Monthly Archives: March 2012

Magic Choral Trick #110 Shoulder Tapping

This synchronization exercise is not new. I remember my Dad doing this with us in his church choir – must be about 45 years ago now.

For any song on which the choir is having difficulty locking in to a tempo, have each choir member rest a hand on the shoulder of the person beside them, and tap the beat as the song is sung.

Depending on the collective personality of the group this one can have them rolling in the aisles, annoyed or uncertain.

The script then calls for the director to say: “You’ve probably noticed by now how far off your neighbour’s rhythm is.” Almost everyone will have noticed that their neighbour has a completely different idea about where the beat is.

The good news is that all this says is that people weren’t really giving all of their attention to the beat.

Now try the same exercise with everyone’s eyes closed. The result is usually much better.

Sometimes it takes several times through with eyes closed before everybody understands that this is really important. When every singer realizes the amount of concentration needed, the synchronization will improve dramatically.

Magic Choral Trick #109 The Shuffle – Who Should Stand Where

This one has to be heard to be believed.

This one may also be a tough sell for church choirs where members have their own personal groove worn into the choir pew by decades of sitting in exactly the same place.

Work with one section at a time. For the purposes of this post I’m talking about having 2 rows of singers in each section

Ask the person with the largest voice to stand in the middle back of the section.

Place two people with voices that are the next step down in size on either side of the first singer.

Then alternate bright and dark voices in the rest of the 2 rows of the standing arrangement.

There isn’t actually a magic formula for The Shuffle. There are these couple of basic rules above but ultimately, the director and the rest of the chorus will have to listen to the section singing in different formations to hear which standing order works the best.

The miraculous thing is that moving even one small-voiced person can make a huge difference to the cohesion of the sound.

The exercise is great fun, and a real eye opener. You’ll be astonished by how different even a small section can sound when the standing arrangement is changed.

Magic Choral Trick #108 Cue for Breathing Out

Ok – here’s what worked last night with my women’s Barbershop chorus.

I needed a cue for Breathing Out (post #102) that didn’t involve shouting “Breathe Out!!!” while they were singing – though that does work. As does running towards them while sweeping my arms up and towards the chorus.

These are not great options from a performance standpoint.

Because every one of them watches me with Laser Eyes, (post #30) I realized that I could get away with something more subtle. Like puffing my cheeks and blowing out a thin stream of air – as if I were blowing out a candle.

That worked – especially when I combined it with a much, much smaller version of the running and gathering the wind from beside me and whooshing it towards the chorus. I didn’t run, and the whoosh was tiny.

The chorus sounded incredibly blended, and about double the size.

I think we’re onto something here. I think that with all the different ‘support to the end of the phrase’ techniques we’ve finally managed to reach every subset of the chorus. When absolutely everyone understands what to do, the chorus improves by multiples of the amount of improvement in each singer’s technique.

Magic Choral Trick #107 Director Snits – Causes and Solutions

CAUSE – Chattering choir members.
SOLUTIONS – Tighten up the rehearsal. Make up a rehearsal schedule and send it out to the choir ahead of time – then stick to it.

Directors – if you can, inject a little excited urgency into your delivery of instructions.

Barbershop choruses have a ‘sergeant at arms’ whose job it is to reign in the troops. The director still gets to be the good guy – and not the nag.

Keep them very very busy. Keep them singing.

Spark their interest with a new Magic Choral Trick – then add a new one each week till there’s a large repertoire. It’s tough to chat and do a Brass Buzz or Breath of Fire at the same time.

You could try having a roster of people step out to direct the warm up. The more people who know what being out in front feels like – the more they’ll appreciate the difference between a chatting, and an attentive crowd.

CAUSE – Reaction to a choir member’s snit
SOLUTIONS – Realize that the choir member may be reacting to being unable to do what you’ve asked. If this is the case, coach the ENTIRE SECTION on how to fix the problem.

Is the choir member having a snit because you singled them out? Oops. Big Oops. You’re going to need to apologize for being a jerk.

