Monthly Archives: May 2012

Magic Choral Trick #140 Many Hands, Light Work

I was reflecting the other day on the amount of work that goes on, often behind the scenes, in order for a Barbershop chorus to run smoothly. I thought you might be interested in the list of jobs that the people in my women’s chorus take on for a year at a time.

Committee List – 2012

AC&C 2012: We’re hosting the regional competition this year

Bulletin: The newsletter

Charities: Our main charities are Autism, and Romero House (the local soup kitchen)

Choreographer: Works with team to create and teach the choreography. Also stands out in front to make adjustments or suggestions about movement and faces.

ChoreoTeam: Team that works with choreographer and assists in the teaching

Costume Chairs: Head up the costume committee and are in charge of bringing major costume decisions to the chorus

Costume Committee: One of the jobs of the costume committee is to make sure that the director – who has no closets in her house – has the correct outfit.

Costume-Make-up / Jewellery: The keepers of the chorus make up and jewellery – which are brought to every performance. Also make decisions about any changes to the colour scheme of the make up or to the style of the jewellery

Fund Raising: In charge of raising funds to help the chorus with expenses like travel and hotel when we go away to competition

50/50: We have a weekly draw at rehearsal

Historian: The chorus history book is entered in a competition at every convention.

Liaison: Any complaints or concerns can go through this person

Music Chair: Heads up the music team which assists the director to choose, buy and send out new music and sound files. The section leaders are on this team, and often will call separate sectional rehearsals.

Music Librarian : Organises all music and receipts. Prepares guest books containing current repertoire

Parliamentarian: Always someone familiar with the chorus’ standing rules and bylaws

Performances: The contact person for performances

Photographers: Documentation of special events, birthdays, awards

Public Relations: Absolutely essential to keep the chorus in the public eye

Quartet Promotion: Sets up activities that encourage people to try singing in smaller groups

Road Manager: Helps us all to stay together and not get lost when we travel

Sergeant at Arms: So the director never has to ask for the attention of the group

Social: Very important – tea and goodies for meetings and social functions

Sunshine: Makes sure birthday greetings, congratulations, or condolences are sent out from the chorus

Telephone: When the chorus really needs to be called, and not just emailed

Videography: Videos the chorus frequently, posts online and sends the secure link to chorus members

Website Manager: In charge of keeping our online presence up to date


Magic Choral Trick #139 Marking Formed and Unformed Vowels On the Sheet Music

I was asked recently how I would get a choir to sing more musically – especially when it comes to more appropriate word stresses.

The singers need to know:

That all syllables are not created equal (Post #43 )

That all vowels were not created equal in the context of singing in English. Some are formed, and some are unformed. (Post #’s 14 and 15 and )

That if they fix just these two things (which are related, because every unaccented syllable needs an unformed vowel) people will suddenly notice how much more ‘musically’ they’re singing.

I’ve found that real learning of these two things takes a very long time to become habit, but that it’s really worth the consistent effort.

And although it may initially seem a bit labour intensive, the best way to start work on this is to mark the formed and unformed vowels right into the score. I use the spelling out of the formed vowel (‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘ee’) and just a little wiggly line above the unformed vowels.

It also works best if the singers mark the sheet music themselves – although it’s ok for the director to mark these in the score prior to photocopying something you’ve bought online. I find the singers take more responsibility for noticing their own markings – but if the director has included them on the master copy, rehearsal time is not used, and everyone’s markings are identical.

Magic Choral Trick #138 Matching Vocal and Visual Dynamics

Tracey, the clever, clever choreographer for my women’s chorus came up with something today that is so simple and so obvious I can’t believe this was the first time I’d ever heard it suggested.

Just as we (in Barbershop circles) talk about vocal dynamic levels as going from 1 to 5 (what in other circles would be from pianissimo to fortissimo), she suggested that we use exactly the same system for calibrating the ‘dynamic’ of physical involvement.

So just as we rehearse singing a chord at each of the dynamic levels, we rehearsed the different physical levels of involvement.

It makes such sense to have the facial and body intensity match the volume level of the phrase.

I’ll let you know how this goes, but I’m going to be incorporating both of these types of dynamic level into the warm up from now on!

Magic Choral Trick #137 Presentation – Eyes Closed

I’ve learned that there are several useful things to know about Presentation and closing the eyes.

