Monthly Archives: November 2012

Magic Choral Tricks Table of Contents from 1 to 202

I’ve had some requests for this:

Magic Choral Tricks

1. The Brass Player Buzz
2. Breathing Through an 8 Foot Straw
3. The ‘Ee’ Vowel
4. Breath of Fire
5. Target Vowels
6. The ‘Ay’ Vowel
7. Learning Sound Files
8. Jin Shin Jyutsu Holding Points
9. The Importance of Knees
10. Elastic Band
11. What You See – subtle weight shift
12. Remembering to Revel
13. The Electric Silence
14. The Nothing vowel
15. The Nothing vowel – one more thing
16. Heading off a cold
17. Central meridian Sweep
18. Zzzzzz
19. Breathing in Through the Vowel
20. Taking the first breath with the choir
21. The Korg Chromatic Tuner
22. Using your new Korg tuner at home
23. Energy Leaks
24. Coaching
25. Cloud Lifting
26. Unison warm up to clean vowels
27. Synchronization – 4X4
28. Snow Globe
29. Synchronization – Basses in Front of Sopranos/Leads
30. Laser Eyes Through the Director’s Head
31. Blending Back to Back
32. Small Sips of Air – the torso as beachball
33. How I Messed Up (1)
34. Warm Air
35. Maintaining Excitement Over a Silent Pause
36. Ear pulls
37. Perfect Staggered Breathing
38. Building up Breathing Capacity
39. Narrow Narrow Narrow
40. Jerry Lewis
41. Choir gigs to run away from (unless the choir really really needs the money)
42. mp3 recordings – self evaluation
43. Word accentuation – Feminine Endings
44. Happy New Singing Year!
45. The Weight Shift Thing Before During and After
46. Directors and Winging It
47. Memorization- backwards
48. Flat out unison tune up
49. Toes Down Through Soles of Shoes
50. Quit Breathing Altogether During Up Tunes
51. Finger in the Cheek
52. Ah visual – whiteboard ‘aw’
53. Inner Smile
54. A Tongue With a Mind of Its Own
55. Singing in Tempo
56. Thinking in Sentences and Phrases
57. Balancing a Major Chord
58. Competition
59. Down the Tiles – the presentation power of a choir singing right at the audience
60. Enlightenment at Choir Practice
61. Getting a Song Into the Voice
62. Fast Quiet Breath – open throat, drop the belly
63. Keep ‘Em Singing
64. FBI
65. Stuff that Directors have Got to Stop Doing
66. Jaw Tension – relax the back teeth – stupid stupid stupid
67. Lip Roll
68. Breathing stuff – is breathing really the problem?
69. Supermarket Singing
70. Evolution of the Short Vowels and Vocal Damage
71. Body Awareness Can Light Up Your Singing and Change Your Life
72. Korg Tuner Jingle Bells
73. Happy Birthday Mr President (Trim Tab)
74. Get the ‘L’ Out of There
75. Isometric Pressure
76. Nerves – Rescue Remedy, Breath of Fire, Jin Shin Jyutsu…
77. The travelling Voice
78. The Days That You Should Not Sing
79. Silent Run Through – individual
80. Silent Singing To Perk Up Presentation
81. Warm Up One Note
82. There’s Something About Singing
83. Vocal ‘catches’ that make you cough
84. Laughing
85. Synchronization Plink
86. Glottal Attacks
87. High Notes
88. Sample Rehearsal Schedule
89. Chord Balancing – minor chord
90. Waste Air
91. One of the ways that less is more
92. Kazoos
93. Sumo Squat
94. Pre-pitch grunting
95. French Teacher ‘eu’ lips
96. Balancing the Half diminished Chord – the Controversy
97. Moustache Hands
98. Speaking Voice Placement
99. From ‘Oo’ to all the other vowels (trumpet lips)
100. Top twelve tricks so far. Brass Buzz, Jin Shin Jyutsu holding points, Breath of fire,
