Monthly Archives: April 2012

Magic Choral Trick #127 Driving the Song Forward

Every song needs something driving it forward – something to make the audience want to keep listening, preferably breathlessly.

Here are 7 of the things that help us to gather up more and more excitement as we move through the song.

1. The first thing is that the quality of the actual singing needs to be good – tuning, placement, balance, blend. (The odd wonky chord won’t make me walk out of a performance, but consistently out of tune singing will make me want to hum little songs to myself till the listening ordeal is over.)

2. I know this seems obvious – but the song should be known so well that technical things (like right notes) no longer have to be foremost in the singers’ minds.

3. Have a dynamic plan (louds and softs, crescendos and diminuendos) that match both the music and the emotion of the words.

4. Long sustained notes always always always need to be going somewhere – intensifying, or softening. (The only exception to this – yeah, I know I said ‘always’ – would be with a piece that is depicting utter stillness or timelessness)

5. Fast breaths, in time, between the phrases unless the plan calls for a poignant silent moment. I ask my singers to convince themselves that the breath actually belongs to the beginning of the next phrase.

6. Telegraphing the emotion of the next phrase at the very end of the one you’re singing. The breath, facial expression and body language should be in the character of the emotion of the upcoming phrase. Silent breathing is good – but sometimes the next emotion actually calls for a slight gasp.

7. All singers need to be aware of the story/emotion arch of the song. As a director, during a performance I sometimes feel a part of a song a little differently and perhaps more intensely, and when I show this to my singers, they follow me. But if there’s no plan set in place, everything about the performance rests on my shoulders. So if I’m having an off night the song can fall well short of its potential. When the singers know the plan, they take on the responsibility for making it work, and I can just remind them of details.

Regardless of volume or style or tempo, driving a song forward and making it exciting for an audience requires great physical, mental and emotional intensity. By the time you get to the final chord, it can feel like an Olympic triumph.

Magic Choral Trick #126 The Instructionally Overloaded Singer

Ok Directors – this one’s for you.

As a singer who’s sung in choirs all my life I’m going to remind you of something that we all know, but tend to regularly forget.

When you stop a song to give the singers instructions it’s a good idea to limit the number of requests to approximately one. If the choir members are to do justice to whatever improvement you want, they need to think about only that, and not be desperately trying to remember what your other two points were.

Keep in mind that at any given moment a singer’s head may already be filled with:

– technique stuff (‘I just can’t seem to sing that high note freely’)

– other physical things (‘Wow – I hope we get to sit down soon – my feet are really hurting’, or ‘Why does she insist on wearing perfume when she knows how it affects me’)

– other mental tasks that are unrelated to choir rehearsal (‘How am I going to get hold of a plumber by the time the new sink arrives?’)

If your choir is fresh and it’s still early in the evening, you can keep going back over the spot until you’ve incorporated all the improvements. But if it’s late I generally ask several singers to remember one point each and ask them to remind me about these after rehearsal.

I used to have to write these down, but today in the era of the iphone and the blackberry, a choir member will just send me an email immediately – which is there when I get home, and when I’m planning the next week’s rehearsal.

One more thing about when you stop your group to say something. You may be tempted to deliver long musicological treatises, or diatribes about ‘trying harder’. Please, please, please refrain. Be really specific and move on. All they want to do is sing.

Magic Choral Trick #125 24 Hours – That’s All This Phrase Has Got

The subject of 24 hour memory comes up quite a lot in the private lessons I teach, and nowhere is it more obvious than at kids’ piano lessons.

Here’s what seems to be true.

Once a musical correction is made, unless it’s reinforced within the next 24 hours, the body/subconscious thinks that this new information is unimportant and lets it go.

So I tell my students that I want them to practise 5 days in the coming week. (I know, only 5 – perhaps I’m not enough of an ogre.) The kicker is that the first 2 days have to be tomorrow and the day after. If they wait longer than that, their brains and their hands seem to forget all of the work we’ve done at the lesson, and they spend the rest of the week catching up to where they were at the end of the lesson, rather than building on what they achieved.

Experience has taught me that the same is even more true for adult choirs. Certainly my memory is nothing like it used to be, but if I do some intensive work for a couple of days in a row, I can move whatever it is that I’ve learned into muscle memory. Once my body takes over from my brain, that information is there to stay.

I often record a couple of songs at rehearsal, then email out the sound files the next day and ask for feedback. Most choir members are interested in hearing what they sounded like, so at the very least, everyone is listening (within 24 hours) to the end result of the rehearsal – and being reminded of any changes. Even the act of listening to the changes reinforces to the brain that this information is worth remembering.

Magic Choral Trick #124 One Baby Step

Once upon a time before I realized that I was a truly useless salesperson I used to drive around listening to Multi Level Marketing coaching tapes in my car.

