Monthly Archives: April 2012

Magic Choral Trick #117 Adjusting the Vocal Colour

Now this stuff is fun to play with!

Even if your choir has developed its own signature sound, there will be times when you’ll want to modify the vocal colour to express different emotions, or to recreate another style of singing.

In my Med School choir I’m asking the sopranos to use hooty treble production, and the altos and basses to be almost non existent and slightly breathless in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Long Day Closes”. But when we close the show with “Consider Yourself” I encourage a ‘let ‘er rip’ Broadway vocal style. (And in this style I’m much less fastidious about synchronization)

Here are various points on the vocal colour spectrum – from dark to bright.

1. Plummy, ‘He shall feed His Flock’ production. Open throated – space for a small hardboiled egg in the back of the throat – little dangly thingy lifted – but no forward placement. It feels like the sound is going up through the top of the head.

I also call this the ‘Dame Edna/Margaret Thatcher’ production. Very useful for getting a rich dark sound from a choir – makes what you’re singing sound very serious.

Blending this type of sound is very easy.

2. Variation of the Dame Edna – add a little vibrato (or even a microscopic bit of wobble) and you get a lush fruity sound (Thank you Denise Narcisse-Mair – who used to ask the Queen’s Choral Ensemble for more “Fruit”)

3. Hooty, white sound. Very straight production with virtually no vibrato. Similar in placement to the ‘Dame Edna’ but a more lightweight, heady version. Most of the vowel sounds used with this placement are variations of ‘oo’. You can hear a little ‘oo’ or a covered ‘oh’ in all the vowels. (Not to be confused with having all the vowels be as narrow as ‘oo’ – but their own distinct sound – which is what I usually ask for.)

4. Default setting – forward, but warm choral sound. Moustache Hands and space between the back teeth. Using lots of Warm Air. Keep consciously breathing out on all sustained notes. Sound in your own head should be a little thin and edgy.

5. A little brighter – good for up tunes where you want to show off the synchronization, and need to give the impression that everyone is having a good time. The best way I know to get this brightness is to have the choir sing a phrase in their Jerry Lewis or full frontal assault Edith Bunker voices – then have them sing the phrase again ‘normally’. The placement will have moved further forward, and the sound will be brighter.

6. Sometimes instead of allowing the sound to stay this forward (#5 – above), the choir will gradually forget and the sound will revert to something more plummy. At that point I just ask for an eye dropperful of Jerry/Edith to be added back into the mix.

7. At the bright end of the spectrum, but still a vocally acceptable choral sound is the slightly brash Broadway colour. As long as the singers are not feeling this production back in their throats, it should be fine to use occasionally for a splash of aural excitement.


Magic Choral Trick #116 Legato Painting

I wonder why it’s so difficult to use words to have people understand the concept of legato – especially English speaking singers.

Italian singers get it. But then Italian is a vowel heavy language – with pure vowels, so their tongues get used to moving quickly, in a relaxed way, from one clean vowel to the next.

In English there’s always a fresh new hell of tongue tension looming – from syllable to syllable to syllable.

In our early music lessons, we all learn that legato means smooth. But our music teachers are often too overloaded with the other things that have to be taught to go on and explain that legato is also the forward energy flow of the music – regardless of the articulation. A constant wash of sound. How do we understand what that actually means?

In my experience, the best way to understand this is through physical learning – and Legato Painting is one of these ways.

Have the choir imagine that they are painting the horizontal slats of a fence with a wide brush – their hand – using very thick paint. I haven’t yet experimented with different colours to see if the sound is more legato with red paint than blue or purple – but that might prove interesting. Please let me know if you try this and come up with different results because of imagining different colours!

The hand should move slowly, with isometric pressure as the phrase is being sung – for the duration of the phrase.

With enough isometric pressure, and enough thick imaginary paint, the choir will sing more on the target vowels – which is the most important element of legato singing.

Magic Choral Trick #115 Hands Up!

To quote Maxwell Smart: “The trick is old, the trick is stupid, the trick is working!”

When singers say to me that they’re running out of breath before the end of the phrase or exercise, I know that it’s usually for one of two reasons. Air is being wasted through lack of focus in the sound (Magic Choral Trick #68), or the breath they’re taking beforehand is not free and open enough.

Here’s an old breathing trick that still works.

Put both hands and arms straight up into the air as in “Reach for the sky!” Now take in a breath and sing the phrase again.

Since this choreography is not appropriate for most songs, here’s the next step. Leaving the chest in this high position, relax the arms and shoulders down again. Breathing is more free and easy when the ribcage is floating a little higher. You’ll be less likely to be gasping for oxygen at the end of the phrase.

Magic Choral Trick #114 The Tilt of the Chin

Sometimes it’s very small things that can make a big difference.

Where does your chin sit when you sing?

Some people lift the chin a little. Some let it jut out.

For both chin positions, the vocal comfort and quality will be affected because these positions put some pressure on the larynx. Neck muscles are tighter and singing requires more effort. You’ll get vocally tired sooner, and tension in the neck will gradually spread to the jaw and shoulders – which is never fun.

As for the presentation aspect – the jutting jaw (often in combination with the scrunched up face) is used by many popular singers to show us earnestness and emotional intensity. But they pay a vocal price.

