Monthly Archives: November 2011

Magic Choral Trick #13 The Electric Silence

On one of his CD’s, Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) uses a Tibetan bell to draw our attention into the ‘Now’. The effect here is very like listening to a choir performing an exquisite diminuendo at the very end of an unaccompanied piece. There is a moment or two when the audience is frozen in time and there is no applause yet – because no one can tell whether or not the choir has actually stopped singing.

In that moment, the silence is electric.

Years ago when Murray Schafer was writing about music education he referred to this as an ‘envelope of silence’ around a piece of music. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually experienced the type of hyper silence that I think he meant.

In any group of singers unless we can find a way to create that fully charged silence there will always be a number of minds focused on something other than the phrase that’s about to be sung (…I still have to do laundry when I get home….wonder if the liquor store is open late tonight….my daughter should have texted me by now….)

I find this technique works really well – especially once the song to be sung has been memorized – and nobody’s mind is fussing with what notes to sing.

Blow the pitch for the song and wait…till there’s absolutely no movement or sound. Then wait again till you feel that electric, crackling silence. When I feel this, I then simply say ‘go’ and let them do it all themselves. They all breathe together – and are listening so hard that every facet of their singing is now much more unified.

I guess this is less a trick, and more like a technique that needs to be built in to almost every rehearsal so that the singers become accustomed to taking on the responsibility for really focusing on the ‘Now’.

Sometimes I may have to guide them with some small gesture – but this technique puts the burden of synchronization onto the singers, and leaves me free to do the really exciting stuff. (Which we can talk about later)

Magic Choral Trick #12 Remembering to revel in the moment

Last night as I was directing Big Choir (the 100 voice Tracy Friars Celebration concert choir) I suddenly remembered to revel.

We were in the build up to the last big ‘Christ is the Lord’ in O Holy Night when I suddenly realized how much I love doing what I do – and how much I love the huge, inspirational, soul nourishing conversations that happen when choir of 100 is singing its heart out right through me to a packed house. Not sure there’s any way to express this incredibly moving experience.

For some reason unknown to my conscious mind I just stopped directing and stood there grinning like an idiot, which for some crazy reason – maybe because the choir suddenly took complete ownership of the song – ratcheted up the energy in the room to a place it had never been before. I began directing again in time for ‘Christ is the Lord’ but by this point the choir was doing all the work and I was remembering to stay in revel mode.

Hard to imagine a job that’s more fun than what I do!

Magic Choral Trick #11 What You See….

I used to do a demonstration for my students showing the importance of first impressions.

I would walk on to the stage, stand casually – chest low, face neutral, then open my mouth as if to sing the first note. I’d repeat the process with a wide open ‘can’t wait to start singing’ physical and facial expression – chest high – then once again open my mouth to begin to sing. Without ever hearing a note, they were able to agree that they expected the second performer to be a better singer.

I realized that when the curtain opens on a choir we’re not getting the benefit of witnessing the confident striding of the performers onto the stage – there’s no movement to help the audience prepare to hear something great.

This very simple trick changes all that.

In addition to having their faces show some eager anticipation, ask your choir to shift their weight – very subtly – and individually, forward, back, side to side or even diagonally. It’s important that the movement by every individual be small enough not to attract attention to that person – but the overall effect of this broadcasts an excitement about the performance that’s about to happen.

Magic Choral Trick #10 Elastic Bands

This is another trick that helps get rid of that huge bête noire in the lives of choral directors – the flaccid phrase ending.

Issue every singer an elastic band. In one of my choruses I have a singer who is allergic to latex, so I had to buy the hypoallergenic non latex kind.

Have them sing though a section of a song the way they usually do. Right away have them repeat the same section – but at the end of every phrase – where you want more energy – show them when to stretch the elastic band (pull hands apart – with a movement like pulling the air into an accordion)

You’ll be pleased

I always keep a supply of (non-latex) elastic bands on hand. Even the process of handing them out can add excitement to your rehearsal.

Note: These should be avoided if you have a boys’ choir. Even fully grown men have been known to misbehave with these.

Magic Choral Trick #9 The importance of knees

Given a choice, most choir and chorus members will stand absolutely still as they sing – often with locked knees.