The first – and pretty much a cardinal rule is never to close your eyes during a performance, unless you’re singing about closing your eyes. But maybe not even then. When you shut your eyes, you shut out your audience – they can’t see in, and that’s what they really want. The subliminal message that you send when you close your eyes is that you don’t want to communicate with them.

The second useful piece of information is that when the chorus knows the song from memory, it’s amazing how much more emotion they’ll put into the song when their eyes are closed. Obviously, this should be done only in rehearsal – and works best if they’re given a few emotional marker words for any different sections of the song. For rehearsal purposes it also works well to construct an actual story as it might relate to individual members. Ultimately though, I have never found that a really specific story line will work for every member of the chorus.

If the story is about the heartbreak of a love affair gone wrong, there will be people in the chorus who can’t relate to that particular narrative. But everyone understands heartbreak – about something or someone, and disappointment or sadness.

However, whether you all choose just the emotions, or the whole story, having the chorus rehearse with eyes closed seems to allow people the freedom to sing with more expressive faces.

The third piece of eyes closed information is a really useful trick.

Although the chorus has to have eyes open at all times, the director doesn’t. I find that I’m much more in touch with the emotion of the song if my eyes are closed. I’m told by people watching the chorus that when I’m directing with my eyes closed (and I’m imagining singing the song) the singers’ faces are much more expressive!

And the singers themselves report that they felt the emotions more deeply as they watched my face.

Perhaps they also felt a little more expansive emotionally, and less guarded when I wasn’t watching them. Because of the director/choir member dynamic, many feel that they are being individually evaluated – and tend to hold back so as not to stand out. If an entire chorus is suddenly freed from me watching them, there’s no need to worry about being singled out, and emotionally, they’re free to let ‘er rip.

Magic Choral Trick #136 Slow Motion Chords

From the time we begin to sing in choirs we’re encouraged to think of our part as a horizontal, flowing line. This is a very fine place from which to start. And it’s also ultimately where we want to end up – with every singer being really conscious of phrasing.

However, somewhere in the rehearsal time between these two points, because choirs sing in harmony, we need to become experts at also thinking vertically.

Directors – Slow Motion Chords may not make you popular in the short term, but eventually when your choir is locking in the chords and raising all kinds of goose bumps, they’ll thank you. Well, maybe not, but they will appreciate your determination.

I’ve been known to spend up to half an hour on cleaning up the chords in the first 8 bars of a song. Singers are often reluctant to begin this exercise – but after a while, when the chords are working, being in the presence of this kind of ringing sound is thrilling.

In case you’re unclear what I mean by Slow Motion Chords – it’s just singing beat after beat in slow motion, giving the singers’ ears time to listen to the chord and make any necessary adjustments. Of course, this works best with a piece that’s already homophonic, and not something contrapuntal.

Once they hear what the chord should be, I ask them to see if they can lock it in immediately with a clean attack, clean pitch and crystal clear target vowel – on my beat.

In addition to tuning, and helping singers to balance a chord, this technique also requires rock steady singing of each note – so unbeknownst to the chorister, they’re also working on support, and keeping the target vowel relaxed and free. Both of these are vital to sustaining both the vertical chord, and the colour and sweep of the vocal line.

Magic Choral Trick #135 Palm Push

When my choruses or choirs are being coached by judges, adjudicators or someone that we’ve brought in, there are always moments when the expert from more than 50 miles away says exactly what I’ve been saying – usually for years – and the chorus nods at this great wisdom. They then proceed to put this technique into practice, and the results are stellar.

Well – that’s the way it used to be with my women’s chorus – which for me was pretty discouraging.

Now we all know better. When a coach says something that they’ve been hearing from me, they chuckle first, then smiling at me (sometimes sheepishly), they do what’s being asked.

At this point we’re all smiling because we now know that it often takes many different expressions of an idea for the whole chorus to understand what’s being requested. And I am now very very grateful when a coach provides me with a new tool that helps with an old issue.

The Palm Push is just another technique that helps carry dynamic energy to the end of a phrase. In earlier blogs I’ve mentioned Elastic Bands, Toes Through the Soles of the Shoes, Breathing Out and Cloud Lifting.

