Monthly Archives: August 2013

Magic Choral Trick #279 Tall Filling the Vowel

Sad really. Just came to the realization recently that my default thoughts – my sitting around relaxing thoughts are mostly about vowels.

Yesterday on a one and a half hour drive I was so distracted by vowels that I was almost home before I managed to shake myself free and start thinking about the road. Long vowels, short vowels, neutral vowels – and the optimal placements and mouth shapes for all of these.

Knowing that not that many people share this obsession I’m constantly looking for fresh ways to awaken singers (and for that matter, uncaring radio announcers: “Here’s th’unvirement Keneda wather for the maretimes”) to the joys of clean, pure vowels.

When I ask a group to Tall Fill a vowel, they instinctively know that I want them to use lots of air, and to fill that moment of music with as much of the pure vowel as their minds can think.

This works especially well on a sustained note on which you want a swell, and a carryover into the next word or phrase. If you ask them to add the Spinning the Sound gesture, the results are even more spectacular.

Also, if singers are Tall Filling the vowel, the tongue will behave and not be wanting to heave itself into action for the next consonant. It won’t be blocking the flow of sound.

By asking for a Tall Filled vowel in this circumstance, complemented by a Spinning the Sound gesture, you get what you want without having to say:

“Crescendo on the long note!”
“Relax the tongue!”
“Keep the energy going!”
“Don’t breathe there!”

So without asking for a crescendo or swell, or telling them not to drop the energy, and not breathe between the phrases, you’ve given them specific instructions that produce these results.

Magic Choral Trick #278 Snit Thinking

On Sunday evening I was working with a pick up choir for a special event and was once again reminded of the contribution that a little annoyed thinking can make to the sound.

When we’re slightly angry our attention is much more focused that it is when we’re in our baseline blasé state.

Directors – please don’t think that I’m asking you to give singers something new to be angry about. If we ask ourselves “What’s annoying me right now, or these days?” absolutely everybody can come up with something.

What I ask the singers to do is to use that – whatever issue came up – and hold onto that emotion as they sing the specific section that I feel needs more bee sting type intensity.

With this choir we were doing a song that has an 8 bar intro, then the word Hallelujah. The notes weren’t difficult, but the entrance was messy, and the initial vowel – the ‘ah’ – was unfocused.

I asked the choir to start churning up the Snit Thinking – during those 8 bars of intro – about whatever issue in their lives was bugging them, and then to release it on that first Hallelujah, like a rather nasty bee sting.

Much more focused, and definitely more synchronized.

Now, is it appropriate or even ethical to encourage negativity on an Hallelujah?

Probably best to use this as a rehearsal tool only. The singers will become accustomed to feeling the intensity of this focus, and can then drop the Snit Thinking.

Wouldn’t be a great visual to have your choir scowling at the audience on the run up to a radiant, synchronized, focused Hallelujah.

Magic Choral Trick #277 The Chorus Culture

Every chorus, in fact, every established group has a Culture – a way of being with each other, and a way of being with people who are not in the group – like audiences or prospective members.

The trick is to have someone or everyone decide exactly what that culture is. Culture develops gradually, and the best cultures develop as a result of people in leadership roles providing the inspiration and the vision of something wonderful.

For example, it takes a very conscious decision on the part of all members to become a welcoming chorus rather than a ‘we’re going to reserve judgement about how friendly to be until we’ve heard you sing’ group.

In my experience the sulky chorus, the unfriendly chorus, the uncooperative, sullen or complaining group is a result of leaders who have not made a decision and an effort to model the behaviour that they’d prefer to see, and can in fact become part of the problem if their response is just to berate the membership about their attitude.

The Culture also extends to the habit of excellence.

If the director, the choreography team, the music team, the costume team, the publicity people… etc. make the decision to do the very best work possible, the chorus will become inspired and will always give their best in every aspect of chorus life.