As a director, part of my job is to convince my singers that their lives will be much, much more fun if they just give in (some will say – to the dark side) and move – even if it’s only in rehearsal. I actually prefer to watch a choir that’s physically involved in the music – as long as the amount of physical involvement is fairly uniform. If most people are moving and one person is standing absolutely still, guess who we’re all watching!

Physical movement is one of the techniques I use to keep the energy flowing right out to the end of the phrase – and to keep the excitement going past the breath and into the next phrase. My favourite end of phrase movement involves bending the knees a little, and then on the last note or two of the phrase, imagining that you’re lifting a very large beach ball – or small Volkswagon.

If your choir is very conservative – or a high percentage of them have non functioning knees – you can get a similar energy boosting effect by asking them to press their toes down into the soles of their shoes at the end of every phrase.

I sometimes ask my groups to mirror my movements as I bend my knees and do a beach ball lifting thing at the ends of phrases where I want the energy to keep flowing. There’s nothing quite so discouraging, and exhausting as having your singers quit early at the end of every phrase as you madly try to direct something powerful and legato. Singers seem to need to train themselves to feel the very physical lift from one phrase into the next. Well lubricated knees and the lifting of large, (imaginary) heavy beach balls seems to help with this training.

Magic Choral Trick #8 Jin Shin Jyutsu holding point

This magic trick doesn’t make your choir’s sound any bigger or brighter – but what it can do for blend is astonishing.

1.Place the left hand lightly on top of the head

2.Index and middle fingers of right hand (Peter Pointer and Toby tall) lightly touch the end of the nose.

3.Wait till you can feel a pulse at the tip of the nose

You’re done – that’s it.

You can test the technique’s effectiveness by having the choir sing one phrase of a song – doing the holding point – then singing the same phrase again.

It’s also so calming that I’ve used it with various singing groups right before the curtain opens.

This one really is magic!

Magic Choral Trick #7 Learning sound files

Learning sound files and the digital age are responsible for the greatest leap forward – probably ever – in the interest and excitement levels of a regular choir or chorus rehearsal.

In my women’s Barbershop chorus especially – ALL new repertoire is learned with professionally recorded and sung sound files. These files have each section’s part featured as the predominant part on its own track. If you listen with headphones and pan from one side to the other, the range goes from the one part by itself to the part fully integrated in the mix.

As soon as our librarian gets sent the new sound files by email – she sends them out to the chorus along with the digital version of the sheet music, which we’ve bought online. She will burn a few discs when requested – but most of the chorus is now computer savvy enough to listen at their computers, put the file onto an mp3 player, or burn their own disc so that they can learn their parts while they’re driving.

This has several benefits

1.Repertoire is learned much faster, because the singers can hear their part every day – not just once a week. And the learning can be integrated into their daily routine.

2.Tuning is much less of a problem later, because chorus members are learning the song from a version that’s perfectly in tune.

3.Rehearsals are more fun for the singers when they don’t have to sit around and wait while another section learns the notes.

4.As a director, rehearsals are exponentially more fun for me! Perhaps I was just never much good at it – but I always found teaching notes to be time, labour and patience intensive. Because the chorus knows the notes before rehearsal, we can spend the entire time doing the fun stuff – smoothing out vocal lines, chord balancing, changing the colour and tone of the sound to fit the emotion of the song, powerful dynamics, faces, working on expanded sound, blend, messing around with standing positions to find the most exciting sound, choreography……..

My intention with all my singing groups is that rehearsals be the least stressful and most fun thing they do all week – and learning sound files have certainly begun to send us in that direction.

Magic Choral Trick #6 (The ‘ay’ vowel)

This is one of the trickiest vowels for choirs singing in English – but we’ve been able to train ourselves through drilling the vowel in the technique portion of the rehearsal.

The basics are exactly the same as the ‘ee’ vowel – except that the ‘ay’ has just a tiny tiny amount of relaxation downward in the middle of the tongue:

1. ‘ay’ needs to be sung through the width/shape of ‘eu’ as in the French word ‘peu’
2. The tongue needs to be relaxed forward (think stupid stupid stupid) so that the tip of the tongue touches the bottom of the back of the lower front teeth
3. The back teeth need to be apart – about the distance of a tic tac on its end. As with the ‘ee’ vowel (let’s be honest – every vowel!) I ask the singers to check that the teeth are open by sticking a finger into the side of their cheek (from the outside) – right where the back teeth meet.

