sing the section of the song again, and notice the improvement – just from having ‘owned’ a few compliments.
These days I’m experimenting more and more with building on the strengths of the group and paying much less attention to its difficulties, and a miraculous thing is happening. The issues, the ones I used to hear to the exclusion of everything else, improve dramatically when I work primarily with the chorus’ strengths.
And even when specific difficulties do need to be addressed, the more I can couch the change I want as an opportunity, rather than suggesting that the way they’re singing it is a failing, the better the results.
This is a lesson that I have been doomed to learn over and over.
While the flashiness of a difficult song or arrangement may be a director’s idea of fun, we always seem to have to learn and relearn that unless it is within the reasonable grasp of every chorus member, it will never be the stunning show stopper that everyone was hoping for.
For several years after I started directing my men’s chorus I chose competition repertoire that was too difficult, and we stayed fairly low in the rankings.
Then last year, I decided to go back to basic Barbershop and they won the division contest for the first time in 48 years.
Sticking with the KISS principle served us well again this year, and we came away with a 2nd place – just one point behind the winning chorus.
As an audience member, I would much rather listen to a group singing a simple song exquisitely, than squirm through an only adequate performance of something more difficult.
I’ve been diligent about applying this to my church choir’s repertoire choices too. Although they are relatively new to A Cappella singing, their performance in an all A Cappella concert in June fit right in with the other choruses who always sing without accompaniment. The trick was to have arrangements whose notes could be learned very quickly, so that there was lots of time to get to the real music making.
As directors and singers we need to remember the wow factor of beautiful chords and deliciously musical phrasing. All of that is possible when our singers are not vocally or technically out of their depth.
This is less of a trick and more of a lifestyle shift that involves checking in with your body multiple times a day.
I’ve included the best Youtube video I could find on singers’ alignment – because video really is much more effective than just descriptive words.
However, I have to add a couple of things….
A quick and effective posture check is to stand with your back flat against a wall, with feet about 1 foot out from the wall, for balance. I know that some teachers recommend standing with feet against the wall, but if singers are carrying any additional abdominal weight, I find that this just makes them feel as if they’re about to topple forward. Which creates tension – the one thing we need to get rid of when we sing.
I’ve also found that when people have carried tension in their shoulders for many years, there’s no way that the back of the head is going to be able to touch the wall and keep the chin in the correct, relaxed, slightly lowered position required for good singing. If this is the case, a small pillow, or a couple of books may be needed to bring the chin into alignment.
This will allow us to feel that slightly lifted and lengthened back of neck that is so magical for a fuller, richer sound.
Doing at least some of your singing practice against the wall like this will eventually coax your body into realizing that singing in an aligned position really is more fun!
And here’s the short, very professional video that says the rest.
Although this takes consistent reminding and practice, the payoff is a much richer, fuller and more blended sound.
While placing the hands over the bottom of your ribcage on either side, take in a long, slow, deep breath and feel the expansion.
As you sing a note, press in slightly with the hands, and resist that pressure by holding the ribcage out – using your intercostal muscles to press outward. It’s not necessary to actually know anything about these muscles. The only thought that’s required is that you’re resisting the pressure from your hands.
Once you have a sense of this, drop the hands and just focus on leaving the ribs expanded outward, as long as possible, as you sing.
There’s also an additional bonus – and that is that when you begin a note with the ribcage expanded it’s much easier to start a vowel without a glottal bump.