Monthly Archives: July 2013

Magic Choral Trick #273 Revving Up the Sound Machine

Summer time for Canadian choirs is down time. We travel, we go to the cottage and we host lots of family and friends. We do all the outdoor things that we can’t do for about 9 months of the year – and we give hardly a thought to the finer points of chorus singing.

But now as August looms, I start to think about those first few rehearsals and the kind of approach we’ll need to take to get back to the level we were at when we broke for the summer.

Every year I try to figure out more efficient ways to bypass the ‘phoning it in’ mindset of the first couple of rehearsals.

It’s not just that voices have been on vacation – what really gets in the way of great singing is that people’s minds have been dialled down, zoned out and not exercised. I know this, because when I get a break from my job of keeping people’s brains awake, my own gets pretty lazy.

So what’s going to speed the process up? What’s going to make those first rehearsals fun and productive?

Unison singing, unit sound

Evaluating mental energy levels.

Unison singing reawakens the awareness of tuning, vowel and diphthong matching, balance and blend. And it feels good.

It also gets around the seasonal start up problem of absenteeism. There’s always at least one harmony part that’s under represented. The usual big, lush sound doesn’t work quite the way you all remember it, and this can be a bit discouraging.

Singing in unison, and really working the unit sound is never, ever a waste of time.

Evaluating your own mental energy level (or lack of mental energy) is interesting when you’re giving it a number.

No mental energy is zero, and maximum is ten.

If we ask everyone to give a number to the energy level with which they’ve just sung (before they started thinking about this) they usually give it about a 4 or 5. From there, we can just encourage ourselves to keep bumping it up a notch.

The sound is so noticeably different that we all start to have more fun, and once again we begin to warm up to the concept of excellence.

Magic Choral Trick #272 Nothing Pays Worse Than a Free Gig

When my violinist daughter was about 10 or 11 she was asked to play a couple of fiddle tunes onstage at her school’s Big Fair Day. The crowd was already noisy when she got up there to play – but because the mic wasn’t turned up enough and the sound guy was having a very important conversation elsewhere, the crowd just chatted louder and louder as she played.

She bravely and gamely finished the two songs, walked offstage and burst into tears as I met her. But she was not only sad and humiliated, she was furious. Now, about 18 years later, when anyone asks her to play, compose or arrange music for free she insists on getting paid, because, to quote her “It’s not about the money – it’s the respect.”

She’d learned something by 10 or 11 that it took me about 35 years to realize – that when you play for free they ignore you, and when you charge them an arm and a leg, they listen intently, give you a standing ovation and ask you back next year.

I’ve never mind doing ‘wallflower’ gigs if the money is good enough – because even if the crowd is milling about and noisy (cocktail parties, art receptions…) in our culture the money = the respect. Though for choruses that work so hard on presentation, this sort of performance can be discouraging.

Did a freeby gig recently where we were asked to perform at 2:30 at the end of a group’s meeting. We waited and waited and waited while there was 35 minutes worth of unstructured debate about whether or not people who hadn’t been to all of this group’s meetings should be allowed to go to the free Christmas dinner (Yes – it’s July, and yes, obviously I’m still a bit of a sucker)

Meeting and banquet gigs are almost always like this.

My women’s chorus had been asked to sing at a national gathering of police chiefs. The event organizers had hired a very capable director/stage manager, and then ignored all of his suggestions. We were supposed to sing at about 7:30 p.m. The fact that we were charging a small amount of money (clearly not enough to earn any respect) was the only reason we stuck around for our performance at 10:10 p.m.

So I guess the moral of this story is to be sure to put some thought into charging exactly enough to make the performance worth doing. For some performances no money needs to change hands, and for others…..

“It’s not about the money – it’s the respect.”

Magic Choral Trick #271 Your Back Story

Someone once told me that to get a cohesive presentation plan for a song, we had to have every person agreeing on the specifics of the story – exactly who was singing, and to whom, the place, the time of day and the events which had led up to the what was being said in the song.

Do you have any idea how impossible that is with more than just a couple of people in your chorus? Some of you are nodding sagely. Some of you have just said a quiet, jaded ‘yep’ – and some of you, the lucky ones, have never even heard of such a thing.

