Monthly Archives: May 2012

Magic Choral Trick #150 The Fast Silent Breath

A performer’s noisy breathing can become like waiting for the next hiccup from across the exam room as you write an important paper. The sound becomes all consuming, and pretty soon that’s your sole focus of concentration. Not being quite able to predict when it’ll happen makes it worse.

Unless the singer has some very serious breathing issues, it should be possible to take in a large breath almost soundlessly. However, like so many other things that require our attention until they don’t – it has to become a muscle memory body habit.

So simple, so easy – just raise the soft palate as you breathe in (That’s the squishy area at the back of the roof of your mouth – where the dangly thing hangs down). That’s it! The mouth can still remain relaxed and neutral shaped. Even breathing in fast through the nose becomes quieter.

Perhaps you’re now thinking to yourself “How do I do that?”

Just think of creating enough space to accommodate a hard boiled egg at the back of the throat and you’ll get the idea. Or think of the beginning of a yawn and you’ll feel the soft palate rise.

With everything now this open, there should be almost no sound at all, no matter how fast a breath you take.

Magic Choral Trick #149 Lip Ring

Ok – I know this one sounds a little kooky, but it has to be heard to be believed.

I was working with some students recently, and realized that I still hadn’t managed to convey to them the huge importance of keep the air column narrow enough. They still weren’t getting it.

What I was thinking was that I really just wanted them to gather up their lips, and hold them there. Then I thought – why not?

I asked them to make a circle with the thumb and index finger (the other 3 fingers tend to stand up then like a cockatoo’s comb), and just insert their lips into the opening created by the circle.

Then I asked them to lock the lips in there with the circle, so that they couldn’t widen as the students sang a phrase. We tried this a few times, then sang the same phrase in the same position without the Lip Ring. Much clearer, much more forward.

As impressive as this is with individual singers, the difference in the brightness and clarity of the sound when a group is singing this way is very exciting.

It’s important to keep in mind that these various facial contortions that I recommend are not written in stone for all time. As soon as the singer can produce a forward, focused sound consistently, these tricks will no longer be necessary, except as an occasional reminder of how narrow the column inside the mouth needs to be.

Magic Choral Trick #148 Visual Noise

Same rules apply here as for the aural noise in the previous post.

‘Noise’ is anything that takes the audience’s attention away from the unanimity of the choir’s presentation.

I think we can probably all think of examples we’ve seen of obvious Visual Noise:

– Any repetitive motion done by one person (like pushing hair back from the face)

– One or two people swaying in rhythm while the rest of the group stands still

– Someone who is standing at a dramatically different angle from the rest of the choir

– Serious over directing while the choir or chorus stands stoically still

But there are Visual Noise things that can affect your performance more subtly

– In groups that use music even the amount of head movement as people look up and down to and from their music can be visually Noisy

– In groups that don’t use music, if every chorus member except one has Laser Eyes fastened onto the director – guess who we’re all watching.

– The singer may feel confident that concern and sincerity is what’s showing on their faces, but knitted brows come across as angry – or at the very least, worried.

Ultimately, the real task we have with Visual Noise is to have all chorus members understand that audiences listen about 50% with their eyes. Once all the singers in a group can come to accept this, the performance can be dramatically improved by making the finer and finer distinctions that we’re used to discovering when it comes to sound.

Magic Choral Trick #147 Listening For Noise

I’m always fascinated by the development of a skill, and how we go happily along for ages feeling that what we’re doing is exactly right – until someone points the way to a distinction that we haven’t been making.

Until Judy Comeau (director of A Cappella Showcase) mentioned ‘Noise’ during a coaching session, I had never thought of thinking of misaligned phrase beginnings and endings, and other synchronization problems in those terms. Noise is what you’re hearing that makes a chorus’ sound less clean than it could be. Noise happens when fine distinctions are not made. And progress happens when we have a better understanding of what we need to listen for.

Here are some examples of what creates Noise.

Unmatched vowels
Consonant blends that don’t clear together before the vowel on the beat
Diphthongs that don’t turn at exactly the same time
Breathing between words by a couple of individuals when there’s no planned breath
Scooping and slides that aren’t part of the plan
A voice with more vibrato than the rest of the group
A section of the choir that’s out of sync with the other sections (Often the basses have to work a little harder to navigate their part quickly enough)
Tuning (But most of us already know about this one)

There are many others. This blog is full of things we could all be listening to. But I’ve found that the secret is to just pick one thing, listen for that, and keep correcting it for several weeks until the new approach becomes habit.

