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.
I used to watch two of my kids file in to the karate dojo with all the other small wiggling people, and immediately transform into disciplined martial artists.
One of those two kids is now a teacher in the El Sistema program and I’ve watched as she corrals masses of small wiggling people holding violins. At one word and one movement from her, they become as focused and disciplined as an elite military squad.
In the yoga class that I’ll be going to this morning we’ll walk into the space, speak fairly quietly to one another and maybe share a joke. But when our teacher says “Let’s begin”, a powerful, palpable focus will be felt in the room. For the next hour, there is only her voice, and intense listening to our bodies.
What all three of these have in common is that they are opportunities for transformation. And while transformation is quite possible on our own, there is more power readily available, and more quickly available in a group if that group is willing to take advantage of it.
Some singing groups have an intuitive sense of this, but to be honest, most don’t and won’t ever until they can get a ‘felt sense’ of the power of focus.
I have five regular groups that I direct, and currently the one with the most focus during rehearsal is the one that went from the bottom of their competition standings to becoming champions last year. They have experienced the power and excitement of what focus can do, so they seem to be able to call it up more readily. They don’t even seem to need reminders from me.
Full disclosure here. Whenever I was singing in choirs I was probably the most chatty person in the room. Just too many opportunities for hilarity. But some of that is necessary as a release from the mental heavy lifting. So I really get that aspect of chorus life.
Every group needs to find its own balance of social fun and intensity of the work – but ultimately it’s the director’s job to keep refocusing the group if the goal is to experience more of their power and potential.
Whatever the chorus’ level of focus, there’s much more power and transformation available when it decides as a unit that that’s the desired outcome. And it might take only a bit of education about how even a little more self discipline can change everything.
Then if everyone agrees, the rehearsal hall can instantly switch from social gathering place to Dojo at a chord from the piano, or the first note from a pitch pipe.
Transformation is simple – just not easy.
Synchronizing the onset of sound is tricky at any time, but especially so when the first word begins with a ‘w’.
If the word begins with only a ‘w’, as in the word ‘we’, there’s a tendency to try to begin the sound through tightly puckered lips before the ‘ee’ vowels start popping out all over the chorus.
I’ve found that the most effective way to lock in to the sound onset is to have everyone breathe in through the shape of an ‘oo’ vowel, then without closing the mouth for a ‘w’ as we would when speaking, sing the ‘we’. I used to ask people to actually sing a very fast ‘oo’ before they switched to the ‘ee’ vowel, but that took too much brain power. Now I just ask them to sing ‘we’ beginning with a more open lip shape.
The real trouble lies in onset words that begin with a ‘wh’ combination.
For some reason that I still can’t fathom, when it’s a ‘wh’ combo, people love to do these 2 things – scoop up to the first pitch, and/or add a preceding ‘huh’ or ‘hoh’ – especially when they feel emotional intensity is called for.
Huhwhhherever you are.
The ‘h’ sound in the ‘wh’ is so rarely used in spoken English these days that I prefer to just leave it out altogether.
And so my approach would be the same as for the plain ‘w’
Breathe in through the ‘oo’ shape, then just sing the word, beginning from that more open lip position. People are also mystifyingly less likely to scoop up to the first note when they use this approach.
Wherever would become ‘Wear’ever.
So much of what we do to emulate natural speech patterns involves singing word sounds, not words, and this is an example of that strategy. I’ve never had even one audience member mention to me that they’d missed the ‘h’.
We often forget to talk about this aspect of stage etiquette until we’re about to walk out to sing.
Sometimes when I want to give the chorus a small singing break during a gig, I ask a quartet to sing a couple of songs.
When a quartet (or soloist or a small group from the chorus) steps out to sing, a chorus member’s job is to keep the audience’s attention on the action, and by their own attention, create excitement about the quartet’s performance.
So here are the rules
1. Watch the quartet. Don’t let your eyes wander away to the ceiling, the floor, your fingernails, or to someone in the audience that you recognize. Your listening is just as much a part of your performance as is your singing. Please don’t fiddle with your hair or glasses, blow your nose, or chat with your neighbour.
2. See post #373. Your lips need to be relaxed and slightly open. Otherwise you’ll look annoyed or bored – which will draw attention away from the performers. If you look annoyed, the audience will start imagining that there’s an interesting story there, and get distracted. Even if you’ve heard the quartet’s song a thousand times, you need to create the impression that you’re enjoying yourself. If nothing else, gratitude is in order – they’re letting you take a break.
3. When they finish their song, do not applaud!! Smiling and beaming with pride is appropriate. The quartet is part of your group and applauding them reads to an audience as if you’re congratulating yourselves. Clapping is the audience’s job. Performing is yours.
Such a small, seemingly insignificant detail – but when I demonstrate singing a phrase, then immediately closing my mouth, it looks so jarringly uninvolved that people laugh.
