Monthly Archives: December 2011

Magic Choral Trick #44 Happy New Singing Year!

May your vowels be pure, and your chords lock and ring.

May your rehearsal night be more and more fun every week.

May your phrases flow easily and go on forever.

May you feel the joy of a great big choral sound.

May your Brass Buzzes, Central Meridian Sweeps, Breath of Fire, Warm Air, Cloud Lifting, Laser Beam Eyes, Zzzzzzing, Korg Tuners, 4X4’s, Nothing Vowel Shapes and Electric Silences continue to work their magic for you all year.

May Jerry Lewis brighten your sound.

And may the people you sing your heart out with each week become your best friends!

Happy New Year to you all!

Magic Choral Trick #43 Word accentuation – Politically Incorrect Feminine Endings

Once upon a time in the English language was something called a feminine ending. It referred to the lesser, weaker or gentler of two syllables in a word. Like the back end of words like:


Most two syllable words in any song work much, much better if the second syllable is treated like the ‘Feminine Ending’ that it is – in other words with the Nothing Vowel Shape. You still need to sing the correct sound, especially if it’s a short vowel – like the ‘ing’ in singing or flying – but if it’s sung through the Nothing Vowel Shape, the back end of the word won’t pop out.

I’ve found that the closer that singing is to the way we actually speak, the less our singer’s diction mannerisms distract the audience from the song. The quality of the sound will be smoother and the lyrics much more clear.

If every syllable is equally accentuated, the choppiness of the delivery becomes the audience’s main focus. (Well – certainly for highly critical, picky and slightly nasty audience members like me)

Feminine Endings are also found at the end of many multi-syllable words – like ‘reincarnation’ and ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ – but these show up in songs less often.

Magic Choral Trick #42 mp3 file – 10 point self evaluation

Many very successful choruses have been using Riser Tapes for years – and this is the year that my women’s chorus is going to start Riser mp3 Recordings. There’s a gradual way to introduce this, and our music team has decided that recording and self evaluation is the best first step.

Please keep in mind a couple of things.

If every choir member finds and corrects only one thing, it’ll make a huge difference to the overall quality of the choir’s singing.

And it may take a fair amount of courage to actually go through with this exercise. I don’t think there’s a singer on the planet who actually enjoys listening to recordings of himself or herself singing within a crowd of other singers. It’s rather like when as a joke, someone records you singing along to a song while you’re wearing headphones.

So be brave and strong and steadfast and you’ll sing better and better.

After recording yourself during the choir’s sing through of a song, and you’re listening to the sound file at home, here are ten questions you can ask yourself.

(I’m assuming that by the time the choir is singing the song all the way through, all the notes are right – because everyone has been working with the learning sound files at home, on their ipods and in their cars)

1. Am I breathing at all designated breathing spots?

2. When staggered breathing is necessary am I fading out, skipping a word or two, then gradually slipping my sound back into what my section is singing?

3. Do I start and end each phrase in tune?

4. Are there specific tuning problems that will need help from my section leader or director?

5. Are all target vowels clear?

6. Am I singing long enough on target vowels when the word has a diphthong?

7. Is the vocal production far enough forward and narrow enough? Are there notes, or passages where I’m going to need help with producing a clean, clear, rich sound?

8. Are any words popping out of the texture? (a, and, the, if, to, so, then, this, is….)

9. Does my performance seem to match what everyone else is doing?

10. Are my dynamics/emotions following the director or music team’s plan?

Magic Choral Trick #41 Choir gigs to run away from (unless the choir really really needs the money)

Outdoor gigs – unless they’re small and intimate and the audience is likely to actually listen. The sound of a choir outside doesn’t carry well, so singers tend to push and become vocally tired very quickly.

Sometimes at outdoor venues, well meaning souls have set up a single microphone to amplify the choir. I think we all know how that story ends – especially if the microphone is directional. One moderately strong alto in the middle of the choir can totally obliterate the sound of the rest of the group.

The other problem with outdoor amplification of a choir is a cultural one. As soon as people notice the amplification, they feel that the performers have given tacet approval for the audience to tune out or chat – that they’ve given up expecting anyone to be quiet and attentive.

As a solo performer I kind of enjoy doing the background schmoozy wallpaper music – it’s so easy on the nerves. But when a choir has done a lot of work on tuning, balance, blend, dynamics and the whole emotional, entertainment package, it’s very unsatisfying to be completely ignored. Choirs don’t sing well under these circumstances (especially if they’re having trouble hearing themselves) which means that they’re rehearsing singing poorly.

So the moral of this story is – only if you need the money!

Magic Choral Trick #40 Jerry Lewis

Very simple trick to make your choir’s sound brighter if it’s dull – or if it’s placed a bit far back in the mouth.

Have the choir sing a section of the song (for comparison later)

Sing the same section the way Jerry Lewis would sing it. Yep – nasty nasty nasty. The younger choir members may have to look him up on youtube before attempting this.

Then sing the same section for a third time in what will feel like the usual, relaxed way.

The sound will be brighter and more exciting, (without any of Jerry’s tension in the mouth or throat).

Magic Choral Trick #39 Narrow Narrow Narrow

So many singing problems can be solved forever by just singing through a much narrower mouth shape.

