Monthly Archives: January 2012

Magic Choral Trick #65 Stuff that Directors Have Got To Stop Doing

Glowering and Scowling. Nothing chokes off the sound and confidence for a singer like having this sort of look aimed at you. Someone like me would just leave the choir. Singers who are less confident may be staying because they feel they have no option if they want to continue to be part of a choir. So they stay and just try to tough out the bullying.

Correcting Individuals Publically. Though of course this is damaging to adults – and never a useful way to get the best out of any singer – it’s the kids that worry me.

For many years when I’ve suggested to people that they come along and see if singing in a chorus might be for them, about 75 – 80% have said something like “Oh – you wouldn’t want me in your choir”.

I always ask why not – and almost every time it transpires that when they were kids, someone who they considered to be in a position of authority told them they couldn’t sing. Some weren’t even told in so many words – but were instructed to stand near the back and just mouth the words. This story is almost always related with a bit of a laugh.

However, because I’m so nosy I often ask them how that made them feel. To a person, this question has ALWAYS made them choke up or tear up!!! And sometimes the event happened 40 or 50 years ago. So because of one incident – unnoticed by anyone else – they’ve been robbed of a lifetime of the basic human right to sing.

I guess the moral of the story for all of us Directors is ‘Be kind, be generous, be creative and above all, remember that we’re teachers – not judge and jury’. And no performance is worth taking music out of a kid’s life.

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Magic Choral Trick #64 FBI

Full Body Involvement is a concept that’s foreign to most of us who learned our singers’ art in the classical realm.

Most of us were taught to hold ourselves in a particular way – and stay there, with perhaps a slight tilt of the head to indicate sincerity and earnestness.

What our teachers and institutions didn’t tell us was that any audience can easily see our level of emotional involvement in the performance.

Merely indicating an emotion is no longer enough.

The release of real emotion needs a well travelled and opened up physical pathway – a natural and relaxed expression by the body. But this can’t happen until the rigidity of our traditional singing stance has been shaken up and freed up.

Although it may at first seem exaggerated and extreme I suggest Full Body Involvement – MUCH larger than life – in every aspect of singing. From the first breath, movement through the quiet legatos, the soaring high phrases, and the let ‘er rip climax of the song. By the end of the song there should be no more to give – physically, mentally and emotionally.

For all you singers reading this who think this sounds like fun – a few suggestions.

1. Start freeing up these emotional pathways as you sing, at home, with your eyes closed – or in a completely dark room. You may be surprised at how much more intensely you feel the song.

2. Probably shouldn’t try this for the first time at choir practice – when no one else has any idea what you’re up to.

3. Going crazy with FBI at home frees up the pathways. When you get to rehearsal you don’t need to use a lot of movement to feel the freedom and the relaxed energy you’ve begun to release at home. (At some point though you may need to come out of the FBI closet and share this with your choir.)

4. Or – join a Barbershop chorus where everybody else wants to be this physically energized by singing, and where everybody else wants to have this much fun.

Magic Choral Trick #63 Keep ‘Em Singing

A choir is a sociable beast.

I am exactly the sort of person that choir directors have had to grit their teeth and put up with. The director’s cut off means the start of fun conversation time. I’m sure I’ve been a nightmare for many conductors.

It’s for this reason that I truly understand when the people in front of whom I’m now waving my arms want to behave the same way.

However, this situation could develop ultimately into director frustration and vocal fatigue, annoyance on the part of the virtuous choir members, inefficient use of rehearsal time, and eventually loss of valuable members – and all because of too much chatting.

Here are some solutions: (for directors)

1. Plan your rehearsals as accurately, timewise, as you can – then stick to the schedule.

2. Create a sense of urgency because of the schedule. If the folks had wanted something laid back and relaxed, they would have stayed home with friends and beer. We’re in this game for the excitement.

3. No long musicology diatribes.

4. No rants of any kind.

5. Any humorous personal anecdotes should be kept to 20 seconds or less.

6. Insist on Electric Silence before anything that’s sung. (Much tougher with kids. My hat is off to you children’s choir directors who have managed this one)

7. Schedule a few minutes at the start of rehearsal for any sheet music to be put in the order in which it’ll be rehearsed. The chatter that starts up when people are trying to find music is almost unstoppable.

