Monthly Archives: February 2012

Magic Choral Trick #100 My Top Twelve Favourite

My goodness, that new trick – Moustache hands is fantastic! I just used it again tonight, and the results were as good as they were on the coaching weekend, and as good as they were with my Women’s chorus last night, and my Men’s chorus two nights ago. Simply amazing how something that easy and that simple could create such resonance in a chorus’ sound.

1. So Moustache Hands would have to be my current favourite.

2. Brass Buzz – the reset button for the voice. What to do when there’s no time to warm
Up. As for sound – bigger and brighter.

3. Breath of Fire. Not only does this get the breathing apparatus functioning – it wakes up
the brain, and helps to free up stuck energy in the diaphragm area – even if the
stuckness has been there all your life. Choral sound becomes richer and more blended.

4. Korg Tuner. Tuning – the ultimate challenge for an amateur choir. With this tool, pitch
is no longer a matter of opinion. No hurt feelings, it’s either right or wrong – and
singers can work on their tuning at home and get accurate feedback.

5. Rehearsal Schedules. Try using them for a while – then run a rehearsal without
one, and you’ll feel like the evening is periodically grinding to a standstill. Not
nearly as much fun.

6. Elastic Bands

7. Toes Down Through Soles of Shoes. Both of these are two of the very best tricks
I know for keeping the energy moving right through to the end of a phrase.

8. Sumo Squat. Obviously not for choir members with compromised knees – but for
those who can do it – great big rich, blended sound.

9. Zzzzzzzz. The beginning of every warm up that I do with everyone – choirs and
students. Also a great tool for working on the high range.

10. Jin Shin Jyutsu holding points. In addition to calming everyone down – a wonderful
blending technique.

11. Inner Smile – Lifts the ‘apples’ of the cheeks and creates more resonating space. Also
works from a presentation point of view – makes the singers look vaguely interested.

12. Laser Eyes (through the director’s head). Appearance of the choir more blended – and
the audience will feel the intensity.

Magic Choral Trick #99 From ‘Oo’ To Every Other Vowel

Just in case anyone missed the information that a resonant sound needs to be created through a narrow shape, Katie Taylor – our coach for the weekend, reminded my women’s chorus that ‘oo’ is a great starting point for any vowel.

If you want to find the correct placement and ease for an ‘ee’ vowel, sing ‘oo’ then, changing as little as possible about the shape, sing the ‘ee’.

Then try:

‘oo’ – ‘ay’ (or eh…

‘oo’ – ‘oh’

‘oo’ – ‘ah’

‘oo’ – ‘ih’

‘oo’ – ‘uh’

Katie’s version of the French Teacher ‘eu’ was ‘oo’ with Trumpet Lips. This description seems to work well for many of the women in my chorus.

It’s so wonderful for me to have a coach come in and reinforce the concepts that I’ve been teaching. However, even more wonderful is having a coach say the same thing in a different way – so that the chorus members who hadn’t quite grasped what I was talking about, hear it in another way, and this time understand it.

Magic Choral Trick #98 Speaking Voice Placement

Sorry women – that very low, husky, back of the mouth, sexy, or no nonsense “even though I’m a woman, I need to be taken seriously” vocal placement may be costing you your singing voice. And men – that “I am tough and unemotional, and an expert on everything”, pressed down placement may be costing you yours.

Our culture seems to be hardwired to dismiss the opinions of people who have high speaking voices. So those of us whose natural range floats a little higher than the socially accepted norm tend to press our voices down, and speak from the back of the throat. A much healthier placement would be the one we use when we’re speaking French or Italian.

“I’d like a beer please”

“Una birra, per favore”

If you know just enough Italian to be able to read this, try saying the two phrases several times and noticing the different places in the mouth that they’re produced.

When I say these phrases my voice dips down in pitch to a low ‘E’ at the end of the English phrase, and a good Perfect 4th higher than that at the end of the Italian one. And I’m a soprano! I’m ending even the Italian phrase down near the bottom end of my singing range. The English phrase is off the charts – I don’t sing low ‘E’.

So any evening when I get carried away with storytelling, and jokes and laughing with a group of friends, I can expect to still feel some roughness in the voice the next day.

If our daily lives require that we do a lot of talking (especially in English) this can add up to vocal damage.

I realize however, that it takes a great deal of courage to allow our voices to sit in their most natural and free place. It feels as if we have no emotional shield – and our vulnerability shows.

