Monthly Archives: December 2012

Magic Choral Trick #220 Our Toddler Minds

I think that the next great leap forward in evolution will happen when we can get our attention span past the toddler phase.

I know that I, for one, suffer from ADOS (Attention Deficit Oooooh Shiny!)

But I’m not alone.

Keeping our minds on one conscious path is very much like taking a two year old for a walk to the corner store. She’s very willing to go with you – but will stop and examine rocks and caterpillars. She’ll want to go up and down everyone’s front steps. She’ll ask if you can sit for a while on the curb to rest – after about one block of walking. And when you’re nearly there, she’ll insist on going home.

Directors – knowing that we’re just as distractible as our singers is a valuable piece of information. We need a plan, so that there’s something to remind us of what we wanted to accomplish when our minds start to meander and we’re tempted to digress, and kibitz and just be one of the gang. Disciplined, fast paced rehearsals are actually a lot of fun – and will leave everyone feeling energized at the end of the evening.

And singers – please be aware that because our minds’ evolutionary stage is still in the toddler phase, there’s a lot of inanity there – in everyone’s mind. But that doesn’t mean that it all needs to be shared in a running commentary. The more we can focus as a group on a specific task, the more excitement we’ll feel, and the more real value can be created.

And that’s why we do this.

Magic Choral Trick #219 Staying Healthy for the Gig

In these long cold winter days when we’re indoors much more we may need some extra Magic Tricks to keep us healthy:

The usual good stuff: Good food, exercise, water, fresh air, and enough sleep

The preventative stuff:

Vit D during the darker winter months

Vit C

Multivitamin (always with food so the B Vitamins don’t make you nauseous)

Vit B 12 strips – really, really helped me with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, from lack of sunlight. When lack of light is making you a bit blue, the immune sytem does not work as well)

OregaFlu – by Pure-le

Cold FX (this is a ginseng extract, so it’s often recommended that people with high blood pressure not take it – but for the rest of us, it’s the allstar of cold prevention supplements)

At the first sign of a cold (the first hint of a scratchy throat):

Cold FX

Ferrum Phosphoricum – Homeopathic Remedy


Zinc Lozenges – check the package for the daily dose, because you can overdo the zinc
(Also – always after you’ve eaten or you’ll feel nauseous)

Real lemon drinks – lots of them (1  1/2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon, 1 Tbsp Maple syrup, a shake or two of cayenne, and 8 oz of either hot or cold water)

Thymus thump – Thumping the upper chest – like Tarzan, or like some serious Mea Culpa-ing

Deep Breathing – because more oxygen helps everything

Get rid of sugar for as long as you’re trying to fight off the cold. (The times when I’ve been healthiest have been the times when I’ve banned sugar completely from my diet)

And for some reason, keeping your neck and upper back warm really does seem to help

If the cold does settle in:

Taking Cold FX seems to shorten the severity and duration

Neti Pot – for rinsing the sinuses, and helping you to breathe through your nose

Homeovox homeopathic remedy from Boiron can help your voice to come back to life (However, if the cold settles on your vocal cords and you’re unable to speak – Don’t Try to Sing!)

Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, Chinese cough syrup is terrific for helping to clear gunk from your chest.

Hope this helps

Magic Choral Trick #218 Oversinging

The non stop gigs, the Christmas Cantatas and the Christmas Eve descants are finally all done.

How’s your voice doing? Hopefully it’s been properly lubricated (with water of course) and is once again fully functional.

This is the time of year though when there’s a temptation to oversing – to press the voice for a bit more volume than is healthy.

There are several situations which show up all year round in which we’re inclined to do this.

1. When we stand beside someone whose voice is much bigger than ours we oversing, just so that we’ll be able to hear ourselves. (You may need to move to another spot on the risers)

2. We expect the bottom end of our range to have the same level of intensity as our upper range. I frequently need to remind students that a Middle C has only half the vibrations per second that the third space C has – so it’s going to feel much less intense when it’s sung. We can’t bring that same level of fun down the octave without straining something.

3. Saving the chorus. This is a problem that sometimes shows up with the most conscientious singers in the choir. Leading the charge, and singing right notes loud enough to guide everyone else leads to oversinging – and vocal strain.

If you’re not doing singing technique practice every day, it’s not unusual to feel a bit vocally tired at the end of a rehearsal or a show. But if your voice doesn’t feel refreshed again an hour or so later, you might be falling into one of the traps above.

It’s a good idea to just check in with your throat and voice periodically as you sing. If you can remind yourself that louder isn’t necessarily better, and to sing with forward placement, you should be fine.

Magic Choral Trick #217 Onion Skin Stacking

Here’s another one from Jim Henry’s kinesiology and singing list.