CAUSE – Director thinks the choir ought to know the notes already – but they don’t.
SOLUTION – Learning Sound Files. By the time the Director Snit happens, it’s probably too late for that piece of music. But unless the choir is made up of fabulous sight readers, every choir needs learning sound files. The wonder of the digital age means that notes will never again have to be taught at rehearsal. People can learn their music as they drive to work, cook their dinners or go for a walk or run. They can even record themselves singing along with the sound file, to see how they’re doing. This is perhaps the most important thing that can be done to make rehearsals more fun for everyone.

CAUSE – Choir keeps forgetting previous musical instructions
SOLUTION – For choirs that use music, this is easy. Keep a jar of sharpened pencils (with good erasers) in the rehearsal hall, and insist that everyone use them. My high school music teacher – Stan Clark – had a wonderful definition for the word ‘musician’. “Someone who has a pencil”. And replacing pencils that have wandered is cheap, and is a small price for helping everyone’s blood pressure stay normal.

For Barbershop choruses – who memorize the music – the best solution is to rehearse specific spots in isolation, until they’re ironed in and solid. I then reintegrate the trouble spot back into a slightly larger chunk of the song before ever going back and running it from the top. Of course, this is also the best approach even for choirs who use music.

CAUSE – Director doesn’t know how to handle a particular problem
SOLUTION – Very easy. Read through this blog, and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, ask me in the comment section. I promise that I’ll get back to you. If I don’t know, I’ll refer you to someone who does.

Magic Choral Trick #106 Goodness and Niceness

For 12 years I had the privilege of working as a church musician for Father Bill Weiss. Apart from his 45 minute masses (I loved that) and his boundless support and appreciation for what our music team was doing, I also loved the fact that every week of the year, he was able to preach on the Gospel in such a way that the ultimate message was always “Be kind, be nice.”

Most of us have plenty to stress us out right now – our finances, difficult situations at work, our family’s well being and of course shale gas companies from the United Arab Emirates having been sneakily given the lease to search a couple of lots up the road….

So when choir members show up to rehearsal on a week night, what they really need and want is a vacation. Me too. As the director I do everything in my power to nip high drama in the bud. I want to have fun – and what my groups and I are experiencing is that there’s nothing more fun than excellence.

In the early years I used to have snits. I just thought that was the most effective way to run a rehearsal. However, I found this so exhausting that I forced myself to examine what was really going on – and recalling Werner Erhard’s words (“Ever notice when stuff goes wrong in your life, YOU’RE always around?”) I realized that I could be doing something better. I discovered that Director Snits are only an expression of frustration – not knowing how to fix the problem. I don’t know everything yet, but I know much much more than I did in the epoch of the snit. That’s one of the reasons that I write this blog. I’d love to think that choir practices all over the world could be more fun.

So what’s Goodness and Niceness? Understanding that everyone is dealing with some sort of serious stuff. Understanding that when we cut people some slack, and then apply every Magic Choral Trick we know, rehearsals can be a vacation and exhilarating and rejuvenating and miraculous.

Magic Choral Trick #105 Finding the Climax of the Song

I remember when this was something that I didn’t know – and didn’t know that I didn’t know.

I’d learn the notes and words, apply the odd dynamic – then put on my ‘terribly interested’ performance face as I sang for the audience. And people bought it.

I guess I wanted every note to be beautifully sung, and wanted to be admired for my clean technique. That meant that there wasn’t much room in my head for actually getting to the emotional meat of the song.

I’ve actually had much more success with this when speaking, rather than singing for audiences. Guess I found it easier to do just one or the other. Hah! As I say to my students all the time “When did I ever tell you that making music was easy?”

With my Barbershop choruses I no longer have the luxury of ignoring the musical and emotional flow of a song. The 6 judges and the Barbershop audiences have an expectation of being excited, or moved by the sweep and forward motion of what we’re singing.

The ‘story’ arch of a song is usually much like a novel. The stage is set and the theme introduced. The theme is developed and driven towards the BIG MOMENT – when the heart is broken, or the declaration of love is blurted out, or the sweetest irony is wistfully stated, or unbridled exultation and joy bursts forth. After that there’s usually the ‘and that’s the way it is’ denouement – which can be either whispered, shouted from the rooftops, or emotionally hauled back into something more world weary.

