Monthly Archives: September 2012

Magic Choral Trick #187 For Directors – When We Get Stuck

Sometimes, we directors get stuck. Stuff is not going well and either we haven’t a clue what the real problem is, or we do know, and have no idea how to fix it.

The truth is that the more skilled and competent we become, the better our choirs sing. And the really uncomfortable converse is also true. When we’re stuck, they don’t sing well.

There are two main things that have helped me in the past – and will undoubtedly help me again in the future:

#1. Bitter, brutal experience, and
#2. Working with coaches.

Of the two approaches, I’d recommend #2.

Expert coaching is much faster, there’s no need to reinvent any wheels, and it’s inspirational and fun for both director and choir members.

I guess there’s also a third option – reading about all the things that other directors have learned from coaches, and from bitter brutal experience.

My main message for directors is that you don’t have to suffer helplessly through another choir practice where the enormity of the task overwhelms you.

Read this blog (It’s got tons of what I’ve learned from both #1 and #2 above)

Ask another director how they handle the problem (if you know what the problem is)

Hire a coach. They’ll come in and tell your choir members all the things that you’ve been saying – but they’re likely to say it in such a way that it will be understood by at least some of the singers you’ve been unable to reach. This also serves to validate what you’ve been telling them. A good coach will also be able to show you what it is that you didn’t know that you didn’t know. Pretty exciting when a coach can give you some new magic spells that you had no idea even existed.

Magic Choral Trick #186 The Bass Freight Train

What a wonderful coaching weekend my Women’s Barbershop chorus just had with Barry Towner! And although he’s a primarily a presentation coach, he had some very exciting sound techniques.

The secret to this particular trick is not simply having the Basses let ‘er rip. The big secret is holding them back.

As Barry explained it, in the last few bars, as everyone else is crescendoing, we keep the Basses held back to about a 6 out of 10 (mf). We hit the last chord, and the Basses let out the clutch and come roaring past everyone. (At this point we ditch the car metaphor, because what we now have is a freight train)

Your audience will be gasping from the sheer thrill of the ride!

Magic Choral Trick #185 Constant Vocalization

The Men’s Barbershop Harmony Society is having an Operation Harold Hill (Music Man reference) membership drive these days. And Wavebox Singing – a program by Paul Ellinger is part of this.

One of the points in his Wavebox Singing presentation shows us how to check for Constant Vocalization in any line.

Teaching singing groups about legato line, and coaching them in the art of producing the solid wall of continuous sound has always been difficult.

But Paul, with one simple little trick has suddenly made this a lot easier.

Just above where the two sides of the collarbone meet – right in the middle at the base of your neck is a small hollow.

As you sing, touch this spot very lightly with one or two fingers.

As long as smooth, legato sound is happening, this little spot puffs up a bit and stays still. You can feel the vibration of the sound, but there are no little bumps against the fingers. When the sound is uneven, you can feel this slightly bumpy movement. And when you stop vocalizing, (to breathe) the spot once again becomes hollow.

When I’ve been trying this, I find that legato singing happens when I focus on maintaining the pressure of this spot against my fingers.

Thank you Paul Ellinger.

And thanks to Rob from Men of Fundy for bringing this to my attention

Magic Choral Trick #184 Ditching Emotional Baggage – Ghost Fingers

Singing works best when the body is relaxed and comfortable. And when something is worrying, annoying, frightening or saddening us, it’s tough for the body to be comfortable.

Suffering is always less when we can manage to stay conscious of the present moment, and there are many ways to do this – but I really like Ghost Fingers – especially when it’s done right after Snow Globe.

Close your eyes and see if you can locate where the upset that’s bugging you is sitting in your body. Quite often, a sense of being burdened will be felt in the upper chest, fear may be felt in the solar plexus area and a frantic feeling of being unable to cope may be tightening the neck and shoulders.

1. Try to ‘see’ your upset as a mass of grey yucky stuff.

2. Ask yourself what level of suffering you’re at. Zero being not suffering at all, and 10 being that its unbearable. Take whatever number comes immediately into your mind.

3. Place both palms – fingers slightly apart – against the body, wherever the grey gunk is sitting.

4. Imagine Ghost Fingers from your hands passing through the skin, and right in to the grey mass. Then very kindly, and gently, separate out all the grey yucky stuff. Keep moving it apart with your Ghost Fingers until it becomes a mist.

5. When it becomes a mist, say out loud: “You’re just an energy form. Which way would you like to leave my body?”

6. The mist will begin to move. Follow it with your physical hands until it leaves the body. Sometimes the mist will travel upwards, sometimes downwards and sometimes straight out – but it will move.