Onion Skin Stacking is great for keeping repeated notes in tune – and preventing them from slipping.

Ask the group to sing a series of words all on the one pitch. If they stay in tune – lucky you.

If however, they are like almost every amateur choir and go a bit flatter with every repetition of the pitch – try this:

When the first note is sung place one hand, palm down, as if it were sitting on a countertop.

Second note – place the palm of the other hand on top of the back of the first hand

Third note – take the first palm out from underneath and place on top

Like stacking Onion Skins

I tried this recently with my Men’s Barbershop Chorus with the version of Away in a Manger that starts with both the pick up and the downbeat on the dominant.

As they sang, and did these hand movements, it was amazing. It was perhaps the first time I’d ever heard a group sing that second note high enough!

As the Christmas performance progressed, the Onion Skin Stacking hand gesture became a really useful directing tool too.

Magic Choral Trick #216 Why Choirs Sing Flat

So much about tuning in a choir has to do with the singers not knowing something, and not knowing that they that don’t know it.

Here are a number of things that many choral singers don’t realize that they don’t know:

1. Singers are often unaware that they’re not getting up to the pitch.
(Fix: Work with Korg Chromatic Tuner, , mp3 recordings during rehearsal and at home)

2. Lack of awareness about the physical involvement that it takes to sing.
(Fix: Brass Buzz, ,

Breath of Fire ,

Waste Air ,

Breathing In Through an 8 Foot Straw ,

Cheek Wings )

3. Individual singers don’t realize that it takes only one voice in the crowd to pull the pitch down.
(Fix: Each chorus member needs to take responsibility for his or her own pitch. See fix for #1)

4. Traps: Repeated notes; Descending melodic lines (steps too big); Ascending melodic lines (steps not big enough). Tendency to undershoot upward melodic leaps, and overshoot the downward ones.
(Fix: Repeated notes  , work with Korg Tuner on specific intervals, very slow scales, Drill during warm up at rehearsal. Try having half of the chorus listen to the other half)

5. Not enough work on discrimination between tones and semitones
(Fix: Drill during warm up; Korg Tuner homework)

6. Swooping upwards to the pitch and never quite making it.
(Fix: Record yourself and find out if you’re sliding upwards into pitches)

7. Vocal production techniques in the Bass line – usually too chesty.
(Fix: Basses – practise singing more focused, pointed, heady tone. Very clean, instead of woofy)

8. Bass singers are often unaware of the importance of their part with regard to overall tuning – and tend to be a little less vigilant about pitch than the other parts. As the Basses sink in pitch – so does everyone else. There’s a feeling of “just relax and let ‘er rip” because the audience is really only listening to the melody line.
(Fix: Ok Basses – now you know)

9. Sopranos, or top voices that are singing a part that is too high for them.
(Fix: Sopranos, you may need to learn to sing Alto)

10. For Sopranos whose voices are capable of high notes, but aren’t quite making the pitches, tension is often a problem.
(Fix: Sing the high section first on Zzzzz , then sing it using words while putting your hands in the Cheek Wings position.)

11. Unmatched vowels pull the pitch down.
(Fix: Drill clean vowels until everyone hears them lock in)

12. Not enough drill on singing specific intervals in tune
(Fix: During the warm up is a great time to do this)

13. Trained singers whose vibrato oscillates between the pitch and something lower will tend to pull a groups’ pitch down – especially when singing in a choir with many untrained voices.
(For those of us with trained voices, we have the option of singing anywhere on the vibrato spectrum – from sine wave straight to full blown unsupported wobble, and all the gradations in between. We can take our cue from the singers around us. Are we singing with singers who all have similar training and vibrato, or are we singing with people with untrained, straighter voices? To make the maximum contribution to the group, we can use our super power for good, and blend in with those around us.)

14. A lack of mental intensity, and attention to the present moment. Good pitch takes constant vigilance until it becomes a habit.
(Whether we know it or not, this is probably why we sing in choirs – attention to the present moment. Being present right now, right now, right now feels wonderful, energizes us and points us beyond the ordinary to something magical.)

Directors – You need to have the serenity to accept the things you absolutely know that you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and of course the wisdom to know the difference. Most of what I’ve suggested here is possible with any group that actually wants to improve their pitch.

Magic Choral Trick #215 Where’s the Tonic Chord?

I know this one may seem obvious, but I keep forgetting about it.

Look at the beginning of the song and find the first time that the chorus needs to sing the Tonic Chord (the chord that contains doh, mi and soh in whatever key the piece is in.)

Have the people whose notes are doh and soh sing them (with vowels matched) until the 5th locks into place.

