Monthly Archives: December 2011

Magic Choral Trick #34 Warm Air

This one is so simple, so effective.

Ask the choir or chorus to sing a couple of phrases of a song. Listen (preferably without directing, so that you can really hear)

Now have the singers hold the palm of a hand up in front of the mouth – about three inches away from the face.

The only instruction now is to create a constant flow of warm air onto the palm of the hand. Fuller, richer, more blended sound.

By the way, I often ask a chorus member to come out and listen to the before and after stuff – just to be sure that it’s not wishful thinking on my part.

Also, the great thing about introducing this sort of physical action is that the director can ask everyone to use the technique without ever stopping the singing.


Post #33 How I Messed Up (1)

It was a hard lesson to learn that any frustrations I had with a choir were usually directly related to something that I wasn’t doing very well.

Werner Erhard – of ‘est training’ fame used to point out “Ever notice that when stuff goes wrong in your life – you’re always around?”

There was one rehearsal many years ago now when I guess I was being inept – because all of a sudden, helpful suggestions about how to fix a technical problem started raining down on me.

We were only a couple of weeks away from competition, and a couple of uncertain comments from me had triggered the grinding of many axes. I felt as if I was being challenged, and my resignation began to write itself in my head.

I excused myself and went in search of a phone. I called a choral director friend and asked her to coach me through this mess. Between the two of us we developed a plan of action – but we realized that there was some technical and organizational stuff that I had to get better at.

I’m always amazed that any time I improve my directing or rehearsal skills, the choirs improve almost instantly – and become happy, cheerful, optimistic and attentive!

Magic Choral Trick #32 Small Sips of Air

Although I’ve already mentioned a couple of ways for singers to feel like they’re taking in a really good breath, it never hurts to say the same sort of thing in a different way.

The purpose is to get to know what lots of air in the lungs feels like.

Take in as many as six or eight small sips of air through a half closed mouth – or even through the nose. The torso will feel a bit like a beach ball that’s being blown up.

I’ve found that if these small breaths are taken in through the nose, singers will need about 8 breaths. If the air is taken in through a half closed mouth (perhaps in the shape of a vowel) three or four should be enough.

I then ask the choir members to sigh it out, and then repeat the process – but this time singing a chord, or the first phrase of a song.

Another way I use this is in the warm up. Four sips in – sing one pitch for eight or twelve beats, making sure to use up all the air.

Once the singers get to know what lots of air feels like, they’ll be able to take in the same amount of air with just one fast, open breath.

The sound will be bigger, richer and more confident.

Magic Choral Trick #31 Blending Back to Back

There are a couple of variations of this one – depending on how touchy feely your choir is prepared to be.

As the choir is standing, divide the group down the middle.

Ask each side of the chorus to face outwards, so that the people on either side, in the middle are actually standing back to back. (Though they don’t have to be touching)

The folks on one side are all facing towards the director’s right, and those on the other are facing the director’s left.

Once again, this is much more effectively done when the music to be sung is memorized.

I just wait for the ‘Electric Silence’ then say ‘go’.

The sound may be a bit more gentle than usual, but it’ll be more blended.

For a more pronounced effect, have each member of the choir put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, close their eyes and sing the piece again.

Magic Choral Trick #30 Laser Eyes Through the Director’s Head

So easy – such a huge effect on audience interest.

I ask my choirs to imagine that they’re sending laser beams out of their eyes and right through my head. I guess because it’s such a strong image, it captures the choir’s attention better than “make sure you watch me”.

Some people feel that they need to be connecting personally with the audience – which is great, if that’s the plan, and everyone is doing it. If it’s not the plan, and all other eyes are fastened onto the director, the one guy doing something different is who the audience will be watching….and watching….and wondering if he missed the rehearsal where the choir was told to watch the conductor. And the audience will miss all the fabulous nuance stuff worked on so hard by the rest of the choir.

I’ve been asked about how to handle ‘Laser Eyes’ when the choir has to hold and look at music. By the time the performance comes around the sheet music is usually just for security (except if you’re doing Schoenberg on the program – then the music is essential, and probably nobody will spend much time watching the director). The ‘Laser Eyes’ rule still applies. The corollary trick here is to hold the music at chest height, and flat – so that singers’ eyes have less distance to travel. This is a skill that does need to be rehearsed, and guided by the director.

