Magic Choral Trick #358 The Gear Change

When we want to carry the sound over from one phrase to another without a breath, it’s never enough to simply not breathe.

If there’s a good enough reason to carry through, what we really want is to sweep the audience along with us.

And while phrases like “spin the sound here” and “create an arch in the sound” work for some of our singers, our more pragmatic chorus members may need other imagery.

Since most people are aware of the energy kick when you change gears on a standard car, I’ve found the Gear Change an effective tool.

There’s even a ready made director’s hand signal – as if I’m changing gears on a sporty little convertible. As I’ve mentioned before, hand signals save precious time in rehearsal because once the chorus knows and has imitated the signal themselves,  they understand exactly what I want.

Yes, I do have other more graceful ways of indicating energy flow from one phrase to another – but sometimes my groups just seem to sleep through these moves and not really notice them. The Gear Change is not flowy and attractive – but they notice it.

I should also mention that, as with asking for any increased energy flow from one phrase to another, the energy increase should be on the target vowel.

For example, if in Amazing Grace I decided that I wanted to flow straight from those first two words into ‘how sweet the sound’, I would make the gear change motion on the back end of the target vowel for the word ‘grace’.

So it would happen like this

Amazing Greh……..(Gear change/crescendo/energy flow boost/tone spin/intensify the vowel/arch here) eecehow sweet.

I’ve included the extra descriptors in the bracket above because as with any effect I want I usually have to say it about 5 or 6 different ways for every singer to understand what I mean.

The Gear Change is not pretty, but it’s been working well for me.


Magic Choral Trick #357 I Can Do Better

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.

Magic Choral Trick #356 Basses – Sing Your Melody

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.

Magic Choral Trick #354 Diphthong Warm Up Drill

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)

Magic Choral Trick #353 Whirligig Resonance

This hand gesture trick is great for reminding singers about creating resonance.

I often use this one when there’s an ‘ee’ vowel being sustained at the end of the phrase. It seems to help our brains keep refreshing the ‘ee’ without getting the tongue involved with the finishing ‘y’ – which is one of the banes of singing in English. If you don’t believe me, say the word ‘free’ a few times to yourself and pay attention to what your tongue does as you finish the word. That tongue movement will shut down the target vowel, choke off the sound, and make the ‘ee’ seem pressed and pinched.

Step one is to make sure my singers already understand how to create resonance – with forward placement, tall space in the back of the mouth,
( )

…and a tongue that behaves itself
( )

Step two is to have the singers themselves do the whirligig gesture as they practise sustaining target vowels – especially those in ‘ay’ ‘ee’ and ‘I’ – where there’s so much potential for tongue misbehaviour.

Here’s the gesture.

Point your index fingers at the ceiling. (Your Peter Pointers)

Pretend laser beams are coming out of your finger tips and making 2 small points of light on the ceiling.

Now imagine you’re drawing little 1 inch circles on the ceiling – round and round very quickly. (This is an old, ironic ‘whoopee’ gesture, but with both hands instead of one. Some people use this sign one handed for “ok – wrap it up”)

The vertical fingers are a reminder about the height of the vowel, and the movement keeps the mind moving – creating and creating and creating the vowel. (Thereby avoiding falling into the dark pit of despair that is early diphthong resolution)

I’ve found that once singers know how to create resonance, they still need to be reminded many, many, many times before the mouth posture and the legato thinking become habit.

This is such an easy gesture. It saves time in rehearsal, and can even be used by me during a performance – in a much more subtle form of course. In performance I generally scale it back to one whirligig finger movement close in to my chest.

Magic Choral Trick #352 Guest Nights

Friday night. And for fun I’ve been catching up on some organizational stuff for various singing groups.

I just made up the draft schedule for next Tuesday evening’s Guest Night for my women’s Barbershop chorus, and sent it off to the music team for their feedback.

In the past for Guest Nights we’ve done more showcase stuff – but this time I thought it might be a good idea to let any prospective members get an idea of the intensity of work that we really do. So if you’re interested, here’s the draft plan:

Guest Night

7:00 – Risers – Introduce guests

7:05 – Opening and Warm Up (With Guests)
Vocal work and Tags (when teaching really happens)

7:25 – Repertoire (With Guests)
Dancing Queen
We Rise Again
With a Little Help From Our Friends
As Long As I’m Singin’

7:45 – Masquerade

Egg Yolk Basses (
Singable consonants
Work the tag

8:05 – Alexander – New Intro and Choreo

8:20 – Seated – Run through Joint is Jumpin’

8:30 – Closing

8:35 – Social time

In addition to handouts about the financial costs of membership, and the audition requirements, I think it’s useful for prospective members to see and hear some real work – the kind that they can expect on a typical rehearsal night.

Normally my women’s chorus rehearsals would go till 9:30, but on guests nights we like to quit early for tea and sweets – and of course, a lot of conversation with our new recruits!

Magic Choral Trick #351 Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth. What if 2016 was the year that choruses and choirs all over the world made peace break out?

