Although I’ve written about all of these before, I thought it would be useful to describe them again in the context of creating a more musical performance.
The development of musical artistry takes a lifetime, but there are some shortcuts. Like these…
The Propellant Dot
For more musical lift in the sound, a greater awareness of pulse and a sense of musical meaning that drives the song forward.
Although I originally created this phrase to apply to dotted quarter notes it also works beautifully with half notes. Not only does it create ‘musical lift’ on the second pulse in both the dotted quarter or the half note, but it also cleans up synchronization issues in any half note at the end of a phrase.
Here are my suggestions to my singers:
– love the pulse on the dot
– more emotion on the dot
– open the vowel, the heart or the mouth cavern – just open something on that second pulse. I’ve taken to calling it the mouth ‘cavern’ because the image is so evocative, and discourages singers from just dropping the jaw.
I found that if I simply said “Give me more on the dot” my singers thought I wanted more volume. There was a tendency to bear down on it, creating unwanted tension – especially amongst my super achievers. Though a slight lift in volume is a by-product, that’s not where I wanted their attention.
Because this creates more rhythmic awareness, I find that the eighth note following the dotted quarter is more likely to be sung in time and less likely to be inappropriately accented. However, I still occasionally have to remind my singers to sing that eighth note with the mouth in a completely neutral relaxed state.
The Propellant Dot has proven very easy to teach to all my singers in all of my groups, and the musical result has been almost instantaneous.
The Whole Back End
I’ve always spent a lot of time on clean vowels, but perhaps even more was spent getting my singers to execute diphthong resolutions together. And even when the diphthong was turned well and together, I found that the result sounded a little contrived. In addition to that, at a time when I wanted my singers to remain emotionally connected to the lyrics, their brains were working overtime remembering exactly which and how many vowels made up the diphthong, or the triphthong.
Yes, in a perfect world all of my singers would go home and drill and drill the warm up exercises on this. But life intervenes and not all the singers can get that work done. And for diphthong resolutions there needs to be 100% buy in for the result to be clean.
I came up with a very simple and elegant fix.
Target vowel……………………..Whole Back End of the word, sung briefly, on the cut off or attached to the next word.
For ‘night’ it would look like this. Nah………………………….ight
‘Home’ would be Hoh…………………………..ome
‘Name’ would be Neh………………………..ame
In each case the target vowel is reiterated as it would naturally be spoken as part of the diphthong resolution. To prevent an accented, clipped release I tell them that the back end of the word is their last chance to love that target vowel. It still does take a little drill, but much less than the hours I’ve spent on drilling diphthong resolutions that had no emotional connection to the lyric.
I find this helps my singers’ brains stay freer to think and feel the emotion of the song.
After telling my singers about the drag effect of rosin on a cello bow’s movement over the string I had them mime bowing their own cello, with their right hands, feeling the isometric pull across the string as they bowed in each direction.
Then I introduced them to down bows – the bowing used for strong beats, from left to right – from the frog of the bow to the tip. And to up bows – for upbeats, from right to left – from the tip of the bow to the frog. The essential thing is that they needed to keep ‘feeling’ the contact of the bow on the string at all times.
After they’d sung and bowed a musical phrase a few times, they were very responsive when I used the gesture as part of my directing.
I would suggest having singers experience the physical sensation of ‘air bowing’ for themselves before using this as a directing technique – perhaps in warm up. I often use this in rehearsal.
Cello Bowing is great for legato line, for sustaining vocal integrity, for feeling the strength of a downbeat or the up bow pull towards the next downbeat. It’s also a great gesture for indicating a phrase that I want carried over to the next with no break or breath.
I find that if I ‘air bow’ as if I’m really feeling the drag of the rosined bow across the strings my singers intuitively understand the legato line, and react to it without me having to say anything.
This may seem like something frivolous and esoteric, but it really does make a difference to the quality of sound, and to the synchronization at the end of a phrase.
I find that it’s not enough to ask your group to sing through the singable consonants at the end of a word – for example, the ‘ng’ at the end of the word ‘song’. In order for the richness of the sound to continue, the singable consonants must be preceded by a rethinking, and an intensification of the target vowel.
So the word ‘song’ would actually look something like this……
Not that there would be an accent on the target vowel intensification – just a mental recreation of the vowel as it attaches to the singable consonant or consonants.
Last night my chorus seemed to find it helpful to imagine a vowel-filled bulb attached to the final singable consonant.
Regardless of what imagery is used, the actual rethinking of the vowel before the final singable consonant is what is important.
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.
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.
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.
This trick is really useful for cleaning up the synchronization of the onset of words that begin with a ‘w’ or a ‘y’, where the target vowel is actually the second sound.
For example in the word ‘we’ – the first sound is an ‘oo’ vowel, and the second, the target (and resolution) vowel, is an ‘ee’.
The trick is to sing the first sound, ‘oo’ through the shape of the resolution vowel – ‘ee’. Change as little as possible from that ‘ee’ shape when you sing the ‘oo’.
If it’s the first word in the phrase, you will also need to breathe in through the shape of the ‘ee’ vowel.
Tricky I know, because it means that singers must skip ahead mentally to the second vowel that they’ll be singing. This is why words beginning with these Fast Resolving Diphthongs need to be drilled – to eliminate the need for thought, by making the technique a habit.
It means not actually thinking in English for a while until the technique is locked in.
I find that with amateur singing groups there’s the tendency to sing any word beginning with a ‘w’ with a little ‘uh’ sound right before the lips completely close for the ‘w’. So between that opening for the ‘uh’, the closing for the ‘w’ and the reopening for the ‘ee’, it’s not surprising that ‘w’ words are tough to synchronize.
The other major problem in English is the ‘y’ at the beginning of a word. ‘You’ is a word that shows up in a huge percentage of songs.
If it’s at the beginning of a phrase, you need to breathe in through the ‘oo’ shape. Then, changing as little as possible, quickly sing through the ‘ih’, and go straight to the ‘oo’, which is the target vowel. This also prevents that great lump of badly behaved meat – the tongue – from tightening up and closing down the sound.
The natural tendency with singers (who have not been thinking non stop about vowels for many years) is to jam the tongue right up to the roof of the back of the throat for any onset ‘y’. Then there’s a little pop in the sound as they go to the target vowel. I don’t think there’s any way to synch the variety of pops that you’ll get from all the individual singers.
If a chorus’ singers really want better synchronization, they’ll be more than willing to drill this – especially during warm up when they can give their whole attention to forming new singing habits.