Monthly Archives: June 2015

Magic Choral Trick #341 Knuckle Sandwich

Came across an item called the Vocalator, advertised in The Harmonizer – the Barbershop Harmony Society’s magazine.

Here’s a blurb from the website:

Instantly Transforms Your Voice Into a “Singer’s Instrument”

The Vocalator immediately opens the mouth and throat to professional proportions for clear, unobstructed sound. The student “gets it” and muscle memory begins to form.

So of course I ordered one immediately.

When it arrived I started working with it, and found that by holding it lightly between my teeth I was in fact able to sing with an effortless, open sound. One major benefit was that with the jaw relaxed, but everything open like this, glissandi from the bottom to the top of my range were effortless and pretty much eliminated any of the glitchiness over the break area.

Because I don’t have the resources for buying these in bulk, I brought the short stacking tubes from my grandson’s marble game in to my women’s chorus rehearsal. These, like the Vocalator, are 2 inch hard plastic tubes – about 1 inch in diameter.

When the women held these lightly between the teeth and sang our warm up exercises through them it was definitely a bigger, richer sound.

However, after a little while, many of the women began to complain of jaw discomfort. And I must admit, that amount of opening did aggravate some jaw issues that I have.

So we put aside the tubes and decided to try what I call the Knuckle Sandwich instead.

Curl up one of your index fingers, and place the knuckle between your upper and lower teeth – slightly to one side. Relax the jaw.

The mouth and singing apparatus is now in a similar position as was the case with the Vocalator – but because the jaws don’t open so wide, there’s no discomfort.

The downside is that you now have an obstruction over to the side of the mouth – so the sound is not as clear. But this is still really useful for instilling correct singing positioning into body memory.

If you’d like to check out the actual Vocalator though, here’s the website:

Magic Choral Trick #340 The Choreo Move Shouldn’t Upstage the Face

This seems to be such common sense – but I think most of us who use choreography mess up on this one from time to time.

Thanks to David McEachern from the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Toronto Northern Lights for this reminder at his coaching session last month.

Does the choreo move match the emotion of the phrase that it’s supposed to be enhancing?

He pointed out that even if the move is a great one, or a clever one, if it doesn’t match the amount of emotion that we’re seeing on all the faces, the move will be a distraction.

As an audience member, we get confused when we’re getting Ta Dah!!! from the jazz hands move, and mild appreciation from the faces.

It’s not believable. Like a bad Irish accent in a Hollywood movie, it just keeps getting in the way of the story. (Best example ever – Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman [their Irish accents are so, so bad])

Audiences love to be enthralled by the story or the message of the song – but as soon as there’s a technical mismatching – tuning, balance, blend, or a mismatched visual message, we get pulled out of the narrative.

People may praise the clever move – even if it upstages the faces – but they probably won’t leap to their feet screaming for more.

When everything is in synch emotionally it’s very satisfying for an audience.

Magic Choral Trick #339 Extraordinary Measures – What Are You Willing to Do?

We know that light aerobic exercise, like walking, for an hour every day will dramatically increase our well being. Does everyone do this?

We know that a diet seriously heavy on a wide variety of vegetables is like medicine for the body. Is that what ends up on our plates?

We know that mediation is good for our mental, physical and spiritual health – but how many of us actually get around to the two twenty minute sessions recommended by the Transcendental Meditation people?

The point here is that what’s holding our choruses back from being fabulous is not stuff that’s unknown to any of us.

I remember taking a course one time where it was pointed out that if your life is not what you want it to be in one area that’s especially difficult for you (one of the spokes of the wheel that is your life) make a change for the better in some other area of your life (one of the other spokes) and the whole wheel shifts.

For years my women’s Barbershop chorus struggled with small numbers. We’d gain a couple of members, only to have an equivalent number then drift away.

Then one day we did two things. We altered what we were doing with two of the spokes of our ‘chorus life’ wheel.

We decided as a chorus that we were willing to work harder on singing well.

We gave a green light to one of our members who was really enthusiastic about promoting the chorus through almost non stop PR. (It felt immodest – shameless really – and she was relentless!! Every aspect of chorus life was photographed, written up and sent out as a press release!) Now we have a permanent PR team.

And now, just a few years later, the chorus has more than doubled in size, and is singing and performing at a much higher level. And because more bodies, and more excellence is more fun, new singers keep showing up!!

Were these extraordinary measures? Not really. What was extraordinary was the chorus’ dogged commitment to following up on these two things that we’d agreed to do.

I felt this commitment every time I’d stop them to work on some vocal technique point.