One of my all time favourites was a Time Management tape that gave me a great tip about creating positive changes in my life. They suggested that I draw a wheel, and have the spokes of the wheel be the things I wanted in life.

The next step was to decide which of these was the easiest to begin working on, and give that task top priority every day. It could be a very simple thing – like wanting to be healthier. If I decide that eating more green vegetables would point me in this direction, then I make eating green vegetables every single day a priority.

If I follow through and do this every single day for a week, I will feel the satisfaction of having kept my word, I will feel successful and I may even feel healthier.

Now instead of merely working on green veggies, I’ve probably also kicked started some of my other goals that I’ve named as spokes of the wheel.

You may be asking how this relates to choirs.

I decided about ten years ago that one of the spokes on the wheel for my women’s Barbershop chorus was that I wanted them to sing with matched vowels. Every rehearsal for almost a year I included some work on matching the vowel ‘ee’.

What I discovered was that when we matched just that one vowel, the blend, the balance, the tuning and the quality of singing improved a little. In other words, by just focusing on one small part of the plan, the entire plan shifted and everything got better.

So the moral of this story is that even if you’re completely overwhelmed by the number of things I’ve been suggesting for the last five months – if you choose just one thing and stick with that, I think you’ll notice some of the other good things happening too.

To quote one of my favourite MLM tapes, “All you can do is all you can do – but all you can do is enough.”

Magic Choral Trick #123 Enprettification

Yep – my own word for the mannered techniques singers use to allegedly prettify the sound, or to emphasize the emotion.

I guess the main challenge here is to understand the boundaries of what’s accepted in the song’s style. Just as goat trills don’t belong in a sports stadium rendition of the National Anthem, many soloist affectations do not belong in any kind of choral music. (Although just about anything goes for opera choruses – as long as the sound is big big big.)

Here are the most notable of the techniques that some well meaning choir members use in an attempt to make their sound, and by extension, the sound of the choir, more lovely or more heartfelt.

1. People who’ve listened to a lot of operatic style singing feel that it’s desirable to start every high note about a tone and a half below the note, then slide up to it. This is pretty standard with opera singers, but will delay the locking in of a choral chord for the duration of the gliss, and temporarily turn that choir member into a soloist.

2. The downward gliss from one note to a lower note is often used to show tenderness, but creates the same problems as in #1 above.

3. Prettying up the end of every phrase by removing support, and allowing some wobble into the sound. I’ve observed this in soloists for years and believe that it’s an attempt to display a charming fragility. It’s never worked for me when I hear soloists do it – and for choirs, it can turn a solid ringing final chord into something much less.

4. Adding extra emotion at the beginning of a heartfelt phrase by singing a little bagpipe swoop up to the note, from just underneath. If the word begins with a vowel, there’s often a hearty glottal attack.

When I was studying with my Vancouver voice teacher Luigi, he taught me that the human voice when it’s produced clearly and freely is stunningly beautiful.

If the song is well written, all it needs from the singer is clean singing. The character of the voice, and the character of the singer – without the doilies and frills – are all that’s needed to make each expression of the song unique, fresh and honest.

However, some styles do call for the occasional affectation. In choirs this has to be a unified group expression.

Magic Choral Trick #122 Eyes Closed – Synchronization

I just scanned through my list of previous posts and can’t believe I haven’t yet mentioned this one.

When the synchronization is not yet locked in for a particular phrase I ask my choir members to close their eyes and sing it. It usually takes only a couple of repetitions to clean it up – though by the next week it’ll need to be reinforced.

I think what’s happening here is that with the eyes closed, the Spidey Senses are activated. It’s probably a holdover, imprinted from earlier times, from when we had to listen for sabre toothed tigers in the dark.

I say this because singing together with eyes closed activates not only a greater ability to listen, but also a more keen intuitive sense of group. It reminds me of those flocks of birds that all swoop around together in perfect formation. I’m quite sure there isn’t one guy at the back yelling out “swoop left and downwards at 30 degrees!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if a choir singing with eyes closed turns on some sort of switch that makes us aware of a group energy field. This is also the sort of awareness that we seem to switch on when we walk into a room where there’s a group of people who all know each other – but not us. We immediately pick up a sense of this new group as we stay alert for signs of welcome or disapproval.

Synchronization isn’t the only technical aspect that’s improved with singing with the eyes closed. Blend and balance also work better. Because of this, I try to incorporate some eyes closed time into rehearsals as often as possible.

Magic Choral Trick #121 The Video is Our Friend

Sometimes we live in a fluffy pink world where we’re smart, savvy, clever and really good at what we do. Then we see ourselves on video.

The video is our friend the way only the best of friends will tell you that you have something green and leafy stuck in your teeth.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the video, in the digital age, is that it can be viewed on your computer in the privacy of your own home. This does not need to be a public humiliation.