7. When the mist is gone, ask yourself again about your level of suffering. It should be less.

Magic Choral Trick # 183 Long Tones

Basic rule of thumb – what’s good for a brass player’s sound is good for a singer’s.

And the one thing that brass players do that is very rarely part of any singer’s warm up or technique practice is Long Tones. This used to be part of singers’ routines and was known as Messa di Voce – but for some reason it’s not as much a part of singing culture as it once was. Certainly it’s almost unheard of amongst amateur choral singers.

Pick a vowel, any vowel, and sustain it over a longish period of time – 12 to 16 beats. In the classic Messa di Voce, or Long Tone, the sound begins at a very quiet volume, builds to a loud volume, then gradually decreases again to the original level. However, I’d recommend forgetting all about the dynamic changes to begin with, and just sing the 12 to 16 beats at about a mp. (Volume 2.5 out of 5)

This gives the body time to find the ‘sweet spot’ – the place of most forward resonance, and most relaxation of tongue and jaw.

Recently I’ve been asking singers to just forget about everything they were ever told about opening their mouths good and wide – which, with amateur singers causes disruption in the legato line, and shifts in and out of the correct placement. When the jaw drops, the sound tends to move backwards in the mouth.

Wide open mouths also cause accentuation of unimportant syllables, and for choirs, real difficulties with synchronization.

For this exercise, I ask singers to keep their teeth about a fingernail width apart – as if they were biting a nail – and the jaw relaxed relaxed relaxed. Lips are fairly relaxed, with just a little teeny bit of trumpet bell flare – as if you were trying to keep the lips from touching the front teeth. As you sing, think of breathing out a stream of air right through your teeth – not between, through.

Keep thinking as clean a version of the vowel as your mind can manage – and then keep clicking ‘refresh’ on that thought, many many times during the 16 beats of the Long Tone. Scan for jaw and tongue tension.

When I’ve asked some singers to make this part of daily practice, the most usual response is that they don’t have time. Long Tones only feel like they last a long time. If the average red traffic light lasts about 30 seconds, that gives us time for two Long Tones on two different vowels. So in a minute and a half (three red stop lights), we can make our way through one cycle of the 5 most important vowels – ee, ay, ah, oh and oo. I’d recommend at least ten minutes per day of Long Tones if you want to make a spectacular difference to your singing – but even a minute and a half will move us along in the right direction.

Magic Choral Trick #182 Too Late to Fix It

I’m mentioning this now so that as rehearsals start up for the year, we have time to begin to deal with whatever it is that makes us unhappy as we’re about to walk onto a stage.

Every choir has its own characteristic issue that keeps cropping up right before performance. Well…actually, every Director has some sort of blind spot during rehearsal that keeps them unaware of a problem until the nerves and the hyper vigilance of the backstage warm up kick in. Having been in that situation many, many times I’m familiar with the inner wail, and the gnashing of teeth as I’ve tried to hold my face in a positive positive positive expression.

Here are a few of my backstage revelations from years gone by:

Wow – they still don’t know the notes in that section. Oh my, oh my, oh my.

Yikes – (Name here) sings right notes – but I had no idea she was popping so far out of the texture.

Should have worked with the Basses on getting to beat one on time. This thing is going to be dirge tempo before we’re done.

They’re really nervous. I should have done some small ensemble work to help them feel the nerves before now.

Hooooo Boy! Guess I spent so much rehearsal time singing along with one of the parts, I really had no idea of the overall sound!!!!!

Directors – if you haven’t been able to handle a problem in 8 weeks of rehearsals, it’s not going to get fixed 15 minutes before you go on stage. So carry a flask – take a swig and go out there, enjoy what you can, and just take your lumps for the stuff that doesn’t work. Remind the chorus about all the great things they’re doing and stride on out there! If worst does actually come to worst, (because sometimes it will) remember that it only feels like the end of the world – and it’ll probably be really unpleasant for only about half an hour afterwards. Then it’s time to Snowglobe the whole experience.

But the good news is that you have some new and valuable information. You know something really specific that needs to be incorporated into your rehearsal plans. And there’s never been a better time than right now.

Magic Choral Trick #181 The Big Barbershop Ending

Though I’m directing this at Barbershop Choruses, these same rules apply, no matter what kind of music the chorus is singing.