8. When you cut them off, make sure it’s because you have something valuable to say. Something that’ll make the next run through more exciting or more fun. Oh yes – and most people can’t remember more than one instruction.

9. Keep your sense of humour.

10. Keep ‘Em Singing!

Magic Choral Trick #62 Fast Quiet Breath

When a fast breath is required, the room really shouldn’t sound like a tuberculosis ward.

Use the same kind of open throated breath I think I mentioned in an earlier post. That’s the walking uphill beside someone who’s in better shape than you and you don’t want them to hear you gasping for air – type breath.

Back of throat feels open enough to accommodate a hardboiled egg + relaxed dropping of the belly = Full, Fast, Quiet Breath.

If you’re doing it right, you’ll notice the ribcage expanding.

But more importantly, you won’t run out of air as quickly, and the choir director won’t glower at you. (Directors – I’ll probably post something later about glowering)

Magic Choral Trick #61 Getting a Song Into the Voice

Sometimes when you sing a song through for the first time it feels as if it’s sort of sticking, or getting vocally jammed up in places. It doesn’t feel easy, and as if it’s just singing itself.

This is how I work on that.

1. Make sure that you’re already warmed up vocally

2. Sing a couple of phrases (or the whole song) through on an angry wasp type Zzzzzz

3. Sing these same phrases (or the whole song) all the way through on ‘ee’ – then on ‘ay’, ‘oo’, ‘oh’ and ‘ah’, but between each of these vowels stop singing and do the Brass Player Buzz (Important! – Post #1 on this blog)

4. Just for good measure, try singing the phrases to a neutral vowel – the Nothing Vowel

5. Speak the lyrics as if you were performing them in a play – and rehearse until the words flow easily.

6. Put music and lyrics together, and the whole thing should feel much easier.

7. Remember to take in more air than you need, and then waste it (Sip in Air Through Eight Foot Straw – Post #2 on this blog)

So here’s the flow chart:

Warm up – Zzzzzz – ee – Buzz – ay – Buzz – oo – Buzz – oh – Buzz – ah – Buzz – Nothing Vowel – Buzz – Speak Lyrics – Speak Lyrics – Speak Lyrics – Take in more air than you need (Straw thingy) and waste it while you sing music and lyrics together.

That should do it

Magic Choral Trick #60 Enlightenment at Choir Practice – A Hint About Happiness

I know that every one of us has had the experience of dragging ourselves through a cold/dark/miserable night to a choir practice we’re going to only out of a sense of duty.

At one time or another, each of us has walked into rehearsal enveloped in a large black cloud of anxiety, grief or just grumpiness – and somehow, and some time before the end of the evening have been transformed back to our cheerful alter ego.

I don’t know for sure why this happens, but I have some theories.

Interaction with other humans – especially those who are glad to see you is good for us. Perhaps they’re merely a distraction, or perhaps it’s also because some of the more tuned in ones will see the look on your face and spontaneously hug you – often without you even having to tell them what’s wrong.

Maybe I’ve been especially fortunate, but humour has always been present in my 47 or so years of experience of choral life.

There’s something very powerful and healing about the physical act of singing – especially with a group of people. Every major religion has group singing, or chanting as part of its tradition. This can’t be a coincidence – it just makes us all feel better.

Then of course there’s the Zen of music. You really can’t make wonderful music unless every part of you is completely involved moment by moment by moment in its creation. Spiritual masters have been telling us this for thousands of years – that the Now is the only reality, and that trying to live in the past or future is what brings us suffering. So when we’re crafting a perfect phrase, or singing flat out – straight from the heart, now is all that matters.

And that makes us wake up and feel alive.

Magic Choral Trick #59 Down the Tiles – the presentation power of a choir singing straight to the audience

Normally when I’m directing I ask for Laser Eyes from all my singers. All the singing, and all the emotion is sent through my head out to the audience. Because there’s only one focal point (my head) it feels to the audience as if the choir is communicating as a unit. This really only works though if the choir has memorized the song.

