Monthly Archives: October 2012

Magic Choral Trick #193 Performing-Type Listening

The MC is speaking, or the quartet or soloist is singing, and behind them someone in the choir is fidgeting or fixing hair or scratching. Out there in the audience, who are we all looking at? Yep.

Audience eyes are hungry for action, for something that moves, or something that’s different. Audience brains crave stimulation. So if even one choir member is scowling as they listen to the MC or quartet, audience eyes will pick up on it – and then start making up stories for themselves about why this person might be scowling.

The truth is that our faces in repose, as we listen intently, don’t necessarily present us at our best. Apparently mine tends to look annoyed. (Which probably isn’t an entirely inaccurate reading. Bruce Banner and I have much in common) So I’ve had to train my background, listening face to look reasonably interested or faintly charmed. Don’t want to be grinning too broadly and upstage the performers with a face that’s doing too much.

Here are some other activities that will also take eyes away from the performers who should be getting all of the audience’s attention.

Scratching – more prevalent that you’d expect
Fixing hair
Rubbing face – This one will read like this to the audience: “This is excruciating!”
Looking up at the ceiling
Gazing into the wings
And of course – chatting to the person beside you

One more etiquette thing. When the soloist or small group finishes singing, the onstage choir – as one of the concert’s performers – should not applaud. It just looks like “Yay us!!!” and tends to make the audience feel excluded. However, grinning and wildly enthusiastic faces are welcome at this point.

Magic Choral Trick #192 Choreography – Rehearsing With a Metronome

Nothing is more fun than watching a chorus doing a spectacular job on the choreography for an uptune – unless it’s singing in a chorus that’s doing a spectacular job on the choreography for an uptune. (And directing this – just bliss)

Getting to spectacular is a slow, deliberate learning process for body, mind and soul that involves drilling and drilling and drilling. But smart drilling.

Like any other kind of problem solving, it needs to be broken down into its smallest component parts – each rehearsed separately. Then we need to start stringing these units together – but still in short, manageable sections. Each section drilled and drilled, until the chorus can’t do it wrong.

Once this is all done, and everyone is able to get through the moves of the entire song without any expletives, it’s time to turn on the metronome. (At this point, there are almost always expletives)

And by this point it’s almost certain that the tempo will have slowed to accommodate all the extra neuron firing that has had to go on.

When the chorus first starts to rehearse with the metronome it’s a good idea to either just mouth the lyrics, or to speak them very quietly, so that everyone can hear the beat. There will probably have to be more breakdown of the moves, and more joining them up again to make them work smoothly with the metronome.

The next step is to sing the song quietly as the choreography is rehearsed. (Upon hearing what has now happened to the quality of singing, the director’s internal dialogue looks something like this: ‘AAAAAaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhh’. Directors – try not to panic. Keep the faith Girl/Bro)

In order for choreography to work it needs to be drilled at rehearsal, and at home by the individual chorus members. It has to be completely in muscle memory in order for the chorus to be able to give its attention back to stunning sound, blooming phrases with forward motion, synchronization, ringing chords, perfectly matched vowels, singing from the heart and watching the director for any subtle, spur of the moment changes of interpretation. Doesn’t get more fun than this.

Magic Choral Trick #191 More on the Exorcism of And and The

I’ve been thinking recently that my groups are still having trouble noticing when and and the (and also: in, through, for, of and probably every preposition) show up in a song.

The problem is that our minds need to be running ahead to scan for ‘ands’, when in order to create the best sound, we have to be thinking about the present note, word and phrase.

So how do we fix this?

As director, I often take responsibility for this and give the chorus my ‘completely relaxed mouth’ cue. I have a hand gesture that I use – a small side to side shake of my left hand, as if I were brushing my lips with the fingertips. This actually works quite well, but it means that I have to be reminding them about a very small part of the sentence – when I’d rather be showing them the sweep of the whole phrase.

For choirs and choruses who use music, just circling, or highlighting all of the unformed, relaxed mouth words will work.

However, the optimum situation is that it becomes a reflex, or habit to sing all of these support words with a relaxed, almost closed mouth.

Oh yes – by the way, I used to have fairly serious difficulties with synchronization if I just told my choirs to de-emphasize these words. For some reason, this is often brain code for ‘sing them faster’.

Ultimately, what causes any singing skill to become habit is drilling and drilling and drilling. And the warm up is the perfect time for this.

Try singing this sentence – or any other that contains a bunch of ‘attaching’ words – all on the one pitch, quite slowly, with each note and word getting one beat.

What is the name and the place of your home? (Depending upon the context, we could probably sing the your unformed as well)

Ultimately the other words in this sentence will also have to be addressed for other reasons, but I’ll talk later about what appears below to be singing in Klingon.

Ooaht is the neh – eem and the pleh – eeseuh vyour hoh – oom?

Magic Choral Trick #190 The Unconscious Upward Slide Into the Pitch

I was flipping around radio stations yesterday while I was driving and came across a soprano singing Strauss’ “Zueignung”. Fabulous song, fabulous voice. But almost every important note in verse two was approached from at least a tone below the pitch, before sliding upwards into place. I stuck around for verse three because I love the song, but also to see if she might redeem herself. It was marginally more cleanly sung – but the tuning problems had taken me out of what could have been a glorious experience, into a state of exasperation.