However, if we free up our speaking voices a little more, we are pracising vocal resonance even when we’re not singing. And our vocal cords will be grateful.

Magic Choral Trick #97 Moustache Hands

Just got back from a terrific coaching weekend with Katie Taylor, director of the International Champion Barbershop chorus – Northern Blend.

I’m sure I’ll be mentioning a number of the things she showed us, but this trick is simple, so effective for opening up resonating space in the mouth – and for bringing the sound forward.

In fact, I think this the most miraculous thing I’ve learned in many months.

Even if your choir members are convinced that they are singing with forward placement and lots of resonating space, you can probably put money on the fact that about 25% either don’t understand what you mean, or do understand but are not doing nearly enough.

This technique just bypasses the thought process altogether, which is always the best possible type of trick.

With palms of the hands facing down, and fingers together, (not spread) touch the tips of the two middle fingers together. Now place the two hands in this position – flat, and still palms down – at the upper lip – like a moustache. Ask the singers to imagine singing out over the top of the flat surface created by the hands.

I’m calling this the Moustache Hands Trick because the hands and forearms end up looking like a giant moustache.

No idea why this is so effective. But the quality of the sound is suddenly amazingly resonant and blended.

It has worked so fabulously for my women’s chorus, that I can hardly wait to try it out on the men’s chorus, and the student choir.

The results are obvious even with only one person singing. I asked my son to sing the first phrase of a hymn – the normal way, and then with his hands in the Moustache position. The second way had much more ring to the sound. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t imagining things so I sang the first line of the hymn while my husband and my son listened – first normally and then with this trick. Apparently there was no question that the second way was more resonant.

Pretty exciting! (Thank you Katie)

Magic Choral Trick #96 Balancing the Half Diminished Chord – the Controversy

High on the list of any musician’s priorities would have to be finding the correct resonant balance for the half diminished chord. Well – perhaps the choral director subset of musicians. And amongst those are the truly fanatical about such things – the Barbershop directors.

So here’s the scoop about the controversy.

I had originally heard that in a half diminished chord all parts should be balanced equally – and this does work well. Well, certainly better than just taking a stab at it and hoping for the best.

But I still felt that I wanted more from this type of chord, so I asked Ig Jakovac, a singing judge with the Barbershop Harmony Society – and here’s what he said:

“Half-diminished chords should be balanced with the perfect interval (fourth, fifth) predominant. Some find a more consonant sound is achieved when the lowest minor third, if it exists, is emphasized.”

A half diminished chord, if it’s sung in tune, with good quality is always going to sound exciting. But Wow! When that third, the second note from the bottom is emphasized a bit more, something in the feeling of depth in the chord gets much richer.

Thought you’d all like to know.

Magic Choral Trick #95 French Teacher ‘eu’ Lips

I think every French teacher who taught me in elementary and high school was an over the top expressive human being. As a result, I have a very clear image of exactly how narrow they made their cheeks, and how far out their lips were when they were demonstrating ‘eu’ – as in ‘petit peu’ (a little bit)

If you’re not sure about what this mouth shape looks and feels like, imagine that you need to make your singing heard in a large area on the other side of a fence made of tall wooden boards. Now imagine that there’s long sliver of one of these tall wooden boards that’s missing – so there’s a vertical break in the fence that’s about one inch wide. If you were to make your cheeks go skinny, and stick your lips through this split in the fence, that’s what this mouth position would feel like.

This will feel ridiculous.

As crazy as it seems, when people’s mouths are in this position it’s much easier to synchronize fast moving lyrics, and the vocal production moves forward in the mouth. It’s also a useful mouth shape for blending and smoothing out the sound. Probably not what you want for anything loud or brassy.

One other important benefit of practising this mouth shape is that it gets singers used to singing through a very narrow mouth shape. The lips can be more relaxed eventually, but singing through a consistently narrow column will eliminate any need for ‘switching registers’. No more necessity for ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’ – just one smooth production technique from the bottom to the top of the range. Singers can still call on their ‘Sky Voice’ or their ‘Ethel Merman’ voice, but only for colour purposes. Practising the join from one voice to the other is no longer necessary.

Magic Choral Trick #94 Pre-pitch Grunting

I know why nobody ever addresses this issue. The phrase ‘Pre-pitch Grunting’ is difficult to say.

It’s the extra syllable that gets placed in front of the beginning of a word – usually one that starts with a consonant blend. Uh-what, Uh-the, Uh-bring…..