In all the best songs, the melodic, harmonic and the lyric high point is the same. Usually the climax of a song isn’t difficult to find – you just need understand the value of identifying it. Driving the song towards that point, and building the excitement – well, that’s another post.

Magic Choral Trick #104 Why Is This Chord Not Working?

Magic Choral Trick #104 Why Is This Chord Not Working?
Why Is This Chord Not Working?

Generally when a chord jumps out of the song because it’s wonky we assume that someone’s singing a wrong note – and about 50% of the time, that’s right.

That leaves the other 50%.

Of course, still in the category of singing the wrong note is tuning. But where do we look when the tuning is fine, but the chord still doesn’t ring?

1. Vowel – is everyone singing exactly the same vowel, with no tongue tension?

2. Balance – in most chords, the Root and the Fifth need to be predominant. Is the Third
being over sung?

3. Arrangement. Is the problem the arrangement? Did the arranger double the Third just
to make one of the parts easier to sing? Or is the voicing very spread out. Perhaps some of the parts are at the extremes of their ranges – and so are having to sing louder or softer than the other parts.

4. Placement and Blend– Are some people using a forward placement, and some singing from
far back in the throat? (Moustache Hands and Jin Shin Jiutsu holding points will
help to fix this)

5. Synchronization. If some of the choir is arriving late to the chord, and the onset of the vowel isn’t lining up, (perhaps because a consonant blend at the beginning of the word is slowing them down) the chord will take too long to gel, and sounds messy.

Magic Choral Trick #103 Balancing the Diminished Chord

Just when you think you know everything, you find out yet more stuff that you didn’t know that you didn’t know!

The diminished chord – all minor thirds all equally balanced right? Apparently not. I was pretty smug about this one, then I got the email back from Ig Jakovac (coach and judge for the Barbershop Harmony Society) suggesting that the second note from the bottom should be given slightly more weight.

Lo and behold – definitely a more resonant sound!

However, to notice this sort of subtlety you might first want to work with the Korg Tuner – to make sure that everything’s dead in tune.

Magic Choral Trick #102 Breathing Out

Been wracking my brain – trying to figure out why Moustache Hands (Post #97) works so well. There’ve been various suggestions – like the fact that because the rib cage is raised, there’s more room to breathe. Maybe – but we’ve tried rib raising tricks before which haven’t been as successful.

What I noticed yesterday evening was that when the chorus was using Moustache Hands it suddenly sounded like they had all the breath in the world. It’s almost as if when the hands are in that position it feels like playing a wind instrument. And the spot on the upper lip, through which the singing is being guided, acts to focus the sound – like the mouthpiece on a wind instrument.

I was reminding my Med School choir tonight to keep Breathing Out (whether I want the singing loud or soft) and that seems to produce a similar result.

I guess it’s the same concept as Wasting Air – but for some reason, singers hear the instruction in a slightly different way – and it’s working well.

I ask them to take in more air than they need, then make sure to breathe it all out – especially on sustained notes. What’s great about this is that the resulting sound is similar to Moustache Hands, and Breathing Out can be done in performance.

Hmmm. Perhaps it was necessary for the singers to have some experience with the incredible resonance of Moustache Hands before they could duplicate the result simply by thinking “Breathe Out, Breathe Out Breathe Out”

Magic Choral Trick #101 Telegraphing

If you’ve spent much time around small children you’ll know that they often make up songs about what they’re doing, or how they’re feeling. This is song writing in its purest and most honest form – no rewrites – no second guessing. You can watch them form the next thought, then sing it.

The best songwriters understand this progression and development of ideas through the song. This unfolding of thoughts and emotions is probably one of the reasons that we wanted to sing a particular song in the first place.

However, as we rehearse and rehearse the vocal aspects of the piece, we often become desensitized to the meaning of the lyrics. And our performances tend to reflect this.

Telegraphing is the process of allowing the audience to see the thought, the emotion and the intensity of the next phrase – before you sing it – as if the thought or feeling has just occurred to you. It’s the process of recapturing the song writer’s initial inspiration – line by line – and letting the audience in on the experience.

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