Monthly Archives: July 2012

Magic Choral Trick #175 Creation and Analysis – Two Different Processes

By the time we get to the performance of a song we need to be free of the necessity to analyse what and how we’re doing.

When our minds are evaluating our sound quality, tuning, phrasing and other technical aspects they can’t also be guiding the body to stay in ‘the zone’ (the free, relaxed and easy place we’ve reached with many hundreds of hours of practice). If we keep evaluating our technique as we sing, our minds are also unable to engage in the main reason for performing in the first place – communication.

If I’m worrying about the upcoming high note, I’m not communicating whatever passion it was that caused the composer to write that high note.

The wonder of the times in which we are living is that with ever smaller, less expensive and better recording devices each of us has access to a technical coach and analyst – ourselves.

Sure, we do our technique practising – but when we sing the song, we press record, sing the piece with our minds focusing solely on emotion and communicating that emotion, then listen later for any technical difficulties. These technique issues can then be rehearsed in isolation till they’re ironed out.

I often do the following exercise with my students. (I think I mentioned this in an earlier post – but it’s worth repeating)

I ask them suddenly to stop and listen for some very small sound in the room. If I ask this with some urgency in my voice, which makes them think that this is important, they will stop breathing.

Singers cannot afford to stop breathing in order to listen for and evaluate something that they feel is important – like the high note they’re singing. They need to just keep creating and creating and creating the correct environment for the high note and damn the torpedoes. Analysis – rejoicing, or wailing and gnashing of teeth can come later.

Magic Choral Trick #174 Mezzo Forte Technique

I’m asked sometimes about the volume level we should use when we’re practising our technical exercises.

My Bel Canto teacher Luigi used to tell me that technique should be sung with ‘a mezzo forte thought’ – meaning not too loud, but don’t hold back.

Imagine that you want to speak distinctly and clearly to someone in the next room. Not only does this give you a good idea of the kind of volume you want to be using, but it’s a useful tool to help with placement – placement that is the same as you would use to project your speaking voice a distance of about 30 feet.

Try saying these vowels with this image above in mind.

Ay, Ee, Ah, Oh, Oo

Now say them again at the same volume, but elongate the vowels a bit. (Remember that the listener is still 30 feet away)

Next, sing/chant them all on the one note – with a little time on each vowel. See if you can sing them on a pitch that’s quite close to one you used to speak them. However, most of us press our voices down a bit in pitch when we speak – so a bit higher would probably be better.

While still imagining that you’re trying to make these vowels understood 30 feet away, try singing them (all on the one note) using the Lip Ring
( )

If the placement is far enough forward – and the Lip Ring should make this happen – there should be no tension or discomfort in the throat as you sing your technique exercises at this volume.

Magic Choral Trick #173 Christmas in July

Here’s how my Choral fall usually happens.

Official rehearsals start at the beginning of September, but usually it’s closer to the end of September when the whole chorus or choir actually shows up for rehearsal.

A couple of performance requests – so we’re working on regular repertoire. A little bit of review of old Christmas stuff – but no intensive rehearsal.

My women’s chorus is going away in November to our organization’s International Competition, so that will entail some very high level work on our contest songs.

Then the women get back from competition, and suddenly it’s the middle of November, and the requests for Christmas performances for all my groups start pouring in.

Christmas is probably the time of greatest public exposure for both my Barbershop choruses and my Med school choir – and it always sneaks up on us suddenly.

So this year, one of the Leads in my women’s chorus – who thinks much further ahead than I do – is hosting a Christmas in July party. Even though we’ve been officially off for the summer since mid June, we’ll be hauling our Christmas binders over to her house to sing through all of our current Christmas repertoire. This way, the new people get a chance get to at least get a feel for the songs before they’re thrown to the wolves in mid November.

This also gives us a chance to revive the repertoire that wasn’t quite ready last year, to ditch the stuff we’re tired of, and to give everyone a heads up about any new Christmas songs arriving in September.

Magic Choral Trick #172 Developing a Choir’s Spidey Senses

There’s something really magical, exciting and almost intimate about being part of a team that understands the group dynamic so well that great musical moments can be created by a fleeting eye contact or a slight expression of amusement.

As a director I find that singers’ Spidey Senses are activated as soon as I give the chorus less. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing this for the first time on a gig.

Sometimes we work with small groups first. The pitch is given, and then with no visual or audible cue – even from one of the singers – they decide as a unit when to begin.

Singing together with eyes closed will immediately kick start some of the other more subtle senses. It also seems to intensify the emotion of the song for the singers – which means that new vocal dynamics and colours can happen spontaneously.

