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Magic Choral Trick #384 Untapped Magic

A few friends and I have made an amazing discovery. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a community being chorally saturated. Perhaps there’s always room for one more group, if the conditions are right.

Late last spring I was approached by several women who had had the idea to form a choir out in the community where they lived. I realized that it was true that most people who are involved in singing groups do travel in to the city to get their weekly fix.

Because I had run out of weeknights when I’d be able to direct such a group, I suggested something that I’d been talking about for years – a morning choir. In fact, for ages I’d been asking everyone I knew why it was that community choirs don’t normally sing during the day, especially in light of the fact that a huge proportion of many of our choirs is the retired population. Many of our older people are no longer comfortable driving at night, and feel they have to drop out of the choirs they’ve enjoyed for decades.

My friends wanted to start a women’s choir – so at 10:00 am on a Thursday morning in August we had a meeting for any women who might be interested. No audition, no judging, just singing. I had expected between 20 and 30, and 64 showed up.

Then at our first rehearsal last Thursday morning we had 80 women come to sing.

And it’s crazier than that. When all the names from both the meeting and the rehearsal were tabulated, there were 105!!

I’m putting this out there for any and all directors and chorus boards who may be experiencing a scarcity of singers. They’re out there!!! This was clearly a previously untapped resource.

What I don’t know is if there would be the same kind of response for a men’s or a mixed voice chorus.

Yes, I do have some crossover from my other singing groups, but there are also women who showed up to sing – for the first time since they were children, when someone had told them just to mouth the words.

Next target group? The early morning before work corporate crowd! The gyms downtown are full by 5:30. Surely there are people who’d love to sing for an hour before work. We could call it The Dawn Chorus!!

In fact, I’m issuing a challenge to all large companies out there. Form employee choirs, and have them compete in singing competitions against one another. A whole new level of fun and corporate pride!

The world is rich with singers, we just have to find the conditions that are needed and wanted, and provide them.


Magic Choral Trick #383 Keeping It Squishy

Want to increase your group’s resonance instantly? (Although you’ll still have to keep reminding them about this for months)

One of the biggest barriers to gorgeous resonant sound is tension in the tongue. And while we directors may talk about this non-stop, many of our singers really don’t understand the specifics of what we’re asking for.

This is when the squishiness metre becomes a very useful tool.

With a bit of pressure, press the thumb up into the squishy underside of the chin – behind the V of the jaw bone. Swallow and feel that big hunk of meat, that is your tongue, tighten.

Say ‘ee’ normally and feel, with your thumb, the muscle (tongue) tighten. Sing that version of ‘ee’. It’ll probably sound edgy and not at all resonant.

Say ‘ee’ with the tip of the tongue relaxing on the lower lip (yes – this looks really, really dumb) and the back of the tongue being allowed to float up to gently meet the upper molars. Sing ‘ee’ in this position. Experiment until you feel no tongue tension with your thumb.

Now instead of resting the tip of the tongue on the lip, bring the tip behind the lower front teeth to the gum line, and let it relax there. Maintain the relaxation in the back of the tongue so that it still floats up to caress the upper molars. Sing ‘ee’ again and check for under-the-chin squishiness.

Do this with as many vowels as you can think up. ‘ee’ ‘ay’ ‘ah’ ‘oh’ ‘oo’ ‘eu’ ‘ih’ ‘a’ ‘eh’ ‘aw’ ‘uh’

Some consonants need to tighten the tongue – but when you’re singing a word, these should be released to the succeeding vowel as quickly as possible – ‘D’ ‘the hard G’ and ‘T’.

‘L’ – with conscious relaxation and the use of only the tip of the tongue to form the ‘L’, can remain relaxed.

Another squishiness challenging sound is ‘Y’. Say ‘you’ normally and feel it tighten – then try a fast ‘ih’ – opening immediately to an ‘oo’ (‘ih-oo’) and note how it stays more relaxed. This formation of the word ‘you’ has the added benefit of preventing singers from using the ‘y’ to slide up into the note.

It’s a great idea to create a warm up that incorporates many opportunities for Squishiness Checks – so that singing without tongue tension becomes normal.

Magic Choral Trick #382 Cello Bowing

Legato is always a tricky concept for amateur singers. Here’s another kinaesthetic technique that I use.

Have your singers sing a slow 5 note scale 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1, using the numbers as lyrics. (Think half notes at about mm 80)

If you notice any energy leaks or lack of synchronization try having them physically mime bowing each note along with you, as if they were playing a cello – one note per bow.

1 – Down bow – as if you’re bowing a note, drawing the bow out to your right

2 – Up bow – as if you’re moving the bow over the string across the body towards your left side

3 – Down bow – to your right

4 – Up bow….etc

It works well when they understand that there’s always some resistance – a bit of grip on the string by the bow because of the rosin on the bow hair. So it takes even, deliberate pressure and pull to create a lovely cello sound.

Once they can imagine this, vowels in the ‘lyrics’ will become more defined, and longer, without your singers having to deliberately think those thoughts.

