Monthly Archives: February 2012

Magic Choral Trick #90 Waste Air

I mentioned in the High Notes post that when we suddenly listen carefully to any short term thing that we consider immediately important, we hold our breath.

However, our breathing system also seizes up when we’re afraid.

Scratch the emotional surface of any 21st century person living in many of the world’s cultures – including our own – and you’ll find fear. Fear of being alone, fear of being disliked, fear of not having enough money, fear of illness and death, fear of accident, and economically and environmentally – a gripping, generalized fear for our children’s future.

Then we pile on all the other smaller fears that feed these big ones – fear of being late, fat, incompetent, wrong……

It’s a wonder we can breathe at all!

The Waste Air trick is a fast way to get the air moving again, at least for a while. (Breath of Fire – post #4 – is also amazing for this and should be practised daily. It’s the best way to free up the chronic tension and fear blockage in the diaphragm area.)

Take in more air than you need and waste it. So far, air is available to us at every moment – at no cost. Take in as much as possible and then spend it freely as you sing. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing loudly or quietly – just keep spending the air.

Imagine taking in all the air that’s within a metre or so of your mouth. Waste it wantonly.

This is especially useful for amateur singers who aren’t practising their singing every day. But even pros occasionally need reminders to breathe deeply in their non singing daily activities.

And I challenge anyone to try holding onto their fears when they’re in the midst of singing their hearts out with 30, 40 or 100 other chorus members.


Magic Choral Trick #89 Chord Balancing – minor chords

In post #57 I discussed the balancing of a Major chord. The root and fifth of the chord are louder, and if they’re right in tune (which usually means that the fifth is high enough) the overtones created will mean that the third be able to be heard without anyone even having to sing it. For this reason, when it is sung, it needs only to be gently and lightly placed into the chord. (In other words – if you have the third of the chord – back off!)

Different story for a minor chord. The root and fifth still need to be clean, but we don’t want to be hearing that ringing Major third caused by the overtones, so the third in a minor chord needs to be heard. It needs to hold its own against the overtone.

You might think that another way of solving this problem would be to ask the root and fifth singers to not bother too much about the tuning. I’ve tried this too and the result is just a mess.

When I was very young I remember my Dad introducing me to the sounds of different types of chords, and the emotions that they could call forth. Major = Happy; minor = Sad; diminished = Scary.

So I’ve been thinking about what it actually is that makes a minor chord affect us the way it does. Perhaps it’s because any sadness involves conflict between what is, and what we wish was true, or even what we think is true. A minor chord is the embodiment of this battle. When that open fifth is sung – the root and the fifth – dead in tune, what is, in the natural order of the universe, is that a clear, ringing Major third will be heard. When we superimpose the minor third, we are disagreeing with nature, which always makes us feel bad.

Perhaps someone has already done a philosophy thesis on the premise that the natural order of things is ringing and joyful, and it’s our battles against the Major chord that makes us sad! I’d be interested to know.

Magic Choral Trick #88 Sample Rehearsal Schedule

My choruses generally stand for rehearsals unless we’re in the early stages of putting a song together. The notes and words will have been learned from sound files, not at rehearsal, but sometimes they’re still holding the sheet music – so we all sit and relax a bit. Guess we didn’t do any sitting and relaxing this night.

Feb 7 2012

7:00 – Opening/Organize riser standing positions

7:05 – Warm Up/Vocal Technique

7:20 – Love songs for Feb 14 singout:

My Foolish Heart
Heart of My Heart
Blue Skies
Ain’t Misbehavin (Video choreography with Tracey out front)
All That Jazz
Hey Little Baby of Mine
Under the Boardwalk
Time After Time

8:10 – Dixieland – Choreography review

8:30 – Break

8:42 – Record self with mp3 – for self evaluation:

With A Little Help From My Friends
Let There Be peace on Earth

8:55 – 4X4 Dixieland – synchronization (record self)

9:10 – Record/Video package – Time After Time and Dixieland

9:25 – Tantum Ergo – 1st seven bars from memory

9:30 – Closing

Magic Choral Trick #87 High Notes

Yes there are definitely some tricks, but the uncomfortable truth when it comes to high notes is that daily technique practice over a prolonged period of time will give you the best results. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people ask me about how to handle the high note in a song – the day before the gig. By then it’s all smoke and mirrors – but even they need to be rehearsed if you’re not going to be a quivering nervous mess.