In the Big Barbershop ending, the melody line (the Lead line) typically has a very long sustained last note – usually Doh or Soh. The Baritone often has a crunchy, downwardly resolving suspension at the very end, and the Bass typically has a couple of moves, then settles on the Root of the final chord. The Tenor line does its usual flutey augmentation of one of the harmonics.

The Big Barbershop Ending requires a feeling of intense drive to the end, then just when you think that the sound can’t get any richer, fuller or bigger – there’s a crescendo on the last note. And the last chord should feel like it could go on forever.

Here’s the recipe:

Leads – as excited as you may be, you need to hold down the volume of that last long sustained post. A gradual crescendo over the course of the note should take you from about a 3.5 (out of 5) to a 4 at the onset of the last chord. (For other choirs – that’s about a strong mf, crescendoing to an f) The actual amount of sound that each individual makes depends on the size of the voice, and the loudness at which they can maintain good quality sound.
Leads – you also need to become really good at staggered breathing, because there’s no way you’ll be able to keep the quality steady at this volume for the up to 15 or more seconds that this will take.
Clean clean clean vowel, relaxed tongue, and forward placement are all needed here. And when the director asks for that final crescendo, be ready to take it up a notch to a volume level 5! (ff)

Baris – All the same vocal quality things that the Leads are doing. You’ll be busy with a number of moves, but now that the Leads are out of the way, you can shine. And on your final swipe – Take Over!

Basses – Don’t Let the Baris Take Over! But save something for the back end of the last chord.

Tenors – You’ll be busy with a number of note moves too – probably right in synch with either the Basses or the Baris. As the volume increases towards the last chord, you can allow your sound to become more pingy and bright. And don’t forget to save something for that final crescendo.

That big final chord will be solidified and made brilliant by:
– Perfect tuning – a nice locked in 5th, so that whoever is singing the 3rd knows exactly where to put it.
– A very clean clean clean and matched vowel
– Toes Down Though the Soles of the Shoes or Cloud Lifting

When this is right, we never want it to end.

Magic Choral Trick #180 Syncopated Rhythms

Ever notice how kids have no problem with syncopation when they’re doing the Sprechstimme thing along with their favourite Rap artist?

Speaking the complicated rhythms is a very valuable trick when trying to get an entire group of people to feel them. However, this does mean that the director has actually spent enough time with the patterns to be free from having to read them – from having to work them out in front of the group.

Here are some suggestions.

1. A really first rate learning track – where the rhythms are very clean and clear

2. Director (and Accompanist) should have already internalized the syncopations before trying to teach them.

3. With single syllable words that are tied from a weak beat to a strong beat (for example, the very common pattern of starting the word on the ‘and’ of beat four, and tying it over the bar line), try actually emphasizing the second note – as if the word had two syllables.

4. A dramatic, over the top spoken rendering (by the director) repeated again and again until everyone has joined in, can help everyone feel the rhythmic pattern. My kids have told me that this is just embarrassing, and that I’ll never ever be a rapper – but it does work with choirs.

5. As a director, this is the one teaching issue that has made me have to completely abandon any shred of physical dignity. Syncopated movement is rarely dignified. In fact, initially it’ll probably need to be much more exaggerated than is generally considered socially acceptable. I also encourage choir members to move, because movement helps to embed any musical pattern. And yes – by the time the gig rolls around the choir should have internalized the rhythms, so that my gyrations (and theirs) are no longer necessary.

Magic Choral Trick #179 Cranking up the Voice for the New Choir Season

Thought I’d sit down at the piano tonight and sing through a couple of things – and yep, it felt like my September voice.

After taking a break for the summer, it felt a little tight and sounded a bit thin. My voice was also not sitting in quite the right place, which meant I had virtually no stamina. Even though I wasn’t in the mood to do any technique or warming up, I did do a little Zzzzzzing and that definitely helped. ( )

Singing with a voice that’s seriously out of shape isn’t much fun – just as walking up hills with a body that’s seriously out of shape is also not fun. But in both cases, it’s quite possible to turn it around within a couple of weeks just by making a time for a short, daily workout.

Fortunately, your singing workout can happen in the shower, in your car, or as you cook supper. Just a few technique exercises on Zzzzz, then on each of the 5 formed vowels – every day – should make enough of a difference that you’ll have nothing to be embarrassed about at that first choir practice. (Fear of public humiliation was always my strongest motivator for practising.)

And even if you’re excited about your choir’s upcoming performance of Messiah, or Bach’s B minor Mass, it’s probably a good idea to work up gradually to the vocal demands of that first rehearsal – and resist the temptation to go screaming through the entire thing right now.

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