Monthly Archives: June 2012

Magic Choral Trick #163 More About Standing Arrangement

I wrote earlier about how to organize who stands where.

I just want to emphasize that there’s more at work here than just voice size and quality – and sometimes it’s just dumb luck that brings you to the best arrangement.

Almost any change you make will initially make things better. I suppose what’s happening is that people are so surprised by how different everything sounds, that there’s suddenly a lot more listening being done.

And it may just be by chance that chorus members discover that they hear things like timbre and tuning better with one ear than the other. I know that when I teach private voice lessons the singer has to be on my right in order for me to be able to do the magic thing when I can feel in my own mouth and throat what’s happening with their production. My right ear has spidey senses. There’s nothing wrong with the hearing in my left ear – I just seem to process the information quite differently.

When this is multiplied by the number of singers in a group, the potential for immediate improvement can be spectacular.

I’ve also received advice over the years to alternate the ‘leaners’ and the ‘leaders’ – or the people with forward placement between people with a naturally more dark vocal sound.

For now, I’ve come to the decision that people need to be told where their customary resonance sits – forward/bright, hooty/heady, far back/dark, or primarily chest. Armed with this information, they can play around with resonance till they match the singers on either side (

My other rule (for now) about all this is to avoid putting people with a big, really bright forward sound in the front row.

Magic Choral Trick #162 What You Always Do, You Always Do

Been watching a fly bumping up against the window over and over and over. I guess he wants to go outside, but has only the one strategy and isn’t able to notice that it isn’t working.

Flies get to be experts at bumping into windows.

This post could also be titled ‘What You Always Do, You Do Well’. So here are two of the window banging things at which we may have become experts.

A staggered approach to the onset of rehearsal. Even when everyone is physically present and on time (yes, rare I know) not every chorus member is actually conscious. We have become experts at demanding very little of ourselves in the first fifteen minutes or so of rehearsal.

Most choirs are actually rehearsing for specific performances, when a high degree of conscious attention will be required immediately – not half an hour from the onset of the performace. In order to become really good at flipping the conscious attention switch, this needs to be practised over and over and over – till, like the fly – this becomes our only way to operate.

Most of us become adept at being less than up to our potential in our physical singing habits. But when a performance comes along and we desperately want to give it our all (the proverbial 110%), this is something that we haven’t rehearsed. This is something at which we are not experts.

Once upon a time I got out of my car to pump gas, leaving the keys in the ignition and somehow managed to lock myself out. So now it’s an unthinking habit for me to always take the keys with me whenever I get out of my car. Not only does this prevent another lock out situation, but it also saves me from always having to stop and make a conscious choice about whether or not it’s ok to leave my keys in this time.

If I decide that from this moment on I will always sing to the very best of my ability, then every second that I’m singing will be rehearsing the 110% that I’ll need for my next performance. I’ll become an expert at singing up to my potential, and I won’t have to decide over and over during each rehearsal if this particular part of the song requires only 70% of my effort.

And yes, I can hear several of my chorus members saying to themselves – “but what about the days when I feel wretched?”

To quote an MLM tape I used to have: “All you can do is all you can you, but all you can do is enough”. Besides, with all that extra oxygen and that glorious sound around you, you’ll feel much better soon.

Magic Choral Trick #161 This Is Show Business

Most of us know that a performance is show business – and that the amount of our onstage success depends on the degree to which we’ve thought this one through. However, Directors, you may not have realized that for us, showtime happens every rehearsal night. And though it’s us that’s in the spotlight, the chorus still needs to feel the show business in most aspects of the rehearsal.

What I have learned through trial and error – and a few bitter experiences is this:

Pacing is really, really important – which is why I no longer run rehearsals without a schedule. When I’ve done all the thinking ahead of time, and know what I want to accomplish by the end of the evening – no more heavy feeling as I drive to rehearsal – and much more fun for me.

When I’m excited, cheerful, motivated, and clearly have a purpose in mind, my singers love it, and will do just about anything for me. They’re being entertained as they work, and as they’re being coached.

Having a boatload of Magic Choral Tricks at my beck and call gives me so much more confidence that I have tools to deal with any technical issues. My women’s chorus has learned many of these tricks along with me, so that now we use hand signals for the tricks, as a sort of shorthand – which of course gets us back on track very quickly. (Which in turn keeps the pace of the rehearsal humming along.) Because we’ve developed these hand gestures together, there’s the satisfaction of insider knowledge for all of us – rather like the unspoken communication that develops with our close friends.

A sense of humour will fix many of the quirky, personality things that might arise – though I usually just keep my choruses too busy during rehearsal for this sort of problem to ever come up.

My job description is to make sure that every singer, at some point in the evening remembers why they joined the group. Goosebumps from being part of an exciting sound, entertainment, and the joy of working as a team on something really worthwhile.

All the elements of a good show.

Magic Choral Trick #160 Expanded Sound

Ok folks – they don’t tell you about this in school because, like those bar pressing rats we all heard about in Psych 101, once you’ve experienced expanded sound, you really don’t want to do anything else in life. It’s the Holy Grail you never even realized you were searching for.