One area in which this seems to work really well is with finding a natural choreography that everyone can feel.

The choreographer in my women’s chorus will tell us that a certain word or section needs something physical, then encourages the singers to do something that feels right. It’s amazing how often we end up with variations on a similar move – and something that expresses the text perfectly.

Here are two of the older posts that’ll help with the development of the chorus’ Spidey Senses.

The Electric Silence

Blending Back to Back

Magic Choral Trick #171 Perfect Diphthongs

Perfect Diphthongs are really just a function of singing perfect Target Vowels ( )
and then using your brain just a little bit more.

The first step is to rehearse and rehearse singing clean Target Vowels with a relaxed tongue – while preventing your mind from actually thinking in English as you do this.

Once this has become a habit, we can turn our attention to the back end of the Diphthong (or in some cases the Triphthong).

Strangely, you might actually find some resistance to this within yourself, or from your group. Once the target vowels are clean and clear and ringing, we get a little drunk with the feeling, and are reluctant to get on with the second vowel, (the Resolution Vowel) and then the finishing consonant.

I ask my singers to think of attaching the resolution vowel (and consonant if there is one), to the front end of the next word. Sometimes, just asking is enough.

Sometimes we need to rehearse this with eyes closed so that they can sense exactly when the group mind wants to turn the vowel.

And sometimes I need to show my singers the resolution, either with my hands, or by mouthing the word ending.

I know this sounds like a lot of work – and I won’t lie – it is. And most of your audience at any given performance won’t notice if the diphthongs are not turned at exactly the same time. However, when the Target Vowel/Resolution Vowel switchover happens cleanly, the audience will definitely be left with the impression of a more polished performance.

Magic Choral Trick #170 Singable Consonants

Once a chorus is finally getting the hang of 100% note accuracy, clean vowels, good vocal placement, chord balancing, great blend, every singer agreeing on the emotion from phrase to phrase, what’s next? (Yes – I know – all of the above are lifelong pursuits, but here’s the next ball to trying juggling with all the rest)

Singable consonants – the ‘Ls’, ‘Ms’, ‘Ns’, ‘Vs’ and the ‘NGs’. The most basic trick here when the singable consonant is on the end of a word is not to finish off with a kicky little neutral vowel. ‘Home – uh’.

What we’re going for here is a diction presentation that sounds similar to the way we speak. If we modify our singing diction too much it’ll be a distraction for the audience, and get between them and what the composer was trying to express.

Most of the time, we don’t sing right through these consonants for fear of interrupting the legato line created by singing vowel to vowel to vowel. However, singing through these sounds can actually enhance both the legato line and the interpretation.

The difficulty is in getting everyone to agree on exactly the same length of time and intensity on each L or N or M. In this agreement lies the artistry.

My groups have now become good at singing on the target vowels, but consonants have taken a back seat. So I’ve only just begun to work on them – mostly in the warm up – singing words like ‘Romance’ over and over (with eyes closed) to try to get the right amount of M and N. (Which in this case really helps with the word painting.) However, I haven’t yet been able to guide them with a technique that will be reliable from word to word without having to spend a great deal of time on each one.

I did a workshop yesterday for about 50 church organist/choir directors and when one of the participants asked me if I had a Magic Trick for singable consonants, I had to say that I’m muddling along with most other directors on this one.

So – dear reader – if you happen to have a great technical trick for this that would help us all, please just click on ‘leave a comment’ below, and I’d love to hear about it!

Magic Choral Trick #169 The Curse of a Great Acoustic

The church where my husband is the music director is a fabulous old stone cathedral with a reverberation time of about 6 seconds. The choir is an excellent one – but their style of singing has definitely been shaped by always performing in this acoustic setting that loves nothing better than a soaring, arched phrase.

My choirs and choruses perform in a very wide range of venues – from theatres and hotel ballrooms, to nursing homes, hospitals, fashion shows and basketball and hockey games. Every venue is very different acoustically from the choirs’ respective rehearsal halls.

When it’s competition time, having a few chorus members feeling insecure because nothing seems to sound the same can make all the difference between a winning performance, and one that’s not up to our usual standard.

There are several Magic Tricks for handling this issue.

1. Find several places with dreadful acoustics, and from time to time, book a night’s rehearsal at each one. It’s true that the great out of doors is perhaps the worst place to sing – but I avoid rehearsing outside because I find that choir members just seem to push the sound too hard, and get vocally tired quite quickly.

2. Spread out around your rehearsal hall, so that the singers are no closer than a couple of feet from each other – preferably also not standing beside someone singing the same part. This encourages independence, and can give a pretty good approximation of singing on a really dry stage.