The chin that’s tilted up is sometimes an indication to me that a singer is mistakenly thinking that he or she will have more luck with the high notes if the mouth is aimed slightly upwards. (When in fact this position can actually sabotage a high note)

Presentation wise, the chin tilt can be read two ways by an audience. The first is: “I’m not really sure I can sing this note – but here goes”. The second impression is one of arrogance. If your customary chin position is tilted up, try relaxing it down more to the level, or ever so slightly downward position. Not only will singing be easier, but audiences will like you more.

Just as a footnote – in my experience, people who customarily raise the chin slightly in their day to day lives are not arrogant. They are more likely to be sensitive people who at some point have been shocked, or threatened by someone, and the raised chin is just part of that trying-to-get-away reaction that’s become habituated in the body. (Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and Cranio Sacral are some of the healing modalities that can help with this sort of thing.)

Magic Choral Trick #113 Presentation – The Emotional Story

Who’s speaking? Is the singer a witness to a story? Is the singer a mother speaking to a child, someone in trouble who needs help from the intended audience, or someone in love?

Who’s the intended audience? Is the song directed at an individual? If so, is this a love song? Is it a song directed at someone who’s done you wrong? (Goody Goody, Who’s Sorry Now?) Is it telling a story to a general audience? Is it song of praise about God, or directed to God?

What’s the message, (Hope, Peace, Love, Anger, Sadness, Unbridled Joy…) and how does it develop over the course of the song? This will have an impact on the use of tone colour, dynamics, rubato, tempo, dramatic pauses, the quiet denouement or the all-guns-blazing tag.

When is this all happening? If it’s a story about something in the past, why is the singer telling the story right now – what’s the connection? Is the song a present moment declaration of love, or a present moment plea for Divine intervention? Is it a song of hope about some future time or event?

Where is the intended listener – physically, in relation to the singer(s)? By this I don’t necessarily mean the audience that’s sitting in the seats, although sometimes the song is speaking directly to them. (Another Opening, Another Show) If the song is directed at the love of your life, it’s much more powerful if each choir member can get a sense of singing directly to them – even though they’ll have to look at them through the director’s head! If at the climax of the song the director turns around, there needs to be a clear plan about the place to where the visual focus has shifted.

Why is the song being sung? What’s in it for the character who’s singing? Why is this communication important to the singer?

Once upon a time during the est training, 200 of us in the room thought of all the possible different communications that we could imagine. Then, in a process rather like finding the lowest common denominator (in math) we broke down these communications to their essential message. For the life of me now, I can’t remember exactly how it was done, though it made such sense at the time. What I do remember vividly was that there was only ever one communication, which takes many many forms. I love you. That’s it. Once I realized this, I also saw that every song, no matter what it appears to be about, has the potential to be powerful and transformative.

Magic Choral Trick #112 Balancing the Dominant 7th Chord

Although the Dominant 7th chord appears in every genre of choral music, it’s Barbershoppers who have it as a staple part of their diet. I’ve never known any other choral musicians to take it so seriously.

The same rules apply here as with the Major chord – Root and Fifth predominant, with the Third just laid in gently. The only addition with the Dominant 7th is the 7th itself – which, like the Third is just lightly breathed into place.

This is usually not difficult to balance in a Barbershop chorus because the 7th is often given to the Tenors, who sing the top part, and who are deliberately very few in number. In a chorus of about 25 singers, the best Tenor balance would be achieved by having 2 Tenors. (though it seems that it’s always prudent to have one more in case one is laid low by illness)

In a regular choir it may take a little more reminding and convincing to get the part singing the 7th to back off a bit.

When the chord is inverted, and the Root is on the top right next to the 7th, the plan is a little different. In Barbershop this is called (for reasons that I really don’t know) a Chinese 7th.

I’m going to give the last word on this to Barbershop Harmony Society judge and coach Ig Jakovac:

“To properly balance a “Chinese seventh”, the root (typically sung by the tenor) needs to be really predominant followed by the fifth – also, I have found that there is almost never enough third in this type of chord.”

Magic Choral Trick #111 The Voice in Your Head

Nope – I’m not talking about the nagging little voice that never says anything nice, speaks to you in the second person and loves to tell you you’re stupid, fat, ugly and incompetent. That’s a post for another day.

What I mean is the quality of sound you hear in your own head when you sing.

Most people are only too aware that the speaking voice they hear on recordings of themselves is not at all what they’re accustomed to hearing in their heads. So it always mystifies me when singers are surprised that their singing voices are different from what they’re used to hearing.

This is another reason that I love the digital age. They don’t have to take my word for anything – they can just record themselves and listen.

With some voice students or choir members, I talk and talk and talk about forward placement – using all the Magic Tricks (Jerry Lewis, Brass Buzz, Zzzzz, Moustache Hands…) but something is still not quite clicking. Sometimes people need to be able to analyse the actual sound, while they’re singing. These are the folks that need to know that the sound they hear in their own heads should be quite thin, and slightly edgy and ‘unpleasant’.

I asked a singer the other day to sing a phrase with full on Jerry Lewis/Edith Bunker, then to sing the phrase again in her normal voice. Her normal voice was indeed now further forward, but I then asked her to use a half of an eyedropper full of Jerry and Edith. That wasn’t quite enough, so I asked her to use a full eyedropper of J&E – and this bright, wonderful sound popped out.

If the sound you’re hearing in your own head is rich and round and luscious, it means that the voice is getting stuck inside your head, and we’re not hearing much. In all likelihood it’ll sound to us like you’re singing through your sweatshirt.

But if you have good healthy singing habits, and the sound in your own head is a bit edgy and thin – chances are that we’re all very exited out here by your bright, lovely, ringing voice.

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