Monthly Archives: March 2013

Magic Choral Trick #242 Reach For the Sky, Lion

This one is very useful when you’ve been singing and concentrating, and the throat, neck and shoulders have become a little tight.

Reach For the Sky – Both arms straight up, then stretch the ribcage area upwards – followed by the upper back area, and an extra stretch upwards from the shoulders and arms.

Now stick out your tongue and try to touch your chin with the tip of your tongue. Then open your eyes as wide as you can – sending ferocious energy (from the eyes) straight ahead. The tongue and eyes thing is part of a yoga pose called The Lion. The ferocious energy shooting out from the wide open eyes comes from Tai Chi. Breathe deeply for a few seconds as you do this.

Not only does this release tension from the back, shoulders, throat and tongue – the ferocious energy out of the wide open eyes revitalizes the mind and its ability to focus. When the eyes are wide open, the mind assumes that there’s something vitally important to look at, and kicks itself into a heightened state of awareness.

Magic Choral Trick #241 A Reminder About FBI

At my Men’s Barbershop chorus rehearsal the other night they sang through ‘I Believe’ and it was perfectly adequate.

Then I asked them to sing it again, but this time with FBI (Full Body Involvement) on every single breath – and oh my! What a huge difference! So much more power, intensity and apparent emotional involvement. A rip snorter of a performance!

If your goal is a wall of exciting sound, this (combined with synchronization, and clean vowel techniques) is what you’re looking for.

When the whole body is involved, there is much more physical energy available to every singer.

The intake of every single breath needs to involve the entire body – as an expression of the text. The amount of actual movement will of course be dictated by the presentation plan, but generally we could all use at least 5 times as much movement. The only time I’ve ever asked for less movement was when singers were using hand gestures instead of FBI. Then I’ve asked for less hands, more body.

In addition to the richer, more committed sound, the presentation is more exciting for your audience – and more thrilling for the singers.

Magic Choral Trick #240 One Thing

Remembering just one thing out of a list of corrections can make a big difference.

Another Kathy Greason trick – for after you’ve worked on a number of improvements in a song.

Ask each person in the chorus to decide which new refinement they’re going to remember to do – like the crescendo at a particular spot, or the later turning of a diphthong, or the pitch adjustment on a specific chord. A singer who’s already concentrating on everything that’s normally required, will have room in the brain for only one new concept or correction.

Run the song, or the section of the song again.

Now ask everyone if they remembered to do what they’d agreed to. At this point you can expect a fair amount of forehead thumping and self flagellation. Repeat till nobody groans in frustration with themselves.

What we found was that when people take responsibility for remembering a specific correction – they become the ‘monitors’ for that correction. And ultimately, more of the changes get ironed in to the history of the song.

Magic Choral Trick #239 Swing/Back Beat

Another simple and elegant solution to a problem I’ve had for ages – suggested by Kathy Greason, (the coach my women’s chorus worked with last weekend).

I’ve shied away from swing tunes because I’ve had such difficulty teaching choruses to feel the Back Beat. Swing has always been so easy for me that I didn’t have a step by step technique for teaching people to feel beats two and four, instead of one and three. At least, not without many singers expending a lot mental effort – and the process eating up huge chunks of rehearsal time.

In every group there are people who can feel the swing effortlessly, and just enjoy its dance like forward motion. Then there are the folks who need to intellectualize it – very deliberately thinking’ “one TWO three FOUR”. These are the folks for whom a Back Beat is very hard work.

Step one is for each singer to realize in which of these two camps they belong. This can be done by singing through a swing tune and having everyone clap on beats two and four. The people for whom this is difficult will be frowning, and their movements will be stilted. Any casual onlooker can see the difference between the natural swingers and the hard workers. And those who are having to think very hard about it, will notice this themselves.

Step two – Kathy’s elegant solution. Have only the people for whom the Back Beat is easy do all the clapping (on beats two and four). Freed from the distraction of having to be their own ‘metronome’, the non-swingers’ singing will just entrain to the dominant rhythm around them.

Nobody has to analyze anything – just feel it.

Magic Choral Trick #238 Finger Under the Chin

My women’s chorus recently had a terrific coaching weekend with Harmony Inc Music Judge Kathy Greason. She taught us many useful things – but this was perhaps the simplest, and it produced instant synchronization and blending results.

Synchronization problems – especially in uptempo tunes – often happen because each individual singer has his or her own habitual amount of mouth movement. Once the amount of jaw movement can be matched, synch problems clean themselves up.

And here’s another, really efficient way to do that.

Point your index finger straight up – as if you’re indicating the number 1.

Now place the tip of the finger under the chin – just lightly touching the skin.

Sing through the passage that needs to have all voices lining up better – without letting the chin push down on the fingertip.

There are many ways to ask singers to cut down on the amount of jaw movement, but this is simple, elegant and produces no tension.

Magic Choral Trick #237 The Wavering Pitch

The Wavering Pitch is one which is supposed to be steady, but which, for a variety of reasons begins to wander sharp, flat or back and forth.

This is the most obvious problem with singing along to a song while wearing head phones. And we the singers are blissfully unaware.

Meanwhile, family members in the same room are snickering.

Unfortunately, there are some similar elements present when we’re singing in a group setting. We can’t necessarily hear ourselves – so we have no idea how cleanly we’re singing.

First – just to reassure everyone – absolutely nobody in a good sized chorus situation is actually singing as well as they think they are.

