Monthly Archives: December 2014

Magic Choral Trick #323 Directing – A Tightrope Act

Being a Chorus Director is a job like few others. The chorus is your boss, but during rehearsal it’s your job to lead, to call the shots and to inspire your bosses to do better.

You need enough ego to take charge, and enough street smarts and Spidey senses to pick up the cues that mean that you need to lighten up or loosen the grip a little.

If you don’t take charge, one of the stronger (and not necessarily more tactful) members from the chorus will pick up that slack, and everyone will be unhappy with the rehearsal dynamic.

If you run a rehearsal with a My Way or the Highway style, it’ll be perceived as adversarial, and once again we end up with a room full of grumpy people. And grumpy people don’t sing well.

The fix:

While some sort of choir music team is always necessary – for rehearsal feedback and planning suggestions – it is absolutely essential if you were not blessed with strong social Spidey senses. If your telepathic powers are less than stellar, you absolutely need a trusted few people from the chorus who will be completely honest about what’s working, what’s not working and what they’re hearing from other chorus members.

A happy chorus is one in which the members feel that it’s not only their singing voices that are heard. In any group we need to feel that our input is valued, and at least considered.

When there’s a team behind you, supporting you and coaching you, you also tend to self monitor more. In other words, you think and plan more carefully – and as a result, fewer and fewer negative things leak out of your mouth during rehearsal. In fact, the more kind coaching and monitoring you receive from your trusted team, the more you are reminded of why you started Directing in the first place.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I began all this as creative social art – the rehearsal itself as a work of art, during which we all collaborate to experience something transcendent.

Magic Choral Trick #322 Peter Pointer Guardrails

Singing through a narrow mouth shape focuses the sound.

The way I’ve had success with this has been to work with imagery rather than with approaching it from the physical side.

Positioning the mouth, then holding it there isn’t nearly as effective as creating a visual image – which produces a more relaxed and subtle shift.

But creating an image without really even using the conscious mind seems to work best of all. This is where kinaesthetic tricks come in handy.

The Peter Pointer Guardrails help to keep vocal placement on the right road – narrow and forward.

Peter Pointer Guardrails = Both index fingers pointing straight up and placed lightly (no pressure) on either side of the mouth.

The sound is more focused because the singers’ minds are now filled with the image
of singing through a more narrow shape.

If still more focus and projection is needed, move the Guardrails out to arm’s length, where instead of Guardrails, they become more like Goal Posts.

Magic Choral Trick #321 Breathing

I know I talked a bit about this 283 posts ago – but I thought I’d add a couple of things.

The most common complaint I hear from amateur singers is that they run out of air before the ends of phrases.

Then they ask me to teach them how to breathe.

However, though taking in and using more air is a good idea, it won’t solve the problem if either of the following things are still happening:

Tongue cutting off sound. The English language is brutal for singers. If we’re pronouncing words the way we’d say them in rapid fire conversation, the tongue is in constant motion – and constantly tensing and blocking the flow of air and sound. So when we think we’ve run out of air, the truth is often that the tongue has shut off the air flow. This is particularly noticeable on high notes when we’re singing an ‘ee’ or an ‘ay’ vowel. The ‘y’ at the end of both of those has the tongue heaving up like a breaching whale. There’s no way you’re going to be able to squeeze more air past that whale in your throat.

The fix for this is tongue awareness – and complete devotion to clean, clear target vowels.

Air escaping in the sound. As long as air is leaking out in the tone, sustaining long phrases will be difficult. This is heard as breathiness.

This is an exercise that helps you realize that the voice is more like a combination string/wind instrument than just a wind one.

Sing a phrase.

Take a deep breath – then blow most of it out. Now sing that same phrase again. It should be more focused, and you’ll probably be able to sustain the phrase for almost as long as the previous time when you tanked up on air.

My theory is that the body realizes that you can’t afford to waste any oxygen, so it focuses the sound in order to use less air.

So the two main tricks for being to sing long phrases are very clean target vowels, and focusing the sound.

It’s very nice to have a large lung capacity and strong breathing apparatus musculature – but it’s not essential for singing long phrases.

Here’s the old post about building up breathing capacity.

Magic Choral Trick #320 “Sing with your intelligence – not your talent”

I love this Jim Henry line. “Sing with your intelligence – not your talent”

The artistry is in singing with so much intelligence, that it appears to be talent. And the intelligence here is not simply focusing the mind on all the correct technical things (though these are important in order to prevent distracting our audience from the message), it’s also bringing life experience and emotional intelligence into the communication of every line of a song.

As directors, our work is to assist amateur singers to transform their mindset from ‘singing along with the group’ to that of performing artist – singing with all the aliveness they can access.

There are several crucial steps:

1. Notice the technical hitches that get in the way of artistry

2. Drill the corrections out of context during warm up in as many innovative ways as can be dreamed up

3. Reinforce those corrections when singing songs

4. Drill the artistry until it becomes habit. (Directors – this will take you your whole life, but it’s worth it, because it is a magnificent life’s work. There’s no rush. Just give it everything you have – all the time)

5. Draw attention to the artistry when those corrections work well. Directors – this is sometimes a long haul, because not all your singers will have enough experience with really listening to notice the difference – or even enough body awareness to feel the difference. The broader strokes will be noticed immediately by everyone, but the subtler, finer ones take more long term awakening and a more acute and developing sense of present moment awareness.

6. Draw singers’ attention to the fact that fun can only be had in the present moment – and that life can only be rich and exciting in the present moment. So it’s worth the effort of applying the artistry that will make the moment more fun and more exciting.

Once we all awaken to the fact that we live only ‘right now’ we become highly motivated to make that moment stunningly beautiful, alive and intelligent on every level.

Magic Choral Trick #319 More on Feeling Faint When You’re Singing

Nerves can wreak havoc on the enjoyment of singing in performance.

And one of the things we would typically do to make ourselves feel less nervous would be to breathe deeply.

But when we keep taking in huge breaths, then not using or getting rid of all that air, we feel even more wretched – and we feel more likely to faint, because this overbreathing has upset the balance of gases in our bloodstream. So the bad news is, we really are more likely to faint.

When you’re actually onstage it’s probably considered bad form to whip out a paper bag and begin to breathe into it – or even to do alternate nostril breathing.

However, I’ve found that if you can get in a few good sighs, and start moving more as you sing, it should help – as a temporary fix.

If you are a religious person then a moment of prayer during a few bars’ rest can settle you enough to make it bearable. But whatever thoughts normally help to ground you and calm you down are worth training your brain to latch on to when you’re in mental or emotional distress.

The underlying cause of all this will need to be addressed if you’re going to have fun while singing onstage.

What’s really going on is a panic attack – which actually feels like a life threatening event. And as a veteran of those wars I know that these can dog you for years unless you bite the bullet and decide to face up to whatever is terrifying you. The assistance of a good counsellor is really useful.

Here are a couple of other things that really helped me. (Please note that I am not prescribing – just letting you know what worked for me)

1. Getting enough aerobic exercise

2. Eliminating from my diet foods to which I have sensitivities (this was a really important one for me)

3. Meditation, and learning to stay conscious of the present moment – as opposed to constantly pre-living my life, and focusing on some awful thing that might happen in the future.

4. Vitamin B 12 strips, that dissolve on the tongue, or tablets that dissolve under the tongue.

5. Bach Flower Remedies ( )

Magic Choral Trick #318 Resisting (or not) the Urge to Be Hilarious

In addition to my own choirs’ rehearsals these days, I’ve been singing soprano in my husband’s choir which will be performing Messiah next week.

Man O Man! As much as I contribute musically, you would not want me in your choir.

Just can’t seem to keep my mouth shut when he cuts us off. I’m so giddy about not being the one in charge that I feel the irrepressible urge to find the humour in everything.

There must be about 50 in the choir, and the sopranos are at the back, and there’s an orchestra between my husband and the choir– so I’m not sure he even knows how badly a few of us are behaving.

Or perhaps having been a back row singer in other choirs himself, I know he understands the burning desire for hilarity.

But when we’re about to start, the focus is palpable.

I’m thinking that perhaps it’s because we’re all giving the singing part our most intense focus (during a three hour rehearsal) that we really need the stress relieving humour during the non singing moments.

Regardless, I’m grateful for my soprano compatriots’ passion for making great music, and for their hilarity.

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