When a choir is using ‘Laser Eyes’ (through the director’s head) it creates much more excitement and interest in an audience. Whatever the impact you wanted to create with the song, it’ll be stronger if there is a visual as well as a sound blend.

Magic Choral Trick #29 Synchronization – Basses in Front

This one may mess with the Basses’ heads a bit – but it’s a great trick for getting chords to lock in much more quickly.

Whether or not Barbershop is your thing, listen to the synchronization that these guys have. ‘Old School’ was the 2011 Barbershop Harmony Society International quartet champion. Yes, their tuning is wonderful and their vowels are matched – but please pay particular attention to their synchronized starts and finishes, and how quickly they get their chords to ‘Lock and Ring’.

Google:      Old School – 2011 International Barbershop Quartet Champions     (Usually the first link that comes up. I tried posting the youtube link – but it wouldn’t work)

This kind of precision was something that even ten years ago I wasn’t noticing. I didn’t know about listening for it, and didn’t know that I didn’t know.

In the last few years though I’ve either been given, or developed tools for bringing this to the singers’ attention. This trick was given to us by Ig Jakovac – a wonderful singing coach from the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Line up the chorus or choir so that the part singing the melody is standing directly behind the Bass section. (Leads/Sopranos)

When you’re working on this, it would be best if the song was one that everyone knows from memory – because the next step is to have just those two parts close their eyes and sing a phrase or two, while everyone else listens. Not only will the Basses and melody part be learning something, but the other parts will also be noticing the places where the two sections are not lining up.

There are two main reasons for focusing on the Basses. The first is that they are the engine of the chorus or choir – they drive the rhythm – but they need to be perfectly aligned with the melody to be able do this job. The second is that they often have voices that take just a little longer to ‘speak’ – so that in order to sing exactly in time with the melody, they need to anticipate where that next melody note is going to be. They have to really hear the Lead/Soprano section (who, in turn need to be singing as a unit). It may take many sessions before things seem to be lining up well – but at that point, the other parts can be added, and everyone now knows what they’re listening for.

Even if only 10 minutes of every rehearsal is devoted to this, there’ll soon be a noticeable improvement in synchronization – especially in new repertoire. Old habits are going to die hard with the older repertoire!

Recording this whole process can be a real eye (and ear) opener too.

Magic Choral Trick #28 Ditching Emotional Baggage – Snow Globe

Coaches have often advised my women’s chorus to try to leave any residual emotional difficulties from our day to day lives at the rehearsal hall door. The Snow Globe exercise is one of the most effective ways that I know to do this.

Of course, there’s nothing quite like an evening of great big sweeping sound to blow any anxieties away. But here’s a terrific way to get a head start on the process.

Think about the situation in your life that is troubling you.

Give it a number between one and ten: 0 being non-existent and 10 being unbearable suffering. Whatever number pops into your head when you ask yourself about it is the one that you use.

See if you can notice where in your body this grey yucky mass of discomfort is sitting.

Now imagine that you are holding a Snow Globe – one of those little scenes that you shake up to make the snow fall – in your cupped hands, in front of you.

With your eyes open, imagine that you are looking into this globe.

Now imagine that all the dense, grey stuff in your body – related to the uncomfortable situation – is flowing from your body into the water in the Snow Globe.

When that water is as full of the grey yuckiness as you can get it, raise your hands up and back over your head as if dropping the Snow Globe behind you.

On a scale of 0 to 10, where is the upset now?

Once upon a time after I had showed my teenaged son this trick he said, “Mom, you’re a witch – get out of my room”.

Magic Choral Trick #27 Synchronization 4X4

A basic rule of thumb that I’ve discovered when it comes to working with choirs is: ‘Different is Good’ Perhaps not crazy different – but then again – sometimes changes in a choir’s standing order can be seen by some members as too much of a walk on the wild side!

If you’re a director – please reassure your choir members that after this exercise they’ll be allowed to return to the seat that over the years has been smoothed and molded to fit only them.

Here’s how 4X4 is done.

The piece – or even the one phrase to be worked on needs to be solidly memorized.