When I walk into a rehearsal I expect to create and to have help creating joy, inspiration, and excitement about singing as well as is humanly possible. And when the various team leaders are all in agreement, the chorus gets swept along with the enthusiasm, the excitement of excellence, the kindness and the fun.

Magic Choral Trick #276 Why?

As Directors, Choreographers and Music Teams, we really need to keep this question foremost in our minds as we decide on the interpretation of a song.

I’ve often heard and seen both choirs and Barbershop choruses do something interpretively that makes absolutely no sense, and so ends up as a distraction, not an enhancement.

Vocal devices like the mezza di voce leap immediately to mind – crescendoing, then diminuendoing on the one note/syllable. Yes, it’s a demonstration of vocal prowess, because it’s tough to sing cleanly – but under what extraordinary emotional circumstances would this express a deeper part of the text?

Perhaps if we were singing a long note on the word ‘love’, a mezza di voce could indicate the sweep of the initial passion, then the progression to the quiet intensity of the lifelong love…

But this seems a bit precious to me – and how the heck would you get your face to let the audience know that this is what you intended?

The answer to ‘Why?’ is always found in the text, and if the song is well written, the music will amplify this. There are usually several ways to interpret any song, but whatever way we choose needs to express a natural and satisfying emotional flow.

So when we add a crescendo, an accent, a vocal colour change, a tempo shift or a choreography move, it needs to make sense.

Lovely sound and beautiful choral technique takes us only halfway there. Answering the question ‘Why?’ will take both singers and audience the rest of the way to a full, rich experience.

Magic Choral Trick #275 Descending Onion Skin Stacking

The very best use for Onion Skin Stacking is on descending scale passages.

The Bass part in the final phrase of My Foolish Heart had always defeated us. And it didn’t seem to matter that every one of the Basses knew this, and was trying hard to prevent the inevitable pitch sagging.

We needed something that would bypass the conscious mind – which was when we decided to try Onion Skin Stacking on this short descending scale passage. The result was nothing short of miraculous. It was in tune for the very first time ever!

I then decided to try it with tuning other types of phrases, with the whole chorus singing in unison. So we did it with the all time prizewinner of songs that get sung out of tune – the round, Dona Nobis Pacem.

I had them do the ‘taking the hand out from the bottom and placing it on top’ gesture on these traditionally impossible notes:

Do – NA, No – BIS Pa – A – CEM PA – CEM

That whole first section seems to be made up of flatness traps. There were still a few squinty notes – but inside my head I was not screaming. A first with that song.

I used to say that the day I was able to figure out how to get amateur choirs to sing in tune would be my last day in the choral directing business. But suddenly, everything was so much more fun!

As I mentioned in my first Onion Skin Stacking post, because the chorus has rehearsed the hand movement while singing, their sub conscious minds know what to do when I use the movement – in a more subtle form – as I direct.

This is the original post – which describes the Onion Skin Stacking hand movements.

Magic Choral Trick #274 Brass and Woodwind Voices

I know I’ve mentioned (in other blogs) the natural timbre of each singer’s voice as being important for finding the optimal standing arrangement. But I always find it useful to shed light on a subject in as many different ways as possible.


If this were a concert band, which voices would be brass instruments, and which would be woodwinds?

Some voices are naturally forward and bright (and big – like a brass instrument), and some are a bit lighter, or a little further back (more woodwind-like. These are the voices that have an easier time blending)

When taking these different voice types into account, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to experiment with different standing arrangements.

Having the ‘brass’ voices at the back or in the centre of the section, and the ‘woodwinds’ at the front and sides of the group seems to help instantly – and is a good place to start.

This way, my powerhouse singers can use their naturally big voices without me constantly being on their case to back it off – and my lighter singers – who are in front will be encouraged, and feel more confident about singing out.

Related blog posts

This is my previous blog about getting very different voices to match better:

Here are a couple of other blogs in which I discussed the magic of discovering just the right standing arrangement:

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