Yes, of course, they should know about target vowels and diphthong resolutions to words – but if they are physically bowing each note those things tend to fix themselves.

Once the singers become accustomed to physically bowing the phrases they’re singing, sometimes all it takes to bring back the legato into a phrase is for me to mime the bowing as I direct.

And those pesky pick up beats that inevitably get accented when the singers’ brains stop working can be radically altered into something much more pleasing by me miming the pick up as a short, but smooth up bow.

Magic Choral Trick #381 Doug’s Tuning Trick

Doug, who sings in my men’s chorus, arrived at rehearsal the other night with something new he’d discovered for bringing a pitch up to where it needs to be.

He was working with Tonal Energy Tuner on his phone ( ) and was sustaining a pitch – but having difficulty with the accuracy.

He says he tried tapping his forehead, which worked a little. But then he began to draw circles – with a light massage touch, just above the space between his eyebrows, and amazingly, the Tonal Energy Tuner told him he’d raised the pitch, and was no longer singing flat.

“Cool!” I said, “Let’s try that with the chorus!!!”

So throughout the evening, on sustained chords at the ends of phrases I asked all the guys to do this ‘third eye massage’, and amazingly, the chords began to lock in more quickly than usual.

I tried it the next night with my women’s chorus, and it worked for them too!!

Of course some of my singers wanted an explanation – and though I have a few theories, I feel that it’s immaterial. (In the same way that understanding electricity is not a prerequisite for turning on a lamp)

What does interest me though is the technique’s possible continuing effectiveness. And after the singers have internalized the feeling of the light circular third eye massage, would it be enough of a trigger for in tune singing if only I were to do it?

Regardless – thanks Doug for your willingness to share the weird stuff!!!

Magic Choral Trick #380 The Positive Miracle

All of my choral director working life, people have been paying me to hear what’s wrong, and to fix it. So when a coach challenged me to give only positive feedback I was at a complete loss as to what to say. At first, the weaknesses were the only things I could hear.

I’ve now brought this challenge to most of my groups, and to a singing workshop and initially, they’ve all had the same issues as I had with giving feedback on only the positive stuff. Only compliments – not even any inferred comparisons or ‘buts’. Not easy when every one of us has been taught to be critical of every performance we hear.

So here’s an exercise to incorporate positive feedback into a rehearsal.

Ask the Basses (or any other section) to come out in front of the group, and sing a section of one of the repertoire songs. But before they sing, tell the rest of the group that you’ll be asking for only positive feedback and that they should listen for something that they love about the Basses’ singing.

When the Basses have finished, ask the members of the rest of the group what it is that they loved about the Basses’ performance. Sometimes if something I’ve heard (or seen) isn’t mentioned I contribute too.

After about 4 or 5 comments from the group, ask members of the Bass section to repeat the compliments about their singing. The acknowledgement of what was said makes the compliment more real for the recipients.

Now have the Basses sing the section of the song again, and notice the improvement – just from having ‘owned’ a few compliments.

These days I’m experimenting more and more with building on the strengths of the group and paying much less attention to its difficulties, and a miraculous thing is happening. The issues, the ones I used to hear to the exclusion of everything else, improve dramatically when I work primarily with the chorus’ strengths.

And even when specific difficulties do need to be addressed, the more I can couch the change I want as an opportunity, rather than suggesting that the way they’re singing it is a failing, the better the results.

Magic Choral Trick #379 Repertoire: Keeping it Simple

This is a lesson that I have been doomed to learn over and over.

While the flashiness of a difficult song or arrangement may be a director’s idea of fun, we always seem to have to learn and relearn that unless it is within the reasonable grasp of every chorus member, it will never be the stunning show stopper that everyone was hoping for.

For several years after I started directing my men’s chorus I chose competition repertoire that was too difficult, and we stayed fairly low in the rankings.

Then last year, I decided to go back to basic Barbershop and they won the division contest for the first time in 48 years.

Sticking with the KISS principle served us well again this year, and we came away with a 2nd place – just one point behind the winning chorus.

As an audience member, I would much rather listen to a group singing a simple song exquisitely, than squirm through an only adequate performance of something more difficult.

I’ve been diligent about applying this to my church choir’s repertoire choices too. Although they are relatively new to A Cappella singing, their performance in an all A Cappella concert in June fit right in with the other choruses who always sing without accompaniment. The trick was to have arrangements whose notes could be learned very quickly, so that there was lots of time to get to the real music making.

As directors and singers we need to remember the wow factor of beautiful chords and deliciously musical phrasing. All of that is possible when our singers are not vocally or technically out of their depth.

Magic Choral Trick #378 Alignment

This is less of a trick and more of a lifestyle shift that involves checking in with your body multiple times a day.

I’ve included the best Youtube video I could find on singers’ alignment – because video really is much more effective than just descriptive words.

However, I have to add a couple of things….

