Monthly Archives: December 2016

Magic Choral Trick #359 Opening Hearts

I came across a quotation attributed to Gus Speth, a US advisor or climate change.

“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So while the problems facing our societies and communities all over the world seem huge, complex and unfixable, perhaps we can agree with Gus Speth, that the beginning of transformation will take place when our hearts open.

Hearts open quickly and completely when we sing in large groups – especially when everyone is caught up in the moment. And being caught up in the moment has several avenues of approach. Singing for a cause, focus on excellence, and spontaneous outbursts of singing. Or simply because we just can’t believe how many of us are doing this all together. (As in the Choir Choir Choir link below – at the Toronto Eaton Centre) The physical sensation is like nothing else – and feels wonderful.

The several groups of singers that I have the privilege to work with are the kindest social groups I know.

Singing in groups makes us better human beings. We become more than we thought we were. Perhaps it’s because a singing group is always more than the sum of its parts, and because we’ve now had a taste of something we knew would never have been possible by ourselves.

And being in the presence of the sound changes us.

So when there’s a chord that really rings, sometimes I ask my singers to sustain it a little longer than normal, just so that we can lose ourselves in its glory – and allow it to transform us.

Gus Speth says that scientists don’t know how to open hearts – but we do.

This is just the first verse of the famous poem by Aurthur O’Shaughnessy

Ode – by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

And here’s the Choir Choir Choir link!!

Magic Choral Trick #359 Stuff That Goes Wrong on Beat 4

Because in English there are so many unaccented pick up words that appear on beat 4, the opportunity to drag and be out of synch happens frequently.

Here’s what can go wrong on and around beat 4

1. Breath before beat 4 is too slow, or at least unsynchronized

2. Different amounts of mouth opening for breath

3. For many singers the mouth is wide open for the breath and it stays that way for the singing of the pick up note, so more sound comes out and the pick up word is accented and generally slower.

4. Because the breath and pick up note are now out of synch, the disorganized sound creates inertia and it feels like we’ll never arrive on beat one of the next bar.

5. Directors get very discouraged, their right shoulder begins to hurt from pulling their singers along and they just want to go home and open a bottle of wine.

We tend to think that the real problem is people not feeling where beat one is – but it’s just that there are so many technical land mines to dodge before you ever get to the next bar.


Here’s what I propose

– Practise breathing in very quickly through a relaxed, neutral mouth shape – and an open throat. An open throat means that the breath won’t be noisy.

Breathe in – then kick the air out in 12 – 16 loose-lipped exhalations. Rest for a few seconds, then repeat. The reason for so many exhalations and then the rest is that you don’t want your singers to hyperventilate and pass out. Bad form.

The object here is to create a habit, so this needs to be done often.


– Once the breathing is fast and synchronized we can turn our attention to the pick up word

As I know I’ve mentioned before, the pick up word, or words always need to be sung through a completely neutral mouth shape, even if the word’s target vowel is one that would normally require forming – like ‘Oh’. If mouths are open wide, then synchronization gets compromised, an unimportant word/beat gets accented, and we lose forward motion. (And we’re late for beat 1, director unhappy, shoulder problems, drinking…)

During warm up it would be good to introduce a bunch of phrases that have one or two pick up words (or syllables).

A few seasonal suggestions:

It’s the most wonderful time

O come all ye faithful

Away in a manger

O Christmas Tree (Tannenbaum)

In a Lowly Stable (published by Boosey and Hawkes – blatant ad for my husband’s music)


– Then with the addition of a little Gear Change (see previous blog post) leading into beat one, the transition from one bar to the next will be more fun for everyone!

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