And as I think I’ve mentioned before, this needn’t bum us out, because once we’re all aware of this, it provides us with a huge opportunity to improve. If each singer cleans things up only a little, the quality of singing in the whole group suddenly improves dramatically.

However, before there’s any improvement, we each need to know what we’re dealing with. So step one is to record yourself, while singing in the midst of the chorus.

Generally, the first issue is the unintended Wavering Pitch, which can happen:

– as a result of losing mental focus

– because of losing physical support

– as we get distracted by pitch movement in some of the other voice parts

– as we change our volume or dynamic level

– because we’ve never paid attention to what a cleanly sustained pitch feels like, rather than how it sounds.

The next step is to practise singing any sustained pitch into our Korg Chromatic Tuners, ( )  while paying attention to how an unwavering pitch feels.

Now try recording your sustained pitches while you’re wearing headphones – and with your eyes closed, so that you can pay attention to the physical cues.

Once we start doing even a little of this work, we can keep tabs on our improvement by recording ourselves each week on the risers while we’re singing with the chorus.

Magic Choral Trick #236 Cheering Up

It’s that time of year – when those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are just barely hanging in there at the back end of what’s been a pretty tough winter. Wind and weather and multiple kinds of very nasty flu bugs have nearly worn us down.

So, for those of us not fixing this with a Florida vacation this year, there’s some stuff I know about cheering up, when the misery of it all seems to be socked in around you.

Put a pencil between your teeth right now. This forces the smile muscles to activate, which will tell your brain that you’re happy.

Sit still and ask yourself, “How do I know that I still have a right hand?” (Thank you Eckhart Tolle) Don’t look at the hand – just get a sense of it. You’ll notice a kind of amorphous zuzzing, and probably also feel your pulse. As long as you’re just sitting, noticing this sensation, you’ll feel pretty good.

Go for a walk.

Have a cup of tea. (Or hot chocolate. Or coffee. Two of my offspring become unbelievably perky and cheerful after the first cup of coffee)

Put a Jamieson Vitamin B12 strip on your tongue. Nice minty flavour, and acts as a breath freshener too! These come in packs like the ones for Listerine breath strips. Such a cheap way to cheer up quickly – and apparently none of us gets enough Vit B12, because it’s so difficult for our stomachs to absorb. With the strips – the B12 goes straight into the bloodstream.

Now – get yourself back to chorus rehearsal! If you’re too bummed out to drive, call someone to pick you up. We all have a better time when everyone shows up!

Focus on excellence all evening, enjoy the chords that really work, and by the end of the night you’ll feel much, much better. Absolutely guaranteed!

Magic Choral Trick #235 Target Pitches

Just emailed out some Target Pitches for a couple of my choruses.

These are for use with their Korg tuners – that wonderful piece of Biofeedback machinery that helps chorus members to work on pitch/tuning in the privacy of their own homes – without necessarily being able to read music.

Here’s the link about Korg Tuners:

And here’s an example of what I just sent out. This one is for the Lead section in my Men’s Barbershop chorus – for the song “From the First Hello, to the Last Good-bye”:

Target Pitches Lead – From the First Hello

C       A                 A                    A
Our song was a song of to-mor-row

D         G                                    C
Our Hearts were as high as the sky

A       F                                       C              G
But songs are for-got-ten and skies of-ten grey

F                   F                A           G
Ne-ver-the-less there is this I can say

F          G    A         D          Bflat      E
From the first hel-lo to the last good-bye

Magic Choral Trick #234 The Front Row

Whether we like it or not, much of the audience’s visual focus will be on the front row – even when your chorus uses risers.

Here are some things to consider when deciding who will stand there.

Voice Type
Must be able to blend very well with the singers beside and behind them. So either these are experienced choral singers, or singers with gentle, less focused voices. With this latter type of singer, we need to keep in mind that as their vocal production improves, and they are singing further forward, they may need to be shifted until they hone their blending skills. A very focused voice in the front row of an amateur group will almost always pop out of the texture.

In every choir we have people who’s natural inclination is to lead – and though it’s not an optimal situation, sometimes because of lack of rehearsal time, people do need to be led. Natural born leaders should not be in the front row where they will undoubtedly hear things that they’ll want to fix by singing louder, or slightly ahead of the beat. When this happens, synchronization goes out the window.

Facial Expression
Since these are the most watched singers in the group it is essential that they are willing to agree on the same intensity and types of facial expressions. We’ve all experienced performances in which, as audience members, our attention was riveted on the person doing absolutely nothing with their face. Or conversely, in a row of deadpan delivery – watching the only active face.

If the intention is comedic, fine – but in my experience, many front row people have no idea how carefully they’re being scrutinized.

Any obviously different presentation style will take the audience’s attention away from the intended performance experience. The communication of the musical expression will be lost because people’s minds will be wondering about all the stories that could explain why one person’s face is doing something so radically different from everyone else’s.

In a Barbershop chorus, it’s essential that the front row people be able to move well – even if the choreography doesn’t entail actual dancing. There needs to be physical grace and confidence in every move.

When the chorus uses risers, height is not quite such a big deal, as long as the group is very careful about spacing, and creating windows. However, sometimes, no matter how graceful, confident, sensitive to synchronization, expressive or fabulous at blending the person is, their height makes it necessary to place them further back in the chorus.

It was suggested to me recently that my women’s chorus start having auditions for the front row. This seemed like a reasonable idea until I began to think about all of the chorus members who are not really eligible because of the above factors.

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