Zzzzzz, Inner Smile, Korg tuner, Laser eyes, Rehearsal schedules, Elastic
Bands, Sumo Squat and Moustache Hands, Toes Down through soles of shoes
101. Telegraphing
102. Breathing Out
103. Balancing the Diminished Chord
104. Why is this chord not working? Arr., bal, vowel, tuning, placement
105. Finding the Climax of the Song
106. Goodness and Niceness
107. Director Snits – Causes and Solutions
108. Cue for Breathing Out
109. The Shuffle – Who Should Stand Where
110. Shoulder Tapping
111. The Voice in Your Head
112. Balancing the Dominant 7th Chord
113. Presentation – The Emotional Story
114. The Tilt of the Chin
115. Hands Up!
116. Legato Painting
117. Adjusting the Vocal Colour
118. Eyebrow Activity
119. Directors’ Fruitless Flailing
120. Tiger Eyes
121. The Video is Our Friend
122. Eyes Closed – Synchronization
123. Enprettification
124. One Baby Step
125. 24 Hours – That’s All this Phrase Has Got
126. The Instructionally Overloaded Singer
127. Driving the Song Forward
128. The Motivation to Improve
129. Enough Time
130. Old Repertoire, Old Singing Habits
131. Training Wheels and Muscle Memory
132. Why We Work So Hard At This
133. Target Pitches
134. Trumpet Lips
135. Palm Push
136. Slow Motion Chords
137. Presentation – Eyes Closed
138. Matching Vocal and Visual Dynamics
139. Marking Formed and Unformed Vowels On the Sheet Music
140. Many Hands, Light Work
141. How Narrow? Whistle Narrow
142. Head Voice, Chest Voice and that Flippy Spot
143. Rehearsing the Chorus for Onstage Nerves
144. Stance – Better Sound, Better Presentation
145. When Less (Directing) is Much More
146. He Shall Feed His Flock Dame Edna
147. Listening For Noise
148. Visual Noise
149. Lip Ring
150. The Fast Silent Breath
151. The Great Irony About Competition
152. Fast Breaths and Forward Motion
153. The Case For Duetting
154. Easy Music
155. Time To Smell the Roses
156. Playing With Resonance
157. When Choreo and Sound Fight – Choreo Always Wins
158. When the Presentation Works
159. Harmonic Series 101
160. Expanded Sound
161. This Is Show Business
162. What You Always Do, You Always Do
163. More About Standing Arrangement
164. Visual Cue for a Tall ee Vowel
165. The Director’s Coterie
166. Saving the Chorus
167. Sergeant at Arms
168. The Most Thankless Choir Job
169. The Curse of a Great Acoustic
170. Singable Consonants
171. Perfect Diphthongs
172. Developing a Choir’s Spidey Senses
173. Christmas in July
174. Mezzo Forte Technique
175. Creation and Analysis – Two Different Processes
176. Clench the Teeth and Perk Up the Tempo
177. The Chordasm
178. The Music Team
179. Cranking up the Voice for the New Choir Season
180. Syncopated Rhythms
181. The Big Barbershop Ending
182. Too Late to Fix It
183. Long Tones
184. Ditching emotional baggage – Ghost Fingers
185. Constant Vocalization
186. The Bass Freight Train
187. For Directors – When We Get Stuck
188. Consider the Back Story
189. Great Ape Pendulum Arms
190. The Unconscious Upward Slide Into the Pitch
191. More on the Exorcism of And and The
192. Choreography – Rehearsing With a Metronome
193. Performing-Type Listening
194. Choir Practice as Experience of the Sacred
195. Preventing Fainting
196. The R Vowel
197. VLQs
198. Three /Four Time – Basic Rule of Thumb
199. Fruitless Grousing
200. Big Clean Sound (A Short Course)
201. Spinning the Sound
202. When You’re Not There, You’re Missed