A quick and effective posture check is to stand with your back flat against a wall, with feet about 1 foot out from the wall, for balance. I know that some teachers recommend standing with feet against the wall, but if singers are carrying any additional abdominal weight, I find that this just makes them feel as if they’re about to topple forward. Which creates tension – the one thing we need to get rid of when we sing.

I’ve also found that when people have carried tension in their shoulders for many years, there’s no way that the back of the head is going to be able to touch the wall and keep the chin in the correct, relaxed, slightly lowered position required for good singing. If this is the case, a small pillow, or a couple of books may be needed to bring the chin into alignment.

This will allow us to feel that slightly lifted and lengthened back of neck that is so magical for a fuller, richer sound.

Doing at least some of your singing practice against the wall like this will eventually coax your body into realizing that singing in an aligned position really is more fun!

And here’s the short, very professional video that says the rest.

Magic Choral Trick #377 Working Those Intercostals

Although this takes consistent reminding and practice, the payoff is a much richer, fuller and more blended sound.

While placing the hands over the bottom of your ribcage on either side, take in a long, slow, deep breath and feel the expansion.

As you sing a note, press in slightly with the hands, and resist that pressure by holding the ribcage out – using your intercostal muscles to press outward. It’s not necessary to actually know anything about these muscles. The only thought that’s required is that you’re resisting the pressure from your hands.

Once you have a sense of this, drop the hands and just focus on leaving the ribs expanded outward, as long as possible, as you sing.

There’s also an additional bonus – and that is that when you begin a note with the ribcage expanded it’s much easier to start a vowel without a glottal bump.

Magic Choral Trick #376 The Chorus Dojo

I used to watch two of my kids file in to the karate dojo with all the other small wiggling people, and immediately transform into disciplined martial artists.

One of those two kids is now a teacher in the El Sistema program and I’ve watched as she corrals masses of small wiggling people holding violins. At one word and one movement from her, they become as focused and disciplined as an elite military squad.

In the yoga class that I’ll be going to this morning we’ll walk into the space, speak fairly quietly to one another and maybe share a joke. But when our teacher says “Let’s begin”, a powerful, palpable focus will be felt in the room. For the next hour, there is only her voice, and intense listening to our bodies.

What all three of these have in common is that they are opportunities for transformation. And while transformation is quite possible on our own, there is more power readily available, and more quickly available in a group if that group is willing to take advantage of it.

Some singing groups have an intuitive sense of this, but to be honest, most don’t and won’t ever until they can get a ‘felt sense’ of the power of focus.

I have five regular groups that I direct, and currently the one with the most focus during rehearsal is the one that went from the bottom of their competition standings to becoming champions last year. They have experienced the power and excitement of what focus can do, so they seem to be able to call it up more readily. They don’t even seem to need reminders from me.

Full disclosure here. Whenever I was singing in choirs I was probably the most chatty person in the room. Just too many opportunities for hilarity. But some of that is necessary as a release from the mental heavy lifting. So I really get that aspect of chorus life.

Every group needs to find its own balance of social fun and intensity of the work – but ultimately it’s the director’s job to keep refocusing the group if the goal is to experience more of their power and potential.

Whatever the chorus’ level of focus, there’s much more power and transformation available when it decides as a unit that that’s the desired outcome. And it might take only a bit of education about how even a little more self discipline can change everything.

Then if everyone agrees, the rehearsal hall can instantly switch from social gathering place to Dojo at a chord from the piano, or the first note from a pitch pipe.

Transformation is simple – just not easy.

Magic Choral Trick #375 The Danger of Words That Begin With ‘W’

Synchronizing the onset of sound is tricky at any time, but especially so when the first word begins with a ‘w’.

If the word begins with only a ‘w’, as in the word ‘we’, there’s a tendency to try to begin the sound through tightly puckered lips before the ‘ee’ vowels start popping out all over the chorus.

I’ve found that the most effective way to lock in to the sound onset is to have everyone breathe in through the shape of an ‘oo’ vowel, then without closing the mouth for a ‘w’ as we would when speaking, sing the ‘we’. I used to ask people to actually sing a very fast ‘oo’ before they switched to the ‘ee’ vowel, but that took too much brain power. Now I just ask them to sing ‘we’ beginning with a more open lip shape.

The real trouble lies in onset words that begin with a ‘wh’ combination.

For some reason that I still can’t fathom, when it’s a ‘wh’ combo, people love to do these 2 things – scoop up to the first pitch, and/or add a preceding ‘huh’ or ‘hoh’ – especially when they feel emotional intensity is called for.

Huhwhhherever you are.

The ‘h’ sound in the ‘wh’ is so rarely used in spoken English these days that I prefer to just leave it out altogether.

And so my approach would be the same as for the plain ‘w’

Breathe in through the ‘oo’ shape, then just sing the word, beginning from that more open lip position. People are also mystifyingly less likely to scoop up to the first note when they use this approach.

Wherever would become ‘Wear’ever.

So much of what we do to emulate natural speech patterns involves singing word sounds, not words, and this is an example of that strategy. I’ve never had even one audience member mention to me that they’d missed the ‘h’.

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