My women’s chorus was supposed to be singing a love song to a man about being in a blissful relationship for many years together, and we were having a tough time with most of the chorus being able to relate to this. Many women don’t have blissful relationships of this kind.

What really helped was to come up with specific emotional markers – an emotion for the opening, then a different one for whenever the mood of the lyric shifts. So the mood shifts do have to be identified.

We had some difficulty when we tried having people memorize a list of emotions – one for every phrase. Too hard. Didn’t work.

What we discovered was that if the song was well written, there was an obvious and natural progression in the lyrics.

However, each chorus member needed to find some reason, from their own life’s story, to be saying these words. We didn’t have many people sharing their stories – but some did tell us that instead of thinking of a romantic relationship, they were singing to a child or a beloved pet. We didn’t do much sharing because we didn’t want anyone to feel that their story was somehow ‘wrong’.

After the general emotional guidelines are decided upon, the story from the individual singer’s life that elicits the greatest emotional intensity is the right one.

Magic Choral Trick #270 Quiet Intensity

When I ask singers to sing quietly several things happen.

The tone becomes breathy and unsupported, the tempo begins to drag, and the overall energy level drops. This includes the presentation energy in both face and body.

I ask singers to intensify their thoughts – as if they were absolutely furious with someone, but had to express this while keeping the volume really low (as in a library or at church). “Don’t you ever, ever again let me see you taking money OUT of that collection plate!!!!”

I find anger is an easy emotion for everyone to access, and it always improves the tone. However, the facial presentation issues here mean that this particular emotion can be used only sparingly. Adding anger is a good first step to proving to your chorus that mental intensity can have a huge effect on the sound.

I heard Jim Henry telling his chorus (Ambassadors of Harmony) that he wasn’t asking for more volume – just more emotion.

This again is asking singers to intensify what the mind is doing – in this case by accessing more of the emotion in the text, which is the whole point of singing words and not just vocalizing. When we find something in our own lives that helps us relate to the emotion of the words, the heart can communicate more completely. Any singer can move us if it’s obvious that they’re singing straight from the heart.

We then feel more urgency in our communication – so this Quiet Intensity creates a supported sound, which has more drive and forward energy (so no dragging) and our facial/body language matches the lyrics.

Magic Choral Trick #269 Performance Day

The big evening has arrived, and you’re in the warm up room before they call you to the stage. Everyone finally has costume and makeup on, and the chorus’ voices are all supple and ready.

So you run straight through the couple of songs you’re about to perform – with all the energy and passion that you’ve rehearsed and rehearsed.


Bitter experience has taught me that this is wrong.

Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people – soloists, quartets, choruses and choirs – bemoaning the fact that they left their best performance in the warm up room. And before I got smart – this used to happen to my women’s chorus at competition after competition.

Here’s why.

The energy has been building and building towards this performance – and although we all do our very best as we rehearse to imagine that we’re performing for an audience, some part of our consciousness is very clear that it’s always a dress rehearsal. In rehearsal we have no edge of nerves – no thrill at the enthusiastic greeting from a live audience, and no real sense that it’s now or never.

In the warm up room, the butterflies have already kicked in, the mental focus is intense and the energy that’s been building is just sitting and sitting and sitting there in your gut.

If you run the performance package right then and there you release all that energy – and with it some of the mental focus, some of the passion and a whole lot of the urgency that can lift a performance above what has ever been rehearsed.

At Barbershop competitions there are always two ‘holding’ rooms. One is an actual warm up room, and the other is a quiet room. In the 10 minutes allotted for the first room we start both of the competition songs a couple of times, then run through the between song presentation stuff once or twice. Then it’s off to the quiet room where no one speaks at all – and everyone takes ten minutes to silently visualize the entire performance package of two songs.

When the curtain opens, the chorus is finally allowed to let all that pent up energy bust out – and they’re ready to give the performance of their lives!

Magic Choral Trick #268 Diligence and Talent

When I used to sing recitals, people would usually congratulate me afterwards by saying things like:

“You are so lucky to have been blessed with such a beautiful voice!”

“You are so talented!”

“It’s so effortless for you – you’re lucky!”

Hmmmm. As a young woman I felt as if no one had any appreciation for the amount of work I’d had to do to make it seem effortless – or the hours of daily practising I had to do to have my voice sound its best. Not to mention of course the expense of getting a music degree and about 16 years of voice lessons.

