Monthly Archives: December 2012

Magic Choral Trick #210 Your Face is Not as Active as You Think

I was watching my 3 month old Grandson’s face the other day, and it’s extraordinary how many expressions can flit across a baby’s face in a few seconds. It’s as if all the possible human expressions are still on his palette – and haven’t been shut down by life’s experiences.

Then I watched the faces of people at the mall. Anyone older than about 6 years of age seems to have their characteristic facial expression locked in place.

As a child, when I had a sour expression on my face, my Granny used to tell me that if the wind changed, my face would stay that way.

I’m thinking she may have been right.

At some point the wind changed for all of us. Hearts got broken, people put us down or we were disappointed or disillusioned. It became unsafe to stand out, be wildly enthusiastic or to be really expressive. So most of us have settled for faces that display only a very small part of the range of emotion that was our birthright.

This is what choruses are up against when we’re trying to allow the subtly different emotions of each new phrase of a song to show – and to show enough that an audience will see it and believe it.

Just as an experiment, in the privacy of your own home, try videoing yourself singing a song – a song for which you’ve done a detailed emotional plan. Then play it back – with the sound off. Can you still understand the emotional plan? I betting you’ll be surprised by how little your face is actually moving.

However, after you have this first video, you have a base level with which to compare your next recordings.

Now try it again – but this time, ridiculously exaggerating every emotion. Sad – be really, really sad. Happy – be deliriously joyful. Bewildered – be utterly clueless.

If when you watch this version it really is over the top, then you have an idea of the upper limit of your emotional range. So now you have some idea of how that area in between these two performances feels.

I’d be very surprised if this was the case though. Unless you’ve been coached often by a theatrical director, you will probably find that your face is still not moving nearly enough.

I’ll post more later about tricks for getting your face to reactivate.

Magic Choral Trick #209 Singing Outside of Your Range

One of the problems with being a good musician in a choir is that you sometimes get asked to compromise your voice to boost a section that needs help.

This happens most often to sopranos who read well. You can get put into the alto section on a temporary basis, which, if you do a great job, can stretch into years. It would probably be ok if you could just sing along quietly – taking care to sing well technically – but that’s rarely the scenario. You were put into the section to lead. So now, not only are you habitually singing out of your range, but you’re also pushing the sound and singing loud enough to be of assistance to those around you.

Unless you’re using your Broadway belting voice (which I suspect would be unpopular in your choir) you’re oversinging the bottom end of your range, and doing damage.

If we’re talking about one short rehearsal a week, your voice probably has time to recover before the next time. But at this time of year, when choirs are having extra rehearsals and many performances, my guess is that by Christmas Eve you’ll be just barely croaking out the carols.

So what to do?

If you’re singing a part that’s physically uncomfortable for you, tell your choir director.

If you’re singing a part that’s too low, sing quietly and place the sound as far forward in the mouth as you can (see the various suggestions for this in post #200). It should sound thin and a bit mean in your own head. A focused sound actually projects much better than a big blustery one – and will be of more assistance to those around you, without doing damage to your voice.

If you’re singing a part that’s too high you have a number of options.

If there are enough tenors or sopranos who love the stratosphere, leave the highest notes for them.

If you’re unhappy faking the high notes, you’re going to need to do some homework. It’s amazing just how quickly you can expand your range upwards when you do 10 or 15 minutes of singing practice every day. Start with a solid 4 or 5 minutes of singing scales very slowly to Zzzzzz (Start with a B Major scale, then a C Major scale, then a C sharp Major etc.). Go over some of your choir songs to Zzzzz. Almost immediately, they should be easier. Singing your choir’s warm up exercises in the mid to mid-high range will also help your high range. Anything you can do to improve your vocal placement will help. (See blog post #200 for more tips )

Or best of all – take some singing lessons

Magic Choral Trick #208 Thought Balloon

In all the years I sang in choirs I think the only instructions I got about how to sing the onset of a note musically was in the negative:

“Get rid of the glottal attack”

“Don’t bump the entry”

“Back off that first note”

Ok – occasionally a director would say “We need a more smooth entry”. But there was no instruction about the thoughts we were to think that would make that happen. And sometimes, the more adamant the director became about it, the more stressed we all felt – and the glitchy entries just got worse.

In recent years, Marvel comics have been a big deal in our house. As I was putting one away the other day I realized that the thought balloon was the perfect visual to describe the onset of the first note in a phrase.

So I’ve been experimenting on my choruses (again) and it seems to be working.

I ask them to think of the shape of a thought balloon as they sing the first note. I draw the shape for them quite quickly, so that they get right to the bloom of the vowel after they’ve sung the tiny onset sound. I find that I move my hands fast at first, and then slow the movement a bit for the vowel bloom.

This ends up looking a bit like the Bloom Gesture ( ) – but with a much more specific beginning.

Magic Choral Trick #207 Eyeballing

Such a tiny physical movement and such huge presentation consequences.

Eyeballing is what Barbershoppers call the sideways movement of one chorus member’s eyes as they check out their neighbour’s choreography, or some distraction at the back or side of the performance hall.

When the rest of the chorus has eyes glued to the director, this one small movement can send an entire audience on a distracted thought journey that has nothing to do with the song being sung.

Our eyes are hardwired by Mother Nature to notice change, or small sudden differences in what it is we’re watching. Our brains need to interpret this, then have a little chat to themselves about what they’ve seen, and decide if it’ll somehow affect our safety. After threats to safety are eliminated as a possibility, we then need to have an inner discussion about what it might be that the choir member was looking at, and why whatever it was, was important to him right at that moment.

And it won’t be just one audience member that goes through this process. If the chorus on stage is small, it could easily be every audience member. If we were interested enough to be watching your performance – we noticed!

Magic Choral Trick #206 Avoid Finale Sopranos and Altos

I was just doing a Finale (music writing program) sound file for one of my choirs, which I guess is breaking my own rule about top quality learning sound files. First of all – because there are no words, but more importantly because for some unfathomable reason, Finale’s Sopranos and Altos sing consistently flat.

The Bass sound isn’t too bad (except for the weird, random changes in vowel.)

Haven’t done Finale learning sound files for a while – so I’m just now remembering why I always used to use Trumpet in C for the Soprano and Alto parts, and Trombone for any Tenor or Bass parts.

Magic Choral Trick #205 More Spinning

You may not get 100% compliance immediately from the people who are nervous about looking silly – but its worth some persistence for the effect this has on tuning.

More spinning: Index fingers point at the temples, then rotate fingers, circling the temple area – moving up and forward, then down and back, then around again and again. Seems to work best if both fingers are moving in unison – like the wheels of a car.

Do this while you’re singing a sustained note that’s been sitting a bit low, and it should bring it up to pitch.


Magic Choral Trick #204 Rip it Up Fabulous Singing – At the Party After the Gig

Was chatting with a student this week about the difference between our solo singing on the gig, and the standing around the piano, drink in hand, stunning top A’s and endless breath control we can pull off at the party afterwards.

Granted, because there’s usually a beverage involved, our perception of our own singing could be somewhat altered. But then someone says something like “Wow – Why didn’t you do THAT out there on the stage tonight?” (At which point we thank them, then quickly move on to find someone else to talk to.)

Once upon a time I thought I’d try to duplicate that ‘after the gig’ feeling by having one glass of wine before I went onstage. It was great – no nerves before the show, no nerves or tension as I walked onto the stage and started the first song. Then Bam! Halfway into the first piece, every part of me tensed up as I realized that my brain was having a little undeserved vacation.

Didn’t ever do that again.

But what if our brains are still active, vigilant and clear – but our bodies think that we’re just relaxing.

I’m speaking now to choir members as well as solo singers. (However – this is for the keeners – the singers who work so hard and care so much, that they create tension in the body, and therefore in the sound.)

We can trick our bodies into letting go of the stress by adopting postures that are more associated with down time:

Like leaning back against a wall – feet about 8 to 10 inches out from the wall, and back, hips and head resting against the wall

Like sitting forward, and leaning forward in a chair, with elbows resting on the knees, as you look at the floor.

I asked one student to slouch back in a chair while pretending to hold her favourite beverage – and that worked too!

The mind must still be as vigilant as ever – and thinking all the correct thoughts, but the body is being tricked into believing that it’s on vacation.

Once our bodies learn this feeling of relaxation as we’re singing, it begins to become muscle memory, and we can then sing freely in any position.

Magic Choral Trick #203 The Bloom Gesture

Been having some success with this one recently. It’s a picture drawing in the air of the shape I want for important sustained notes, or important words.

Director’s hands begin the note down at waist level, cross a bit as the note begins, then poof/bloom upward and out to the sides a little so that there’s an egg shape described in the air. Hands will end up back down where they started at the end of the note. (You could also think of the shape as two overlapping eggs – like a Venn diagram)

The benefits of this are that the singers can see the bloom on the target vowel, and that they know exactly when the sustained note should end. The closing of the egg shape is obviously where the note will finish – which I find is clearer than showing a straight line to sustain a note. It’s anybody’s guess where that line will end – and some singers inevitably give up – or grit their teeth and hang on (which definitely affects the freedom of the sound.)

The tricky part of this is that the director has to be reasonably in control of his/her limbs. Might even have to practise so that the movement is smooth, and the exact timing is clear.

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