I felt this commitment every time we had to freeze what we were doing so that we could be photographed for the next announcement or press release.

The chorus culture had been shifted – and we were gradually falling in love with excellence.

And in my almost 40 years of directing singing groups, that is extraordinary.

Magic Choral Trick #338 How Much Singable Consonant is Enough?

The first question that comes up when you ask chorus members to really sing the L’s, M’s, N’s, V’s, NG’s and Z’s is:

Is all the effort worth it?


Not only does singing through these sounds lock in the synchronization, mainly because people are listening so much to each other, but the legato improves.

The whole effect is suddenly richer and smoother, because other than for planned breaks in the sound (breaths), the sound never stops.

The chord continues to sound – but through the M or the NG or the L.

And when a phrase ends on one of these sounds – it feels complete, tidy and clean.

Like the diphthong resolution vowel though, it still needs to be very short, but very intense.

Song = Saw………………NG

Smile = sMah……eeL

I find that I don’t hear the singable consonants unless each member of the chorus is singing them at about 3 times the intensity of the target vowel.

I say this mainly so that each mind in the chorus is actually thinking the singable consonant at exactly the same time. I find when I give my singers an instruction as specific as “3 times more intense”, they find it easier to focus their minds at exactly the time that it’s needed.

To the singers it feels ridiculous at first – but the overall smoothness in the sound makes it a habit really worth instilling.

Magic Choral Trick #337 How Much Diphthong Resolution Vowel is Enough?

I’ve done some experimenting with this one recently and have come to the conclusion that unless singers are thinking the resolution vowel very intensely, it’s almost impossible to hear it from the group as a whole.

The trick is to make it as short as possible, but really audible, without accenting it in a percussive sort of way.

This smooth but fast increase in intensity takes drilling – preferably during the warm up – with words like:

Light – lah……EAT

Know – no..…..OO

Same – seh…..EEM

Then try combining words that contain diphthongs:

Same day – Seh…EEMdeh….EE

Bright light – Bra….EATlah…..EAT

I have found that in order to get my singers to understand just how much mental focus the resolution vowel needs, I often need to ask them to give two or three times the amount of thought and intensity as they do to the target vowel.

If I ask for louder, many of the chorus will think that I mean accented, and not smooth – which is why I usually ask for double or triple the intensity.

Magic Choral Trick #336 One Note Johnny On the Stick Singable Sounds

Tom Gentry showed this one to my Men’s Barbershop Chorus after their competition last month.

Fortunately for my Women’s chorus, we were able to work on it for almost a month before our competition, and it made a significant difference to our synchronization and to our score!

Here’s how it’s done.

“On the stick” directing – one sound at a time – every singable sound in the phrase.

For example, the first phrase of the ballad ‘The Masquerade is Over’ is “My blue horizon is turning gray”

The sounds, in order, and slow motion on the Director’s cue would be:

Mm – ah – ee – blll – oo – ho – eu – rrr – ah – ee – zzz – uh – nnn – ih – zzz – teu – rrr – nnn – ih – ngggg – greh – ee (If you want to get really picky, there’s a slight ‘ih’ at the end of the word gray)

Now there’s no way to process all of this up to speed – but once my chorus started becoming aware of all the sounds, and drilling this exercise, they were able to speed it up a little.

But more importantly, when I needed more detailed treatment of a word later on in the song, they all now understood exactly how much refinement I was asking for.

I’m sure that some of you are thinking that your chorus would never want to make distinctions that fine.

Certainly that would have been the case with my choruses a few years ago. Here are the steps we took to get to the place where my women’s chorus finds this sort of thing fun.

1. The primary target vowels – ee, ah, oo (We worked on matching ‘ee’ for a whole year!)

2. Vowels that people think of as target vowels, which are actually diphthongs – oh (oh/oo), ay (eh/ee),

3. Short vowel target vowels – ih, eh, a, uh

4. Tons of other pure vowels – as are found in words like: first, book, good, law, the…

5. Diphthong resolutions – long target vowels, then fast resolution vowels

And at this point, they were ready to hear about, and drill the singable consonants – and all the singable sounds. We’d been asked for years by coaches and judges for more singable consonants  – but we weren’t quite sure how to get everyone’s ideas about them aligned.

However, this exercise made it all easy to understand, and easy to drill.

So thank you again Tom Gentry!!

Magic Choral Trick #335 Warming Up the Hive Mind (Lessons From the Borg)

I saw Dr. Jim Henry use this one during a chorus warm up.

On each of the Director’s beats, the chorus says “one”, “one’, “one”, “one”……until it’s perfectly synchronized.