The rule of thumb here is that if you’re a singer, and you’re onstage, your lips should not be closed except for the nanosecond that it takes to form the occasional ‘b’, ‘p’ or ‘m’.
Singers in the chorus who keep their lips closed look either grim or disinterested – neither of which is particularly desirable.
The tough part of this is that closing our lips is so unconscious for most of us that it’s a difficult habit to kick – especially on those days when we might be feeling grim or disinterested.
The temptation to close the mouth is the strongest when another part has a lead in, and we may have rests for a beat or two.
And this rule applies not only to the singing part of your onstage time – but also to acknowledging the applause, and when preparing to sing the next song. In fact, if the curtain is open, so is your mouth. And whenever I mention this to my groups, there’s always one joker in the crowd who thinks it’s hilarious to just leave his mouth wide open. (Directors – just giving you a heads up) By open, I mean lips open and relaxed.
There’ll be people reading this who say that if everyone is actually emotionally involved, then there will be no closed lips. And they’re absolutely right! But emotional involvement is so very difficult for a segment of every group, that to have this contingency plan – making a habit of leaving the lips open – will help the visual impact of the performance.
It’s a small thing, but the difference it makes to the overall visual excitement level is too obvious to ignore.
I sat down to write a new one of these – but realized that all of this is still valid. And since it’s buried almost 100 posts deep, I thought reposting it might be useful….
1. Use technology. Record yourself – then listen to the recording and assess what you could be doing better. Like our speaking voices, our singing never sounds the way we think it does – so we don’t know what we’re working with until we hear ourselves recorded. Please try not to be discouraged – almost nobody likes what they hear initially when they first record themselves. Work regularly with your Korg Chromatic Tuner https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/magic-choral-trick-21-the-korg-chromatic-tuner/ and www.metronomeonline.com Care about improving your ability to sing in tune, and in time.
2. Do some vocal technique – even 5 – 10 minutes every day. Legato exercises on one clean target vowel at a time https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/magic-choral-trick-5-target-vowels/ – something simple, like half scales, up and down:
C D E F G F E D C, then D flat E flat F G flat A flat G flat F E flat D flat, then D E F# G A G F# E D…
Also – recognize that your body is your instrument, and treat it well.
3. When you’re given learning tools – learning sound files, or choreography notes or video – please, please, please, please use them.
4. When you have a concern or complaint, mention it ONLY to someone who can do something about it. Dissent about even relatively minor things can infect a chorus quickly, even fatally, if complaints are passed around from one willing ear to the next – with no intent to follow up and fix the problem. It takes courage to actually take steps to shift this mindset – and to take an issue directly to the person assigned to handling that facet of chorus life. Practise your bravery (Thanks to my sister Maeve for this phrase, which she invented to encourage her sons)
5. Give more of yourself than is expected, and your chorus experience will be richer than you expected.
As I played my Dad’s arrangement of Away in a Manger from the hymnbook at church last night, and sang with my husband and adult kids this morning, providing the music for Christmas Mass – then later watched a snapchat video of family in another city singing through choral arrangements of Christmas songs – just for fun, I realized yet again the value of the gift my Dad gave us all when he taught us to sing. And to read music.
We’re now seeing more and more new studies being done on the benefits of singing together – cognitive, physical and social. And the beauty of this is that we don’t ever have to retire. My mother, who is almost 95 is still a valued member of her church choir.
Being taught to sing continues to bring fun to my life. In addition to always having been able to enjoy singing with others, I now have the mighty mission of adding to, and passing on my Dad’s teaching to many other singers. And that’s worth getting up for every morning
At the end of every rehearsal with my men’s Barbershop chorus we sing “Teach the Children to Sing”. I’m beginning to think that there might be no greater gift.
I’ve been noticing recently that although my passion for being a part of the creation of exciting group singing has not diminished, I have much less emotional attachment to the outcome of a particular performance.
And I realize that my investment is in the work of changing lives, one rehearsal at a time.
If excellence spills over into a performance, so much the better – and there’s great satisfaction for everyone in that. Accolades are affirming, and an indicator that we’re on the right path – but if we’re all doing this mighty work well, we already know that.
I had a comment recently from one of my chorus members that their family members wanted to see and hear us more often – so that they could know what it is that we’re all so committed to.
From my perspective performance is a motivator, and definitely one of the reasons we do this – but I’m not sure it’s the most important facet of the work.
The Mighty Work is the development of a sense of oneness, and an opportunity for us to create something much, much more than the sum of its parts. It’s the creation of a vocal murmuration – like the magically synchronized flight of a flock of starlings. It’s the stuff of real joy – and unaffected by whatever life situation we left outside the rehearsal hall door.
And although we love to share it with audiences – the Mighty Work happens mostly at rehearsal and creates a state of grace.
Murmuration – National Geographic…