The tricky part about singing ‘ay’ in the context of a word is that when we speak a long ‘A’ we all start to drift to the ‘ee’ resolution of this diphthong right away. To get the most free and full sound when we’re singing we need to sing on the target vowel ‘ay’ for almost all of the value of the note (scanning the tongue for tension) – then quickly and clearly sing the ‘ee’ followed of course by the Roiling ‘Y’ Tongue thingy.

I have hand signals for each of the big deal vowels – ‘ay’ ‘ee’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ and ‘oo’ that remind my groups of the drill they’ve done on a particular vowel. This is working really well for all my singing groups. Once I figure out how to post videos I’ll show you all. Hmm – or maybe a youtube link! At least it’ll be a little less dry than reading about vowels!

Magic Choral Trick #5 Target Vowels

If you’ve ever wondered how one singer or choir’s singing can be so smooth, and another’s seem jerky or syllabic – here’s the secret.

Full rich sound is carried on vowels, and the cleaner the vowel, the clearer and richer the sound. Much easier said than done until you discover target vowels. (Sorry – even then, it’ll probably make your brain hurt until you’ve made it a habit)

Start off by identifying the main vowel of any syllable in a song in your current repertoire that’s sustained for more than one beat.

Keep in mind that in English, what we refer to as a vowel often has at least two – sometimes three distinctive sounds that we would use when we’re speaking. For example, if we had a long note on the word ‘day’ – the vowel could be broken into three distinct sounds – the long A, followed by the long E, followed by the Roiling ‘Y’ Tongue ‘yuh’.

If we were to sing on the target vowel for this word we’d sing for about 9/10ths of the note on the long A (with the tongue relaxed and forward. I’ll do a better description of this vowel in a later post). In the last 1/10th of the note – sing through the long E, and the roiling thing.

Some other examples:

Light = Lah………………….eat,

And the always hilarious Brah……………… (Bright)

And the appropriate Tuna…………………eat (Tonight)

As you can see, from now on, there is no such thing as a long ‘I’ in your singer’s repertoire.

Know = Noh…………………oo

Home = Hoh………………….oom

Heart = Hah…………………ert

Name = Nay (relaxed tongue)……………………eem

Once you have begun the target vowel, keep scanning the tongue because if you’re actually thinking the English word instead of the target vowel, it’ll want to jump around and perform all the usual gymnastics! Usually if you tell the tongue that you’re scanning…scanning…scanning for tension it’ll behave.

Magic Choral Trick #4 Breath of Fire

Breath of Fire

This is a yoga breathing technique that works not only to clarify and amplify the sound, but also to clear the mind, energize and relax the body, and calm the nerves. If I had to choose my favourite Magic Trick of all it would be this one. The results that some of my private students have had with it have been nothing short of miraculous.

With the mouth closed, and the tip of the tongue touching the hard ridge right behind the upper front teeth, breathe out hard through the nose then relax. As you relax, the vacuum created by ‘kicking’ out the air will cause air to flow back in to your lungs – so you don’t ever have to think about breathing in. In fact, if you do start thinking about breathing in you’ll take in too much air and have to sit down – because you’ll be hyperventilating.

Just think out…out …out…out…

‘Kick’ the air out hard in a steady rhythm – about every second. Eventually you’ll be able to speed this up to something that sounds like panting through the nose and then keep it going for up to three minutes at a time, but for now one hard breath out every second will do the job.

After you’ve done this about 10 or 15 times take a deep breath in and hold it. At the same time as you are holding your breath contract the perineal muscles. (Tighten up as if you have to go to the bathroom, but haven’t found one yet – kind of like in those dreams where the bathroom is always occupied, or the toilet is in the middle of your boss’ living room!)

Hold all this, then relax, and sigh out the breath.

I encourage my private students to do this exercise as often as they think about it – and as many times a day as possible. Sometimes after they’ve been doing this for a few weeks the voice begins to unlock, free up and be fuller and richer – even if they’ve done no other practising!

A number of years ago a family member was in hospital with one of those oxygen measuring clips attached to her finger. When the situation had calmed down and she seemed to be out of the woods, I thought I’d try it on myself. I clipped it onto my finger and over about 30 seconds or so – doing breath of fire – saw my own oxygen level rise from 96 to 98!

This is also a very good short term solution when you find yourself feeling sleepy at work. Once you can do this quickly and lightly it can be done unobtrusively in just about any public space where there’s even just a little noise.

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