Daily technique practice – even the first 5 notes of the scale exercise on each of the vowels will make a difference.

1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1__________up a half step and repeat.

Or – as I’ve been doing recently with students – once up and down the same five notes on each of the major formed vowels. Ee ay ah oh oo. So you’ll be going up and down this 5 note pattern 5 times – up and down once for each of the vowels. (preferably all in one breath – which will get easier as the focus of each vowel gets cleaner)

After each of these groups go up a half step – then repeat the process until the notes are getting a bit high to be really comfortable.

When the top notes are a bit uncomfortable stop, do a Brass Buzz

Sing the exercise to Zzzzzz

Make sure the mouth shape is no wider than the French Teacher ‘eu’ – and stays that narrow while you sing the vowels on the exercise again.

If you’re squeaking a bit on the top note you need to think more legato (smoothness) on the way down from the top note to the note below it. (Think ‘band saw’)

Focus on the narrowness, and the way the singing feels – NOT the way it sounds! If you start listening critically to yourself you’ll be holding your breath. Holding the breath is the survival mechanism programmed into our bodies when we’re required to listen very carefully. Though in some ways the voice is like a stringed instrument, it still requires the free movement of air to function.

Learning to sing higher and higher notes requires time. Time for the mouth to figure out how to be narrow and avoid going into primordial scream mode when the pitches get up there a bit; time for trial and error; time to practise feeling, not listening (If you want to listen, record yourself and listen later); time to train the tongue to relax into the correct vowel shape without lurching towards the roof of the mouth; time to train your mind to think of a singing line as a horizontal path rather than as a vertical ladder; and time to work on increasing the range by only about one half step every week or two.

Magic Choral Trick #86 Glottal Attacks

Let’s never ever do these again.

A glottal attack is the little grunty, over enthusiastic start that many singers use at the onset of a vowel at the beginning of a word.

Here’s what’s wrong with glottal attacks:

Once you’ve done this, it’s really difficult to get the sound forward in the mouth – since all the glottal action happens in the throat.

It takes the vocal cords a little while to recover – and over time is hard on the voice.

It’s almost impossible to blend multiple enthusiastic grunts.

Glottal attacks from even a couple of people are usually unsynchronized, and make it obvious that not everyone is clear about exactly when the note is supposed to start.

And it’s just not a pleasant sound.

I like to work on a more pouffy vowel attack in warm up. Think of starting the vowel with a little puff of air – though not enough to make it sound like an ‘h’.

Or think of gliding in for a landing at the edge of the vowel.

Or imagine starting the vowel as a very thin ray of laser beam.

Or imagine just joining the vowel as if it’s already in progress. As if it’s the thin end of the wedge of vowel sound.

Magic Choral Trick #85 Synchronization Plink

This is a trick my Dad used to use with his choirs when he wanted to clean up the rhythmic synchronization.

Sing most notes staccato to ‘plink’. The only exception to this is eighth notes or sixteenth notes which can be sung to ‘plink-a plink-a….’ Not only does this help the rhythm, it’s also hilarious – which is always useful when singers are becoming frustrated with everyone else’s sense of rhythm.

This exercise immediately shows up any sections that are out of synch.

When everything is cleaned up using ‘plink’, I ask the singers to use the words, but still sing staccato for a few times through, before going back to the more legato style.

I was singing with a group of local musicians last night, working on the Bach motet Komm Jesu Komm. ‘Plink’ works really really well with Bach – it makes revelling in the counterpoint so much fun!

Magic Choral Trick #84 Laughing

I used to notice that after the chorus had a good laugh about something, and then recovered enough to sing, that the sound was richer and everyone was more cheerful.

I had a comment from Trisha Pope a few months ago that reminded me of this. I also remembered how this could even be brought about by fake laughing. What’s interesting here is that when you get a whole lot of people who know each other well doing fake laughing, it doesn’t take long for it to become real.