Place in the 3rd lightly, then adjust if need be until the chord rings.

Next I ask the chorus to sing this chord over and over until they can get the lock and ring instantly – without having to shift around and adjust for a second or two.

Once everyone has a clear impression of how this feels and sounds, I point out other Tonic Chords a little further on in the song.

They may not be singing the same chord note the next time – but because everyone now knows the feeling of this chord when it’s locked in, each version of it will be in tune. (Though each version may also need to be drilled in the same way as the first)

By drilling this ringing chord again and again, we’re teaching the body to remember how to sing it, in whatever arrangement the notes are written for us. When the body has this figured out, the mind is then free to be more emotionally involved in the song.

And the body loves working on Lock and Ring. It sounds great – but it feels amazing! Guess it becomes like an addiction. The more ringing chords you experience, the more you crave them.

An addiction might explain why Barbershop choruses will happily stand for a 2 ½ hour rehearsal – and with everything memorized, work really, really hard on this stuff.

Magic Choral Trick #214 Refreshing the Thought

In contemporary culture, not much is expected of our minds. A diagnosis of ADD isn’t really necessary any more, because now we all have it. Anything that isn’t shiny or flashy or sensational enough quickly causes our attention to roam.

I don’t think we were actually conscious of this as it was happening. We just woke up one day and noticed that very little that we watched or read made us have to use our brain muscles.

There’s a huge opportunity here to stand out in a crowd. If you’re the only one with a functional mind, you’ll be noticed, and appreciated.

A great place to start training the mind is with your vocal technique exercises.

Most singers will think of the vowel they’re about to sing, start the exercise, then never give the vowel another thought.

When you rethink the vowel at several points during the exercise, not only are you training, and learning to control your mind, but the vowel will be clearer and more focused. When the vowel is really clean, the sound is much more resonant.

Refreshing the thought of the vowel does not come naturally. It’s something that needs to be practised and drilled every day. And your mind will object. It’ll suddenly think up other terribly important things that it needs you to know, and chatter on about these things as you’re trying to sing.

Being the grown up and showing your mind who’s boss – and refreshing only the thoughts you’ve chosen to think will greatly improve the clarity and tone of your voice, and will ultimately help you along the path to mental peace.

Magic Choral Trick #213 Pancake Flip for Pitch

So simple – but effective. This is useful for when singers are sustaining a pitch and it’s hanging just a little flat.

Upper arms against the body

Elbows bent

Palms down – as if palms and forearms were resting on a counter top

Sing the pitch and sustain it

If the pitch starts low, or if after a moment or two it begins to droop, turn the palms over.

That’s it. You should hear the pitch perk right up again.

Magic Choral Trick #212 Choirs and Social Consciousness

Not really a trick – more of a side effect.

There are two things that choirs love to do. Sing and eat. And both of these are a celebration of community.

So it’s really no surprise that some sort of community outreach should follow.

Tonight my women’s Barbershop chorus had our Christmas dinner party, and though not much was said about it, over $700 was raised, and a mountain of hats and mittens was collected for the local soup kitchen.

Every Harmony Inc. Barbershop chorus in North America raises funds for autism.

Last year Big Choir raised more than $1000 spontaneously in one evening for one of the show’s participants who was in need.

The Med School choir I direct donated half of their recent concert’s proceeds to the fund raising campaign for our local hospital.

There seems to be some sort of connection between singing together and kindness, outreach and concern for each other.

In these times when our news media is bringing us daily doses of the horrific, there’s comfort in knowing that groups of people all over the world are getting together every week to sing, and to experience joy – then doing what they can to give some of that joy and kindness to their communities.

Magic Choral Trick #211 Cheek Wings

Sing a phrase or two and notice how the singing feels and sounds.

Now put both hands out in front of you – palms up, hands flat – in line with your forearms (as if both hands and both forearms were resting on a table top.)

Fingers together.

Bend the elbows until you can place the outsides of your pinky fingers against your cheeks – just under the cheek bones. (Hands and forearms are still aligned.)

Your palms should now be aimed down/back at your shoulders. And the outside edges of your hands should make a diagonal line from your cheekbones to the corners of your mouth.

Cheek Wings.

Now sing the phrases again, and note how it feels.

The other night I asked my women’s chorus to sing like this for a while. Huge difference in the amount and quality of sound!

Next I asked them to take one hand down, and try to duplicate the feeling that they experienced when using two hands. Still great sound.

And of course, the last step is to take both Cheek Wings away, and maintain the physical changes brought about by this trick. It was pretty close. And it was the first time we’d tried it.

Haven’t a clue why this makes such a big difference – but we’re going to keep using Cheek Wings until whatever it is that happens becomes muscle memory.

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