Oh yes – I’d better tell you what to do. As the end of the phrase approaches, begin to press the heels of the hands together – increasing the pressure till the end of the phrase. When we do this it seems to work best if the heels of the hands are together, the right hand fingers are pointing left and the left hand’s fingers are pointing right (but all fingers are fairly relaxed). My right hand is usually on top, and the left, underneath. This is not actually intended to be a demonstration of great strength – just slightly more and more pressure out to the end of the phrase.

Interestingly, Toes Through the Soles of the Shoes and Palm Push work best with my men’s Barbershop chorus, and Breathing Out and Cloud Lifting seem to work best for the women. But with 5 techniques to choose from, sooner or later everyone will understand what rich full phrase endings feel like.

Magic Choral Trick #134 Trumpet Lips

This trick comes under the heading of guiding the voice further forward in the mouth.

Unlike the Brass Buzz in which the lips are in the player’s lip position, Trumpet Lips copies the shape of the trumpet’s bell.

Yes it does feel foolish, but it will bring the sound forward, and brighten the vocal quality of the whole group. It’s also impossible to form this shape without also narrowing the opening through which we’re singing. Narrow cheeks, and narrow air column is always good for focusing the sound.

Magic Choral Trick #133 Target Pitches

I just emailed out a list of Target Pitches to my women’s Barbershop chorus. I didn’t want them to be overwhelmed, so I chose six chords on one page for them to stop on, and check with their Korg Tuners.

Here’s an Example of what I did.

Bar 22 – on the word BEAT

Tenor – C sharp (3rd of the chord)

Lead – A (Root)

Baritone – G (7th)

Bass – E (5th)

They already know that if they have the Root or the 5th of the chord that they’ll be singing with a slightly greater dynamic level than the parts singing the 3rd or the 7th. So in addition to working on chorus tuning at home, they’ll also be working on chord balancing.

If all my chorus members actually take 5 minutes a day (being helped along with motivation by ) to work on the six chords I sent out, I think it would be the equivalent of at least an hour’s worth of rehearsal time.

They’ve had the Target Pitches for the first page for a while, and the tuning has actually improved quite dramatically.

The next step is to combine this work with the motivation – for all of us – to do something every single day about the quality of singing and performing.

Magic Choral Trick #132 Why We Work So Hard At This

This Trick is not a physical tip about singing, but simply a reminder about the depth of work in which choirs and choruses are involved.

Here are some of the reasons why I work so hard at this:

The joy of being part of a group of people all intensely focused on excellence

The energy and feeling of rejuvenation at the end of a great rehearsal

The physical sensation of being enveloped by the sound of voices singing in harmony. It feels like it’s good for us.

We’ve all envied those flocks of birds that swoop and soar and dive all in perfect formation. This is the next best thing. The sense of the group energy field feels ennobling

The women’s Barbershop organization that I belong to has a wonderful slogan: “Ordinary Women Making Extraordinary Music”. Just calling what we do extraordinary makes us all want to do and be more.

The encouragement of excellence is not something that shows up regularly in most of our lives. What makes this experience exceptional is that we as individuals are not exceptional. Music making at this level becomes the embodiment of exhilarating teamwork.

And of course there are the goose bumps – forearm, neck and scalp, and full body goose bumps.

Magic Choral Trick #131 Training Wheels and Muscle Memory

I remember always having to keep my lips in a sort of tall narrow rectangle shape when I was first studying the Bel Canto technique. It felt exaggerated – but it did allow my voice to become much more focused. (Well – that shape and a number of other things that have now become habit)

I can now sing with my mouth in just about any shape and create a focused sound.

My kids used training wheels on their bikes until I was sure that they’d be able to balance without them. Thinking about balance gave way to trying to go faster or do very cool stopping tricks.

Young people here have to spend a year or so driving around with a licensed driver beside them until they’re allowed to even try their road test.

So – my dear students and chorus members – yes, you really, really, really do need to do your practising using Moustache Hands – or any of the other Magic Tricks that work well for you, no matter how tiresome or unsightly. And keep using these techniques until they’re no longer necessary.

Please be assured that muscle memory will eventually kick in – in exactly the same way that you no longer have to think about how to move your hands when you brush your teeth, or put on the kettle or drive your car. You’ll be able to graduate to the next new embarrassing thing that I get told about, or that I think up.

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