Expanded Sound is the result of all singers locking in to a chord at exactly the right tuning, similar placement, and correct balance (notes lower down in the Harmonic Series – the Root and Fifth – are sung louder than the notes further up the Harmonic Series – the Third and the Seventh)

When this is in place, all the notes much further up the Harmonic Series get excited and sing along. It sounds like some of the voices have gone rogue and are taking everything up the octave. With all these extra notes ringing, it actually sounds like the chorus is about twice the size – hence – Expanded Sound.

Once upon a time I was with a quartet for the pre-stage walk through, from warm up room to quiet room, before they were to compete. They stopped to sing a bit in a cement hallway between two doors. And for the first time ever, I heard undertones. It sounded as if the Bass was taking everything down the octave. So from the undertones up to the top overtones I could hear, it sounded as if this quartet was made up of about sixteen singers – singing in about a four octave range.

If you’re wondering if you’d even be able to realize that you were hearing Expanded Sound – your ears wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing to tell you. Full body goosebumps are a pretty good indicator. You might also experience the rare sensation of a kind of clear, excited joy. And when you’re actually in the middle of this, helping to produce the result, these symptoms can be even more intense.

Magic Choral Trick #159 Harmonic Series 101

One of the guys in my Men’s chorus told me last night that hearing about the Harmonic Series for the first time changed his life.

While it may not be quite so dramatic for most singers, every choir member should at least be aware of the basics of the Harmonic Series.

The bottom line is this: Within every note that is sung is a series of many more, higher pitches that can be heard. When it’s just the one note being sung, the closest of these higher pitches will be the easiest to hear. The ‘Overtones’ further up will be a bit more tricky to hear – unless they’re being amplified by someone else singing the pitch absolutely in tune with the first singer’s note.

As singers, it’s usually just the first 7 to 10 overtones that affect us

Here’s a Wikipedia link about the Harmonic Series – but unless you already know about this or are a mathematician, I’d advise you to just skip the text and look at the pictures!

The original single low note is called the Fundamental – and all the other notes that you can hear within this note are called Overtones. It’s no accident that if you think of this Fundamental as the Root of a chord – all the other notes of a chord are found somewhere in the Harmonic Series above that Root.

For now, let’s call the Fundamental Doh.

#1 = Doh one octave higher than the Fundamental
#2 = Soh above the previous note (#1)
#3 = Doh, Two octaves above the Fundamental
#4 = Mi – Just above the Doh in #3
#5 = Soh – Just above Mi (#4) and one octave above #2
#6 = Tah (flat 7 – which in a scale would normally be Ti – This is the note that provides
the distinctive sound of the Barbershop 7 chord)
#8 = Doh – Three octaves above the original fundamental

If I were to spell this series out in actual pitches (As they do on the Wikipedia page) the notes would be:

C C G C E G Bflat C

We can practise listening for the overtones by playing a low note on a stringed instrument, then trying to hear the octave (Doh), the fifth (Soh) and the third (Mi).

So why is this important to us as singers? Because, whether or not we’re aware of the Harmonic Series we use it all the time in order to tune with other chorus members. A normal sort of chord found in a choir piece would have the Basses singing Doh, the Tenors – Soh, the Altos – Doh and the Sopranos – Mi. All these would be part of the Harmonic/Overtone series of the Fundamental (the low Doh)

Once we know about this, it helps to clear our hearing. We know what to listen for in order to tune with the other parts. It also helps us to understand balance. We know that if the Third (Overtone) of the chord is already ringing because there’s a really in tune Fifth being sung – the chord will sound spectacular if we just place that Third in very gently when we sing it.

Magic Choral Trick #158 When the Presentation Works

My Dad, who is 87, likes to watch the Berlin Phil podcasts that he subscribes to while he works out on his elliptical machine.

The cinematography for both the live streaming and the library of podcasts is really stunning. The most subtle expressions on the faces of the players have now been immortalized for millions of people to enjoy.

The players of course are aware of this, so whatever it is they might previously have done during the counting of rests (I’ve seen orchestral players read magazines, make new reeds, knit, nap…) they now stay involved with the music because they need to be part of the cohesive visual picture. (Though I doubt that players of the calibre of the Berlin Phil ever read novels on the gig) Every moment is interesting because the players appear to be fully engaged.

So – just a heads up – the presentation bar has been raised for both instrumentalists and singers.

Here are three examples you might enjoy. All three of these groups are far beyond just singing right notes at the right time.

In The Sixteen’s performance, though it’s not flashy, all the singers are completely absorbed in the music – and in presenting it in an atmosphere of peaceful reflection. The colours and lighting are also exquisite.

The Sixteen Komm Jesu Komm

In this clip, the Lion’s Gate Women’s Barbershop Chorus presents two songs. In the first, though there’s very little actual choreography, there’s a great deal of physical movement in the presentation. The second song has a ton of choreo, and is simply a joy to watch.

Lion’s Gate Chorus (Sweet Adelines) 2009 Semi Finals

And these guys are out of this world! Very exciting performance.

