Monthly Archives: February 2016
I often wish that I could have a really terrific coach with me at every rehearsal – pointing out to me the things I haven’t noticed, and give me tips on how to run tighter and progressively more productive rehearsals.
However, the truth is that most of us have had enough coaching to be able to lift ourselves to the next level, whether we’re directing or singing. We just lose focus. We forget that this is actually important to us.
As singers, we know that daily technical practising, going through our music at home and getting into better physical condition are three basic things that would create some next level magic.
As directors we know that more specific schedule planning that anticipates the work that our group will need, more musical and emotional analysis of the music, and a thoughtful daily review of our directing and rehearsal technique would make each rehearsal even more exciting for everyone.
And many of us do at least some of this.
But the question is the same as it is for all those other areas of our lives that matter.
Am I doing absolutely everything I can to create loving relationships?
Am I giving my body everything it needs for radiant health?
Am I as kind and generous as it’s possible to be?
When I was singing professionally there were performances that went gloriously well, and there were some that were barely adequate. But what every single performance had in common was that I can honestly say that I always brought everything I had to it – what I had in the moment. There were just some days when that wasn’t much when compared to my other performances. The truth though was generally that if I’d prepared more, or taken care of my health beforehand, it would have gone much better.
In my years of bringing up four kids there were days when my Mom skills were second to none. Then there were days when my parenting skills went on vacation – and my poor kids and I all ended the day feeling fed up, sad, annoyed or anxious. But I always felt that whatever had happened, I’d given it everything I had.
But was that always the truth?
I Can Do Better
This phrase is like a reset button for determination.
Even though we may have given whatever it is we’re doing 100% of our effort – there’s always something more that we could easily be doing to improve the outcome.
The phrase “I can do better” is a trigger for our subconscious mind to come up with the next small step. A step that’s small enough not to overwhelm us, but big enough to make a real difference in the outcome.
For chorus singers – a small step like a cleaner target vowel, or singing with mental energy right to the end of a phrase, or lifting the pitch on a slightly saggy note, or listening more.
As a solo performer having a tough vocal day, I could have increased my emotional interaction with my audience.
As a mom I could have just hugged each kid more on those bad days.
As a director I’m thinking of adding “I can do better” as a call and response every once in a while – especially when they already know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it, but have just lost some focus.
It’s time for a Bass revolution.
Yes Basses, we truly appreciate the overtones that you create – your absolutely vital role in the richness of the chorus’ sound – but now we require more.
When a Bass section is singing with the same level of artistry that we usually ask of those singing the melody line, the result is transformative.
With most groups we directors are more inclined to be merciless with our Sopranos or Leads when it comes to phrasing and word stresses. We tell the whole group what we want – but we don’t follow up nearly enough with our harmony parts.
As a result our harmony singers get the impression that what they’re doing is enough.
I’m suggesting that the director’s cajoling/nagging/bribing should start with the Basses because they are the engine that drives everything. If the Basses are singing a lovely arching phrase, absolutely everyone else will feel compelled to join in.
Bass sectionals are the best way I know to lock in the unit sound and to solidify the expressive interpretation. Probably a good idea for the director to sit in, so that he or she can give feedback on the specifics of the artistry.
However, the biggest shift here is in the transformation of the Basses’ perception that no one’s really listening to them, and that their role is strictly structural.
When the Bass section sings their part as if it’s their own poignant melody, the whole chorus suddenly sounds much more polished.
Vocalises sung to ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ can be lovely and musically very expressive, but the reason we sing songs is because of the extra levels of emotional depth that are possible with the musical expression of language.
Built into our language are many, many magical triple arches – arches that get progressively more emotionally important.
Here are some examples from three completely different songs:
Faith and Hope and Love
But the Greatest of These is Love
Fading like Sunset to Glow no More
And Leaving a Heart that is Sore
Amazing Grace how Sweet the Sound
That Saved a Wretch like Me
Each one of these lines gives us a triple arch – but in each case here, there’s yet another triple arch in the very next line. You will need to make a decision about whether it works best emotionally for the second line to keep on growing (bigger and bigger arches), or to backtrack the intensity of the first arch in the second phrase from where you ended up after the first line.
Then there are songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy which set up the triple arch beautifully by using the ‘ready set go’ technique – double arch, double arch then the triple. Which as an overarching pattern, is yet another triple!!
He was a Famous trumpet man down by Chicago way
He Had a boogie sound that no one Else could play
He was the Top man At his Craft
These arches are everywhere!
And if we use them, we immediately create more interest and forward motion in every song, no matter what the song’s tempo or style.
The progressive triple arch is such a natural pattern for us. From expressing love (I love you/I really love you/I can’t live without you) to throwing up, to a child starting to wail – this is all very familiar. I’ve even heard people sneeze in this pattern. And our language has evolved to include it.
Because we tend to align ourselves emotionally with patterns that we recognize, an audience will be more engaged with us as we use this aspect of our language.
So what exactly should we do with the arches?
I have my groups use arm motion for each arch as they sing – drawing a little hill, bigger hill, Appalachian Mountains (an old mountain range that runs up near the east coast of North America, that is now quite rounded)
When they actually do this movement I can avoid having them just accent the target word in the arch – which is not at all what we want.
The ‘dynamics’ monitor in your choir may go a little nuts with the arch drawing thing, so they may need to hear the instruction as a messa di voce (crescendo/diminuendo), but everyone actually drawing the progressively larger arches will know what to do.
I also like to add the instruction to sing the target vowel of the word at the top of each arch with progressively more emotion. Fill the target vowel with emotion – then more emotion for the target vowel at the top of the second arch – then even more emotion filling the target vowel for the word at the top of the last arch.
It just occurs to me that anyone still reading at this point must really love this stuff as much as I do!!! Bless you!!! You’re the reason I do this.
Gotta find your fun wherever you get it, so I’ve turned this diphthong drill into a sort of game.
The two words I’ve been using for this quickie drill are ‘Are’ and ‘Our’ – though it might be a good idea not to tell your group what the words are before you start. What we’re trying to do here is detach the mind from some lifelong habits.
First ask the group to sing an ‘Ah’ vowel for about 4 slow beats.
Tell the chorus that when you do the cut off with your Right Hand, they’re to sing a very fast, but focused ‘er’. (the word Are)
Do this several times until:
1. Everyone is scanning the tongue for tension for the duration of the ‘ah’ vowel – thinking only the vowel, and not the word.
2. The ‘er’ is completely synchronized
Now ask them to sing a slow 4 beat ‘ah’ again, but when you cut them off with your Left Hand, they’re to sing a very fast, but clean, ‘oor’. (the word Our)
Again this will need drill until those tongues stop roiling up with tension in anticipation of the end of the word.
I find also that there’s almost never enough ‘oor’ initially – and I ask them to sing the diphthong resolution with about double the amount of mental intensity. I don’t mean that it should be accented, just that the thought of the ‘oor’ is even clearer, and twice as intense as for the thinking of the ‘ah’ vowel.
Now comes the extra focus (and hopefully fun) part of the drill.
Have the chorus sing ‘ah’ for at least 4 slow beats as both of your hands are ready to do the cut off. A cut off with the Right Hand means they should finish the word with an ‘er’, and a cut off with the Left Hand means they should finish the sound with and ‘oor’.
I vary these – so there’s no pattern, and so that no one knows which ending is coming.
Next week I’m going to do this same exercise with ‘Nice’ and ‘Now’ (Nah…….eece, and Nah………oo)