From a director’s or a chorus choreographer’s point of view, the video is the best possible tool for letting people know, in a kind way, what they look like as they sing and move. No hurt feelings, nobody gets singled out – and better yet, it takes everything out of the realm of someone else’s opinion. When a singer is doing something differently from everyone else, it’s obvious.

I’ve often said to choirs that I’d like them to exaggerate any facial expressions, and that when they give me too much, I’ll let them know. I think that in 35 years, I might have asked only 3 or 4 people for slightly less facial movement. Nowadays, they just need to see the video once and they understand.

When we watch ourselves on video, most of us are shocked by either our lack of facial expression, or the physical things that we’re doing that’ll single us out to an audience. This includes the individual quirky things that we may never have noticed – like fixing hair or clothes, scratching or grimacing.

Many singers are so self conscious about the possibility of overdoing it, that they tend to underplay the planned visual aspects of their performance. However, when there’s one inactive face in a sea of expressive ones – guess who’s going to stand out.

Recording one or two pieces a week with a video camera with good quality sound can serve as a tool for education and for documenting progress, but can also be a vital part of recording the choir’s history. We never know just how much those videos may mean to us some day.

Magic Choral Trick #120 Tiger Eyes

I remember when I was doing daily Tai Chi in front of a VHS Tai Chi tape I used to have that one of the exercises involved a Sumo/Warrior stance and slow motion punching while the eyes were trained ferociously on a single point. The idea was that Chi is drawn in with the breath and then expelled through the eyes while doing the slow motion punch.

Small doses of this look was usually all it ever took to remind my own kids that they were straying a bit close to the line.

How does this relate to singing?

When a singing student hasn’t quite enough focus in the sound I often ask them to think of something that has really annoyed them during the course of their day. I get them to keep refreshing this image in their mind – experiencing and re-experiencing the annoyance – and express this through wide open eyes. The ferocious intensity expressed through the eyes reminds me of the Tai Chi exercise. Although any intense emotion will work, I find that anger is the most readily accessible.

This has always produced a more focused and energized sound, and the students are happy to discover their new super power – Tiger Eyes.

Magic Choral Trick #119 Directors’ Fruitless Flailing

My goal as a director is to become superfluous. Actually superfluous, and not just regarded as such by the group singing in front of me. If I’ve run intense, productive rehearsals, by the time we get to the gig they should need only the occasional cue.

I was thinking about this the other night during my Med School choir’s performance. We have a terrific accompanist – so there’s no need to beat time. We use music for songs that the singers now know really well. And they all know ‘the plan’ for each song. I was revelling in the fact that I felt like a third wheel. All I had to do was look encouragingly at them, should they happen to look up – oh yes, and do the odd director-like thing for the sake of impressing the audience.

At least, this is what it felt like. Videos have a habit of showing us far more flailing than we ever thought we were doing.

Whenever I see myself on video, even if it’s improved since the last time, I always think Yikes! Why would anyone bother watching that?

When I over direct it’s a little like chatter. Sooner or later even the important stuff will be ignored by people I was hoping to communicate with. (Sort of like living with only menfolk, now that my daughters have moved out. Everything I say had better be vital if I’m not going to be tuned out. The house is much quieter now.)

As an exercise in humility during rehearsal I’ll often go and sit down to listen to my women’s Barbershop chorus. Because we’ve done such intensive synchronization work, they really don’t need me at all for about 85% of each song we sing. Just a small cue here and there for timing, or reminders about vocal technique or colour.

So I guess the moral of this story is that rehearsal technique is everything – and that given the opportunity, a chorus will happily take on the responsibility for what happens at the performance. And as for the Fruitless Flailing – I should just cut that out.

Magic Choral Trick #118 Eyebrow Activity

Here’s some stuff that I’ve noted about the way we interact with audiences:

Audiences listen about 50% with their eyes. What they see is what their brains think they’re hearing.

In any face to face communication with someone, we’re listening to what they’re saying, but we’re also on high alert for any non verbal cues.

When people are speaking to us, we make eye contact – and our eyes are an integral part of the conversation.

Babies respond to very simple line drawings of smiley faces or angry faces.

Audiences are often just a little too far away to see the choir members’ eyes – but eyebrows are visible.

Some people have naturally expressive faces. Some people don’t.

If we collect together this data, what we end up with is a picture of how important it is to have our faces matching the emotion of the song.

However, I have been known to settle for a choral faces that show only a modest amount of interest. What’s the best way to fake this?

Raise the eyebrows.

With the eyebrows raised, that face cannot look slack and disinterested. It also can’t adopt the knitted brows of anger. (Always a bit off-putting when the emotion is supposed to be sweet or tender)

The bottom line here is that there’s nothing quite as intriguing as someone who is vitally interested in communicating with us. Audiences love the fact that a performer appears to be making the effort – and from a distance, raised eyebrows might be all it takes.

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