It’s often a problem with one or two of the most enthusiastic singers in any choir. I think that sometimes it’s an unspoken message to the rest of the group: ‘Come on – we’re behind the beat’ or ‘Come on – more emotion!’

But sometimes all it is, is unbridled eagerness. Tough to complain about that. But it does mess with the synchronization at the beginning of the phrase.

This affliction is not limited only to choir members. It’s also an issue with choir directors when they demonstrate – choir directors who’ve put in some career time in front of chatty, sullen or unruly groups. It’s had to become a way of getting the choir’s attention – and also communicating both of the ‘Come on!’ phrases above.

Because the Pre-pitch Grunting is usually done by people who really care about the success of the group, there’s no problem convincing them to stop once they are aware of the problem. This is where the individual mp3 recorders come in really handy. If Pre-Pitch Grunting is on the checklist of things to listen for, these people will hear it (and probably be horrified that they never noticed it before.)

However, convincing people that they need to stop, and supporting them in helping them stop are two different things.

I have a cardinal rule. Absolutely no singling out of individuals in front of the group. Even positive feedback for an individual’s singing – holding them up as a shining example, can backfire and cause other choir members to feel unappreciated.

The reason this is now a cardinal rule for me is that every time I’ve broken it, and singled a person out for anything – good or bad – it has come back to bite me. People in the choir will say, “It’s ok Janet – just tell me if you don’t like something I’m doing” But the absolute universal truth that I’ve discovered is: It’s never ok to do this in public.

So back to the Pre-pitch Grunters. The choir as a whole needs to be aware if this is an issue. Like any other learning, it’s a matter of making a distinction – of noticing something that you never even knew existed. If they don’t notice this eventually on their own, a section leader or the director may have to mention it privately.

Magic Choral Trick #93 Sumo Squat

I know that there are some of you whose knees wouldn’t put up with this. I know that some of you – well, I couldn’t pay you enough.

For everyone else there’s the Sumo Squat. You’ll look like Japanese wrestlers, but you’ll sound Bulgarian.

I’ve used variations on this theme for years including post #9, The Importance of Knees, and the Bioenergetics squat. But I think this is the best yet.

I’ve watched both men’s and women’s international calibre Barbershop quartets – and quite often, at the Tag of a song when they’re going for that big killer ballad ending, you’ll see them hunker down. Presentation wise, it just looks intense – and sound wise, it’s huge and thrilling.

Last night my women’s chorus was standing around me in 4X4 formation, and because of space constraints, some were only about three feet away from me. Yet – when they were all doing the Sumo Squat, the voices were so well blended that I wasn’t able to pick out any individual’s sound. And as I say, they sounded like a Bulgarian women’s choir – or like the female equivalent of a Russian men’s choir.

I think if our quads hadn’t been burning, we would have stayed there and sung with this huge new sound all night.

Magic Choral Trick #92 Kazoos

Last fall my women’s chorus decided to rise to the challenge of recording a song for CBC’s Weekend Morning – on kazoos.

CBC even sent us the 40 or so kazoos.

After a few times through ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, we recorded the song and sent it off. But we kept the kazoos – which have now been added to our arsenal of technical tools.

What makes this such an effective rhythmic synchronization tool is the fact that in order to ‘play’ the kazoo you need to use the sound ‘doo’ with quite an emphasis on the ‘d’. The kazoo itself is so loud that it’s obvious when people aren’t lining up rhythmically.

The other benefit to this is that both the ‘d’ and the ‘oo’, when sung this aggressively, bring the sound forward in the mouth.

Just for fun, try having the chorus sing a phrase, kazoo the same phrase, then sing it again. You should notice a brighter sound.

If for some reason it makes very little difference to your chorus, at least you’ll have had a few laughs. Guaranteed.

Magic Choral Trick #91 One of the Ways that Less is More

Just came from working with a group of friends on the Bach Motet – Komm Jesu Komm and once again realized that the believability, and the right feel in almost every style comes most from what you sing less of.

In Baroque music the dance feeling is elusive until we back off from anything but the important beats in the bar – and the back end of every two note phrase.

In folk music we back off from any article or connecting phrase. Whatever would be de-emphasized in natural speech is almost dropped – so the story is as believable as if it were being spoken.

And in a Barbershop ballad, not only are the dynamics of natural speech duplicated, but as much as possible, so is the rhythm. The powerful emotion words are drawn out, but the connecting phrases are vocally more backed off – and are moved along quickly, as they are when we speak.

Tonight we got the Bach to dance by luxuriating in the important beats, and barely singing almost everything else.

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