Magic Choral Trick #202 When You’re Not There, You’re Missed

My women’s Barbershop chorus just got back from competing at Harmony Inc’s annual international competition where we were expecting to place in the top ten. We placed 11th out of a field of 24 choruses, which (after we’d heard and seen the amazing development of all the choruses) we felt was actually pretty respectable.

But we did notice a difference in our scores from our regional competition, to this one. There was an improvement in other aspects of our performance, but our singing scores dropped. At first, this was a mystery to me because I know that individually, all of these women are now singing better than they were in June.

Then I did the math.

Due to work commitments, and the expense of travelling to Florida, we were missing 10 of the women who were onstage with us at the regional competition – which is about 22% of the chorus.

I am almost certain that if I were to ask each of these 10 women individually if they thought that they made a huge difference to the sound, they’d all say ‘no’. And they’d be surprised that I’d even ask them the question.

But I have no doubt that if they’d been there, we’d have maintained (or improved) our June singing score, and we’d have been in the top ten.

It’s interesting to be able to quantify being missed with numbers and competition ranking, but having members not there also has a noticeable effect on the group dynamic – the way we rehearse, the way we interact socially, and of course, the way we sing together.

Each singer makes a huge difference. And when choir members begin to understand this, every singer takes more responsibility for creating the best rehearsals, the best performances, and the best choral experience possible.

Magic Choral Trick #201 Spinning the Sound

May have had a huge breakthrough last night with my men’s chorus.

I used one of Jim Henry’s (Barbershop Harmony Society – Ambassadors of Harmony) kinesiology tricks.

Same motion as the basketball ref signal for travelling, but rather than fist over fist, it’s the extended index fingers that revolve around one another.

Here’s a Youtube link that shows a ref doing the travelling sign:

(The signal I’m talking about is at the 32 second mark)

I had the whole chorus continue this movement (but with index fingers rather than fists) as they sang any sustained notes.

Rich, gorgeous, resonant, spinning sound.

I was also able to have them do this over spots that needed an energy lift to counteract the temptation to take an unplanned breath.

Special thanks to clinician Steve Tramack (BHS) for passing on the kinesiology tricks that Jim Henry teaches.

Magic Choral Trick #200 Big Clean Sound (A Short Course)

I’ve selected 38 of my past posts as a short course on having your choir develop a Big Clean Sound.

Here are the categories, and here are the posts:

Physical Stuff

Breath of Fire

Brass Player Buzz

Moustache Hands

Lip Ring

Harmonic Series 101

Head Voice, Chest Voice and that Flippy Spot

Clean up the Vowels

Target Vowels

Marking Formed and Unformed Vowels

The R Vowel

Long Tones

Expanded Sound

Visual Cue for a Tall ee Vowel


When the physical stuff (above) is correct, when the chorus is using absolutely in tune learning sound files and when the vowels are cleaned up, many of the tuning problems will just go away. However, a little Bio Feedback with a Korg Tuner will also make a huge difference.

Korg Chromatic Tuner

Target Pitches

Legato Line and Ends of Phrases

Elastic Bands

Great Ape Pendulum Arms

Cloud Lifting

Toes Down Through the Soles of the Shoes

Palm Push


The Bass Freight Train


This is Show Business

Presentation – The Emotional Story

Visual Noise

Eyebrow Activity

Presentation – Eyes Closed

Matching Vocal and Visual Dynamics

Silent Singing To Perk Up Presentation



Choir Practice as Experience of the Sacred

Developing a Choir’s Spidey Senses


For Directors – When We Get Stuck

Director Snits – Causes and Solutions

Why is this chord not working?

The Case For Duetting

Keep ‘Em Singing

The Electric Silence

Hire a Coach at least once a year!

Magic Choral Trick #199 Fruitless Grousing

When we complain about something – anything – I guess the main question we need to ask ourselves is if the complaint was heard by someone who has the power, authority or expertise to do something about it.

Perhaps we were only looking for sympathy or a hug, or to form a stronger misery bond. Rather like complaining about the weather.

In Canada, if someone were to tell us that we were no longer allowed to complain about the weather, conversations would dry up all across the country. However, that’s not going to happen, because here it is one of the things that binds us together with complete strangers. It does create a definite camaraderie. We’re Canadians – we have tough weather, which we all feel gives us a common bond of toughness.

Person A: “Cold enough for ya?”

Person B: “Yep – and it’s supposed to be like this all week!”

Person A: “Hardly wait for spring”

And then in the spring it goes like this:

Person A: “Wet enough for ya?”

Person B: “Yep – and it’s supposed to be like this all week!” or “Great weather for ducks!”

