Monthly Archives: June 2014
What was the conversation that preceded the song?
If the song we’re about to sing is “If I Had My Way”, we see that the chorus of the song has a message of wonderful optimism about this particular love story.
The verse that comes just before that, backs us up a bit more in the narrative (“I used to be the first one to cry, when I’d think what tomorrow would bring…”) This is us telling the person we love the story of the way love used to be for us – the way it never seemed to turn out right.
The song is our response to something that our sweetheart has just said – which might be something like:
I can’t believe I’ve finally found you
What we have is so amazing – do you think we can make this last forever?
You are the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me
Each of these options may change the initial emotion of the verse slightly, but what wouldn’t change is the feeling of awe, and the feeling of being full of emotion which needs to flower before we say anything.
Whenever people are about to speak from the heart, their mouths open slightly.
It is extraordinarily difficult to get every single singer to focus enough to feel the emotion first – the emotion that causes the mouth to open slightly for a few seconds – before the breath.
However if the singers make a habit of opening the mouth a little, well before they take that first breath, the subconscious thinks to itself “Wow – the mouth is opening – must be something important needing to be said.”
This is the same sort of body/mind backwards approach that works to cheer you up when you make yourself smile for a few minutes. Even holding a pencil sideways between your teeth mimics a smile and will cause your mood to improve. Body first – mind follows.
Because the slightly open mouth before you say something from the heart is a human thing, and not just a singing technique, the audience will see it and respond. They will feel great anticipation, and that they’re about to hear something really interesting.
And the singers will trigger their own emotion, just from giving the body this cue.
Although there’s been a movement away from the Barbershop ‘tune up’ chord in recent years, many choruses still use them to establish a solid tonal centre before singing the song.
Here’s the way it usually goes:
1. Pitch is blown
2. Everyone sings the keynote in unison
3. Then all together break into the tonic chord – with Basses down the octave, Baritones dropping to the 5th, Leads staying on the original tonic (the keynote that everyone sang to begin with), and Tenors singing the 3rd – just above the keynote/tonic that the Leads are singing.
However, at our Men’s Barbershop Chorus Division contest, Harry Haflett (Hot Air Buffoons and Barbershop Harmony Society singing judge) suggested that my Guys try another form of this tune up.
1. Pitch is blown
2. Basses sing the lower octave keynote/tonic – with as rich and resonant a blended sound as possible
3. Leads join in with the upper keynote/tonic – and lay their note in on top of what the Basses are singing, so that what they’re really doing is just amplifying the octave overtone.
4. Baris listen for the overtone that’s ringing their note – the 5th – and when they then sing that 5th cleanly, matching that overtone that they heard, the resulting sound should feel hollow and open.
5. Tenors then listen for the 3rd and just lightly lay their note into the mix.
Once everything is balanced, take a breath and start the song – and the wonderful, blended wash of sound will give the song’s beginning a new warmth and richness.
Any choir or chorus can do this. In an SATB choir the order of parts joining in would be Bass (low tonic), Alto (high tonic), Tenor (5th above the Bass) and Soprano (very lightly, on the 3rd above the Altos)
With an SATB choir this helps to increase awareness of the importance of balanced chords – something we take for granted with our Barbershop Choruses, but often forget to emphasize with our Choirs. Chord awareness is more embedded in the Barbershop style because everything is homophonic – vertical chord, chord, chord, whereas in many Choral arrangements there are different rhythms, word rhythms, melodies and countermelodies happening all at once. With Choirs, we tend to think more horizontally than vertically.
Everyone’s listening and tuning skills can be improved with this exercise. And when that chord expands and rings – well it’s right up there with all the very best things in life!
For years I tried to figure out the best way to request that a chorus give a little more on a particular word, in order to make the meaning of a phrase clearer.
However, what happened when I asked for more was that some people accented the word with a hearty glottal attack, some people lengthened the vowel and some people felt that scooping up from just under the pitch would give it that special extra meaning.
So, work had to be done to set the stage.
No more scooping up to the beginning of any note – ever.
No glottal attacks. Trying hard to think of an exception…nope, can’t think of any.
The chorus must understand the concept of target vowels, and any appropriate diphthong resolutions.
Once these things are cleaned up and have become habit for the chorus, emotional wonderfulness awaits.
Consider this from “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over”:
“For your eyes don’t shine like they used to shine”
The “don’t shine” has one emotion, and the “used to shine” has a slightly different one. We need to feel (and see) the dullness of the “don’t shine” and the wistful remembering of the early relationship brightness in the “used to shine”.
The more emotion we can feel in each of these short phrases, the more rich and varied the story becomes. And the richness and variation will automatically show up in the tone.
“And the thrill is gone when your lips meet mine”. I asked the chorus to feel the emotion of the hollowness of the word ‘gone’, and got a wonderful dark empty sound.
Once the technical stuff (the synchronization, target vowels, diphthongs) is handled, the intensity of the storytelling can be enhanced by asking for more emotion on a given word or phrase, rather than asking for a specific style of articulation.
Sectional rehearsals used to be the way each part learned the right notes. It was always a pleasant, rather social break during the regular rehearsal. You bashed a few notes, chatted, laughed a bit, then all trooped back into the main rehearsal hall to rejoin the other parts.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I love a good laugh and a chat with friends – but sectional rehearsals can be a much more powerful tool for excellence now than was possible in those mistily romantic olden days.
First class learning sound files have eliminated the need for any and all note bashing. With the advent of inexpensive, but top quality recording devices and email, every person in the chorus can know every note before the song is rehearsed for the first time.
Perhaps some directors love note bashing – and all I can say is Bless them – but it’s been the bane of my entire directing life. I am so grateful that technology now handles this aspect for me, and we can get on with the business of making music.
When right notes are a given, we can begin to eliminate ‘noise’ by working tuning, balance, blend, dynamic expression, vocal placement, synchronization, target vowels, diphthongs….
Sectionals are now about unit sound. Although the chorus needs to be blended across all parts, a four part chorus needs to sound like just four voices – not 45. The small personal idiosyncrasies can be heard and cleaned up much more easily in a sectional than when all parts are singing. As exciting as it is to have the rich sound of the full chorus all around, there is also something very pure and thrilling about a stunning unison sound.
When all four parts bring these stunning unison sounds back to the main rehearsal, the result is a magical, clean, ringing experience.
Very simple trick for letting the audience know that they’re about to hear something important. If it’s done with just the right degree of subtlety the audience won’t really notice the movement, but will be aware of heightened intensity on the part of the chorus.
As the pitch is blown, and as we are all preparing the emotion of the song – Tallify – that is, get gradually taller.
Most of us live our lives with our mid sections collapsed a little. All we’re doing when we Tallify is stretching the distance between the bottom of the rib cage and the top of the hip bones.
Not only does this create more visual interest and excitement, it gives all of our singing engine bits more room to operate.
It’s also a cue to our own brain that we’re about to do something important – and the improved focus helps with a more synchronized and dynamic first chord.
Many thanks to a wonderful coach, Judy Comeau, for this one.
For electricity to inhabit the sound something needs to be done with every single sustained note. It’s never enough to put the note out there and just hang onto it for the requisite number beats.
Sustained notes show up more often at the ends of phrases than anywhere else, so lifting them will not only add excitement to the note itself, but will also create eager anticipation of the next phrase.
So what do I mean by ‘lift’? Ah – now here we get into the slightly mystical realm of notes infused by the intensity of specific thoughts. (I’ll write later about the kind of lifting that needs to be done when we want to sustain the volume, or dial it down)
When I use my palms up lifting gesture the listener would hear the chord getting louder – usually during the second half of the sustained chord.
However, if I were to say to my choruses “Get louder when I do this with my hands”, I would get a bearing down kind of volume change, which would likely encourage more muscle in the sound – which leads to flat singing, tension, and less excitement, not more.
If I ask for lift, I’m asking them to take flight, and some part of the limbic brain gets it – less tension, not more, and more air, as if I’m asking them to latch onto the next thermal.
So at this point, though the listeners hear a volume change, they also hear more joy, excitement and forward motion.
Or ideally, they may notice nothing at all except the intensity of the story that’s being communicated by the singers. Which would make what we’re doing true Art.