Monthly Archives: February 2013

Magic Choral Trick #233. Power Poses – Rich Sound

I was watching a TED talk by Amy Cuddy (“Your body language shapes who you are” – link below) and started thinking about how feeling powerful changes the quality of our singing – since singing tells such a clear story about our inner state.

Ms Cuddy says that just two minutes a day of standing in a power pose will make us feel more powerful. The power pose that I chose to experiment with was the Wonder Woman Stance – or for guys I guess we could call it the Overlord Stance.

Feet planted, shoulder width apart and hands in fists, on the hips.

Actually, in the experimentation with two of my choruses I had them slide their fists about 2 inches further around to the back, rather than right at their sides. This opens and raises the chest a bit more, which is always good for singing.

I had them sing a bit, then repeat the same phrases while standing in the Wonder Woman/Overlord Stance.

Bigger, fuller, richer sound – and more blended.

In my personal experimentation with this stance I’ve noticed that I feel more magnanimous – which, for a director is a trait worth developing.

So Amy Cuddy – thank you!

Magic Choral Trick #232 Cheek Wings of the Mind

Cheek Wings ( ) make such a huge difference to the quality of a chorus’ sound that my singers often lament that it’s too bad that it wouldn’t make a very convincing choreography move.

But then I remembered the Soviet athletes in the days when they used to dominate the Olympics. That’s when we all first heard about visualization techniques and how they can make a remarkable difference in our physical skills.

So now, after I ask any of my groups to sing for a while using Cheek Wings, I then get them to use only one hand, but to imagine that both hands are in place.

The next step is to remember as clearly as possible exactly what it feels like when both hands are in position.

Then finally, I ask them to sing while imagining and recreating the feeling of having the back edges of both hands in place (pinky fingers tucked under the cheekbones, and the heels of the hands at the corners of the mouth.)

The more clearly they imagine this feeling – the closer the sound is to what was created when they were actually using the physical hand position.

Magic Choral Trick #231 Choreography – Pitfalls of Rehearsing While Speaking the Words

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, singing and speaking seem to access different parts of the brain. When we sing we forget about the natural flow of speech sounds, and when we speak, we don’t luxuriate in the vowels for maximum emotional effect (which I grant, might come across as a bit weird.)

When we speak lyrics in rhythm, it’s as if both the singing and speaking parts of the brain just shut down. No thoughts of any kind seem to happen. No artistry.

Which might be a good thing if what you really need to be thinking about is the choreography and need a clean mental slate.

But here’s the main pitfall. Most of the people in choruses are singers first and dancers second (or seventh.)

Picture this – you’ve rehearsed a phrase 20 times to get the tuning, balance, blend and synchronization just right, and now you’re ready to add the next layer – the choreography.

If you speak the lyrics while rehearsing the choreography, all those singers’ brains will go into choreography mode, and forget about things like vowel and diphthong synchronization. While it’s true that they’re freed from having to think about balance, tuning and blend – which is why we do the speaking thing – the net result may not be what we want.

We’ve rehearsed the singing of the phrase 20 times.

Most singers will need at least 40 times through the choreography in order to feel comfortable with it.

If we’ve been speaking the text in rhythm, we have rehearsed the vowel and diphthong synchronization wrong twice as many times as we’ve done it correctly – and now we have deeply ingrained bad habits to fix.

My women’s chorus has tried rehearsing choreography while just mouthing the words, but I’ve watched this, and still seen mouths closing early – so that the unwanted verbal association with the body movements is still getting strengthened.

I think the best way around all of this is to:

Record the chorus singing the song as cleanly as possible.

Learn the choreography with this recording – without singing along – until all the movements become locked into body memory.

Then put singing and choreography together.

I know that there are some proponents of learning the whole thing all at once, but in order for this to work the group needs to have deeply ingrained, excellent singing habits already in place. This is rare.

Magic Choral Trick #230 Giant Beach Ball Breath

Arms out almost to the sides – and curved, as if holding a giant beach ball.

Picture the amount of air on the inside of that beach ball.

Now breathe in that amount of air, while still holding your arms in beach ball holding position.

Sing. Waste all the air before taking another Giant Beach Ball Breath.

You’ll find that when you visualize breathing in this amount of air – it’s so much, that the throat opens right up, and the breath is silent. The open throats will also help the choir’s sound.

Most of us spend most of our lives under-using this readily available source of energy.

As with testing out any of these techniques, try having your group sing a phrase or two of a song (without mentioning this), then give them the GBBB instructions, and listen to see what it does for the sound.

Even if your chorus sings well enough that this doesn’t make a huge difference to the sound, it will improve the amount of oxygen intake – so will make everyone feel more awake and alive, and mentally sharper.

Magic Choral Trick #229 Our Singing Brain and Our Speaking Brain

Any singer who performs for nursing home audiences knows that there’s a difference between the singing brain and the speaking brain.

Residents with advanced dementia, who normally sit inert and non verbal will often sit up suddenly and sing along with a song that they know. No problem at all remembering the words. For as long as it takes to sing the song, we get to see who they really are.

I’ve often been intrigued by an idea I had to begin a singing program with people as soon as they get the initial Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis. I was wondering if it might be useful for the patient and family members to learn some call and response song patterns for basic communication. For instance, the caregiver could sing “What would you like to do?” – always using the same melody, and the patient could respond with one of a number of melodically different, learned song responses.

However, I’ve drawn attention to this for another reason that has more to do with how we’re singing and how our audience is understanding us.

When most of us sing, it’s as if we’ve forgotten how to speak so that we’ll be understood. We hear even really accomplished choirs and solo singers thinking “word, word, word” – or worse still – “syllable, syllable, syllable”. It’s a text presentation style that we use only for singing.

It’s true that singing, because it is a drawn out way of speaking, is already artificial, but our job as singers is to have the artistry to make our audiences forget this.

Speaking the song lyrics in rhythm is a great place to start – but the illusion of speech doesn’t begin to work until we analyze how we would actually say the words in ordinary conversation.

See these previous posts below:

Coming to terms with just how differently we function in the two modes – singing and speaking – is a much bigger deal than I’d previously thought. From an audience’s point of view it’s rather like the difference between interacting with someone before and then after they’ve had coffee, or before and then after they’ve had a couple of glasses of wine. We the audience, notice a huge difference – but they’re unaware of how much their communication has changed.

In order to create the illusion of speech for our audience we still need to remember that vocal sound is carried on the vowels, but we need to draw our attention to which vowels, and exactly how they’re sung.

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