Line up the four parts so that Sopranos/Leads are along one side of a rectangle, Basses opposite them, Altos/Baris on one end, and Tenors on the other. If you have a lot of people on one or more parts, they can line up behind the first row of the side of the rectangle. Everyone faces into the middle of the rectangle. The Director may choose to listen from a slight distance from the action or right in the middle, but either way, needs to refrain from directing. I usually wait for the Electric Silence then just say ‘go’.

S/L____S/L__S/L____S/L ___S/L
T S/L __S/L___S/L ___S/L ___S/L A/Bari
T                                                         A/Bari
T                                                         A/Bari
T     B__B__B__B__B__B___B_ B     A/Bari

Have the melody part sing a phrase or two – then when they’ve finished, ask the rest of the chorus on what word they heard synchronization problems. The Director can make suggestions about technical things that will clean up the issue – but still no physical directing. Once technical things have been addressed and the Sopranos or Leads have cleaned up the section sound, it’s time for the rest of the chorus to listen to the Basses. When their section sound is clean, have Sopranos/Leads and Basses sing the phrase together. Repeat for other sections. Here’s a checklist of things to listen for. Anything that I haven’t spoken about before, I’ll cover soon.

Is everyone breathing at the same time? Is everyone clear about the target vowel, and forming that shape as they breathe in? Is there any pre-pitch grunting or sliding being done (Usually just a couple of individuals. DON’T address them directly in front of the group!!!!!!) At the end of the phrase, is everyone clear about the target vowel, and its diphthong resolution? Does everyone sing right to the end of the phrase with the same amount of energy?

Magic Choral Trick #26 Unison Warm Up to Clean Vowels

Most people, unlike me, don’t spend an abnormal number of their waking hours thinking about clean vowels. So I have a unison vowel warm up exercise that I use with all my singing groups at the beginning of every rehearsal.

It doesn’t really matter what the exercise is, though it should probably be a little rangy, and contain a couple of tuning challenges.

I ask them to sing the exercise through once on each of the formed vowels so that they can really concentrate on making the vowel as clean and clear as possible. Sometimes I pause between repetitions and ask them to do a Brass Buzz to bring the sound forward and focus it. Sometimes I ask them to sing a repetition through on Zzzzzz – or on a short vowel, using a Nothing Vowel Shape mouth. By the way, when they’re using this relaxed tongue and mouth shape, I still want them to be singing the short vowel as cleanly as possible. Even short vowels, through the Nothing Vowel Shape – especially when the back teeth are apart – can ‘lock and ring’.

This needs to be unaccompanied if the singers are to really hear what’s happening. When the vowel locks in they’ll be able to notice it instantly. With mixed choirs it’s a good idea to have each of the parts take a turn at the exercise so that they can experience this lock and ring as a section.

I know this seems like it could take up a lot of valuable rehearsal time, but once the preliminary teaching of the vowels has been done, it goes quite quickly. In fact my choirs get through all the formed vowels in less than four minutes – long enough to remind them about what a clean, locked in sound feels like. Also, because I have hand signals for each of the formed vowels, I don’t have to waste time by talking.

Magic Choral Trick #25 Cloud Lifting

Another magic trick to fix ‘end of phrase’ flaccidity. I used to ask people to imagine that they were lifting heavy weights, but when they were really feeling it, the grunting noises took away from the desired effect!

No – not really. However, sometimes there was some throat tension associated with the imaginary weights. Some people still respond well to being asked to use this kind of intensity, but not everyone.

Cloud lifting involves thinking of scooping up a large sproingy rain cloud at the end of each phrase (arms about 2 ft. apart). As with all lifting this needs to be done by bending the knees at the start of the movement, and not bending over and using the back.

You will notice a difference in the way men and women approach this task. Guys tend to think of the bending of the knees and the raising of the arms as two separate actions (and almost always, the arms rise too quickly and easily) – but what you want is for the body to act as a unified lifting device – more the way women naturally tend to lift.

Sometimes I request that people start off by thinking of lifting a small Volkswagon, then work their way to a more gentle cloudlike imagery.

Either way, what this establishes is that phrase endings are extremely important and require sustained mental energy.

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