I usually have to ask singers to imagine that the inside of the mouth is a tall, very skinny passageway – to visualize the insides of the cheeks being so close together they nearly touch.

An image that worked well for a couple of students recently was the split in the mountain that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli had to go through to get to Isildur’s Army of the Dead (the Dead Men of Dunharrow)

Try to remember how your enthusiastic French teacher used to show the class how to say the vowel in the word ‘peu’ as is ‘petit peu’. That’s the perfect shape to sing ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ through – though you may need to check in a mirror exactly how much you look like her. For right now, over the top is good.

Think of chimpanzee lips (though with a relaxed upper lip) for ‘oo’ and that’s about the right width through which to sing ‘oo’ and the other formed vowels – ‘oh’, and ‘ah’.

Once everything is narrow enough the breathiness will gradually begin to go out of your sound, your legato singing will be much freer, high notes will be easier and there’ll be no cracking spot in the mid range. You’ll be able to use the same vocal production from the bottom of your range to the top.

I know that this is the sort of thing that it’s good to have feedback for – from a qualified voice teacher – but even doing this on your own will help make singing easier (and so, more fun).

Magic Choral Trick #38 Building up Breathing Capacity

One of the first things that students often say to me during their first lesson is that they want to work on their breathing. They tell me that they run out of air before the ends of phrases.

Usually this has much more to do with the air that’s escaping in their sound – the breathiness rather than any problem with their breathing.

However, whether the sound is focused or not, it’s never a bad thing to have access to more air.

Here’s an easy exercise to help build up breath control – and process more air – which makes us feel more alive and more energetic whether or not we’re singing.

1. Breathe in four sips of air, to a count of four beats.

2. Ssssssss the air out (either loosely – or with back pressure) for 8 beats. Be sure to use up all the air by the end of the 8 beats.

3. Hold the breath out for seven beats.

Repeat – gradually (over a couple of weeks) building up the number of beats of the out breath on Ssssssss from 8 to 12 to 16. Keep the number of breathing in beats/sips of air, and the number of neutral, breath held out beats the same. The increase of the number of beats happens only in the Ssssss part of the exercise.

When you’ve repeated the process a few times, finish with the 4 breaths in, then a sigh.

If you need to do this in a public place, or somewhere where you need to be quiet, you can substitute a focused, blowing out a candle style breath for the Ssssss.

This is also a great exercise to help calm you down before a performance – or any time. I find that during the 7 beats when the breath is held out the mind stops and is still. Relax the shoulders as you hold the air out.

I know that 7 seems like a weird number of beats for this part of the exercise – but I suspect that the calming effect comes in part from having to stay present, and in the moment in order to keep track of the counting.

Magic Choral Trick #37 Perfect Staggered Breathing

Staggered Breathing is what choirs do so that no one ever has to run out of oxygen and fall off the risers.

Sneaking a breath without anyone noticing is an art form. Here are the secrets.

When you take your sneaky breath, make sure to take out an entire word – or even a couple of words. Do not – that means ever – sneak a breath between any two words where there’s no designated breathing spot. If you do, the lack of synchronization will be noticeable to even the casual listener, your director will sigh and get depressed and any Virgos or Capricorns in the choir will be seriously miffed.

Unless a sudden lack of oxygen surprises you, plan ahead for your staggered breath.

Fade out a bit, take a leisurely breath, then taper your sound back into the mix.

Here’s the catch. While you’re doing the fading, the breathing and the tapering, you need to look as if you’re singing. If you don’t – all audience eyes will be riveted upon you, and once again the director will sigh, and the Virgos and Capricorns…..

For all of you heading off to sing in choirs this Christmas Eve, thank you so much for all that you do to make life more rich, more alive and more fun for all who hear you. Bless you all, and have a wonderful Christmas.


Magic Choral Trick #36 Ear pulls

If nothing else this one is so odd that it’s worth the entertainment value for your choir.

As your local reflexologist will tell you there are lots of important spots in the outer ear.

Have your choir members stand still and really listen to any ambient sound. Then, just for fun ask them to twist their heads around first to the right, then to the left as far as they can – and notice how far that is.

Next, ask them to massage, quite vigorously, their outer ears – and finish up with slight pulling on the ear lobe.

Two interesting effects can be noticed after this exercise. Their hearing will be a little more clear and crisp – and they’ll be able to turn their heads farther to the left and to the right.

No idea why this happens – but a more relaxed neck, and hearing that works better are both desirable for any singer.

Magic Choral Trick #35 Maintaining Excitement Over a Silent Pause

Sometimes the piece of music builds to a great climax – after which there’s a silent pause. Usually the pause is there to intensify the emotion – but if it’s not handled carefully there can be a huge Energy Leak and the emotion just falls flat.

Imagine a vibrant exciting chord followed by a pause in which the singers’ faces fall, or they flip the page over, or they shift their stance, or they cough, or look around, or scratch…

Here are two tricks for keeping the intensity alive.

1. After the big chord before the pause, have the singers wait until immediately before the next phrase to breathe. Keep the breath held out. If some choir members are dying of oxygen deprivation, they must at least look like they haven’t yet taken a breath.

2. Facial expressions need to freeze until the breath is taken for the next phrase.

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