Perhaps you’re all aware of laughing yoga, which is based on the premise that the mind and body react positively even with fake laughter.

I used to ask people to pair up, look straight at each other and begin the fake laughing – but here are the 5 basic Laughing Yoga Exercises. Think I’ll try them out this week!

Cell Phone Laughter: Hold an imaginary cell phone to your ear and laugh.

Gradient laughter: Fake a smile; giggle, then laugh slowly and gradually increase in tempo and volume.

Greeting Laughter: Greet everybody the way you normally greet (e.g. shake hands) and replace words with laughter.

Hearty Laughter: spread your arms up, look up and laugh heartily as you direct your laughter to come straight from your heart.

Think Of A Socially Awkward Situation And Laugh At It (e.g. shoe laces untied, shaving cream behind your ears…)

Magic Choral Trick #83 Vocal ‘catches’ that make you cough

These ‘catches’ are the ones that give you such a vicious tickle in the throat that you absolutely must cough. If you can’t cough because the choir is mid performance, then you’ll spend the next few phrases with your eyes streaming, unable to continue singing.

This is very common when you are singing loudly and at the top end of the vocal range. It’s caused by over singing and from trying to sing through too wide a mouth shape.

Unfortunately, whenever we’re singing high and loud the body is programmed to think that we’re screaming. If we’re screaming in order to scare off a sabre toothed tiger, the body doesn’t care how the voice will feel after the emergency, and so some animal part of our brain directs the mouth to open as wide as it possibly can – to produce the maximum amount of really unpleasant noise. While this is useful for attracting the attention of our caveman buddies, it doesn’t do our choral performance any good.

In order to be confident in our vocal production when the notes are high and loud we need to exert some control over this natural reflex by narrowing the mouth shape. It also really helps to know our own voice’s dynamic limits.

Magic Choral Trick #82 There’s Something About Singing

A couple of weeks ago I arrived at a chorus rehearsal in rough shape. Our family had had some very worrying news – which was still clearly affecting me as I stood up to direct.

Because I didn’t want everyone’s attention on my puffy red eyes – wondering what was going on, and therefore not really concentrating on the music – I told the chorus why I looked such a mess.

The miraculous thing about this was that once we’d all addressed this elephant in the room we were able to get back to the serious, wonderful business of singing well.

It can’t have been more than ten minutes after I’d explained my emotional state that that emotional state melted away and the all consuming business of creating sound, and making the songs’ stories come alive, transformed me. I stopped worrying and crying for the first time that day.

Even when rehearsal was over, and I was driving home, I realised that I still felt good. So much healing from just a couple of hours of singing.

Magic Choral Trick #81 Warm Up One Note

Most people have one vowel that seems to work better than the others. Here’s a way to benefit from that, and have each singer find a more consistent placement for all the vowels.

Say ‘eu’ – with your best French Teacher mouth. This is the width, the shape and the size of opening through which all the vowels will be sung.

The first big secret here is to keep a mildly surprised look on the face, and the back teeth apart.

All on the one note, and legato – sing ‘ee’ ‘ay’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’______go up a half step while still singing ‘oo’, breathe, and repeat on the new note. Watch out that the mouth shape doesn’t widen after the breath! It’s going to feel a little like breathing in through fish lips. Repeat the exercise, and keep modulating as long as everyone is comfortable with the pitch.

The second big secret is that the amount of mouth movement is absolutely minimal – mostly just very small changes in the (relaxed) tongue. Gently instruct the jaw not to drop on ‘ah’ and ‘oh’, because the placement of the sound in the mouth will move back. I say ‘gently’ because if the jaw is held rigidly in place the tension will show up as a hardness in the sound.

So to review:

‘eu’ – face looks mildly surprised – back teeth apart

‘ee’ ‘ay’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’______go up half step

Breathe in through fish lips

‘ee’ ‘ay’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’_______go up half step etc.

When I was working on this exercise last night with my women’s chorus, everyone could hear the improvement in the amount of resonance.

%d bloggers like this: