Monthly Archives: November 2011

Magic Choral Trick #3 (the ‘ee’ vowel)

A chorus’perfectly matched and blended vowel ranks right up there with the best things in life!

When I first made vowels a priority during rehearsals we worked on cleaning up ‘ee’ for a whole year!

Nowadays, since I’ve spent many middle of the night hours thinking about ‘ee’, it takes a lot less time.

It’s one of the 5 formed vowels that we use. (We work on many others….but that’s for a different post)

1. First of all, ‘ee’ 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. I sometimes ask the singers to stick a finger into the side of their cheek – right where the back teeth meet – to keep the teeth apart. I do ask them though to try to refrain from this during performances.

On one of those awake nights I had a revelation.

When we’re singing in English there’s a facet of the ‘ee’ vowel that can wreak havoc on both the blend and the synchronization. I have named this issue The Roiling ‘Y’ Tongue – because when we say ‘ee’ in English, the vowel is always finished with the back third of the tongue lurching upwards to form a sort of voweless ‘yuh’ sound, which shuts off the air supply. This wouldn’t be such a problem if weren’t for the fact that every English speaking person does this roiling thing at a different pace.

How to solve this.

Drill and drill the clean, non roiling vowel in warm up – far away from any word context – so that people are free to think of it in a totally different way. (like perhaps as an ‘i’ in French, Italian or Spanish)

I’m sorry – but then you need to be a tyrant about reminding people to scan their tongues for tension. I have a whole raft of signals for different vowels – which I’ll tell you about later – but perhaps the most useful is the ‘relax the tongue’ gesture. It’s unattractive, and in its full version, unsuitable for performance, but it works.

As a director reading this, you probably should develop one that works for your own personality type.

And welcome to the world of a brand new ‘ee’!


Magic Choral Trick #2 Breathing Through an 8 foot Straw

One of the things that I really love about experimenting on choirs with any singing techniques is that the results are so dramatic. Even if what you’re doing makes only a slight difference with each individual singer – the collective result can be stunning.

This is just another of those techniques – and this one is almost like the inverse of the Brass Buzz.

Imagine that you’re standing about 8 feet underwater (I’m guessing that at even just 8 feet, you’d probably need some weights to hold you down)

Now imagine that the way you are having to get air is through a very long, thin straw – so the pressure as you try to suck in the air is tremendous. This may remind some of you of the mid 1970’s – but for others, you’ll know you are doing it right when your neck tendons become more visible.

Try this exercise, then sing a phrase, or part of a warm up exercise.

If you try to do this sort of breath in the middle of a song, one short ditty could take all night. So this is best used during the warm up.

This is a great trick for placing the voice forward in the mouth – where you want it to be for clarity, ease and richness of sound. This one – like the Brass Buzz can act like a reset, or refresh button at any point in your rehearsal.

Magic Choral Trick #1 The Brass Player Buzz

Once upon a time I was a very good singer, and a truly less than mediocre French Horn player. However, even when I no longer played in a band I would haul out the horn and play for a few minutes, because it seemed to make such a difference to the freedom of my singing voice.

To this day, I have absolutely no idea why this is – but to this day whenever a singing student, or a whole choir needs more freedom or excitement in the sound I ask them to stop and do a brass player buzz.

If you’ve never played a brass instrument, this is how it’s done. Wet the lips slightly, then compress them together and force air out. It’s going to sound a lot like an elephant – oh yes, and I usually ask choir members to put their hands up in front of their faces, to avoid spraying their neighbours!

The effectiveness of this can be tested easily. Ask the choir to sing one phrase, then stop them and get them to buzz – then have them sing the phrase again. It’ll be like you’re now hearing in technicolour!

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