I’d hardly call this a quick trick – but it’s a long term goal worth pursuing
So, so much is involved in producing an exquisite work of choral art, that sometimes we let this one slide a bit.
I know that in almost every choir I ever sang with there was always a great deal of time spent with the finessing of our soprano interpretation. Lovely arching phrases, and synchronization of the subtle nuances of our word accentuation.
And I always felt a little surprised that the harmony parts that I could hear around me seemed to be less enthusiastic about singing their melodies in the same way – with the same interpretation.
Granted, the harmony parts are often more thankless line-wise than the melody. But I figure that if you’re a good enough musician to sing a harmony part, you’re skilled enough to sing it beautifully – as if it were a heart wrenching melody.
Now as I direct groups with varying levels of ability I understand well about picking your battles. Sometimes I’m just grateful that the notes are learned and are sung with a reasonable sound quality.
However, I’d like to put my groups on notice now that I will demand more of the Altos, Tenors, Basses and Baritones in 2018 and that I will be demanding more melodic flow and lyric nuance in line with what I’m already asking of the Leads and Sopranos.
Basses in particular are prone to thinking that since they’re all the way down in the basement, we don’t notice them. But when a bass line is sung exquisitely, it’s transcendent, and lifts the whole chorus to a new level.
The actual Bass parts are often no help with this, because in order to make the harmony work, the arranger has had to have the Bass line leap up a good sized interval to an unimportant word or syllable. So without constant vigilance on the part of the singers, this kind of tricky Bass manoeuvre can sabotage the flow of a phrase’s line. But again – when Basses can finesse it, it takes that line to a wonderful new level.
Must give a shout out here to Barbershop Baritones who may have the toughest job of all. To make something of beauty out of the kinds of lines that you are handed requires real artistry. But it’s your job to make those very difficult voice leadings match the Lead line, and sound effortless. When you do this, it’s so exciting!
Altos – you have a real and achievable opportunity here. Your parts are often fairly static, but if you treat them like simple gems in complete synch with the melody line interpretation – and worthy of interpretive attention, they become more of an artistic challenge for you.
Tenors of all stripes – both mixed choir and Barbershop – need to be aware that even with the slight vowel modifications that you need to make in your upper register, we still need your word accentuations and your line to flow in synch with what the melody is doing.
Bottom line, Harmony singers – “With great power comes great responsibility”. And you have the power to lift us all to a new level of singing experience this coming year!!!
Imagery is usually much more effective than knowledge of anatomy when it comes to singing.
Just as when a child is learning to walk, and the only picture the child has in his or her head is arriving where Mom or Dad is crouched down, encouraging them – so the pictures in our head as we sing will guide us more effectively than constantly checking in on what every muscle, cavity and sinew is up to.
The latest effective image that I’ve discovered and tested with all my groups is the Goldfish Bowl.
Pretty simple. Hold a large, imaginary Goldfish Bowl, about the size of a volleyball, up near your face at about shoulder level – then look slightly downward and sing into it – imagining that you are filling it with sound and warm air as you sing.
Bigger, richer and much more cohesive sound from the chorus
I chose a Goldfish Bowl because it’s transparent. When you lower your hands again, it’s easier to imagine that a glass bowl is still there.
Lately during Warm Up time I’ve been doing just a bit of actual warming up of the voices, but much more work on warming up the chorus’ ears.
Really not fair though that this exercise is easier with a men’s chorus, or in an SATB choir where the two bottom voices are men’s.
What I’m talking about is the intensity with which you can hear the overtones, or harmonics when men are singing the root of a chord.
Thinking vertically, as well as melodically and paying attention to overtones can produce truly be magical results in every group. The work – hearing the harmonics/overtones may take just a bit longer in women only groups.
In my men’s chorus I ask the Basses to sing the root of the chord, and to keep nourishing and sustaining it (staggering the breathing) so that chorus members can practise hearing the overtones in the sound. The overtone that can be heard most easily is the octave above the note that the basses are singing – so when at least a few of the Leads can hear it I ask them to just place that octave right into the Basses’ sound. They don’t need to ‘lead’ when all they’re doing is amplifying something that the Basses are already creating.
Once that octave is clean and balanced, I ask the Baritones and Tenors to listen for the 5th of the chord that will be sounding because of what both the Basses and Leads are singing. It may be easier for the Baritones to hear the 5th overtone an octave higher than they’ll be singing it. I find that that harmonic tends to pop out more.
When the Baritones place that 5th, they know that it’s correct when the combination of what the three parts are doing creates an empty, open, hollow sound. At this point it actually starts to feel pretty good, physically, as if suddenly you’re in a very clean, clear place.
After enjoying this clarity for a while I ask the Tenors to start listening for their 3rd in the overtones that are being created. If the three lower parts can keep that open hollow sound steady, the 3rd will just pop out, and needs to be sung only very delicately for the chord to fuse together and become a mystical place where you’ll all just want to keep hanging out!
For SATB choirs, I’d have the Basses sing the root, the Tenors the octave, the Altos the 5th and the Sopranos the 3rd (though they’ll have to rethink their starring role for the purposes of this exercise) Even if the sopranos take the high octave, the Tenors the 5th and the Altos the 3rd, the sopranos will still have an opportunity to practise humility as they fit into the Basses’ sound.
I know this seems like it would be one long continuous sound, but I find that groups need to rest for a few seconds between the sections of this exercise. If people aren’t accustomed to listening for overtones it can be mentally very tiring. Their brains need a short break both to rest, and to absorb what they’re learning about the sound and physical sensations.
When I do this kind of work at the beginning of a rehearsal I find that people’s ears work better for the rest of the evening.
And for a Director, better tuning really is the Holy Grail that drives us on.
If we do this warm up exercise with a group of singers 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 (doh re mi fah soh fah me re doh re mi fah soh fah mi re doh) then a semi-tone higher with each repetition we hear this:
1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 (doh re mi fah soh fah mi re doh re mi fah soh fah mi re doh)
Especially when the exercise gets into a high register – no matter what vowel or what words we’re using to sing the note pattern
To be fair, the 5/soh does fall on beat one in this exercise, which means it’s already in an accented position – but the same thing often happens on the highest note of a run within a song.
To smooth out the bump on the high note we need to think extra legato from the top note to the note immediately following it.
Or to put it in a way that people seem to understand – when doing the exercise above, I ask for a lugubrious slide from 5 down to 4 every time that comes up in the pattern.
This works immediately to smooth out the bump in the sound.
However, this technique is only as good as the amount of dependable mental focus of the singer or singers. As soon as we understand the concept, we feel we no longer need to think that annoying time sensitive legato thought – and once again the bump will show up.
The exercise at the top of this post is a great way to drill this thought.
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.