And performing was always very difficult for me – with nervousness, and the technical and artistic demands I put on myself as a singer. Even after all the practising, it was never, ever effortless.

So it took a number of years for me to get past being misunderstood, and to start understanding that these folks were inadvertently paying me exactly the sort of compliments I was looking for. They were hearing only the voice I’d wanted them to hear. My diligent artistic practising was apparently masking the artistry – and it seemed to them that all they were seeing and hearing was the raw talent.

These days I get the same sort of comments about my choirs – especially my women’s chorus. Things like:

“You’re so lucky to be able to attract such great singers!”

“That was such a great, peppy song – and it was terrific to see that the women were enjoying themselves so much!”

I have found that great chorus singers are built, not attracted. And I know exactly how much work has to be done on synchronization, legato, chord locking, choreography and presentation so that an uptune appears peppy and fun.

So I don’t explain (except here in this post) – and I smile broadly, thank them, and tell them that yes, I’m a very lucky director!

Magic Choral Trick #267 Pitch Revisitation

One well known pitch trap is the note that keeps recurring as the uppermost pitch in a melodic line – which then gets sung progressively flatter and flatter. Almost as if once you’ve sung the lower notes in between, you simply haven’t the energy to hike the pitch all the way back up there.

For example – in Sentimental Journey – Gon-na take a sen-ti-men-tal jour-ney. The third of the key starts the song and recurs on every other note, for all of the first phrase, and the start of the second.

Mi doh mi doh mi doh mi….And every successive mi seems to lose some pitch.

Drawing attention to this phenomenon really helps. I ask singers to think about singing each revisitation of the upper pitch slightly higher than the previous one.

Quite often if singers are aware of a trap they can fix it by just staying conscious. It’s a good idea to mark these repetitions in the original score during the learning process.

However, if I were doing Sentimental Journey with a chorus, I would have all the singers do the Onion Skin Stacking hand movements – so that they also had a physical movement to draw attention to the pitch trap.

Magic Choral Trick #266 The Face Peel

This one’s been around for a while – but I saw Jim Henry use it at one of his rehearsals and it reminded me of just how great a trick this is.

It can be used to brighten the sound on any vowel, but seems to work really well on an ‘Ah’

Yes – the ‘Ah’ vowel still need to be tall and narrow.

When you have a rich, full vowel and then want to add some brilliance, have the singers imagine, and mime that they’re peeling off their faces – from the chin, up and back.

If this is too disgusting a concept, you can imagine you’re peeling off a Mission Impossible style mask – again, grabbed by the dominant hand and pulled off upwards from the chin and then back.

This has the effect of unveiling the sound – making it more exciting.

Magic Choral Trick #265 Science Makes it Loud

When audiences hear great big ringing chords they tend to think that the singers are just pumping out the big muscle sound.

But using muscle in the sound and pressure in the vocal apparatus will only sound like a bunch of individual guys singing flat, and as loudly as they can. The resulting impurities in the sound actually prevent the pop, lock and ring that gives us that huge expanded sound.

“Science makes it loud” is a quotation from Jim Henry at the Ambassadors of Harmony master class at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s convention in the first week of July. He was talking about keeping the pitch perfect, the vowels clean and the vocal placement correct, so that the overtones – the naturally occurring miracle in the physics of sound – can do their job and create their magic doubling of the amount of sound. And all this without any more physical, muscle effort from the singers.

Sing clean clean clean, and science rewards you with a truly thrilling, and much bigger sound.

Magic Choral Trick #264 Question Mark ‘s’

This one is for the ‘s’ sound (especially plurals) at the ends of phrases.

Thinking a question mark at the end of a phrase that ends with an ‘s’ does several things.

The ‘s’ sound itself is diminished in volume – and so is easier to synchronize.

The end of the phrase now has a physical lift to it, which tapers the end of the phrase. It also resets the interior of the mouth in an open, tall position, ready to sing the next phrase.

And, perhaps most important of all, a question implies a continuing conversation – even if the question is only in the mind of the singer. The singer’s intention to continue the conversation changes the energy and will be noticed – probably subconsciously – by the audience. We know when someone is not finished what they want to say. We can feel it.
The next sentence will respond to the ‘question’ and this drives the energy of the song forward.

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