Once in a while, at the emotional climax of a song, it can be electrifying for an audience if the director turns around and becomes just another member of the chorus. Another member of a chorus that has now shifted from all being angled towards the director, to facing straight out to the audience – or Down the Tiles. (I suspect that choruses call this ‘Down the Tiles’ because most of us have tiled rehearsal halls, where the tiles run parallel to the walls. So when we move from the angled position to straight out – we’re now lined up with the floor tiles)

For the most dramatic result, all movement (turning by the director, and shifting by the choir) needs to be synchronized.

The most intense part of the song is now being sung directly to the audience. There will be goosebumps, and the audience will be wonderfully shocked.

Magic Choral Trick #58 Competition

The Magic of a Barbershop competition/convention gets under your skin.

Where else can you meet hundreds of other people who care as passionately as you do about tuning, ringing locked in chords, phrasing, synchronization and riveting performances – whether the songs are ballads or up tunes.

In competition, choruses are marked by six judges – two from each category: Singing, Presentation and Music (who judge how well you take what’s on the paper and make it come alive.)

And every year you hope and pray that all the hard work your chorus has done has improved these three scores enough to move you up at least one place in the standings. And every year you are amazed by how much all the other choruses have improved since the last competition.

But what is perhaps the most magical of all is the camaraderie when people who love their music making to be larger than life all get a chance to mill around the hotel singing with people they’ve only just met. And swap stories, and laugh together, and listen to each other sing till well on into the night.

I love these events because we get glimpses – from either the judges, or other choruses – of what’s possible, of what we might never have thought of before, and of what would make what we do even more fun.

Magic Choral Trick #57 Balancing a Major Chord

When you come to a Major chord that just will not lock in – check the tuning, check the vowel – and if that doesn’t seem to be the problem you’re in for a treat. (Unless it’s just a bad arrangement)

The first part of Balancing needs to be done within the section. Have all the people singing the same part sing their note/word until everyone notices the sound locking in and it sounds like one voice. Singing with eyes closed seems to produce the best results.

Do this with each part on their note for the chord in question.

A unison, locked in sound will become like a drug for the singers in the chorus. Once you’ve experienced it, you develop a hunger for it, and want more and more.

But that’s not even the best part.

No matter who has what note of the chord, here’s the Balance for a Major chord.

Bottom octave Root, and the Fifth – strong and locked in together before the upper Root and Third are added. If the sound is straight enough – think sine wave straight – the chorus will be able to hear the Third even though no one’s actually singing it.

Upper Root – folded into the sound of the lower Root – so we experience an expansion of the sound – not that we’re being hit over the head by the upper octave.

If the other parts are doing their job, the Third of the chord needs to be just barely there – very lightly sung – because all it should be doing is amplifying the harmonic that’s already ringing.

When all this is right – everything seems right with the world. When all this is right – the hair on the back of your neck will stand up and when all this is right – you want the moment to go on forever.

It’s that much fun.

Magic Choral Trick #56 Thinking in Sentences and Phrases

There’s a great scene in the Eddie Murphy Dr Dolittle movie where his dog companion has his head out the car window – looking down at the road – and keeps saying ‘line’ ‘line’ ‘line’… When the dog complains of feeling ill, Eddie Murphy tells him to look at the tree line instead – and then hears the dog saying ‘tree’ ‘tree’ ‘tree’……

When I hear a choir singing syllabically, I’m always reminded of this scene and wish that they’d start singing me the forest, instead of counting off the individual trees.

The best way I know to train the mind to think about lyrics in terms of phrases and sentences is just to speak them out loud. Not necessarily in the rhythm that’s on the page – but naturally – as if you were saying the words yourself. If the songwriter is good at what he or she does, this will still flow well when the pitches are added.

Once choir members are actually thinking about communicating each phrase as they’re singing it, the director can then shape that communication so that every singer knows the plan. Sorry folks – even in the most democratic choirs, this is ultimately the director’s choice. But the director is powerless to do wonderful interpretive things until every singer has a burning desire to communicate the lyrics.

This principle is true no matter what the pace of the music is, and no matter how often the lyrics are repeated. Even if the lyrics consist of only one word – like Alleluia – the choir needs to have a willingness to communicate the text.

Part of the adrenaline rush in music listening is being swept along in anticipation of where it’s all going. If the singers don’t know, and don’t show the audience that they know, the anticipation is gone and the effect becomes just ‘note’ ‘note’ ‘note’………

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