Person A: “Hardly wait for summer”

However, the kind of secretive complaining or grousing that can happen in choirs does not bind the group together. It does not promote a joyful camaraderie. It can act like a slow poison that gradually taints the experience of the choir for everyone.

It is wonderful when a group has a mechanism in place for complaints – a mechanism that’s known to everyone. But failing that, take your complaint – privately – directly to the person with the power to fix it. (The privately part is important!) This approach will always work much better than having multiple gripe sessions with other choir members who don’t call the shots on this particular issue.

Magic Choral Trick #198 Three/Four Time – Basic Rule of Thumb

Three beats in every bar. It needs to waltz.

If the songwriter knew what she or he was doing, the most important words will always show up on beat one. So the vowel on beat one needs to be formed if it’s one of the 5 big deal Italian vowels (Ah, Oh, Ee, Ay, Oo), and sung with great clarity if it’s one of the many unformed ones – the short vowels, and the neutral vowels.

All the words that happen on beats 2 and 3 need to be sung cleanly, but with a completely relaxed mouth and tongue. No wide open mouths at all on these two beats.

Sometimes, at first this is too much of a mind bender for groups, so I start by asking them to sing only the first beat in every bar – with rests on beats two and three. Sometimes choirs find this hysterically funny. Not sure why.

Then we sing the first beat regularly, and murmur-sing the last two beats – almost inaudibly.

The last step is then to sing legato through all three beats – but with the mouths in ‘murmur’ position on the back two thirds of every bar.

One thing that can also help with a women’s or children’s group is to have them actually waltz while singing – so that the feeling of the power of beat one can be felt though the whole body.

If you have any luck getting mixed choirs, church choirs or men’s choirs to dance – please post a comment and let me know how you did it!

Magic Choral Trick #197 VLQs

When I became a director in the Men’s Barbershop Harmony Society I was introduced to the VLQ. Very Large Quartet. And there is even a competition category for these groups – for 6 to 13 singers.

We all know that singing in quartets is a fantastic way to develop as an ensemble singer, but not everyone has the nerves, or the expertise to make it an enjoyable experience.

VLQs give singers a chance to stretch a bit without being overwhelmed. Hearts beat a little faster when they’re singing in front of the chorus – so they’re rehearsing feeling some nerves, but singing well anyway. And they tend to take more overall care about every aspect of their performance that they do when they’re just another individual buried in the chorus.

If everyone can get an opportunity to sing regularly in this sort of smaller subset, it has the potential to have the singers make a habit of this level of thoughtful awareness. When this begins to happen, the difference it makes to the chorus as a whole is astonishing.

It doesn’t have to take up much time in a rehearsal.

I usually just call out the number of singers needed in each part, and the volunteers come down off the risers and get into formation. (I should rehearse this aspect of the exercise with both my Barbershop Choruses – because this is the part that can take the longest)

Forming up takes a maximum of 3 minutes. Most songs take about 3 minutes to sing. Zooming back up onto the risers takes less than 30 seconds.

That’s 6 and a half minutes really really well spent. (And we could probably shave a good two minutes off that if people know exactly where to stand when they come down off the risers.)

I’m reminding myself to do this more often.

Magic Choral Trick #196 The R Vowel

Yes, I’m kidding – R isn’t actually a vowel, it just gets used as a vowel substitute and gives itself a bad name.

Rs at the front ends of words don’t usually create a problem as long as they’re over and done with instantly, and we get on with the real business of singing – pure, clean vowels.

However, Rs at the back end of a syllable can cause no end of trouble, because our minds and our tongues know they’re coming. You can hear tongues tightening more and more throughout the choir, and the sound becomes less and less resonant till mercifully it’s time for the word to be over.

There’s a whole tradition of choral music that has handled the problem by eliminating the Rs altogether, by pretending that the choir members all speak with the English accent that replaces final Rs with a version of ‘ah’. While this is an accepted idiosyncrasy of the men and boys’ choir idiom, it draws attention to itself when adopted by other singing groups. (And anything that draws attention to itself will upstage the song)

The quick fix is to have choir members place the tip of the tongue halfway up the back of the bottom front teeth, and keep it there – relaxed relaxed relaxed – while singing all the R they want.

The other approach will give a more resonant sound, but takes a little longer because the mind needs to be drilled for it to become a habit.