I like to send out a sound file from rehearsal to the Barbershop choruses so that they can assess for themselves if there’s been any progress with Noise reduction.

Yes, it’s a long and intense task that will never end – but the small glorious triumphs along the way make it all worthwhile.

Magic Choral Trick #146 He Shall Feed His Flock Dame Edna

This is an interesting sound idea to take to a choir, and is useful as a trick for getting a temporarily darker sound.

Since I need to describe this in words, I’d call it a very open throated – but swallowed sound. Although this is the sort of voice we tend to associate with men pretending to speak like women, women can get the same effect by using their low, big girl covered voices. In fact men can use this voice in their lower registers when they’re pretending to be Russian army chorus members – or at least our impression of the stereotypical Russian choir sound.

(Guys – this is for you. Doesn’t get much more butch than this clip of a 1984 Soviet Army parade with overdubbed choir))

The ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’ in the title refers of course to the Alto aria from Handel’s Messiah. When we think of this aria, we tend to hear it in our heads as sung by a big rich fruity voice – like Leontyne Price’s.

And Dame Edna sounds like this:

I’m in no way recommending this high soft palate, sound placed on the roof of the mouth production for extended periods of time – but when appropriate, it can add a lovely rich dark colour to the vocal spectrum of choral sound.

Magic Choral Trick #145 When Less (Directing) is Much More

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of singing group in front of which we wave our arms – we over direct them all.

Most children watch only our faces anyway, and tend to sing only what’s been religiously drilled and drilled. They’re usually not much for following spontaneous hand movements.

Church choirs need to keep producing anthem after anthem, week in and week out – so don’t have the luxury of a ton of rehearsal on the one piece. All they want from us is beginnings and endings of phrases. Apart from that, they’d prefer that we just left them alone!

My Med School choir has a fabulous accompanist – and since we do mostly very rhythmic songs, and they always use music, they really don’t need me to keep the beat. In fact, by the time we perform, they probably don’t need me at all. But apparently my presence is reassuring.

And Barbershop choruses – well, they need to be so well rehearsed before a competition, that you’d think I’d know by now to just back off, and show them only the most essential details.

I seem fated to have to learn the too much directing lesson over and over and over with my Barbershop choruses. Sisyphus, that’s me – except I could choose not to keep pushing that rock up the hill.

There are several up sides to minimal directing:

The chorus takes more responsibility for being synchronized – and listens more intently. When they really listen, blend, balance and tuning will also be better.

The chorus does not come to depend on me for remembering the emotional and dynamic plan.

In the final rehearsals I can leave them alone to sing, and go to the back of the hall and listen.

During the performance, a director who’s showing mostly just phrase lifts and cut offs is not a visual distraction. In fact, by moving only as much as the individual singers are moving I become invisible, and the audience is able to focus on the chorus and their performance.

Magic Choral Trick #144 Stance – Better Sound, Better Presentation

The other day when I was having to wait for an hour or so in a room where there was no chair for me to sit on, I spent some wall time. I stood with my feet slightly out from the wall, and my hips, shoulders and the back of my head touching the wall. What I felt was the slightly achy release of some of the tension that I carry in my neck, shoulders and upper arms. And I began to think that a little daily posture time would do us all a world of good.

When we slouch even a little, the chest falls, and when it does, the chin juts out ever so slightly. The jutting chin actually causes some pressure on the larynx, which reduces the amount and quality of sound when we sing in that position.

You may notice only a very slight difference in the richness of the sound when it’s just the one singer – but when an entire group has pressure on the larynx, the difference is huge.

Here are some stance tricks that I use.

1. Raise the arms above the head and stretch up. Now lower the shoulders and then the arms – but leave the chest in that high position. Focus on the relaxation of the arms and shoulders while leaving the chest where it is. It’s impossible for the jaw to jut out while the chest is high.

2. Stand with the arms out to the side – airplane style, with palms of the hands down. Now turn over the palms of both hands so that they are facing upwards. Feel the upward shift in the placement of the chest. (This one is courtesy of Fiona Blackburn, who directs the BC Girls’ Choir)

3. For any of you who have ever played basketball – imagine that you are guarding a very tall player, but keep your arms down at your sides. Notice the high chest and your weight on the balls of your feet. Notice also the slightly excited feeling of being ready for whatever your next move needs to be. If this is the way a singer is actually feeling, the audience will pick up on the excitement.

It’s interesting how we often take mood cues from our bodies. A really obvious example of this is when we have too much caffeine. We actually start to believe that there’s something to be very anxious about – when really it’s just that we’ve poisoned ourselves a little bit. This can also work in the reverse. We can trick ourselves into exhilaration by choosing to have our bodies behave the way they would in that state. And if we can initially fool ourselves, it will become real. (In the same way that a group of people faking laughter will eventually actually start laughing hysterically.)Then we’ll exude that joy and excitement to the audience.

4. Stand in a ‘normal’ position. Imagine that there’s a large helium balloon attached to your upper chest, and that it’s gradually raising you up, almost lifting you off the ground. I find that when I do this there is once again an achy release of tension in my neck, shoulders and upper arms – like when I hold a stretch. (Well, I guess I am actually stretching, but it doesn’t feel self generated)

5. The last stance trick that I use regularly with my competitive Barbershop choruses is the ‘pretend you’re a last place chorus’ – then a third place, a second place and finally a championship chorus. Slightly corny I know – but fun and really effective at transforming the sound and the visual presentation.

Magic Choral Trick #143 Rehearsing the Chorus for Onstage Nerves

Some of my women’s chorus were reminiscing recently about the first time they sang with the chorus in a competition.

Some were unable to actually get any sound out. Some completely blanked out on the first word of the first song. Some had such dry mouths that the inside of their upper lips were sticking to their teeth. Then of course, there’s always the dreaded quivering leg that just won’t quit no matter how you shift your weight.

It’s in times like this that the body seems to come up with all new entertainments that keep our time onstage from becoming dull.

Even when the performance is so well rehearsed that it is stored completely in body memory, a good case of nerves can cause things to get a little wonky.

The only way to rehearse for nerves is to put yourself in a position where you’re nervous.

Before any important solo recital I use to arrange to sing the program for a singer friend or two – so that I’d be just nervous enough to be able to rehearse how to handle the nerves.

We can do the same thing for our chorus members by having small groups – even half the singers, to begin with – come out in front and perform the contest songs for the rest of the group. The performers know that the people for whom they’re singing understand exactly what they should be hearing and seeing – which makes the whole thing quite stressful.

I’ve found that once people have done this a few times, they’re so happy to be singing with the whole chorus again that even being on stage in competition isn’t as nerve wracking.

Magic Choral Trick #142 Head Voice, Chest Voice and That Flippy Spot

We all know that brash, powerful belting feeling of blasting out a Broadway tune in our best chest voices. But as we get higher – oops, something cracks and we have to switch into our flutey boy soprano head voices.

Some singers in the popular realm have turned this yodelling effect into a trademark. (Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan)

It’s useful to have both versions of your voice in your singing arsenal – but like any kind of vocal colour specialty, neither one is very useful if you want a consistent sound from the bottom to the top of your range.

So how do we blend the two? Simple, but not easy – which is why daily technique practice for a while is necessary.

Try these techniques from older posts (below), using your own favourite warm up exercises. The first two posts talk about the narrowness that you’ll need, and Moustache Hands brings the sound forward in the mouth (also really necessary in order to avoid the flippy thing)

Let me know how you do with this.

You can keep track yourself of how you’re progressing by doing full vocal range glissandi, (sliding from your lowest notes right up to the top ones) seeing if you can keep the production free, easy and all in the same place – with no cracking or yodelling.

Narrow Narrow Narrow

How Narrow? Whistle Narrow

Moustache Hands

Magic Choral Trick #141 How Narrow? Whistle Narrow

Been teaching singing now for more than 30 years and have been experimenting with physical techniques and imagery to help students understand just how narrow the column formed by the mouth needs to be.

Yes, it will feel foolish and ridiculous now, but once the air (the white noise or sssssss) is gone from the voice, it’s possible to have a focused sound with your face in almost any shape. The trick is daily technique practice through the narrow shape until the focus locks in.

If visualizing travelling through a deep crevice, or singing with the insides of your cheeks creating a vertical column isn’t working for you try this. Whistle.

Leave your face in that position, but free up both lips to form whatever vowel you need. When I whistle my tongue has some tension in it. Both the tongue and lips, especially the upper lip, need to relax.

And of course, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the best way to get the tongue to behave is to tell it that you’re scanning it for tension. If you just tell it to relax it becomes useless lump of flaccid muscle – and not much good for forming a vowel.

So – the corners of the mouth need to be close together, and the lips and tongue free, and able to form the vowel you want.

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