Don’t know about you – but I’m ready for a bigger game.

Just as our sound is carried by the vowels – and the cleaner and clearer the vowels, the more powerful the sound, Peace is carried by intention. It’s created by the intention to create peace in each moment. Each small, intentionally peace filled moment.

When a rehearsal has gone really well – ringing chords, a few really beautiful phrases, some great moments of laughter, and several attacks of full body goosebumps – we leave rehearsal as more expansive versions of ourselves.

What if we were then to add intention to that.

The intention to carry that joy out into the world with us – and have it infuse all our interactions.

When a group of people is clear about their intention – miraculous things happen.

In 1993 the Transcendental Meditation organization decided to prove this. About 4,000 TM practitioners were flown in to Washington DC to practise there for 8 weeks. Not all took part initially, in order to see if there was a correlation between the size of the group of practitioners and the drop in crime rate. Here are the findings.


TM experiment

“Analysis of 1993 data, controlling for temperature, revealed that there was a highly significant decrease in HRA (homicide, rape and assault) crimes associated with increases in the size of the group during the Demonstration Project.”*

TM is a technique for allowing ourselves to be fully present, moment by moment – without mental chatter.

Which is exactly what happens when we are making music – when we are fully “occupied, not preoccupied.” (Thank you David McEachern for that one) Peace can spread one chord and one phrase at a time – one perfect intention at a time. One fully flat out human moment at a time.

When rehearsals are completely about making wonderful music (not power struggles, not impressing anyone, not denigrating anyone, not about standing out from the crowd), powerful peace breaks out. And peace brought on by harmony, cooperation and striving for a huge goal is an overwhelmingly brilliant and wonderful thing – light years beyond just the absence of conflict. It feels like superhero power.

Peace on Earth is something worth turning yourself into a superhero for.

Here are some concrete suggestions (learned the hard way)

Directors – Work on your leadership and directing skills harder than you expect your chorus members to work on their singing skills. What are your strengths? Get even better at those first.

Music team leaders – Lead, teach, follow up and be compassionate (and be compassionate)

Chorus members – take care of each other, volunteer for as much chorus work as your life will allow, hone your singing and presentation skills.

Make rehearsals fun with excellence and love and laughter – then get out and recruit, recruit, recruit. The more people with bold intentions, the greater the superhero power.

Become aware that every single one of us is responsible for creating powerful peace and powerful love – Peace on Earth – during every phrase, at every rehearsal.

Go out there and sing for everyone who will listen!


Magic Choral Trick #350 Making a Difference

Almost Christmas 2015 and I’m thinking about the difference made this year by all of the singing groups that I’m privileged to direct.

Their performances helped to raise $6000 for the local food bank, $55,000 for an organization that fosters projects that create hope and joy in our priority neighbourhoods, and $3,000 for local churches. They donated funds so that a local woman could get a cochlear implant and raised funds for a local soup kitchen, and a women’s addiction recovery centre.

The community breathes just a little easier because of these efforts.

There’s the singing itself. Our audiences have been moved, cheered, comforted and entertained – which all on its own would make it worth doing.

There’s the difference made to each group of singers as they work together towards the common goal of excellence. Not many places where there’s such an opportunity for moment by moment excellence. Until we all first stood in the middle of a powerful ringing chord infused with emotion, it was an unimaginable experience. Some chorus members are living this for the first time, and the veterans keep coming back week after week to recreate the experience – with even more intensity – as technique improves, awareness increases, and hearts are more open.

That makes a difference to all of us.

And for me – well, I have wonderful enthusiastic friends who want to play this game with me. And that makes a huge difference in my life.

Thank you to those of you sing with me – and thank you to those of you who honour the work I’ve done by reading these posts!

Magic Choral Trick #349 Singing Musically in 3/4

Staying in time and singing with the appropriate word or syllable accentuation seems to be tougher in three four time.

It hasn’t been enough for me to tell my groups that the weight of the beats is Strong Light Light, Strong Light Light.

In fact when that’s what they’re thinking we get an accented first beat, and beats two and three that are dragging as badly as ever. In addition to this we have the added questionable bonus of a hearty glottal attack every time a vowel begins the word on beat one.

I’ve even asked them to waltz while singing to get the feel of three four into the body. However, as soon as they stop waltzing they revert quickly when I don’t give more specific instructions to occupy their brains.

I think I’ve discovered a better way to say what I mean.

I ask the group to form the target vowel very clearly on beat one, then use a completely neutral mouth shape on beats two and three.

Form (the vowel) Mumble Mumble, Form Mumble Mumble – is now beginning to become a habit with my groups. I tell them that there’s no need to even reduce the vocal volume if the mouth is less open.

Most of the best songs in triple metre are set up with the most important syllable in the bar on beat one, so the lyrics and meaning are still clear.

The beauty of the neutral mouth shape is that we also are now free of the messiness of many jaws moving at different speeds and distances – so the dragging on beats two and three becomes much less of a problem.

And I’ll still be asking them to waltz!

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