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Magic Choral Trick #362 Vowel-filled End Bulb

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.

Magic Choral Trick #338 How Much Singable Consonant is Enough?

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.

Magic Choral Trick #335 Warming Up the Hive Mind (Lessons From the Borg)

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.

Magic Choral Trick #334 Egg Yolk Basses

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.

Magic Choral Trick #332 Fast Resolving Diphthongs

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.

Magic Choral Trick #298 Johnny One Note

One of the very best synchronization tricks I know

Work the song phrase by phrase, with everyone singing the words on only one note. This way, it’s a simple matter to work on word stress, speech rhythm, rubato, and target vowels and their diphthong resolutions.

It’s simple because without the melody and harmony, the synchronization issues become obvious to everyone.

It’s especially effective if the chorus is standing in 4X4 arrangement on the floor (rather than on the risers), with one part on each side of the rectangle, facing in to where the director is standing in the middle

With my Men’s chorus last night I also had a lot of success with adding hand signals for the formed target vowels. For the word ‘time’ I used The Claw:  for the ‘Ah’ vowel, pulled it away from the mouth as the note was sustained, then we all quickly and smoothly turned our hands around for the quick ‘eem’ and cut off.

When there’s only one note being sung, everyone can hear much more clearly what needs to happen.

Once each phrase has been worked, then the joins between them can be cleaned up.

It’s always a little tricky when melody and harmony are added back into the equation. The basses will once again feel that they need a bit more time to move those low notes around – but this can usually be helped by singing with a headier tone.

The more difficult vocal technique spots will be obvious immediately – but now at least everyone has a template in their head of what great synchronization should feel like.

Magic Choral Trick #296 Sing the vowel – not the mouth shape

What’s going on in your mind is far more important than specific mouth shapes.

I find that if everyone is very clear about exactly what vowel the group should be thinking, then a completely relaxed, neutral mouth shape will allow the words to be crystal clear, and the sound well blended.

The synchronization will also be better because jaw hinges will not be moving different distances, and different speeds.

This technique works best when the chorus already understands the concept of target vowels, and diphthong/resolution vowels, and the importance of a relaxed tongue during the singing of the longer, initial (target) vowel.

Light = lah________eat

Day = Deh_________ee

Rose = Ro_________ooze

A high soft palate will also allow more resonance – making it unnecessary to open the mouth wide.

Eventually, when the group gets a sense of how little movement is necessary, I do allow them to open up more in the forte sections at the climax of the song.

When we train our minds to focus on the clarity of the vowel, the group’s sound is rich, resonant, blended and synchronized.

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