Ambassadors of Harmony – Barbershop Harmony Society 2009 Champions

Magic Choral Trick #157 When Choreo and Sound Fight – Choreo Always Wins

Those of us who use a fair amount of choreography with our groups seem to need to learn this one over and over.

As a quick demonstration of the mind bending confusion that the wrong choreo can cause:

As you say the word ‘up’, point up with your index finger

Now say ‘down’ and point downwards.

Now do the opposite – point upwards and say ‘down’, then point downwards and say ‘up’ – and notice how much more concentration it takes.

When a choreo move is in sync with what’s happening musically and lyrically, we don’t need to use up a whole lot of brainpower getting the move right. What this means is that as we are performing we can still keep thinking about emotionally selling the song.

Of course, it is possible to rehearse and rehearse the move until it is being handled by Muscle Memory ( ) but if it’s not exactly right for the singing that’s needed, the vocal tone will always suffer.

As an example – it’s very difficult to sing legato when the move being asked for is bouncy. Yes, it can be rehearsed and rehearsed – but even when it’s right it will still feel off to the audience. They may not realize what it was that they didn’t like – but they will have been distracted. At that point neither the chorus nor the audience is able to revel in the sound or the emotion.

Magic Choral Trick #156 Playing With Resonance

I’ve been experimenting with using these tricks the last couple of evenings with my men’s and women’s choruses – and the results are quite amazing.

I was working with four different places for feeling resonance – very far forward in the mouth (feeling the resonance in the mask using the Lip Ring ); the top of the head; the back of the head; and the chest.

I asked the singers to place a hand over the spot where I was asking them to try to feel some vibration as they sang.

When the hands were all on top of the head, we got a flutey head voice sound.

When the hands were at the back of the head we got a slightly darker quality – but quite a gentle, very well blended sound.

When the hands were on the chest, my women’s chorus sounded Bulgarian. (We’ll definitely be using this one!) They were still singing with good quality forward sound, but the richer darker tones of the voice were emphasized.

When the resonance was being felt in the mask – and most of all in the upper lip area, the sound was brilliant and clean.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of all this experimentation happened at my men’s chorus rehearsal on Monday evening.

We often have only about 18 or 19 singers out to rehearsal – so there isn’t a big enough group to just absorb all the different kinds of voices, so I’ve always tended to put all of the really forward, bright voices close to the back of the chorus, and the ‘blender’ voices in the front row. With these resonance tricks I was able to give such specific instructions that voices which would never in a million years have blended before became beautifully matched. I just asked the guys with bright voices to place a hand on the back of their head – and told the guys with naturally further back sound to bring the sound forward with the Lip Ring technique.

It was wonderful not to feel that I had to ask anyone to back off their volume in order to get a good blend.

Magic Choral Trick #155 Time To Smell the Roses

Yet another trick for raising the soft palate and creating more resonating space. This works especially well when the tempo of the song is very slow, and you have the luxury of more time for a leisurely breath.

As you breathe in through the nose, imaging you are smelling the delicate fragrance of a flower – like a rose, or my favourite – freesia. I always wish I could breathe in for much longer when I’m around freesia. It seems to be important to imagine the fragrance as being delicate because if a scent is shouting at you, there’s no need to employ the ‘seeking out’ mechanism of raising the soft palate.

During the in breath the soft palate will rise, so that by the time you have the air you need, your internal mouth posture is correct for producing a resonant sound.

Imagining something as pleasant as the fragrance of your favourite flower also causes your face to take on the Inner Smile ( ) which helps with forward placement of the sound.

Some people complain that breathing in through the nose is too noisy – but if the soft palate is raised, there’s barely any sound (unless you have chronic sinus problems or are in the midst of a snorfling cold).

By the way, an added benefit of breathing in through the nose is that there’s no air rushing in through the mouth, drying it out.

Magic Choral Trick #154 Easy Music

First of all, there is no easy music – but there is definitely a scale of technical difficulty.

As a choir member, I’ve sung the Schubert Holy Holy Holy, and Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and they’re nowhere near one another on the singing the right notes at the right time spectrum. As a soloist I’ve sometimes had to sight read on the gig – but I once spent 6 months just learning the notes in my husband Richard’s song cycle for soprano – Changing Illusions.

What I mean by Easy Music is music that is well within the technical scope of the group. And the benefit of choosing to sing this level of music is that the piece can then rise far, far above the ordinary presentation of right notes, with a few dynamics tacked on at the last rehearsal.

When the notes are not difficult for the singers, all the things we’ve been reading about on this blog are possible. Gorgeous tone, locked and ringing chords, emotional intensity, forward motion, physical involvement – a stunning performance from before the first note, till after the last.

These are the performances that audiences remember for years – not the ones where the sopranos sang most of the top notes in tune, or the basses sang almost up to tempo, or where the choir looked vaguely interested most of the time.

Anything that is not exquisite is a distraction for the audience.

However, quite apart from what this does for an audience, the level of physical, mental and emotional focus required for great artistry brings our attention to the present moment. Artistry cannot happen while our minds are in the past or the future. Everything must be right now, right now, right now. And as our spiritual leaders have been telling us for many centuries, the present moment is where joy is found.

Experiencing joy is the best reason I can think of to do this work.

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