3. I encourage my singers to pay attention to the physical sensations – other than sound – associated with the way they normally sing at rehearsal, so that when they’re in another venue, there are other touchstones that let them know how well they’re duplicating what’s been rehearsed.

I also find that whether we’re singing in a different rehearsal venue, or standing spaced far apart in our regular hall, it’s very useful to have another set of ears out listening with me – giving the chorus feedback too.

Magic Choral Trick #168 The Most Thankless Choir Job

Of all the jobs I’ve had to do as a director, this one is the most aggravating.

Lining the chorus up for a performance – especially when there are no risers, and when chunks of the choir couldn’t make the gig.

The rows need to be fairly even. Everyone needs a window. No matter how many missing bodies there are, the big bright voices can’t be moved to the front row. When there are no risers, height has to be considered – but in a Barbershop chorus, the tenors have to be further back, or all we’ll hear is the 3rds and 7ths of the chord. If there are some singers who are a little shakier on pitch or words, they need to be in front of the stronger singers, and preferably near someone singing their own part. People who are new, and who haven’t quite got the hang of the expressive face thing can’t stand in the front row.

This is not fun for me, especially when there’s a time crunch. We need to warm up, but there are always some people who have to be late, (almost always for valid reasons) who then need to be accommodated into the line up.

Mercifully, in my Barbershop choruses, I have people willing and able to do this job. And usually with only a small amount of my input.

The main frustration with this job is that the choir members have no idea how difficult it is. And that’s before you even take into account the late arrivals, the side conversations, the fixing of hair and make up, the sudden last minute trips to the bathroom, the stepping out of line to get a last drink of water – not to mention the frantic state of mind of the members who’ve had to drive like crazy people to make it there on time, the people who just came from their stressful job, or the people who got lost.

I am so, so grateful for my performance liner-uppers!!

Magic Choral Trick #167 Sergeant at Arms

Yet another reason to love Barbershop organizations.

Barbershop choruses have a Sergeant at Arms, which means the director never has to be the bad guy – and break up all those happy little side conversations.

I guess the first thing that has to happen when instituting this position in a choir, is that everyone has to agree that they’re there to sing, and that they’re willing to give one of the choir members the authority to remind them of this.

I’ve been asked by many directors what I do about all the chatter.

First of all, I guess I’m grateful that the choir members like each other enough to want to have conversations.

I schedule my rehearsals really tightly with as few non singing milliseconds as possible. Walking from the risers to the chairs is always an issue – but by then I’ve usually worked them so hard that I don’t mind them having a little unofficial break.

Perhaps surprisingly, the position of the music folders while the choir is singing makes a big difference to the chattering problem. If the choir members hold the folders up flat – so that they’re looking at me over this flat surface, they can see what I’m trying to communicate with my flailing arms. If all the faces are aimed at the floor, I’m going to have to stop the singing, and tell them in words what it is that I want changed. And that’s when we hear from those who feel compelled to let us all in on their mental processes.

Having an imminent performance is a good reason for me to get excited about creating great sound and a thrilling presentation. When I’m excited about the sound and the emotion, the choir is excited – and much more inclined to listen to me if we have to pause for a moment.

As I think I’ve said before, having a repertoire of Magic Tricks, which I can call out and incorporate into the rehearsal, means less chat from me, and more interest for them. I hope it gives them something more fascinating to focus on than their neighbour’s recent spate of digestive issues.

Magic Choral Trick #166 Saving the Chorus

Yes – absolutely we want Type A personalities in our choruses. They’re the go getters – the people who know their music, recruit new members, do what needs doing and organize all the rest of us.

However the real trick with these wonderful people is to make them aware that they don’t have to carry all of the musical responsibility.

They need to be assured:

– That they are not required to start every phrase a little early to make sure that the people around them get the right note, at the right time.
– That singing the correct phrasing extra loud is not necessary (and does not help the synchronization or the blend)
– That rhetorical questions don’t actually need to be answered
– That other singers in the group are ready and willing to take on some musical responsibility
– That it’s ok to not be a leader when they’re singing

In my women’s chorus, since we’re all now aware of the phrase ‘Saving the Chorus’, sometimes all it takes is my eyebrow raised in the direction of any one of our most determined members – and whoever it is knows that she needs to make the heroics more subtle.

Incidentally, Saving the Chorus is something that we directors are also tempted to do. (Taking very loud breaths to show everyone where they should be breathing; doing little grunty things to rally the troops to pick up the tempo; singing along; over directing…) But these and other director foibles are the subject for a later posting.

%d bloggers like this: