Monthly Archives: January 2013

Magic Choral Trick #228 The Fifth is King

There is no sound as thrilling as human voices singing in harmony, flat out, with perfect ‘lock and ring’

Which is why I prefer the sound of an a cappella chorus.

The secret ingredient is the locked in Perfect 5th – which, because of the way that pianos are tuned (with all 5ths slightly smaller) isn’t possible for a choir singing with piano accompaniment.

When a fifth is big enough, and suddenly locks in, the eyes of every chorus member pop open. And suddenly, we’ve all seen the light. This is probably why parallel organum (singing in parallel 5ths and 4ths) was so popular with all the religious orders. It just feels so good!

Here’s an exercise we used last night.

We sang the first 5 notes of a scale slowly, and carefully – up then back down. You can use the numbers from 1 to 5, but doh re mi fah soh is better because it gives the singers clean vowels to lock in to.

I then divided the chorus into 2 parts (top 2 voices, and the lower 2) and had the lower voices sing the 5 note scale slowly in the key of A flat. After they’d drilled that a couple of times, I had the upper voices practise singing their 5 note scale in the key of E flat.

Then we put the two together and sustained each pairing of notes until the 5ths locked in.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, once the 5ths are all locked in, you can hear the 3rd of the chord ringing, even though no one is singing it yet. When you then want to lay that 3rd in gently, the singers will hear exactly where to put it – and Ta-Dah! No more out of tune Major 3rds.

This may sound like a lot of work, and initially it is. However, we singers soon get addicted to the physical rush that a dynamic, locked in 5th gives us, and (like the bar pressing rats we all learned about in Psych 101) the part of the brain that gets stimulated gives us a hunger for more, and more, and more…

(see: )

Magic Choral Trick #227 Singing at Funerals

Often when a chorus is invited to sing at a funeral it’s because the family of the person who has died has had a close personal connection to the group. This can make it very tough on the singers – unless there’s a plan.

Singing while you’re crying just does not work. In fact, even fighting back tears creates a huge steadfast lump in the back of the throat. Trying desperately not to cry also shuts down the regular breathing apparatus so that we’re unable to sustain a note for any length of time without it choking off.

So what helps?

Practising disciplined mental/vocal technique every week at rehearsal enables us to call upon this very focused state when it’s needed.

I tell my chorus members that before they get into emotional difficulty, they need to switch into technique mode – thinking only about placement, vowels, diphthongs, synchronization, stance, balance and blend. Because we work on this sort of thing every week, most are capable of switching on this state of mind, and can subdue the overwhelming emotions to where they’re just background noise.

As a Director I apply the same kind of technical thoughts – and make absolutely sure that I don’t cry. I have found that once I’m face to face with the group, even looking like I’ve been crying recently is enough to set off the sensitive chorus members.

I decide at the beginning of the funeral at which point after our performance I give myself permission to show emotion. Then I stay mentally very, very busy until that time.

And finally, anyone who thinks that they’ll have to contend with emotions that will get in the way of performing their best should go to the funeral parlour at the visitation time the day before.

Once, when I knew I’d be playing and singing at the extremely difficult funeral of a little boy I’d known, I decided that I needed to diffuse some of the grief ahead of time. When I went to the funeral parlour and saw the little one in the casket, a sound came out of my mouth that shocked me – not very loud, but quite primal. I had no idea that this would happen – but it was truly cathartic. Somehow, I managed to get through the next day’s funeral, singing and playing reasonably well.

One final note. In my years as a church musician I played many, many funerals, and was often seated very close to the family of the person who’d died. There seemed to be two types of groups of people – people who had obviously considered, and previously thought about death and the afterlife (usually regular church goers – and it didn’t matter what denomination), and the people for whom this whole experience was truly shocking.

The people in the first group were in better shape by the end of the funeral, but the people in the second group were almost always even more panicked when it was over.

Having begun to work on accepting our own mortality really helps to get us through tough times – like funerals.

Magic Choral Trick #226 Singing in Klingon

Ok – for those of you actual Klingon scholars who have come across this blog by chance, the specific sounds you want can be located at:

The singers in the crowd can keep reading.

Singing English the way it’s spoken leads to uneven sound – choked off by Rs, Ls and a tongue in constant motion as it moves slowly though diphongs, triphongs and a host of consonant blends.

Doing it right feels like singing in Klingon. (Clean target vowel – turning diphthong/final consonant/first consonant of the next word – target vowel of the next word.)

(More about Target Vowels )

If you’re doing it correctly it will take some time before it feels like you’re singing in English.

This is an essential step in the quest for clean, unified singing. And it absolutely has to become habit – body memory – in order to free your mind to once more be able to think in English.

Some examples:

Heart of my heart I love you (Heart of My Heart)


When the waves roll on over the water and ocean cries (We Rise Again)

Wentheuweh___eevesroh___oolaw___noh__veu_ertheu__wah__teu___er. Antheeoh___sheu__ncrah____eeze

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide (Abide With Me)

Uh___bah___eedwih___thmee___, Fa____stfaw___lsthee___ee___veu___ntah____eed.

On every one of the lines (___) above, make sure that there is absolutely no tongue tension.

The glorious sound of your voice is carried only on the vowels – not the consonants and definitely not on the tortuously slowly mangled diphthongs. So the goal here is to have about 95% of all sound being produced through clean, pure, un-tongue-hampered vowels.

Magic Choral Trick #225 The Prayer Hands Slide

Here’s one that’s been working well for me even though I haven’t said a word about it to any of my groups. My communication has been completely visual.

This can be used by Directors or by singers (during individual practise time, or during rehearsal.)

Palms of the hands together in the universally accepted prayer position. Fingers pointing upward.

Now move them apart about an inch. This is the starting position for the gesture.

At the start of a sustained note, energize the hands. No kidding – strong enough to resist someone pushing against them.

Begin immediately to move the right hand straight upwards, and the left hand on a parallel track downwards.

Isometric pressure is important here. Imagine that you’re having to press your right hand’s finger tips, and the heel of your left hand through some sort of thick, sproingy, semi liquid material. (Maybe some still warm and not quite solidified rubber) The movement is slow, smooth and intense.

The singers (when they’re watching) automatically sing with a ‘taller’ more resonant sound.

Directors – as usual you can test this out by having the chorus sing a phrase once, then asking them to sing it again while they watch your hands.

Singers – When you do this yourselves on any sustained note, you’re helping your body to make tall singing a habit, and you’re helping your mind to stay engaged. There’ll be more spin and forward motion to the sound when the mind is focused on the hands’ intense (and slow) physical movement.

Magic Choral Trick #224 Keeping the Voice Supple

Various coaches have advised us to make sure to include glissandi in our warm ups, and in our daily practising, in order to smooth out the bumpiness in our mid ranges. (Starting at the bottom of your range, slide evenly and fairly quickly up to the top of your range – then back down to the bottom again.)

I’ve always found that this is difficult enough for untrained voices that there’s not enough incentive for people to do it on their own.

However, I’ve been experimenting with singing glissandi with a fairly tight ‘V’ sound and it’s much, much easier. ‘Zzzz’ works too, but there’s a bit more actual vocal sound that comes through on the ‘V’.

Then I came across this terrific video on the Chorus America website that suggests using a very small bore straw – a plastic coffee stir stick. Check this out!

In addition to the glissando exercise, he also recommends singing what he calls little accented hills – which sound to me like the revving sound you hear when a driver is stuck, and trying to get out of a snow drift. Each attempt at revving getting higher in pitch.

Although this article is primarily aimed at keeping older voices supple, these exercises will help anyone to sing more effortlessly over their ‘break’.

Magic Choral Trick #223 Directors and Mockery

Directors – if you’re frustrated with the apparent lack of attention, concentration, commitment or technical ability of your singers – I get it. We’ve all been there at some time.

We all want to have productive and exhilarating rehearsals and can get truly frustrated when things don’t seem to be going that way. Assisting directors to get out of these pickles is one of the reasons that I write this blog.

When this frustration kicks in and is allowed free rein many nasty things can happen.

Of these, mockery is perhaps the most demeaning to singers. We’ve all seen it.

It’s one thing to demonstrate the right, then the wrong way of doing something, but quite another to do it in a mocking ‘nyah nyah’ tone of voice. When a director is losing it, demonstrating the wrong way to sing something is usually hugely exaggerated, again with a school yard ‘nyah nyah’ facial expression.

Sometimes the distinction between right and wrong has to have a little exaggeration in order for everyone to understand – but we need to lose the attitude.

Over my 50 year association with choirs, the most common things I’ve seen mocked by directors are:

– Tone Quality (fixable with coaching on proper vocal production)

– Singers who can’t seem to get the right notes (fixable with top quality learning sound files)

– Scooping (fixable when singers record themselves on the risers and become aware of the problem)

– Vibrato that has devolved to a wobble (fixable with vocal technique practice. The mocking demonstration of this one is particularly ugly, because it is generally aimed at only one singer)

– The singers’ attitude (especially with teenaged choirs – which granted, can on occasion make you want to gnaw off your own arm! However, this too is fixable with well planned, fast paced rehearsals, and with songs that the singers actually want to sing.)

The difference for Directors is mostly in the facial expression, the tone of voice and the degree to which they can keep emotion – the knee jerk, lashing out kind – under control.

When I was a young director I was often annoyed, frustrated and a bit huffy. I had yet to learn just how much I didn’t know. I certainly didn’t know 223 Magic Choral Tricks. Many, many lessons in humility later, I know enough that I almost never experience feelings of annoyance and frustration during rehearsals.

Much more fun for me, and for the singers that I’m privileged to call my friends.

Magic Choral Trick #222 The Believable Breath

When we tell a story or a joke at a party many of us know instinctively how to deliver it so that people are entertained. And the delivery of a particular line is set up by the kind of breath we take.

For instance, before the line “That might not be a wise move…” the breath might be sucked in quickly, through closed teeth.

Or before “Oh my goodness!” the breath comes in as a gasp.

Before “That is soooo sweet” the breath would be slow and soft – like an inwards sigh – and perhaps open-mouthed in the shape of an ‘Oh’.

If we want to deliver a line with excitement, the breath is taken in quickly. If we want tenderness, we breathe in more slowly and gently. Be careful to actually express the upcoming emotion during the breath though, or you’ll end up with an Energy Leak – just a slow breath, not a meaningful one. ( )

When we sing, something happens to make this basic knowledge fly out the window. It’s probably because we’re focusing more on taking in enough oxygen to keep us from passing out.

The trick is to spend time with the lyrics. We need to become the teller of the story. The specific emotions of each section or even each phrase need to be identified – so that even chorus members who’ve never had this particular experience will still be able to relate whole heartedly to the progression of emotion in the song.

Once the emotion of a phrase has been identified, we have a much better idea of the quality of breath that’s going to have to come before it.

Magic Choral Trick #221 Staying Conscious

Who is teaching our children about staying conscious?

In this time of the ubiquitous and seductive video screens that act as babysitters and entertainers, it may be only the choir or band directors, the drama and dance instructors and the sports coaches that are teaching our kids how to be truly present in the physical world.

Common to all these activities is the necessity for thoughtful, well rehearsed action right now, right now, right now. These activities cannot be done well without staying conscious, because they demand many different physical, mental and emotional skills to be brought to each separate moment. And when guided well in these activities, they’re more addictive than any video game. There’s joy, there’s heart and there’s such a physical and emotional richness in the experience, that through them we feel more intensely human and alive.

I was ranting to a friend about corruption in our political system and in our society, and he pointed out that whether by design or not, we’ve become a mentally anaesthetized culture. We’ve fallen in love with shallow, complacent thinking – and we believe every sound bite that we’re fed. We’ve fallen asleep, or been seduced by the shiny and the easy.

So it seems to me that we need the performing arts and sports more now than ever before – in order to wake up. And our kids, who are increasingly opting to live so much of their lives in the virtual world, need this most of all.

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