It’s actually amazing how this can go from very messy to very tight, in a short period of time.

The trick here is to encourage the chorus to just allow themselves to become one with the Director’s beat, and feel, rather than decide when to say the next “one”. When as chorus members we elect to decide every note for ourselves – its character, onset, duration and tone quality – we create an infinite number of differences with other chorus members.

In order to become part of the hive, the unit, or the Borg, individual identity needs to be handed over. (“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated”)

However, the rewards for assimilation are huge. The synchronization and the ringing chords that are the result of handing over our vocal identity allow us to feel like a part of one of those flocks of birds all swooping together – a murmuration.

The next step is to have the chorus sing, in unison, on the Director’s beat, a string of notes on the syllable “tah”.

I used this last night during warm up at rehearsal and had just half the chorus sing, while the other half watched. Then I had them switch.

I find it’s an eye opener for all of us when we get to watch and listen to this exercise. We miss the full impact of the importance of the hive mind when we’re actually participating.

Again with the singing of “tah”, it’s remarkable how quickly it can go from a mess, to locked in – which could make all the difference in the world to a performance, or to the quality of a rehearsal.

Magic Choral Trick #334 Egg Yolk Basses

Thank you so much to Wendy McCoole for showing us this one last weekend.

It worked so well with my women’s chorus that I tried it with my guys at last night’s rehearsal and the results were spectacular.

Absolutely fantastic trick for cleaning up synch issues in an uptune!

1. Have all Basses form a circle facing inward.

2. Surround the Basses with another circle made up of everyone else.

3. Basses sing their part for a section of the song (other parts listen and give feedback on synchronization)

4. When that part of the song is clean, locked in and in time, have the other sections ‘oo’ their parts along with the Basses. Since Basses are the ‘engine’ of the chorus, they are the part that drives the rhythm and keeps everyone else on track. (Though you may get resistance on this power issue from Leads in a Barbershop chorus, or Sopranos in a choir!)

Because everyone else is just ‘oo-ing’ while the Basses are singing, it’s still easy for all the other parts to hear the engine that’s driving the rhythm.

5. Next, have the other parts sing the lyrics too – but still singing quite lightly, and still really listening for the Basses.

At various points along the way, those who like to use their eyes as well as their ears are grateful for me conducting a very clear, steady beat pattern. (Not often used in the Barbershop world I know – but still an effective tool) When I was doing this last night, I stood in the inner circle with the Basses.

6. When everyone’s ears are attuned to the Bass part all parts can revert to their planned volume levels.

Ears have been opened and awareness has been raised.

Because all the chords are now lining up the sound is richer and fuller, and there’s the relief of a rock steady beat.

But the big surprise to me was the tuning. So much better! But after thinking about it, it makes sense. If the parts are out of synch, the singers never hear a clean chord. When the chords are not clear, each member of the chorus has to guess about tonality.

And that never ends well.

Magic Choral Trick #333 Focus Hands

Many, many thanks to Alison Thompson (LABBS) for showing Harmony Inc.’s Area 1 choruses this in her class – the day before competition.

It was so amazingly effective that I immediately incorporated it into the way I directed all the sustained chords at phrase endings, and it transformed our sound!!!

During the 2 short rehearsals my women’s chorus had before the competition, I drilled this with them until just by watching me, they could recreate the feeling – and the incredible resonance.

I have absolutely no idea how this works – and no real interest in finding out – yet. (Just as I don’t feel the need to know why a light comes on when I flick the wall switch.)

1. Hands apart – palms facing each other, fingers together, and pointing upwards – as if saying “the fish was this big”

2. Smoothly and gradually, during the first part of the sustained chord, bring palms towards each other.

3. But then, with the hands/palms themselves in the same position, align them so that one is nearer your face – and the other is lined up beside it (thumb beside pinky of the other hand). The hands will still be upright (fingers pointing up), one palm still facing left, and the other right – forming a plane at right angles to your face.

The sound will already be more focused, but now comes the really magic part.

4. As a continuation of the movement, swivel the plane that your hands are forming so that the fingers point away from the body. While still maintaining that plane, move both hands away from the body together, as if pointing straight out, and keep the movement continuing forward until the end of the sustained chord.

This should all be done in one smooth movement from the beginning to the end of the sustained note.

However, you’ll soon want to be in a big hurry to get to the pointing outward phase, because the sound is so amazing!

You don’t even need to wait for your next rehearsal to try it. You’ll probably notice a difference right now if you do this when you’re singing a sustained note all by yourself.

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