Monthly Archives: June 2013

Magic Choral Trick #261 Before the First Note

We’ve all been told that the first and the last phrases of a song are the most important – first and last impressions.

So as performers, we can be tempted to think of the time from the opening of the curtain till the first note of the first song as a sort of negative space, where there’s nothing really happening.

However, by the time we sing the first note, we’re long past the first impression. The first impression happens at first sight – which can be when the curtain opens, or when we walk onto the stage, or when we walk to the front of the room from somewhere in the audience.

And yes, audiences do listen about 50% with their eyes, so the importance of this very first visual impression cannot be overstated.

There’s no rule that says that you have to communicate the same message, impression or emotion as anyone else – but whatever it is, it needs to be specific, and it needs to be deliberate.

Some performers go with haughty, or sweet, or hip, or mellow, or just thrilled to be here.

And the message for my choruses definitely varies, depending on the event and the venue. The “Ta-Dah, joyful, can hardly wait to show you what we’ve been doing!” that is appropriate for a Barbershop competition – where the audience cheers as the curtain opens – would be entirely inappropriate for some occasions. A church funeral would call for much more grace and dignity.

Like every other aspect of a choir’s performance, every member must buy into the plan – whatever that plan is. If one guy is doing humble/aw shucks, and everyone else is doing Ta-Dah! – guess who we’re all looking at. This visual dissonance, and lack of blend and balance sets up the audience to expect lack of blend and balance in the sound as well. Once we’ve created a negative impression, it’s really, really difficult to haul the audience’s opinion back into our corner – no matter how well we sing that first phrase.

Magic Choral Trick #260 Being Present





There – did you notice?

If you’ve been reading my posts, you probably had a moment of wondering “Hey, what’s with the stars?” And in that moment something inside of you ‘gathered’ and focused a little more on what you were seeing.

Being present is just gathering, focusing or noticing. The easiest of these to implement is noticing. While noticing is just paying attention, the phrase “pay attention” lives in my mind as sharply spoken by my grade 3 teacher, and for me, comes with all the baggage of being called a silly daydreamer. So I find ‘noticing’ a cleaner, more baggage free concept.

Why would we want to make Being Present a habit?

We experience Being Present in the times when we’re singing together and we:

– get goosebumps
– have the feeling of utter happiness
– experience the open, ringing feeling in our bodies when a chord locks, rings and
– wish that this moment could go on forever

However, for most of us, these are hit and miss moments. Music making’s greatest power is its ability to draw us out of ourselves into these moments. But the truth is that if we practice Being Present as a separate discipline we set ourselves up for many, many more of these ecstatic musical experiences – just by being prepared for them.

In my Electric Silence post ( ) I spoke about how crackling, electric silence before you begin a piece makes everything more synchronized and unified – both of which make singing together more fun.

When Being Present is a more habitual state we’re able to stay focused, and aware of technical, musical and presentation aspects of our singing. We feel really awake and can not only concentrate on what we’ve rehearsed, but can enjoy every phrase as it goes by.

Here are some tricks for bringing yourself into the present moment.

1. One of Eckhart Tolle’s best tricks. Without shifting or moving anything, ask yourself “How do I know that I still have a right hand?” You may need to ask the question several times before your right hand answers you with a kind of zzzzuzzy ‘Here I am!’ You may feel warmth, tingles or buzzing. Your attention is now in your body – and the body really likes that. You can ask other areas of your body to make themselves known – but even staying with just the hand brings your attention into the present moment.

2. See if you can feel your own pulse – simply by paying attention to it. When I’m sitting still I tend to be able to feel it best at first in my hands and my face – but pretty soon I’m noticing my pulse all through my body.

3. Listen intently to a sound which has a long period of decay – like a gong, bell or a note on the piano when you’re holding down the sustain pedal. See if you can notice the exact moment when the sound is no longer there. The feeling you get in the moments surrounding the sound’s disappearance is Presence.

4. Listen for subtle sounds wherever you are. Inside you can listen for the sounds of fans, fluorescent lights or voices in another part of the building. Outside you can listen beyond traffic noise for birds, wind, or children’s voices.

These are some of the symptoms you may experience by Being Present

– Relaxation – but in a tingly, alive way
– More health
– Peace of mind – quiet, but aware and slightly excited
– A sort of zzzzzuhzzzzz, or fun, electric hum feeling – what feels like a sort of microscopic level sparkly party all through your body
– Contentment or joy – and absolutely no stray thoughts bugging you

Magic Choral Trick #259 Visualization

Regional competition time again last weekend for my women’s chorus! And anyone with any doubts about the value of competing with your group should get themselves to a Barbershop competition.

This weekend, the huge amount of work that every chorus had done this year was obvious. Everyone is singing better and providing audiences with higher and higher quality entertainment.

However, in order to have the highest possible scores for our chorus, we needed to clear the way for all of our preparation to shine through. This meant making sure that every singer’s attention was on the performance itself – not on her hair, her costume, the previous chorus’ performance (which could be heard a little through the door to the stage) or some unrelated conversation they were having with another singer.

What has worked really well for us for the last couple of competitions is to remain absolutely silent – on the bus on the way to the venue, and backstage. The silence is not just for its own sake – it’s so that each of us can run the entire contest ‘package’ in our heads. It’s a chance to visit every aspect of the performance that we want to remember – and to do it perfectly, before we set foot on the stage.

Just to be clear, I mentioned to the chorus that having very quiet, whispered conversations during this ‘focus’ time was not the same as actually doing the exercise. Now granted, I was doing the exercise myself, but I think that this year, we had 100% compliance from all 43 women.

So by the time we got onto the risers, each one of us had visualized the entire performance twice – once while we were on the bus, and once backstage.

This was much to the chagrin of the bus driver, who even though I’d warned him that we were going to be absolutely silent (and not to take it personally) was expecting us to sing him a song or two.

Which brings me to a point about sacrificing the quality of your performance so as not to seem rude to a person who won’t be out there in front of the audience.

In the days when I was performing as a soloist, I’d quite often be forced into pre curtain chatter by concert organizers, or casual observers. These were always well meaning souls, so I didn’t want to disappoint them by being rude (and telling them to stop talking and just go away!). But now that I think about these times, I realize that my desire to be polite actually sabotaged the quality of many of my performances.

Most of us need the time and the silence to collect ourselves and to focus every possible ounce of strength, brainpower and emotion on what we’re about to do.

Performing is not casual. And anything less than everything we’ve got short changes our audience.

p.s. Yes, my chorus won the competition – for only the second time in 43 years.

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