Monthly Archives: April 2013

Magic Choral Trick #249 Directors – Subtle Hand Signals

As my groups’ performances and competitions approach, my focus is now backing off on my directing and trusting them to do everything we’ve rehearsed. Tough, especially when you know that for your chorus members, life has intervened and fully 30 to 40% of them haven’t done all the homework they had intended to do.

Fortunately for these members I’ve developed my own language of subtle hand signals. I’ve gathered some from other directors and from coaches, and some are uniquely my own – but they’re all designed to be able to draw the chorus’ attention to performance aspects that we’ve rehearsed. And chorus members themselves have all used the signals during rehearsal so that now they have a body/muscle memory of the association between the hand signal and a specific vocal technique.

Here are some examples of subtle reminders for the 30 to 40%.

Tall ‘ee’ vowel – Pull hand upward with great resistance, as if you’re pulling a heavy sweatshirt out of the muck in a marsh. This needs to be practiced by everyone, in rehearsal, as a large movement – so that the small onstage reminder by the director is enough to trigger the body memory.

Or still for a tall ‘ee’, you can do a smaller version of this one:
https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/magic-choral-trick-164-visual-cue-for-a-tall-ee-vowel/

Solid, tall, resonant sound right to the end of the phrase – Prayer Hands Slide:
https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/magic-choral-trick-225-the-prayer-hands-slide/

Keeping the mind excited enough to keep spinning the sound on a longer, sustained note – miniaturized, finger version of this one:
https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/magic-choral-trick-201-spinning-the-sound/

Unformed vowels, neutral mouth shape – Side to side movement of fingertips just in front of lips

Relax, the jaw – less movement:
https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/magic-choral-trick-238-finger-under-the-chin/

Tuning repeated, or step by step descending notes:
https://betterchoirs.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/magic-choral-trick-217-onion-skin-stacking/

If anyone reading this has any directing tricks that they’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

Also – if you have any questions about anything that I might be able to help out with, please leave a message in the comment section below.

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Magic Choral Trick #248 Ready Set Go!

It may be a function of some sort of primal sense of forward motion that makes the Ready Set Go! template so satisfying. I was taught about this formula in my first year Polyphony class by my prof, composer David Keane. Here’s what he said.

As listeners, our brains love repetition, then transformation of what we’ve been repeating. And the formula is Ready, Set, Go!:

Here’s the start of it – get ready

Here’s the same thing again – but more of it

Tah Dah! – This is where we were headed – and now see where else we can go…

Like a succession of progressively larger waves breaking on the shore, the music washes over us and carries us onward.

Once you know about this (or get reminded about it, as a coach – Kathy Greason – recently did for me) it’s amazing how often there are opportunities for it to be applied. Most songs contain several lyrical or melodic sequences just crying out for this treatment.

As an example of its use dynamically – the first phrase swells from a mp to a mf, the second from slightly less than the mf to a f, and the third phrase from a mf to a ff. If you use numbers for dynamic range, phrase one would go from a 2 to a 3, phrase two from 2.5 to 4, and phrase three from 3.5 to 5. Of course this can also be applied at much quieter dynamic levels. The forward pull does seem to work better if each successive phrase begins at a slightly lesser dynamic level than the peak of the phrase before it.

The effect can be even more dramatic if, as you’re using these dynamics, the vowel intensity, faces and body involvement all bump up a notch in energy with every wave.

Magic Choral Trick #247 The Game of Excellence

This is an email I wrote to a member of my men’s Barbershop chorus, when he asked me why I continue to be optimistic when the guys are still not doing everything we’ve worked on.

It’s a hot topic right now, because both the men’s and women’s Barbershop competitions will soon be upon us – which gives both choruses a focal point for some self evaluation.

In any group, there are always well developed bad singing habits – and it can take a while to turn those habits around.

The secret is to view the development of excellence as a lifelong and really wonderful challenge – a game really. As long as we are working towards excellence, the game is fun, and absolutely worth playing. It does take a willingness to embrace change – change in the physical way of doing things, and change in the mental processes.

I do this because I love the game of the pursuit of excellence. And as long as I have friends who want to play the same game, it doesn’t matter to me where we are on the continuum. (If my sons are anything to go by, video games have tapped into this basic human need for the thrill of striving.)

I think my men’s chorus is now singing at about the “C” judging level. Much of the time, we’re mid C, sometimes we’re low C and sometimes there are flashes of something truly lovely, which would be closer to a high C or low B level.

The judges will tell us this. They’ll also share with us the revelation that we need to make all the good habits more consistent.

I think it was when the judges told my women’s chorus, for about the 16th year in a row (under my direction), that we needed to be more consistent, that something finally kicked in and every individual started working as if excellence were really important. Not surprisingly, that was the turning point for membership numbers too. Four years later we continue to reap the rewards of the non stop focus and hard work.

We built it, and they came. And perhaps not coincidentally the women won the regional championship last year for the first time in their 42 year history.

They have no superstars – no Harmony Queens, and no regional champion quartets (yet). Exactly as the Harmony Inc. slogan puts it “Ordinary Women, Making Extraordinary Music”

This is all possible for every chorus or choir. Everyone just has to want it enough, and to recognize the true value of the work.

Competitions really help with this – but therein lies the paradox.

When all is said and done, how you place in the competition, and the marks you’ll get, really matters for months beforehand, and then for about half an hour afterwards. What you realize afterwards was that it was actually the flat out, no holds barred striving – all of us together – for a common goal, that made a huge difference to the quality of our lives.

And THAT’S why I do this.

Magic Choral Trick #246 Intention and the Superpower of Noticing

Harnessing the power of Intention requires the superpower of Noticing.

We need to notice when our minds have strayed – and gently guide them back to the task at hand. The operative word here is ‘gently’. If we start beating ourselves up about our loose mental abilities we get into a conversation with ourselves that’s a second generation away from our original focus.

Noticing, and returning the mind to the original thought is the essence of meditation. And apart from the obvious necessity of training the muscles of the vocal apparatus, this is the whole point of practising.

There are two main reasons to develop the Intention/Noticing skill – superb entertainment for your audience and fun for you.

When we send a deliberate, clear, consistent message – to the body, to family members, to an audience or to the world – miraculous things can happen. Our voices become freer, family members can understand how much we love them, audiences will sit up and take notice, and the world will respond more clearly.

But in our culture, our minds are not trained to work this way. The only people teaching this sort of thing to our kids are performing arts teachers, and sports coaches. These are the areas where our culture recognizes that performing well requires moment by moment mental presence. Unfortunately, even some of these teachers are unaware of the importance and depth of what they’re really teaching.

Sing a five note scale up and down twice to the vowel of your choice – and I’ll bet money that unless this is something you practise consistently, you’ll have lost mental focus on that vowel by the time you sing the 4th or 5th note. You’ll have stopped filling your mind with the vowel, and will have been distracted by something else. And we can hear it.

Rather than being distressed about this, we need to see the huge opportunity for improvement. Just Noticing this slipped focus gives our minds a chance to reboot the vowel.

A present, mentally focused vowel is noticeably different in sound from one that’s got no brainpower behind it. And though this is obvious with just one singer, the difference when a whole chorus is mentally focused is staggering.

Of course, this applies to more than just vowels. Every facet of our performance is affected by being mentally present. And the only way to practise this is to have a specific Intention, and to Notice when the Intention slips a bit. Without the follow up of Noticing, our minds will wander and never return to the original thought or Intention.

The good news is that developing the Intention/Noticing skill is such an enormous undertaking, it will last your whole life. The fun need never stop!

And speaking of fun: The great sages have reminded us that almost all suffering is a result of our minds stewing and worrying about the past or the future. If we can keep ourselves present in only this moment, this moment, this moment…our suffering disappears and we’re free to revel in being alive right now.

Singing in choirs already draws us closer to this ideal – but the more we develop the Intention/Noticing skill, the more this mental discipline opens the floodgates for unbridled joy.

That’s worth the effort.

Magic Choral Trick #245 Nights When the Numbers Are Down

The first hurdle that you need to face on the rehearsal evenings when the turn out is less than expected, is your own state of mind.

Everyone there is disappointed and the disappointment is palpable.

So the first order of business is to state the obvious: “Wow – not as many warm bodies as we were expecting” and then move directly into the warm up. However, it does help the atmosphere a little if people can do a (very) quick report on the chorus members they’ve heard from. It lightens the feeling in the room when we all realize that the absentees have good reasons for not being there. But a certain amount of gloom will persist until the singing starts.

(A note to Directors about your tone of voice during the acknowledgement phase – you need to get over your disappointment immediately, and stay positive, positive, positive. The chorus will read your disappointment as an indictment of their singing abilities – that without the absentees, you feel the chorus’ singing will not be good enough.)

So – acknowledge the cause of the entire group being bummed out, and then start immediately to shake that attitude off – by singing.

Some of my most intensely productive rehearsals have been on nights when illness and people’s family stuff have decimated the ranks. Corrections and vocal coaching can be tailor-made for the group that’s there. And whatever you work on will have a positive effect on the absent members when they start straggling back. The progress may not be as fast as you’d all wanted – but there will still be progress.

And at the end of the evening I’m always elated that so few people can still sound so good.

Magic Choral Trick #244 Cheekbones Up

For all the literal minded souls reading this, I know that it’s generally considered impossible to move the cheekbones. Guess that’s what makes this magic.

When you think to yourself “Cheekbones Up”, something happens to the whole structure of your face. There’s more resonating space in the throat because the soft palate rises; suddenly you look moderately interested in what you’re doing (always endearing from the audience’s perspective); and as a bonus, the sinuses feel clearer – almost like having one of those Breathe Right strips on your nose.

Just as smiling will make you feel more cheerful, Cheekbones Up will begin to take over your state of mind, and make it more positive.

And for those of us starting to freak out about such things, it also makes you look a little younger.

The tricky part here is, as with any postural/positioning technique, to make it a habit. Try wearing an elastic band around your wrist, and every time you notice it, lift the cheekbones.

Magic Choral Trick #243 Leadership with Integrity

Whether you were hired, elected or simply dragged into a leadership role, great things are expected of you.

You were asked to lead because someone saw something in you that was needed and wanted by the group. Meeting, and even surpassing those expectations is your job.

Here are some ground rules for Leadership with Integrity.

1. Do no harm.

2. Keep your word.

3. However, from time to time we mess up. When we make mistakes, they need to be acknowledged immediately – then cleaned up – fast.

4. Your vision must be in alignment with what the group needs and wants. The highest good of the group is what guides everything you say and do. Listen to what the group is saying.

5. Keep your word.

6. Know that everyone is dealing with tough stuff in their lives – and though it’s not necessary to know all the details – you need to stay alert. Some gentle ribbing that might be fine at one rehearsal might be far too much for someone at another. (If this happens, clean it up asap)

7. Your word is who you are. Keep it.

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