Whatever the target vowel is – whether it’s long, short, formed or unformed, the usual care needs to be taken with matching and relaxation. Then, just as the sustained syllable is about to move to the next word, we sing the resolution sound – er, ert, erm, erd or erld.

Here are some examples:

Are = Ah—————–er (Formed vowel – Ah)

Ever = Ehveu————er (Unformed neutral vowel – relaxed mouth)

Fair = Feh—————-er (Relaxed mouth)

World = Weu————erld (Unformed neutral vowel – relaxed mouth)

Near = Nee—————er (Formed vowel – Ee)

Arm = Ah—————-erm (Formed vowel – Ah)

Heart = Hah————–ert (Formed vowel – Ah)

Storm = Stoh————-erm (As close to formed Italian ‘O’ as possible)

The real work here is to teach the mind to think only about the target vowel as the sustained pitch is being sung – and then, only at the last millisecond to let the mind think of the R.

However, the sound dividends are so huge, that I find that choirs can get quite excited about the work. Ultimately, glorious sound trumps everything.

Magic Choral Trick #195 Preventing Fainting

We had a close call the other night with one of the members of my women’s chorus.

It reminded me of the days when I used to direct a children’s choir and always had to designate a couple of parents as ‘catchers’. They’d sit in the front row and keep scanning all the kids as they sang – watching for swaying, or faces suddenly going pale, or eyes that seemed to be looking at nothing.

We saw all these things with our friend at the concert on Tuesday evening. Later, she also reported the tunnel vision, the clamminess and the need for more oxygen that are also associated with being just about to faint. I was wondering why she kept yawning and putting her hand to her face. I’d never ever seen her do that sort of thing in performance before.

One of the other chorus members whisked her out of the very hot theatre where we were performing, and everything was eventually ok. However, as obvious as it was to all of us that she was in difficulty, she kept insisting that she was fine. As she walked off she could barely move her legs. She was definitely not fine. So denial may also be part of the whole symptom package.

Some of the things known to cause fainting in susceptible people are just part of many performances:


Standing still for longer than usual

Dehydration (we generally don’t take water bottles onto the stage)

Stress (the stress of the performance, on top of anything else that may be going on in your

Low blood sugar (sometimes there’s so much rushing, fussing, rehearsing and getting
ready, that we forget to eat)


How do we prevent fainting?

Be well fed and watered before you go onstage. (Especially people who have a history of low blood pressure)

Do some deep breathing to calm yourself. (Breath of Fire  )

Do what you can to make sure that the venue is a comfortable temperature.

Unlock your knees!

As you sing, or between songs occasionally tighten and relax some of the major muscles – Abs, Thighs, Butt (glutes) and Arms. If you are about to faint, blood tends to pool in the abdomen, so tightening and relaxing these muscles helps to send that blood back up to the head. If these muscles are being used it’s very unlikely that you’ll even start to feel faint. Another reason for lots of active choreography!

If you actually get to the point where you have serious concerns about remaining upright, you should sit down on the risers right away, and put your head down as low as you can get it. Once you get to the clamminess and tunnel vision, it might be too late to get offstage under your own steam. Someone will come to help you. Someone always does.

Magic Choral Trick #194 Choir Practice as Experience of the Sacred

A Mythology teacher I know recently sent his class outside to document places on the campus that they considered sacred.

I met a member of Big Choir in the grocery store who said to me about the previous night’s rehearsal, “It really is a sacred time”.

All of which made me realize that if people are spontaneously having experiences that feel like sacred moments, it may be possible to extend this group feeling of expansion, and heightened sensitivity simply by being aware of it.

Certainly we all feel it when a chord is so wonderful we wish it didn’t have to end. We find it in the perfectly crafted line, the stunning tuning, the powerful surge of a crescendo that takes on a life of its own, the silence before the applause, or the exuberance of a bass line that propels us on.

But is excellence actually a pre-requisite? What I have found is that the only thing that’s required for a group to experience the sacred is the intention to work as a unit in this moment, in this moment, in this moment…

When this happens, excellence becomes a by product. And the striving for excellence has really just been a tool for pointing us towards the sacred.

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