I had to remind myself of the translation – just to see if a desire to show more emotional intensity might have prompted the sliding – but as you see in both of these translations, the whole song is pretty ‘heart on the sleeve’.

Ah, thou knowest all my anguish,
That apart from thee I languish;
Hearts that love to woe resign,
Thanks be thine!

Once I yearned for freedom’s pleasure,
Held on high the wine-filled measure,
Thou didst bless the crimson wine,
Thanks be thine!

And thy love brought me salvation,
While I, filled with adoration,
Hallowed, found love divine,
Thanks be thine!


Yes, you know it, dearest soul,
How I suffer far from you,
Love makes the heart sick,
Have thanks.

Once I, drinker of freedom,
Held high the amethyst beaker,
And you blessed the drink,
Have thanks.

And you exorcised the evils in it,
Until I, as I had never been before,
Blessed, blessed sank upon your heart,
Have thanks.

So I’m guessing that this particular affectation on this particular occasion was probably added because of an inner thought process that went something like: “That first verse wasn’t quite heart-wrenching enough – I should add a bit more emotion”.

However, it would be unfair to pick on just the opera singers. Sliding to and from pitches to ‘demonstrate’ emotion has been a hallmark of popular music of almost every kind for more than 50 years. It’s been played as background to much of our everyday lives – from the grocery store and mall, to dentists’ offices and on the radios in our cars as we commute.

So it really is not surprising that it’s a huge job for choir directors to convince their singers that clean and accurate singing will result in a more powerful performance.

From a presentation point of view, the evolution of the theatre has shown us that ‘demonstrating’ an emotion does not engender it in the audience member.

Theatre has moved on.
Classical violinists have moved on. (Nowadays cleanliness really is next to Godliness)
Even Ballet, traditionally a very mannered art form, has moved on emotionally.

Singers, it’s time to sing in tune – and to incorporate all the other ways to give our audiences the gift of an emotionally truthful performance.

Magic Choral Trick #189 Great Ape Pendulum Arms

Tried this with two groups the last couple of evenings, and it really helps with the forward motion of the song.

Not sure (yet) why it is that most us who are directors and singers – choristers, and soloists alike – have such difficulty thinking in paragraphs rather than stultified phrase after phrase after phrase. (Which I guess is a big step up from note, note, note.) But it seems that while our conscious minds have a problem with this, apparently our inner ape doesn’t.

Bend slightly forward from the waist and bring both arms all the way up to one side. (If it’s the right side, your right arm will be almost straight up beside your head, and your left upper arm will probably be in front of your face)

Let the arms relax completely and drop in front of you – swinging all the way over and up to the other side.

Now do this in time with the pulse of the music. If the tempo is fairly fast, you may need to let the arms swing once every bar (or two). For slower tempi – every half bar. The important thing is that the swinging drop of the relaxed pendulum arms sweeps you into the middle of each phrase.

When the arms are allowed to swing in synch with the pulse of the music, one phrase just sweeps into the next, and the breath happens automatically. In addition to this, the beginnings and ends of phrases become naturally more tapered when the arms are at the top of their pendulum swing.

When everyone’s pendulum swings become synchronized, this also has the effect of creating more and more energy and momentum with each phrase.

A couple of notes:

Directors – you will have to be completely unfettered in your exaggeration of this movement, or they’ll all be too restrained to even attempt the move.

Choir members should move apart from each other, and away from hard surfaces – such as the backs of pews – to avoid any unexpected first aid situations. It would be unfortunate if a bass had to go home and try to explain a shiner.

Magic Choral Trick #188 Consider the Back Story

When a choir is stressed because of an upcoming event, the usual magnanimous tolerance can get a little strained. Just as a very slight shift in vocal technique can make a huge difference to a group’s sound, so too, a very slight shift in the membership’s anxiety level can alter the whole emotional chemistry of rehearsal.

Here’s what has helped me over the years.

Reframe the incident. Consider the intent – the back story behind what motivated the person to do whatever it was that was done or said.

I remember a point in the ‘est’ training years ago when the trainer told us that everything that is ever said can be distilled to communicate just one thing – I love you. Many of the 200 of us harrumphed or rolled our eyes.

He then led us through an example like this:

“Why can’t you take a turn to wash the dishes? I’m tired of being the only one doing the work around here!!”

Which on the face of it doesn’t sound much like ‘I love you’. However, we can break this down fairly easily.

a) I’m angry that you don’t do your fair share.

b) I want you to notice how much I do.

c) I want you to appreciate how much I do for you.

d) I want you to want to do the same for me – which will show me that you love and appreciate me.

e) It frightens me that you might not love and appreciate me.

f) Because I love you.

I think that music making, especially with groups, can always be distilled to one intention – to experience a ‘larger than just me’ expression of love.

I notice this heartbursting feeling in the ringing chord, an exciting change in dynamics, the exquisitely crafted phrase, the electric silence before the audience erupts into applause, the humour, and the tea or coffee time after a tough rehearsal.

That’s why I do this.

%d bloggers like this: